Ranking the 2014 Free Agents: Linebackers
Defending the second level in today's NFL is a demanding job and John Breitenbach evaluates if the supply of FA's in 2014 is up the task here.
Ranking the 2014 Free Agents: Linebackers
You’ve been reading along with our Projected Lineups series on a daily basis and have checked the PFF Free Agent Tracker more times than you can count, so you’ll be happy to see that we’re now ranking the top free agents available — the potential answers to the holes apparent on those team-by-team charts. We’ll be taking on a couple positions a day this week and discussing our Top 10 at each.
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’ve been through the quarterbacks and running backs as well as the edge rushers and interior D-linemen. Earlier today we put up the wide receivers and now we have a look at the middle/inside and 4-3 outside linebackers.
The linebacker position has become increasingly devalued in today’s NFL but that’s given organizations the opportunity to go bargain hunting. This year’s crop is somewhat underwhelming, though, with a number of journeyman making the Top 10. The best players in the group are either aging, coming off injury or restricted free agents. Once past the Top 5 or so, teams should be looking for nothing more than players who can compete for backup jobs. In fact, just six of the Top 10 had both positive grades and played more than 100 snaps. Here’s a more in-depth look at the top linebackers available in free agency for 2014.
1. Karlos Dansby – Signs with Cleveland
2013 Grade: +13.3
2013 Snaps: 1,107
Count me as one of those surprised by how well Dansby performed in Arizona. It was a joyous return for the man drafted by the Cardinals who played probably his best season in his tenth year in the league. Partnering with Daryl Washington in the middle, the duo made the best pair of cover linebackers in the league and seemed a perfect fit for Todd Bowles’ 3-4 schemes. Overall, Dansby was our third ranked inside linebacker in coverage (+9.5 grade) allowing just a QB rating of 75.0 with a staggering 10 pass deflections in coverage, the second most at the position in the last six years. Dansby also made plays, grabbing four interceptions and bringing the QB down eight times. Unlike his partner, the former Dolphin was also able to make plays in the run game, recording more stops in 2013 (63) than he did in 2012 (59). He was by no mean greats in that department (+1.6) but, combined with his quality in coverage and efficiency when blitzing, Dansby’s versatility ensured him a top five place in our inside linebacker rakings.
While his 2013 season was impressive there are obviously concerns with Dansby entering his 11th year as a pro. There’s significant risk with giving him a big contract, despite the quality of his play, with a decline potentially just around a corner. With his athleticism Dansby seems like the kind of guy who could go downhill quickly if he loses a step which could well scare teams away. After receiving just a one year contract from the Cardinals in the 2013 offseason, don’t be surprised if the same thing happens this year.
2. Daryl Smith – Re-signs with Baltimore
2013 Grade: +0.2
2013 Snaps: 1,097
We’ve come to expect so much from Smith that in some ways his 2013 was a little disappointing. It’s no surprise he failed to reach the lofty heights of 2011 coming off a season ending injury the year before and moving to a new scheme but his -13.1 grade against the run (sixth worst) really came out of nowhere. Unlike previous seasons he simply couldn’t find a way to shed blocks finishing with an alarmingly poor 34 stops despite missing just five snaps all season.
To put that in perspective, Akeem Jordan had 33 despite playing in less than half the snaps that Smith did (483 compared to 1,097). While his regression in the run game is concerning, Smith still has value as a nickel linebacker where he can use his cover and rush skills to good effect. His +4.9 pass rush grade is good enough for third, bested only by Jerrell Freeman and NaVorro Bowman.
Smith’s +8.8 coverage grade is also good enough to make it into the top five. His most impressive stat is allowing only 58.9% of passes to be complete, good enough for fourth best in the league. Underrated for so many years the former Jaguar deserves to get on the field next year, but I’m not sure there’ll be a whole lot of suitors.
3. Brandon Spikes – Signs with Buffalo
2013 Grade: +9.8
2013 Snaps: 694
In many ways Spikes is the most appealing option in this crop. His main advantage is youth, having played just four seasons, but he is not without baggage. The former second-round pick ended up on Injured Reserve and it remains to be seen whether he’ll need offseason surgery. There are concerns on the field as well, where Spikes struggles when forced to go backward. Despite finishing sixth overall among inside linebackers, he recorded a -3.6 grade in coverage and an 84.0 QB rating allowed.
