With the NFL Free Agency just a couple weeks away, we're continuing our discussion of potential top free agent targets for the Cleveland Browns at each major position. We've already taken a look at the free agent QBs, RBs, WRs, DL, and DBs. Today we're wrapping up the defensive side of the ball with the linebackers.
This year's free agent class is incredibly deep with middle linebackers. That means the Browns' potential moves will first depend on whether or not they re-sign D'Qwell Jackson. If the Browns don't, they'll probably be in the market for a replacement middle linebacker, for which there are two standouts and a few solid starters. If the Browns do re-sign Jackson, they still may look to sign a 4-3 outside linebacker, or possibly a linebacker versatile enough to play the position. In any case, here are some of the potential free agent linebacker targets.
UPDATE: The Browns have signed D'Qwell Jackson for 5 years/$42.5 million
- Stephen Tulloch (DET - 27) – Despite a drop in tackles last season, Stephen Tulloch still had a good year at middle linebacker for the Detroit Lions. He recorded five passes defended, three sacks and two interceptions on top of the 111 combined tackles. He's also been incredibly consistent against the run, which is where the Browns' defense really struggled last season. Of course, Lions GM Martin Mayhew said they will try to bring Tulloch back.
- Curtis Lofton (ATL - 25) – Curtis Lofton is another premier run-stopping middle linebacker, and what's more is that he's only 25 years old. In 2011 he recorded a career-high 147 combined tackles, seven passes defended and two interception. The Atlanta Falcons have held talks with Lofton that GM Thomas Dimitroff has called "amicable."
- D'Qwell Jackson (CLE - 28) – Ideally, the Browns won't be in the market for a middle linebacker because we will have already signed D'Qwell Jackson. After missing much of the 2009 season and the entire 2010 season with torn pectoral injuries, Jackson had a great return in 2011 with a career-high 158 combined tackles. The most recent report said that the Browns had a "positive" meeting with Jackson.
- David Hawthorne (SEA - 26) – David Hawthorne is a solid middle linebacker, but he isn't a standout game-changer. Apparently, the Seattle Seahawks think he is a key target to re-sign, but they don't want to break the bank on him due to durability concerns.
- Dan Connor (CAR - 26) – After an injury to Jon Beason, Dan Connor started at middle linebacker for the Carolina Panthers last season and played well. However, with Beason returning next season, Connor is expected to find a starting job with a new team.
- London Fletcher (WAS - 36) – London Fletcher is playing ridiculously well for his age, even putting up career-highs last season. He can play 3-4 ILB or 4-3 MLB. But, I would doubt that the Browns' front office, which has consistently looked to get the team younger, would be interested in a player as old as Fletcher.
Honorable Mention 3-4 OLBs:
- Anthony Spencer (DAL - 28) – Jerry Jones has said the team hasn't made a decision regarding Anthony Spencer, but may change how things are called to help Spencer on the edge.
- Jarret Johnson (BAL - 30) – Ozzie Newsome has made it very clear that he really wants Jarret Johnson back with the Baltimore Ravens.
Remember, if you think there is a potential FA LB that the Browns should target that might have been overlooked or is even just worth mentioning, feel free to discuss that here. As always, think of this as a free agency open thread dealing with the linebackers.