2006 NFL Free Agents: Linebackers
By: Thomas J Gersey
1. Julian Peterson, OLB, San Francisco [83 tkls, 3 sacks]
Peterson is clearly the cream of this year's linebacking crop, despite continuing worries about his durability. Over the years, he has played OLB, ILB, DE, SS and CB, demonstrating the superior athleticism that separates superstars from the rest of the league. Were it not for nagging injuries, Peterson would have been locked up as the team's cornerstone defensive player long ago. However, with the Niners having numerous problems elsewhere, they are sure to be hesitant to tie up so much money in a risky player.
Peterson has that rare first step that gets him off the line immediately, and makes him a top notch pass rusher. What puts him into the elite group of linebackers is that he isnt pigeon-holed as either a "cover guy" or a "pass rusher". With his speed, Peterson can chase down any ball carrier, and can even stretch out into coverage on passing downs. If he can stay healthy, he will be well worth the money he will command, and could take a contender to the next level.
GOOD FITS: Miami, NY Giants, Houston, Oakland, Detroit, Arizona, Baltimore, Chicago, San Francisco
EARLY PICK: Peterson is more than an filler. He is likely to be pursued by teams that need an OLB, but also by teams looking to add another superstar to an already effective defense. Teams like Baltimore or Chicago, who don't need a superstar linebacker, may pursue Peterson with the idea of making a strong unit unstoppable. Teams like Houston, Arizona, Oakland and Detroit will all be anxious to put a difference maker on the defensive side of the football. Arizona is an up and coming team, where Peterson would become the best player on a good defense as well as a team leader. Arizona has a good group of youngsters in Lance Mitchell and Daryl Blackstock at the LB position, and they may prefer to stick with developing who they have. In the end, Miami, New York and the Niners appear to be the top destinations for a player of his calibur. No team is more linebacker hungry than the Giants, and Peterson would be the type of player who could take a good Giants team to the elite level. Meanwhile, Miami is coming off of a surprisingly good 9-7 campaign. Reuniting Peterson with his college coach, Nick Saban, makes alot of sense. He would immediately team with Zack Thomas and Channing Crowder to form one of the league's most imposing units. In the end, I believe the Niners will hold on to Peterson, with either the franchise tag or a long term deal. For all of the Reggie Bush talk this season, their real holes are at offensive line, wide receiver and pass rusher. Losing a player who could fill one of those roles would be a an egregious error.
2. Andra Davis, ILB, Cleveland [149 tackles] (Editors Note: Davis was resigned by Cleveland)
Although he lacks the talent of a Ray Lewis or Brian Urlacher, he plays a similar sideline-to-sideline style that would be welcome on any team. A gifted athlete in college, Davis slipped to the 5th round, and has made up for lost time by quickly becoming the top playmaker for the Browns. He is a smart player who has good instincts when pursuing ball carriers. With a 6'1, 250 lbs frame, Davis sheds blockers very well, and is able to maintain pursuit. His major weakness is in the passing game, where he struggles to keep up with quick tight ends or backs coming out of the backfield.
Davis is an unrestricted free agent whom the Browns will make every effort to sign. With a good deal of room under the cap, he doesn't have the kind of name recognition that will lead to the kind of bidding war that would keep the Browns from retaining him.
GOOD FITS: NY Giants, Indianapolis, Tennessee, Cleveland
EARLY PICK: As stated above, Cleveland has to be considered the leader in the race for Davis. I wouldn't be surprised if the Browns lock him up before the free agent period begins. If he does go to the open market, Tennessee is sure to go after him with all it has. Brad Kossell played the best he could for the Titans, but Davis would be a tremendous upgrade over the later rounder from North Texas.
3. Cato June, ILB, Indianapolis [102 tackles, 5 int, 2 TD]
Coming out of no where, Cato June went from unknown to potential Defensive Player of the Year. In his third year out of Michigan, June showed the complete skills any defensive coordinator would be happy to rely on on a weekly basis. Obviously, June solved his problems with coverage, as evidenced by his 5 interceptions and 2 touchdowns. A very good athlete, June's major knock ahd always been an inability to get proper depth in zone coverage. Not only did he improve in that area, but he also demonstrated the ability to be an effective man defender as well. While he did manage 102 tackles, he continues to have problems shedding larger blockers in pursuit. June excels in the proper scheme, and would likely have difficulty being the focal point of a younger, less talented defense.
Everyone wants to know where the Colts are going to spend their money. With Edgerring James, Reggie Wayne, and three linebackers about to hit the free agent market, someone has to go. After the season he had, you can be sure the Colts will make every effort to maintain the services of June.
GOOD FITS: Indianapolis, NY Giants, Detroit, Oakland, Tennessee
EARLY PICK: The Colts are sure to franchise James and sign Reggie Wayne, if they can. With three excellent linebackers all free agents, they will have to choose who stays and who is expendable. My guess is that June will be a priority this offseason, and will remain in Indy. If not, New York would be eager to bring him in with an equally talented OLB, while teams like Detroit and Oakland may see him as the cornerstone of a young defense going forward.
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