Woodley’s 39 sacks in just four seasons and his consistent play in the playoffs (at least a sack in seven total playoff games) makes him the best available linebacker via fee agency. For now, he is slated to make north of $10 million as the Steelers’ franchise player, but could be in for a huge payday if he hits the open market under a new CBA.
Potential landing spot: Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh led the league in scoring defense, rush defense and was second best in total yards. Woodley is well-known for his ability to rush off the edge, consistency in the run game and his coverage ability, making him a triple threat. Although Pittsburgh is known to draft and develop linebackers, I don’t see the Steelers letting Woodley walk.
2. David Harris: ILB, New York Jets
David Harris, Woodley’s teammate at Michigan, has also signed the franchise tender under the current Collective Bargaining Aggreement. His 428 career tackles (107 per season) make him the best inside backer on my list.
Potential landing spot: New York Jets
Along with Darrelle Revis and Nick Mangold, David Harris has been identified by Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum as a franchise cornerstone. Following in Revis’ and Mangold’s footsteps, I look for Harris to agree to a long-term deal in New York as soon as possible, not ever hitting the open market.
3. Tamba Hali: OLB, Kansas City
Hali had a breakout year in 2010 and has really thrived since switching from defensive end to outside linebacker before the 2009 season. His 14.5 sacks and four forced fumbles led him to what would have been his first Pro Bowl last season, but he declined to attend.
Potential landing spot: Kansas City
Since implementing the 3-4 defense in 2009, Hali has seen great statistical improvement. In his past two seasons at outside linebacker, he has totaled 23 sacks and eight forced fumbles. Even though the Chiefs used a third-round pick on outside linebacker Justin Houston from Georgia (first-round talent that fell because of character concerns), there is still plenty of room on this roster with the recent retirement of Mike Vrabel.
4. Paul Posluszny: ILB, Buffalo
Although Buffalo was the league’s worst rushing defense in 2010, it was hardly because of Posluszny. His 151 tackles were third-most in the NFL, and that was with a lousy defensive line in front of him. Posluszny has trouble staying healthy for an entire season, which could be a turnoff for teams pursuing him in free agency.
Potential landing spots: Buffalo, Jacksonville, New York Giants
Posluszny is the first player on this list that has even a slight likelihood of signing with a new team for 2011. Buffalo will make it a priority to keep him, but the Giants and Jaguars are two teams that could make a play for his services. The Giants went defense with their first two picks in the NFL Draft, taking Prince Amukamara and Marvin Austin, but didn’t address the linebacker position until the fifth round. Jacksonville could also be interested, especially if they lose impending free agent, Kirk Morrison.
5. Chad Greenway: OLB, Minnesota
Greenway is the first outside backer on this list that is the more traditional 4-3 defender. After suffering a preseason knee injury that kept him sidelined his entire rookie season, Greenway has shown the consistency and toughness a defensive coach can rely on. In 2010, he had 143 tackles, two sacks, and three pass break-ups.
Potential landing spot: Minnesota
In what seems to be a consistent theme to this list, Minnesota has also placed their franchise tag on Greenway. With the possibility of the Vikings also losing linebacker Ben Leber in free agency, I look for this aging defense to make keeping Greenway a top priority.
6. Kamerion Wimbley: OLB, Oakland
Wimbley was able to revive his career after leaving the Browns and joining the Raiders in 2010. His nine sacks were the most he’s had since his rookie year, when he had 11.
Potential landing spot: Oakland
Oakland won all of its division games last season and had a much improved defense. The Raiders’ passing defense was second-best in the NFL, allowing only 190 yards per game. Outside of Nnamdi Asomugha, Wimbley’s pass rush was the most important component of that success.
7. Barrett Ruud: ILB, Tampa Bay
Ruud is best as a traditional 4-3 middle linebacker and is most effective against the run. He has led the Buccaneers in tackles the past four seasons, with 511 during that span.
Potential landing spots: New York Giants, Tampa Bay
Tampa Bay passed up the opportunity to sign Ruud to a long–term deal last offseason, opting instead to re-sign offensive lineman Donald Penn. Ruud responded by totaling 118 tackles, two sacks and one interception. Even with his steady play, some question his ability in coverage and that may minimize his importance in the Buccaneers’ Tampa 2 defense. That leaves the door open for the New York Giants to add Ruud to an already good defense. The Giants were the seventh-best defense in the entire league and led the NFL in regards to stopping/gaining explosive plays.
8. Manny Lawson: OLB, San Francisco
Lawson doesn’t have some of the bloated career numbers you’ll see elsewhere on this list, but he’s a young player with the skill-set to be an impact defender in this league. He had a decline in sack production from 6.5 down to two in 2009 and 2010, respectively, but he plays bigger than those numbers suggest.
Potential landing spots: Miami, San Francisco
With the 49ers selecting Aldon Smith with the seventh overall selection in the 2011 NFL Draft, many believe the writing is on the wall for Lawson. With new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio coming from the Dom Capers’ school of defense, they may look to bookend the rush backers for a more feared pass-rushing threat.
If Lawson does hit the open market, Miami would be there waiting for him. Because of the Brandon Marshall trade, they were short a draft pick, in turn making free agency very important for them to fill positional needs.
The Dolphins could certainly add another rushing threat opposite Cameron Wake, and if not Lawson, it could also be Mathias Kiwanuka. Look for them to show interest in both.
9. Stephen Tulloch: ILB, Tennessee
Tulloch is not a flashy player, and he quietly was second in the NFL with 160 tackles in 2010. He is a consistent presence in the rush defense and always seem to be in the right position to make a play on the ball.
Potential landing spot: Tennessee
With a new head coach and a new quarterback, the Titans have bigger concerns than finding a linebacker to replace Tulloch in free agency. I look for them to rely on his consistent play again in 2011 and rebuild elsewhere.
10. Kirk Morrison: ILB, Jacksonville
Dhani Jones is a possibility here, but I’ll give the nod to the younger Morrison. While his numbers declined in his first season in Jacksonville, I am still encouraged by his toughness as he has never missed an NFL game in six seasons.
Potential landing spots: Jacksonville
Many analysts, myself included, thought the Jaguars would retool their defense in the draft, but by selecting an offensive player with their first three picks, the Jaguars may be suggesting they are satisfied with their current roster. Either way, the defensive struggles of a season ago were mainly in the secondary and I would look for them to work on keeping Morrison and adding some much-needed help in the defensive backfield.
ON THE BUBBLE:
Dhani Jones: ILB, Cincinnati
Mike Peterson: LB, Atlanta
Rocky McIntosh: ILB, Washington