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2018 NFL Free Agency: Evaluating the Inside Linebackers

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Taking a look at the available linebackers that may be available in March.

Indianapolis Colts v Tennessee Titan Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

We continue our Titans-centric look at the upcoming free agent class today with the inside linebackers. If you missed the breakdown of the guards you can check it out via the link below.

2018 NFL Free Agency: Evaluating the Guards

Similar to guard, the Titans have some decisions to make at this position during the offseason. Wesley Woodyard and Avery Williamson have manned the middle of the Titans 3-4 defense for the last four consecutive seasons, but that run could be in jeopardy with Williamson poised to become a free agent on March 14th. Do the Titans want him back? That’s the question I keep trying to wrap my head around and I don’t think its a clear answer either way.

After four seasons together the data all points to the same conclusion: they are great run stoppers, but terrible in coverage.

The Good News:

  • PFF Run Defense Grade for Williamson: 90.1 (6th in NFL)
  • PFF Run Defense Grade for Woodyard: 86.7 (14th in NFL)
  • FO Team DVOA for Run Defense: -15.6% (7th in NFL)
  • PFF Run Stop % for Williamson: 8.8% (16th in NFL)
  • PFF Run Stop % for Woodyard: 10.2% (4th in NFL)

The Bad News:

  • PFF Coverage Grade for Williamson: 66.5 (40th in NFL)
  • PFF Coverage Grade for Woodyard: 44.3 (57th in NFL)
  • FO Team DVOA for Pass Defense: 19.0% (24th in NFL)
  • FO Pass Defense DVOA vs TEs: 10.6% (24th in NFL)
  • FO Pass Defense DVOA vs RBs: 28.3% (32nd in NFL)
  • FO Pass Defense DVOA vs Passes in middle of field <15 yards: 31.1% (31st in NFL)

All of that is backed up by the eye test. Both guys were very solid in the running game, but too often got caught biting on a play action fake or abandoning the running back slipping out of the backfield that was their responsibility. Stopping the run is great, but in a league that skews heavier towards the passing game seemingly every season the Titans must find a way to cover the middle of the field better moving forward if they want to take the next step as a defense.

This question gets even more complicated when you consider how much of the linebackers struggles in coverage were related to how they were coached. I’m not trying to say that Dick LeBeau and linebackers coach Lou Spanos were bad football coaches — they weren’t — but perhaps Woodyard and Williamson were being taught to sell out on stopping the run even if that meant they would give up a few play action completions over the middle. Maybe the zone blitz left these guys exposed too often as they tried to overcompensate for having a guy like Jurrell Casey or Derrick Morgan covering the zone next to them. These are all things that are really hard to know without being in those meeting rooms at Saint Thomas Sports Park, but they could be coloring Jon Robinson’s evaluation of Williamson as a player beyond what we see in the box score or even what we see on tape.

However, without additional information about coaching practices I think we have to assume the simplest explanation: that Avery Williamson and Wesley Woodyard just aren’t very good coverage linebackers. Woodyard got a contract extension last offseason that carries him through the 2019 season in Tennessee and followed that up with the best season of his career, effectively taking the 3-down linebacker role away from Williamson. That leaves Williamson’s future with the team very murky so let’s take a look at him first and then get in to the viable alternatives that might be on the market.

THE INCUMBENT

Avery Williamson | Titans

We all know what Williamson is as a player and I touched on it above. He’s a 2-down linebacker who can run fill with the best of them, but struggles mightily in coverage. Even with the holes he still has value in today’s NFL, especially when it comes in a 25 year old player who is extremely durable and a great teammate. He will probably get a nice payday this March. Spotrac certainly thinks so.

Spotrac Projection: 4 years, $36M

That deal would pay Williamson like a top 5 inside linebacker and if that’s the price, the Titans need to let someone else pay it. I think a deal similar to Danny Trevathan’s 4 year, $28M deal from two years ago would be more in line with Williamson’s market, but even then I wouldn’t go that high if I was the Titans. However, some other linebacker needy team might. Teams like the Niners, Colts, Bengals, Dolphins, Redskins, Raiders, Lions, Chargers, Bills, and Steelers all seem poised to be looking for help in their linebacker room.

It’s not that I don’t like Avery Williamson, it’s just that I don’t think he’s worth the money it is likely going to take to sign him considering his limitations as a player. The problem is that I also don’t think Jayon Brown is ready for a starting role at this point. He was drafted in the 5th round last season to replace Sean Spence’s role as the coverage linebacker on passing downs, but he was very up and down in 2017 — as rookies often are — and is nowhere near the run stopper that Williamson is at this point in his career. So that probably leaves the Titans replacing Williamson with either another free agent, a relatively high draft pick, or both if they choose not to re-sign him.

THE “OLD” GUYS

NaVorro Bowman | Raiders

Bowman isn’t as old as you think. Or at least he isn’t as old as I thought. He feels like he’s been in the league for forever as he was a key part of the great 49er defenses from the early 2010’s, playing next to Patrick Willis. But Bowman is somehow just 29 years old. He still lands in the ”old guys” category for me though because of the mileage and injuries he’s accumulated over the last 8 years.

Those 8 seasons have produced 4 First-Team All-Pro appearances. The 4 non-First-Team All-Pro seasons were his rookie season when he sat behind a veteran Takeo Spikes, the 2014 season that he lost completely due to the gruesome knee injury he suffered in the 2013 NFC Championship game, the 2016 season that saw him land on IR with a torn Achilles after just 4 games, and last season.

When healthy, Bowman is among the best linebackers of his generation. The problem is that “when healthy” qualifier. The knee injury and Achilles injury that cost him his 2014 and 2016 seasons have sapped some of his athleticism, but 2017 proved he can still at least be a somewhat effective player in the middle of the field.

The 49ers released Bowman midseason last year after the veteran became disgruntled with his playing time. The then 0-5 Niners were clearly in rebuild mode and wanted to see what their young players could do. That makes total sense, and so does a proud veteran like Bowman not being too keen on sticking around through the growing pains. The Raiders scooped him up off waivers and immediately inserted him in to their starting lineup. In fact, he was wearing the “green dot” communications helmet and calling the defense while being on the field for 60 of 62 defensive snaps just 3 days after signing in Oakland. Despite only playing 10 games for the Raiders, he finished the season tied with Reggie Nelson for the team lead in tackles with 89 total stops.

Bowman’s drawbacks are his limited athleticism and injury risk heading in to his age 30 season. His outstanding instincts allow him to be an effective player in zone coverage, but he’s a liability in man to man at this point in his career.

Spotrac Projection: None

I would expect Bowman to fetch a short term deal for a pretty minimal financial commitment. If the Titans don’t bring back Avery Williamson, Bowman could make some sense in Music City. They will mostly run a base 3-4 defense under Dean Pees which fits Bowman’s background in San Francisco and the Titans offer a chance for him to play on a playoff contender. From the Titans perspective he essentially gives them a low cost version of Avery Williamson while they look for a long term solution through the draft in April.

Derrick Johnson | Chiefs

Johnson is another older, successful player who finds himself on the market this offseason. The 35 year old 4-time Pro Bowler is the Chiefs all-time leading tackler. Johnson began his career in KC as a 4-3 outside linebacker, but really flourished when the team made the move to a 3-4 in 2009.

Similar to Bowman, Johnson likely doesn’t have the athleticism that he had earlier in his career — two season ending Achilles injuries over his career don’t help — but he still plays at an effective level even if he’s not the superstar he once was. Johnson is particularly strong in coverage which would make him a nice fit next to Wesley Woodyard in theory, but I worry that the lack of speed would catch up to them.

Spotrac Projection: None

Also like Bowman, Johnson will likely go ring chasing now that he’s been cut loose from his long time team. He probably will end up signing a one year deal worth somewhere around $3-5M so the financial commitment will be minimal. I don’t think this is the way the Titans need to go at this position, but if they decided to go young with a draft pick and wanted a bridge player to give them a reliable veteran presence while the rookie got up to speed, Johnson would be an option for that.

Paul Posluszny | Jaguars

Posluszny is not expected to be back with the Jaguars in 2018 as young linebackers Telvin Smith and Myles Jack have made him expendable. At 33, he’s another guy that is nearing the end of his career, but he was effective for Jacksonville in 2017 on a limited snap count. Unlike Bowman and Johnson though, Pos has played his entire 11-year career as the middle linebacker in a 4-3 scheme and it seems highly unlikely that he would want to transition to a different role now. In fact, it seems like a near lock that he will try to join his former Jaguars coach Gus Bradley in San Diego.

Spotrac Projection: None

Posluszny will not command top dollar on the market, but it seems highly unlikely that he’s a fit in Tennessee due to the scheme and the fact that he doesn’t really solve any of the Titans problems at the position.

Brian Cushing | Texans

It was just announced that Cushing will be released by the Texans in a move that both saved the team $7M in cap room and cleared the way for standout rookie Zach Cunningham to start next to Bernardrick McKinney for the foreseeable future. Cushing is a bully between the tackles thanks to his artificial immense strength, but he’s not a sideline-to-sideline linebacker at this point in his career and he doesn’t offer anything positive in coverage either.

