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More 2019 free agents: Inside Linebackers

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Depending on how you view Zach Brown, Mason Foster, Shaun Dion Hamilton and Reuben Foster, the Redskins are either loaded at the linebacker position or absolutely empty. Is there an argument to cut one or both veteran ILBs and look to free agency for replacements?

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NFL: Denver Broncos at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

At the end of January, I published an article looking at some of the top linebackers expected to be available in veteran free agency this off-season. That article looked at two players:

  • C.J. Mosely
  • Jordan Hicks

Today, I want to revisit the position and look at some of the other players that could be available when the bidding starts next week. Specifically, I plan to highlight:

  • Kwon Alexander
  • Preston Brown
  • Deone Bucannon
  • L.J. Fort
  • Gerald Hodges
  • Denzel Perryman
  • Jake Ryan
  • Adarius Taylor
  • Brandon Marshall
  • Mark Barron

For reference, here is the list of inside linebackers in order of salary, as per OverTheCap:

The Redskins current depth chart at inside linebacker

Zach Brown

When Zach Brown was signed as a free agent from the Bills, he added a much-needed dimension to the Redskins defense — speed. He immediately became the team’s (and the NFL’s) leading tackler. When he was a free agent last off-season, the Redskins exercised patience and ended up re-signing him to a 3-year deal.

Brown’s cap hit in 2018 was a mere $2.9m last season, but it leaps to $8.75m this season, and $9.5m in 2020. Brown was benched in the latter part of the 2018 season. With his salary structure he is untradeable. The Redskins can save $5.75m on salary cap by cutting him. As Brown said himself last year, the writing is on the wall. There is almost no chance at all that the front office brings him back in 2019, no matter how convincingly Jay Gruden proclaims that the Redskins “need Zach Brown”.

Mason Foster

I think the case for moving on from Mason Foster is much less clear or compelling. Foster has just one year left on his current contract, which is his third signed with the Redskins; he saw 98% of the defensive snaps with the team last year, and his cap hit is only half that of Brown, at just $4.25m. The team could save $4m by cutting him, but I’m not sure that they’d be happy to give up the veteran linebacker, leaving them with a young and uncertain group. Despite the issue with social media that popped up late last season, I imagine the front office will look to hold onto Mason Foster for one last season.

Zach Vigil

The other real veteran of the group is 27-year-old Zach Vigil, who will actually be a free agent when the league year rolls over next week. I’m assuming that the Redskins will offer him a vet minimum contract in an effort to retain the backup & special teams player, but if not, he should be easily replaceable.

Josh Harvey-Clemons

JHC played 19% of the defensive snaps and 72% of the special teams snaps last season. The 2017 seventh-round pick is developing well and provides flexibility to the defensive scheme, but he isn’t really going to take on a starting role in the defense this season.

Shaun Dion Hamilton

The 6th round pick in last year’s draft had a good career at Alabama, but was recovering from a broken kneecap when he was drafted. Many people saw his rookie season with the Redskins as a kind of “redshirt” year in which he would primarily rehabilitate and learn the defense. He flashed at times when he saw action in late-season games as a rookie, but he is still more potential than proven. He should see an expanded role with the Redskins defense this season.

Reuben Foster

The troubled player, formerly of the Alabama Crimson Tide remains on the Commissioner’s Exempt List where he has been since the Redskins picked him up off of waivers following his arrest following domestic violence allegations last year. With the District Attorney declining to file charges, his short term NFL future is uncertain, though it is likely that he’ll be eligible to play at some point in the upcoming regular season.

Foster and Shaun Dion Hamilton formed a formidable pair of linebackers at Alabama, and the thought of the two of them roaming the field together for the Burgundy Tide makes some people salivate, though there’s a lot of process ahead before the player, the team or the league will have certainty about his future. Bruce Allen’s recent comments provide very strong and telling signals that the franchise doesn’t plan to shy away from putting him on the field in Burgundy and Gold as soon as the Commissioner gives the okay.

Kwon Alexander, Buccaneers

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

I sourced most of the following from 247Sports:

Kwon Alexander is one of the more gifted athletes in the NFL at the linebacker position and a standout player for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, which would lead many to believe they would have interest in bringing him back with a new contract. However, he is coming off a torn ACL in October and his contract is expiring, meaning that he could be hitting the market with a knee injury on his resume.

Here’s a look at what Alexander could bring to the table as a free agent pickup.

