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Free agency primer: Ranking the linebackers

Around the League's positional free-agent previews are ranked according to the players we would want -- not the players who will make the most money. We're ranking each position and have our top-85 players overall. The series continues with available linebackers. We included pass-rushing 3-4 outside linebackers in our "pass rusher" rankings.

Best of a bad lot

Notes: Ellerbe picked the perfect time for free agency. His versatile skill was just highlighted during a Super Bowl run, and it's a tough year to be looking for a free-agent linebacker. Ellerbe is our only player on this position list ranked in our top-85 overall free agents. He can rush the passer, stop the run and cover when asked. It won't be cheap for the Ravens to keep him.

Potential starters

  1. Daryl Smith, Jacksonville Jaguars
    1. Rey Maualuga, Cincinnati Bengals
    2. Erin Henderson, Minnesota Vikings (UPDATE: Re-signed with the Minnesota Vikings)
    3. Philip Wheeler, Oakland Raiders (UPDATE: Signed with the Miami Dolphins)
    4. Brad Jones, Green Bay Packers
    5. Brian Urlacher, Chicago Bears

Notes: Smith was one of the most underrated linebackers of the last eight years, but he's 31 years old and only played two games last season. If he's healthy, Smith could be a really smart low-cost veteran signing for a contending team. He's an outside linebacker in a 4-3 defense. Bengals coach Marvin Lewis doesn't seem to trust Maualuga, and Lewis knows middle linebackers. Henderson could be a nice run-stopper for teams, but he isn't a great option on passing downs. Wheeler is a perfect one-year stopgap solution. Jones is versatile enough to be a backup at multiple positions. It's hard to imagine Urlacher playing anywhere but Chicago. It's not that crazy to wonder if Urlacher will get an offer he's willing to accept.

Role players

  1. Lorenzo Alexander, Washington Redskins (UPDATE: Agreed to terms with the Arizona Cardinals)
    1. Nick Barnett, Buffalo Bills
    2. Justin Durant, Detroit Lions
    3. Michael Boley, New York Giants
    4. Karlos Dansby, Miami Dolphins
    5. James Anderson, Carolina Panthers
    6. Takeo Spikes, San Deigo Chargers
    7. Tim Dobbins, Houston Texans
    8. Jonathan Casillas, New Orleans Saints
    9. Thomas Howard, Cincinnati Bengals
    10. Leroy Hill, Seattle Seahawks
    11. Manny Lawson, Cincinnati Bengals (UPDATE: Agreed to terms with the Buffalo Bills)
    12. Nick Roach, Chicago Bears
    13. Kaluka Maiava, Cleveland Browns (UPDATE: Signed with the Oakland Raiders)
    14. Keith Rivers, New York Giants
    15. Bart Scott, New York Jets
    16. Bradie James, Houston Texans
    17. Dan Connor, Dallas Cowboys
    18. Stewart Bradley, Arizona Cardinals (UPDATE: Agreed to terms with the Denver Broncos)
    19. Scott Fujita, Cleveland Browns
    20. Scott Shanle, New Orleans Saints
    21. Gerald McRath, Tennessee Titans
    22. Will Witherspoon, Tennessee Titans
    23. Geno Hayes, Chicago Bears (UPDATE: Signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars)
    24. Tavares Gooden, San Francisco 49ers

Notes: Alexander can upgrade any special teams unit, but special teamers don't often have a strong free-agent market. ... Durant was second on the Lions in tackles last year. You could do worse while looking for depth. ... Barnett played well for Buffalo at times in 2012; he was just overpaid. ... Casillas has shown flashes as a pass rusher.

Position overview

Rosenthal: Top 85 free agents

This year's free-agent crop lacks star power, but provides immense depth. Gregg Rosenthal ranks available players. **More...**

Teams just don't pay big money to players that aren't true pass rushers, unless they are truly exceptional like San Franciso 49ers linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman. (And even those guys can rush when called upon.) This crop of free agents is not going to solve a lot of depth charts. Even the top guy, Ellerbe, has questions because he hasn't performed as a starter all that often. The Ravens may be hesitant to pay him more than $5-6 million-per-season, so it wouldn't be a surprise if Ellerbe moves on. Teams would be better off building up linebacker and special teams depth through the draft. Most of these options above are stopgap solutions.

Teams with a need

Buffalo Bills: They need new pieces for yet another defensive makeover.
Cincinnati Bengals: Both of their outside linebacker positions could have new starters.
Jacksonville Jaguars: The Jaguars roster looks like an expansion team in spots.
Oakland Raiders: This need is especially acute after not re-signing Wheeler.
Chicago Bears: They have Lance Briggs and a lot of questions.
New York Giants: Big Blue could be looking for starter options at middle linebacker and on the weak side.
Minnesota Vikings: They are very, very thin at linebacker other than Chad Greenway.
St. Louis Rams: The Rams are two linebackers away from a very good defense.
New Orleans Saints: Where to start?

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.

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