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The 5 O’Clock Club: Playing GM - Looking at the top ranked free agent inside linebackers

It’s 5 o’clock somewhere…

The 5 o’clock club aims to provide a forum for reader-driven discussion at a time of day when there isn’t much NFL news being published. Feel free to introduce topics that interest you in the comments below.

Free Agent Linebackers

With seemingly every ILB on the Redskins 2017 roster on expiring contracts, the ‘Skins find themselves a bit thin at a position that looked pretty flush during the 2017 preseason when we had Zach Brown, Mason Foster, Will Compton, Martrell Spaight, Josh Harvey -Clemons, Zach Vigil, Pete Robertson and Nico Marley in camp.

At the moment, Zach Brown and Will Compton are without contracts for the 2018 season, and Brown seems to be keen to test free agency again, following the 2017 offseason when he just didn’t find the market he was expecting and signed a one-year ‘prove it (again)’ deal with Washington.

The problem for Brown may be that he sees himself as a Tier 1 LB who should make around $10m, while the league sees him as a premier run-stopping LB with limited coverage skills, which caps his market somewhere in the $5-7m range.

In any event, whether the team re-signs one of its own, drafts a premier player to fill the position, or brings in a free agent from another team, the Redskins need to find a starting linebacker, and -- depending on how you see Mason Foster — maybe two.

If you’re looking to upgrade from Foster, then — given the salary cap — the ‘Skins will probably need to re-sign Brown (or a replacement UFA) and draft a guy to start ahead of Mason Foster. More likely, we will see Mason Foster lined up as a starter on opening day 2018.

Still, we need a guy to start opposite him, and if we don’t want to be drafting for need in the first two rounds, then the Skins will need to sign a top-tier free agent inside linebacker. Here’s a look at some free agent options, beginning with the Redkins’ own 2017 starter and league-leading tackler.

Zach Brown

NFL: Washington Redskins-Training Camp Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

I don’t think we need to go over Brown’s history. We know what he did in Buffalo in 2016; we know that he was a top-tier free agent last season who couldn’t get the payday he was looking for. We know that Brown led the league in tackles per game, that he has great speed, is a good tackler, but a liability in coverage.

The real questions are:

  1. How much is Zach Brown worth in free agency?
  2. Will another team pay him more than the Redskins will?

Personally, I figure Zach Brown to be worth in the range of $5m - $8m per year, and figure that the middle of that range (say, 6.5 - 7m) is where he will end up signing.

Did Brown do enough for the Redskins in 2017 to change any team’s perception of him and make them more willing to pay him than they were last year?

I think the key to answering that is that Brown can’t be relied on in coverage, which limits his value to teams.

He’s not likely to get the $10m APY that is the top of the market for an ILB, but some GM out there could conceivably fall in love with him. I don’t expect that to happen.

It seems to make sense for Brown to return to Washington on a 3 or 4 year deal that will give him security and fair market value in return for bringing leadership and added stability to the Skins defense. The idea of having a pro-bowl linebacker locked up through 2020 is appealing.

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at Washington Redskins Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

JP Finlay wrote an article very recently talking about what it would take to re-sign Zach Brown:

Top interior linebackers don’t get paid as much as pass rushing linebackers; that’s just a fact of the NFL marketplace.

Much like the Kirk Cousins contract talks, the annual salary is less important than guaranteed money. For Brown, the number to watch will be $20 million in guaranteed money.

Perhaps the Redskins could approach that figure creatively.

Maybe a four-year deal worth $6.5 million per season, with three of those years guaranteed? That would get Brown to $19.5 million guaranteed on a modest, team friendly annual salary.

The linebacker will turn 29 this October, so maybe the Redskins want fewer years guaranteed. Fine, perhaps a three-year deal at $8.5 million per season, with the first two years guaranteed and attainable incentives thrown in? Certainly seems doable for a player that led the NFL in tackles for the bulk of the 2017 season.

The point here is Schaffer can go a number of different ways to get at, near or above the $20 million guaranteed baseline that most expect Brown wants.

Personally, I think Finlay is in the right ballpark with his 4-year, $26m deal. That feels just about right, and I don’t think that it’s too crazy to guarantee three years of the deal.

