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The Jaguars linebacker group could be overhauled this season and there could be a solution in free agency.
Now that the NFL franchise tags have been handed down and we know which free agents will actually hit the open market, we can begin looking at the players who are going to be available. The Jaguars return Paul Posluszny and Russell Allen as starting linebackers from a year ago, but are likely going to lose Daryl Smith in free agency and will be looking for possible upgrades at the position.
With the Jaguars going to a new defensive scheme going forward, we're not particularly sure what they'll be looking for in linebackers quite yet, but below is a list of players who will be available that the team could take a look at, broken down into tiers based on perceived "cost" on the free agency market.
Tier 1, Expensive
Dannell Ellerbe, LB - Likely to get the biggest pay day from any linebacker on the open market, Ellerbe established himself as a playmaker on the Baltimore Ravens defense and would appear to be the heir apparent to Ray Lewis. I expected the Ravens to franchise tag Ellerbe, but it appears he's going to hit the open market and should draw quite a bit of interest.
Daryl Smith, LB - I don't need to say much about Smith, as we've all watched him play for the Jaguars the last nine seasons and know what kind of player he is. Despite missing 14 games in 2012, I still expect him to be one of the more highly sought after linebackers on the market. He can play in any defensive scheme and all three linebacker positions in a 4-3 defense and play them well.
Philip Wheeler, LB - Wheeler has kind of bounced around a little bit but seemed to settling in playing for the Raiders last season after leaving the Colts. The 28-year old linebacker is solid in all aspects and has some sideline to sideline speed and should draw interest from 4-3 teams as a strong side linebacker.
Tier 2, Moderate
Rey Maualuga, LB - Maualuga played a ton of snaps for the Bengals last season as their middle linebacker, but with the emergence of Vontaze Burfict he may not be brought back. Maualuga is a solid run defender who struggles against the pass and is more of a "downhill" linebacker. The former second-round pick has had some off the field issues, but he will likely still be targeted by a few teams.
Erin Henderson, LB - Henderson emerged as a stout run defender for the Vikings, but has dealt with some injuries that have caused him to miss quite a few games in his career. He's more of a two-down linebacker, but the 26-year old is still young and has showed the ability to be a quality linebacker.
Justin Durant, LB - Jaguars fans are familiar with Durant, as he's an athletic linebacker who can play all three spots in a 4-3 defense but he just couldn't stay on the field. He only missed a handful of games the last two seasons for the Lions, but he should still be considered a starting quality weak side linebacker on the open market.
Leroy Hill, LB - Hill is someone that Gus Bradley should be very familiar with, which is why I included him on this primer. He played his entire career for the Seahawks, playing multiple defensive schemes and starting the past two seasons at outside linebacker. He's had a couple of off field run ins, including recently, but he could still be a name to monitor.
Brad Jones, LB - Jones began his career as an outside linebacker in the Packers 3-4 defense but didn't really seem to flourish. He moved inside in for the Packers and proved to be a good every down linebacker. He's good against the run and appears to be decent enough against the pass to be an every down linebacker and could be that type of "hybrid" player that the Jaguars will be looking for going forward in their hybrid front defense.
Keith Rivers, LB - Rivers was a former Top 10 pick who was thought of as an every down linebacker, but he's struggled to stay on the football field in his career so far. Rivers was traded to the Giants last season but didn't quite make the impact most thought, playing just under 300 snaps and only starting six games. It's possible the talented 26-year old could revitalize his career if he can just stay healthy.
Tier 3, Budget
Manny Lawson, LB - The former first round pick who was thought to be a 3-4 outside linebacker finally settled in playing SAM for the Bengals the past two seasons. He's a big linebacker who can move well for his size and had a decent two seasons playing in Cincinnati. Lawson could be a player who fits at the combination of SAM and LEO player in double LEO looks for Gus Bradley's defense, as he has experience coming off the edge.
Kaluka Maiava, LB - The former "other linebacker" for Southern Cal settled into a starting role for the Browns last season at weak side linebacker starting 13 games and playing nearly 500 snaps. The 25-year old linebacker could be a younger option for the Jaguars that shouldn't be too expensive on the open market. Maiava has been solid in coverage, but he did miss quite a few tackles.
Moise Fokou, LB - Fokou has been a part time player for both the Eagles and the Colts in his short NFL career so far and seemed to settle in as an inside linebacker for the Colts in their 3-4 defense. He played all over the place for the Eagles previously but didn't seem to fit anywhere. The 27-year old linebacker could be a cheaper addition to the Jaguars as depth or to compete in free agency.