Free agency is nearly upon us. On March 14, the two-day legal tampering window will begin before the new league year begins and players across the entire NFL will find new homes.
After an unpredictable free agency period last offseason in which the Jaguars didn’t target many of the top free agents they were projected to, there is no telling if this year will be different. The operative word in last year’s free agency cycle, led by then-head coach Urban Meyer and general manager Trent Baalke, was “value”.
Will this again be the case with Baalke back at the helm, this time joined by new head coach Doug Pederson?
“Are we going to go out and add talent? Yeah, we’re going to add talent. We’re going to add competition. We’re going to bring value to the roster. Every team does that, and we’re no exception to that,” Pederson said last month when he introduced his coaching staff.
“But I see talent here. I said I think in my opening remarks a couple weeks ago that it’s not an overnight fix, and it’s going to be a fix that we’ve got to do it one player at a time, one coach at a time, and get it turned around.”
In an effort to identify which free agents make the most sense to potentially be those players Pederson referenced, we are going to go through each position group to determine who the best fits are, ranking them in order.
Next up, the inside linebacker position.
1) Foyesade Oluokun
One of the top defenders hitting free agency this year, Atlanta Falcons linebacker Foyesade Oluokun is a legitimate young defensive building block. Had the Falcons been in a better cap situation, perhaps they would have a better chance of keeping the athletic 26-year-old Yale product. A former sixth-round pick, Oluokun has played both middle and weak side linebacker in Atlanta and has experience wearing the green dot as well.
Oluokun has been immensely productive the last two seasons, starting 31 games and recording 309 tackles, eight tackles for loss, five interceptions, five forced fumbles, one fumble recovery, and five sacks. He is a young and ascending player who should only continue to get better and he would give them a legitimate playmaker at middle linebacker.
2) De’Vondre Campbell
Another former Falcons linebacker, De’Vondre Campbell will be 29 years old in Week 1 and is fresh off the best season of his career. Campbell should be able to cash in a major deal after the performance he had in 2021 for the Green Bay Packers, starting 16 games and recording 146 tackles, six tackles for loss, two interceptions, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, and two sacks in an All-Pro year.
Campbell has a few more seasons of starting experience under his belt than Oluokun and is a more established presence at linebacker, but it will be interesting to see where he looks to go after playing for a contender in 2021. He would be an impact starter at middle linebacker and greatly improve the run defense in the event he could be signed, however.
3) Alexander Johnson
While the first two names on this list are athletic off-ball linebackers who can make plays in coverage and sideline-to-sideline, Alexander Johnson is more of a stereotypical middle linebacker. Johnson, 30, is a downhill presence who can make an impact as a blitzer, similar to Damien Wilson from 2021. Johnson is arguably more of a playmaker than Wilson at this stage of their careers, so he could offer slightly more upside.
Johnson has started 34 games for the Broncos over the last three seasons, recording 249 tackles, 4.5 sacks, 11 tackles for loss, four forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, and one interception. He wouldn’t be a complete three-down linebacker who could improve the team’s middle of the field pass defense, but he would offer some considerable reinforcement to the team’s run defense.
4) Kyzir White
Essentially the complete opposite of Johnson, Kyzir White is a pure coverage linebacker who could make sense in Mike Caldwell’s scheme considering the impact his Tampa Bay linebackers made in terms of pass coverage. White, a former fourth-round pick who will be 26 years old in Week 1, is coming off the best year of his career and could continue to trend upward.
White started 17 games for the Chargers last season, recording 144 tackles, seven tackles for loss, two forced fumbles, two interceptions, and one sack during his first year as a full-time starter. He wouldn’t do much to help the team’s run defense and may be too similar to Myles Jack in terms of skill set, but he is a legit coverage linebacker who makes sense from a scheme perspective.
5) Leighton Vander Esch
A former first-round pick with middle linebacker experience, Leighton Vander Esch’s tenure with the Cowboys flamed out after a hot start. A Pro Bowler as a rookie, injuries forced Vander Esch to miss 13 games from 2019-2020, but he bounced back in terms of durability last season. Can he continue to stay healthy and once again become the playmaker he was as a rookie?
Starting in 16 games last season, Vander Esch still played a career-low 58% of the snaps as he was phased out of the Cowboys’ plans. He is one of the few free agents this year who has played at a high level at middle linebacker in the past, however, so he deserves some consideration.