“The Amateur Ward” Potential Free Agent LB Fantasy Goldmines
Man, it’s been a hectic offseason. New faces, new places, and teams trying to fill holes on both sides of the ball. As we all know, linebacker is one of the most, if not the most. important defensive position. And, while there maybe no true “studs” available at linebacker (the Chiefs used their franchise tag on Justin Houston), there are some names we all need to get to know, or learn more about as there are some diamonds in the rough. Specifically, there are some pass rushers on the outside that teams are drooling at seeing their skill set. Every season, it seems as if an FA signing has a breakout season, and on this list there are two you need to put in your queue and keep tabs on. I’m not guaranteeing fantasy stardom here, I’m just saying my hunch says these first three I name could be due in a huge way this season.
Pernell McPhee- Perhaps the least known about from the Ravens linebacker core last season: Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil, and McPhee. McPhee is a baller and is under-rated. He was ProFootball’s number 2 outside linebacker last season after collecting 7.5 sacks in only 540 snaps and leading all OLBs by five for QB hits with 21. The career rotational player will now finally get his chance at a full-time gig in Chicago under defensive coordinator Vic Fangino.
McPhee was initially drafted by the Ravens in 2011, and his rookie season he played both end and tackle and led all interior linemen in ratings for Productivity. 2012 was a wash as he was marred by injuries, but rebounded in 2013 when the Ravens transitioned him to OLB to take advantage of his versatility, albeit only playing 313 snaps. He has always proven the strong ability to play explosively, get to the quarterback and defend the run, but he was a rotational player due to one aspect of his game: dropping into coverage. (Photo courtesy of sportsmockery.com)
The knock on McPhee that kept him relegated to a rotational player was his inability to drop into coverage to defend the pass, he only dropped back once all last season. This offseason, McPhee has been working on that aspect of his game and looks to be becoming a complete player. Make no mistake about it, McPhee is a large OLB and is planning to shed a little weight this offseason to improve his laterality on the field, while still packing that physical punch that allows him to pack the punch that he does.
The signs seem to be looking positive early in the offseason, and if McPhee can keep up his end of the deal and continue to make strides dropping into coverage, Chicago found themselves a real gem on the outside. Do not be surprised if he is the Bears top linebacker this season and leads the team in sacks and QB hits as McPhee is extremely hard to guard one-on-one as evidenced by his 21 QB hits last year. Now Bears fans need the front office to fix the eyesore that is Jay Cutler, then they will be a good team.
Akeem Ayers- Ayers was signed by the Rams this offseason as a pass rusher, but he still truly is yet to find a positional home. He may not be a 3-down backer for the Rams, but as a standup DE or OLB/DE hybrid he is sure to bring the sacks. Only 25, the Rams are Ayers 3rd team since he was drafted by the Titans in 2011, and should be viewed as a deep sleeper this season in fantasy circles playing on the same line as Alec Ogletree and James Laurinaitis.
Truth be told, Ayers has been living it large this offseason after winning a Super Bowl with the Patriots, partying at Robert Kraft’s house, which included performance by rapper Wiz Khalifa. Hell, I want a 205 diamond Super Bowl Ring. Yes, that’s right 205 diamonds. After the party, it was back to the Rams practice field and reality. As a Patriot last season (traded mid-season from Tennessee), he exclusively played DE, but this season he seems poised to have a strong season at strong-side linebacker for the Rams. While Ayers is a pass rusher by name, he also possesses the ability to drop into coverage and cover.(Photo courtesy of nowtbg.com)
In defensive coordinator Gregg Williams defensive scheme, Ayers will not only need to prove he can stay healthy, but also continue to show the ability to rush the QB, blitz and play in coverage. He seems up to the challenge, and is more than capable, it will just be interesting to see how many sacks he gets with Robert Quinn and Chris Long at DE and Aaron Donald at DT. I don’t think he will lead the Rams in sacks by any means, but you could do a lot worse than deploying Ayers as your LB3 as opposing offensive lines will have their hands full trying to stop the other five named Laurinaitis, Ogletree, Quinn, Long, and Donald. Gregg Williams is an aggressive DC and knows talent when he sees it, and just added a very versatile OLB/DE hybrid to an already nasty line.
Brian Orakpo- Injuries are nasty, but even nastier when they are recurring. That’s what Orakpo’s problem in Washington was, he couldn’t stay healthy. He only started in a total of 24 of 48 games during his last 3 season with Washington. However, when healthy, he is a sack monster and a lock for double digits.
After a dismal 2-14 season in 2014, the Titans are in complete rebuild mode and will look to Orakpo to anchor their defensive unit. The Titans also re-signed Derrick Morgan, giving the team a solid start on opposite ends of the defense. Dick Lebeau runs an aggressive defensive scheme that should allow Orakpo to harass opposing QBs at will, and Orakpo has said early on he is working on flexibility to avoid injuries in the future (has already torn both pectoral muscles at least once in his career).
After ranking 27th in total defense last season, the Titans defense is looking to rebound some, and is instantly better with Orakpo in the mix. Despite not producing last season (0.5 sacks), the Titans and coach Whisenhunt are confident that Orakpo is healthy and will make an impact in 2015 for the team. Orakpo obviously comes with monumental risks as a four-year contract. But, if Tennessee is going to turn a new leaf for his career, it’s a gamble well worth it as opposing teams will have to game plan for Orakpo’s ability to get to the quarterback. (Photo courtesy of zimbio.com)
The Titans will be an interesting team to watch in 2015 as they are revamping their defense (Orakpo, Morgan) and have drafted their franchise QB in Mariota. Hopefully, they will get production out of their veteran receivers Wright, Douglas (FA-2015), and rookie Dorial Green-Beckham. Running back remains a huge question mark as Sankey stank up the joint last season and rookie Cobb still has a lot to learn. Defensively, if you want to take a chance on Orakpo, do so as your DE 3/4 as he will be one of your top 2 DEs by season’s end IF he can stay healthy and resurrect his career in Tennessee.
Come back next week at the same time for the next installment of Fee Agent Linebacker Roundup as the list of potential impact linebackers is far from over. They may be primed for huge seasons, but they will be ones who provide a nice boost. I will see if I can find some tackle monsters for readers next weekend as I hit mainly sack beasts this week.
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