Kevin Minter, Bengals / Cardinals

Kansas City Chiefs v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Measurables

Height: 6’0”

Weight: 246 pounds

Age: 27

College: LSU

Draft Status: picked 2nd round of the 2013 draft by Arizona (45th overall)

Injury

Minter was placed on IR by the Bengals in mid-December:

The Cincinnati Bengals have placed Kevin Minter on season-ending injured reserve, the team announced on Friday.

Minter, a fifth-year player, was battling a hamstring injury suffered in Week 14. He signed with the Bengals as an unrestricted free agent this year and was a starter when healthy. He played in nine games with seven starts, missing Games 7-10 with an elbow injury. He recorded 32 tackles (16 solos).

Overall, Minter was a productive player when he played, but injuries cost him far too much time this season for him to be considered a successful free agent signing. This will also damage his ability to earn a big free agent contract this coming offseason, whether it’s from the Bengals or another NFL team. He may have to settle for another one-year deal.

While Minter was injured for much of 2017, he doesn’t have a history of injuries, playing in 16 games in 3 consecutive seasons, from ‘14 to ‘16.

Contract

Minter was a steady performer on a good Cardinals defense after being drafted in the second round, and he turned it into a pretty solid payday with the Bengals.

Coming off the injury-plagued season, Minter isn’t likely to be looking at any kind of significant pay increase, and could have to actually settle for less.

One would imagine that the Bengals -- who aren’t especially deep at linebacker — would want him back, so another team might have to pay a slight premium to take him away; at the same time, the structure of the 2017 deal indicates that Cincinnati may not have been fully sold on Minter’s value when they signed him. It’s not crazy to think that the Bengals might draft a new MLB, or let Minter test the market following his injury.

NFL: Chicago Bears at Cincinnati Bengals Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

How would he fit for the Redskins?

Here’s what Bleacher Report had to say about Minter a year ago when he signed with the Bengals:

Minter, 26, spent the last four seasons with the Arizona Cardinals. He recorded 81 tackles and a career-high 3.5 sacks in 2016, starting all 16 games at the inside linebacker spot.

Minter has started all 16 games in each of the last two seasons, developing into a solid fixture after mostly serving as a backup in his first and second NFL years. Pro Football Focus ranked Minter 25th among all linebackers in 2016.

If the Redskins don’t manage to return Zach Brown to the team in 2018, Kevin Minter might be an option for replacing him. While Minter has none of Brown’s speed, he’s a couple of years younger than Brown, has played at a consistent level on a good defense, and has both experience and plenty left in the tank. As long as the front office is convinced that Minter is fully recovered from his injuries and fully healthy, he could provide a quality starter and improve the depth of the ILB unit without breaking the bank.

Nigel Bradham , Eagles/Bills

NFL: Super Bowl LII-Philadelphia Eagles vs New England Patriots Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Measurables

Height: 6’2”

Weight: 241 pounds

Age: 28

College: Florida State

Draft Status: 4th round of the 2012 draft, Buffalo Bills

Career Stats

Bradham has been mostly healthy in his career, and has consistently produced about 5 - 6 tackles per game for the past 4 seasons. This is far below the 9+ tackles per game produced by Zach Brown this season, but ABC Sports has Bradham rated as the 33rd best free agent of 2018 (and the highest rated linebacker), while Zach Brown doesn’t appear in the top-50.

Here’s the blurb from that article:

Bradham’s age will lead some teams to make him a secondary target. But he has been productive in Jim Schwartz’s defense in Philadelphia, totaling nearly 200 tackles in 31 starts.

Walter Football also rates him the best linebacker free agent of 2018:

Nigel Bradham is a stellar three-down linebacker in the NFL who excels in coverage. He turns 29 in September, so he should be able to perform on a high level for the next three years or so.

If you want to have an up-to-date view of Bradham, what better place to get it than the Philly Inquirer?

Bradham landed in small-market Buffalo, playing for the perennially losing Bills. He played well there, peaking in his third season under now-Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz. But a new coaching staff and an injury the following year, along with the lack of exposure, per Bradham, decreased his value when he hit the free-agent market in 2016.

