Here's a look at the top linebackers that will be on the market when NFL free agency begins on March 12th.
For defensive linemen, click here.
We'll begin with pass rushing specialists, a group led by the Ravens' Paul Kruger. With Joe Flacco demanding a massive new contract, the Ravens are going to be hard pressed to bring back many of their other high-profile free agents. Reportedly seeking a contract in the $40 million range, Kruger may be forced to sign elsewhere. It should be known, however, that Kruger had only 1.5 sacks in the first six games while fellow linebacker Terrell Suggs was hurt, and racked up 7.5 in the final eight games with Suggs in the lineup and in game shape. It's possible that Kruger was a product of the attention directed towards Suggs, and he could end up being a free agent bust.
The Cowboys would love to have Anthony Spencer back in 2013, and Spencer has expressed interest in returning. Salary cap limitations, however, could keep the two from getting a new deal in place. Spencer had 11.0 sacks in 14 games in 2012.
At the beginning of the 2012 season, it was thought that the Texans could use the franchise tag on Connor Barwin, but after a disappointing season with only 3.0 sacks, that may not be the case any longer. Despite the disappointing 2012, Barwin had 11.5 sacks in 2011 and will draw plenty of interest if the Texans let him walk.
The Union-Tribue San Diego says Shaun Phillips "will be wearing different colors" in 2013. The Chargers don't have a lot of cap space and have younger options at outside linebacker than Phillips, who will turn 32 in May. He had a nice bounce-back campaign in 2012, racking up 9.5 sacks with two forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries. The Browns and Cardinals have been linked to the veteran pass rusher.
Now for the non-pass rushing outside linebackers. Daryl Smith missed most of 2012 due to a groin injury, but could end up being a great value in free agency. He was Pro Football Focus' No. 2 ranked outside linebacker in 2011.
Philip Wheeler was a diamond in the rough for the Raiders during last year's free agency period, but scouts around the league have taken notice to his solid play. Even though it's not saying much, Wheeler was the best player on the Raiders defense in 2012 and put up career highs in tackles, sacks, forced fumbles, and passes defended.
The Vikings will probably want Erin Henderson back in 2013, but he was reportedly upset when the team didn't offer him a long-term deal last offseason. Though he struggles in pass coverage, Henderson plays the run very well and would draw plenty of interest on the open market.
The Bills released Nick Barnett due to a failed physical, and though it is not yet known what caused him to fail, he is expected to land a starting job somewhere. He was rated as a top-ten 4-3 outside linebacker by Pro Football Focus in 2012, and is also capable of playing in a 3-4 scheme.
Thomas Howard tore his ACL in Week 2 of the 2012 season, but says he is on track to be ready for 2013. He was the Bengals leading tackler in 2011, and is considered likely to return to Cincinnati next season. Teammate Manny Lawson is also a free agent, but is less likely to be re-signed. After defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer said he planned to use Lawson more as a pass rusher before the 2012 season, Lawson tallied only 2.0 sacks.
Leroy Hill stated 12 games for the Seahawks in 2012, but was arrested for the fourth time in the past five years less than a month ago, this time for domestic violence. Teams will be interested from a talent standpoint, but his off-field issues are sure to drive some potential suitors away.
Justin Durant led the Lions in tackles in 2012, and has expressed interest in returning, though the Lions have to pick and choose which players to re-sign due to limited cap space... Michael Boley struggled in 2012, leading to his release, but is still likely to latch on somewhere.
Now we'll look at the middle linebackers. Though it may seem like Brian Urlacher could never play for any city but Chicago, new head coach Marc Trestman hasn't clearly expressed that he wants Urlacher back. He's willing to take a hometown discount to stay, though he understands that the Bears are moving away from the Cover 2 scheme that he was so effective in. Though he'll be 35 in May, it doesn't seem that he'd consider retirement if the Bears let him walk.
The Ravens want Dannell Ellerbe back to fill the void left by Ray Lewis, but as I said before, Joe Flacco's contract demands could prevent the Ravens from getting their free agents back. He played very well during Lewis' absence last year, and at the age of 27, he'll be a coveted player if he hits the open market.
Though he started all 16 games for the Bengals last season, Rey Maualuga was one of the poorer starting middle linebackers in 2012. The Bengals are not expected to bring him back. At the age of 26, he is still capable of starting, but could also latch on somewhere as a rotational player.
Tim Dobbins drew some starts due to Brian Cushing's torn ACL in 2012, but only has 21 starts in his seven-year career... Bradie James has started consistently for the Cowboys and Texans since 2005, and the Texans aren't expected to re-sign him.
Here are some linebackers who may be cut by the time free agency opens:
Rolando McClain (OAK) has been trouble off the field, on the practice field, and on the field. His combination of gun-related charges, heated exchanges with coaches, and struggles in pass covering make his $4 million salary a bit steep. Still only 23 years old and a valuable asset against the run, plenty of teams will be interested in him if he is released.
Bart Scott (NYJ) will turn 33 over the summer and is being overpaid ($6.9 million). With the Jets' salary cap situation, they can't afford to overpay a 33 year old.
The same applies for 32 year old Calvin Pace (NYJ), who is set to make $5.8 million in 2013.
The Steelers may be unable to afford James Harrison (PIT) at his current price of $6.6 million, especially considering his injury issues in recent years. He says he is open to restructuring his contract, but is not open to a pay cut. He wants to be back in Pittsburgh, but if he holds his stance on a salary reduction, he may be forced to play elsewhere.