We move now to one of the more high-profile positions on defense. The Eagles may incorporate aspects of the 3-4 defense next season, which gives the team great flexibility in the free agent market. Several of the available linebackers could be a fit at numerous positions, and could help bolster a young outside linebacker corps. With that, we take a look at the outside linebacker market, as ranked by Adam Caplan of TheSidelineView.com. Defensive stats are from NFL.com ...
1. Paul Kruger, Baltimore – Ht: 6-4, Wt: 270, Age: 27, Exp: 4
Career: The Ravens’ second-round pick in 2009, Kruger was a key part of Baltimore’s championship run last season. He played in 15 games and started six, compiling a team-best 9.0 sacks and 42 total tackles. He also registered 4.5 sacks in the postseason.
Fit: Kruger has experience at both defensive end and outside linebacker, which would make him a valuable piece for defensive coordinator Bill Davis’ system. Kruger appears poised to cash in during free agency, but for the right price, Kruger’s versatility and pass rushing prowess could really help the Eagles.
2. Anthony Spencer, Dallas – Ht: 6-3, Wt: 250, Age: 29, Exp: 6
Career: For the second year in a row, the Cowboys have used their franchise tag on Spencer, the team’s first-round draft choice in 2007. A defensive end in college, Spencer was moved to outside linebacker and became a full-time starter in 2009. Last season he started in 14 games, piling up 11 sacks and a team-leading 95 total tackles.
Fit: The cash-strapped Cowboys want to retain Spencer, but they are reportedly around $6 million over the salary cap. Reports indicate that the Cowboys would be open to trading Spencer. While he could help the Eagles, it’s extremely unlikely the Cowboys would deal Spencer to a division rival.
3. Connor Barwin, Houston – Ht: 6-4, Wt: 268, Age: 26, Exp: 4
Career: Barwin was a second-round pick of the Texans in 2009. Though he led the team with 11.5 sacks in 2011, his numbers dropped last season. He finished the year with three sacks and 43 total tackles.
Fit: Barwin played on both the weak side and strong side of the Texans’ 3-4 defense last year. This versatility would be useful for the Eagles if the team does indeed plan to incorporate elements of that scheme. Barwin indicated that he’s looking to join a team with an established quarterback. Does he feel
4. Shaun Phillips, San Diego – Ht: 6-3, Wt: 250, Age: 31, Exp: 8
Career: A Philadelphia native, Phillips has spent his entire eight-year career with the Chargers. Last season was another successful one for Phillips, as he tallied 50 total tackles, 9.5 sacks and a safety.
Fit: Phillips has played at both linebacker and defensive end, though the vast majority of his experience comes in the 3-4. But he will be 32 by the beginning of the season, which may not fit with what head coach Chip Kelly is looking to build defensively.
5. Daryl Smith – Jacksonville – Ht: 6-2, Wt: 248, Age: 30, Exp: 9
Career: Smith has been a starter in Jacksonville since being drafted in 2004. Smith is the franchise leader in sacks, and has been a steady contributor throughout his career. However, injuries limited Smith to just two games last season, and he finished with only six tackles on the season.
Fit: Smith has quietly been one of the better 4-3 linebackers in the league for nearly a decade. But he’ll turn 31 in mid-March, and his best years look as if they’re behind him. The Eagles could likely find a younger player on the market for a similar price.
6. Justin Durant, Detroit – Ht: 6-1, Wt: 240, Age: 27, Exp: 6
Career: Durant was drafted by the Jaguars in the second round of the 2007 draft. After four seasons in Jacksonville, he signed a two-year free agent deal with the Lions. Last year, Durant led the team with 82 solo tackles and finished with 0.5 sacks and 103 combined tackles.
Fit: Both Durant and the Lions appear interested in getting a deal done, according to reports. If he does hit the market, Durant’s experience at middle and outside linebacker could be intriguing, should Kelly and his staff look to upgrade the position.
7. Phillip Wheeler, Oakland – Ht: 6-2, Wt: 240, Age: 28, Exp: 5
Career: Wheeler was a third-round pick for the Colts who served as an occasional starter before taking over the starting job in 2011. Last season, he signed a one-year deal with the Raiders, and enjoyed his best season to date. He finished with 109 total tackles and three sacks. According to Pro Football Focus, Wheeler was one of the most productive pass rushing 4-3 linebackers last season.
Fit: If the Eagles decide to stay in a 4-3 defense, Wheeler could help outside. He could play several spots in a variation of a 3-4 as well. However, reports indicate that the Raiders are interested in retaining Wheeler’s services.
8. Calvin Pace, New York Jets – Ht: 6-4, Wt: 265, Age: 32, Exp: 10
Career: Pace was the Cardinals’ first round pick in 2003, and later joined Rex Ryan when he became head coach of the Jets in 2008. Pace was a solid contributor for five seasons in New York, starting 71 games and contributing 313 combined tackles. But Pace, along with several other veteran Jets, was released in late February.
Fit: Pace has a great deal of experience in a 3-4 scheme, and worked with Davis when he was the Cardinals’ linebackers coach in 2007. However, Pace will turn 33 in October, making a reunion between Pace and Davis unlikely.
9. Thomas Howard, Cincinnati – Ht: 6-3, Wt: 245, Age: 29, Exp: 7
Career: Howard has been a key contributor and starter since being drafted in the second round of the 2006 draft by the Raiders. In 2011, he signed with the Bengals, and recorded 105 total tackles and a sack. Howard tore his ACL early in the season and only appeared in one game last year.
Fit: The Bengals will reportedly look to keep Howard, who led the team in tackles only two seasons ago. Howard fits the mold of a 4-3 outside linebacker, but it doesn’t sound likely he’ll be leaving the Queen City.
10. Will Witherspoon, Tennessee – Ht: 6-1, Wt: 240, Age: 32, Exp: 11
Career: The former Panther, Ram and Eagle is best known in Philadelphia for his stellar game against the Redskins back in 2009. After leaving Philadelphia, Witherspoon signed with the Titans. Last season, he lost his starting job and started only six games.
Fit: Witherspoon is nearing the end of his career, and isn’t quite starter material at this point. And at 32, the Eagles should be able to find a younger alternative, should they look to upgrade their linebacker corps in free agency.
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