Ranking the 2012 Free Agents: Inside Linebackers

| February 17, 2012

While not all of the players scheduled to become unrestricted free agents will hit the open market, this is still a great crop to choose from. There’s a strong mix of young guys entering the prime of their careers and productive veterans, who should come a bit cheaper. The first five players are all defensive leaders; foundation pieces defensive coordinators could build around. Three of them finished in the Top 10 of our overall inside linebacker rankings and six inside the Top 20. Linebacker-needy teams should be salivating over some of the prospects coming onto the market.

There are a number of other role players available even if teams miss out on the top guys. Run-stuffing studs Dan Connor and Jovan Belcher (a restricted free agent) would make sense as two-down solutions, while Larry Grant, also restricted, offers a high-risk/high-reward option.

 

 

1) Stephen Tulloch, Detroit Lions

Age as of September 1st, 2012: 27

2011 Grade: +20.8

Key Stat: Allowed just 8.1 yards per catch, good for second in the league.

Behind The Numbers: We were stunned at how small the market was for one of the league’s best inside linebackers in the 2011 offseason. The Lions were able to snag him for a mere $3.25 million, but there’s slim chance they’ll be so lucky again. Tulloch is just a great all-around player, as adept in coverage as he is against the run. While he doesn’t grade out quite as well as some of the top players, it is worth bearing in mind he plays in the very publicized Wide-9 scheme that puts extra pressure on the linebackers.

 

2) David Hawthorne, Seattle Seahawks

Age as of September 1st, 2012: 27

2011 Grade: +8.8

Key Stat: Has a +38.6 run defense grade over the past three years.

Behind The Numbers: Hawthorne never quite lived up to his outstanding 2010 season, but was still a very good player for Seattle. His best performance came against Cleveland in Week 7 where he registered 11 tackles including seven stops. Hawthorne possesses more versatility than the other options on the market, having played both outside and inside for the Seahawks, which only adds to his value. If he can improve on some promising performances in coverage in 2011, there’ll be nothing holding him back from entering the elite class.

 

3) London Fletcher, Washington Redskins

Age as of September 1st, 2012: 37

2011 Grade: +19.9

Key Stat: Allowed a QB rating of just 69.2, good for second best in the league.

Behind the Numbers: Its remarkable how London Fletcher just keeps getting it done despite his age. While he may be a full decade older than some of the guys around him, he seems to have no trouble keeping up with them. Adding Fletcher would only be a short-term solution but, considering that facts that he still plays at such a high level and brings leadership qualities few possess, his age might not be such a significant turnoff.

 

4) Curtis Lofton, Atlanta Falcons

Age as of September 1st, 2012: 26

2011 Grade: +12.8

Key Stat: Made 60 defensive stops, good for fifth in the league.

Behind the Numbers: Lofton, just like Hawthorne, is a fantastic run defender. He possesses the instincts needed to identify the play and then the necessary strength to fill the hole and make the tackle. Its almost unbelievable he’s all the way down at fourth on this list, considering the impact he’s already had on the league. While not bad in coverage by any means, he does need to improve on the league-leading (among ILBs) five touchdowns he allowed last year. Still, he’s only entering his fifth year and has a lot of space to grow.

 

5) D’Qwell Jackson, Cleveland Browns

Age as of September 1st, 2012: 28

2011 Grade: +18.3

Key Stat: His +18.0 grade against the run in 2011 was bested only by the 49ers’ duo, and the man below him on this list.

Behind the Numbers: I feel a little like I’m repeating myself here as Jackson’s strengths and weaknesses mirror those just outlined for Lofton and Hawthorne; there are few better when it comes to filling running lanes and his work in coverage leaves a little to be desired. What sets Jackson behind the other two is probably his injury history, which might scare a few teams off come March 13th.

 

6) E.J. Henderson, Minnesota Vikings

Age as of September 1st, 2012: 32

2011 Grade: +5.4

Key Stat: Was third in the league with a +18.1 grade against the run, and played 100 fewer snaps than Patrick Willis and Navarro Bowman.

Behind the Numbers: Henderson has suffered through a number of injuries of late, and he’s certainly not an every-down player at this stage of his career, but he does bring almost a ridiculous level of physicality to the middle of a defense. He’s made shedding offensive lineman look like only a minor hindrance for so long that it’s difficult to see him ever not being good at it. PFF’s Sam Monson put it perfectly in his recent Shopping for Experience article.

 

7) Joe Mays, Denver Broncos

Age as of September 1st, 2012: 27

2011 Grade: +10.8

Key Stat: Tied atop the league with a run stop percentage of 14.3.

Behind the Numbers: Its amazing how far Mays has come since entering the league in 2008 as a sixth round pick of the Philadelphia Eagles. He showed some potential in the 2009 preseason before being traded to Denver for running back JJ Arrington or a sixth-round pick. At the time, it looked like a good deal for the Eagles, but this is another Josh McDaniels move that turned out to favor the Broncos. Mays became an integral part of Denver’s defense this year and put more heralded teammate DJ Williams to shame with his play against the run. Just as promising, he wasn’t a liability in coverage, grading out right about average.

 

8) Jameel McClain, Baltimore Ravens

Age as of September 1st, 2012: 27

2011 Grade: +2.7

Key Stat: Graded above +1.0 on eight occasions in 2011.

Behind the Numbers: The “other” inside linebacker in Baltimore may not be Ray Lewis, but he does a pretty good impression a lot of the time. The Ravens recognized he was better served as only a two-down player (he played just over 500 snaps) and excelled in that role. He is somewhat untested as a MLB in the 4-3 (and so would be better served either in a 3-4 or outside in a four-man front), but certainly has the tools to play anywhere. Playing in a Hall of Famer’s shadow will probably make him undervalued on the open market, so someone may find themselves a bargain.

 

9) Channing Crowder, NA

Age as of September 1st, 2012: 28

2011 Grade: NA

Key Stat: Had a +14.0 grade against the run in 2010.

Behind the Numbers: A year off might have been exactly what Crowder needed to allow his body to heal. The former Dolphin had a pretty darn good year in 2010 and will be able to contribute for somebody if he’s anywhere close to that level again. It might be a good thing that Crowder fits best in only a limited role, seeing as that will give him more time to heal and adjust in his return to the NFL.

 

10. Jonathan Goff, New York Giants

Age as of September 1st, 2012: 26

2011 Grade: NA

Key Stat: Missed just two tackles in all of 2010.

Behind the Numbers: Goff was quietly becoming a very good player before injury stole his 2011 season. He’s almost a copycat of Crowder, with the exception that he’s hitting free agency a year later. Some team will likely take a gamble that he can return to 2010 form where he was one of the better run defending inside linebackers. Goff is the most obvious low-risk, high-reward free agent in this class.

 

2012 Free Agent Tracker | PFF’s Top 50 Free Agents

 

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  • tunesmith

    As for Joe Mays, those are his regular season numbers. He had a bad playoff run though, so his numbers ended up significantly worse.