Outside of a few notable stragglers, free agency has come and gone, and with it the opportunity for teams to find major upgrades at areas of need. Which means, their next chance to improve their rosters will come during the 2020 NFL Draft from April 23-25.
Take the linebacker position. All the top free agents have landed already. Nick Kwiatkoski and Cory Littleton signed with the Raiders. Joe Schobert went to Jacksonville. Blake Martinez got a big deal with the Giants. Kyle Van Noy rejoined Brian Flores in Miami. And so on. As of April 11, the best remaining free agents at linebacker are a pair of first-round disappointments in Alec Ogletree and Darron Lee (view the full list over at Spotrac). Teams in need of help at linebacker won’t find much relief in this stage of free agency. They’ll be forced to use the draft to fill openings in their linebacker corps.
On that note, as we continue our pre-draft series here at CBS Sports, today we’re taking a look at the teams who need help at linebacker and how they can go about filling those holes. But first, a couple of notes:
- We are mostly talking about off-ball linebackers. For the most part, edge rushers are not included, although tweeners were. For our edge rushers article, .
- Most teams could stand to add depth at linebacker. So, we focused on the teams who have more immediate needs at linebacker. But when it comes to a player like Isaiah Simmons, the top-ranked linebacker, every team in football could use him.
- Along with Simmons, you’re going to see the following names a lot: Kenneth Murray, Patrick Queen, Zack Baun, Akeem Davis-Gaither, Troy Dye, Willie Gay Jr., and Malik Harrison. The reason? Those are the linebackers who rank in our top-100 prospects. You can check out our entire big board by clicking here.
And with that, we begin in Baltimore.
There’s no doubt the Ravens have had a successful offseason. There’s also no doubt that they remain one of the league’s best teams, right up there with the Chiefs. But they still have a few weaknesses. Chief among them? Linebacker.
Earlier this offseason, the Ravens watched Josh Bynes, who started seven games and appeared in 12 games for Baltimore last year, walk on over to Cincinnati. A year ago, they lost C.J. Mosley, who they still haven’t adequately replaced. That has created a void. Go take a look at their depth chart. As it stands, they’d be forced to trot out L.J. Fort and Chris Board at linebacker. While Fort graded out as a solid player in an eight-game, 12-start season, Board was seldom used. An upgrade is needed, especially considering the Ravens have so few holes elsewhere.
The solution: It’s slim pickings in free agency at this point in the calendar. They’d be better off seeking an upgrade in the draft. It wouldn’t be at all surprising to see the Ravens use their first-round pick on a linebacker.
It’d make sense because the Ravens are sitting at the end of the first round — No. 28, to be specific — which is where some of the top linebackers could begin to go. Isaiah Simmons will be long gone by then, but someone like Patrick Queen or Kenneth Murray could fall to them. If either of those two players drop, look for the Ravens to snatch them up. Zack Baun could be an option, even if he’s not a clear first-round pick. If the Ravens decide to use their first-round pick on another area of need, they do have two picks in each of the second, third, and fourth rounds. Malik Harrison, who NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein compared to K.J. Wright, could be an option on Day 2. But with linebacker as their biggest need, the Ravens should probably use their first-round pick on one of the top linebackers who can start come Week 1. It wouldn’t be a reach at their draft position.
The Panthers need help at linebacker for one very obvious reason: Luke Kuechly, arguably the best inside linebacker of the past decade (Bobby Wagner is his only competition), While the Panthers still have Shaq Thompson and signed Tahir Whitehead, the Panthers wouldn’t be wrong to seek an upgrade in the draft. Whitehead is entering his age 30 season and Thompson has failed to make the leap from solid to great. An upgrade or depth behind those two players is needed.
The solution: At No. 7, there’s a chance the Panthers could get lucky. If there’s an early run on quarterbacks, it’s possible Isaiah Simmons, the best linebacker in the draft, could fall to them. But if Simmons is off the board, the Panthers shouldn’t reach for a linebacker. If you take a look at our draft prospect rankings, you’ll see that our second-ranked linebacker, Kenneth Murray, is our 23rd-overall prospect — 20 spots behind Simmons. So, taking a linebacker not named Isaiah Simmons at No. 7 wouldn’t make sense. But there’s always a chance the Panthers trade down, given just how many needs they have. If they were to move down into the teens or 20s, then a linebacker like Murray or Patrick Queen could come into play.