Spikes’ strength and physicality serves him well when taking on blocks but he is sub-standard in space giving opposing offenses a chance to create mismatches in the passing game. That grade was amassed playing predominantly on running downs and it would seem unwise to expect his performance in coverage to suddenly improve. For that reason Spikes’ value seems to be as a two-down backer only. He’s a very good one at that, recording easily the best run defense grade (+11.6) among all inside linebackers. Four missed tackles in 73 attempted with 48 stops is a very good return.
Spikes has also shown some ability as a pass rusher in the past too. In 2012 he finished with a sack, seven hits and six hurries (+5.2). There is certainly value to be had in a run defending middle linebacker but with an increasing emphasis on ability to defend in space Spikes might find his value decreasing as the year’s go on. One intriguing possibility could be to use him as the strongside linebacker in base and then shift him to defensive end in the nickel. So far so good as a pass rusher but adapting to beating a tackle one-on-one off the edge is quite a different story.
4. Donald Butler – Re-signs with San Diego
2013 Grade: -11.8
2013 Snaps: 717
Drafted in the same year as Spikes but a round later, Butler might be fortunate to be this high. His 2013 was simply a nightmare for someone who should have stepped it up in his fourth year as a pro. Injuries and inconsistency have really hurt a guy who started his career admirably and looked set to be at the very least a serviceable inside linebacker.
After combining for a +9.3 grade in 2011 and 2012 when he first got on the field, much was expected of Butler this season in combination with Manti Te’o. Thus far results have not met expectations. Te’o struggled as a rookie and Butler did absolutely nothing to help him. Missing seven games on the past two seasons hasn’t helped but his play on the field really stood out in a negative way in 2013.
The former Washington product was not exceptionally poor in any department, but three red lights in all three facets of his play make for telling reading. He made a fairly pitiful 27 stops out of 71 tackles, missed ten and allowed a QB rating above 90. Butler also recorded just six combined pressures (-2.9). Fourth position on this list represents potential more than anything but reports suggest the Chargers are committed to keeping him around. If that’s the case then Charger fans will be hoping the Butler of previous seasons is back next year.
5. Desmond Bishop
2013 Grade: +1.0
2013 Snaps: 45
Bishop has been unfortunate to suffer season-ending injuries in the past two years because he was among the best just three years ago for Green Bay. With that said, three years is a long time, especially when you’re trying to come back from a torn ACL. That’s not to mention the fact he’s now entering his thirties. There’s always hope a former great can regain his previous form but such hope often remains just that especially after this long on the sidelines.
When he was at his best, Bishop was a complete linebacker, making plays in every facet of the game. During his amazing 2010 season he graded in the green seven times without taking a single red. In fact, he only graded in the red in any facet of his game once during the Packers’ run to the Super Bowl. His 2011 season was also solid but injuries started to creep in. His dominant performance in the divisional round of the playoffs offered some hope that he was getting back to his best, but in the end it wasn’t to be.
The previous two years have been tough and the odds are stacked against him but there’s always a chance with a guy like Bishop.
6. Vincent Rey – Re-signed by Cincinnati
2013 Grade: +6.3
2013 Snaps: 348
Perhaps the most underrated of the Bengals’ defensive players no one expected much of Rey when he was forced into the lineup in the middle of the year after Rey Maualuga suffered an injury. He held his own in those three starts (and was certainly better than the man he replaced) racking up three sacks and seven stops in what was nearly his best game of the season. I say “nearly” because the undrafted free agent, later in the year, managed to gather a +4.5 grade in just six snaps against the Vikings. Rey recorded a sack on his only rush and had a pick and forced incompletion on his two targets.
The Duke product played his best football later in the year recording three games in the green out of the last six with none in the red. It remains to be seen whether he could handle a full season’s workload, but at this stage that no longer looks unlikely.
Unfortunately for any teams that might be interested, they’ll have to pay compensation with Rey being a restricted free agent. What with the Bengals’ bewildering commitment to Maualuga, however, they might not tender him at a high level giving teams the opportunity to get a player with upside on the cheap. If he can improve his tackling (six missed on 39 attempts) then Rey can be at least a capable NFL starter.
