Because the Patriots were so multiple with their defensive fronts in 2011, they used their linebackers in a variety of ways. Everyone had a few different roles, from the inside guys like Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes to the outside guys like Rob Ninkovich and even Mark Anderson.
With that, it's unclear if the Patriots will seek out a particular type of linebacker this offseason, whether it's in the draft or free agency. The real question is if they have a base defense in mind or if they'll make that determination after acquiring their key personnel.
Head of the Class
1. Inside linebacker Stephen Tulloch: A heck of a pro, Tulloch has 392 tackles over the last three seasons. He blossomed with the Titans before spending his first year in Detroit in 2011. Tulloch is only 27, so he'll draw plenty of interest in free agency if the Lions let him get that far.
2. Inside linebacker D'Qwell Jackson: It's presumed that Jackson and the Browns would like to keep their thing going, but he could do well on the open market, particularly since it's not a very top-heavy group of free agents. Jackson is just a very solid player.
3. Outside linebacker Jarret Johnson: He plays with a mean streak, which has made him a natural fit with the Ravens. Johnson is pretty good in coverage, and he's been versatile enough to line up over slot receivers and tight ends. Johnson has really flown under the radar in Baltimore.
Diamond in the Rough
Outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks — the son of the late Perry Brooks, a Patriots draft pick in 1976 — has slowly progressed as a pass-rushing specialist in San Francisco. He flew under the radar a bit with the 49ers because he was on a roster that's filled with high-profile linebackers, but he had a career-high seven sacks last season. Brooks turns 28 in March, so he's at the age where he could really continue to break out, particularly if he signs with an attack-style defense.
Fit for New England
Inside linebacker London Fletcher is a fit for everyone, but he's got the makeup of someone Bill Belichick would truly covet. Fletcher, who turns 37 in May, has made three straight Pro Bowl appearances with the Redskins, and he has developed a reputation as one of the NFL's greatest leaders. It would be a surprise to see him leave Washington, especially for a place like New England that has two very good, young inside linebackers, but if the two sides could make it work, it'd be a great marriage.
Side note: Fletcher was teammates with Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels at John Carroll University.
1. I included Mario Williams in the preview of free-agent defensive linemen, but he is obviously more than capable of playing outside linebacker in the 3-4. If I included Williams in the linebacker preview, he would have been the top-rated player in this group, too.
2. It was fairly surprising last year when outside linebacker Manny Lawson only signed a one-year deal with the Bengals, but he proved to be a pretty good player in the 4-3. He never lived up to the hype as a 3-4 pass rusher in San Francisco, though.
3. After a very difficult season, Gary Guyton could be done in New England.
4. Expect the Patriots to retain Tracy White. He's still a very good special teamer.
5. Chase Blackburn was one of the Giants' most popular players, and he made one of the biggest plays of the Super Bowl to intercept Tom Brady's heave for Rob Gronkowski. Blackburn bailed himself out with that, though, because he was getting torched by Aaron Hernandez in that game, including once for a touchdown.
6. Lofa Tatupu's story is a real mystery. He was surprisingly released by the Seahawks last summer, and he received zero interest across the league despite the fact that he's a pretty solid player. There's something fishy there.
7. Inside linebacker Barrett Ruud has really fallen off the face of the earth in the last couple years.
8. Brendon Ayanbadejo is one of the league's elite special teamers. Since going undrafted out of UCLA in 1999, he has played for four NFL teams, including multiple stints with the Ravens and Bears, three CFL teams and one NFL Europe team.
9. Inside linebacker Dan Connor has always been an intriguing player, but he wasn't in a great position to thrive in Carolina. If he could hook on with a more well-rounded defense, he might be able to take off.