The unofficial start to the free agency period begins at noon Saturday when clubs are able to enter into contract negotiations with pending free agents. While deals can’t be executed until March 11 at 4 p.m., many will be structured over the coming hours.
With the time nearly upon us, here’s what we’re hearing on the outside linebacker front:
— The Eagles are showing some interest in Cincinnati free agent Michael Johnson.
The 27-year-old played defensive end in the Bengals’ 4-3 scheme but multiple teams are looking at him as a 3-4 outside linebacker. While primarily used as a pass rusher, Johnson did drop into coverage 31 times in 2013, according to Pro Football Focus.
A quick example of his coverage skills: In the regular-season finale against Baltimore he was asked to stick with receiver Marlon Brown for a spell on this third-down play.
He starts off on the line of scrimmage but will peel back to cover Brown, who is lined up in the slot, and does a decent job of hanging with him before falling into zone coverage.
Johnson has demonstrated some versatility. And at 6-7, 270, he certainly fits the “big people” mold that Chip Kelly prefers. (His seven batted passes this season speaks to both his size, wing span and athletic ability.) The Georgia Tech product amassed 11.5 sacks in 2012 but only 3.5 this season, though his number of pressures apparently went up.
Money is the big issue here. Chris Burke of SI.com has Johnson rated as the top edge rusher in this crop. From what we hear, several clubs agree. A team like the Vikings, who are coached by former Cincinnati defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer and blessed with tons of cap room, might be willing to pay top dollar. The Eagles would probably have to go out of their comfort zone to get him.
— If they are looking to stay a bit more financially conservative, Mike Neal could be an option.
We wrote about the 26-year-old back in February. He came in the league weighing over 300 pounds and initially played on the interior for the Packers, but shed some 15 pounds and was converted to outside linebacker this past season. He went on to supplant Nick Perry at the left OLB spot and finished with 47 tackles, 30 QB pressures (good for second on the team) and five sacks — four of which came over his last seven games.
This move wouldn’t solve all of their problems and would presumably be for depth purposes, but we’re told the Eagles have at least some level of interest in Neal.
— Redskins free agent Rob Jackson is a name that makes some sense, but there is nothing cooking on that front at this point.
— I have a strong sense that the Eagles would have been players for Jason Worilds if he had made it to free agency, but the Steelers used the transition tag to keep him off the market. Worilds went on to sign the tender and is scheduled to make north of $9 million in 2014.
We’ll see how it all plays out, but it’s clear that the Eagles will be actively seeking some outside linebacker help when the clock strikes 12.