NFL.com Around the NFL Editor Gregg Rosenthal named his top 20 unrestricted free agents of 2016.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have a rich tradition at the linebacker position, and the future looks bright as well. From Richard Wood and David Lewis to Hugh Green and Scot Brantley to Winston Moss, Hardy Nickerson, Derrick Brooks and Shelton Quarles, the franchise has repeatedly found top-notch talent at that position. Lavonte David, coming off his first Pro Bowl appearance, and Kwon Alexander, a revelation as a rookie, are the heirs apparent to that tradition.
David is just beginning the five-year contract extension he signed in 2015 while Alexander's rookie deal goes through 2018. Those two will remain at the heart of the Buccaneers' defense for years to come, and the team could easily cover the third starting spot this year with Danny Lansanah, a restricted free agent likely to return, or Bruce Carter, who is going into the second year of a deal signed last March.
The top 50 prospects in the 2016 NFL Draft class according to NFL Media analyst, Daniel Jeremiah.
With Adarius Glanton and Josh Keyes also still under contract for 2016 and Jeremiah George an exclusive rights free agent, the Buccaneers also head into the offseason with some potential depth at the position. Given that, and an apparently stronger need for help on the other two levels of the defense, linebacker would not appear to be a primary target for the Bucs' personnel executives this spring.
Counterpoint: Linebackers are always on the radar at this time of year. More often than not, when the Buccaneers have wrapped up their work on the unrestricted free agent market, there's been a new linebacker in the bunch. That has been true each of the last three years and in seven of the past 10 offseasons, and one of the primary reasons is that linebackers can often contribute significantly on special teams even if they aren't likely starters on defense.
In the weeks leading up to the start of free agency on March 9, Buccaneers.com is taking a position-by-position look at the players who may be available when the market opens, hoping to determine the ones who could be good fits for the Buccaneers. The usual caveat applies: This is not meant to reflect the opinions or strategies of Tampa Bay General Manager Jason Licht, Head Coach Dirk Koetter or any of their assistants. In fact, since the players mentioned below are still under contract until the start of the new league year, Licht and company could not comment on them specifically even if they wished to do so, lest they be guilty of tampering.
We've already considered the possibilities at defensive end, wide receiver and the interior O-Line, and as the introduction above would indicate, we now turn our attention to…
Since the Buccaneers will continue to operate out of a 4-3 base alignment on defense under new coordinator Mike Smith, we'll be focusing on 4-3 outside 'backers like David and MIKE linebackers like Alexander. We've already touched on 3-4 pass-rushers like Von Miller and Bruce Irvin in the defensive end/edge rushers analysis.
Some of the best defenses in the league are dealing with multiple pending free agents this spring, which raises the possibility that a few top performers will actually make it to the open market. That could be true with insider linebackers Danny Trevathan and Derrick Johnson of the Denver Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs, respectively. Trevathan has the advantage of age (26 to Johnson's 34) and a potential upward career trajectory as he could produce even more with a chance to play every down in another defense. Johnson, of course, has a longer track record, including four Pro Bowls since 2011, and he's coming off another fine year. Again, however, both of these players are likely to depart their current teams only for an obvious starting spot elsewhere, and that wouldn't appear to be the case in Tampa.
With the Rams surprisingly adding James Laurinaitis to the free agency field and the Jerrell Freeman hitting the market after what was easily the best of his first four seasons, there is tons of depth at inside linebacker. That group also includes Rolando McClain, who continued his unexpected resurgence in Dallas, and the Browns' Craig Robertson, who has started the last three years but did suffer from an ankle injury last year. However, if the Buccaneers were to go looking for someone more likely to provide depth and special teams help, they might instead focus on Minnesota's Audie Cole or even ninth-year veteran Joe Mays.
There aren't nearly as many options for those teams trying to find a starting outside linebacker. Tennessee's Zach Brown was technically playing inside linebacker last year in the Titans' 3-4 front, but he was the weakside 'backer when the Titans ran a 4-3 earlier in his four-year career. The 2012 second-round pick has not yet blossomed into a standout and he started just five games last year, but there still might be potential for him to take a big step forward with another team.
Detroit's Tahir Whitehead may have shown potential suitors that he was ready to take off by performing well when the Lions put him in the starting lineup in the second half. Just 25 and hitting free agency for the first time, he appears to have that upward trajectory that makes a free agent signing particularly attractive for a new team. That may also be true for one of the most interesting options at this position: former Buccaneers safety Mark Barron. The Bucs traded the former first-round pick to the Rams midway through 2014, and last season his new squad chose to play him as a linebacker. He did well enough at that spot to possibly light a new fire under his career.
Otherwise, there aren't many young guns about to hit the market at outside linebacker. Cincinnati's Vincent Rey is just 28 but he has only started 25 games in six years, including eight last fall. With a lot of pending free agents on defense, the Bengals may have to decide between re-signing Rey or bringing back fellow linebacker Emmanuel Lamur, a former undrafted free agent who started 13 games in 2014 but just two last year. There are also some very recognizable LB names due to hit the market, but they may all be nearing the end of their runs as NFL starters: Chad Greenway (33), Justin Durant (30) and Philip Wheeler (31). Sean Weatherspoon, the former Falcon first-rounder, is 28 but he missed all of 2014 due to an Achilles tendon injury and failed to regain a starting role last year after signing with the Cardinals.
Bucs' Overall Interest Level at the Position: Low
The likely crop of free agent linebackers does not look particularly fertile in 2016, particularly in regards to traditional 4-3 outside 'backers. That and Tampa Bay's relative strength at linebacker, especially compared to several other spots on a defense sure to be reworked this offseason, would seemingly put the position low on the team's offseason priority list.
Still, the Buccaneers may go hunting for additional depth and special teams help among the available linebackers. Tampa may not be the likely destination for the big-name free agent LBs this year, but it wouldn't be surprising to see some lower-profile additions at the position.