Our list of 2015 free agents provides a comprehensive position-by-position breakdown of which players are eligible to hit the open market this year. However, that list of names doesn’t include much context or additional information about those players. So, with March’s free agent period fast approaching, we’ll be taking a closer look this month at the free agent market for each position. Today, we’ll turn our attention to inside linebackers. Let’s dive in….
Top unrestricted FAs:
A year after Karlos Dansby landed the biggest contract of any free agent inside linebacker, signing for four years and $24MM, no member of this year’s class of FA ILBs looks poised to match or exceed those numbers. Harris, who is coming off a four-year pact that averaged $9MM per year, is perhaps the most consistent and reliable player here, having not missed a start during those four seasons. However, he turned 31 last month, meaning another huge payday is probably out of the question.
Like Harris, Hawk has been a reliable piece in the middle of his team’s defense for several years, but both players look poised to join new clubs in 2015. Hawk has already been set free by the Packers, released on Wednesday, while Harris is probably due for a change of scenery after the departure of Rex Ryan from the Jets — the veteran linebacker is said to be prioritizing contending teams, and could accept a little less money in the right situation.
While Harris and Hawk are the grizzled veterans of this group, there are other intriguing options available. Foster and Irving are both in their mid-20s, and would be a nice Plan B for any team that targets and misses out on a player like Harris. McClain might fit that bill as well, though even after a strong season in Dallas, the former Raider still has some red flags — any potential suitor will have to consider McClain’s three failed drug tests when deciding what sort of investment to make.
The last member of this top tier is Spikes, who likely won’t be relied upon as a three-down player. Still, his ability to stop the run is valuable, and was enough to place him 13th among 60 qualified inside linebackers in 2014, per Pro Football Focus’ grades (subscription required).
Other unrestricted options:
Amongst a list primarily made up of special teams contributors and reserve defenders, there are some names worth monitoring here. Brinkley, Dent, and Gachkar all received starts in 2014, and held their own — particularly Brinkley, who was a top-10 inside linebacker against the run, per PFF.
No player in this group appeared in more defensive snaps (1,028) than Mauga, who started every game for the Chiefs. Although he struggled against the run, Mauga wasn’t a detriment to the unit in pass coverage, and got after the quarterback every now and then as well. Lattimore, Maualuga, Matthews, and Williams all logged at least part-time snaps for their respective clubs too, and provided decent enough production.
One more player worth mentioning here is Henderson. As we saw with McClain, it’s possible for a player with off-the-field troubles to return after a season away from the game and have a positive impact on the field. But considering how Henderson’s legal issues piled up a year ago, it’s also possible he may not play another NFL regular season game. He’ll be looking for a team to give him a shot in camp this summer, and is worth keeping an eye on.
The RFA names for most positions we’ve examined so far aren’t too notable, but the ones in this group are an exception. Freeman and Robertson have developed into starters and key pieces for their respective teams, and should certainly be tendered one-year offers, perhaps at a first- or second-round rate. Both the Colts and Browns have plenty of cap space to spare, so I wouldn’t expect to see either player switch teams this winter.
Even Tarpinian, who isn’t a defensive regular in Houston, has some value as a special teams ace for the Texans. Whether his contributions are worthy of an RFA tender remains to be seen, but his 12 special teams tackles in 2014 will ensure he draws interest if he reaches the open market.
Previous looks at the 2015 free agent market: