With the first day of the 2023 NFL calendar now just three months away, it's time for most teams around the league to turn their attention to NFL free agency in a bid to improve their rosters for a new campaign.
Here are the top free agents at linebacker, taken from PFF's list of the top 50 players set to enter free agency.
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One of the best off-ball linebackers of his generation, David is still playing at an extremely high level and may benefit from New Orleans Saints linebacker Demario Davis and Los Angeles Rams linebacker Bobby Wagner playing very good football well into their 30s on recently signed contracts of their own. Potentially losing a step or two with age can be negated by elite play recognition and instincts, both of which David has in spades.
David’s 88.5 coverage grade this season ranked second among off-ball linebackers, and his elite 93.0 mark over the past four seasons is the top mark at the position.
2. LB DAVID LONG, TENNESSEE TITANS
Free agent rank: 12
The Titans ask a lot of their off-ball linebackers, and Long can do it all. His 89.0 run-defense grade in 2022 ranked fourth at the position, with his 13 tackles for loss or no gain tied for 12th. Long plays a downhill, attacking brand of football that helps him blow up a lot of plays but also makes him particularly susceptible to over-committing on play-action passes and missing tackles when he takes a poor pursuit angle. Nevertheless, he is clearly an ascending young player contributing immensely to Tennessee’s defense that finished first in expected points added per rush allowed on the season.
The 2022 season was Long’s first as a full-time starter at middle linebacker, but he’s made the most of opportunities in the past. Over the past three seasons, his 19.8% pass-rush win rate and 23.8% pressure rate are both the second-best marks among off-ball linebackers with at least 100 pass-rush snaps over the span.
3. LB T.J. EDWARDS, PHILADELPHIA EAGLES
Free agent rank: 24
Philadelphia brought Edwards back in 2022 on a one-year, $2.15 million deal at a position they have all but refused to invest in with top draft capital or free-agent dollars in many years, but Edwards may put the Eagles’ positional value to the test this offseason if they want to keep him around.
He had a career year, helping turn around the Eagles' defense with the second-best grade among off-ball linebackers (84.4). Edwards was one of just four linebackers to earn grades above 75.0 in run defense and coverage, generating 11 quarterback pressures on just 26 pass-rush snaps, as well. The former undrafted free agent is in for a big pay raise this offseason after making the absolute most of his one-year deal.
4. LB TREMAINE EDMUNDS, BUFFALO BILLS
Free agent rank: 25
Edmunds made huge strides in coverage in 2022, a major weakness in his game through his first four seasons. He is a truly freakish athlete and will be 25 years old throughout his entire sixth NFL season in 2023 after being selected No. 16 overall in the 2019 NFL Draft as the second-youngest player in the overall class.
Edmunds’ 86.9 coverage grade in 2022 was the third-best mark among off-ball linebackers, and he forced an incompletion on 10.3% of targets into his coverage while allowing just four explosive receptions the entire season (0.9% of targets into his coverage, ninth among linebackers). Edmunds also missed just 6.5% of potential tackles, the lowest rate of his career and another huge sign of continued growth from a football intelligence and play recognition standpoint.
5. LB GERMAINE PRATT, CINCINNATI BENGALS
Free agent rank: 30
With both Bengals starting safeties in Jessie Bates III and Vonn Bell pending free agents, a big extension for wide receiver Tee Higgins likely in play and fellow off-ball linebacker Logan Wilson also eligible for an extension after the season, it’s possible Pratt hits the market even after a career year.
Pratt’s 90.1 coverage grade was the best mark in the NFL. He missed just two tackles in coverage and allowed only four explosive receptions. Pratt didn’t miss many tackles as a run defender, either, whiffing on just 5.9% of opportunities after three straight seasons above 10% to start his career. Last but certainly not least, Pratt also peaked at the right time, with his 90.1 overall grade since Week 8 the top mark among linebackers.
6. LB BOBBY OKEREKE, INDIANAPOLIS COLTS
Free agent rank: 36
Okereke stepped up in a major way in the absence of fellow off-ball linebacker Shaquille Leonard, with his 72.9 grade ranking 23rd at the position. Okereke was particularly stout against the run, with his 13 defensive stops against the run tied for the 13th most. Okereke is now coming off back-to-back seasons with at least 100 tackles and 50 defensive stops.
The former third overall pick still has room to grow as a coverage player, but at 6-foot-1 and 235 pounds, he moves well enough in space to not be a liability in coverage.
Free agent rank: 40
Vander Esch quietly played some good football in 2022 after signing a one-year flier to return to the Cowboys following a free agency period that didn’t pan out as he’d hoped. Unfortunately for Vander Esch, he once again finds himself in the middle of the pack of a deep free-agent group at linebacker, but he should do a bit better this time around.
Vander Esch’s 70.8 grade is his best since his rookie season in 2018, and he also set career highs in missed tackle rate (6.5%) and yards allowed per coverage snap (0.49).
He’s expected to return for Dallas’ playoff run after a shoulder injury knocked him out down the stretch, which will provide a big boost to the ferocious Cowboys defense.