Spotrac Projection: None

Similar to the other guys in this category, Cushing is unlikely to get big money. He does have the connection with Vrabel from their time together in Houston, but again, Cushing would be nothing more than an older, worse version of Avery Williamson so what would his signing really accomplish? Besides, we know this guy is one of the biggest meatheads in the NFL and a constant risk to get popped for PEDs — or as he calls it “overtrained athlete syndrome”, OK sure, Brian — or injured. It’s not like he’s the type of veteran you would want to bring in for his leadership or intangibles. No. Thanks.

THE TOP OF THE MARKET

Demario Davis | Jets

Davis is one of the best under the radar stories of 2017 to me. When the Jets traded former 1st round pick Calvin Pryor to the Browns for him last summer, it was seen as another example of the Jets plan to tank. However, Davis turned out to be a stud in New York, tallying 135 tackles and 5 sacks while almost never leaving the field for the Jets defense. He’s been a starter for 5 of his 6 NFL seasons, but never really put it all together until this last year. PFF graded him as the 8th best linebacker in the NFL with an overall grade of 87.3. His run defense grade was his best at 87.7, but his coverage grade of 79.7 was good for top 20 in the league as well.

Davis credits a heart-to-heart conversation with former Titans defensive coordinator Ray Horton in Cleveland in 2016 for his career transformation, saying that Horton sat him down in the film room and pointed out his shortcomings as the difference between him being a good player and a great player. Afterwards, Davis said he made changes to every part of his life including his nutrition, sleeping, training, and how all those pieces fit together. Normally I am pretty wary of one year wonders, particularly in a contract year, but Davis has been through free agency before so it seems more likely in his case that he might just be a case of a player “seeing the light”.

Spotrac Projection: 3 years, $15.3M

I tend to think that Davis will get a little more than this on the market. He is 29 though, so he likely won’t get the mega-deal that he would be due if he’d been coming off this season when he was 25 or 26. Davis carries almost no injury risk as well, having played in all 16 games for all 6 of his NFL seasons. We know how much Jon Robinson loves players that stay off the training table so this is a big check mark in Davis’ favor. He has primarily played in a 3-4 scheme so his transition to a new defense in Tennessee would be relatively smooth.

If the Titans could land him for a 3 year, $15-18M deal I think he could be a great fit here. He has always been a plus athlete as a linebacker so he helps the team’s need to get faster in the front seven on defense. He’s a guy who could allow Wesley Woodyard to slot back in to his more natural role as a 2-down linebacker while also fitting next to Jayon Brown in nickel packages to form a very athletic pairing in the middle of the field. He won’t break the bank due to his age, but his clean injury history makes him less of a risk than some of the older players listed above. The Jets likely will want him back so there is a chance that he never gets to free agency, but if he does, the Titans seem like a good landing spot. He grew up in Mississippi and played college ball at Arkansas State so he’s a southern boy who might enjoy a return closer to home.

Nigel Bradham | Eagles

Bradham is among the more complete linebackers in this group. He is a former 4th round draft choice of the Bills who saw his career take off in his 3rd year as a pro when Jim Schwartz came to Buffalo. Bradham chose to follow Schwartz to Philadelphia when his rookie contract expired in 2016 and once again, the results were outstanding. Bradham’s ability to step in for Jordan Hicks as the Eagles’ playcaller on defense in 2017 was a big part of their success. He’s known as a fantastic tackler and has turned in to a very good coverage linebacker as well. He’s probably the most talented linebacker in this group.

There are, however, some serious off-the-field concerns with Bradham. In 2016 he was arrested twice. The first incident involved charges of aggravated assault after he allegedly punched a hotel worker in the face for setting up his beach chair too slowly in Miami just days before his first training camp with the Eagles. The next incident occurred just three months later, also in Miami, when he TSA workers found a loaded gun in his backpack at the airport. He eventually was cleared in the assault case after the prosecution deferred his case, but it is safe to say that Bradham is no boy scout.

Spotrac Projection: 2 years, $11.9M

I wouldn’t be surprised to see Bradham get more than this contract due to the Super Bowl bump and his outstanding play on the field the last two years. While his character is a major concern off the field, he gets nothing but glowing reviews from coaches and teammates about his work in the NFL.

The on-the-field concerns for me with Bradham are scheme related. I don’t think you can ignore the fact that his best seasons have all come in Jim Schwartz’s “wide 9” 4-3 while he struggled mightily in 3-4’s under Rex Ryan and Mike Pettine. Ultimately I think Bradham will get paid this offseason, but I don’t think he will be paid by the Titans.

