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The top free agent linebackers of 2016

This year's linebacker class is loaded, even if the Super Bowl MVP doesn't hit the open market.

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Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

If your team needs linebacker help, you're in luck. This year's free agent class is packed with quality players at the position and that's even if you don't account for the Super Bowl MVP. Von Miller is expected to get the franchise tag if the Denver Broncos can't work out a long-term deal.

Up and down the list is chock full of starting linebackers, some of them young enough to still develop into team leaders. With the salary cap moving up to over $155 million, there are a lot of teams ready to flash the cash, so we could be in for a banner year in big free agent contracts.

Linebacker has never been one of the highest-paid positions, but that could change this year with all the talent available. Whether a team runs a 4-3 or a 3-4, needs a pass rusher or could use a run-plugging tackle machine, there are no shortage of options in this free agent class.

Without further ado, let's take a look at the linebackers on our top 100 free agent list.

Von Miller, Denver Broncos


The No. 2 overall draft pick in 2011, Miller has become one of the league's fiercest pass rushers, racking up 60 sacks in his first five seasons. Outside of a lost 2013 when he served a six-game drug suspension and tore his ACL, it's been a stellar career for Miller.

He turned things up a notch in this year's playoffs. Miller was a force of nature in the Broncos' run to the Super Bowl, recording 2.5 sacks in the AFC Championship against the New England Patriots. In the Super Bowl, Miller totaled 2.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and took home the MVP trophy.

That's quite the bargaining chip heading into free agency, where Miller is expected to command well over $100 million. The Broncos are determined to keep him and could use the franchise tag while they hammer out a long-term deal, but if Miller does hit the open market, he'll be the most coveted free agent in recent memory.

Bruce Irvin, Seattle Seahawks


Seattle's defense has been a strength over the past few seasons and Irvin has been a big part of its success. The Seahawks have several key players entering free agency and they're going to have to prioritize to try to keep their defensive strengths intact.

Last season, Irvin recorded 5.5 sacks, 14 quarterback hits and eight tackles for loss. He has 22 sacks, seven pass breakups and three interceptions since entering the league in 2012. Two of those interceptions were returned for touchdowns.

Irvin told head coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider that he would be willing to take less money to remain in Seattle, but he'll be sought after on the open market. Pass rush-needy teams will be willing to pay for Irvin, which may make it more difficult for Seattle to retain him.

Brandon Marshall, Denver Broncos


At the beginning of his career, he was "the other" Brandon Marshall, but the linebacker has made a name of his own and was an integral part of the best defense in the NFL in 2015 as the Broncos won a Super Bowl.

A fifth-round pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, Marshall played just five games for the Jacksonville Jaguars as a rookie before he passed on spending more time on the team's practice squad and chose to take an offer to be on the Broncos' practice squad instead. It worked out and after another year as a roster filler, he stepped into the spotlight as a starter in 2014.

Still just 26 years old, Marshall stands to cash in after back-to-back excellent seasons in the middle of one of the nation's most dominant defenses.

Derrick Johnson, Kansas City Chiefs


Johnson tore his ACL in the first game of the 2014 season. Just one year later, he was back on the field with the Chiefs having one of the best seasons of his career. The Kansas City defense was excellent last season, and the team has a number of key players hitting free agency, which may make it easier for another team to land Johnson.

In 2015, Johnson had four sacks, two interceptions, eight pass deflections and two forced fumbles. The 33-year-old led the team in tackles, and it wasn't close. He had 95 solo tackles and 21 assists. His closest teammate was Ron Parker with 67 solo tackles and 11 assists. In a contract year and coming off of a major injury, Johnson demonstrated his resilience and proved that he still has a lot to contribute.

Danny Trevathan, Denver Broncos


After several years toiling in relative anonymity, Trevathan became a household name during the Broncos' Super Bowl run this past season. The linebacker delivered arguably his best season, racking up 110 total tackles and two interceptions, one of which he returned for a touchdown. Though a valuable piece of the Broncos' championship defense, the lack of available cap room could allow Trevathan to depart this offseason.

For teams considering Trevathan as a free agent signing, they must weigh his productivity against how they expect him to perform outside of Denver. In most NFL cities, the defense doesn't have two All-Pro edge rushers like Miller and DeMarcus Ware nor do they possess a defensive interior loaded with players like Derek Wolfe, Sylvester Williams and Malik Jackson. Trevathan certainly benefited from playing alongside such talented defenders and could see his play dip if exposed by a weaker supporting cast. Still, his age and upside make him an enticing option.

Jerrell Freeman, Indianapolis Colts


Freeman has been a longtime stalwart at run defense. He had another strong season in 2015, recording 112 tackles, three sacks and one interception, grading out as the Colts' top defender according to Pro Football Focus.

But his future with the Colts is uncertain. Freeman turns 30 in May and Indy wants to get younger on defense, so he'll likely be allowed to hit the open market and feel out his value. Freeman will be a valuable asset to any team looking to shore up its run defense, so he should land a nice payday this offseason.

