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Cowboys Free Agent 2016 Big Board: Which Linebacker Do You Want?

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Construction of the free agent big board is moving right along as we take a look at the talent at each position. It’s time to look at linebackers.

Ron Schwane-USA TODAY Sports

The construction of the Dallas Cowboys Free Agent Big Board is in progress. First, the needs at each position were assessed. To recap, they are:

Then, it was time to evaluate players. So far, we've looked at:

Free agent quarterbacks

Free agent cornerbacks

Free agent defensive ends

Free agent running backs

Today, we look at the linebackers. This position will include all inside linebackers and outside linebackers that play in the 4-3 defense. Before looking at this year's crop of free agents, we'll start by taking a look at what happened last year. Here are the top 20 free agent linebackers last year, the amount they signed for, and how they performed in 2015 (grades courtesy of Walter Football, rating courtesy of PFF):

The talent of the 2015 free agent class of linebackers was rather scarce. When Rolando McClain is the leader of the pack, that is a good indication that you aren't going to get a crack at any elite level talent. Trying to find good quality amidst a bunch of mediocre players is a tough task, which could have led to the next observation - large fluctuation in contract values. The off-season grades are reasonably close to how well they performed last season. For example, the farther down you go in the grading, the more red you'll see in the ratings. What doesn't correlate so nicely is the how much they got paid. David Harris and Danny Lansanah were both given a 2.5 off-season grade, however Harris landed a huge contract and Lansanah was paid in gum. And this type of erratic variation was happening a lot with this group.

Last year, handing out good money to a free agent linebacker turned out to be risky business. With no clear standouts from this class, teams may have tried to create some distinction between these players, which could have attributed to the variation in price. Some got paid well, some didn't. It also validates the Cowboys caution they exercised last season when the let Justin Durant and Bruce Carter walk. The one free agent LB they did keep, Rolando McClain, outperformed his former teammates, and at a cheaper cost.

So what type of talent are we looking at for 2016? (grades courtesy of Walter Football, rating courtesy of PFF):

This free agent class looks much more appealing. The reigning Super Bowl Champions, Denver Broncos, have two of the top players hitting the market. While McClain was the only linebacker grading out 3.0 or higher last season, there are now six of them this offseason.

Keeping with the same strategy as last year, don't look for Dallas to be shelling out big money for a free agent LB. So, who are the most likely candidates?

The Cowboys best shot at nabbing a quality free agent linebacker might just be to retain one of their own.

Rolando McClain

While McClain's performance is often classified as "less than stellar" it is worth noting that he's been a solid player when he's on the field. Some fans tend to measure him on his upside potential, which has led to disappointment thus far. But rest assured, McClain has been a good contributor for this defense. He played 652 snaps, despite being suspended for the first four games. This was a pleasant surprise considering he endured bumps and bruises in 2014 that kept pulling him from the game. McClain's resiliency was only part of the concern as his character has made him a wild card. But last season he kept his nose clean. Is it possible he has turned a corner?

McClain is 27 years old, but you can remove a year of mileage as he didn't play in 2013. There is still room to develop for Ro. He's already showing great skills in the passing game as he graded out as the 11th best linebacker for pass coverage. He was the only Cowboys defender to take it to the house.

What are the chances? Better than average. He's still one of the better free agent options available so he should receive a long look. The coaches have a good idea what they are dealing with by now. His price might be a little more expensive these days, but the Cowboys could still construct a deal that has a quick-release to protect them if he suddenly flakes out.

Jerrell Freeman

The Indianapolis Colts linebacker got a late start to his NFL career as he spent three years playing Canadian football for the Saskatchewan Roughriders. In his four years in the league, he's averaged 132 tackles. In 2013, he had 141 tackles, 5.5 sacks, six forced fumbles, and two interceptions. He's not young, but he's consistently good.  Last offseason, the knock on him was that he was a liability in the running game, but Freeman graded out as the top run stopping linebacker in the league in 2015, slightly ahead of Luke Kuechly. His strong season may bring his cost out of the Cowboys price range, but if the large supply of top guys drive down the market value, he could be a nice add.

Oh yeah, and he had a pick six of his own last year.

What are the chances? Not likely. Freeman would be a more expensive investment than what the Cowboys are used to paying for this position, but if they let Rolando go, Dallas will need someone who can step in and make plays for them. And Freeman can do that.

Tahir Whitehead

Some Cowboys fans may remember Tahir Whitehead as the Detroit Lions defender who took a shot at Cole Beasley's head in the 2014 Divisional Playoff game. While that penalty helped the Cowboys then, Whitehead could help them in another way if he joins the linebacker group this year. He's not a star by any means, but he's a solid player who has the flexibility to play strong-side and weak-side. He only had 47 tackles last season, but had six defended passes, two sacks, as well as a pick and fumble recovery. He's a fifth-round pick out of Temple who has played his entire career with the Lions and has only missed two games during his four-year career.

What are the chances? Reasonable. If the Cowboys are patient and let the top guys go, Whitehead could be one of those type of players they could get for a cheaper price.

Craig Robertson

An undrafted free agent in 2011, Robertson eventually became a regular installment at linebacker for the Cleveland Browns. He's had 80+ tackles in three of his four seasons. The Cowboys defense has struggled creating turnovers and Robertson is a turnover machine. Over the past four seasons, he's created 11 turnovers, including six interceptions and five fumble recoveries. Like the candidates listed above, he's also strong in pass coverage. He had five defended passes last year.

What are the chances? Reasonable. The Cowboys like guys who feel that have something to prove. He's still got a lot of tread on the tires and he has upside to be a good linebacker.

Justin Durant

When the Atlanta Falcons cut Durant last week, he immediately became a name that had some interest to Cowboys. While he's not a spring chicken, he is a very solid player when he's on the field. Of course, the last part of that sentence is the issue. Durant can't stay healthy. He's familiar with the Cowboys defense and could take a back seat as a depth guy. As Ryan Ratty wrote recently,

Last year with the Falcons, he managed to play in 13 games. But in Dallas, Durant's role wouldn't be a starting one. Instead, it would be one where he would play in some sub-packages, mainly in packages that focus on shutting down the opposition in the running game. Durant is also a seasoned guy who would be able to help the progression of both Hitchens and Wilson.

His cost won't be as much as it was last season.

What are the chances? Reasonable.  The Cowboys don't pay for age, but he's a veteran who can provide some leadership on defense. Plus, a cheap guy who is familiar with the system could give the Cowboys some solid depth at the position.

Which linebacker do you think the Cowboys will go after in free agency?