Ranking the Free Agents: 4-3 Outside Linebackers/Inside Linebackers

| February 27, 2011

One thing becomes immediately clear when looking at the group of 2011 free agent linebackers … there are few that excel across the board in the most important areas of linebacker play.

Those that have performed well in multiple facets will be at the top of most wish lists, so the remaining majority will have to target — and be targeted by — teams with needs to match their abilities. Strong against the run? An able cover man? Heady blitzer? Teams shopping for new blood at linebacker won’t find many break-the-bank-worthy choices, but if they can zero in on the quality they desire most, they should be able to find a candidate to pursue.

Lost from this group already are David Harris, Chad Greenway, and Kamerion Wimbley who recently received Franchise Tags from the Jets, Vikings, and Raiders respectively. Mixed-in are aging vets looking for one last NFL stop, young players just finishing their first contracts, starters, reserves, and special teamers – something for everyone.

While attempting to arrange the top of this group into some coherent order, age, skill set, recent performance, and position have been considered. That all said, here they are … 10 free agent linebackers (excluding 3-4 OLB’s) to watch:

1. Stephen Tulloch, Tennessee Titans, 4-3 MLB

Age as of September 1st 2011: 26

2010 Grade: +13.6

Key Stat: Led the NFL in stops with 76, and has totaled 161 in the past three seasons.

Behind The Numbers: Tulloch looked like a man playing for a new contract this season. Leading his team — and the league — in tackles from the middle linebacker position, Tulloch is the rare inside man that could step in and change the face of a defense. He is the only player in this class of free agent LB’s to receive PFF grades of over +8.0 in both run defense and in coverage and, with over 1200 snaps played in 2010, has proven himself both durable and reliable.


2. Paul Posluszny, Buffalo Bills, 4-3 MLB/OLB

Age as of September 1st 2011: 26

2010 Grade: -2.7

Key Stat: Collected over 100 tackles for the first time in his career.

Behind The Numbers: Having settled into his role as Buffalo’s MLB, Posluszny was steadily on the rise heading into 2010. A coaching change brought a varied scheme and Posluszny ended up spending less than 40% of his season lined up in the middle. Perhaps it was simply a result of being bounced around, but, despite seeing a rise in his tackle numbers, his 2010 season was defined by inconsistent play. Posluszny had shown enough before 2010 to earn the benefit of the doubt, so bet on this to just be a hiccup and bet on him to regain form. And, if he does leave Buffalo, bet on him to land in the middle of a 4-3.


3. Takeo Spikes, San Francisco 49ers, 3-4 ILB

Age as of September 1st 2011: 34

2010 Grade: +24.0

Key Stat: The best run-stopper in this class, graded +18.2 in run defense.

Behind The Numbers: Though caution about Spikes’ age keeps him from being listed higher here, his trends over the past three seasons suggest no impending dropoff. A veteran and a leader, Spikes is outstanding against the run and strong in coverage. Versatile and experienced enough to fill a role in either a 3-4 or a 4-3, Spikes will surely draw attention from a variety of teams once he hits the market.


4. Kevin Burnett, San Diego Chargers, 3-4 ILB

Age as of September 1st 2011: 28

2010 Grade: +13.3

Key Stat: Ranked second among inside linebackers with six sacks.

Behind The Numbers: Burnett’s progression has been from situational player in Dallas to banged-up, part-time starter in San Diego to every-down player in 2010. His skill set differs from the players above in that he’s not as strong in coverage, but he impacts the game more as a blitzer. Getting past his injury concerns, Burnett started all 16 games and played 986 snaps for San Diego this season.


5. James Anderson, Carolina Panthers, 4-3 OLB

Age as of September 1st 2011: 27

2010 Grade: +14.1

Key Stat: Led all 4-3 OLBs with 61 stops in 2010.

Behind The Numbers: Anderson was on the field for over 96% of Carolina’s defensive snaps in 2010. Primarily lined up as the strongside linebacker, he was an above average all-around performer — though clearly stronger versus the run and rushing the passer than when dropping into coverage. If free agent teammate Thomas Davis returns from his second ACL injury, Anderson could be squeezed out. He should have no problem parlaying his triple-digit tackles and 19 QB disruptions into another starting gig.


6. Quincy Black, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 4-3 OLB

Age as of September 1st 2011: 27

2010 Grade: +8.0

Key Stat: Graded positively in each major area for linebackers.

Behind The Numbers: Black put in his time on special teams early in his career while waiting for a starting spot on defense to open up. A unique talent that would appear more built for a pursuit-friendly position, he has done a surprisingly solid job starting on the strongside in Tampa. From the mid-point of 2009 on, Black has regularly graded in the green and has had standout days as a run-stopper, pass rusher, and as a cover man. With no obvious hole in his game and an established pattern of growth, Black could break out given the right opportunity.


7. Justin Durant, Jacksonville Jaguars, 4-3 OLB

Age as of September 1st 2011: 26

2010 Grade: +3.0

Key Stat: Finished with a +15.5 grade in run defense, top 10 among all LB’s.

Behind The Numbers: Bumped to the weakside when Kirk Morrison arrived in Jacksonville, Durant responded by posting a superb run-stopping campaign. Unfortunately, the move also exposed his weakness as a cover man. Injuries ate into his season once again, but being young, smart, and versatile, Durant will find a new home and, if used properly could flourish with a fresh start.


8. Kirk Morrison, Jacksonville Jaguars, 4-3 MLB

Age as of September 1st 2011: 29

2010 Grade: +6.0

Key Stat: 62% of his tackles qualified as “Stops” and he finished with just one missed tackle.

Behind The Numbers: In Morrison’s first season as Jacksonville’s MLB, he saw his tackle numbers drop (as did his grade in run defense … +15.1 to +7.5), but he improved in coverage – an area that he has struggled with in the past. Middle linebackers that have proven themselves as signal callers and as tacklers are always attractive, so Morrison is still carrying value, he just won’t be the commodity he would have been as a free agent in 2009.


9. Stephen Nicholas, Atlanta Falcons, 4-3 OLB

Age as of September 1st 2011: 28

2010 Grade: +6.9

Key Stat: Had PFF’s top coverage grade among 4-3 OLB’s in 2010.

Behind The Numbers: Nicholas is an odd inclusion here as a linebacker that was stronger in coverage than against the run this season. Truth is, Nicholas was an average to slightly above average defender in both departments week-in and week-out, but showing the ability to cover tight ends and running backs will make him stand out when teams go shopping to fill that particular need. Consider him a counter piece to James Anderson (thoughly clearly notches down) when looking at free agents on the strongside.


10. Danny Clark, New Orleans Saints, 4-3 OLB

Age as of September 1st 2011: 34

2010 Grade: +10.7

Key Stat: In just 332 snaps, finished in the Top 20 for “Stops” among 4-3 OLB’s.

Behind The Numbers: Yes, he’s getting old and yes, this is the final spot on the list and there are a bunch of popular names that I haven’t included, but Clark earned this spot. Season after season, he is brought in somewhere to provide competition and veteran insurance. Season after season he finds himself starting – and producing. Even in limited snaps, his 2010 was another example of his value: he racked up over 50 tackles and his Run D grade was among the top five for 4-3 OLB’s. I have no idea how much he has left, but it will be interesting to see what he can do wherever he ends up.

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