The first shoe dropped on the linebacker market more than a month ago, when Cleveland signed impending free agent Jamie Collins to a four-year, $50 million contract ($26 million guaranteed). His deal will set the bar for what’s to come.
The question is if any other linebackers will hit that $50 million plateau. Now that the Cardinals have used the franchise tag on Chandler Jones, the player most likely to get there is another one of Collins’s former Patriots teammates: Dont’a Hightower.
They are different types of player—Hightower a do-everything inside presence, Jones a pass-rushing threat outside. The money typically tends to follow those edge defenders. Melvin Ingram (Chargers), Nick Perry (Packers), Jabaal Sheard (Patriots) and veterans like Julius Peppers (Packers), James Harrison (Steelers) and DeMarcus Ware (Broncos) are the most recognizable names among those considered outside linebackers. Peppers might be reclassified as a defensive end, depending on where he signs.
There is less to love inside, where it’s Hightower and then a drop-off to the likes of Lawrence Timmons (Steelers) and the underrated but effective Kevin Minter (Cardinals).
Cream of the Crop: Dont’a Hightower
If the Cardinals hadn't franchise tagged Jones, who has 23.5 sacks in the last two seasons, he stood to blow past the Collins contract into the $60-$70 million range. (If he doesn’t sign an extension, he’ll make almost $17 million playing under the tag in 2017.)
Another “Cream of the Crop” runner-up: Ingram. While stuck on a disappointing Chargers team, he has developed into the complete linebacker he was supposed to be when he was drafted at No. 12 in ’12. He will hit the market at the peak of his still-young career.
Hightower tops the class here, though, because of how dominant he has been in all phases. He flipped the Super Bowl with his strip-sack of Matt Ryan, capping a season that saw him finally nab his first Pro Bowl nod. He might have had one earlier except for the fact that he missed four games in both 2014 and ’15. Hightower sat another three games this year with injury, and that long-term durability is the main concern with him as he plots his next move.
Best team fit: Patriots. New England traded away both Jones and Collins and kept right on ticking, so perhaps Bill Belichick believes he can get by without Hightower, too. But losing him would leave an awfully big hole to fill.
Bargain Bin: Lorenzo Alexander
Bank on most front offices focusing on the fact that a) Alexander will turn 34 in May and that b) he had been a bit player for the majority of his career until his 12.5-sack breakthrough last season in Buffalo. Those elements will combine to keep Alexander’s price tag relatively low.
As a result, the team that does eventually snatch him up could count themselves lucky. Alexander, who also won Pro Bowl defensive MVP honors, showed last season that he can be a productive playmaker when given a chance. Prior to cementing himself in Rex Ryan’s 3–4 defense as an outside linebacker, Alexander had started just three games the previous five seasons.
His age will limit his contract, as well, probably to three years or fewer—he won’t be much of a gamble on that end.
Team fit: Colts. Sean McDermott’s arrival in Buffalo means that both sides probably should look elsewhere—Alexander showed that he needs to be a stand-up edge rusher, and the Bills are going to be rolling more of a four-man front now. The Colts, on the other hand, seem to be sticking with their base 3–4 approach, and they enter this off-season absolutely desperate for help off the edge.
Overpay Alert: Nick Perry
This boils down to whether teams believe Perry’s 2016 season was a long-awaited glimpse into his full potential or a contract-year flash in the pan. Last off-season the Packers initially declined Perry’s fifth-year option, then wound up re-signing him anyway (at a cheaper price), and he responded with 11.0 sacks—just 1.5 off his total from ’12 to ’15. It was a prove-it deal, and Perry played his way into big bucks. Will he continue to trend upward once he has what should be a rather lucrative contract under his belt?
Ideal team fit: Rams. The transition to Wade Phillips’s 3–4 defense may not be as drastic as it sounds, but he still needs more pieces to affect offenses off the edge. Whereas the Rams may have to teach Robert Quinn some new tricks if he’s to play as a hybrid linebacker now, Perry knows that role well. Pairing the two would hasten the Rams’ shift, assuming Perry keeps up his 2016 performance.
Teams most in need of linebackers: Cardinals, Ravens, Bears, Bengals, Browns, Lions, Packers, Colts, Chiefs, Chargers, Rams, Dolphins, Patriots, Saints, Giants, Raiders, Steelers, 49ers.