News & Analysis

2021 NFL Free Agent Rankings: Linebackers

Nov 29, 2020; Tampa, Florida, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers inside linebacker Lavonte David (54) before playing against the Kansas City Chiefs at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

With the 2020 NFL regular season officially in the books, it's almost team-building season for most franchises around the league. So let's get our first look at the 2021 free agent class.

The PFF free agent list is based upon our player evaluations and positional value — and it's a fluid list, as the 2020 season is still unfolding. We will continue to update this list as we head toward the March free agency period. 

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1. LB Lavonte David

One of the best linebackers of his generation, Lavonte David is still playing at an incredibly high level past the age of 30. In many ways, he has been the archetype for the modern linebacker that counters the league’s shift in offensive philosophy away from smash-mouth football and toward speed and efficiency. David has been able to counter that with speed and efficiency of his own, in addition to exceptional coverage skills. He has four seasons in his career with a PFF coverage grade above 83.0 and has never graded lower than 64.6 in that area.

Those coverage skills will be what teams covet most because even if he begins to lose half a step as he ages, his ability to read the game and be in the right place at the right time will stand the test of time.

Contract Analysis: David represents half of the NFL’s most formidable inside linebacker duo alongside 2019 No. 5 overall pick Devin White. Already 30 years old, David has shown no signs of slowing down, but Tampa Bay may have to lean on White going forward to spend at other positions.

Prediction: Buccaneers sign David for three years, $40 million ($13.33M APY): $23.5 million total guaranteed, $17.5 million fully guaranteed at signing.

2. LB Matt Milano

Milano has developed into a modern-day linebacker. He has the 11th-best coverage grade among linebackers since 2018, he’s been excellent matching up with running backs in single coverage and he’s held his own when asked to line up over the slot.

Milano’s tackling has been an issue, as he missed 36 over 2018 and 2019, and that adds up to a below-average run defender since entering the league. However, the coverage value makes Milano an intriguing option given the importance of being able to match up with opposing offensive weapons.

Contract Analysis: Milano showed he can be one of the better coverage linebackers in the NFL in 2018 and 2019, and his skill set fits well alongside 2018 first-round LB Tremaine Edmunds — a rangier, sideline-to-sideline linebacker with pass-rush ability. Injuries have limited Milano in 2020 so far, but his absence has also perhaps exposed a leaky Bills defense when he’s not available.

Prediction: Bills sign Milano for four years, $45 million ($11.25M APY): $20M total guaranteed, $15M fully guaranteed at signing.

3. LB Jayon Brown

Another undersized, modern-day linebacker, Brown has earned the 10th-best coverage grade in the league since 2018. His profile is eerily similar to Matt Milano's — they're plus coverage players, below-average run defenders and both have a fifth-round pedigree.

The one difference is stylistic, as Milano has done his best work when lined up in single coverage while Brown has performed best in zone. Brown also has the fourth-best forced incompletion percentage since 2017, so he will get his hands on the ball in the middle of the field.

Contract Analysis: Tennessee also has to make a decision on the fifth-year option for 2018 first-round LB Rashaan Evans this offseason, which may influence whether the Titans keep Brown around. Brown is a bright spot on a defense that struggles mightily in coverage, but, unfortunately, a dislocated and fractured elbow suffered in Week 11 against the Baltimore Ravens could impact his negotiations. While no two players are the same, Chicago Bears LB Danny Trevathan suffered the same injury to the same elbow in Week 10 of 2019 and he was ready to go by Week 1 of 2020 with a new contract extension of his own.

Prediction: Titans sign Brown for four years, $47.5M ($11.875M APY): $22.5M total guaranteed, $17.5M fully guaranteed at signing.

4. LB K.J. Wright

Wright has been one of the league's most consistent linebackers over his NFL career, and as he gets toward the end of it, he still provides a lot of value as a solid all-around player at the position. He finished the regular season with the eighth-best overall grade among linebackers at 75.3.

The Seahawks had their annual shock pick in the first round of the NFL draft when they took Texas Tech linebacker Jordyn Brooks at 27th overall. And while he’s slowly coming along in a Will linebacker role — which has been Wright’s spot in Seattle for nearly a decade — his presence may not necessarily mean Wright is on the way out.

Contract Analysis: Wright has been solid after transitioning into the strongside linebacker role following Bruce Irvin’s season-ending injury, and it suits him as he gets a bit older. His 59.9 coverage grade in 2019 was his worst since his rookie season in 2011, so playing closer to the line and setting the edge in run defense works for him at this stage of his career. Irvin is also a free agent after the season but is two years older and will be coming off a torn ACL, so perhaps Wright carves out a role in Seattle because he can contribute at either spot going forward.

Prediction: Seattle signs Wright for two years, $12 million ($6M APY): $6 million total guaranteed, $5 million fully guaranteed at signing.

5. LB Denzel Perryman

Few players are better downhill thumpers than Perryman is; it’s just unfortunate for him that this is 2021 and not 1985. Perryman is coming off arguably his best season, albeit one in which his playing time totaled just 317 snaps. Perryman earned a PFF grade of 86.3 against the run, and his coverage grade of 74.1 represents the best figure of his career in that area. Two-down run-stuffers don’t have much of a role in today’s NFL, but Perryman is fun to watch given how he hits.

Contract Analysis: There may not be many suitors, but Perryman could still help a handful of teams on early downs.

Prediction: Packers sign Perryman for two years, $13 million ($6.5M APY): $4 million total guaranteed/fully guaranteed at signing.

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