Most free agent headlines will be starred with the Peyton Manning outcome, will he stay in INDY or not? Besides Peyton, the next big free agent labels will be the signings of the star RBs and WRs available this year. Matt Forte, Arian Foster, Peyton Hillis, DeSean and Vincent Jackson are just name a few name brands out there that I feel all will sign with their 2011 teams. However, who is giving those defensive guys some love? There are some notable defensive players on the FA list this year that is led by 8 CBs and 7 DEs; any one of them could make a major impact on a struggling secondary or outside pass rush. In this first installment of Friday Hard Hits, let us take a look at 4 notable free agent Linebackers available this off-season, their background, and re-sign/let-go.
Listed in order from best available
Player Name - Past Team (FA Type)
Mario Williams (DE/OLB) - HOU (UFA)
a. Mario Williams was the 2006 #1 overall pick by Houston. He signed a 6 year, $54 million contract ($26.1 million guaranteed) and in 2011 he posted the 5th highest earning in the NFL -- 1st as a linebacker, 2nd as a defensive end and the highest paid on the Texans. Do take into account that when structuring contracts, most of the money is due during their final contract year( but besides that, Williams is definitely going to come with a high price tag). Remember that Williams was originally a DE before the new defensive scheme implemented by Wade Phillips made Williams an OLB and totally changed the defense that was in Houston. Phillips took a bottom 5 defense and made them a top 5 in one year, without #90. Mario Williams was on a TEAR at the beginning of the year -- recording five sacks in 5 games -- before suffering a torn pectoral muscle that sidelined him for the season. Besides Arian Foster, it is easy to say Mario Williams is another top priority to re-sign for the Texans if they can. Mario will most likely go where the money is, a 5-6 year, $65M+ price.
b. Re-sign/Let-Go: TRY TO RE-SIGN, he can thrive at OLB for Phillips, but most likely will re-sign where the money takes him.
Curtis Lofton (MLB) – ATL (UFA)
a. Lofton, 25 years old and a 2008 early 2nd round draft pick, is due to bring in the bank in 2012. Curtis Lofton has led the Falcons in tackles the last three years and made 147 total tackles in 2011 (which posted 5th best in the NFL), while also grabbing 2 INTs returning 1 for a touchdown. With word that the new defensive coordinator is keeping the 4-3 scheme, Lofton should be back to being the mike backer for Atlanta. As talented as Lofton is, he is also an undersized MLB -- with pass rush limitations, but he is a hard hitter). Regardless of where he ends up, Lofton's base salary won't be over shadowed by ATL long snapper Joe Zelenka as it has been for the Falcons' leading tackler the past 2 years.
b. Re-sign/Let-Go: RE-SIGN, pay him the $
London Fletcher (ILB) - WAS (UFA)
a. At 36 years strong, London Fletcher was this past NFL season's leading tackler with 166 total. Not only were his numbers impressive, but his presence played a major role as captain and defensive leader. Ownership (as well as Head Coach Mike Shanahan) have taken note of Fletcher's ability to still play at such a high level of intensity and most likely will bring him back with a small 2, maybe 3 year contract. Being 36 there is risk with a long-term deal (even though he did play lights out for the Redskins). Fletcher is coming off a 5 year, $25,000,000 contract; and will see that number greatly decreased with any signing for the 2012 season, but he wanted to return to the Redskins and the Redskins want him back as well.
b. Re-sign/Let-Go: RE-SIGN, continue to lead by example, but keep contract length minimal
E.J. Henderson (MLB) – MIN (UFA)
a. Since he was drafted in the second round of 2003, E.J. Henderson has been able to get the job done for the Vikings when needed (and when healthy). After his major injury in 2009 (which resulted in a broken left femur), Henderson got back on track recording two 100+ tackle seasons where he played all 32 games and was even selected to the 2011 Pro Bowl as an alternate. However, with a metal rod in his leg, decreasing playtime, and at 31 years old, Henderson's days with the Vikings look to be over. Look for MIN to target a line backer during this off-season and in the 2012 NFL Draft.
b. Re-sign/Let-Go: Let-Go; age and injury makes MIN look for young free agent talent or possible LB draft pick.
Be sure to check back next week for a look into free agent defensive ends.