Another option would be to wait until the second round. Holding the 38th-overall pick, the Panthers could watch Zack Baun, our fourth-ranked linebacker and 34th-overall prospect, fall to them. It seems unlikely that Queen would fall that far, but it isn’t an impossibility.
The point being, unless Simmons falls to them at No. 7, the Panthers would be wise to exercise patience. Above all else, this is a team that should be drafting the best player available regardless of position.
The Browns have enjoyed a productive offseason, upgrading their offensive line and adding the top tight end in free agency to an already stacked offense, but they got gutted at linebacker. Joe Schobert, who has appeared in 61 of 64 possible games over the past four seasons, left for Jacksonville, and his partner in crime, Christian Kirksey, signed with the Packers. Kirksey has missed 23 games over the past two seasons, so the Browns won’t have to adjust to his absence. They still have Mack Wilson, a 2019 fifth-round pick who out-performed his draft position. But as it stands, the Browns would probably have to start Sione Takitaki, a 2019 second-round pick who seldom contributed last year, alongside him. Linebacker isn’t the Browns’ most urgent need — they don’t have a left tackle — but it is one need.
The solution: The Browns shouldn’t take a linebacker in Round 1. They have to take a left tackle at No. 10. The only way they should consider taking a linebacker is if Simmons were to fall to them somehow.
That means the Browns will need to hit linebacker later in the draft. They also have the 41st-overall pick, so Zack Baun could be in play there. At No. 74 and No. 97, the Browns could target Akeem Davis-Gaither, Malik Harrison, Willie Gay Jr., or Troy Dyer. What’s notable is that after those four linebackers, there’s a chasm at linebacker. So, the Browns should be taking a linebacker in the top-100.
One of the most complete teams in all of football, the Saints don’t have any truly urgent needs. But linebacker is an area they could target. Over the past three seasons, A.J. Klein appeared in 43 of 48 possible games and averaged 42 solo tackles, three pass breakups, and four quarterback hits per season. Klein is by no means a stud, but he’ll be missed. Then, consider that Kiko Alonso will turn 30 in August. That makes linebacker a need. It’s less of a need for the Saints than some of the other teams on this list, but it’s still a need nonetheless.
The solution: Like the Ravens, the Saints are sitting in a perfect area in the first round to take a linebacker. They should be able to snag Kenneth Murray or Patrick Queen at No. 24. Given their needs and their draft position, they should absolutely take one of those two players, assuming one of them is still around.
Remember when the Rams had one of the best rosters in football? Things can change quickly in the NFL. After parting ways with Cory Littleton in free agency, the Rams, who were never particularly strong at linebacker, are in need of linebackers. They signed Leonard Floyd after the Bears cut him. Floyd, who isn’t quite an edge rusher, but can be used in a variety of ways, was a nice upside signing. But their depth chart at linebacker is bleak. At inside linebacker, they’re depending on Micah Kiser, who missed the entire 2019 season after seldom contributing in 2018.
The solution: Unfortunately, the Rams have a far bigger problem that drastically impacts their ability to get a top linebacker: They’re short on draft picks. Barring a trade up, the Rams won’t pick until No. 52. Due to the Brandin Cooks trade, they’ll pick again at No. 57. Linebacker should only be in play in the 50s if Zack Baun falls to them there, but that seems unlikely. Otherwise, it probably makes sense to wait until the third round, when the Rams pick at No. 84. At No. 84, the Rams should be able to get Akeem Davis-Gaither, Troy Dye, Willie Gay Jr., or Malik Harrison. Taking any those players in the 50s would be a reach, but getting one of them at No. 84 would make a ton of sense.
Deion Jones, when healthy, is an elite player at his position group. The good news is that after an injury-ruined season in 2018, he rebounded in 2019 by playing in all 16 games. The bad news for the Falcons is that they don’t have capable players to slot in alongside Jones at linebacker. De’Vondre Campbell departed in free agency. Foyesade Oluokun is currently expected to start on the inside, even though he’s only started 10 games over the past two seasons combined. An upgrade is needed for a defense that went from 31st to 20th by DVOA a year ago, especially if they want to make the leap from not terrible to actually good.
