The importance of linebackers has decreased in the NFL in recent years, due to the league's evolution into a passing league more and more each year. Linebackers are still important cogs in the defense, but they are not quite the quarterbacks of the defense that they used to be
The Kansas City Chiefs, like many teams, will be entering the offseason looking for a linebacker that can excel in pass coverage. A task that seems easy enough at first has eluded many teams around the league as they have built their rosters. The Chiefs are no exception.
On day five of The Seven Days of Free Agency series, it is time to examine the free-agent linebacker class and see if there are dynamic linebackers for teams to add to the middle of their defense.
Note: The stats listed next to a player are for the 2020 season. TFL stands for tackle for loss.
K.J. Wright - (Seahawks, 16 games played, 86 tackles, 11 TFL)
Denzel Perryman - (Chargers, 13 games played, 48 tackles, 3 TFL)
After the Bills agreed to a four-year, $44 million deal with Matt Milano, the top of the free-agent linebacking group got a bit thinner. The two remaining headliners put the complete package together and will be paid a premium, as it is rare that a linebacker is good at all facets of their usual responsibilities.
Even in his older age, K.J. Wright is still producing at a high level. The soon-to-be 32-year-old long-time Seattle Seahawk seems to finally be on his way to free agency. Even at age 32, there might not be a more complete linebacker in this class of free agents. The only thing teams will have to contend with is Wright's age, but if teams are confident in Wright matching his play from the past two years, he will be one of the most sought-after linebackers in this class.
In a limited role with the Chargers this past year, Denzel Perryman played some fantastic football. The reservation about Perryman will be the fact he has missed 27 games since being drafted in 2015. Perryman is as good as any linebacker in this class when he is on the field, and that could earn him some nice money on the open market.
The Coverage Backers
Eric Wilson - (Vikings, 16 games played, 122 tackles, 8 TFL)
Kwon Alexander - (Saints, 12 games played, 57 tackles, 3 TFL)
Nicholas Morrow - (Raiders, 14 games played, 78 tackles, 8 TFL)
Kevin Pierre-Louis - (Washington, 13 games played, 56 tackles, 3 TFL)
Malcolm Smith - (Browns, 15 games played, 72 tackles, 3 TFL)
Alex Anzalone - (Saints, 16 games played, 41 tackles, 3 TFL)
Jayon Brown - (Titans, 10 games played, 76 tackles, 5 TFL)
In the modern NFL, teams need a modern linebacker. That is what these players provide.
All of these players range from good to excellent defending the pass and average to terrible at defending the run. The reasons for this are varied; they are on the small side, their instincts against the run are slow, they cannot stack and shed, etc. However, if a team needs a WILL linebacker to come in on sub-packages and defend the pass, these guys will excel in that role.
Eric Wilson might end up being the linebacker who earns the most money out of this group. Wilson was an every-down linebacker for the Vikings last year and held his own in coverage when asked, thanks to his excellent sideline-to-sideline speed. Wilson struggled a bit against the run, but if a team brings in Wilson to be a WILL linebacker, they could get a suitable starter in a league struggling to find linebackers with his skillset.
The other linebacker that some will have higher than Wilson is Jayon Brown. Brown has outplayed the expectations of a fifth-round pick and became an excellent linebacker in the NFL over the last three years. With the Titans going through salary cap trouble, it is unlikely Brown stays with the team.
The last two young linebackers in this group are less-proven than Wilson or Brown. Nicolas Morrow and Alex Anzalone are coming off their rookie deals as players who have had fine starts to their career, but not great ones. These two players are still more than adequate players in coverage, however, so their services will be desired around the league.
The final three linebackers in this group, Kwon Alexander, Kevin Pierre-Louis, and Malcolm Smith, are journeyman linebackers who have shown they have the ability to play pass defense but come with question marks. For Alexander, there are concerns that he is injury-prone and his Achilles tear last year did not help dispel that label. Pierre-Louis has, for some reason, not stuck on a roster long-term yet, and nearing age 30, he might still hop from team-to-team. Malcolm Smith underperformed after getting a monster contract many years ago and he is still working against the stain of that contract.