Rolando McClain, Dallas Cowboys


McClain's career was left for dead in 2012. A series of legal and on-field issues led to the Oakland Raiders giving up on their 2010 No. 8 draft pick and he actually announced his retirement after a brief cup of coffee with the Baltimore Ravens.

Well, never say never in football, so the Cowboys gave him another chance and he's been a solid starter in two seasons. McClain still has his issues, serving a four-game suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy last season. But he's been productive when on the field and is still just 26 years old. McClain's baggage may scare off other teams, so returning to Dallas would make a lot of sense for both sides.

Tamba Hali, Kansas City Chiefs


Hali was nearly cut by the Chiefs last offseason, but he agreed to a pay cut to stay on the roster and had another fine season in 2015. Despite being another year older (32) and dealing with a thumb injury down the stretch run, Hali had 6.5 sacks and went to the Pro Bowl for the fifth year in a row.

Heading into his 11th season, Hali wants to play another year in Kansas City. If he does, it will most likely be on a reduced role. The Chiefs have 2014 first-round pick Dee Ford, who could use more snaps after two seasons of part-time play. They also have around $28 million in cap space, so a short-term veteran deal should be enough to keep Hali in 2016.

Tahir Whitehead, Detroit Lions


A part-time player for most of his career, Whitehead earned a starting job in the second half of 2015. The Lions' defense looked far improved with Whitehead in the inside linebacker role and he finished the year with the highest Pro Football Focus rating of all Lions linebackers.

The Lions need help at linebacker with Stephen Tulloch getting released and DeAndre Levy's injuries piling up, so keeping Whitehead and letting him grow would be in their best interests. If he leaves Detroit, there should be no shortage of suitors looking for a young, still-developing linebacker in the middle of their defense.

Nick Perry, Green Bay Packers


Injuries and team depth have prevented 2012 first-round pick Nick Perry from developing into the sack machine many envisioned him becoming when he left USC in 2012. Perry has provided flashes of brilliance and productivity, but something always seemed to derail his progress in Green Bay. The linebacker never played a full season during his four years in the league and has amassed only 12.5 sacks over that span.

Still, Perry does possess game-breaking potential. Despite the limited workload, Perry has forced five fumbles over the last three seasons and went on a 3.5-sack tear during the playoffs this year. In a larger role for the right team, Perry could become a force.

Perry may seek to move out of Dom Capers' 3-4 defense and into a more traditional 4-3 alignment where he can rush from a three-point stance. Perry played defensive end for the Trojans and can better utilize his power when not working in space.

Courtney Upshaw, Baltimore Ravens


The Ravens drafted Upshaw in the second round of the 2012 draft. Although he never quite lived up to his billing as a pass rusher (just six sacks in four seasons), Upshaw has developed into a useful and durable starter, never missing a game in his four-season career.

Baltimore has minimal cap space and is trying to work out a long-term deal with offensive tackle Kelechi Osemele, so it may have no choice but to let Upshaw test the market. He'll be in demand as an above-average 3-4 linebacker and should have little trouble securing a decent contract elsewhere.

James Laurinaitis, Los Angeles Rams


Laurinaitis was a surprise release by the Rams early in the offseason, but it wasn't for lack of production. Since the Rams made him a second-round pick in 2009, Laurinaitis has never finished a season with less than 100 combined tackles and he's never missed a game in his career. Last season, he had 109 tackles, a sack, a forced fumble and an interception. The Rams didn't want to pay him as his cap hit rose in the latter years of his deal, but some team surely will pay him the going rate for a starting inside linebacker, and it'll be getting its money's worth.

Mark Barron, Los Angeles Rams

Barron was the No. 7 overall pick of the 2012 draft with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He never quite worked out at safety, so the Bucs cut their losses and shipped him to the Rams for low draft picks. The Rams moved him to linebacker and he's actually done pretty well at the position, racking up 116 tackles, three forced fumbles and five passes defended in 2015.

Los Angeles would like to keep Barron, particularly with its linebacker depth depleted by the release of Laurinaitis. Despite the increased cap space, the Rams could struggle to keep both starting cornerbacks (Trumaine Johnson and Janoris Jenkins), so Barron could be left to seek out a contract elsewhere. The 26-year-old should have plenty of suitors as a late bloomer.

Aldon Smith, Oakland Raiders

Just a few years ago it would've been crazy to imagine Smith so low on a list of free agents. After 19.5 sacks in 2012, he was considered one not only one of the best pass rushers in the NFL, but one of the best players, regardless of position.

But troubles off the field derailed the promising young player and eventually jettisoned him from the San Francisco 49ers after his third DUI arrest. He found a second chance with the Raiders and tallied 3.5 sacks in nine games, but was dealt a one-year suspension in November that will keep him out of action until late in the 2016 season.

The potential reward for any team signing Smith is obvious, but committing any amount of money comes with the reality that he's fully capable of messing up again and burning a team that ends up giving a contract to a player who will never give back production on the football field.