The defense is bringing sexy back, and these nine free-agent linebackers are proof. There are at least three of the top nine linebackers who had a career-best year last season. This year’s defensive free agent class is looking to cash in on their work.
The emergence of linebackers coming off their rookie contract and old heads proving that age is just a number combine to make this top nine free agents
Where they land will change the fortunes of two teams and impact your fantasy team even if you don’t play IDP. So, pay attention to all the defensive free agents. Your fantasy fortunes could depend on it.
Bottom 5 Defenses Against the Run
These five teams gave up the most rushing yards per game last season.
- Houston Texans
The Texans gave up the most rushing yards per game (170.2). They now have a new head coach, defensive-minded DeMeco Ryans, and have the fourth most salary cap space ($37,121,466).
The Texans have 11 picks in the 2023 NFL Draft, including the overall second pick.
- Chicago Bears
The Bears surrendered 157.3 rushing yards per game last season.
The Bears lead the NFL in salary cap space ($98,656,266). They also have eight selections in the 2023 NFL Draft, including the number one pick.
- Seattle Seahawks
The Seahawks made the playoffs despite their defense allowing the third most rushing yards per game (151.9).
- Detroit Lions
The Lions were playoff-adjacent, just missing the playoffs. They also surrendered the fourth most rushing yards per game (146.5).
The Lions have money to spend in free agency. They have the 10th most cap space ($15,854,119) and eight picks in the 2023 NFL Draft, including the overall sixth and 18th picks.
- Los Angeles Chargers
The Chargers surrendered 145.6 rushing yards per game last season.
The Chargers are -$22,042,446 under the cap, but they have seven picks in the upcoming NFL Draft, including the overall 21st pick.
Top 9 Linebacker Free Agents
The linebackers are asked to do much. They must stop the run, cover the pass, and blitz the quarterback.
Here are the top nine linebackers heading into free agency.
Singleton is a tackling machine who has outplayed his one-year $1.12 million contract with the Broncos.
Last season Singleton ranked fifth in combined tackles (163) and had six tackles for loss, three quarterback hits, and three pass breakups. On his solo tackles (100), he is only giving up 3.55 yards per rush. And, oh yeah, Singleton only missed on 4.1% of his tackle attempts.
The downside is he doesn’t make high-impact plays. He had zero sacks, interceptions, fumbles, and defensive touchdowns.
Vander Esch finished the season with 90 combined tackles, 54 solo tackles, one forced fumble, four tackles for loss, nine-run stuffs, three quarterback pressures and one sack in 14 games. Therein lies the rub. In his five seasons, Vander Esch has had multiple injuries that have kept him off the field.
Pro Football Focus has Vander Esch graded 61.7 in run defense, 54.4 in pass rush, and 75.6 in coverage.
If Vander Esch can stay on the field, he will be a threat in both the run and passing game with his ability to blitz and get into the pass rush.
But the question is, will he be able to stay on the field?
Elliss is one of the best pass-rushing linebackers in free agency. He finished the season with a career-best 78 combined tackles, 35 solo tackles, a career-high seven tackles for loss, two passes defended, 20 quarterback pressures, 10 quarterback hits and seven sacks. His seven sacks put him second on the Saints behind Cameron Jordan’s 8.5 sacks.
Elliss’ 2.3 average depth of tackles on run plays ranked him fourth among linebackers who played at least 200 run-defense snaps. Demonstrating his versatility, PFF has him targeted 32 times, allowing 25 receptions with zero touchdowns allowed.
PFF graded Ellis 81.1 in run defense and 75.8 in the pass rush.
Spotrac has Elliss’ market value of $5.1 million a year. In his current contract, he was making $649,079 annually.
Okereke had a career year with 151 combined tackles, 99 solo tackles, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, five passes defended, and one touchdown gave up on 82 targets. Compared to the 2021 season, he gave up four touchdowns on 73 targets.
Okereke had 13 defensive stops against the run this season, which tied him for the 13th most.
Okereke was ranked as NFL Next Gen Stats’ fifth-best off-ball linebacker. Per Next Gen Stats, Okereke made a tackle on 16.5% of his defensive snaps (sixth highest among players with at least 300 snaps) and allowed only 4.8 yards per target as the nearest defender in cover (fifth among off-ball linebackers).
Per Spotrac, after earning $905,529 yearly, Okereke’s current market value in free agency is $2.5 million yearly.
Disregarding his AFC Championship post-game bad teammate award, Pratt had a great year. He led the Bengals in passes defended (10), was second on the team in tackles (99), 50 solo tackles, and had one forced fumble, one sack, and one interception. He also was credited with three quarterback pressures and 11 run stuffs. Pratt missed only eight tackles through the regular season and graded out a career-high 80.6 overall, 90.1 in coverage, 64.5 run defense, and 73.2 pass rush by PFF.
Spotrac has Pratt’s current market value of $10.6 million annually.
- TJ Edwards, Philadelphia Eagles
Edwards played quarterback in high school. In 2019 he went undrafted out of the University of Wisconsin, presumably because he did not “have the desired measurements and athletic testing for a linebacker,” per Zach Berman of The Athletic.
Fast forward to 2022, where Edwards will play a pivotal role on the Eagles’ top-rated defense in Super Bowl LVII.
In the 2022 season, Edwards amassed the seventh-most solo tackles in the league and team-leading 99, 159 combined tackles, seven passes defended, and two sacks.
Edwards was on the field for 96% of the Eagles’ defensive snaps, up from 64% last year. The signal caller for the Eagles’ defense also collected nine quarterback pressures and nine-run stuffs during the regular season.
PFF has graded him 79.7 in coverage, 83.4 in run defense, 81.0 in pass rush, and 84.8 overall.
Edmunds played 13 games this season after suffering a groin injury in Week 10. In his 13 games, he managed a team-leading 102 combined tackles, 66 solo tackles, five tackles for loss, one sack, seven passes defended, four quarterback pressures, and one interception. 2022 is the fifth consecutive season that Edmunds has collected triple-digit sacks.
The Bills’ first-round selection in the NFL 2018 Draft ended this season with the third-highest grade of all off-ball linebackers per PFF (86.9).
Spotrac has calculated his market value at $11 million annually.
Long only played in 12 games this season because of a hamstring injury. In those 12 games, Long finished the season with personal best in combined tackles (86), tackles for loss (7), and quarterback hits (3). His combined tackle total included 52 solo tackles. Long had six tackles for loss, 10 quarterback pressures, and 14 run stuffs.
Durability will be an issue for the 5’11”, 227-pound linebacker. In addition to his absence this year, Long played only 10 games last season because of injury. But that season, he set a career-high in combined tackles (75), quarterback pressures (6), four tackles for loss, two interceptions, and six passes defended. He averaged 7.5 tackles per game, which led the Titans.
PFF graded Long 89.0 run defense, 80.1 pass rush, 62.9 coverage, and 76.2 overall. PFF has projected Long to be worth $13.75 million a year in a contract for this upcoming free-agent market.
Out to prove most everything gets better with age is 33-year-old David is the NFL’s second-oldest starting linebacker. David finished the season with 123 combined tackles (his most since 2015 and tied team lead), 80 solo tackles, nine tackles for loss, one forced fumble, 14 run stuffs, one quarterback pressure, three quarterback hits, three sacks, and five passes defended.
The 11-year pro finished the season with an 84.1 overall grade from PFF. PFF also graded him 73.5 in run defense, 65.5 in pass