2010 free-agent preview: Linebackers

This is the first in a series of position-by-position analyses of the best players who might be available on the NFL’s open market when free agency opens March 5:
 

The top prize

The best job description to encompass everything Cardinals inside linebacker Karlos Dansby does on the field is "playmaker." Whether working out of a 3-4 or 4-3 front, he excels at playing the run and covering backs and tight ends. Even though his sack totals have diminished since moving from the outside, he still can disrupt the pocket.
 
He also makes plays when they count most, leading the defense’s success in Arizona’s drive to Super Bowl 43 and producing the game-winning touchdown in this year’s overtime playoff shootout with Green Bay.
 
This offseason, the Cardinals, unlike the past two years, will not designate him as their "franchise" player, making Dansby, only 28, a hot commodity at a high price.
 
NFL scouts say Dansby has the fewest holes of any free agent this year.
 

A 1-2 3-4 outside punch

Free agency would be a lot more interesting—especially for 3-4 teams looking for a dominant pass rusher (Miami, New England)—if Denver’s Elvis Dumervil, the 2009 NFL leader in sacks with 17, wasn’t restricted as a result of the league’s lack of collective bargaining agreement.
 
The top 10
1. Elvis Dumervil, OLB, Broncos*
2. Karlos Dansby, ILB, Cardinals (UFA)
3. DeMeco Ryans, ILB, Texans*
4. Shawne Merriman, OLB, Chargers*
5. Gary Brackett, ILB, Colts (UFA)
6. Thomas Davis, OLB, Panthers*
7. Barrett Ruud, ILB, Buccaneers*
8. Joey Porter, OLB, Dolphins (UFA)
9. Rocky McIntosh, OLB, Redskins*
10. Kirk Morrison, ILB, Raiders*
UFA = will be an unrestricted free agent
* = will be restricted without new CBA

The Chargers’ Shawne Merriman, who led the league in sacks in 2006, is a more intriguing case. Merriman would like to remain in San Diego, but that depends on whether team officials think he can return to the All-Pro level he attained before major knee surgery in ’08. His teammate, defensive end Luis Castillo, says Merriman, who only turns 26 in May, will show more of his old self in 2010.

 
"He doesn’t get enough credit for the disruptive year he had, especially against the run," Castillo said. "Sacks don’t always come, and when they do they come in bunches. He’ll only continue to get better, faster and stronger the further removed he is from the injury."
 

Young and restricted

Houston’s DeMeco Ryans and Tampa Bay’s Barrett Ruud, Oakland’s Kirk Morrison are three of the league’s steadiest middle linebackers, and none has been in the league for more than five years. They’re all durable tackling machines and emerging as team leaders.
 
They’re also in the same boat as Dumervil—restricted free agents unless a new CBA is in place by March 5—and because they mean so much for three teams with young defenses, it’s highly unlikely that any of them can be pried away.
 

Aging and available

Teams hungry for older help, however, can find it in the AFC South, either in the middle with the Colts’ Gary Brackett or outside with the Titans’ Keith Bulluck.
 
Brackett, who turns 30 in May, isn’t racking up tackles the way he did a few years ago, but his combination of savvy and quickness is attractive. The Colts will try to keep their only notable free agent, but all teams with aggressive 4-3 schemes should be interested.
 
As for Bulluck, a strongside stalwart for Tennessee the past decade, he turns 33 in April and is coming off a torn ACL. If able to return to good health, he still would provide good tackling and coverage skills.
 
"He’s the leader of that defense," said Texans tight end Owen Daniels, who faced Bulluck twice a year as a divisional foe. "He always shows great instincts."
 

Pass rush in a pinch

With Dumervil and Merriman restricted, sack-hungry teams might turn to older specialists. They should look to Miami, where soon-to-be former Dolphins Joey Porter and Jason Taylor are good one-year considerations that won’t cost nearly as much.
 
Free agency at a glance
Franchise tag deadline: Feb. 25
Free agency begins: March 5
Unrestricted: A player with six or more years of continuous NFL service
Restricted: A player with three years of continuous NFL service
CBA: Fourth- and fifth-year players will become "restricted’ free agents unless there is a new collective bargaining agreement in place by March 5

Porter and Taylor won’t help much against the run or in coverage, but they were adept pass rushers last season in combining for 16 sacks. At 35, Taylor can be effective when getting about half the defensive snaps.

 
"(Taylor) can’t expect to get more than 30 to 35 plays out of him," a scout for an NFL team said. "But keeping that in mind, he can still help many teams."
 

And one more to watch

Adalius Thomas, ILB, Patriots Even though Thomas is no longer a fit with New England’s coaches, don’t expect him to last long on the open market when he’s released. Expect a 3-4 AFC East rival—either Buffalo, Miami or New York—to pick him up quickly.
 
