A good addition at linebacker means different things to different teams in today’s NFL, and the types of players that fit into the various roles a LB can play is ever-evolving. For teams looking to add at the position in free agency, there’s a little of something for everyone—edge rushers, former safeties, run-stuffers, and good coverage men—with those at the top of the list being solid players across the board. Below we list the top free agent linebackers about to hit the market.
1. Danny Trevathan
2015 Team: Denver Broncos
Trevathan is one of the top inside linebackers in the league, and would be a fantastic addition to a defense looking to upgrade at inside linebacker in the 3-4 defense, or outside linebacker in the 4-3 defense. He finished fifth among inside linebackers in run-stop percentage (11.9) and tackling efficiency (17.0) in 2015, and allowed less than one yard per coverage snap (0.97) as well. Injuries are a bit of a concern, however, as he has played in just 100 snaps in 2014, and missed some time last season as well.
2. Derrick Johnson
2015 team: Kansas City Chiefs
Like Trevathan, Johnson missed much of the 2014 season with injury. Also like Trevathan, he rebounded to play exceptionally well in 2015. In 1,201 of the Chiefs’ defensive snaps last season (97.6 percent), Johnson allowed just 0.56 yards per coverage snap (best among inside linebackers), surrendering zero touchdowns on passes in the process. His six passes defended were also best among inside linebackers, and his 60 stops were third. Johnson’s age (33) could be a concern long-term, but his perennial strong play and experience in both the 3-4 and 4-3 schemes will add tremendously to his next team.
3. Jerrell Freeman
2015 team: Indianapolis Colts
In the midst of a disappointing year collectively for the Colts, Freeman had his best season individually. The fourth-highest graded linebacker (90.6) in the league was particularly strong against the run (97.9), posting the third-best run-stop percentage (12.8) among inside linebackers in 2015. He also allowed the second-fewest yards per coverage snap (0.61) among inside linebackers, showing some prowess in coverage as well. Freeman’s value is stunted a bit by his poor performance in 2014 (he graded 39th out of 60 possible inside linebackers), the fact that he’s only had one standout season, as well as the presence of Trevathan and Johnson in the free agent pool. However, the team that loses out on the first two members of this list will still have a high-caliber option at inside linebacker in Freeman.
4. Bruce Irvin
2015 team: Seattle Seahawks
The first primary edge-rusher of the group, Irvin figures to cash in on his versatility this offseason. His 38 total pressures were the most by 4-3 outside linebackers by 14 total pressures, mostly because he plays many of his snaps as a defensive end. He had a positive coverage grade on 153 snaps in coverage, but struggled against the run, finishing last among 4-3 outside linebackers in run-stop percentage. He would probably be most valuable as a part-time edge-rusher on a good defense, but will most likely be paid as a full-time player on a defense looking for more talent, which may drive down his productivity moving forward.
5. Mark Barron
2015 team: St. Louis Rams
Barron, a former top-10 pick as a safety for the Buccaneers, experienced something of a rebirth in St. Louis last season as an injury replacement at outside linebacker. He was especially good against the run, finishing first among 4-3 outside linebackers in run-stop percentage with 11.1. Ironically, he struggled some as a cover man, giving up the sixth-most passing yards in coverage among 4-3 outside linebackers with 407, with 294 after the catch, failing to intercept a pass and surrendering a 94.1 passer rating into his coverage. The team that acquires Barron will likely continue using him at linebacker, furthering an interesting trend in using converted safeties in the front seven.
6. Tahir Whitehead
2015 team: Detroit Lions
Starting the season as primarily a coverage linebacker, Whitehead emerged as a starter during the second half of the 2015 season. After his Week 10 promotion, Whitehead was solid against the run, posting the seventh-best run grade amongst 4-3 outside linebackers, while missing just six tackles during that stretch. With 34 total special-teams tackles since 2012 to add to his resume, Whitehead figures to be a solid, all-around roster contributor for whichever team acquires his services this offseason.