Leading up to the official start of free agency on March 12, packers.com will examine the league's unrestricted free agents, position by position. In the sixth installment, we look at the linebackers.
GREEN BAY—Imagine Ray Nitschke having been available in free agency. Chicago Bears fans are dealing with the possibility Brian Urlacher may not be back in Chicago, where the new regime has been noncommittal about the face of that team's defense for the past 13 years. Urlacher tried to play through a knee injury last year but was eventually shut down late in the season.
Should Urlacher reach free agency and not retire, he'll be one of a half-dozen headliners at linebacker, though his age and injury history make him the biggest question mark, and likely the biggest risk, of the bunch.
Houston has indicated it considers Connor Barwin a core player but has yet to re-sign him. Barwin had 11½ sacks for the Texans two years ago. Oakland's Philip Wheeler, coming off a career year after four so-so seasons in Indianapolis, was a possible franchise-tag candidate, but the Raiders chose not to tag him. San Diego's Shaun Phillips isn't expected to return to the Chargers, for whom he's played his entire career, and he's coming off a nine-sack season.
The other names at the top of the list both belong to Super Bowl-champion Baltimore. The Ravens have a few days left to decide whether they're bringing back Dannell Ellerbe and/or Paul Kruger. Reports indicate Ellerbe is the more likely one to be re-signed, with Kruger hitting the market, where his career-high 8½ sacks in 2012 will start the bidding rather high. He wouldn't be the first reigning Super Bowl champ to take his ring and cash in big elsewhere.
Interestingly, the Ravens aren't the only team with decisions pending on multiple linebackers eligible for free agency. Almost the entire NFC North is in that boat, beginning with the Bears, who in addition to Urlacher also have a decision to make on Nick Roach. The Vikings are pondering Erin Henderson and Jasper Brinkley, the Packers are doing the same with Brad Jones and Erik Walden. The Lions re-signed DeAndre Levy this past week but could lose Justin Durant.
Outside the division, Cincinnati may not keep either former second-round pick Rey Maualuga or Manny Lawson, and the Giants have already cut Michael Boley while reportedly working on re-signing Chase Blackburn.
The Redskins have a potential up-and-comer in Robert Jackson, who filled in well (4½ sacks) for the injured Brian Orakpo, but whom Washington may not let go.
Arizona was Quentin Groves' third team in five years, but he's coming off his best season, and Ernie Sims could be playing for his fifth team in five years with Dallas not expected to bring him back.
Linebackers with obvious red flags would include Cincinnati's Thomas Howard, coming off a torn ACL, Jacksonville's Daryl Smith, who missed a major portion of 2012 with a groin injury, and Seattle's LeRoy Hill, who was arrested in a domestic incident shortly after the season ended.
Teams looking for a potential special-teams bell cow and capable backup might pursue Washington's Lorenzo Alexander, Cleveland's Kaluka Maiava or Cincinnati's Dan Skuta. Alexander was a special-teams captain and Pro Bowler.
Every position has its list of longtime veterans who may try to stick around just a bit longer, and the list at linebacker is probably the longest. All these players have been in the league at least 10 years but may not be done just yet – Buffalo's Nick Barnett, Denver's Keith Brooking, Pittsburgh's Larry Foote, St. Louis' Mario Haggan, San Francisco's Clark Haggans, Houston's Bradie James, Arizona's Paris Lenon, the New York Jets' Calvin Pace and Bart Scott, San Diego's Takeo Spikes and Tennessee's Will Witherspoon.
(Update: Shortly after this story was initially posted, Pittsburgh released veteran James Harrison.)
Worth noting in that group in terms of production in 2012: Barnett, the former Packer, had 100-plus tackles again last year for the eighth time in his 10 seasons; Foote set a career high in tackles and tied his career best with four sacks; Lenon recorded 100-plus tackles for the fourth time in the last six years; and Pace had a streak of five straight years with at least 4½ sacks snapped when he had three sacks. The other Jet, Scott, is coming off surgery on his toe and won't be healthy until later in the spring, at the earliest.
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