Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Middle Linebacker Picture

If you're a Detroit Lions fan like me you're probably waiting in anguish to see whether or not the Lions re-sign Stephon Tulloch. In order to get a better idea of what's going on behind the scenes of the Lions' front office let's take a look at the Middle Linebacker picture around the NFL.

First let's take a look at 4-3 teams that are fluid at the position. These are teams that are dealing with free agents or flux in their depth charts:

Detroit - Stephon Tulloch was one of the best linebackers in the league in 2011 and was arguably the Lions' best defensive player. The problem is that the Lions are also trying to resign Cliff Avril and Calvin Johnson to long term contracts and they will be fighting to get under cap. Levy, who fared well in middle in 2010, could easily slide back into the middle, but is no where near the difference maker that Tulloch is.

New York - Jonathan Goff was out for the 2011 season with an ACL tear and is now a free agent. Chase Blackburn played well enough to help the Giants to a superbowl win. The Giants will likely bring Goff back for a short-term deal, but won't be forced into anything thanks to Blackburn's performance in the playoffs.

Atlanta - Curtis Lofton is a free agent who the Falcons are putting a high priority on. He is a two down run-stuffer who is essential to Atlanta's defense.

Seattle - David Hawthorne played at a high level in 2011, but is now a free agent. Seattle has the option to move KJ Wright to the inside if they don't want to pay the price for Hawthorne.

Cleveland - D'Qwell Jackson has said he wants to stay in Cleveland and is open to being hit with the franchise tag.

Miami - The Dolphins are rumored to be converting to a 4-3 defense and should be able to fill the Middle Linebacker position with Karlos Dansby, however players are said to not be happy with this move so Miami could opt to bring in a "true" 4-3 mike backer.

Tennessee - Barrett Ruud was just as bad in Tennessee as he was in Tampa Bay. Colin McCarthy will take over the mike backer position in 2012.

Second, let's look at 4-3 teams who arguably have a need at the Middle Linebacker position:

Tampa Bay - Mason Foster struggled mightily as a rookie. I imagine the Bucs will stick with Foster for at least another year or two to see what kind of return they get out of their investment, but with the front office overhaul happening with the team they could easily decide to move in another direction.

New Orleans - Jonathan Vilma didn't play well in 2011, but is under contract through 2014. I highly doubt the Saints will make a move here, but they have to be asking themselves if his $5 million dollar a year contract is worth it.

Cincinnati - Rey Maualuga is good two down run stuffer but was recently arrested after being involved in an altercation. He's only under contract for $565,000 in 2012 ( so they could conceivably afford to bring somebody in if they felt that this was a position of need.

Philidelphia - The Eagles quickly plugged the plug on Casey Matthews in favor for Jamar Chaney, but Chaney didn't exactly set the world on fire and ended the season with a serious injury. It would be hard to imagine the Eagles making a big move after their acquisitions before the 2011 season, but Andy Reid will be fighting to keep his job so don't rule anything out.

Third, here are some free agents that should be able to find a team:

Dan Connor was with the Carolina Panthers and did a phenomenal job filling in for Jon Beason, but he certainly will move on from the Panthers and land a starting job elsewhere.

Lofa Tatupu took 2011 off and could step into a team willing to take a risk on him.

Joe Mays will likely be moving on from Denver who will turn to Nate Irving to man the Middle Linebacker position for them. Mays is a solid two down backer.

Summary: There are more quality free agent linebackers than there are teams with a need at the position. This puts the Lions in good position to bring back Tulloch, hopefully with a long-term contract.

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