A look at potential free agents by position heading into the NFL shopping season. This installment features the linebackers.
The Buffalo Bills could be looking at an extreme makeover at inside linebacker.
With coach Rex Ryan saying the team will be all in with his 3-4 scheme in 2016, the Bills could have a big need at the position, particularly if Nigel Bradham leaves as an unrestricted free agent.
As it stands now, the following three players should be expected to start for the Bills in the front seven next season: Marcell Dareus, Kyle Williams and Jerry Hughes.
Linebacker Manny Lawson is a favorite of the coaching staff, so he can probably be added to that list, while Preston Brown has been a two-year starter, even if he did not appear to be a great fit for what Ryan wanted last season.
That still leaves two openings in the Bills’ base defense, which is why linebacker could be a target after the first wave of free agency passes and the price goes down for the players who are left.
Here is an overview of the pending unrestricted free-agent crop at both inside and outside linebacker, and a look at how the Bills may approach the positions:
Starting options: Derrick Johnson, Kansas City; Danny Trevathan, Denver; Jerrell Freeman, Indianapolis; Zach Brown, Tennessee; Rolando McClain, Dallas; Nigel Bradham, Buffalo; Demario Davis, New York Jets; James Laurinatis, L.A. Rams.
The skinny: Johnson bounced back from a torn Achilles to have a solid season, but he’ll be 34 in 2016, so he’s not looking at a long-term contract. … Trevathan is a three-down player entering the prime of his career. He’s a solid starter who will get paid like a star. … Freeman has excellent coverage skills, which is worth a good contract in today’s NFL. … Brown is one of the fastest linebackers in the league. A former second-round draft pick, he had 77 tackles last year.
McClain has a checkered past, which the Bills have shown doesn’t scare them off. He’s ultra-tough against the run. … Bradham’s value was undoubtedly hurt by a down season in Ryan’s scheme, but his 2014 tape should make him attractive to multiple teams. … Davis fell out of favor in New York under new coach Todd Bowles. … Laurinatis’ play drastically declined in the past couple seasons. He doesn’t make many big plays, and is more of a stop-gap option at this point in his career.
Depth players: Donald Butler, San Diego; Jasper Brinkley, New York Giants; Craig Robertson, Cleveland; Ty Powell, Buffalo; Erin Henderson, New York Jets; Mason Foster, Washington; Kelvin Sheppard, Miami; Sean Weatherspoon, Arizona.
The skinny: Butler was accused of basically quitting on the Chargers after landing a big contract after the 2013 season. Good luck coming back from that. … Brinkley played solid football the second half of the season for the Giants after taking over as a starter. … Robertson struggled through an ankle injury last year after the Browns used a second-round tender on him in restricted free agency. … Powell missed all of last year because of a torn ACL. He’s got value on special teams. … Henderson ended up replacing Davis in the Jets’ starting lineup and it’s expected New York will attempt to re-sign him.
After four productive years in Tampa Bay, Foster wasn’t much more than a role player for Washington last year. … Sheppard graded out 84th among 97 linebackers according to analytics website Pro Football Focus. … Weatherspoon lost his starting job with the Cardinals and has battled injuries.
Other options: Tank Carder, Cleveland; Dane Fletcher, New England; James-Michael Johnson, Miami; Casey Matthews, Minnesota; Shea McClellin, Chicago; Spencer Paysinger, Miami; DeMeco Ryans, Philadelphia; Sean Spence, Pittsburgh.
Who might fit the Bills: This all depends on what the Bills want to do with Bradham. If he leaves, a player like Davis – who had his best years with Ryan – would make sense. If the Bills think Bradham can fit into the 3-4 they want to run, and his contract demands allow it, his return would answer a big question for the defense.