Vinnie Iyer is a staff writer for Sporting News. Email him at viyer@sportingnews.com.
This is the first in a series of position-by-position analyses of the best players who might be available on the NFL’s open market when free agency opens March 5:
 

The top prize

The best job description to encompass everything Cardinals inside linebacker Karlos Dansby does on the field is "playmaker." Whether working out of a 3-4 or 4-3 front, he excels at playing the run and covering backs and tight ends. Even though his sack totals have diminished since moving from the outside, he still can disrupt the pocket.
 
He also makes plays when they count most, leading the defense’s success in Arizona’s drive to Super Bowl 43 and producing the game-winning touchdown in this year’s overtime playoff shootout with Green Bay.
 
This offseason, the Cardinals, unlike the past two years, will not designate him as their "franchise" player, making Dansby, only 28, a hot commodity at a high price.
 
NFL scouts say Dansby has the fewest holes of any free agent this year.
 

A 1-2 3-4 outside punch

Free agency would be a lot more interesting—especially for 3-4 teams looking for a dominant pass rusher (Miami, New England)—if Denver’s Elvis Dumervil, the 2009 NFL leader in sacks with 17, wasn’t restricted as a result of the league’s lack of collective bargaining agreement.
 
The top 10
1. Elvis Dumervil, OLB, Broncos*
2. Karlos Dansby, ILB, Cardinals (UFA)
3. DeMeco Ryans, ILB, Texans*
4. Shawne Merriman, OLB, Chargers*
5. Gary Brackett, ILB, Colts (UFA)
6. Thomas Davis, OLB, Panthers*
7. Barrett Ruud, ILB, Buccaneers*
8. Joey Porter, OLB, Dolphins (UFA)
9. Rocky McIntosh, OLB, Redskins*
10. Kirk Morrison, ILB, Raiders*
UFA = will be an unrestricted free agent
* = will be restricted without new CBA

The Chargers’ Shawne Merriman, who led the league in sacks in 2006, is a more intriguing case. Merriman would like to remain in San Diego, but that depends on whether team officials think he can return to the All-Pro level he attained before major knee surgery in ’08. His teammate, defensive end Luis Castillo, says Merriman, who only turns 26 in May, will show more of his old self in 2010.

 
"He doesn’t get enough credit for the disruptive year he had, especially against the run," Castillo said. "Sacks don’t always come, and when they do they come in bunches. He’ll only continue to get better, faster and stronger the further removed he is from the injury."
 

Young and restricted

Houston’s DeMeco Ryans and Tampa Bay’s Barrett Ruud, Oakland’s Kirk Morrison are three of the league’s steadiest middle linebackers, and none has been in the league for more than five years. They’re all durable tackling machines and emerging as team leaders.
 
They’re also in the same boat as Dumervil—restricted free agents unless a new CBA is in place by March 5—and because they mean so much for three teams with young defenses, it’s highly unlikely that any of them can be pried away.
 

Aging and available

Teams hungry for older help, however, can find it in the AFC South, either in the middle with the Colts’ Gary Brackett or outside with the Titans’ Keith Bulluck.
 
Brackett, who turns 30 in May, isn’t racking up tackles the way he did a few years ago, but his combination of savvy and quickness is attractive. The Colts will try to keep their only notable free agent, but all teams with aggressive 4-3 schemes should be interested.
 
As for Bulluck, a strongside stalwart for Tennessee the past decade, he turns 33 in April and is coming off a torn ACL. If able to return to good health, he still would provide good tackling and coverage skills.
 
"He’s the leader of that defense," said Texans tight end Owen Daniels, who faced Bulluck twice a year as a divisional foe. "He always shows great instincts."
 

Pass rush in a pinch

With Dumervil and Merriman restricted, sack-hungry teams might turn to older specialists. They should look to Miami, where soon-to-be former Dolphins Joey Porter and Jason Taylor are good one-year considerations that won’t cost nearly as much.
 
Free agency at a glance
Franchise tag deadline: Feb. 25
Free agency begins: March 5
Unrestricted: A player with six or more years of continuous NFL service
Restricted: A player with three years of continuous NFL service
CBA: Fourth- and fifth-year players will become "restricted’ free agents unless there is a new collective bargaining agreement in place by March 5

Porter and Taylor won’t help much against the run or in coverage, but they were adept pass rushers last season in combining for 16 sacks. At 35, Taylor can be effective when getting about half the defensive snaps.

 
"(Taylor) can’t expect to get more than 30 to 35 plays out of him," a scout for an NFL team said. "But keeping that in mind, he can still help many teams."
 

And one more to watch

Adalius Thomas, ILB, Patriots Even though Thomas is no longer a fit with New England’s coaches, don’t expect him to last long on the open market when he’s released. Expect a 3-4 AFC East rival—either Buffalo, Miami or New York—to pick him up quickly.
 
Vinnie Iyer is a staff writer for Sporting News. Email him at viyer@sportingnews.com.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*