Anthony Hitchens | Cowboys

Hitchens fits the mold of a guy who will get big money in free agency despite being far less proven than some of the other linebackers on the market. He’s a former 4th round pick of the Cowboys who has served as Dallas’ utility linebacker for the past 4 seasons, playing in all three linebacker roles in their 4-3 defense. Hitchens had the best season of his career in 2017, and at age 25, that makes him primed for a big payday.

Last season he graded out as PFF’s 20th best linebacker overall, earning a run defense score of 83.1 and a pass coverage score of 73.3. He’s not known as a great athlete so his best role is more likely as a 2-down run stuffer who can hold his own in pass defense.

Spotrac Projection: 4 years, $25.6M

I think Spotrac is pretty dead on with this one. Hitchens is a productive, versatile 25-year old and those guys tend to get paid on the open market. However, I don’t think he’s a great option in Tennessee. Again, the defense needs to get faster in the front seven and he doesn’t help with that. He also would have more of a scheme adjustment here to deal with. I’d much rather bring Williamson back than sign Hitchens if those were the options.

None of that probably matters though as he is rumored to be ticketed to the Colts, following his position coach Matt Eberflus who is going to be the new defensive coordinator in Indy. That seems like a good fit, and frankly, Hitchens is a guy that I wouldn’t mind the Colts paying a premium for.

Preston Brown | Bills

Brown tied for the NFL lead in tackles in 2017 with 144 total stops, but few have ever heard of him. That’s because tackling is pretty much all he does. Over 4 seasons in the NFL, he’s racked up 505 tackles, but just 10 passes defensed, 3 interceptions, 2 forced fumbles, and 1 sack. Considering he has been on the field for over 93% of the Bills defensive snaps every single year, it’s pretty incredible that he hasn’t created more splash plays.

Like Davis, Brown has been incredibly durable while playing one of the most violent positions in a very violent sport. He has yet to miss an NFL game and — according to him — he’s only missed 4 games due to injury in his entire football career. Also like Davis, he claims that a change in diet has transformed his play on the field. He came in to the league at 251 pounds, but said he played in the low-240’s for most of the 2017 season.

Spotrac Projection: 4 years, $33.8M

Preston Brown seems pretty likely to return to Buffalo though. He says he wants to be back with the Bills and thinks the Bills want him back. Even if he did hit the open market, he’s another guy that is a lot like Avery Williamson. He’s a 25-year old run stuffer who is a liability in coverage. If the Titans want that, they should just re-sign Williamson.

Tahir Whitehead | Lions

Whitehead is another in a seemingly endless line of run-stuffing 2-down linebackers hitting free agency in 2018. A 5th round pick in 2012, he is finishing his second contract with the Lions and has been a dependable starter in Detroit for most of the past 4 seasons. During his 6-year NFL career he has missed just 3 games due to injury so durability is a plus for him.

Spotrac Projection: 4 years, $31.4M

That seems high in my estimation, especially given the glut of similar players all hitting the market at the same time this year. Whitehead is a very physical player and a good run stuffer, but struggles in coverage due to a lack of athleticism. His instincts and recognition help make up for some of that, but he’s never going to be a plus player in pass defense.

Todd Davis | Broncos

Davis is a former undrafted free agent out of Sacramento State who ended up sticking with the Broncos after being released by the Saints during his rookie year. He became a starter at inside linebacker in 2016 after Danny Trevathan left Denver to sign with the Bears and has turned in two solid seasons there, grading out at 75.9 and 77.1 per PFF. Davis is strictly a run stuffer though, struggling in coverage due to his limited athleticism.

Spotrac Projection: None

The perennially cap strapped Broncos will have a limited budget to work with this offseason. Davis, for his part would like to return to Denver, but he may be able to fetch more money elsewhere as a 25 year old with two seasons of solid experience as a starter. I don’t think he’s a fit in Tennessee though.

Zach Brown | Redskins

Ahh yes, our old friend Zach Brown is hitting the market again! In 2016 he finished 2nd in the NFL in tackles in a career year in Buffalo that was supposed to set him up for a big payday in free agency, but that payday never came and he settled for a one year deal in Washington. Playing on an expiring deal again in 2017, he led the Redskins in tackles but struggled in coverage. In fact, he graded out as the worst coverage linebacker in the NFL according to PFF. That is a pretty strange development considering that coverage was always considered to be a strength of his, but that could have to do with Washington’s scheme, the players around him, or other external factors.