Name: Kwon Alexander

Position: Linebacker

Age: 24

Height: 6-foot-1

Weight: 227 pounds

College: LSU

Accolades: 2015 fourth round pick, 2015 PWFA All-Rookie team, 2017 Pro Bowl selection

Market Value: $10.2 million per year (Spotrac)

The story so far

Alexander came out of LSU as an outside linebacker prospect, but has played in the middle during his time with the Buccaneers, where he was named an All-Rookie performer during the 2015 season and a Pro Bowler in 2017. He tore his ACL this past October, which of course means a long recovery is in progress. Add in the fact that the Buccaneers could be switching to a 3-4 defense and it may open the door for him to join another franchise. When healthy, he is an athletic and playmaking linebacker who has the ability to get to the quarterback occasionally and succeed in pass coverage.

How he’d fit

The key in all of this would be what Tampa Bay decides to do with him and how far along he is in his recovery. Handing out a long-term deal that pays $10 million per year, as market value suggests, to a guy coming off a torn ACL might be a tough sell and if they let him hit free agency, he may not be getting that from another team, either.

Even though he has primarily played MIKE linebacker in the NFL, he is still more than capable of playing on the outside and his skill set would offer speed, which the Redskins need, and flexibility, which the Redskins coaching staff loves. The Redskins would probably have to be patient; he might not play until late in the season, but he might also come on a fairly affordable contract.

Preston Brown, Bengals

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Cincinnati Bengals Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Brown has appeared in all 64 games (62 starts) since being drafted by the Bills. During his tenure with the Bills, Brown has recorded 512 total tackles, 10 passes defensed, three interceptions, two forced fumbles and one defensive touchdown. In 2017, Brown finished in a tie for the league lead in tackles (144).

I read one article in which Brown gushed about the idea of playing for the Patriots.

“I think I can definitely help the young guys they have there now,” shared the middle linebacker. He also seemed to have a decent grasp on some of the personnel involved with the Patriots defense. “They’ve got some good young talent at linebacker. They run pretty well. I know (David) Harris retired. A lot of young guys were playing well, (Kyle) Van Noy and (Elandon Roberts) played well. They definitely have some things they can work on like we all do, but I think I can help that defense get better.”

“I just think the whole organization in New England does a great job of knowing what those players’ skills are and then utilizing them in that way,” Brown said.

He seemed impressed by how former Bills have been utilized within New England’s game plan.

“They know Chris Hogan can run vertical, so they throw him vertical routes. They know Stephon can play zero-(safety), man-to-man coverage all day, and that’s what he does. They used his skills. Stephon probably wouldn’t have been as good in Buffalo this year because we did a lot of zone stuff. Him playing man and having fun, those guys used his talents. ‘Touchdown Mike’ earlier in the year was scoring touchdowns. Those guys definitely played well when they were out there.”

It might be a hard sell to interest him in playing in DC.

With the legal tampering window just days away, it seems that Brown will test the free agent market. Multiple teams could be in play for the linebacker which could drive up his asking price. How much could he command in free agency? NFL.com’s Tom Pelissero believes the price could reach $7 million per year or more. In an article highlighting NFL free agents who could get more money than you think, Pelissero said the following on Brown:

They’re different players, so the pecking order depends on who you ask, but it’s a short list of available quality linebackers. Brown [is] still young, [and has] been durable and productive, and could earn $7 million per year -- if not more.

Deone Bucannon, Cardinals

NFL: Washington Redskins at Arizona Cardinals Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

When the Redskins drafted Su’a Cravens a few years back, some fans saw him as a poor man’s Deone Buchanon - an undersized linebacker with positional flexibility who could play three downs and provide both run and pass defensive support.

He has put together an impressive career so far in Arizona.

PFF recently put him on a list of “risky” free agents:

Arizona Cardinals’ Deone Bucannon had a career year playing his hybrid linebacker/safety role in 2015, giving reason to believe the former Washington State first-rounder could be a difference-maker in the NFL for years to come. That simply hasn’t been the case.

Bucannon has failed to come close to his career-high 72.6 overall grade in 2015 in the three seasons following, earning extremely low run-defense and coverage grades in the process. He’s a former first-rounder with a lot of natural ability, but paying him the big bucks in the offseason could prove costly.

Ed Valentine from BigBlueView seems to share these concerns:

There is a reason why Pro Football Focus slapped the “buyer beware” label on Bucannon. He has never come close to matching the impact he had in 2015, his first year as a moneybacker.

That season, Bucannon had 109 tackles, 11 for loss. He hasn’t come close to that number of tackles since, and has only eight tackles for loss over the past three seasons.

