1. Pernell McPhee
Pernell McPhee graded out as Pro Football Focus’ #2 ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in 2014 despite playing just 540 snaps. He was 2nd in the NFL behind only JJ Watt with 21 quarterback hits. He’s not a one year wonder as that type of player either as he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked defensive tackle as a 5th round rookie in 2011 on just 348 snaps and has graded out above average in all 4 seasons he’s been in the league. Supremely versatile with experience as a 3-4 outside linebacker, a 4-3 defensive end, a 3-4 defensive end, and a 4-3 defensive tackle, McPhee is only going into his age 27 season and could break out as one of the best edge rushers in the game in his next home if he’s given a bigger role. At the same time, he’s still never played more than 540 snaps in a season so he’s still unproven as a full-time starter and he’s still unproven outside of Baltimore, where they have such great supporting talent defensively. He’s a high risk, high reward signing at 8 million dollars per year. The Ravens have good depth at 3-4 outside linebacker with Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil, and Courtney Upshaw so they’re unlikely to bring McPhee back, given how little cap space they have.
2. Greg Hardy
Greg Hardy had such a bright future at this time last year, after grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked 4-3 defensive end in 2013 and their 6th ranked in 2012. The Panthers, eager to keep him long-term, franchised tagged Hardy last off-season, guaranteeing him 13.1 million for 2015, but they would end up regretting that. Hardy was arrested for and convicted of domestic violence in the off-season. He was allowed by the NFL to play for the Panthers week 1 because he was appealing the verdict, but public pressure forced the Panthers inactivate Hardy for the final 15 games of the season, meaning the Panthers got just 1 game for that 13.1 million. Hardy is still young (going into his age 27 season), still talented, and got the charges dropped this off-season, but he could be rusty, he got the charges dropped on a technicality, he’s still facing a suspension from the NFL, and he remains an off-the-field risk long-term. The Panthers have already said they’re moving on from him. It’ll be interesting to see what his market is this off-season. If he’s smart, he’ll take a one-year deal, bet on himself, stay clean and make a boatload of money next off-season.
3. Jason Worilds
Jason Worilds was Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in 2013, but he was a bit of a one year wonder so the Steelers used the transition tag on him, rather than giving him a long-term deal. Prior to 2013, the 2010 2nd round pick played a combined 979 snaps in his first 3 seasons in the league, maxing out at 501 in 2011. However, he graded out above average in 2 of those 3 seasons and he shed the one-year wonder label in 2014 in his 2nd full season as a starter, grading out 11th at his position. He heads into free agency off of back-to-back top-12 seasons as a 3-4 outside linebacker, having made 31 of 32 starts over those 2 seasons. He made 9.75 million for 1 year on the transition tag last year and figures to get paid well on the open market this off-season. The cap strapped Steelers will have a tough time keeping him.
4. Derrick Morgan
A rare first round hit by the Titans, Derrick Morgan’s career got off to a slow start as he was limited to 112 snaps by a torn ACL as a rookie in 2010 and struggled in his return from that injury in 2011, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 64th ranked 4-3 defensive end out of 67 eligible. However, he’s graded out above average in each of the past three seasons, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked 4-3 defensive end in 2012, 11th ranked 4-3 defensive end in 2013, and 8th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in 2014. Most importantly, he’s missed just 2 games over the past 4 seasons and doesn’t have any significant injuries on his record other than that torn ACL. His scheme versatility and his pass rush ability will make him a hot commodity on the open market.
5. Brian Orakpo
Orakpo was Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in 2013 and was franchised tagged as a result. However, Orakpo ended up missing 9 games with a torn pectoral in 2014, the 3rd time in his career that he’s torn his pectoral in his career. Now he hits free agency again having missed 24 of 48 games over the past 3 seasons with torn pectorals. He’s very talented when he’s on the field; in addition to his strong 2013, the 2009 1st round pick also ranked 7th at his position in 2011. However, injuries will put a big buyer beware stamp on him this off-season. The Redskins don’t seem like they’re going to bring him back, opting to move forward with Ryan Kerrigan and Trent Murphy.
