Ranking the 2013 Free Agents: Linebackers
For more than a week now we’ve been breaking down the top free agents at each position. 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.
We’re not going to insult your intelligence though when it comes to guys unlikely to hit the open market because of restricted free agency, so don’t expect to see names like Victor Cruz or Brian De La Puente in these pieces. Instead we’re focusing on guys with a real shot at dipping their feet into the free agent pool and making your team better.
You’ve been with us through the entire offense (quarterbacks, running backs, fullbacks, wide receivers, tight ends, offensive tackles) and a brief sojourn to the kickers and punters. Now we’ve moved on to defense and, after looking at the interior and edge defenders, it’s time to check in with the linebackers.
1. Daryl Smith
2012 Grade: -1.3
2012 Snaps: 117
Summary: This long-time Jacksonville Jaguar hasn’t gotten as much attention as he deserves since joining the league in 2004. He spent nearly all of the 2012 season injured and played only in the last two games. Prior to that he was the standard for 4-3 outside linebackers. In 2011 he finished third in Run Stop Percentage at 10.6%, in Pass Rushing Productivity (for those with at least 50 pass rushes) at 13.0, and in Yards per Coverage Snap at 0.67. Many of the free agent linebackers available are good at one or two of those things, but he is the rare talent who can do it all. He will be 31 in a month, so his best football might be behind him, but even if he can’t reach the same heights he once did, he can still be a great upgrade for most teams.
2. Erin Henderson – stays in MIN: 2-years, $4m
2012 Grade: +1.0
2012 Snaps: 702
Summary: In 2011, Henderson emerged as a starter with the Minnesota Vikings and made his presence known in the run game. An early-season injury caused him to miss some time and he didn’t play as well during the middle of the season, but he still managed the sixth best Run Stop Percentage, at 9.8%. Despite the few poor games midseason post-injury, in other games he showed flashes of dominance, including games with a +5.3 and +4.2 Run Defense rating. He might be best suited as a two-down player, as he has only seven games as an every-down player, but his dominance against the run can’t be ignored.
3. Brad Jones – stays in GB: 3-year, $11.8m
2012 Grade: +9.0
2012 Snaps: 688
Summary: After some underwhelming play as a 3-4 outside linebacker, the Packers moved Jones to inside linebacker. Then Green Bay had injures at the position which allowed Jones to emerge as an every-down starter. He managed a positive run defense rating in nine of 11 regular season games. In coverage, he allowed a 68.4% Catch Rate, which was fifth best for middle/inside linebackers who were targeted at least 30 times. He might lack highlight plays, so fans might not be excited to have someone like Brad Jones on their team, but the fact that he can play both run and coverage well makes him a valuable option.
4. Philip Wheeler – to MIA: 5-year, $26m
2012 Grade: +9.8
2012 Snaps: 1,044
Summary: After spending his first few years in the league with the Colts, for the 2012 season Wheeler signed a one-year deal with the Raiders and emerged as an every-down starter. Although this isn’t the main role of a 4-3 outside linebacker, he was most impressive as a pass rusher, where he managed three sacks, 14 hits and 13 hurries on 126 pass rushes. He had a breakout game against the Steelers when he forced fumbles of both the starting Steeler receivers. His low Run Stop Percentage of 5.4% is a concern, although it was better in his last year with the Colts. At worst he seems a very effective nickel linebacker, and at best an every-down player who becomes an average run defender.
5. Nick Barnett
2012 Grade: +6.0
2012 Snaps: 1,025
Summary: After two decent years in Buffalo, the Bills released the veteran linebacker. He showed sparks in 2012 of still being a great player, recording four games with four or more stops. He had a positive coverage grade in 2012, in large part due to quarterbacks avoiding him. His 9.4 cover snaps per target was the highest in the league for 4-3 outside linebackers. His Tackling Efficiency of 17.2 was sixth-best for 4-3 outside linebackers with at least 50 tackles. By the time the 2013 season hits he will be 32, so he won’t be making an impact in the league much longer. However, he can be a short-term fix as an every-down linebacker.
6. Leroy Hill
2012 Grade: +4.8
2012 Snaps: 514
Summary: Early in the 2012 season Hill lost his spot as an every-down linebacker due to the emergence of Bobby Wagner, but still played in the base defense. In his limited playing time he remained a decent run stopping linebacker, posting a Run Stop Percentage of 7.4%. In 2011, when he was an every-down linebacker, he allowed just 0.69 Yards per Coverage Snap which was fourth-best in the league for 4-3 outside linebackers. The fact the Seahawks began giving time to Malcolm Smith late in the season could mean Hill is out in Seattle. He is also on the wrong side of 30, but he can still fill the role of an every-down or part-time 4-3 outside linebacker wherever he is added.
7. Brian Urlacher
2012 Grade: -11.2
2012 Snaps: 727
Summary: In 2012 it was very clear Brian Urlacher wasn’t the player he once was when stopping the run. His Tackling Efficiency of 5.0 in the run game was the worst among inside/middle linebackers. The reason he makes this list is he is still a very good player in coverage. He had five passes defended, which was tied for the second among inside/middle linebackers, and his 0.70 Yards per Coverage Snap was fifth-best at the position. He is one of those players that is hard to imagine in any other uniform than the Bears’ blue and orange, but with a new coaching regime he might need to finish his playing days elsewhere. It might be pricy to have this eight-time Pro Bowler, but it looks like he still has some football left in him.
8. Justin Durant – to DAL: 2-year, $2.4m
2012 Grade: -0.1
2012 Snaps: 875
Summary: Over the past three years, Durant has shown in both Jacksonville and Detroit that he can make big plays in the run game. His Run Stop Percentage of 9.9% was fourth at his position in 2012. The problem is he also misses a lot of tackles ,with 14 missed this year and 10 the previous year. He had the sixth-worst Coverage Rating in 2012 in large part due to his missed tackles, but was average in both his catch rate allowed and his yards per catch allowed. He is a two-down or borderline three-down player that is high risk/high reward in his play.
9. Kaluka Maiava – to OAK: 3-year, $6m
2012 Grade: +7.9
2012 Snaps: 498
Summary: If a team wants a younger option at linebacker, Kaluka Maiava emerged as a solid part-time player in the Browns’ defense in 2012. The 2009 fourth-round pick’s best asset was his play in coverage where he allowed 0.50 Yards per Coverage Snap, which was by far the lowest for 4-3 outside linebackers, although it came on only 156 coverage snaps. He never allowed a catch longer than 15 yards on the year which helped keep that number low. His low Tackling Efficiency of 7.7 is a reason to be concerned, but the potential is there to be a good nickel linebacker.
10. Thomas Howard
2012 Grade: +2.3
2012 Snaps: 62
Summary: In 2012, Howard played in Week 1, and proceeded to miss the rest of the season with an injury. In 2011, Howard was used as an every-down linebacker with the Bengals, but might be best suited for a nickel linebacker role. He allowed a 73.4% catch rate and 8.7 yards per catch, which were both below league average, and he had an additional three passes defended for good measure. Thomas has said his knee is doing “absolutely fabulous”, so despite missing 2012 he should be ready to go in 2013.
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