The New York Giants find themselves even thinner at the linebacker position after the release of Alec Ogletree and Kareem Martin. The moves freed up about $10 million in cap space, but leaves the Giants with only second-year player Ryan Connelly, who is coming off an ACL injury, as a reliable option at inside linebacker.
The paucity of NFL caliber players at the defensive position on the roster is further in doubt with Deone Bucannon and David Mayo’s status as free agents. Realistically, the Giants can get up to $86 million in cap space before free agency, and there’s quite a few high-priced free agent linebackers that should be available. The Patriots’ Kyle Van Noy, Rams’ Cory Littleton, and Browns’ Joe Schobert should all demand big money for the position, but what about the cheaper options? Are there any linebackers that can come in and compete for spot start duty, sort of like David Mayo in 2019? Let’s go through some of the free agent linebackers that should be available for either prove it deals or just on the cheap in comparison to the top free agents in 2020.
Jamie Collins, New England Patriots
Collins may demand more than the other linebackers on this list, but I feel he is necessary to mention because he shouldn’t be one of the top linebackers paid in this free agent cycle. He was famously traded to the Cleveland Browns in 2016 for a third-round pick because the Patriots knew the kind of contract that he was seeking. So, in typical Bill Belichick fashion, New England derived value from a somewhat depreciating situation. The Browns then signed Collins to a four-year, $50 million contract, with $26.4 million guaranteed. Cleveland didn’t exactly get what it was looking for, and Collins was released after the 2018 season, with the Patriots bringing him back on a one-year deal. Collins had 81 tackles, 10 tackles for a loss, and 7 sacks on an elite Patriots defense in 2019, revitalizing his career and setting himself up for another kick at a big contract. PFF has his projected contract in free agency set at 2 years, 7.5 Million (15 million total), which would align with Avery Williamson’s contract with the Jets last off-season in terms of average annual salary. I feel that contract is a realistic gauge to measure Collins’ worth. The presence of Collins would immediately upgrade the Giants’ linebacker position. Could he reunite with a lot of former Patriots’ coaches in the Big Apple? Possibly, but he’ll be 31 by the end of the 2020 season, so he’s not a spring chicken anymore.
Nick Kwiatkoski, Chicago Bears
The 26-year-old, 6-foot-2, 245-pound linebacker had his best season in 2019, recording 76 tackles, 8 for a loss, and 3 sacks. Starting linebacker Danny Trevathan injured his elbow in week 10 and Kwiatkoski held up very well, and is commanding a lot of attention on the free agent market. Kwiatkoski has only started 22 games in four seasons and played sparingly in 2018. According to Over The Cap, he’s expected to land a two-year, $5 million deal. He’ll earn a bigger slice of the pie than that, but I don’t believe he’ll break the bank. Patrick Graham loves to employ quick, decisive, linebackers who can blitz or drop into coverage, and the former Bear can do all of those things at a solid level. He’s not overpowering when taking on blocks and he doesn’t possess sideline to sideline type of speed, nor does he have incredible athletic traits, but he’s a smart, sure, physical tackler who can key and diagnose, while being an effective blitz/stunter from the second level. Graham could use a player like Kwiatkoski and he should come at a relative bargain.
Kevin Pierre-Louis, Chicago Bears
Another Bear lands on this list. Chicago’s up against the cap with only about $16 million available, with a quarterback on his rookie deal. One team’s misfortunes could turn into another team’s gains, and I feel this could be the case with both Kwiatkoski and Pierre-Louis. The latter has been a journeyman of sorts in the NFL and is 28 years of age, but he’s coming off one of his best seasons. He’s a 6-foot, 230-pound, athletic linebacker, who can also handle himself well at the second level. Peirre-Louis possesses the necessary explosive traits, footspeed, and range to play linebacker at an effective level. Recorded 37 tackles as a spot starter for the Bears, and played just under 300 snaps on special teams. His athletic profile, and solid competence in all levels of playing linebacker, combined with the Giants dearth of NFL talent leads me to a possible marriage between Pierre-Louis and the Giants.
Jatavis Brown, LA Chargers
The Jatavis Brown experiment was over in Los Angeles once the Chargers drafted Uchenna Nwosu in 2018, but the former Akron star is still a very interesting player. At 5-foot-11, 221 pounds, Brown is undersized, but possesses all the athletic traits that the NFL is looking for today. He tested in the 97th percentile in the bench press with 33 reps and the 40-yard dash with a 4.44, 88th percentile in the broad jump with 10.41 feet, and 87th percentile in the 10 yard split with a 1.53 second time. These are incredible numbers that are indicative of today’s NFL, only problem is his tackling. Brown’s almost aggressive to a fault and will wildly lunge and miss tackles in space, due to poor mechanics. Brown also played the majority of his snaps as an inside linebacker in 2019, and he’s struggled with stacking and shedding 2nd level blocks at the point of attack. There’s concerns with Brown, yes, but I still feel he could be a player to bring in and have compete, because of his range, overall athletic ability, and this current coaching staff. I believe, outside of the slight lack of strength, that some of Brown’s flaws could be corrected with coaches who can instruct the right way. Why not allow this coaching staff to see if they can unlock the potential that is Jatavis Brown? He’ll be cheap, cuttable if it goes wrong, and there’s upside ... why not give it a try?
Elandon Roberts, New England Patriots
The second Patriot makes the list as well. The 25-year-old Roberts took a more limited role with the reuniting of Jamie Collins in 2019, but he’s still a stout, effective player, standing at 6-foot, 238 pounds. The Patriots utilized him as a fullback down the stretch of the 2019 season, after James Devlin suffered an injury, which shows his adaptability. He recorded 29 tackles, 1 for a loss, and 1 sack in 2019. It’s unclear if New England will bring him back on a small deal. If they don’t, I think his fit in Graham’s defense would be beneficial to both parties, for Roberts is interchangeable as a linebacker and someone who can put his hand in the dirt on third down. A capable blitzer who can still grow and develop as a young player. I don’t see the harm in bringing him in on a low-cost deal and seeing if the familiarity in a new setting unlocks some potential.