As the NFL becomes increasingly pass heavy, offenses increasingly operate out of three-receiver sets, which makes it increasingly difficult for defenses to regularly trot out three or four linebackers who will get burned by speedier receivers. As a result, the days of the 3-4 or 4-3 serving as the dominant defensive alignment are gone as extra defensive backs who can run downfield have taken on increased importance and roles.
But that doesn't make the linebacker position unimportant in today's NFL. In a way, it makes the good ones even more important.
Teams are now searching for linebackers who can run sideline to sideline, track faster receivers and pass-catching tight ends upfield, and plug holes against the run game. Versatility is key, which is why the Bears drafted Roquan Smith with the eighth-overall pick in last year's draft. Having a modern NFL linebacker might not be as important as having a dominant pass rusher -- the Khalil Mack linebackers will always be more important than the Bobby Wagner linebackers -- but it's still important. Just ask the Colts, who used their second-round pick on Darius Leonard and watched him rack up 163 total tackles, seven sacks, two picks, and one Defensive Rookie of the Year award as the Colts made a surprising return to the playoffs.
The draft, which features a number of potential first-round picks (CBS Sports draft writer Ryan Wilson has), won't come for another two months. But teams will have an opportunity to upgrade at linebacker in just under a month when free agency officially begins.
This year's free agent linebacker class is especially intriguing. Leading the way are three headliners, all of whom are entering their primes at 26 years old. Behind them are a group of starting-caliber linebackers who theoretically haven't hit their peaks yet and have room to grow, and then a group of aging starting-caliber linebackers who are on the decline.
You can check out the entire list of linebackers scheduled to hit free agency next month by clicking here (special thanks to Spotrac, as always, for compiling the list). Below, you'll find a preview of the best linebackers of this free agent class broken into groups.
Before we get to the list, it's important to note that this article does not include edge pass rushers who are also officially listed as linebackers. Last week, Jared Dubin already broke down the edge rusher free agent market, Jadeveon Clowney and Dee Ford will not appear on this list even though they're listed as linebackers on their team's rosters.As a result, linebackers like
Onto the list. We begin with the trio of 26-year-olds.
Ravens, Mosley has averaged nearly 80 tackles, almost two sacks and two interceptions, and 6.4 quarterback hits per season since 2014. He's only missed three games in that five-year span., Mosley is the rare free agent who is both good and still entering the prime of his career. For the
Capable of playing against both the run (four missed tackles in the run game last season, per Sports Info Solutions) and the pass (only four linebackers have more interceptions since he entered the league), he'll undoubtedly get a lucrative deal from someone ... unless the Ravens franchise tag him,
Pro Football Focus ranked him second on their list of free agent linebackers.
The Ravens have said they want to bring Mosley back, but have also acknowledged they might lose him due to financial reasons.
The top-10 pick of the Vikings has pretty consistently been a good, not great, player in Mike Zimmer's defense. He's capable of rushing the passer, evidenced by his 13.5 sacks in five seasons despite not being asked to rush the passer on a consistent basis. PFF noted that Barr led all linebackers in pass-rushing productivity percentage with 23 pressures on 94 pass-rushing opportunities. And according to Sports Info Solutions, he missed one tackle against the run last season.
Perhaps most importantly, he'll be 27 when next season begins, so whoever ends up signing him should be getting him for the remaining years of his prime. He checks in at No. 3 on PFF's linebacker-specific free agency board.and
Like Barr, Hicks doesn't really miss that many tackles as a run defender. According to Sports Info Solutions, he missed two tackles against the run last season. His seven career interceptions are also a plus. Only four linebackers have picked off more passes in that span even though he has missed 21 games. Like Barr and Mosley, Hicks will be 27 next season, so the team that ends up acquiring him won't be spending money on some past-his-prime player.
Injuries are a very real concern, though. In 2017, Hicks missed over half the season with an Achilles injury. He missed four games this past season with a bad calf, but he still managed to rank third on the Eagles with 61 solo tackles.
Hicks actually topped PFF's list of free agent linebackers.
He's a restricted free agent, which will make it more difficult for someone to pry him free of the Ravens. He's appeared in all 32 games with 25 starts over the past two seasons. He racked up a career-best 5.5 sacks this past season. And he's only 26. Considering the Ravens might lose Mosley, they need to make retaining Onwuasor a priority.
Perryman's never played in a full 16-game season. He's not the first name that catches your eye when you look at the Chargers' defense and specifically, their loaded defensive front. But Perryman won't turn 27 until December. He's solid against the run and the pass. He's going to start somewhere.
However, given his durability concerns, he likely won't command a lucrative deal. He's played in 42 of 64 possible games since his career began in 2015.
For pretty much his entire career, Brown has been a starting-caliber linebacker. With the Bills from 2014-17, he started 62 games and appeared in all 64 possible games in that span, averaging 72.3 solo tackles per season. He made the move to Cincinnati in the offseason, but was limited to seven games due to a knee injury that ended his season in November. He's only 26, though, so he should be able to find a market for his services. He's a decent, but not great option.
Back before the 2017 season, Alexander appeared to be on the cusp off stardom. He was coming off a 108-solo-tackle, 12-tackle-for-a-loss season on a Buccaneers' defense that crept toward the top-10 in DVOA. He's since missed 14 games over the past two seasons with hamstring and knee injuries as the Buccaneers' defense emerged as one of the league's worst units.