The solution: At No. 16, the Falcons are unlikely to find great linebacker value in the first round. Simmons will be long gone. Meanwhile, it’s probably a reach to be taking Queen or Murray at No. 16 when they’re ranked in the 20s among all prospects. If Baun were to fall to No. 47, the Falcons shouldn’t hesitate to grab him. But they’ll need a lot to go right for Baun to fall to 47. So, the Falcons best chance to grab a linebacker is with pick No. 78 — especially considering their next pick won’t come until No. 119. At No. 78, the Falcons can probably grab Dye, Gay Jr., or Harrison, all of whom are ranked in the 80s. However, Davis-Gaither, our 73rd-ranked prospect, should be the target.
What’s interesting about the Broncos under Vic Fangio is that they haven’t made linebacker a priority even though Fangio’s defenses often have had great linebacker play. In San Francisco, he had Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman. In Chicago, he had Danny Trevathan and Roquan Smith. In Denver, he currently has Alexander Johnson, Josey Jewell, and Todd Davis. Johnson is coming off a promising season that vastly exceeded expectations, Jewell has mostly been a replacement-level player, and Davis has been a dependable above-average player. So, the Broncos don’t have an urgent need at linebacker. This defense ranked 13th a year ago in DVOA. But they could also stand to add another linebacker to that group to start alongside Johnson.
The solution: The Broncos shouldn’t be using their first-round pick at No. 15 on a linebacker with more pressing needs. But they can look at add depth in the later rounds. Baun could be in play at No. 46. Dye, Gay Jr., or Harrison could all be options at No. 77 or No. 83. I’d be willing to bet, though, that the Broncos will wait even longer. With two fourth-round picks, the Broncos should devote one of those two picks on a linebacker that can sit and develop. Logan Wilson and Jordyn Brooks come to mind as two options who should be there in the fourth round.
With a linebacker group featuring the likes of T.J. Edwards, Duke Riley, Jatavis Brown, and Nathan Gerry, the Eagles have an urgent need at linebacker. They did well to address the secondary by trading for Darius Slay. Their defensive front remains strong. But there’s a big void in the middle of their defense. Nigel Bradham is still unsigned. And Kamu Grugier-Hill left for Miami.
The solution: Everyone seems to think the Eagles will use the No. 21 pick on a receiver, but this is an incredibly deep draft at receiver. The Eagles can pass on a receiver in the first round and still get a good prospect in the second round at No. 53. That would allow them to take either Murray or Queen at No. 21. It makes more sense for the Eagles to get a linebacker at No. 21 and a receiver at No. 53 than the other way around, because Murray and Queen are significantly better prospects than the linebackers who will be available at No. 53.
The cruel truth is that the Bengals pretty much have needs at every single position group. There’s a reason this team has the first pick in the draft. The Bengals did sign Josh Bynes away from the Ravens, but their other options at the position include Germaine Pratt and Jordan Evans. A season ago, this defense ranked 30th in DVOA. Bynes isn’t going to transform this defense. They need serious upgrades in the draft.
The solution: We all know they’re taking Joe Burrow at the top of the draft. But I think Baun, with the first pick of the second round, would make a ton of sense — assuming Queen and Murray are off the board at that point. Baun has the potential to bolster the Bengals’ pass rush while also serving the off-ball linebacker role. He’s versatile in the Kyle Van Noy mold.
After giving Blake Martinez a three-year, $30.75 million deal with $19 million guaranteed, the Giants have less of a need at linebacker than they did prior to free agency. But they still could get better at the position around Martinez. Don’t be surprised if the Giants address the position in the draft. They have more urgent needs, though, including at edge rusher, so they might wait to address linebacker in the later rounds.
The solution: If the Giants want to take the best available player with the No. 4 pick, they might be able to get Simmons, our third-ranked prospect. It’s something they should seriously consider, because it’s an entirely possible outcome, if we assume the Bengals will take Burrow at No. 1 and the Redskins will take Chase Young at No 2. At No. 3, the Lions could go in any direction. Simmons could be there at No. 4 if the Lions trade out of the spot with a quarterback-needy team or if the Lions replace Slay with Jeff Okudah.
But given the Giants other needs — offensive line — they might wait to take a linebacker after Round 1. If the Bengals pass on Baun at the top of Round 2, the Giants could take him at No. 36. The Giants won’t pick again until No. 99, so if they want an impact-now linebacker, they’ll have to grab one at No. 4 or No. 36. I’d wager they take an offensive lineman with the fourth pick and then address linebacker later — perhaps at No. 36. If they do wait until No. 99, they’ll just have to hope someone like Malik Harrison, our 87th-ranked prospect, falls to them.
