The linebacker position has changed in the NFL. Teams are looking more for big athletes that can make plays in space as opposed to the big downhill, thumpers that stop the run.
Teams have even started moving big college safeties to linebackers to get the matchup ability with the athletes the NFL has at tight end and running back, which includes Thomas Davis of the Carolina Panthers, Mark Barron of the Los Angeles Rams and Deone Bucannon of the Arizona Cardinals. There are also collegiate linebackers that possessed defensive back athleticism, most notably Deion Jones of the Atlanta Falcons.
There are teams throughout the draft that need to add athletes and talent at linebacker. At the top of the draft, the Indianapolis Colts and Oakland Raiders select in the top 10. Neither are going to select a linebacker that high. They may be players in free agency to fill the need.
Once we reach the middle of the first round, the teams with need at linebacker may look at the draft with a few prospects that will likely be selected in the 11-20 range.
Here are the best linebackers scheduled to be free agents on March 14.
#1 - Demario Davis, Jets
Davis has climbed his way up the chart from being a third round draft selection to one of the top players on the Jets roster. Last season, after one year with the Browns, set career-highs in combined tackles (135, sixth in the league) and sacks (five, tied for fourth among true linebackers). He ranked eighth among linebackers in Pro Football Focus’ grading system. He is better in run support, but isn’t a liability in coverage.
#2 - Nigel Bradham, Eagles
Bradham started all but one game last season for the Eagles. He may not be the best linebacker on the team, but is among the best in the league. He had just 88 combined tackles, one forced fumble and one sack, but had a career-high eight passes defensed. He is one of the 10 best cover linebackers in the league.
#3 - Avery Williamson, Titans
Williamson is one of the top linebackers in run support. He took a small step back in tackle production last season, but forced two fumbles and defended two passes. The Titans are in a position where they have to re-sign Williamson. Their lack of depth, especially in coverage, should make him one of the biggest priorities for the Titans.
#4 - Navorro Bowman, Raiders
Bowman was cut by the San Francisco 49ers after five weeks. The Raiders signed him and he got back to being one of the best linebackers in the league. He missed all of the 2014 and the majority of the 2016 seasons due to major injuries, but still is one of the better linebackers in the league. Despite playing for two teams last season, he topped 100 combined tackles for the fourth time in the six seasons he played more than four games.
#5 - Anthony Hitchens, Cowboys
Hitchens only played 12 games last season, but still posted a career-high in combined tackles. He also posted two passes defensed and one forced fumble. He is an undersized, downhill run stopper, but has enough athleticism and cover ability to be a three-down linebacker.
Sleeper - Barkevious Mingo, Colts
The Browns drafted Mingo sixth overall in 2013 to improve their pass rush. It did not work out that way. He had five sacks as a rookie, but has not had that many total in the four seasons since. Despite the lack of sack production, he has improved as a 4-3 linebacker in space. He has become a decent outside linebacker in coverage and is improving his ability to make plays in space. At 27-years-old, there is still a chance he develops into a quality starting linebacker, but it needs to come together quickly after five seasons in the league.
Underrated - Todd Davis, Broncos
Davis has taken the long road to starting in the NFL. He went undrafted out of Sacramento State in 2014, signed with the New Orleans Saints and was cut after three games. He signed with the Broncos and played six games (two starts) in Denver. He finally became the Broncos starter in 2016. He amassed 97 combined tackles with three passes defensed, one forced fumble and half of a sack. Last season, he played in and started 14 games with 82 combined tackles and one sack. It was a small step backward, but he is a high-end downhill tackler.