Packer Report continues its position-by-position preview of free agency with the linebackers. The deadline to name franchise players was Feb. 19, and free agency begins on Friday.
The Packers' needs:
No position group has been analyzed more than the Packers' linebackers since the change to a 3-4 was announced.
With Aaron Kampman at one outside linebacker and Nick Barnett (if healthy) and A.J. Hawk inside, the only position that figures to be up for grabs is the other outside linebacker. If you're looking for sure-fire help in free agency, forget about it. The Ravens named Terrell Suggs their franchise player and the Cardinals did the same with Karlos Dansby. Throw in Seattle franchising Leroy Hill, and the top three outside linebackers are off the market.
— Outside linebackers: None beyond the franchised guys, and that means two first-round picks along with a monster contract.
— Inside linebackers: The Ravens are in a tough spot with Ray Lewis and Bart Scott ready to hit free agency. Lewis, the heart, soul and emotional leader of that defense for years, seems set on going to Dallas, though Baltimore might make a late push. Scott, an undrafted free agent in 2002, can play inside linebacker in a 3-4 and move to the outside as an edge rusher in passing situations. The Ravens are reportedly close to signing him as the clock gets nearer to Friday. Teams will have to determine if his playmaking ability is a byproduct of having Lewis next to him. They're easily the top two ILBs after Miami signed Channing Crowder to an extension this week.
Pricey, but a good deal:
— Outside linebacker: Most of the OLBs are 4-3 guys, such as Tampa Bay's Derrick Brooks. A potential Pro Football Hall of Famer, Brooks was released on Wednesday as the Bucs try to get younger. He's spent his whole career playing the Tampa-2 defense and probably will seek a similar role, preferably with a contender. ... Atlanta is turning loose five-time Pro Bowler Keith Brooking, who has posted at least 100 tackles every year since becoming a full-time starter in 2001. ... Given the weak market, Atlanta's athletic Michael Boley, who weighs just 223, is likely to be courted heavily. He was replaced by Coy Wire late last season. Still, he had nine passes defensed, one of the top figures in the league among linebackers. ... Angelo Crowell piled up 126 tackles for Buffalo in 2007 but missed all of last season with a knee injury. ... Cincinnati's Rashad Jeanty is coming off of a career-high 96 tackles and Indianapolis' Freddy Keiaho posted 105 tackles. Both are restricted free agents, as is Buffalo's Keith Ellison, who replaced Crowell and had 73 tackles.
— Inside linebacker: Jonathan Vilma had a productive first season in New Orleans (151 tackles, three fumble recoveries, two forced fumbles) and prefers to stay. He was arrested for drunken driving and resisting arrest in January. ... The Jets' Eric Barton racked up 119 tackles last season as an inside linebacker in their 3-4 but will turn 32 early next season. The Jets are looking to Scott as a potential replacement to provide more big-play pop. ... The Niners' Takeo Spikes enjoyed a career resurgence playing next to Patrick Willis and would like to return.
— Outside linebacker: Willie McGinest just completed his 15th NFL season. His days as a big-play weapon are long gone, with just one sack in 14 starts last season, but he has some intangibles and plenty of 3-4 experience. ... Rosevelt Colvin's career has been sidetracked by injuries but he has plenty of 3-4 experience from his days in New England. ... Clark Haggans missed most of last season for Arizona but was a starter in Pittsburgh from 2004 through 2007. ... San Diego's Marques Harris is only 231 pounds but has been a valuable reserve in the Chargers' 3-4 the last four seasons.
— Inside linebacker: Andra Davis has started on the inside in Cleveland's 3-4 for the last six seasons. He's 30, and the Browns are looking to get younger. ... Mike Peterson, who turns 33 in June, butted heads with coaches and will not return to the Jaguars. ... Zach Thomas, 35, never fit in Dallas' 3-4 scheme.
— Outside linebacker: Keith Washington (Washington), Cato June (Tampa Bay), Tully Banta-Cain (San Francisco) and Donnie Edwards (Kansas City) were released in cost-cutting moves. Washington is 31 and has been a regular starter since 2001. ... Banta-Cain has 3-4 experience in New England but fell out of favor with the 49ers last season. ... June, like Brooks, is suited for a Tampa-2 4-3 defense. ... Edwards turns 36 in April and missed most of last season after being a perennial 100-tackle guy.
— Inside linebackers: There are a few nondescript veterans here — none of whom have played in a 3-4 — from Denver's Nate Webster (starter the last two years after being a reserve for the first seven) to Detroit's Paris Lenon (former Packer who is smart but not athletic enough) and Ryan Nece (a Tampa-2 linebacker), to Minnesota's Napoleon Harris.
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Lambeau Level forum.