Jeff Howe will break down one position of the free-agent class each day. However, free agency won't begin until the NFL has a new collective-bargaining agreement. On Monday, he looked at the defensive line.
The Patriots restocked their linebacking corps over the last few seasons, and the emergence of veteran Rob Ninkovich and three rookies — Brandon Spikes, Jermaine Cunningham and Dane Fletcher — gave the team another boost in 2010.
The Pats are still in position to improve the group through free agency and, more likely, the draft. With that, let's take a look at the 2011 class of free-agent linebackers.
Head of the Class
1. There's almost no reason to believe outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley will leave Pittsburgh. He's gone as far as to say he'd be fine with the possibility of having the franchise tag placed on him. In NFL terms, that is the same as begging a team to re-sign you.
2. Stephen Tulloch had 159 total tackles in 2010, second in the NFL only to Jerod Mayo, and the 26-year-old has emerged as a premier 4-3 middle linebacker. Things have gotten weird in Tennessee, though, so it will be interesting to see how the Titans approach the offseason with Tulloch.
3. Chad Greenway has become a really good 4-3 outside linebacker and finished fourth in the NFL with 144 tackles last season, which is a fairly alarming number for a player in that position. The 28-year-old is a good run stopper and has shown an improvement in his pass drops.
4. Tamba Hali emerged as a pass-rushing star in Kansas City's 3-4 system last season, and he should be the Chiefs' top priority this offseason. Hali finished second to DeMarcus Ware in 2010 with 14.5 sacks. He's only 27, so he'll earn a lot of interest if the Chiefs let it get that far.
5. Barrett Ruud, a 4-3 inside linebacker, is a curious case. He became one of the league's elite tacklers in 2008 and 2009, but the Bucs were very unimpressed with his production in 2010. Ruud apparently shot down a contract extension last year, and his displeasure could have caused a drop in production. That's not something that potential suitors love to see out of a guy who should be in the running for tens of millions this offseason.
Diamond in the Rough
Inside linebacker Kirk Morrison has always been a good tackler, but he fell off in Jacksonville in 2010. Morrison had at least 116 tackles in each of his five seasons with the Raiders, but he his numbers dwindled after they sent him to the Jaguars. Morrison would earn a lot more attention if he played for a winner.
Fit for New England
San Francisco's defensive leader, linebacker Patrick Willis, has publicly pleaded for the organization to retain free agent Takeo Spikes, so it seems like a good bet that he remains by the Bay. Spikes, who can play inside in the 3-4, would be a really good addition to the Patriots because of his solid locker-room reputation and his strong play on the field. More than that, though, he's the older cousin of New England's Brandon Spikes, who could use his cousin as a mentor after making a couple of youthful mistakes during his rookie season. The Patriots have a pretty good group of inside linebackers, so it would be tough to find a spot for Takeo Spikes, but he'd be a tremendous asset in the development of Brandon.
1. It's still somewhat of a mystery why the Patriots traded linebacker Mike Vrabel to the Chiefs along with quarterback Matt Cassel, but Vrabel is a free agent now. He could help the Patriots as an outside linebacker, but it's unclear if he or the Patriots would be willing to rekindle their relationship.
2. When healthy, inside linebacker Paul Posluszny has been a tremendous player for the Bills, but he's missed 19 games in his four-year career and has played 16 games only once. Despite missing a pair of games, Posluszny went crazy in 2010 with a career-best 151 tackles and two sacks. Teams will be wary because of his injury history, but a healthy Posluszny will surely outplay his contract.