The Eagles signed him to a two-year, $7 million contract — “a decent deal,” Bradham called it — but he is poised to cash in on two Pro Bowl-caliber seasons in Philadelphia.

Whether it’s now or the offseason, the Eagles are likely to make a push to bring him back. Schwartz, who played an obvious role in the initial acquisition, may be biased, but the comparison he made a month ago suggests that Bradham’s the type of player the franchise wants on defense.

The tough times Bradham overcame were mostly of his own doing. He faced a felony battery charge after he allegedly assaulted a Miami hotel employee in July 2016. And he faced a misdemeanor gun charge when he brought a weapon into Miami International Airport three months later. Bradham accepted a deferred prosecution program in relation to the felony this past July that could result in no jail time if the conditions of the program are met. And the gun charge was dropped last month.

The Eagles supported Bradham throughout both ordeals.

“They realty stood behind me,” Bradham said. “That showed me that they trusted me and knew the kind of person that I am. They knew that wasn’t my character.”

On the field, the Eagles have had nothing to complain about. Bradham was arguably one of the most consistent defenders last year. And this season he has been just as good, even though he’s had the added responsibility of calling the defense after Jordan Hicks suffered a season-ending Achilles tendon rupture four games ago.

Contract

OverTheCap has details of Bradham’s expiring contract:

Spotrac projects Bradham’s market value to be two years, $11.8 million, which works out to $5.9 million annually. That contract would carry him only through his age 30 season. The Redskins already have Mason Foster on a 2-year deal ($2m APY), so it might make sense to offer Bradham a 3-year deal in the $18m neighborhood to create good succession planning at the position.

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

I fully expect the Eagles to want to re-sign Nigel Bradham, however, OverTheCap currently has the Eagles projected to be... well... over the cap — by $9.2m. And they had — the last time I checked — 13 unsigned veteran free agents from the 2017 roster.

The fact is, the Eagles may not be able to hold onto a number of good players, Bradham being among them.

I think that he’ll hit the open market. He would be a good fit for the Redskins, but would be too expensive to sign in addition to Zach Brown, meaning that it’s either/or with Bradham and Brown. I like bringing players back, so I’d probably lean toward Brown, who played so well for the Redskins in 2017, but if Brown leaves in free agency, Bradham would likely be a great replacement and improve the ‘Skins pass defense at the LB position.

Anthony Hitchens, Cowboys

NFL: Chicago Bears at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Measurables

Height: 6’0”

Weight: 235 pounds

Age: 25

College: Iowa

Draft Status: 4th round of 2014 draft, Dallas Cowboys

Career Stats

Hitchens has seen his tackling efficiency rise each of the past three seasons, averaging 7 tackles per game in 2017.

SportsDay had this to say about his 2017 season:

Hitchens played well in a contract year, finishing third on the Cowboys with 91 tackles and second on the team with nine tackles for loss. That’s even more impressive considering he thought his season could have been over with in late August.

Hitchens injured his right knee Aug. 26 against Oakland in what ended up being the final preseason game. He said a Cowboys doctor told him on the field that he had torn his anterior cruciate ligament, which would have ended his season. However, an MRI later revealed it was only a tibial plateau fracture, and he missed only the first four games.

”The results came back good,” Hitchens said, “and I just went to work.”

Hitchens, a fourth-round pick in 2014 out of Iowa, said he was happy with his season.

Hitchens [also] said he’s excited for free agency.

Contract

Hitchens is entering free agency at the end of his rookie contract, so his free agent value is untested, however, Spotrac estimates his value at 4 years, $25.6m (APY of $6.4m) making him a fairly expensive option. Still, with a 4-year contract the Redskins would have the opportunity to do some structuring to make it fit the team’s needs, and it would lock down one starting ILB position through 2021. which would allow the team to devote draft capital to other positions.

OverTheCap currently projects the Cowboys to have $19m in cap space, and 16 upcoming free agents from the 2017 squad. I have to think that Demarcus Lawrence would be at the top of the priority list for re-signing, and other key players include Rolando McClain and Jonathan Cooper.

