Linebacker market could feature bigger names in 2014

USA TODAY Sports

While players like Paul Kruger, Dannell Ellerbe and Connor Barwin got big contracts in 2013, the deals in 2014 could be even bigger.

The 2013 free agency class didn't have a big marquee name on the market at linebacker, and of the five biggest contracts given out to players at the position, not one went to a former Pro Bowler. Leading the charge was former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Paul Kruger, who got a big deal from the Cleveland Browns after a strong postseason that helped his team to a Super Bowl victory in 2012.

Here's a look at how Kruger and the upper echelon of free agent linebackers fared this year as well as a look ahead at the leading linebackers up for a contract extension or free agency in 2014.

Paul Kruger, Cleveland Browns

Five years, $40.5 million, $20 million guaranteed

Kruger didn't put up huge numbers in the Ravens' defense in 2012, but he filled in well for the injured Terrell Suggs and tallied nine sacks during the regular season. It was a three-sack game against the Indianapolis Colts in the postseason that really caught eyes though, and the Browns didn't waste much time taking him away from their division rivals to fill the void at outside linebacker in their new defensive scheme.

Dannell Ellerbe, Miami Dolphins

Five years, $34.8 million, $14 million guaranteed

When Ray Lewis was injured, Ellerbe became the new starting linebacker for the Ravens and played very well for the team. After the season, the Ravens called Ellerbe a top priority, but in a surprising move, the Dolphins were able to steal him away with a large contract, replacing free-agent bust Karlos Dansby.

Connor Barwin, Philadelphia Eagles

Six years, $36 million, $8 million guaranteed

Drafted as a defensive end, Barwin moved to outside linebacker when the Texans made the transition to a 3-4 defense and he rewarded them with 11.5 sacks. In 2012, Barwin managed just three sacks, but that didn't scare the Eagles away from offering $36 million, although they didn't give him too much guaranteed money.

Philip Wheeler, Miami Dolphins

Five years, $26 million, $13 million guaranteed

Wheeler spent four seasons with the Indianapolis Colts after he was selected in the third round of the 2008 NFL Draft, but received a small, one-year deal from the Oakland Raiders during the 2012 offseason. Evidently, he impressed the Dolphins during his one season in Oakland, as they were willing to give him more than $5 million per season to pair with Ellerbe in the middle of a defense that finished as one of the NFL's worst in 2012.

Erik Walden, Indianapolis Colts

Four years, $16 million, $8 million guaranteed

A four-year deal for Erik Walden was one that left many scratching their heads as he spent much of the beginning of his career bouncing between teams before finally settling with the Green Bay Packers. In his last two seasons with the Packers, Walden tallied six sacks and didn't make much of a name for himself, but had one of his best games against the Colts in September 2012. According to Pro Football Focus, Walden had a poor season last year, managing to record just two positive scores, with one against the Colts.

An early look at 2014...

The 2013 class of free agents didn't have a Pro Bowl-level talent for teams to chase, but still managed to draw big money. While the 2014 class doesn't look like it will have the depth that the 2013 class did, it may feature some big names that could warrant a team breaking the bank.

Brian Cushing, Houston Texans

Between Cushing's suspension in 2010 and his ACL tear in 2012, there's a reason why the Houston Texans should be cautious about dishing out huge money to the inside linebacker earlier than they have to. However, the 2009 Defensive Rookie of the Year Award and his 2011 All-Pro selection are more than enough to convince a team on the open market that Cushing is worth a giant deal.

If Cushing manages to adequately recover from his 2012 season-ending knee injury, he'll warrant a big deal whether the Texans are willing to pay it or not. If the Texans are unwilling, he'll be one of the biggest free agents on the entire market.

Brian Orakpo, Washington Redskins

After a great start to his NFL career with back-to-back Pro Bowl selections during his first two seasons with the Redskins, Orakpo has struggled with injuries in his two most recent seasons. Torn pectoral muscles in both 2011 and 2012 make him a risky player to give a long-term contract to right now, but if he can return to form with a healthy 2013 season, he'll undoubtedly be one of the most talented pass rushers available.

Sean Lee, Dallas Cowboys

Lee was a risky draft pick after a bad knee injury during his collegiate career at Penn State, but the Dallas Cowboys were rewarded with a very good starter in the middle of their defense. A full-time starter in 2011, Lee looked to be an up-and-coming player in the NFL before a season-ending toe injury in 2012 brought back injury concerns for the linebacker. The market for Lee in 2014 will depend heavily on how healthy he can manage to stay during the 2013 season.

Brandon Spikes, New England Patriots

A second-round pick in the 2010 NFL Draft, Spikes earned a starting spot alongside Jerod Mayo quickly as a rookie and has played well during his three-year career. While injuries have cost him some time, he hasn't had any devastating problems and he's been a consistent player in the Patriots' defense. Spikes won't have the impact in the middle that a player like Cushing will, but he's a good enough player to warrant a contract like the one that Philip Wheeler received from the Dolphins.

Jason Worilds, Pittsburgh Steelers

Worilds hasn't see many snaps in a Steelers defense that has primarily featured LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison since Worilds was selected in the 2010 NFL Draft. If Worilds can hold off rookie Jarvis Jones for the starting spot opposite Woodley, he could be primed for a breakout season after finishing 2012 with five sacks. If he can get to double-digit sacks in 2013, he'll be worth a lot more on the 2014 free agency market.

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