Bucannon’s PFF grades have gone down each year.

  • 2015 — 72.6
  • 2016 — 61.3
  • 2017 — 47.8
  • 2018 — 45.3

Bucannon’s passer rating against was 92.5 in 2016, but rose to 103.2 in 2017 and 120.5 in 2018.

Bucannon didn’t really have a place in the 4-2-5 the Cardinals played under Steve Wilks in 2018m, and played just 558 defensive snaps.

Bucannon recently told AZCardinals.com what he is looking for in free agency:

“I want to play for a team that sees me for my value, understands what I can do on the field, understands what kind of player I am,” Bucannon said.

Whether that’s the Giants or not remains to be seen. With his declining production, Bucannon certainly doesn’t appear to be worth a big-money, long-term deal. A one-year “prove-it” flier, though? Perhaps.

The Su’a Cravens experiment (which I was a fan of) ended in tears, and may well put many fans off of the idea of paying for an undersized linebacker who has seen his performance ratings from PFF fall off dramatically across the 4 seasons that make up his career.

Is it possible that Buchanon just needs a new home and a fresh start with a team and coaches that understand him? Maybe.

Is that team the Redskins?

I think probably not.

L.J. Fort, Steelers

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

A report from BehindTheSteelCurtain says that the Steelers would like to hold onto Fort.

Among the obligatory questions about Brown, Rich Walsh of KDKA also asked Colbert about Pittsburgh’s plans for the inside linebacker position this offseason, with the general manager’s response giving fans a clear indication about the Steelers’ intentions for impending unrestricted free agent L.J. Fort. As he told Walsh.

“I think we’d like to complement the guys we have. You know we have a young man like L.J. Fort who’s an unrestricted free agent and we’d like to keep him in the mix.“

Playing primarily on passing downs at first, Fort became more involved on defense as the season wore on and was a key performer on special teams. Offering Pittsburgh the range in coverage that options like Jon Bostic lacked, Fort has come a long way from the player who joined the Steelers as a free agent in 2015 after failing to latch on with five previous NFL teams.

First signed as an undrafted free agent by the Cleveland Browns in 2012, Fort spent time with the Denver Broncos, Seattle Seahawks, Cincinnati Bengals and New England Patriots before arriving in Pittsburgh, but the Steelers are the only team he has stayed with for more than one season.

Unlikely to command a high salary during free agency, Fort should still have his suitors on the open market. However, given the opportunities Pittsburgh could offer him compared to many other teams, the 29-year-old linebacker might find his best chance of being a starter is with the Steelers.

Frankly, I’ve never paid attention to Fort prior to researching this article. Based on the little I learned about him, he seems like a low-cost depth signing and the kind of player who likely should stay with the team where he fits and is enjoying some success.

He doesn’t sound like the kind of impact starter that the Redskins are likely to need out of a veteran free agent.

Gerald Hodges, Cardinals

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Arizona Cardinals Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Hodges is 6’1, 243 pounds, played at Penn State, and is 28 years old.

Like L.J. Fort, Hodges has been a bit of a journeyman spending time the Minnesota Vikings, San Francisco 49ers, and New Orleans Saints prior to joining the Cardinals last season.

The following information was mostly taken from a Fansided profile published ahead of the 2018 free agency period:

Hodges was drafted by the Minnesota Vikings in the fourth round back in 2013 and had a role largely as a subpackage linebacker for the team. When Hodges played, he played well. In 2014, Hodges had the opportunity to start seven games and tallied 50 tackles had seven passes defended and even a pick-six.

He was traded to the San Francisco 49ers in October 2015, and he continued to contribute to the Niners’ defense in both 2015 and 2016.

Hodges was a free agent in 2017 and signed with the Buffalo Bills. Surprisingly, he didn’t have the best camp and was released before the start of the season and signed on with the New Orleans Saints where he saw almost no playing time.

So what happened to Hodges in 2017?

It’s hard to say and there’s not a lot of information available, but the bottom line is, Hodges was buried on the Saints depth chart and couldn’t recover. He played a total of 12 defensive snaps for the Saints and recorded just three tackles. Hodges did log 178 special teams’ snaps, but clearly didn’t make an impact there. Despite the lack of playing time in 2017, history shows that when Hodges has played, as outlined above, he’s a capable defender.

You can see that Hodges played fairly well for the Cardinals last season on a vet minimum contract. The Redskins could do worse than to sign this 28 year old veteran.

