Free Agency Preview: Outside Linebackers

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Dallas Cowboys

It’s no secret that the Eagles are in need of outside linebacker help.

Connor Barwin showcased his versatility last year and is a keeper on the left side. He’s not a prolific pass-rusher, but Barwin is excellent against the run, can line up in a variety of places and is good in coverage.

On the other side, Trent Cole did an admirable job of transitioning to a 3-4 OLB. But he’ll turn 32 next season and is still a bit of a square peg/round hole option. And the coaching staff saw Brandon Graham as purely a rotational player last season.

It’s possible that the Eagles go into 2014 with those same three rotating, but the better bet is that they add a piece either through free agency or the draft.

Keeping that in mind, here are four guys who will be on the market when free agency starts Tuesday. The two biggest names – Brian Orakpo and Jason Worilds – are staying with the Redskins and Steelers, respectively. So this is a watered-down group.

But below are four players who could be of interest to the Eagles, starting with the highest-profile and ending with the sleeper.

* Note that ages refer to how old each will be when the 2014 season starts.

Everson Griffen, Vikings (26) – A fourth-round pick in 2010, Griffen has never played more than 60.1 percent of his team’s snaps in a single season, per Pro Football Focus. But he was a productive pass-rusher last year and has 13.5 sacks in the past two seasons.

The question with Griffen is whether teams view him as a 3-4 OLB or a 4-3 DE. Per ESPN 1500 in Minnesota, he might prefer the former:

That’s because Everson Griffen, a fourth-round pick in 2010 who is due to hit the free-agent market this offseason, would probably be more likely to return to the Vikings if they go to a 3-4. He’d also become a better player.

Griffen’s eyes lit up last summer when he was asked about getting the opportunity to rush the passer from outside linebacker. Griffen was asked to play some linebacker in 2012 for the Vikings but he clearly wasn’t comfortable doing it in a 4-3. It would be a different story if he was standing up and rushing the passer.

In a PhiladelphiaEagles.com video, Greg Cosell of NFL Films said he thought Griffen had the athleticism to play in a 3-4.

At 6-3, 273, Griffen has good size, and he is a young, ascending player. Given the market, he’ll probably have his fair share of suitors. But if the Eagles want to make a splash, he could be someone they look at.

Mike Neal, Packers (27) – T-Mac first brought Neal to your attention in his post last month. The 6-3, 275-pounder dropped weight and made the switch to outside linebacker last year. He finished with five sacks, 30 pressures (second on the team), an interception and a forced fumble.

Neal only appeared in 20 games in his first three seasons because of injuries and because he violated the league’s substance abuse policy.

He dropped in coverage 11.8 percent of the time on passing downs, per PFF. As a point of reference, Cole did so 21.7 percent of the time.

Neal is not a pure 3-4 outside linebacker and really has no more experience at the position than Cole or Graham. So he’s not an ideal fit. But he’s long, young and athletic. If the Eagles see upside, they could target him as a mid-tier option.

O’Brien Schofield, Seahawks (27) – He’s had some bad injury luck in his career. Schofield suffered an ACL injury at the Senior Bowl when he was coming out of Wisconsin and fell to the fourth round in 2010.

He started to come on in 2012, notching four sacks in nine games, but Schofield then suffered a season-ending ankle injury. He went from a full-time role in Arizona to a rotational role in Seattle last year, playing just 20.3 percent of the Seahawks’ snaps.

Schofield (6-3, 242) has experience dropping (he was in coverage 27.3 percent of the time in 2012) and is unlikely to command a big paycheck. If the Eagles want to add a rotational player who’s played in a 3-4 before, he could get a look.

Rob Jackson, Redskins (28) – Because of an injury to Orakpo in 2012, Jackson had his best year as a pro with four interceptions, six passes defensed, 4.5 sacks and two forced fumbles. He dropped in coverage 34.2 percent of the time on passing downs that year.

But Jackson was hit with a four-game suspension to start 2013 for using a banned substance.

At 6-4, 266, he has good size and experience. Jackson is considered a rotational player, but could be a stopgap option for the Eagles if they like his skill set.

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