NFL Free Agency 2018: Some hidden gems lurking in free-agent linebackers crop

The modern-day linebacker is a different beast, and the free-agent class reflects as much. Some positional groups feature a free-agent unicorn like Kirk Cousins while others have a couple young, productive pass rushers. The linebackers don't have a headliner and they don't exactly have a massive list of stars sitting their either. These guys are not going to command insane money in the market.

A lot of these guys are returning to the market after signing one-year deals last year in free agency. There's plenty of depth at the position, but there isn't any especially high-end talent and expecting any massive contracts from this group would be asking a lot. 

There is still, however, a couple of interesting names on this list who could 

We're not going to include pass-rushing outside linebackers here (you can find those guys here), and we're lumping together off-ball and inside linebackers in one group and breaking them out into tiers and some of the bigger names you could see buzzing around the league in terms of possible signings. 

Contract info and a full list of likely free agents via Spotrac here and here

Potential Headliners

Avery Williamson

Williamson will turn just 26 years old before the start of free agency, meaning anyone who buys his services can gobble up the prime of an ascending player who has spent four years with the Titans since being drafted in the fifth round in the 2014 NFL Draft. Williamson has an all-around game, piling up tackles and improving his pass coverage. He has at least two sacks in each of his four seasons and rushed on more than 15 percent of his snaps per Pro Football Focus, giving him some solid versatility in the pass rush. 

Nigel Bradham

Drafted in the fourth round of the 2012 NFL Draft by the Bills, Bradham spent four years in Buffalo. He broke out in his third year there, but struggled during his final season, so naturally he joined his old defensive coordinator (Jim Schwartz) in Philly. This season, with Jordan Hicks going down, Bradham stepped in to help shore up a linebacking group that would eventually be part of a Super Bowl winning defense. He has expressed interest in staying with the Eagles, but will probably need to get a bigger deal if Philly wants to keep him around. Bradham is one of 13 total Eagles who are facing free agency, so it's possible the market could squeeze Howie Roseman on this one if there's interest in his talent. 

Preston Brown

Brown won't turn 26 years old until the middle of the 2018 season, having been drafted in the third round of the 2014 NFL Draft by the Bills. He's coming off four quality but not mind-blowing seasons, although he did lead the league in tackles last year with 144. Brown has just one sack for his career and doesn't pile up the stats in the pass game but he had a nice season in coverage. Consider he's been bouncing back and forth between defenses -- Leslie Frazier, Dennis Thurman and Schwartz in four years (and you could argue basically Rob Ryan too) -- and it's even more impressive he's been over 100 tackles in each of his four years with Buffalo. It's not implausible he could really blossom in a consistent scheme that maximizes his talents. 

Underrated Talent

Tahir Whitehead

A little bit older than the rest of the guys on the top part of this list, Whitehead will turn 28 in the middle of the 2018 season. Drafted in the fifth round of the 2012 season, he's been in Detroit for his entire career and has put together two nice seasons in back-to-back years while starting 31 total games. Whitehead totaled 242 tackles in that span, while also recording eight passes defensed and four fumble recoveries. He's only got a single sack in that span, but he did blitz on 13.9 percent of his snaps per PFF, and he can move around, so he also could make a lot of sense as a versatile linebacker in new coach Matt Patricia's scheme. He signed a two-year deal that maxed out at $9 million before the 2016 season and has spent his entire career in Detroit.

Demario Davis

The fact that Davis was included in a trade between the Jets and Browns during last year's offseason didn't help his reputation on the field, but the former third-round pick, who just turned 29 years old in January, put together a really nice season for the Jets in 2017. They apparently believe he's one of their top, in-house free agent targets to re-sign, and it's possible the cultural opportunities in New York could get him to stick around. You can also make a case that Davis might be a little overrated when it comes to value for the Jets. Davis posted a career high in tackles.

Todd Davis

An underrated downhill thumper who piles up tackles, Davis is a 25-year-old former UDFA who has quietly produced in Denver when given the opportunity. He totaled 179 tackles for the Broncos in the last two years, while stepping into mostly a starting role (2017 was his first full year as a starter). Coverage and pass rush aren't necessarily specialties, but he has had minimum time to develop in the middle. Davis was tendered as an RFA last season, so he made just $2.7 million last year. Given his age and his productivity, he could be in line for a nice pay bump and could be a middle of the defense filler for some team in need of a run-stuffer.  