Dallas Cowboys v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

I suspect that Jerry & Stephen Jones will find the space to offer Hitchens a market-price deal, so I don’t think the Redskins will have a shot at Hitchens.

If he makes it to free agency, though, he would represent a reasonable option to players like Zach Brown and Nigel Bradham.

Tahir Whitehead, Lions

NFL: Preseason-Detroit Lions at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Measurables

Height: 6’2”

Weight: 241 pounds

Age: 27

College: Temple

Draft Status: 5th round of the 2012 draft, Detroit Lions

Career Stats

You can see that Whitehead has been extremely productive, averaging 7.8 tackles per game over the past two seasons, and adding 18 passes defended (4 INTs) since 2014.

Fansided recently published an article explaining why the Lions should re-sign Tahir Whitehaed:

After posting the best season of his career, it’s a no-brainer that the Detroit Lions should re-sign free agent linebacker Tahir Whitehead this offseason.

Linebacker Tahir Whitehead just seems like a player Matt Patricia would love. The New England Patroits’ defensive coordinator has made a living turning players like Whitehead into Super Bowl champions. And as the new head coach for the Detroit Lions in 2018, re-signing Whitehead must be a top priority for him this offseason.

Currently a free agent, the 27-year old Whitehead is coming off the best season of his six-year career. Tahir made the switch back to the weakside prior to the season after the Lions drafted Jarrad Davis 21st overall in the 2017 NFL Draft to start at middle linebacker.

That move resulted in the Lions fielding one of the best linebacker combos in the league. Whitehead racked up 110 tackles, a sack, an interception, two pass defends and a crazy four fumble recoveries. While Davis led all rookies with 96 total tackles, 2.0 sacks, an interception and three pass defends.

But this kind of production isn’t new to Whitehead. Playing middle linebacker for Detroit in 2016, the veteran racked up an incredible 132 combined tackles, which was tied for the 8th most in the NFL that season.

The versatile Whitehead figures to be a critical piece in a Matt Patricia defense that changes schemes like the weather. And just listening to Tahir, you get the feeling he’s a coach’s dream.

Contract

OverTheCap provides details of Whitehead’s free agent contract years with the Lions:

After averaging $4.1m over the past two season, there is an expectation that Whitehead will take a huge leap in value in the 2018 offseason following his highly productive 2016 & 2017 seasons.

Spotrac projects Tahir Whitehead to get a 4-year, $34m contract (APY $8.5m) which would be a rich payday.

Minnesota Vikings v Detroit Lions Photo by Dave Reginek/Getty Images

Detroit is currently sitting on $44m in cap space (according to OverTheCap), and has just hired the defensive minded Matt Patricia away from the AFC Champion Patriots. I can’t see any reason why the Lions wouldn’t try to re-sign Whitehead, or why he wouldn’t want to stay.

If he comes available, he could provide the ability to provide pass defense from the linebacker position that the Redskins have been lacking for so long.

Again, the ‘Skins likely can’t afford to sign a player like Whitehead and another free agent linebacker highlighted in this article, but as a replacement for Brown, and a partner for Mason Foster, Tahir Whitehead might actually provide an upgrade (albeit an expensive one) to where the team was in 2017.

Poll

On a scale from 0-5, where 0=not important & 5=critical, how important is it for the Redskins to re-sign Zach Brown?

This poll is closed

  • 1%
    0
    (5 votes)
  • 0%
    1
    (4 votes)
  • 2%
    2
    (13 votes)
  • 23%
    3
    (106 votes)
  • 47%
    4
    (216 votes)
  • 23%
    5
    (107 votes)
451 votes total Vote Now

Poll

All things considered (including expected salary), which of the following free agent linebackers do you think is the best target for the Redskins to sign?

This poll is closed

  • 11%
    Kevin Minter
    (50 votes)
  • 40%
    Nigel Bradham
    (172 votes)
  • 12%
    Anthony Hitchens
    (53 votes)
  • 16%
    Tahir Whitehead
    (72 votes)
  • 19%
    I don’t like any of these 4 guys
    (83 votes)
430 votes total Vote Now