Denzel Perryman, Chargers

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Los Angeles Chargers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

In mid-November, through nine games, Perryman was tied for second on the Chargers with 51 tackles. He also had two pass breakups and an interception.

Perryman has had trouble staying on the field during his career. Drafted in the second round by the Chargers in 2015, Perryman had already missed 15 of a possible 57 games and finished two of the prior three seasons on the injured reserve.

And it happened again last season. After just over half a season, linebacker Denzel Perryman once again went out for the season because of a left knee LCL injury that required surgery.

Perryman’s injury history is troubling. He has played just 16 games in the past two seasons combined, and has missed 22 games in a 4-year career. He has finished 3 of 4 seasons on injured reserve.

The Redskins need to get healtheir; I just don’t see how they can spend money to bring in a free agent with his injury history.

Jake Ryan

NFL: Green Bay Packers at Washington Redskins Jim Matthews-USA TODAY Sports

Four-year veteran Jake Ryan is another guy coming off a 2018 injury. He missed the final year of his rookie deal due to an ACL injury that he sustained in training camp with the Green Bay Packers. Ryan has logged 1,522 snaps and a 66.2 overall grade from PFF in the three years prior to his injury.

Acme Packing Co. recently published an article reviewing Jake Ryan’s situation with the Packers:

Ryan appeared in many games for the Packers over his four-year career, but he never developed into a centerpiece of the defense. Ryan’s run defense made him a useful player in Dom Capers scheme, though opposing offenses exploited his weaknesses in pass coverage when possible. By 2017, Blake Martinez had surpassed Ryan as the team’s featured off-ball linebacker. That likely would have continued under Pettine who took over as defensive coordinator last offseason.

Because of Pettine’ creativity, a larger linebacker like Ryan could serve the team well should he re-sign. The Packers rotated linebackers throughout 2018, using the run-focused Antonio Morrison and box safeties in various sub packages to attack the offense. Ryan could also offer valuable depth should something happen to Martinez, who wears the radio helmet on game days.

At the same time, the Packers didn’t trade up to select Burks in the third round to let him ride the bench. A preseason shoulder injury and inexperience hampered him throughout 2018, but linebackers often take the leap during their sophomore campaigns. Clearing a path for Burks and Green Bay’s other young defenders might make more football and financial sense than bringing back Ryan.

Ryan sounds like a very competent linebacker. If the Redskins see themselves starting SDH and Reuben Foster, Ryan could provide a suitable replacement for Zach Brown. He sounds like very much the same player — strong versus the run, vulnerable in pass protection — but able to wear the green dot on his helmet.

Having ripped his ACL in his contract year, but with a full year to rehabilitate, Ryan is likely to sign relatively cheaply, or on a one-year “prove it” contract that might just suit the Redskins current situation.

Adarius Taylor, Buccaneers

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Undrafted in 2014, the Carolina Panthers signed Taylor to a three-year contract. Taylor was waived as part of the Panthers’ final roster cuts, but was signed to the team’s practice squad to start the season.

Near mid-season, Taylor made his professional regular season debut and in December, Taylor earned his first career start in place of A. J. Klein who sustained an ankle injury the previous week. He finished his rookie season with 12 combined tackles (eight solo) in ten games and two starts.

Taylor entered 2015 training camp as a backup linebacker but was released by Carolina at final roster cuts and signed to their practice squad the next day.

On November 30, 2015, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers signed Taylor off of the Panther’s practice squad. He played primarily on special teams.

Last season, Taylor saw an extended run as a starter in the middle after Kwon Alexander (knee) was lost for the season in Week 7, and he was adequate in the role while compiling a career-high 60 tackles and a sack, a forced fumble, an interception and five passes defensed overall.

Taylor now heads into unrestricted free agency after having played in 45 out of a possible 48 games for the Bucs over the last three seasons, and he could certainly find a role as a depth option and special teams stalwart elsewhere if Tampa doesn’t bring him back into the fold.

Taylor looks like a backup linebacker and special teams player. He played for Tampa Bay last season on a one-year, $1m contract. Undoubtedly, he’ll want a richer contract this season, but it’s unlikely that he’ll get much more more.

He could provide depth for the Redskins, but might well look for a more promising opportunity with another team.

Brandon Marshall, Broncos

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Denver Broncos Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

I was a little surprised that Brandon Marshall is being allowed to walk by the Denver Broncos.

