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If you haven’t seen it already, we’ve revealed the top 25 free agents in the 2015 NFL class. Now we’re breaking the crop down by positions.
This collection of players features both inside and outside linebackers, which in some ways gets tricky because the latter also serve as edge rushers and could technically be classified more of a pass-rusher than a true outside linebacker.
Here are the top five options for 2015:
1. Justin Houston
If not for some cat named J.J. Watt, Houston would very much be in the discussion for NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Over the past three seasons, Houston has accumulated 43.0 sacks, including 22.0 in 2014 alone.
Kansas City is likely going to do everything in its power to retain the elite pass-rusher, perhaps even using the franchise tag on him until both sides can reach a long-term deal.
2. Pernell McPhee
McPhee graded out as Pro Football Focus’ second-best outside linebacker. Like his predecessors Paul Kruger and Arthur Jones, he’ll be coveted by other 3-4 defenses in need of an edge rusher.
At 26, McPhee just turned in a 7.5-sack season. He can slide in at numerous pass-rushing positions.
At times, he gets overshadowed in Baltimore’s star-studded defense, but one look at his tape will encourage teams to open their wallets for him.
3. Brandon Spikes
While in New England, Spikes was one of the best true inside linebackers in the league, especially when it came to stuffing the run. His weakness: playing on passing downs.
A tough, hard-nosed player, Spikes was a key part of the Bills’ improved run defense in 2014. First-year Bills coach Rex Ryan has already offered Spikes praise, so it seems as if he could be a piece of the puzzle. The team will likely extend an offer his way, but it may only be a one-year deal.
4. Jason Worilds
Worilds is another young, potential-laden linebacker that very likely could be swapping jerseys before the 2015 season. Last year, he racked up 7.5 sacks and has 15.5 over the past two seasons. At 26, Worilds offers major upside.
The Steelers may elect to let Worilds test the free-agent market, and one potential landing spot could be in Tennessee, where his former defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is now the assistant head coach.
5. Brian Orakpo
Injuries have plagued Orakpo the past three years, in which he’s started 24 of a possible 48 games. When healthy, though, he’s been nearly a lock for double-digit sack numbers.
Orakpo only managed a half-sack in 2014 in seven starts, so his injury history will likely result in teams being hesitant to give him a long-term deal. At 28 years old and bit of a high-risk, high-reward sort of free agent, he may have to settle for a one-year, “prove it” kind of contract.
*Just Missed The Cut: Brandon Graham, David Harris, Rolando McClain
Graham was never a great fit in Chip Kelly’s defense, but the former first-round pick found a niche as a stand-up pass-rusher last season. He finished as the fifth top 3-4 outside backer, per Pro Football Focus, and at 26 with his stock on the way up, he’ll likely catch on with a team that missed out on McPhee or Worilds.
Once one of the fiercest inside backers in all the NFL, Harris, at 31, is on the downslope of his career. A return to the Jets doesn’t make sense as they look to replenish the roster, but could be an option to reunite with Ryan up in Buffalo.
An NFL Comeback Player of the Year candidate in 2014, McClain helped revamp the Cowboys’ defense. He had plenty of character concerns prior to this year, but a solid season this time should help him generate interest on the market. He makes sense to stay in Dallas, who also has Sean Lee returning to the fold.
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