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Free agency primer: Top 10 linebackers

Pass rushing outside linebackers are difficult to find. NFL teams traditionally have to convert collegiate defensive ends to linebacker, and they are careful not to let them go when they find one they like.

There are a boatload of pass rushing defensive linemen in free agency this offseason, but not many options for 3-4 defenses at outside linebacker. That is doubly true after Washington kept Brian Orkapo off the market by placing the franchise tag on him.

It's easier to find help at inside linebacker, although our top option there, Donald Butler, has already re-signed with San Diego. Here's a quick look at the entire free agent linebacker crop.

Was a class of his own

  1. Brian Orakpo, Washington Redskins (UPDATE: Redskins placed the franchise tag on Orakpo.)

It would have been a typical Washington move to let one of its few great homegrown talents get away. Give them credit making the right move and placing the franchise tag on him. Orakpo is powerful and versatile. He's strong against the run and an excellent pass rusher. He would have made a killing.

Solid starters

  1. Jason Worilds, Pittsburgh Steelers (UPDATE: The Steelers applied the transition tag to Worilds, who quickly signed it.)
    1. LaMarr Woodley, Pittsburgh Steelers
    2. Brandon Spikes, New England Patriots
    3. Karlos Dansby, Arizona Cardinals
    4. Shaun Phillips, Denver Broncos
    5. Daryl Smith, Baltimore Ravens

Worilds' agent has to be thrilled that Orakpo gets tagged. Worilds was easily the best 3-4 outside linebacker with Orakpo staying in Washington. now that honor belongs to Woodley, who has plenty of talent. ... Spikes isn't an asset on passing downs, but he's one of the best run-stoppers at his position. That's still worth plenty.

Dansby, Phillips and Smith all played well last year on one-year deals. They will be looking for more this time around. Phillips can also line up as a defensive end, but his best position is probably as a 3-4 outside linebacker.

Starters with questions

As you can see, the depth in this free agent crop is at inside linebacker. Jon Beason only fits a 4-3 scheme, but the Giants spoke about his impact last year in reverential tones. ... Riley is the best candidate here to make a leap in his second contract.

Should stay in the NFL

Rob Jackson, Parys Haralson, Jonathan Casillas, O'Brien Schofield, Jo-Lonn Dunbar, Stephen Nicholas, Darryl Sharpton, Ernie Sims, Keith Rivers, D.J. Williams, Jonathan Vilma, Desmond Bishop, Michael Boley, Kavell Conner, Arthur Moats and Pat Angerer.

Wrong era: Brandon Spikes

Spikes' violent, disruptive run-stopping ability ranks with any inside linebacker. Put him on the 1970's Steelers and he's an annual Pro Bowl pick. Put him in today's NFL defending a bubble screen, and he looks out of place. How much do you pay a specialist, even if he's a great specialist?

Toughest to evaluate: Jason Worilds

Worilds had one of the best-timed contract pushes in recent NFL history. After three and a half unremarkable seasons in Pittsburgh, Worilds took over LaMarr Woodley's starting job and went on an outrageous run. Worilds racked up 16 quarterback hurries, 20 QB hits and seven sacks in his final eight games last year.

Best bet for an encore: Daryl Smith

Smith, Karlos Dansby and Shaun Phillips all had surprisingly productive 2013 seasons. They are all at least 32 years old. While Dansby played at an All-Pro level last year and Phillips is a solid all-around player, Smith is the best bet to repeat his feat at a low price. His smarts and instincts should age well at middle linebacker.

It wouldn't be a surprise if all three players return to their teams from a year ago.

The latest edition of the "Around The League Podcast" works through our top 101 free agents and responds to some heat from Donte Whitner.

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