Baltimore Ravens

2012 NFL free agency primer: the linebackers

Unless you count Mario Williams, a defensive end who can also play outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense, there won’t be any marquee linebackers available in free agency this offseason. But there are a handful of solid starters -- including a pair of Ravens -- scheduled to be available in a deep class of free agent linebackers.

Jarret Johnson, who has spent nine years with the Ravens, is among the top outside linebackers this year. He has expressed a desire to remain in Baltimore, but there has been speculation that the New York Jets and the Indianapolis Colts could pursue the 30-year-old. Jameel McClain, who started alongside Johnson the past two seasons, will also garner interest after playing well at inside linebacker while Ray Lewis was sidelined in 2011.  

Fellow linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo is also a free agent and is expected to be back to Baltimore in 2012.

Still, there could be turnover at linebacker for the Ravens if Johnson and/or McClain sign elsewhere, and with Lewis gearing up for his 17th season. The Ravens are likely to add a linebacker during April’s NFL draft. They might also be players on the market if they are unable to hang on to their own free agent linebackers.

D'Qwell Jackson, who played his college ball at Maryland, would have been the top inside linebacker, but he has re-signed with the Cleveland Browns. London Fletcher of the Washington Redskins, Stephen Tulloch of the Detroit Lions and Curtis Lofton of the Atlanta Falcons are a few of the top free agent inside linebackers.

Williams, who had five sacks in five games as an outside linebacker in 2011, could be a game-changing talent as an outside linebacker in the 3-4. Other outside linebackers available on March 13 include Leroy Hill of the Seattle Seahawks, Manny Lawson of the Cincinnati Bengals and Erin Henderson of the Minnesota Vikings.

Here is a look at the top free agent linebackers on the market and where they could wind up in 2012.

Inside linebackers


1. Stephen Tulloch: After five seasons with the Tennessee Titans, Tulloch signed with the Detroit Lions and made 111 tackles, three sacks and two interceptions. The Lions might not be able to fit him in their budget.

Potential suitors: Detroit Lions, Philadelphia Eagles, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Atlanta Falcons.

2. London Fletcher: Fletcher, who turns 37 in May, had a career-high 166 tackles in 2011. He hasn't missed a game in his NFL career and has had at least 128 tackles in every season since 2002. Age is a concern, but you can probably plug him in for a year or two and get good production. The Redskins reportedly want him back.


Potential suitors: Washington Redskins, Philadelphia Eagles, New York Giants, Atlanta Falcons, Detroit Lions.

3. Curtis Lofton: The Atlanta Falcons linebacker, who made 492 tackles and forced seven fumbles in his first four seasons in the NFL, is reportedly seeking a huge deal. He is said to be a liability in pass coverage, though.

Potential suitors: Atlanta Falcons, Philadelphia Eagles, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Indianapolis Colts.

4. Jameel McClain: The Ravens would like to keep McClain, but there is a chance another team -- maybe the Colts, now coached by former Ravens defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano? -- will make an offer they can’t match.

Potential suitors: Baltimore Ravens, Indianapolis Colts, Philadelphia Eagles.

5. David Hawthorne: Hawthorne has been solid for the Seattle Seahawks, starting 41 games since 2009.

Potential suitors: Seattle Seahawks, Atlanta Falcons, Detroit Lions, Philadelphia Eagles.

Other notable free agents (2011 team in parenthesis): Dan Connor (Carolina Panthers), James Farrior (Pittsburgh Steelers), Andra Davis and Kirk Morrison (Buffalo Bills), Ernie Sims (Indianapolis Colts), E.J. Henderson (Minnesota Vikings), Gary Guyton (New England Patriots), Barrett Ruud (Tennessee Titans), Tavares Gooden (San Francisco 49ers).

Outside linebackers

1. Mario Williams: As I wrote in Tuesday’s defensive line primer, he is a better fit at defensive end. But teams with 3-4 defenses will also toss tons of cash at him, so let's throw him on this list, too. Might the Ravens be one of those teams? I would say it is highly unlikely, but it’s fun to think about the damage Williams and Terrell Suggs could do playing together.

Potential suitors: Houston Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars, Seattle Seahawks, New England Patriots, Chicago Bears.

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2. Jarret Johnson: Like McClain, Johnson could be a target of the Colts. Rex Ryan and the New York Jets may also try to lure him away from Baltimore. Johnson wants to stay, but he knows his time here could be up. "I love my teammates but I'm not idiot," he recently told our Mike Preston. "I know how this business works."


Potential suitors: Baltimore Ravens, Indianapolis Colts, New York Jets.

3. Manny Lawson: Lawson, who spent his first five seasons with the San Francisco 49ers, signed a one-year deal with the Cincinnati Bengals before the 2011 season. He started 15 games on a stout Bengals defense.

Potential suitors: Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, Philadelphia Eagles, New York Jets, Chicago Bears.

4. Erin Henderson: In his fourth season in the NFL, Henderson -- a former Terp -- became a starter for the first time. In 15 games (11 starts), he made 70 tackles and forced two fumbles for the Minnesota Vikings.

Potential suitors: Minnesota Vikings, Chicago Bears, Cleveland Browns, Philadelphia Eagles.

5. Leroy Hill: Hill, who has spent his entire career in Seattle, started all 16 games for the first time in his career in 2011. The 29-year-old had 89 tackles, four sacks and a forced fumble for the Seahawks.

Potential suitors: Seattle Seahawks, Chicago Bears, Philadelphia Eagles, Cleveland Browns.

Other notable free agents (2011 team in parenthesis): Rocky McIntosh (Washington Redskins), Philip Wheeler (Indianapolis Colts), Geno Hayes (Tampa Bay Buccaneers), Joey Porter (Arizona Cardinals).