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Free agency preview: Linebackers

[Editor’s note: This is the fifth in a series of position snapshots previewing the 2010 NFL free agency period. Check out the quarterbacks, tight ends, defensive linemen, and defensive backs.]

Top unrestricted free agent linebackers:

1. Karlos Dansby: The premier free agent defender after Julius Peppers, Dansby is a playmaker against the run and pass, and versatile enough for any scheme. After early-career durability issues, he’s only missed one game over the last two years for the Cardinals.

2. Gary Brackett: Brackett has been among the game’s most productive tacklers since taking over as Indianapolis’ middle linebacker in 2005. He fits best in a Tampa-2 scheme and the Colts want to keep him.

3. Jason Taylor: Though nearing age 35, Taylor registered seven sacks and three forced fumbles in 2009. He remains an explosive rusher, but is no longer suited to play all three downs.

4. Keith Bulluck: Bulluck’s market would’ve been bigger had he not torn his ACL in Week 15. He’s a leader, is 33 years old.

5. Scott Fujita: New Orleans’ late-season run defense collapsed with Fujita and Sedrick Ellis both injured. Fujita turns 31 in April, but could be a stopgap for a club breaking in its strong-side starter of the future.

6. Joey Porter: Porter, who the Dolphins have informed of his impending release, had nine sacks in 2009 but ranked just 89th in the league in quarterback hurries (13). He won’t get his wish of being an every-down linebacker.

7. Tully Banta-Cain: New England’s sack leader (9.5) a year ago, Banta-Cain offers value only in nickel situations for 3-4 defenses.

8. Larry Foote: The Lions will let Foote walk, paving the way for DeAndre Levy.

9. Antonio Pierce: Pierce has a bulging disk in his neck approaching age 32. He may be finished as a starter.

Restricted free agents that are unlikely to change teams:

Ahmad Brooks, Thomas Davis, Elvis Dumervil, Thomas Howard, D’Qwell Jackson, Rocky McIntosh, Shawne Merriman, Kirk Morrison, Matt Roth, Barrett Ruud, DeMeco Ryans, Stephen Tulloch.

Interesting names that could get cut:

1. Adalius Thomas, Patriots: While Thomas showed little pass-rush ability last year, he was playing out of position at strong-side linebacker in New England’s (mostly) 4-3 scheme. The Jets should have immediate interest.

2. Channing Crowder, Dolphins: Crowder is coming off a career-worst season that ended on a Week Sixteen foot injury that required surgery.

3. Julian Peterson, Lions: Peterson still lays wood (five sacks, five forced fumbles in ’09), but will Detroit pay a 32-year-old linebacker $7.5 million?

4. David Thornton, Titans: Thornton, 31, has chronic shoulder problems and was made obsolete by impressive rookie Gerald McRath last year.

5. Dhani Jones, Bengals: Jones is Cincinnati’s defensive play-caller, but is 32 and the team drafted Rey Maualuga to be its middle linebacker of the future.