2015 Top Free Agents: Linebackers
You’ve surely had a flip through the PFF Free Agent Tracker by this point, so this set of articles will build nicely on what you’ve already seen. This, our yearly effort to sort the top free agent options at each position, will present a position a day and offer a Top-10 of what’s available.
It’s more than just looking at our grades, but factoring in longevity, age, injuries and so much more in order to tell you who we think are the best gets out there.
Today’s look is at the linebackers, combining the middle/inside guys with the 4-3 outside linebackers.
1. Rolando McClain
2014 Grade: +16.2
2014 Snaps: 683
McClain’s path to this point has been out of the ordinary to say the least. A series of off-field troubles saw his Oakland stint fizzle and a second chance in Baltimore resulted in a pair of retirements at age 23. When the LB-needy Cowboys acquired him via trade last July, the move properly reflected the team’s desperation after losing Sean Lee to another early injury. To his credit, McClain responded well to his most recent opportunity, earning positive marks across the board and coming in tied for eighth overall in our inside linebacker grading. Yet another off-field issue, this time a substance abuse violation, says McClain’s turnaround is not complete, and his market will not be booming.
2. Brandon Spikes
2014 Grade: +7.3
2014 Snaps: 519
After back-to-back seasons as the leader in our inside linebacker run defense grades, Spikes fell off a bit last year after moving on to Buffalo. With play in coverage not a strong suit, Spikes is a fit player cut out for a two-down thumper role, but is one of the best around at that task. His 44 run stops in 2013 tied for second among inside linebackers and his two missed tackles on 75 attempts (on run plays) also had him among the leaders at the position in Tackling Efficiency.
3. Sean Weatherspoon – Signed with Arizona
2014 Grade: 0.0
2014 Snaps: 0
Following ankle, foot and knee injuries in 2012 and 2013, Weatherspoon missed all of 2014 with a torn Achilles, so a good look at him on the field requires a trip back to earlier years. A promising 1000-snap second season that saw him slide into Curtis Lofton’s vacated role and land among the Top 5 at his position in both overall grade and in run defense was his high-water mark. Unfortunately, that was the last injury-free image we have of him.
4. Lance Briggs
2014 Grade: +7.6
2014 Snaps: 461
With age a factor for the 35-year-old, his sustained level of play against the run will be what gets him a job — his +8.6 run defense grade in 2014 was eighth among 4-3 outside linebackers. Whether that means returning to Chicago to shift inside in their expected 3-4 look or landing elsewhere as an early-down option, Briggs still has something to offer.
5. David Harris – Re-signed with New York Jets
2014 Grade: -1.2
2014 Snaps: 1038
With six straight seasons of approcahing or surpassing 1000 snaps, Harris can boast the durability that some others here can’t and there’s something to be said for a player who shows up to work every day. His performance, on the other hand, has left room to want at times – particularly against the run where he posted the lone positively-graded run D season of his eight-year career in 2013.
6. Rey Maualuga – Re-signed with Cincinnati
2014 Grade: -1.0
2014 Snaps: 469
A fixture starting for Cincinnati since being drafted in 2009, Maualuga’s early-career positives have been washed under by lacking play since a 2012 season where he sank to the foot of the inside linebackers rankings. A relative resurgence in 2014 brought him back to the midline while not standing out in any one facet.
7. Justin Durant – Signed with Atlanta
2014 Grade: +3.0
2014 Snaps: 336
Seeing action in six games for Dallas last season and 10 the year before, Durant’s career trend of continually falling short of a full season’s worth of games didn’t change from his time in Jacksonville and Detroit. During Dallas’ desperate scramble to fill linebacker positions last season, Durant got off to a good start, earning a +5.3 overall grade through Week 6, but landed on the I.R. with a torn biceps after Week 8.
8. Nate Irving – Signed with Indianapolis
2014 Grade: +1.1
2014 Snaps: 353
After not cracking the lineup in his first two seasons, Irving climbed into playing time in 2013 and took over the starting middle linebacker spot for Denver last season. As has been the theme with many on this list, Irving’s 2014 was cut short by injury, but he had enough time to prove himself as a capable run defender, coming in third among inside linebackers in Run Stop Percentage with 15 stops on just 116 snaps of run D.
9. Bruce Carter – Signed with Tampa Bay
2014 Grade: -11.2
2014 Snaps: 657
The third recent Cowboy on this list, Carter’s back-to-back -9.0 and -11.2 overall grades the past two seasons were built by different means. Dragged down in 2013 by a -12.5 run defense grade and in 2014 by a -10.2 coverage grade, he hasn’t been able to put good work together in a single year.
10. Geno Hayes
2014 Grade: +5.9
2014 Snaps: 587
Heading into his eighth season and looking for his fourth team, Hayes turned in a relatively useful 2014 campaign that featured more ups than downs and a run defense grade (+4.2) that fit in with the Top 15 at the position. A nice change from what had been a fairly flat pair of seasons following a rough end to his run in Tampa in 2011.
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