NFL free agency: Top 10 linebackers to sign in 2020
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2020 NFL free agency: Top 10 linebackers

The Coronavirus may put NFL free agency on hold, but it’s going to happen at some point. EDGEs and linebackers are always some of the highest-paid players in FA, and this year should be no different. Here are the ten best in this class.

10. Vic Beasley, Atlanta Falcons

Beasley was the eighth overall pick in 2015, and when he lead the NFL in sacks in 2016 with 15.5, it looked like he was on his way to becoming a premier pass-rusher. However, he’s accumulated just 18 sacks in the three years since, and his regression to the mean wasn’t difficult to see coming. Pass-rushers should not be judged based on only their sack count. Their entire game must be considered; run defense, the blocking assignments they draw, pressure rate, etc. Beasley has played primarily as a 3-4 outside linebacker, which means he has to drop into coverage at times. He’s never been particularly good in that area, and has performed worse the more coverage snaps he’s seen.

Even in his breakout season, Beasley didn’t play all that well; his sack total was impressive, but on 581 pass-rush snaps, he generated a total of  65 pressures. According to Pro Football Focus’s pass-rush productivity metric, which rates a player’s pass-rushing ability measuring snaps, hits, hurries, and sacks (with a weighting towards sacks), Beasley ranked 23rd in 2016. He can still get sacks, but Beasley has not proven he can generate consistent pressure, and will likely be overpaid because of it, more than the $12.8 million fifth-year option he played on in 2019.

9. Matthew Judon, Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens decided to place the franchise tag on Judon Friday, and he likely won’t be too happy about it. Baltimore designated Judon as an OLB rather than a defensive end, since there is approximation a $3 million difference in franchise pay between the two positions.

Last season he spent 450 snaps rushing the passer as opposed to 113 dropping into coverage, so there’s a much stronger argument to be made that he’s an EDGE, not an OLB. The Ravens may attempt to sign Judon to a long-term deal, but he may refuse to sign the tag and/or request a trade instead, hoping to go to a team that is willing to pay him as a DE. Judon logged 10 sacks and 63 pressures, but 56% of them were unblocked or clean-ups. He ranked 17th in pass-rush productivity, meaning he presents some of the same pitfalls as Beasley, where his on-paper performance may be quite a bit better than his on-field play.

8. Bud Dupree, Pittsburgh Steelers

It took Dupree a few seasons, but he finally started to come into his own as a rusher in 2019. Over his first four seasons, Dupree totaled 129 pressures and 21 sacks. Last season he had 51 pressures and 13 sacks per PFF, in addition to playing solid run defense. However, he ranked 65th in PRP, and his contract year was the only season in which he played well. Like many others on this list, Dupree represents a significant risk for teams seeking pass-rush help.

7. Joe Schobert, Cleveland Browns

Schobert played EDGE at Wisconsisn, but made the transition to 0ff-ball LB in the NFL, and has found great success. Over the last three seasons, he’s made 380 tackles, leading the NFL with 144 in 2017, en route to his first Pro Bowl appearance. In 2018, he proved to be elite in coverage.

However, he also led the league in missed tackles that season with 24. He missed another 15 in 2019, and wasn’t nearly as good in coverage. A plethora of injuries on the Cleveland defense certainly contributed to his decline in performance, but it’s still worrying. Schobert and the Browns were mutually interested in a return, but the two sides couldn’t reach an agreement, and Schobert will test the market. If he can regain his 2018 form, his new team will be getting an elite player. If not, he’ll be significantly overpaid.

6. Everson Griffen, Minnesota Vikings

Griffen has made over $56 million in his 10-year career, and is due for another solid payday now, even at 32 years old. Griffen has 74.5 career sacks, and is still a consistent player. He ranked 44th in PRP, but totaled 70 pressures and is good against the run. The Vikings are in a very precarious cap space situation, and likely can’t afford to retain Griffen. He should find a two or three-year deal with a contender quite easily.

5. Cory Littleton, Los Angeles Rams

Littleton is a similar player to Schobert, with two main differences; he has two years of excellent coverage play, and he doesn’t miss tackles. In fact, he missed just one on 1,039 snaps in 2019. Littleton doesn’t make many big plays in the run game, but coverage backers have never been more valuable. He’ll get paid handsomely, and the Rams will likely have to decide between keeping Littleton or Dante Fowler Jr.

4. Yannick Ngakoue, Jacksonville Jaguars

The Jaguars franchise tagged Ngakoue on Friday, but he’s already expressed his desire to play elsewhere, so a sign-and-trade could very well be in the works. Ngakoue wants to be paid like one of the league’s premier DEs, and if he plays like he did in 2017, he’s worth it. That season, he totaled 14 sacks and 82 pressures, along with a fantastic 88.2 PFF pass-rush grade. He’s failed to match that performance since, ranking just 55th in PRP last season. Ngakoue is another free agent without sustained excellent play, but will be paid based on what he’s capable of doing.

3. Shaquil Barrett, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Last offseason, Barrett’s market was not as robust as he had hoped after four solid seasons as a rotational player with the Denver Broncos. Tampa Bay offered him a $4 million prove-it deal, and boy did he ever. Per PFF, Barrett totaled an impressive 82 pressures and an NFL-leading 20 sacks, as well as placing 11th in PRP. Barrett should be able to find a deal similar to the one Za’Darius Smith signed last year; $66 million over four seasons.

Barrett has had similar production to what Smith put up in Baltimore before cashing in, and Barrett should be able to do the same.

2. Jadeveon Clowney, Seattle Seahawks

Because of the immense hype surrounding him in college, it’s fair to classify Clowney’s NFL career up to now as a disappointment. But he’s still a very good player, particularly against the run. His 77.4 PFF run defense grade 2019 was his lowest since his rookie season, and that’s with having to adjust to a new defensive scheme after being traded from Houston to Seattle.

Last NFL season was also the second-most efficient pass-rush performance of his career, although he was tied for 55th in PRP. Clowney is a three-time Pro Bowler who just turned 27 years old, and he’s barely scratched the surface of his potential. Perhaps he’ll be able to do that on his first large contract.

1. Arik Armstead, San Francisco 49ers

Armstead had been a solid player over his first four NFL seasons, but he took a giant step forward on his fifth-year option. He finished with an excellent 89.6 overall PFF grade, generated 73 pressures and 13 sacks, and ranked 29th in PRP. He’s primarily an end, but he did spend nearly 150 snaps rushing from inside.

A strong run defender with that kind of pass rush production is a great weapon for a defense to have, and Armstead will be properly compensated for his performance. Of course, like others in this class, Armstead has just one year of premier play, and it just so happened to coincide with the addition of rookie Nick Bosa and his stellar play.

Armstead is still a risk, but he’s a bit of a safer bet than others on this list, and can transform a front-seven the moment he walks through the door.