Who’s Out There? Inside Linebackers

Jameel McClain and Brendon Ayanbadejo are both unrestricted free agents.

Posted by Garrett Downing on Thursday, March 1st, 2012 at 2:40 pm | Categories: 2012 Offseason, Garrett Downing

Ray Lewis has already said he’s returning for this 17th season, but the Ravens could still have a need at inside linebacker.

Jameel McClain and Brendon Ayanbadejo are unrestricted free agents, and it’s unclear if the Ravens are going to be able to keep them in Baltimore.

McClain started every game last year and proved his worth when Lewis went down for four games with a toe injury. Ayanbadejo filled in as a backup linebacker and was also a special-teams ace.

If they go somewhere else, then the Ravens will need to find a starting inside linebacker to pair next to Lewis, and also add another player to provide some depth.

Let’s take a look at who might be available in free agency:

Stephen Tulloch, Detroit Lions
Unrestricted (7th Season); 27 years old; 5-foot-11; 240 pounds
2011 Season: 16 starts, 111 total tackles, 3 sacks, 2 interceptions, 5 passes defended
Tulloch is regarded as one of the top inside linebackers scheduled to hit the free-agent market. He became the leader of the Lions defense in his first season with the team. The Lions are hoping to sign him back, but they also have other free agents like defensive end Cliff Avril that they want to keep. If Tulloch does become a free agent, he could likely fetch a big contract on open market.
(Upside – Proven Player, Age;  Downside – Price) 

Curtis Lofton, Atlanta Falcons
Unrestricted (5th Season); 25; 6-0; 240
2011 Season: 16 starts; 147 tackles, 1 sack, 1 forced fumble, 2 interceptions, 7 passes defended
The Falcons are working to negotiate with Lofton after another strong season where he started every game and led the Falcons in tackles. He has started at inside linebacker for the Falcons for the last four seasons. It’s unclear if the Falcons will be able to keep him, as General Manager Thomas Dimitroff described the contract discussions as “amicable.”
(Upside – Proven Player, Age;  Downside – Price) 

Dan Connor, Carolina Panthers
Unrestricted (5th season); 26; 6-1; 231
2011 Season: 11 starts, 75 tackles, 1 forced fumble
Connor has spent his career in the shadow of linebacker Jon Beason, but he now has the opportunity to test the free-agent market to see if he can get top dollar. Connor has started 19 games the last two seasons and played well at times for the Panthers. He likely won’t get the big contracts that Lofton or Tulloch will command, but he could provide some depth to the Ravens if McClain were to leave.
(Upside – Price, Age; Downside – Not As Proven)

Barrett Ruud, Tennessee Titans
Unrestricted (8th season); 28; 6-2; 241
2011 Season: 9 starts; 57 tackles, 1 interception, 3 passes defended
Ruud ended the season on injured reserve after suffering a groin injury that lingered through the back half of the season. In his first season with the Titans, Ruud started the first nine games before going down with the injury. After Ruud went down, rookie Colin McCarthy reportedly outperformed him and the Titans appear willing to let Ruud hit the free-agent market. Before his one year in Tennessee, Ruud was a starter in Tampa Bay the last four seasons.
(Upside – Price, Starting Experience; Downside – Injuries, Inconsistency)

Chase Blackburn, New York Giants
Unrestricted (8th season); 28; 6-3; 247
2011 Season: 4 starts, 26 tackles, 1 interception
Blackburn had a limited role for the Giants this season, as he was signed late in the year because their defense was decimated with injuries. Blackburn had played his entire career with the Giants, but they opted not to re-sign him at the start of last season and instead went with younger linebackers. But once they went through a series of injuries, the Giants brought back Blackburn and he played well at the end of the regular season and through the playoffs. He is now once again a free agent, and could sign with another team, or go un-signed like he did at the start of last season. He has significant special-teams experience, so the Ravens could look to him to fill Ayanbadejo’s role if he leaves.
(Upside – Price; Downside – Starting Experience)

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