Patriots

NFL free agents 2022: Ranking the top 10 linebackers

Patriots

Midway through the 2019 season, when the New England Patriots were 8-0, the Boogeyman at linebacker were among the biggest reasons why.

For as much as has changed with the team since those times, including the absences of Dont'a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins in 2020, all three linebackers were back in the fold by the end of 2021, with mixed results.

The Patriots have invested some draft capital at linebacker in the meantime, spending a second-round pick on Josh Uche and a third-round pick on Anfernee Jennings in 2020, but neither player has made much of an impact yet.

Top 2022 NFL free agents by position: QB | RB | WR | TEOL | DLEDGE | CB | S | KTop 25 overall

All this to say: New England needs some help at linebacker.

Here's a look at the top 10 linebackers set to become free agents this spring, including two members of the Patriots.

10. Ja'Whaun Bentley

Age: 24

2021 stats: 109 combined tackles, 1 sack, 2 passes defended, 3 forced fumbles

Quietly, Bentley had his best season as a pro in 2021, surpassing 100 combined tackles for the first time and proving he could be a viable starter for a playoff defense.

He'll never wow you with his speed, especially in today's game, but there's a place for Bentley in the NFL as a run stopper in the middle on first and second down.

9. Alec Ogletree

Age: 30

2021 stats: 87 combined tackles, 4 passes defended, 1 forced fumble

After playing in only two games last season for the New York Jets, Ogletree needed to prove he could stay healthy.

 

He checked off that box, if nothing else, for the Chicago Bears in 2021, playing and starting in 16 games.

Capable of playing both inside and outside linebacker, Ogletree remains a good fit in both a 3-4 and 4-3 defense. The savvy veteran is still quick enough to help out in any scheme he wins up in.

8. Kwon Alexander

Age: 27

2021 stats: 50 combined tackles, 3.5 sacks, 2 passes defended, 1 forced fumble

It's been a while since his lone Pro Bowl appearance (2017), and only once has he played more than 12 games in a season, but Alexander was reasonably productive in 2021 for the New Orleans Saints and given his relative youth -- he won't be 28 until training camp -- as well as ability to line up both inside and outside, Alexander shouldn't have much trouble finding work.

7. Anthony Walker Jr.

Age: 26

2021 stats: 113 combined tackles, 1 sack, 2 passes defended

Though undersized for his position (6-foot-1, 235 pounds), all Walker has done is contribute when in the lineup for the Indianapolis Colts and, most recently, the Cleveland Browns.

Walker joined the Browns via free agency in 2021, and though he played in only 13 games, appeared in a career-high 80 percent of his team's defensive snaps.

With the bulk of his experience coming in the middle of a 4-3 defense, Walker's strong suit is as a run-thumper on first and second down.

6. Leighton Vander Esch

Age: 26

2021 stats: 77 combined tackles, 1 interception, 1 sack, 2 passes defended

Since making the Pro Bowl for the Dallas Cowboys as a rookie in 2018, the former eight-man high school football star from Idaho has plateaued somewhat. He missed 13 games between the 2019 and 2020 seasons, and though he played all 17 for Dallas in 2021, his production was roughly half of what it was in his last full season, when he had 140 combined tackles and 102 solo tackles (he had 48 this year).

Like many players on this list, Vander Esch is young enough where he still has room to improve, but his ceiling is probably lower than previously thought.

5. Kyzir White

Age: 25

2021 stats: 144 combined tackles, 2 interceptions, 1 sack, 3 passes defended, 2 forced fumbles

White, drafted in the fourth round by the Los Angeles Chargers in 2018, has steadily improved each season.

With career highs across the board in 2021, including seven tackles for a loss and four QB hits, White is hitting free agency at the perfect age to cash in. His 6-foot-2, 216-pound frame shouldn't scare off any teams looking for upgrades at linebacker, though it warrants mentioning he played some safety in college at West Virginia and is versatile enough to lineup pretty much anywhere.

4. Dont'a Hightower

Age: 31

2021 stats: 64 combined tackles, 1.5 sacks, 1 pass defended

Based strictly on resume, there's no one on this list who comes even close to matching Hightower's accomplishments. Even if he's only made two Pro Bowls (2016, 2019), Hightower has served as the nerve center of three Super Bowl-winning defenses for the Patriots.

But what's left in the tank?

 

After opting out of the 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Hightower returned to play 15 games for New England but appeared in only 67 percent of the team's defensive snaps, his lowest usage since his rookie year in 2012.

It wouldn't be shocking if Hightower called it quits, but if he wanted to return, the Patriots would be wise to keep the door open.

3. Anthony Barr

Age: 29

2021 stats: 72 combined tackles, 3 interceptions, 2.5 sacks, 5 passes defended

After playing in only 13 games over the last two seasons, Barr no longer stays on the field as he once does.

But his production over just 11 games in 2021 is a reminder of what he's still capable of when healthy, as he was from 2015-18 when he made four straight Pro Bowl appearances for the Vikings.

With Mike Zimmer out and Kevin O'Connell in for Minnesota, it could be a chance for Barr to make a clean break from the only team he's played for in the NFL and join a team closer to contending for a Super Bowl.

2. Foyesade Oluokun

Age: 26

2021 stats: 192 combined tackles, 3 interceptions, 2 sacks, 6 passes defended, 1 forced fumble

The 2018 sixth-round pick for the Falcons has improved dramatically over the last two seasons, peaking this past season with a league-leading 192 combined tackles while playing in 98 percent of Atlanta's defensive snaps. Four of his nearly 200 tackles went for a loss.

Oluokun played inside of Atlanta's base 3-4 defense, but has enough speed to line up pretty much anywhere on the second level. Prior to graduating from Yale in 2018, he was clocked at 4.48 seconds in the 40-yard dash.

UPDATE (March 14): Oluokun reportedly is headed to Jacksonville on a three-year deal.

1. De'Vondre Campbell

Age: 28

2021 stats: 146 combined tackles, 2 interceptions, 2 sacks, 5 passes defended, 2 forced fumbles

Don't let the drama surrounding the quarterback in Green Bay distract you from just how great of a find Campbell was for the Packers last offseason.

Originally a fourth-round pick of the Falcons in 2016, Campbell spent four solid seasons in Atlanta and one with the Arizona Cardinals before truly breaking out in Wisconsin, earning First-Team All-Pro honors and grading out as the second-best inside linebacker in the league, according to Pro Football Focus.

Not bad for a guy who didn't sign until June. His 146 combined tackles (102 solo) were both career highs, also recording six QB hits and six tackles for a loss.

Campbell has started 77 of 81 games over the last five seasons. With durability and production like that, suitors will be lining up for Campbell about three minutes into free agency rather than three months this time around.

UPDATE (March 14): Campbell is staying in Green Bay, per reports.