Ron Rivera is inheriting the league’s 24th-ranked defense that relied on Jonathan Bostic and Cole Holcomb a year ago. They did sign Thomas Davis, but Davis is 37. He’s a short-term fix. They still need a long-term answer at the linebacker position. The Redskins also added Kevin Pierre-Louis, but he’s a player who has only briefly flashed in years past, most recently with the Bears. In other words, linebacker isn’t the team’s most pressing need, but it is still a need.
The solution: The Redskins almost definitely aren’t taking Simmon at No. 2. If they stay put at No. 2, they’ll take Young (very likely) or Tua Tagovailoa (unlikely, but not out of the question). But I like the idea of the Redskins trading out of this spot. This is a team that needs as many draft picks as possible. One player, even Young, isn’t going to cure them. If the Redskins trade down a few spots with, say, the Dolphins or Chargers, they could try to grab Simmons at No. 5 or No. 6. That’s my ideal scenario. In a world where the Redskins stay put and take Young, it’ll be difficult for them to find an NFL-ready linebacker, namely because they don’t have a second-round pick. They don’t pick again until No. 66. That’s why, again, the Redskins should be trying to trade down to acquire more draft capital. At No. 66, though, the linebacker that would make sense is Davis-Gaither. But by that point, he might be long gone.
The Redskins signed Thomas Davis, which means the Chargers lost Thomas Davis. They’ve still got Denzel Perryman manning the middle and they signed Nick Vigil in free agency. But their third spot is up for grabs. Current options include Uchenna Nwosu and Emeke Egbule. Still, the Chargers are better off than most of the teams on this list, and their defense should be very good after adding Linval Joseph and Chris Harris. So then, why are the Chargers on this list? It has everything to do with where they’re picking in the first round
The solution: At No. 6, if the Chargers don’t make a move for a quarterback, they should take Isaiah Simmons, who could be there if there’s a run on quarterbacks in the top five. Simmons has been compared to Derwin James, but that’s not a bad thing. A defense can never have too many Derwin James-es. However, if Simmons isn’t there at No. 6, the Chargers should go best player available. But I love the idea of adding Simmons to this already good defense.
After losing both Elandon Roberts, Kyle Van Noy, and Jamie Collins in free agency, the Patriots have a clear need at linebacker. They still have Dont’a Hightower, but he needs some help. I’m not sure how much Ja’Whaun Bentley is going to help.
The solution: The Patriots can go in a number of different ways with the 23rd pick. Yes, they’re in the market for a new long-term quarterback, but if the quarterbacks are gone by the time they’re on the clock, the Patriots are in a perfect spot to grab either Queen or Murray. The late teens to the early 20s feels like Queen and Murray’s range. If either is available, I’m not sure the Patriots should pass. Keep in mind, the Patriots do not have a second-round pick. So if they miss on linebacker in Round 1, they’ll be hard pressed to find a Week 1 starter in the draft. They’ll have to settle for depth in the third round, where they have three selections.
One more name that could make sense for the Patriots, especially if they were to trade down late in the first round? Zack Baun, who has been compared to Kyle Van Noy. That could be a good way for the Patriots to acquire more draft capital while still addressing their need at linebacker.
Green Bay let Blake Martinez walk on over to New York in free agency. The Packers’ solution was to sign Christian Kirksey away from the Browns. I like the Kirksey signing, because he’s a good player when healthy. The only problem is that he’s played in only nine games over the past two seasons combined. He hasn’t pieced together a quality season since 2017. Operating alongside Kirksey should be Oren Burks, who has started four games in his career. The Packers have other needs, like at receiver, but linebacker is an area that shouldn’t be ignored in the draft.
The solution: Receiver is a bigger need, but the draft is loaded with receivers. So, if Murray or Queen falls to No. 30, the Packers should consider taking one of them. Baun should also be in consideration. Still, I’d be willing to bet the Packers go in a different direction in the first round and take a linebacker later. At No. 94, Dye, Gay Jr., or Harrison — all of whom are ranked in the 80s on our big board — would be tremendous value while providing them with depth behind Kirksey and Burks.