6. Jabaal Sheard
Sheard, a 2011 2nd round pick, has emerged as a solid edge rusher, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 10thranked 3-4 outside linebacker in 2013 and 16th ranked in 2014. He has experience playing in both a 4-3 and 3-4. He graded out below average in both of his seasons as a 4-3 defensive end, but those were also his first two seasons in the league, so he necessarily wouldn’t be a bad signing for a 4-3 team. Either way, Sheard should get a decent amount of money on the open market, in the 6-7 million dollars per year range, assuming the Browns let him. The Browns have a ton of cap space so they could easily re-sign him before free agency.
7. Trent Cole
There’s been talk of the Eagles releasing Trent Cole this off-season since Chip Kelly showed up. Cole was never seen as a great fit for the Eagles’ 3-4, but his contract didn’t let them get any sort of real cap relief by cutting or trading him in either of the last 2 off-seasons so the rumored plan has always been to cut him this off-season. Doing so would save them 10.025 million in cash and 8.425 million immediately on the cap and Cole is going into his age 33 season. Cole has been solid in 2013 and 2014 in the 3-4, grading out 7th in 2013 and 19th in 2014, but the Eagles already have Connor Barwin and Marcus Smith and might prefer to cut Cole to free up cap space to re-sign Brandon Graham.
8. Akeem Ayers
Akeem Ayers, a 2011 2nd round pick, graded out above average in each of his first 3 seasons in the league with the Titans, including 4th among 4-3 outside linebackers in 2013. However, the Titans’ incompetent new regime didn’t seem to know how to use him and he played just 10 snaps for them before being traded to the Patriots for a swap of late round picks mid-season. In New England, they had no problem figuring out how to use him and he provided much needed depth as a 3-4 outside linebacker, grading out above average on 390 snaps. There’s a reason why the Patriots were Super Bowl winners this year and the Titans went 2-14. Ayers can play both 4-3 and 3-4 outside linebacker, but he’s a better pass rusher than he is in coverage so he’s probably a better fit for a 3-4, where he’ll get more pass rush opportunities. On a strong edge rush market, Ayers could be a nice, cheap option for teams in need of pass rush help.
9. Brooks Reed
Brooks Reed, a 2011 2nd round pick, has graded out above average in 3 of the 4 seasons he’s been in the league, making 54 starts in the process. The only exception was 2013, when he graded out 41st out of 42 eligible players. However, Reed has graded out negatively as a pass rusher in all 4 seasons, doing his best work against the run and, to a lesser extent, in coverage. Because of that, there has been talk that he’d be better off as a 4-3 outside linebacker or moving to middle linebacker in a 3-4. He’s a decent player and he has some versatility, but he won’t break the bank for anyone.
10. Dwight Freeney
Dwight Freeney bounced back from a 2013 season where he missed 12 games with injury. In 2014, he played all 16 games, making 9 starts, playing 590 snaps, and grading out above average, as he’s done in every season of Pro Football Focus’ history, since 2007. The issue is Freeney is now going into his age 35 season so he’s near the end of the line. He should still get starting caliber money this off-season, but I don’t expect him to get any guaranteed money beyond 2015.
11. John Abraham
John Abraham is the active all-time leader in sacks and a potential future Hall-of-Famer (he’d get my vote), after grading out as a top-4 4-3 defensive end on Pro Football Focus in every season from 2007-2012 with the Falcons. Because of his size, he didn’t get signed until July 2013, when the Cardinals gave him a 2-year, 4.6 million dollar deal to play rush linebacker in their 3-4, a position he’d never played before. Abraham proved to be a tremendous steal in the first year of his contract, grading out 13th at his new position, but the same cannot be said about the second year of his contract, as he was limited to 37 snaps by a serious concussion. Now going into his age 37 season, he’ll be looking at one-year, incentive laden deals with minimal guaranteed money, assuming he wants to continue his career. He’s reportedly 50/50 to retire as of this writing.
12. James Harrison
James Harrison was out of the league to start last season, but he rejoined the Steelers for week 4 after they needed help at the rush linebacker position and he proved to be a huge pickup, grading out 10th at his position on just 439 snaps. No one played fewer snaps at his position and graded out better. He’s going into his age 37 season so the end of the road is right around the corner, but he proved last season that he still has something left in the tank. He has graded out above average in every season in Pro Football Focus’ history (since 2007), including last season and a 2013 season with the Bengals where he was Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker on just 383 snaps as a base run stopping outside linebacker. No one played fewer snaps and graded out better at the position that season. Scheme versatile, he’ll draw interest on cheap, one-year deals this off-season, assuming he still wants to play.