While the class of free agent middle linebackers is a strong one, the same cannot be said for the outside ‘backers. This group doesn’t quite have the same depth, although there are a couple of standouts who could make a significant impact for their new teams. The most glaring difference, however, is probably the lack of a big name.
Guys like Stephen Tulloch, Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne have all been mentioned in the media numerous times while the likes of Erin Henderson and Jarret Johnson remain very much under the radar. I don’t bring that up as a negative either because it will almost certainly make these guys great value additions.
We’ve included the top pass-rushing outside linebackers in our free agent edge rushers article, so this group has been trimmed to a Top 5.
1. Erin Henderson, Minnesota Vikings
Age as of September 1st, 2012: 26
2011 Grade: +21.7
Key Stat: Ranked first in the NFL among outside linebackers with a run stop percentage of 11.6 for 2011.
Behind the Numbers: I’m not sure there was a more surprising player in 2011 than Henderson. He had hardly taken a snap in his first three years behind his brother (E. J. Henderson), Ben Leber and Chad Greenway.Yet, when he did get his opportunity, he seized it with both hands. Overall, he graded negatively just twice all year, quite a remarkable feat for a first-time starter. What will have NFL front offices eagerly competing for his favor this offseason is simply the fact that he still has a lot of room to grow, having had such little experience. Some might say that’s a negative (he could be a one-season wonder) but his level of play in 2011 was so high, we find that beyond unlikely.
2. Jarret Johnson, Baltimore Ravens
Age as of September 1st, 2012: 31
2011 Grade: +18.3
Key Stat: His +20.7 grade against the run was second overall for all (4-3 and 3-4) outside linebackers.
Behind the Numbers: Johnson has never been the best pass rusher so, if anything, his talents were a little wasted in Baltimore the past few years. Still, the Ravens have steadily been increasing the amount of 4-3 they run which has allowed Johnson to thrive. The prototypical strongside linebacker probably sets the edge better any other player in the game and has the instincts to thrive in both man and zone coverage–prospective new teams need not fear lining him up against the top tight ends.
3. Manny Lawson, Cincinnati Bengals
Age as of September 1st, 2012: 28
2011 Grade: +10.2
Key Stat: Missed just two tackles against the run and did not have a penalty called against him all season.
Behind the Numbers: After having played outside in San Francisco’s 3-4, it was interesting watching Lawson adjust to playing in a four-man front. He surpassed almost all expectations and, if anything, looked more suited to the Bengals’ scheme. While Lawson may only be a two-down player (he graded negatively in coverage) he does have some versatility in that he can play with his hand on the ground if needed. He gasn’t quite had the success of Kamerion Wimbley in Oakland but he is a solid role player who should continue to improve.
4. Leroy Hill, Seattle Seahawks
Age as of September 1st, 2012: 29
2011 Grade: +5.7
Key Stat: Ranked fourth in the league allowing a reception exactly every 15 snaps.
Behind the Numbers: Hill is probably the least well known of Seattle’s outstanding trio of linebackers, but that’s not to disparage the quality of his play in 2011. While he might not have been quite on the same level as some of the other names, he just did his job consistently well, avoiding grades “in the red” in every facet of his game. Perhaps even more positive is his ability to play so many snaps at such a high level (985 defensive snaps) without ever appearing to wear down. Hill has long been a very good run defender with sufficient coverage skills to allow him to play in the nickel, which only increases his value.
5. Philip Wheeler, Indianapolis Colts
Age as of September 1st, 2012: 27
2011 Grade: +9.3
Key Stat: Ranked seventh in the NFL with a tackle efficiency rating of 15.8 for 2011.
Behind the Numbers: The Colts didn’t have many positives come out of 2011 but one highlight they did have was the play of Wheeler. He proved to be their best run defender despite playing limited snaps and having to spend time at both strong and weakside linebacker spots. His work in coverage wasn’t bad either as he partnered with Pat Angerer to form a solid interior duo. With the atrocious play of other Colts linebackers (Kavell Conner and Ernie Sims), re-signing Wheeler should be an offseason priority.