While there is only one that generated a five-star rating in Scout.com’s ranking of free agents this year, meaning Pro Bowl or All-Pro status, there are five outside linebackers in the top 50 and 11 in the top 100. It’s also a pretty young group, with a few that are only 26 or 27 years old despite having five years of experience in the league.
It’s a deep class … especially if some of them get clean bills of health in the offseason physicals that are sure to precede their signings.
Justin Houston, Kansas City Chiefs: In only his fourth season in the NFL, Houston registered 22 sacks, doubling his output from 2013 and putting him as the only five-star outside linebacker in Scout.com’s 2015 free-agent rankings. He also had a career-high 69 tackles and four forced fumbles, adding five passes defensed. Pro Football Focus also credited Houston with an incredible 56 quarterback hurries and he was easily their top-rated 3-4 outside linebacker in 2014. The most likely scenario for Houston is that the Chiefs will use the franchise tag on him if they can’t sign him to an extension before the start of free agency. However, the Chiefs are already up against the projected salary cap, making his situation an interesting one over the next month.
Jason Worilds, Pittsburgh Steelers: For the first time in his five-year career, Worilds started all 16 games for the Steelers and had 59 tackles and 7½ sacks, giving him 15½ sacks over the last two years. Rushing the passer is his forte. The Steelers reportedly would like to re-sign him, and if they can’t do it in the coming weeks, using the franchise or transition tags are viable alternatives, although they might have to make other cost-saving moves to make it feasible.
Sean Weatherspoon, Atlanta Falcons: The medical reports will be key to Weatherspoon’s NFL future. After missing nine games with knee issues in 2013, he tore his Achilles last summer and missed the entire season. When healthy, he’s deserving of the four-star status given to him by Scout.com, but that will only be true if he is able to return to form before suffering two serious injuries over the last two years. His best year in the league was his second one, in 2011, when he had 82 tackles, four sacks and eight passes defensed.
Brian Orakpo, Washington Redskins: Orakpo’s 2014 season ended in Week 7 when he tore a pectoral muscle. Prior to that, he was having a good season, but because of the injury he had only 24 tackles and a pass defensed. When healthy, he has generally about a 60-tackle, eight-sack-per season kind of defender. All six of his NFL seasons have been with the Redskins, but he’ll be 29 during the 2015 season, which will give some teams pause to consider any kind of multi-year deal with him.
Jabaal Sheard, Cleveland Browns: Sheard tried to make the transition from a 4-3 defensive end to a 3-4 outside linebacker and his pass-rushing stats took a hit. After averaging seven sacks in his first three seasons, he had only two last year, although he was solid against the run. So one of the biggest questions is what his market value will be, and will the list of interested teams be 4-3 defensive schemes looking for a defensive end or will he continue to be used as a linebacker and hope more time there brings him back to pre-2014 production?
Justin Durant, Dallas Cowboys: In eight seasons in the NFL, Durant’s last two have been his least productive. He played in only 10 games in 2013, and last year his season ended after only six games because of a torn biceps. In 2013, he was vexed with a hamstring injury. He is a solid all-around player and still managed four passes defensed in his six games, but also was credited with nine missed tackles, according to Pro Football Focus. His ability to play middle or outside linebacker could add to his value in free agency, but his recent injury history has to be a concern.
Akeem Ayers, New England Patriots: Ayers is a solid run-stuffer and added four sacks in nine games for the Patriots last year after they gave up a sixth-round pick to the Tennessee Titans to acquire him during the season. He fit in nicely with the Patriots’ 3-4 scheme, but they will have some salary-cap decisions to make in the offseason, which could leave Ayers’ status in limbo.
Derrick Morgan, Tennessee Titans: Morgan has five years in the NFL, but he is still only 26 years old and has turned himself into a solid players, averaging over six sacks in his last three seasons in Tennessee and garnering career highs in tackles (43) and passes defensed (seven) in 2014. He also proved to be effective in pass coverage last year, making a successful transition from a 4-3 defensive end to a 3-4 outside linebacker.
Brandon Graham, Philadelphia Eagles: In some ways, Graham is similar to Morgan. He has five years in the league and is only 26 years old, and he also had career highs in tackles (47) and forced fumbles (four), along with tying his career high in sacks (5.5) last year. He is one of the better outside linebackers for rushing the passer, credited with 39 quarterback hurries, and the Eagles have reportedly been trying to reach an agreement with him as he seeks a contract in the neighborhood of four years, $30 million.
Brooks Reed, Houston Texans: In four seasons with the Texans, Reed has played in all but four games, and last year he had 41 tackles, three sacks and four passes defensed. He isn’t the pass rusher that some of the other 3-4 linebackers rated ahead of him are, but he is solid against the run and good in coverage, too. He also has the versatility to play inside or outside in a 3-4 scheme.
Sam Acho, Arizona Cardinals: He started only four games for the Cardinals last year, but had 31 tackles, three passes defensed, a sack and an interception. He is best against the run, but also proved to be a good blitzer, generating 23 quarterbacks hurries, according to PFF, despite playing in less than half of the defensive snaps.