Aside from two rumors about Curtis Lofton signing in Tampa Bay and then Philadelphia, both debunked quickly, there has been but a whimper of interest in a deep free agent class at linebacker. For one of the deepest groups of the year, this is somewhat of a surprise and while there may not be a truly elite do-everything, every-down linebacker available, there is a wealth of players from the tier below this and quality throughout. In spite of this there still has been no movement; everyone is sitting around waiting for someone else to set the market, the Vikings and Erin Henderson have even admitted this.
Potentially the biggest stumbling block for the linebacker market is the new collective bargaining agreement. Since it was signed last summer very few non-rush linebackers have signed multi-year deals as many linebackers signed quick, one-year deals to get into camp and hit free agency again this summer. As a result, teams aren’t really sure of their value under the new CBA, as well as having to gauge the value of a third linebacker against the value of a third cornerback. The pass-happy state of the NFL is moving the balance of influence and playing time towards a team’s third corner and away from a team’s third linebacker. The combination of these two things leaves even the top NFL teams unsure of exactly where market value lies. Rush linebackers are moving away from other linebackers in contract terms and this free agency will likely set the market value for linebackers over coming seasons. So what do they offer and what is their value to an NFL team in 2012?
The term “two-down linebacker” is becoming a bit of an unwanted tag for linebackers, in the same way that possession receiver is unwanted for a wideout. You are a valuable contributor to your team, but the focus seems to shift to what these players cannot do, rather than what they can do.
As a receiver, you might be able to pick up five or six first downs in a game for your team, but because you can’t blow the top off of a defense with a 75 yard gain without favorable coverage your value is diminished. As a linebacker you might be able to set a tough edge, you might be able to blow up lead blocks and track backs from the backfield, but because you can’t track Rob Gronkowski on a seam route your value is diminished. Certainly three-down linebackers are being tested like never before, but the complete unwillingness to sign some quality defensive players immediately could easily be construed as a little short-sighted. Certainly these guys aren’t in the bracket of Patrick Willis, Brian Cushing or Derrick Johnson but there are some valuable contributors.
Only one of the inside linebackers in our Top 10 free agents has been signed so far and that is D’Qwell Jackson being re-signed by a Cleveland team who knew what they had. Of our Top 10 inside linebackers on the market, only the Top 3 are what you would consider quality three-down linebackers. Stephen Tulloch is the kingpin of the group, London Fletcher is advancing in years whilst David Hawthorne has bounced between positions, but all three have proven themselves adept in coverage and run defense. Behind them are a group who as three down linebackers come across as square pegs in round holes.
Curtis Lofton is the prime example of a player who made the step up to a three-down linebacker, but has seen his form dip in comparision to when he was a two-down thumper at the start of his career. Joe Mays is the definition of a two-down thumper in Denver and E.J. Henderson has had a number of injuries and has reverted back to a two-down linebacker. Mays in Denver is perhaps the perfect example of how more teams should be managing their linebackers moving forwards. The Broncos did as good a job as any team this year of putting their defensive players in positions to succeed and defensive coordinator Dennis Allen was rewarded with a head coaching appointment.
Knowing the limitations of your players and playing to their strengths is crucial; there is nothing wrong with putting situational players in the packages that they excel in. The Broncos defense did that this past season and looked good and similar philosophies could yield great rewards from this free agent class. Accurate and intelligent pre-game scouting is the key to getting the most out of situational players and along with Denver few teams showed that more than the 49ers with Aldon Smith this season. Smith was if anything a one down, one dimensional player, but through smart personnel management the 49ers got the most from him and got him on the field in situations that minimized his limitations. Smith played 616 snaps this season with 71.5% of those coming as a pass rusher.
Through down, distance and knowing the personnel groupings of the opposition, the 49ers got the most from Smith and while it is easier to do this with pass rushers, it’s not impossible to do this with non-rush linebackers as well, Mays for example came downhill (run defense or pass rush) on 64% of his snaps last season. Unless you have an elite linebacker managing their snaps and their situations is becoming crucial for defenses in today’s NFL.
Top of the Class?
Perhaps only one linebacker is worth the big deal and that is our No.1-ranked free agent linebacker is Stephen Tulloch of the Detroit Lions who took a one-year deal with a coach he knew and parleyed it into a brilliant season. Tulloch came to Detroit with a reputation as a downhill thumper who could be limited to a two down role. He debunked that myth in Detroit however, grading as well in coverage as he did in run support whilst playing 1,120 snaps, only Paris Lenon of the Cardinals played more amongst inside linebackers. Tulloch allowed only 8.1 yards per reception this season in primary coverage; only Pat Angerer of the Colts bested that, and only allowed a 71.8% completion percentage; which was only just beaten by Brian Urlacher who is widely thought of as the best coverage linebacker in the league.
Certainly they played different roles, but the stats speak for themselves, Tulloch is a true three-down linebacker. Tulloch got his hands to six passes and picked off two, including one that set up the Lions’ game winning drive in Dallas. Tulloch can do it all and the apparent lack of interest in him is arguably the most surprising aspect of free agency so far. If the perception is that two-down linebackers can’t cut it, Tulloch should be getting plenty of play as a linebacker who can do it all and do it all well.
Differing Perceptions of Value
Rumors of Curtis Lofton’s contract demands shed some light on the biggest stumbling block, value. Some reports suggested that Lofton was after $9 million per year and for a two down linebacker who has seen his performance dip taking up a three down role, you can understand the hesitance that teams across the league are showing in signing these guys up. These are good players, but if a linebacker can’t be relied upon to play three downs, then they are only taking between 400 and 800 snaps in a season and you can’t lay out that much money for them. Who blinks first will likely come down to the teams losing quality players they know are pivotal to their team. Atlanta may well let Lofton walk; they have a solid front seven that he is just part of.
However, fellow NFC Wildcard Detroit find themselves in a different spot as Stephen Tulloch is absolutely crucial to the Lions’ defense because of the aggression of the defense and the style of play that Jim Schwartz and Gunther Cunningham demand from their defensive line. His ability to clean up behind such an aggressive front line is arguably more important to the Lions than any other part of that defense. Without a player like Tulloch, the Lions would give up many more momentum changing plays; plays that teams like the Eagles and Saints have given up this season, because they don’t have a Stephen Tulloch behind their line.
Curtis Lofton may be pursuing the biggest contract and may be widely perceived as the best linebacker in this class, but it could well be Tulloch who is the most important player in this free agent class and sets the dominos falling.