Free agency preview: ILB/MLB

True middle linebackers aren’t as valued as they were before the passing game increased to today’s levels, but there are still some quality starters scheduled to be available in free agency.

The increased passing game in today’s NFL has decreased the value of the true middle linebackers, and those inside linebackers who are taken off the field when offenses go to three-receiver sets. While outside linebackers are given more coverage responsibilities, the true run-stoppers in the middle increasingly have become only first- and second-down players, and sometimes are on the field for less than half the defensive snaps.

Combine that with no true standouts at the position in free agency and it’s understandable why didn’t award any five-star ratings to the 2015 free-agent middle and inside linebackers, and why you have to scan outside of the top 30 free agents before you find a middle linebacker in the free-agent rankings.

Still, there is talent that should be available when free agency opens on March 10. Five middle or inside linebackers were given four-star ratings, meaning they should be starters for most teams, and there are six inside the top 100 free agents.

Here are the best of those scheduled to be available in free agency:

Rolando McClain, Dallas Cowboys: After a season out of the NFL, McClain put himself back on the map with a solid 81-tackle season in his first year with the Cowboys. He spent his first three seasons in the league with the Oakland Raiders and has 50 starts in four years in the NFL. He battled knee, ankle and head injuries in 2014 after signing a one-year contract worth $700,000, but the Cowboys were hoping to have him be a long-term solution in the middle. He was equally solid against the run and the pass, an impressive rebound after being out the league for a year.

Brandon Spikes, Buffalo Bills: Spikes is more of a throwback inside linebacker, excelling against the run but not faring as well in pass coverage. Wherever he ends up, he will have to be considered a two-down run-stuffer. The former Patriots linebacker headed to Buffalo on a one-year, $3 million, prove-it contract and showed well, producing 54 tackles while playing all 16 games (10 starts). He had 54 tackles, the lowest for him in the last three seasons, but added one sack, three passes defensed and a forced fumble, but his 519 snaps were 37th among inside linebackers in 2014.

David Harris, New York Jets: The oldest of the four-star free-agent inside linebackers at 31, Harris still proved to be extremely productive against the run, garnering an impressive 123 tackles in his eighth NFL season – all with the Jets. He has produced more than 120 tackles in five of those eight seasons and been a full-time starter since his rookie season in 2007. His 5½ sacks in 2014 also tied his personal best, and he added one pass defensed and two forced fumbles. He may not generate the $7 million cap number he had in 2014, but the Jets have plenty of cap space to re-sign him if they want.

Rey Maualuga, Cincinnati Bengals: Dealing with a hamstring injury for much of the 2014 season, Maualuga missed four games and had only 59 tackles, the lowest total of his six seasons in Cincinnati. Like most middle linebackers, his strength is stuffing the run, but he was on the field for less than half of the defensive snaps last year. He has started every game (84 of them) he played since entering the league in 2009. The former second-round draft pick played better at the end of the season, perhaps with his hamstring feeling better.

Craig Robertson, Cleveland Browns: A product of North Texas, he had 37 stops at or behind the line of scrimmage, a solid season for the emerging 27-year-old. With only three years in the league, he is a restricted free agent, but after 99 tackles in 2014 and 277 total in his three seasons with the Browns, it will be interesting to see if he generates an offer outside of the Browns because he was an undrafted rookie. At 6-foot-1, 237 pounds, he is one of the better inside linebackers at coverage with four passes defensed and two interceptions last year.


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