Inside and outside, the face of the modern linebacker has changed. Inside guys were once able to get by on a primary skill -- either an ability to move up against the run, or cover tight ends and slot receivers in a rudimentary fashion. But now, the best interior linebackers are 360-degree players, required to take on more responsibility with modern passing games expanding.
And outside linebackers, usually the specialists depending on scheme, also have had to think outside the box. Weakside and strongside linebackers in a traditional 4-3 defense are dinosaurs unless they can move out in space in nickel and dime defenses. And those edge rushers in 3-4 fronts must also be able to man up against guards and tackles when playing end roles in hybrid fronts.
And with that in mind, the list of top linebackers ready for 2014 free agency on March 11 presents a mixed bag. With precious few exceptions, those left on the market will be old-school specialists, which means that they won't ideally be starters. However, the top inside linebacker should be a major priority for just about any team that can get him.
1. Karlos Dansby
In 2013, Dansby was a huge factor -- along with fellow inside linebacker Daryl Washington -- in making Arizona's defense perhaps the NFL's second-best. He'll be 33 in November, but Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians insists there's no doubt the team wants him back. He amassed career-highs in tackles (112) and interceptions (four) last season, in part because defensive coordinator Todd Bowles had such a good read on how to use his range. If player and team can't come to an agreement, expect other franchises to load up the money, and for good reason -- Dansby clearly still has a lot left in the tank.
Woodyard graded out negatively for most of the 2013 season after suffering a stinger (neck/shoulder) in early October, but when he's healthy, he's one of the league's better pass-rushing inside linebackers. He amassed 5.5 sacks in 2012, with plenty of quarterbacks hits and hurries as well. If he doesn't land back in Denver, expect teams that blitz heavily with their linebackers to find him an interesting option.
3. Daryl Smith
Smith held things together in estimable fashion after Ray Lewis' retirement, though he's a very different player -- more a range player and pass coverage star than a real thumper to the line. He called the defense and became a veteran leader in his first year with Baltimore. The Ravens have said that he'll be a priority in free agency, which is wise -- Smith fits the NFL's new prototype for inside linebackers, and he'd get quite a few offers.
At 6-foot-2 and 255 pounds, Spikes brings solid run defense to the field, but he'll find a limited market because he's not really a pass defender -- he plays far more forward than backward. In early January, Bill Belichick placed Spikes on injured reserve after snow prevented Spikes from making a practice on time during the postseason bye week. It was reportedly the latest in a string of minor incidents in which Spikes made the Pats' top brass unhappy. With former New England line coach Pepper Johnson now in Buffalo, it's possible that Spikes could find a home there.
We're calling Henderson an inside linebacker here because that's where he played most of the time in 2013, but he was a man without a solid position for the Vikings -- former head coach and current Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier admitted that putting Henderson in the middle was more roster spackle than any indication he was ready for the job. In addition, Henderson was charged with two DUIs last year, which puts him on the NFL's short leash. He put up 112 tackles and two picks in 2013, and he'll get some interest, but it's definitely a case of buyer beware.
Overrated: Spikes. He'd have a healthier market a decade ago, when teams wanted dedicated run-stoppers in the middle and were OK if those players could do little else. But things have changed, and his slightly checkered history won't help his case.
Underrated: Dansby. Unless you've seen Arizona's 2013 defense on a fairly regular basis, it'd be hard to register how valuable he can be based on mere stats (though the stats are impressive). Dansby is still one of the best in the business.
1. Mike Neal
Neal had a career-high five sacks in 2013, but that doesn't tell the whole story -- he's a very versatile player who lined up all over the place in Dom Capers' Green Bay defenses. He dropped weight to play outside last season, but he can bulk up from 275 and be a solid hybrid defender at the line. Teams interested in multiple fronts and stunts will be looking at him if the Packers don't retain him.
2. Rob Jackson
Jackson made his name when he started 14 games in place of the injured Brian Orakpo on Washington's defense in 2012, racking up 4.5 sacks and four interceptions. The 2013 season did not begin auspiciously at all, as he was handed a four-game suspension for taking an unprescribed pain medication, according to the Washington Post. Jackson would be a good rotational player for any base 3-4 team in need of a versatile outside presence.
Like Jackson, Dunbar served a four-game suspension to start the 2013 campaign after a 2012 season that redefined his career. His stats dropped precipitously last season, but he's a good role-player in any 4-3 defense.
4. Keith Rivers
The Bengals took Rivers ninth overall in the 2008 draft, and while he's never lived up to that particular hype, he's always played reasonably well. Traded to the Giants before the 2012 season, Rivers -- like many of the outside linebackers on this list -- may never rise above league-average for a long period of time, but he'll fill a spot for a relatively painless price.
Casillas was a pass-defense specialist for the Saints, and tried to serve that role for the Buccaneers in 2013 before a knee injury landed him on injured reserve in December. Teams in need of a rotational nickel/dime linebacker will give him a look.
Overrated: It's hard to say that anyone in this relatively weak class might be overrated, though teams should be aware that Rob Jackson might not be able to repeat his 2012 season unless he's helped a great deal by scheme and personnel. Underrated: Neal. He's proven that he'll play wherever his coaches ask him to, and with the trend toward hybrid defenders in the NFL, Neal has developed that skill at exactly the right time.