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2016 Free Agents: Inside Linebacker

The 2016 free agent series continues on defense. We start by looking at Inside Linebackers.

Needs

The Bears and Packers have major needs at ILB in their 3-4 defenses. Sam Barrington returns from injury to the Packers but he has a lot to prove. Nate Palmer failed at ILB and Jake Ryan is a 2 down run stuffer based on his rookie season as a 4th round pick. Ryan must develop in coverage for Green Bay. The Packers need one ILB with Clay Matthews moving back to outside LB full time but Barrington or Ryan could nab the other spot and top back-up position. Palmer would be the fourth ILB if he can keep his roster spot.

The Bears had major problems at ILB and Shea McCllelin is a free agent. The Bears need two ILB upgrades this offseason. Christian Jones and Jonathan Anderson are young but did not play well in 2015.

The Lions have a need at ILB as Stephen Tulloch could be a cap cut and Tahir Whitehead is an impending free agent. Travis Lewis is also a free agent and more of a special teams player for Detroit. Whitehead was used often in coverage for Tulloch and can play outside. Whitehead had a solid 2014 season filling in for Stephen Tulloch after his knee injury in Week 3.

The Vikings should be set with Eric Kendricks at ILB but backup Audie Cole is a free agent and Gerald Hodges was traded away during the season.

Starting ILB

Derrick Johnson is 33 years old and hitting the free agent market after years with the Chiefs. The former 1st round pick had a great 2015 season with a +18.3 grade. Johnson is strong in run defense and coverage but struggled in pass rush. Johnson had 116 sacks, 4 sacks, 2 interceptions and 2 forced fumbles in 2015. Johnson would be a big upgrade for the Lions, Bears or Packers, despite his age. The Chiefs will try hard to re-sign Johnson prior to free agency despite his age. All 3 North teams in ILB need have money to add Johnson.

Rolando McClain is 26 and very talented. McClain had a lot of off the field baggage before joining the Cowboys. McClain notched a +1.4 grade in 2015 with a good coverage grade (+4.3). McClain had some issues in run defense but is a good young LB if he can put his off field issues behind him.

Danny Trevathan earned a +13.8 grade for the Super Bowl Champion Broncos. The Broncos have to re-sign Malik Jackson, Brock Osweiler and have Brandon Marshall as a restricted free agent. Trevathan could hit the market and upgrade a North team on the inside.

Jerrell Freeman is an underrated ILB. Freeman earned a +21.4 grade and was only behind Luke Kuechly in terms of his PFF grade. Freeman was very strong against the run (+16.2) and good in coverage and pass rush too. The Colts will try hard to retain Freeman but the 29 year old should get a good deal on the open market.

Tahir Whitehead is a versatile LB that is good on special teams too. Whitehead could be a solid starter and is very versatile. His athleticism and coverage skills should earn him a decent long term contract. Detroit should try to re-sign Whitehead but there is an unknown with a new GM in Bob Quinn in charge. Stephen Tulloch is still a good run defender but was slowed in coverage due to his knee injury. We’ll see if he is available if Quinn doesn’t feel his contract is worth him on the roster.

David Hawthorne is 30 years old and was cut by the Saints for cap reasons. Hawthorne has many years of starting experience and is solid LB but struggled with the Saints in 2015.

Backup ILBs

Vincent Rey should be available from the Bengals. Rey can play outside and inside but earned only a -9.7 grade. Rey is an experienced backup.

Travis Lewis is a good special teams player that is versatile. He could be obtained on a cheap deal as a former 7th round pick for the Lions.

Sean Weatherspoon is oft injured but produced for the Cardinals this year. The former 1st round pick is very athletic but needs to stay healthy for once. A one year prove it deal might be worth it for some teams.

Justin Durant is 30 and was cut by the Falcons. Durant is a good run stopper but struggles in coverage. Durant has starting experience with the Jaguars, Detroit, Dallas and Atlanta. A cheap deal could be used on Durant for a veteran LB.

Shea McClellin failed with the Bears other than a solid 2014 season. McClellin just never fit the Bears defense and had issues getting off blocks. He is only 26 and a former 1st round pick. Some team will give him a shot.

Kelvin Sheppard and Keenan Robinson were terrible for Miami and Washington respectively. They both have starting experience and should be adequate back-ups.

Craig Robertson is good in coverage but struggles in run defense in past seasons with the Browns. The former Browns ILB has plenty of experience. Robertson is 28 and will get another shot with a better team.

Demorio Davis is a 3-4 ILB from the Jets. Davis is 27 but earned a -13.7 grade for the Jets in 2015. He’ll get a shot too on a cheap deal for a 3-4 team.

Erin Henderson, Audi Cole and Jasper Brinkley are all former Vikings free agents that are ILBs. Brinkley had a solid season in 2015 actually. One year deals for all three of them are possible. The Vikings may want to bring back Cole despite his injury.

Summary

There will be some good starting ILBs available and plenty of backups with starting experience. ILB is a big need for 3 NFC North teams and they could be active in free agency. Chicago will add at least one and the Lions will re-sign Whitehead or keep Tulloch at the very least. The Vikings will obtain a back-up. Ted Thompson probably sleeps through free agency but if there is a year to add an ILB in free agency; this would be that year.