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Position Primer: Top LBs set to become free agents

With the new league year just days away, we will be taking a look at several NFL experts' lists of the top 100 free agents, and their views on some of the top players at each position set to hit the open market.

Today we are taking a look at the linebackers.

The Giants have a few linebackers set to return this upcoming season. Ryan Connelly will be back for his second NFL season after tearing his ACL in Week 4 last year. Devante Downs, Josiah Tauaefa, Nate Harvey, Mark McLaurin and Chris Peace are all also under contract for 2020.

Earlier this offseason, Alec Ogletree was released, in addition to Kareem Martin.

David Mayo agreed to terms (pending physical) to re-join the team. Deone Bucannon played for the Giants in 2019 and is set to hit free agency.

Cory Littleton

2019 stats: 16 games, 134 tackles (78 solo), 3.5 sacks, two interceptions, nine passes defended, two forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries, six tackles for loss, five QB hits

Gregg Rosenthal and Chris Wesseling, (FA No. 15) "Three-down linebackers who can excel in coverage are an incredibly rare and valuable commodity in today's NFL. Four-down linebackers like Littleton, who also shine on special teams, are that much better."

Sam Monson and Steve Palazzolo, Pro Football Focus- (FA No. 16) "Littleton has quietly become one of the best coverage linebackers in the league, capable of running the seam with tight ends and closing quickly on running backs underneath. He has 18 pass breakups and six interceptions over the last two seasons, and he's posted a 90.6 coverage grade that ranks third-best in the league. However, while potential suitors are going to love Littleton's ability to affect the passing game, he has had his struggles against the run. His 50.8 run-defense grade ranks just 103rd out of 126 qualifiers over the last two years, so that could hurt his value for teams looking for an all-around three-down linebacker."

Kevin Seifert, ESPN- (FA No. 28) "A former undrafted free agent, Littleton developed from a special-teams standout to the Rams' leading tackler in 2019. He also intercepted two passes and recovered four fumbles, and he would get some looks based on his tackling skills and scheme versatility."

Pete Prisco, CBS Sports- (FA No. 14) "He is coming off his best season, which will help his value go up. At 26, his best football is still to come. He is an active, athletic linebacker."

Kyle Van Noy

2019 stats: 15 games, 56 tackles (41 solo), 6.5 sacks, three passes defended, three forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, one touchdown, seven tackles for loss, 15 QB hits

Gregg Rosenthal and Chris Wesseling, (FA No. 44) "Van Noy has mastered the Rob Ninkovich role as a hybrid defensive end/linebacker tasked with setting the edge in the run game and rushing the passer in advantageous situations. With Bill Belichick disciples proliferating throughout the league, Van Noy is reaching free agency at an opportune time."

Sam Monson and Steve Palazzolo, Pro Football Focus- (FA No. 40) "After a slow start to his career in Detroit, Van Noy found a home in New England, and his versatility was an asset to the team as they made multiple Super Bowl runs. Van Noy is a true hybrid linebacker with pass-rushing skills, a coveted skillset by the Patriots and one that has him hitting free agency with many potential suitors given the recent growth of the Bill Belichick coaching tree. The 2019 season was the first year that we saw Van Noy used almost exclusively as a pass-rusher, and he picked up 60 pressures (eight sacks, nine QB hits, 43 hurries) on 464 rushes."

Kevin Seifert, ESPN- (FA No. 59) "Van Noy faces the same question as many other New England free agents have over the years. Did the Patriots apply their proprietary alchemy to turn a limited player into a productive starter, or can he replicate it elsewhere? In the end, 29-year-old linebackers need heftier pass-rush numbers than Van Noy has put together in order to generate a big contract."

Pete Prisco, CBS Sports- (FA No. 39) "After coming over in a trade from the Lions, this former first-round pick played a big part in the success of the Patriots defense. He can play off the ball, but he can also rush the passer when needed."

Joe Schobert

2019 stats: 16 games, 133 tackles (89 solo), 2.0 sacks, four interceptions, nine passes defended, two forced fumbles, one fumble recovery, seven tackles for loss, four QB hits

Gregg Rosenthal and Chris Wesseling, (FA No. 45) "Football's version of a swing-from-the-heels guess hitter, Schobert tends to offset drive-killing stuffs and highlight-reel takeaways with missed tackles and overplays. Either way, it's hard to deny his nose for the football."

Sam Monson and Steve Palazzolo, Pro Football Focus- (FA No. 41) "There's been a distinct line between Schobert's play in the run game (where he's graded at 55.0 or below over the last two years) and in coverage (where he graded at an excellent 87.7 in 2018 and a solid 67.6 last year). He finished 2019 with four interceptions and four pass breakups, and he's transitioned nicely from college pass-rusher to valuable coverage linebacker. In a new system, that pass-rushing ability could come in handy, as he only rushed the passer 62 times last season after rushing over 100 times in his previous two years as a starter."

Kevin Seifert, ESPN- (FA No. 37) "The previous Browns front office made little attempt to re-sign Schobert, their starting middle linebacker for the past three seasons. He produced arguably his best season in 2019, recording 133 tackles while also grabbing four interceptions, second most among NFL linebackers. If he can find a scheme fit, Schobert will be a valuable signing."

Pete Prisco, CBS Sports- (FA No. 36) "He's been a quality playmaker on the Browns defense the past three seasons and should warrant a nice market. He can play both the run and the pass well." ranks the top 101 players in the 2020 free agency cycle.

