Although the NFL regular season still has 2 weeks to go, we are getting to the point of the year where collegiate players are declaring for the NFL Draft, teams are starting to become mathematically eliminated from playoff contention, and the Draft order itself is starting to settle.
Of course, before the Draft comes Free Agency, and we will be doing a Team-by-Team Offseason Blueprint feature immediately at the conclusion of the NFL regular season on what each NFL franchise needs to do from top to bottom this upcoming offseason to become more competitive in 2016 and beyond.
We don't know what will happen between now and Free Agency in March, and now until the Draft in April is even murkier waters, but what we do know is how much estimated cap room each team is slated to have going into this offseason and which players are set to hit the open market.
So with that being said, let's think through it. I have identified the Top 10 upcoming Free Agent Inside Linebackers with a little analysis to explain the logic behind where I think they will land next year.
DERRICK JOHNSON | KANSAS CITY CHIEFS
The Chiefs have two aging defenders in Tamba Hali and Derrick Johnson scheduled to hit Free Agency this offseason. The difference between the two of them is that the Chiefs have a long-term plan available at OLB with Dee Ford while there is nothing much in terms of depth beyond Derrick Johnson. Johnson is the 4th highest-graded inside linebacker according to PFF (90.9 OVR), and his leadership would be even more difficult to replace than his on-field prowess. The Chiefs will have about $35 million in cap space this offseason, and I would expect most of that figure to be allocated towards bringing back Johnson and Eric Berry.
BRANDON MARSHALL | DENVER BRONCOS
This will all rely on what the Broncos elect to do with Von Miller, as we illustrated in our previous Free Agent Edge Rushers preview. John Elway and the Denver Broncos have some difficult decisions to make this offseason with 5 of their front 7 defensive starters set to hit free agency, and re-signing Von Miller would exhaust most of that amount. We see Elway going the route of bringing back 3-4 impact starters on this defense instead of Von Miller, and Brandon Marshall is one of them. Marshall is the 10th highest-rated linebacker according to PFF with an 86.7 grade, and this defense would miss him if he were to leave.
DANNY TREVATHAN | DENVER BRONCOS
Just like Marshall, I believe the Broncos do what they can to bring back his partner-in-crime, Danny Trevathan. Trevathan actually scored higher this season than Marshall (87.9 grade), but has missed a few games due to injury. Again, if you ask me if I rather bring back Von Miller to a huge deal or a combination of Marshall, Trevathan, Derek Wolfe or Malik Jackson, I am going with option B.
JERRELL FREEMAN | INDIANAPOLIS COLTS
D'Qwell Jackson may be the leading tackler in the NFL, but it's Jerrell Freeman who is the real heartbeat of this Colts defense. Freeman is enjoying a highly-productive season (88.7 OVR PFF grade, 7th ranked LB) and with the cap room to spend, the Colts will likely extend a competitive offer to retain Freeman. If Freeman chooses to walk, expect his agent's phone to be ringing off the hook.
ROLANDO McCLAIN | NEW YORK GIANTS
Rolando McClain has probably worn out his welcome in Dallas, and his recent play hasn't matched the high-level that we saw when Dallas first brought him back into the fold after unexpectedly retiring at age 24. With that being said, McClain is no slouch, and despite having a 67.1 PFF grade this season, McClain would still be an upgrade over Jon Beason because, well, at least he is on the field to contribute. McClain's skill set would be well-suited for the Giants defensive scheme - equally strong against the run and in coverage.
DEMARIO DAVIS | CLEVELAND BROWNS
Demario Davis isn't a very good football player, but then again the Cleveland Browns aren't a very good team, so this makes sense. The Browns need someone who can start next to Karlos Dansby with Craig Robertson's contract up, and Demario Davis could be given that shot to compete with Christian Kirksey. I doubt Davis' market will be too hot, and with many free agents probably choosing to eschew the Browns in their decision-making process, Davis might not have too many other options. He could always pull a Bart Scott and hide in the bathroom, of course...
ZACH BROWN | DALLAS COWBOYS
Zach Brown is an athletic football player who is probably not in the best defensive system for his skillset (more suited to a 4-3 OLB role). The Titans seem to like him as depth for Avery Williamson and Wesley Woodyard, but who would want to be depth when they can go to a team of their choice and start in a more appropriate scheme? I expect the Dallas Cowboys to emerge as a frontrunner for Brown's services, filling a big hole at OLB opposite Sean Lee. The Cowboys could have close to $20 million in cap room if they cut some dead weight this offseason - enough to re-sign Greg Hardy and make one other mid-level free agent signing on defense such as this one. Plus, he can finally escape all the bad Zach Brown Band jokes that I'm sure he's never heard before by way of living in Nashville.
SHEA McCLELLIN | BUFFALO BILLS
McClellin has struggled a little bit this year (39.9 OVR PFF grade) but it was his first season playing ILB in a 3-4 defense, which probably isn't his Matt Forte. I don't expect the Bears to bring him back, but I wouldn't be surprised if they did, either. If he chooses to test free agency waters, a logical landing spot for him would be Buffalo, where he could take over for Manny Lawson's blitzing outside linebacker position in Rex Ryan's multiple front and probably be a little more effective (although Mario Williams would probably disagree).
CRAIG ROBERTSON | CHICAGO BEARS
Craig Robertson probably isn't starter material to be perfectly honest, but a team like the Bears would be a nice landing spot for Robertson. He can be given a chance to compete for the other ILB spot with Christian Jones after the Bears take Reggie Ragland in the first round in this upcoming draft. The Bears have copious cap space and want to be aggressive in improving this roster, especially on the defensive side of the ball.
PAUL WORRILOW | DETROIT LIONS
Yeah, we are in the Wal-mart bargain big of free agent ILBs. I would be shocked if Dan Quinn and the Falcons wanted Worrilow back since he could not be a further fit from the type of ILB that Quinn's defensive scheme requires (rangy, fast and good in coverage). Worrilow will get a very pedestrian contract offer and end up as a depth player on another roster, so why not Detroit's? Travis Lewis will be gone next year and he would provide some insurance if Stephen Tulloch gets hurt or gets cut to save $6 million against the cap this offseason.
*All Cap Projections are from www.spotrac.com