But he'll be only 25 when next season begins. The potential is clearly there. Before he tore up his knee, he was working on an extension with the Buccaneers, according to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport, which makes the timing of the injury just terrible. But the Buccaneers should still do their best to bring Alexander back on a prove-it type of deal. Their defense is shambolic and could use a young linebacker who has the potential to morph into a star.
The 2014 first-round pick of the Cardinals quickly emerged early in his career as one of the best cover linebackers in football.
But when Steve Wilks arrived a year ago, Bucannon was phased out of the defense. He started 50 games from 2014-17, but only six games a season ago. During those four seasons, he averaged 70.3 solo tackles and three pass breakups per season. In a more limited role last season, he recorded only 30 solo tackles and zero defended passes.
Given his age and first-round pedigree, it seems likely that he'll be a somewhat hot commodity in free agency. It's worth noting that PFF included him on their list of "buyer beware" free agents, drawing attention to his decline in production since a highly graded 2015 season. Bucannon isn't that dissimilar to Alexander. Both are young players who have pieced together quality seasons in the past, but are coming off disappointing years. But both will get signed and a chance to start.
In all likelihood, Littleton will return to the Rams because he's a restricted free agent. Pretty much the only way the Rams will lose him is if someone else makes an offer for him and the Rams decide not to match it. It seems incredibly unlikely Littleton will get a mega offer in free agency considering he's on the lower end of the spectrum of starting-caliber linebackers. It's also incredibly unlikely the Rams will give him away considering he's only 25 years old and is coming off his first full season as a starter. He's a good player against the pass, but a not good player against the run.
From 2015-17 in Green Bay, Ryan collected 27 starts and 43 total appearances, during which he racked up 137 solo tackles. According to PFF, Ryan posted starting-caliber grades as a pass rusher (fourth), in coverage (25th), and against the run (30th), which is why PFF ranked him ninth on their list of free agent linebackers. He missed the entire 2018 season with an ACL injury, which caused his fall down our board.
There might not be any Bobby Wagners in free agency this year, but there is a K.J. Wright, who isn't nearly as great or as flashy as Wagner, but should start for someone somewhere. He's better than most -- if not all -- of the players listed in the tier above him.
The two things going against the longtime Seahawks linebacker is that he'll turn 30 in the summer and is coming off a five-game season that was shortened by a knee injury, both of which should limit his ability to secure a long-term lucrative contract, Other than that, Wright is among the best linebackers available to sign this offseason. From 2011-17, Wright averaged 66.4 solo tackles, 1.6 sacks, 1.4 forced fumbles, and 4.3 defended passes per season. He's not flashy. But he's dependable -- this past season not included, of course. PFF ranked him fourth on their list. We dropped him into the third tier because of his age. If Wright had hit free agency a year or two ago, he would've been in the top group.
A team in win-now mode should sign him as soon as the legal tampering period begins.
Davis is "a little nervous" about entering free agency -- with good reason. The 35-year-old has spent his entire career, which began in 2005, with the Panthers, but the team isn't expected to retain him this offseason. So, Davis will finish out his career elsewhere.
He's the most accomplished linebacker on this list with 796 solo tackles, 28 sacks, and 13 interceptions on his resume. He's a three-time Pro Bowler and was named First Team All-Pro in 2015. But at this point in his career, Davis is no longer a star. He is, however, capable of starting for someone on a short-term deal. He's not Luke Kuechly, but he's not terrible either.
Look for a contender in need of a short-term fix at inside linebacker to target Davis.
It appears that Marshall's time in Denver is coming to a close. The linebacker who has been with Denver since 2013 is expected to move on after the Broncos declined to pick up his option.
From 2014-17, Marshall was a key cog on a Super Bowl-caliber defense, averaging 71.3 solo tackles per season. He was good enough that the Broncos , which forced them to let fellow linebacker Danny Trevathan walk on over to Chicago. In hindsight, the Broncos might've kept the wrong inside linebacker. While Trevathan has emerged as one of the league's best players at his position group, Marshall's level of play has dropped considerably with nagging injuries playing a role in his decline.
He appeared in 11 games this past season with only seven starts. He'll turn 30 in September. For a linebacker-needy team, he could start. But as you can see above, Marshall hasn't been playing at his peak for a few years now. And he's not exactly young anymore.
A question mark
Kendricks is a quality player. He's also 28 years old. Based on his production on the field and his age, he should be one of the best available players at his position group.
The only problem? Kendricks there have been rumblings in NFL circles that Kendricks will not have to serve jail time." According to ESPN's Brady Henderson, Kendricks' sentencing date is April 4.He already but as of August, In January, though, The Seattle Times' Bob Condotta reported that "
More clarity should arrive then. As a result, Kendricks might have to wait longer than everyone else on this list to sign a new contract.
For your consideration
Below, you'll find a few players who are best suited for depth roles. Most of them have experience as starters, but either due to their age or level of play or injuries, you likely won't see them get huge deals in free agency. They'll get signed, though, and they'll probably contribute throughout the season in some form.
- Stephone Anthony, 26, unrestricted free agent of the Dolphins
- Will Compton, 29, unrestricted free agent of the Titans
- Elijah Lee, 23, exclusive restricted free agent of the 49ers
- Kevin Minter, 28, unrestricted free agent of the Buccaneers
- Nate Palmer, 29, unrestricted free agent of the Titans
- Vincent Rey, 31, unrestricted free agent of the Bengals
- Craig Robertson, 31, unrestricted free agent of the Saints
- Adarius Taylor, 28, unrestricted free agent of the Buccaneers
- Manti Te'o, 28, unrestricted free agent of the Saints
For the complete list of linebackers scheduled to hit free agency next month, click right here.