Jamie Collins

2019 stats: 16 games, 81 tackles (58 solo), 7.0 sacks, three interceptions, one touchdown, seven passes defended, three forced fumbles, one fumble recovery, 10 tackles for loss, 10 QB hits

Gregg Rosenthal and Chris Wesseling, (FA No. 52) "Some mental errors late in Collins' terrific season with the Patriots could scare away teams wondering how he'll perform away from Bill Belichick."

Sam Monson and Steve Palazzolo, Pro Football Focus- (FA No. 50) "Jamie Collins' last attempt at free agency was the ultimate case of beauty being in the eye of the beholder. Multiple seasons of elite play in New England during his first stint with the franchise led the Browns to become besotted with him, but his time in Cleveland was little north of disastrous. However, his return to the Patriots saw him rediscover a stretch of elite play before cooling off and ending the season with a sequence of disappointing play. Collins may represent one of the largest potential variances of any free agent available, but he remains an athletic and intriguing player who could tempt teams into trying to take advantage of a playmaker and game-changer on defense."

Kevin Seifert, ESPN- (FA No. 77) "Collins has been a playmaker during two stints with the Patriots, including a 2019 campaign that included a career-high seven sacks and three interceptions. In between was a disastrous two and a half years with the Browns. Can he find success outside of New England? Will he try?"

Pete Prisco, CBS Sports- (FA No. 49) "He gets traded to Cleveland from the Pats and struggled, but came back last season on a one-year deal and looked like the playmaker from his early days with the Pats. He is a run-and-chase linebacker, who flashed as a pass rusher last season."

Blake Martinez

2019 stats: 16 games, 155 tackles (97 solo), 3.0 sacks, one interception, two passes defended, one forced fumble, five tackles for loss, three QB hits

Gregg Rosenthal and Chris Wesseling, (FA No. 64) "The tackle numbers that brighten Martinez's box score are impressive to behold. Too often, though, they occur 8 or 9 yards downfield with the linebacker absorbing -- rather than delivering -- the blow."

Sam Monson and Steve Palazzolo, Pro Football Focus- (FA No. 55) "After multiple years of strong grading at Stanford and now multiple seasons in the NFL, as well, Blake Martinez has shown all the qualities necessary to be a superstar linebacker and complete player ‰ÛÓ he's just never shown all the qualities at the same time. He has earned top-level grades in all facets of the game but hasn't been able to put them all together in the same season, and this year, in particular, he looked like a liability at times against the run. Martinez doesn't have the athleticism to make up for plays where he is late to read things developing, and he has missed double-digit tackles in each year of his career."

Kevin Seifert, ESPN- (FA No. 35) "A tackling machine who hasn't missed a start in three seasons, Martinez has been a reliable and valuable member of the Packers' defense spanning two coaching staffs. Not every team values the inside linebacker position, but it only takes one."

Pete Prisco, CBS Sports- (FA No. 56) "He makes a lot of tackles, and he can stay on the field for all downs, but he is far from elite at the position. Even so, expect him to get play from teams in need of an every-down linebacker."

Nick Kwiatkoski

2019 stats: 16 games, 76 tackles (56 solo), 3.0 sacks, one interception, four passes defended, one forced fumble, eight tackles for loss, three QB hits

Gregg Rosenthal and Chris Wesseling, (FA No. 66) "One of the most promising backup linebackers early in his Bears career, Kwiatkoski proved to be a playmaking upgrade opposite Roquan Smith when steady starter Danny Trevathan went down with an elbow injury in early November. He's an intriguing under-the-radar target in a buyer's linebacker market."

Kevin Seifert, ESPN- (FA No. 55) "Kwiatkoski has proved more than capable as a fill-in starter during four seasons with the Bears, capped by 76 tackles and three sacks while starting eight games in 2019. Kwiatkoski is one of the best inside linebackers available."

Pete Prisco, CBS Sports- (FA No. 74) "He was thrust into the starting lineup last year because of injuries and played solid football. Teams looking for a player inside will give him a chance to be a full-time starter at the age of 27."

De'Vondre Campbell

2019 stats: 16 games, 129 tackles (75 solo), 2.0 sacks, two interceptions, five passes defended, three forced fumbles, one fumble recovery, six tackles for loss, two QB hits

Gregg Rosenthal and Chris Wesseling, (FA No. 80) "The Falcons once held high hopes for Campbell as an athletic, three-down sidekick to Deion Jones, but Robin never stepped out of the shadows to thwart potent offenses with cruel intentions when Batman wasn't around."

Pete Prisco, CBS Sports- (FA No. 83) "A long, athletic run-around linebacker, Campbell started 15 games last season and has 54 starts in his four-year career. He turns 27 in July."

Christian Kirksey

2019 stats: 2 games, 11 tackles (six solo), two tackles for loss

Gregg Rosenthal and Chris Wesseling, (FA No. 94) "Kirksey would have earned a higher ranking if not for the hamstring and pectoral injuries that limited him to nine of 32 games over the past two seasons. With limited upside, he may be a three-down linebacker on a rebuilding team or a valuable role player on a contender."

Kevin Seifert, ESPN- (FA No. 75) "Released ahead of free agency by the Browns, Kirksey would be ranked higher were it not for two consecutive injury-shortened seasons. He has missed more than twice as many games (23) as he has played (nine) over that span."


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