By Ryan Mayer
The NFL free agency period opens March 9, and with the salary cap rising to $155 million, teams have money to burn. Linebackers have become a precious commodity in the league, especially ones who are able to play three downs. There is a large difference between the outside linebacker and inside guys, so we’ll break down the best of both classes of free agents available. Starting first with the outside guys.
Tamba Hali – Last team: Kansas City Chiefs
For all of the attention that Justin Houston gets in Kansas City (rightfully so), Hali has been very productive himself as a pass rusher off the edge in his 10-year career. The 32-year old still has some gas left in the tank and is coming off a season in which he recorded 6.5 sacks and 2 forced fumbles. He’s got 86 sacks for his career to go along with 33 forced fumbles and 7 fumble recoveries. A solid option for teams in need of a veteran pass rushing presence.
Mike Neal – Last team: Green Bay Packers
Neal is a bit of an enigma. He never fully broke out the way the Packers expected him to after taking him in the 2nd round of the 2010 draft. He has, however, been consistent. Each of the last four seasons he’s had four sacks or more. Teams looking for an edge rusher to come in and offer a change of pace could give Neal a look.
Bruce Irvin – Last team: Seattle Seahawks
Irvin is listed as an outside linebacker, but really plays best when he’s getting after the QB. The Seahawks are in cap trouble and will need to make some decisions about who to keep and who to let go, Irvin may be among the latter category. After recording 8 sacks in his first season in 2012, he’s never recorded more than 6.5 since. Two potential landing spots are Jacksonville and Atlanta where Gus Bradley and Dan Quinn have both welcomed the former Seahawks with open arms.
Tahir Whitehead – Last team: Detroit Lions
Whitehead is a much better coverage linebacker than the other guys on this list and is best suited to the OLB role in a 4-3 defense. He’s picked off three passes in the past two years but has had 11 pass breakups in that time. He’s shown the ability to slide over to the MLB role when Stephen Tulloch missed time in 2014, that versatility combined with the youth (will turn 26 in April) should lead to a good contract.
James Laurinaitis – Last team: Los Angeles Rams
Laurinaitis has been productive in the middle for the Rams since they took him 35th overall in the 2009 draft. More importantly, he’s also been available. By that I mean he has played in and started every game in his seven-year career. That’s impressive. He’s also collected 10 interceptions and recovered 8 fumbles while putting up 16.5 sacks. He’ll turn 30 in December of this year, but we’ve seen LB’s stay productive until their mid-thirties, so he should have another four years of good production in him. He’s played mainly in a 4-3 defense in both college and the NFL, so it’s hard to seem him switching to a 3-4, but that doesn’t mean he couldn’t make the adjustment.
Danny Trevathan – Last team: Denver Broncos
Trevathan has been overshadowed by fellow inside linebacker Brandon Marshall in the Broncos defense the last two years, but certainly has proven himself to be a starter in the league. Last season he had 109 tackles (73 solo), 2 interceptions, and 6 pass breakups. At 25 years old, teams looking for a starter long term should seriously consider offering him a deal.
Rolando McClain – Last team: Dallas Cowboys
McClain had a career revival the past two seasons in Dallas after being out of football in 2013. He did a nice job plugging the hole left by Sean Lee in the line-up at the MLB spot, and is only 26 years old. He’s more suited to a 4-3 defense than as an ILB in a 3-4, but his size (6’3″ 254 lbs) could allow him to make the transition.
Derrick Johnson – Last team: Kansas City Chiefs
Johnson has been a very productive player in his 11 years in the NFL, all with the Chiefs. Even at age 33, he posted 116 tackles (95 solo), 4 sacks, 8 pass breakups, 2 forced fumbles and 2 interceptions this season. Yes, the age is a concern, but a team in need of a veteran presence in the linebacking corps should take a long hard look at adding a productive player like Johnson to their front 7.
Ryan Mayer is an Associate Producer for CBS Local Sports. Ryan lives in NY but comes from Philly and life as a Philly sports fan has made him cynical. Anywhere sports are being discussed, that’s where you’ll find him.