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Scout Ranks Top Five Free-Agent Linebackers

Cory Littleton of the Los Angeles is No. 1 on the list. Who else makes his top five?
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GREEN BAY, Wis. – At 11 a.m. Monday, if he’s so inclined, Green Bay Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst can start negotiating with free-agent linebackers.

According to a top NFL scout, here are the top five available.

No. 1: Cory Littleton, L.A. Rams. Littleton, who entered the league as an undrafted free agent in 2016, has recorded 259 tackles, five interceptions and 22 passes defensed in his two seasons as a starter. Among linebackers over that span, Littleton ranks second in interceptions, first in passes defensed and sixth in tackles. His missed-tackle rate of 2.9 percent was the best of the 31 linebackers who recorded at least 100 tackles, according to Sports Info Solutions. While a three-down linebacker, the passing game is where he thrives. He’s a sideline-to-sideline defender with the speed to match up on running backs. Pro Football Focus has a metric called run-stop percentage, which essentially measures impact tackles per run-defending snap. Last year, of 70 off-the-ball linebackers who played at last 185 run-defending snaps, Littleton ranked 53rd in run-stop percentage. According to PFF, the Rams ran dime personnel on a league-high 55.3 percent of their defensive snaps vs. the pass; the Packers’ dime rate of 27 percent ranked fourth, so he’d be an immediate fit for how defensive coordinator Mike Pettine likes to play. A source said he’s the Packers’ No. 1 target at the position.

No. 2: De’Vondre Campbell, Atlanta. Campbell has started 54 games in his four seasons and played in all 64 career games. He’s coming off the best season of his career with career-high totals of 129 tackles, two sacks, six tackles for losses, two interceptions and three forced fumbles. He added five passes defensed. His missed-tackle rate of 5.9 percent was fifth-best of the 31 linebackers who recorded at least 100 tackles, according to Sports Info Solutions. Of 70 off-the-ball linebackers who played at last 185 run-defending snaps, Campbell ranked 44th in PFF’s run-stop percentage. In coverage, Campbell is much better against tight ends than running backs. Among linebackers over the last three seasons, Campbell is 11th in tackles.

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No. 3: Joe Schobert, Cleveland. Schobert made the transition from 3-4 outside linebacker at Wisconsin to off-the-ball linebacker with the Browns. Over the last three seasons, Martinez leads the NFL with 443 tackles and Schobert is fourth with 380 tackles. However, Schobert beat Martinez in interceptions (6-2), passes defensed (19-13) and forced fumbles (7-2). That includes four interceptions and nine passes defensed in 2019. His missed-tackle rate of 11.7 percent ranked 21st of the 31 linebackers who recorded at least 100 tackles, according to Sports Info Solutions. Of 70 off-the-ball linebackers who played at last 185 run-defending snaps, Schobert ranked 25th in PFF’s run-stop percentage. “Like Blake, he wins with his brain and he’ll get everyone lined up right,” the scout said, “but every tackle will come at 4 yards.”

No. 4: Blake Martinez, Green Bay. Martinez collected a team-record 203 tackles, by the coaches’ count. By the official league stats, Martinez recorded 155 tackles. That was second in the league behind only Seattle’s Bobby Wagner (159), marking the third consecutive year Martinez finished first or second. Of the 31 linebackers who recorded at least 100 tackles, Martinez ranked 17th in missed-tackle percentage (9.9 percent), according to Sports Info Solutions. Of 70 off-the-ball linebackers who played at last 185 run-defending snaps, Martinez ranked 26th in PFF’s run-stop percentage. His athletic deficiencies were driven home in the NFC Championship Game.

No. 5: Nick Kwiatkoski, Chicago. Last season, due to injuries to Roquan Smith and Danny Trevathan, Kwiatkoski started a career-high eight games. He put up career-best numbers across the board with 76 tackles, three sacks, eight tackles for losses, four passes defensed and one interception. Even with Martinez starting 16 games and playing exactly twice as many snaps (1,024 to 512), Kwiatkoski had more passes defensed (4 to 2) and tackles for losses (8 to 5) and had matching totals in sacks, interceptions and forced fumbles (one). His missed-tackle rate of 8.5 percent would have ranked 12th had he been one of the 31 linebackers who recorded at least 100 tackles, according to Sports Info Solutions. Of 70 off-the-ball linebackers who played at last 185 run-defending snaps, Kwiatkoski ranked 30th in PFF’s run-stop percentage. “Same deal as Martinez,” the scout said. “He’s a notch below Campbell. He’s a lot closer to (B.J.) Goodson than Campbell. Like Schobert, someone is going to pay him and regret it.”

Teams can officially sign free agents beginning at 3 p.m. Wednesday, March 18.