7. Keith Rivers – Signs with Buffalo
2013 Grade: +0.4
2013 Snaps: 429
While Rivers is a solid player, so much more was expected when he was drafted in the first round back in 2008. It’s been a rocky road for the USC product which culminated in a trade for just a fifth round pick last offseason. Rivers won’t kill you, but he’s certainly not lived up to those expectations. He’s a good player against the run, recording a +3.7 grade in that department in 2013, but struggles in coverage and as a pass rusher (-4.1 combined). There’s just not much compelling against Rivers and, at this stage in his career, there’s hard to see much upside.
Rivers would work as a temporary stopgap and two-down thumper, but his struggles against tight ends make him less appealing in today’s NFL. The likelihood is he’ll catch on somewhere, but he’s certainly not a guy to hang your hat on. Injuries have played a big part too with Rivers taking the field in just 59 games over the past six years. It’s telling also that the best of those years came all the way back in 2010, when he was able to elevate his run defense and increase his performance in coverage to a serviceable level. Rivers managed to crack the Top 10 among 4-3 outside linebackers that year but with his level of play seemingly dropping, there’s unlikely to be much interest come March.
8. Akeem Jordan
2013 Grade: +4.5
2013 Snaps: 483
Following Andy Reid to Kansas City was a smart career move for Jordan who looked more comfortable in the Chiefs’ 3-4 where his limited athleticism was masked somewhat. Jordan’s never been the best in space but he’s always been a disciplined and aggressive run defender. No doubt he was helped a lot by the talent around him but that doesn’t take away from a season that was good enough to leave him 11th overall among inside linebackers. Only a single player who finished higher also played fewer snaps, and that’s the man at No. 6 on this list.
Jordan’s 28 stops in the run game in 224 reps were good enough for fifth in Run Stop Percentage and he missed just four tackles. With something of a dearth of quality at the ILB position (just 15 out of 55 graded in the green in 2013) Jordan could certainly do a job for somebody. He has versatility too, having played both weakside and strongside linebacker at times in the Eagles’ 4-3.
While Jordan’s utility on defense is great, linebackers like him have to make their mark on special teams. That’s exactly what the undrafted free agent out of James Madison did for the Chiefs, recording a +7.5 grade contributing equally on both kickoffs and punts.
9. Joe Mays – Signs with Kansas City
2013 Grade: -1.8
2013 Snaps: 563
Another former Eagle checks in at No. 9 and it’s another former small-school prospect with Mays graduating from North Dakota State back in 2008. There’s always been a buzz around him with his ability to hit and be aggressive at the point of attack especially obvious. Still, it’s his work going backwards that is always likely to hold him back and that’s the reason why he’s been on three different teams since he entered the league.
This season was a solid one for Mays who started 14 games at inside linebacker in the Texans’ 3-4. As you might expect considering he weighs 250-pounds but is only 5-foot-11, he more than held his own against the run, recording 36 stops, but struggled in coverage, allowing a QB rating of 105.1.
Consistency is an issue for Mays, too, with five green graded games and five in the red. That inconsistency extends even to his performances against the run, where he finished with four games below -1.0 despite grading above average by year’s end. A sub-package role makes sense for Mays who can contribute so long as not too much is asked of him.
10. Daryl Sharpton – Signs with Washington
2013 Grade: -8.0
2013 Snaps: 743
The last man to make the list is Mays’ partner at inside linebacker for the Texans in 2013. It wasn’t a good year overall for Sharpton who struggled mightily in coverage, but there is at least some upside there. As with seemingly all of Houston’s linebackers, Sharpton was great disrupting the run, (+8.8) but tended to get beat in coverage (-11.9). In fact, he played well enough to finish second overall in run defense, with only Spikes outperforming him. In contrast, Sharpton finished third to last in the coverage department, allowing above 80% of targets to be complete with three touchdowns and an eventual QB rating of 128.5.
The numbers are pretty alarming when you delve deeper, with Sharpton allowing 1.7 Yards Per Cover Snap, a good 0.35 yards more than anyone else. Unsurprisingly, he also allowed a catch every 7.1 snaps spent in coverage — the worst mark in the linebacker group. Sharpton could also do with improving his work as a blitzer, as he recorded just five hits and five hurries culminating in an overall grade of -4.0. With all that said, Sharpton is still young at the age of 26 which explains why he was able to sneak onto the list with an overall poor year in 2013.
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