Linebackers are a rare breed of athlete. Some possess uncommon speed such as Lawrence Taylor. Others are built like a locomotive, such as Dick Butkus. When thinking of what makes a linebacker great, one might think of the study habits of some of the game’s greats. Mike Singeltary’s eyes always told of how much he studied by how huge they got right when the play was about to start. Who can forget the ones who led by example, as well as their voice? Ray Lewis is a perfect example of this as he was always in on the play and was always motivating his comrades. Linebackers come in all shapes and sizes but it is the great ones who use their strengths to the very best of their ability. This year’s crop of free agent linebackers is a perfect example. So with given this importance, let’s take a look at the best linebackers this year in NFL free agency.
In today’s NFL, the outside linebacker is usually used as a pass rusher. Tahir Whitehead is the lone exception. He only had a single sack and four hits on the quarterback last year. What he is good at is tackling. None of the other free agent outside linebackers came close to his 110 tackles in 2017. He should make an excellent strongside linebacker where he is lined up over the tight end. Traditionally, football teams run to the side where the tight end is lined up. By lining up here, he will be able to make a significant impact. Outside linebackers are not asked to tackle as much as Whitehead has in the past year. He is a rare talent at his position. A team looking to build up their run defense would be wise to sign him in this year’s NFL free agency.
There was a time when Bowman was considered the best inside linebacker in the NFL, maybe the best linebacker overall. In his prime, he could do it all. He could take down a runner from behind, strip-sack the quarterback and always seemed to be in the right place to pick off a pass. A pick-six against the Atlanta Falcons in 2013 epitomizes all he could be. Tragically he has since suffered major injuries to his lower body. Bowman tore his ACL tear at the end of the 2013 playoffs and it cost him the entirety of the 2014 season. While he did make the Pro Bowl in 2015, he suffered a torn Achilles in 2016. Since these injuries, he has not been the same player.
It makes sense for him to have lost some speed due to the severity of both injuries but he is still an impact player. He had 80 tackles in 2017 while playing for both the 49ers and the Raiders. He even had 1.5 sacks and an interception. He clearly still has potential. It will just take the right team to bring out the best in him. Bowman is maybe the biggest boom-or-bust signing at linebacker in NFL free agency this year.
At age 31, he is the oldest player on this list but he is still valuable in the pass rush. In 2017 he had five sacks and 12 hits on the quarterback. While five sacks aren’t much, the hits can make a big difference in a game. If a quarterback gets pressured enough throughout the game he can be more susceptible to throwing an ill-advised pass in crunch time. At 6’5” 255 lbs., he is used as a hybrid defensive end/linebacker. This is common in today’s NFL where outside linebackers known for their pass rushing skills are allowed to line up closer to the line of scrimmage and battle with the offensive tackles in the trenches. While he is on the wrong side of 30, he still has a couple years of productive play left. A team needing a quick boost of energy in the pass rush should seriously consider signing him in NFL free agency.
Brown is coming into the prime of his career. He made the Pro Bowl in 2016 and had 127 tackles along with three sacks in 2017. While he suffered a foot injury late in the 2017 season there is no reason to believe he is not capable of leading a defense for the next seven years. He is only 28 and just needs a team to have faith in him.
All free agent positions have a blend of young and old. This linebacker group is no exception with players coming in all shapes and sizes. There are some who have lost a step or two over the years but are still valuable against the run. Others can provide a quick boost in the pass rush. Of course, there is the wise old veteran who is just looking for that last chance at a Super Bowl. While this group may have flaws, any one of them would be a great pick up for a team in need of a linebacker with their talent.