Christian Kirksey - (Packers, 11 games played, 77 tackles, 2 TFL)
Avery Williamson - (Steelers, 15 games played, 111 tackles, 3 TFL)
Nick Vigil - (Chargers, 15 games played, 50 tackles, 3 TFL)
B.J. Goodson - (Browns, 14 games played, 91 tackles, 2 TFL)
Neville Hewitt - (Jets, 16 games played, 134 tackles, 6 TFL)
De'Vondre Campbell - (Cardinals, 16 games played, 99 tackles, 7 TFL)
Christian Jones - (Lions, 16 games played, 57 tackles, 2 TFL)
Anthony Walker Jr. - (Colts, 16 games played, 92 tackles, 2 TFL)
Tyrell Adams - (Texans, 16 games played, 125 tackles, 5 TFL)
Damien Wilson - (Chiefs, 13 games played, 73 tackles, 3 TFL)
Josh Bynes - (Bengals, 16 games played, 99 tackles, 5 TFL)
Short on linebackers? This is the group for you.
There might be times a fan would curse these players' names under their breath because they missed a tackle, but overall, these players will fill the linebacker position with adequate or good quality of play.
Players like Neville Hewitt and B.J. Goodson are not household names, but sometimes that is how the linebacker position operates. If a linebacker can read runs, fill gaps, and get in the way on passing downs, then there will be a place on an NFL roster for them. Many of these players fit that description and are valuable because of it.
Bruce Irvin - (Seahawks, 2 games played, 5 tackles, 1 TFL)
Sean Lee - (Cowboys, 9 games played, 20 tackles, 0 TFL)
Reuben Foster - (Washington, 0 games played)
Jarrad Davis - (Lions, 14 games played, 46 tackles, 1 TFL)
It is hard to say what these four names will do in 2021.
Bruce Irvin and Sean Lee were once elite players at the linebacker position but it seems age has sapped them. Do they have one more great year in them before they are forced to retire? The answer is most likely no, but if they do have that year left, any team that signs them for cheap will get a massive reward.
Jarrad Davis has been terrible since he has entered the league. The Lions linebacker has all the athleticism in the world, but he has not put it together on the field. A team could make the ultimate bet on that athleticism and try to help him develop and reap the rewards.
Reuben Foster was a prodigy before off-the-field issues and serious injuries paused his career. Almost healthy from an ACL/MCL tear two years ago, he seems like he could return to football this season. It is still up in the air if someone will take a chance on the former first-round pick.
Kamu Grugier-Hill (Dolphins), Tahir Whitehead (Panthers), Elandon Roberts (Dolphins), Patrick Onwuasor (Jets), Joe Thomas (Cowboys), Raekwon McMillan (Raiders), Reggie Ragland (Lions), Todd Davis (Vikings), Duke Riley - (Eagles), Harvey Langi (Eagles), Nate Gerry (Eagles), Ben Niemann (Chiefs)
The rest of the notable linebackers are strictly depth players that should only spot-start. Many of the teams who had poor linebacking corps last year have one or two free agents in this group of linebackers for a reason. These players will be fine special teamers on veteran-minimum contracts.
Who should the Chiefs target?
There will be a good amount of linebackers in this free-agent pool for the Chiefs to kick the tires on.
One guy from The Headliners that is particularly intriguing is K.J. Wright. As he gets up there in age, it is presumable that he would want to go to a contender. If the Chiefs and Wright can make the money work, it seems like a good pairing.
A better bet is the Chiefs inquiring about the multiple linebackers in The Coverage Backers group. Any of these players would instantly be the Chiefs' most proven coverage linebacker and elevate the unit to serviceable. Eric Wilson, especially, is interesting as he still has the size to pair with his coverage abilities. A reunion with former Chief Kevin Pierre-Louis also makes a lot of sense as the previous WILL linebacker, Ben Niemann, was also heavily used on special teams. KPL pairs coverage abilities with ace special teams play, making him a logical replacement.
If the Chiefs do not go after one of the better coverage linebackers in free agency, then it is hard to justify them spending up for any players in The Roster-Fillers. Anthony Hitchens is molded from the same clay that these linebackers are, and adding any of these players would be doubling-down on average traits. The only situation that would make sense would be to sign one of these players for a cheap price to play SAM linebacker and move Willie Gay Jr. to WILL. Picking a linebacker from this group or The Depth/Spot Start Guys to fill any depth issues the Chiefs have makes sense as long as the money works out.
This linebacker class of free agents is sneakily good.
Teams that need an elite starter have a few names to bid for. Teams that need coverage linebackers have a bigger pool of talent to pull from than usual. The depth of the linebacker class is also solid and has multiple players that could be 100-plus tackle players in 2021.
With the Chiefs losing two linebackers who played a good amount of snaps in 2020, Damien Wilson and Ben Niemann, they should look to this free-agent class to fill in the holes left by their departure. The team could actually upgrade on the two aforementioned linebackers by signing a number of the linebackers listed in this article. This linebacker class is a buyer's market, and the Chiefs should be at the front of the line.