Marshall is 29 years old, and earned $5m cash (with a $7m cap hit) in 2018. The Broncos would have paid him $7m (with an $8.8m cap hit) if they had kept him for the 2019 season.

It would likely require a contract of $7m to $9m APY to sign him now.

The linebacker tweeted his goodbye to the Denver faithful Friday morning:

He entered the league in 2012 as a fifth-round pick with the Jacksonville Jaguars before joining the Broncos in 2013. On his career, Marshall has appeared in 74 games with 63 starts and totaled 423 tackles, 6.5 sacks, two interceptions and 21 passes defensed.

In 2018, he was the 48th ranked linebacker by PFF, who gave him a grade of 64.2.

Given his experience and production, Marshall could command attention on the open market from teams searching for a veteran linebacker.

I’ve always liked Brandon Marshall, and my instinct is to say that he would be a good addition to the Redskins defense, but perhaps I’m simply not coming to grips with the fall in production or ability that has led the Broncos to let him go.

Mark Barron, Rams

NFL: NFC Divisional Playoff-Dallas Cowboys at Los Angeles Rams Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

During his run with the Rams, Barron converted from safety to linebacker, using his physical style of play to his advantage. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound defender became one of the better blitzing inside linebackers in the league during his tenure.

A report from CBS Sports:

Three years into a five-year, $45 million contract as a converted safety within the Rams defense, the former Alabama standout and first-round draft pick has been released by Los Angeles, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter.

Acquired from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for two draft picks during the 2014 season, Barron began his career as a strong safety, competing with ex-Rams starter T.J. McDonald for that role upon arrival. The following year, he transitioned to inside linebacker to relieve the injured Alec Ogletree and remained a full-time hybrid starter through 2018. Barron had a pair of 100-tackle seasons with the team and logged a career-high three interceptions in 2017, but he missed four games during the Rams’ Super Bowl run and would have cost $9.6 million against the salary cap in 2019, per Spotrac.

By releasing Barron, the Rams will save $6.33 million this season, according to The Athletic’s Vincent Bonsignore.

The 29-year-old linebacker spent the first two and a half years of his NFL career in Tampa Bay, where he started 37 games in the secondary after being drafted seventh overall out of Alabama. In 2018, he recorded 60 tackles and one pass deflection, his lowest totals since joining the league.

Since joining the Rams via trade from Tampa Bay in 2014, Barron has been a consistent presence in the front seven and defensive backfield. Barron totaled 398 tackles, seven sacks and five interceptions in his five-ish seasons with the franchise. The linebacker missed the first four games of the 2018 season with an ankle injury, but returned in Week 5 and played through Los Angeles’ Super Bowl run.

Barron, former Alabama Burgundy Crimson Tide player, is listed as No. 85 in NFL.com’s Top 101 Free Agents of 2019 list and as the 10th-best linebacker available.

The veteran linebacker immediately became a free agent, one of a slew of Rams defenders who are slated to hit the open market. Ndamukong Suh, Lamarcus Joyner, Dante Fowler Jr. and Sam Shields are all unrestricted free agents as the Rams try to shed salary cap after trying to buy their way into a super bowl championship in 2018.

One of the benefits of signing Barron (as compared to most other veteran free agents) is that — because he was cut — he will not count toward the compensatory draft pick calculation. That means that, if the Redskins sign him, he will not eliminate any comp picks that the Redskins might otherwise qualify for. Thtat’s not the primary reason to sign a player, but it’s part of the equation to be considered.

You’ll see Barron’s name in the 6th spot in the OverTheCap list posted above.

Barron, 29 years old and former 7th overall draft pick of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and most recently late of the NFC champion LA Rams, looks like a great opportunity for the Redskins to make an expensive free agency splash at the ILB position.

Poll

When you consider age, history, production, fit likely contract and Redskins’ needs, if the front office signed a free agent ILB, which of the highlighted players would you be happiest to see the front office try to sign this off season?

This poll is closed

  • 31%
    Kwon Alexander
    (80 votes)
  • 5%
    Preston Brown
    (15 votes)
  • 2%
    Deone Buchanon
    (7 votes)
  • 2%
    L.J. Fort
    (7 votes)
  • 3%
    Gerald Hodges
    (9 votes)
  • 1%
    Denzel Perryman
    (5 votes)
  • 7%
    Jake Ryan
    (20 votes)
  • 0%
    Adarius Taylor
    (2 votes)
  • 7%
    Brandon Marshall
    (19 votes)
  • 35%
    Mark Barron
    (89 votes)
253 votes total Vote Now