Jon Bostic

The former second-round pick bounced around a bit over the last four years, first with the Bears, then with the Patriots in 2016 and then the Colts in 2017. He got a ton of playing time with Indy, piling up 97 total tackles with a sack and two passes defensed in just 14 games. He'll turn 27 years old and has the pedigree from Florida and enough experience, plus some decent work in coverage to warrant a reasonable contract. 

Injury Upside

Navorro Bowman

It's kind of shocking that Bowman is only 29, honestly. He was a superstar with the 49ers until injuries derailed his stint there; it feels like he's been dominating long enough to be well into this 30's. After being released by the Niners last year, Bowman hooked up with the Raiders and was pretty effective given his issues with ACL injuries in the past. It's hard to imagine him returning to elite status, but he could definitely provide an impact for a team in need of linebacker help.

Zach Brown

A different type of linebacker who was supposed to be the future at the position, Brown is one of the speediest LBs in the game. And last year he was one of the top tacklers in the NFL, finishing with 127 total tackles in just 13 games. The Redskins already locked up Mason Foster on a two-year, $4 million deal, so they have invested in the LB position, but if they could get Brown on another one-year deal they would certainly be on board. Don't bank on the Redskins signing both Brown and Will Compton after bringing Foster.

Potential Starting Talent

Anthony Hitchens

Another young linebacker who just played out his rookie contract, Hitchens will turn 26 this offseason after coming off a season in which he really established himself as a potentially dominant linebacker against the run. He has question marks in coverage and isn't going to rush the passer a ton, but given his age and the Cowboys other issues with players they need to sign (hello DeMarcus Lawrence), it's likely he'll get a look out in the open market.

Emmanuel Lamur

At one point, Lamur was thought to be a sleeper who could really produce either with Cincinnati or elsewhere, but he ended up with the Vikings and hasn't started any games in the last two years. He'll turn 29 this offseason and seems like a good bet to land somewhere else -- he still might have upside with limited wear and tear coming out of that Vikings system, so he could end up being a nice steal for someone. 

Kevin Minter

Minter signed a one-year deal with the Bengals last year after spending the first four years of his career with the Cardinals. The market was ... not robust for him during free agency last year. A similar outcome could occur this offseason, although it's possible Minter could fit in with the Giants, who need linebacker help and who have a DC (Bettcher) familiar with him. 

Long in the Tooth LBs

Derrick Johnson

Johnson was released by the Chiefs on Tuesday, despite his status as the team's all-time leading tackler. Johnson said he wants to keep playing and spend a few more years in the NFL, but it's unlikely he's going to see some massive market for his services at the age of 35. It's worth noting he still has had good seasons into his 30's and he's a capable playmaker who ended up as PFF's No. 1-ranked linebacker in coverage last year. It's easy to imagine a team in need of a veteran and/or linebacking leadership taking a stab at Johnson's services, but he's probably going to take a lower deal than he would want.

Paul Posluzny

A long-time tackling machine, Posluzny saw his playing time dip last year with the development of Myles Jack and only finished with 60 total tackles, although he still managed 1.5 sacks. It's wild he's now been in Jacksonville for seven seasons, but it was likely his last, with most indications being Posluzny will not be retained. One landing spot to watch could be for old coach Gus Bradley with the Chargers, who certainly have a need for depth and leadership at the linebacker position. 

Karlos Dansby

Dansby was drafted in 2004 and nearly piled up 100 tackles in 2017, which is just kind of absurd. Bruce Arians is gone now and so is former defensive coordinator James Bettcher, so TBD if Dansby wants to stick around Arizona for another year, or if the Cardinals want him back on the defense. He had a monster year in a 2013 resurgence for the Cards and nearly had one last year as well. Since he turned 30, Dansby has spent time with -- and recorded 100 tackles for -- the Dolphins, Cardinals, Browns and Bengals. He won't be expensive but he'll probably manage to still be useful to someone. 

Dannell Ellerbe

Ellerbe picked up his second Super Bowl ring in a part-time role with the Eagles this past year and, at the age of 32, might be locked into a depth role at most moving forward. The first Super Bowl win led to Ellerbe leaving the Ravens and landing a big contract in free agency with the Dolphins. That probably won't happen this time around. The Eagles could even make sense as a landing spot if he's not out there looking for any sort of bigger deal in a tough market.

CBS Sports Senior Writer

Will Brinson joined CBS Sports in 2010 and enters his seventh season covering the NFL for CBS. He previously wrote for FanHouse along with myriad other Internet sites. A North Carolina native who lives... Full Bio

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