Brown really struggled in Tennessee as he clashed with the coaching staff and was extremely inconsistent on the field. At 28 you would hope that he has matured some on and off the field, but there are certainly some red flags around him. That could also be why he didn’t get the big payday he was expecting last offseason in free agency.

Spotrac Projection: None

The Redskins seem to be interested in bringing Brown back, but expect him to test the market. While his supremely athletic skill set is seemingly a perfect fit next to Wesley Woodyard — the player to replaced Brown in the Titans starting lineup back in 2015, leading to his departure from the team — I’m not sure Brown would want to come back to a place where he still has baggage and I’m also not sure that the character-conscious Titans would want him here either.

I think Brown realizes this is his last realistic shot at getting a big contract since he’s creeping up on the magic age of 30, and will probably be chasing the dollar more than anything. I don’t think the Titans will (or should) want to pay up for him.

BARGAIN BIN

Kevin Minter | Bengals

Minter was another guy who was a free agent last year, but only managed to land a one year deal. His one season in Cincinnati did not go as planned as he missed 4 games with an elbow injury and then ended the season on IR with a hamstring injury. At 27 years old and with some good seasons in Arizona on his resume he will still garner some interest on the market this offseason, but a big contract is not coming for Minter.

Spotrac Projection: None

You could do worse than Minter as a bridge type signing to buy you some time to get a rookie ready to play. Prior to his season in Cincinnati, he had largely been a durable, reliable player who did his job without much flash. He never lived up to his draft status as a former 2nd round pick, but he wasn’t a liability either.

Jon Bostic | Colts

Bostic is another former 2nd round pick who has turned out to be a bust so far. Originally selected by the Bears as the #50 overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, Bostic started 17 games over two seasons in Chicago. A regime change with the Bears in 2015 saw Bostic fall out of favor and he was traded for a 6th round pick to the Patriots early in the 2015 season. After a season of seeing little game action behind Dont’a Hightower, Jamie Collins, and Jerod Mayo in New England, he was traded again, this time to Detroit for a 7th round pick. He never saw the field in Detroit as a foot injury cost him his entire 2016 season. With his rookie contract finally expired, he signed with the Colts this past offseason on a one year deal and wound up becoming a starter.

Spotrac Projection: None

At just 26 years old and coming off his best season as a pro, Bostic could be a nice upside signing for a team looking for help at inside linebacker. Similar to other players on this list Bostic is a pretty clear downgrade from Williamson, but would serve as a passable fill-in who could serve as a bridge to a younger player.

Recommendation

This is a complicated situation for me. I would like Avery Williamson back for the right price. He is, in my opinion, the top linebacker in free agency once you consider age, production, traits, durability, and character. However, “the right price” is the key phrase here. If the market sets his value at $9M per season, count me out. That’s simply too rich for a 2-down linebacker in today’s pass happy NFL. If this list full of run-stuffing linebackers proves anything, it’s that you can find guys who can fill run gaps. What’s tougher to find, and therefore more valuable, is guys that can fill run gaps and be a plus contributor in coverage.

The Titans extended Woodyard’s contract last offseason, but it is structured in a way that gives them the option to walk away in the 2018 or 2019 offseason without any cap penalties per Spotrac. The website also shows that a roster bonus of $500,000 is due on March 18th. If accurate, the timing of that bonus is interesting. It essentially would allow the Titans to shop for a potential replacement in free agency before any part of Woodyard’s 2018 contract becomes guaranteed. So while Woodyard’s 2017 season was fantastic, it’s possible that the team reverses field and decides to stick with the younger Williamson long term and replace Woodyard. These decisions will probably rest heavily on the evaluations of the linebackers on roster currently being done by Mike Vrabel, Dean Pees, and Tyrone McKenzie at Saint Thomas Sports Park. They will need to decide if Williamson and Woodyard are guys they want to build a defense around or if they would prefer to seek other options.

My completely unsolicited advice for Jon Robinson is to sign Demario Davis to play next to Wesley Woodyard for 2018 and then invest in a linebacker of the future in one of the first three rounds of the draft. Davis would instantly upgrade the athleticism at the linebacker position without breaking the bank. He’s got a track record of being an extremely durable, reliable player and he seems to have turned a corner thanks to a new level of professionalism in his training and dietary habits off the field. A three year deal with an annual salary of $5-6M would probably land him in Tennessee and give you a 3-down linebacker who can do a little bit of everything for Mike Vrabel’s “front multiplicity” defense.

Update: 3HL’s Mickey Ryan — who graduated from Arkansas State where Demario Davis played college ball — passes along this nugget of information:

And. I’m. Sold. Go get ‘em J-Rob.