Well, this is one position that I am confident that 49ers really don't have to address when free agency starts. When I decided to do a series of articles in regards to free agency by positions, a couple jumped out at me as being pretty much filled already. Those positions would have to be RB, TE and MLB.
That said the Takeo Spikes situation could change a lot of these scenarios. If, for some reason, Spikes doesn't return to the 49ers in 2011 there is going to be a major hole to fill.
Is NaVorro Bowman ready to take over full time? And, is Scott McKillop good enough to be the primary MLB back up? My answers to both of those questions are no. If that is the case San Francisco will most assuredly be in the market for a veteran MLB to replace Spikes and keep the seat warm for Bowman.
After the jump I will take a look at the myriad of options free agency presents the 49ers at the middle linebacker position.
Free Agents Under Any System
Akin Ayodele, Buffalo Bills
2010 Stats: 106 Tackles, 60 Solo, 4 Passes Defended, 1 Forced Fumble
Analysis: The 49ers went hard after Ayodele a couple off-seasons ago and could do the same if the TKO situation plays out differently then we expect. He would be a solid stopgap until Bowman is ready to take over and wouldn't cost more than 3-4 million on a short term contract.
Kevin Burnett, San Diego Chargers
2010 Stats: 95 Tackles, 80 Solo, 6 Sacks, 5 Passes Defended, 2 INT, 1 TD, 2 Forced Fumbles
Analysis: This is precisely the type of player San Francisco will not be targeting when free agency starts. Burnett will demand a huge pay day and a long term contract. With NaVorro Bowman waiting in the wings it doesn't make sense to dole out that type of money. That said, Burnett had a breakout 2010 season and should be an attractive free agent candidate for a lot of teams.
Stephen Cooper, San Diego Chargers
2010 Stats: 43 Tackles, 37 Solo, 1 Sack, 6 Passes Defended, 1 INT, 2 Forced Fumbles
Analysis: Missed a couple games in 2010 and wasn't the performer he had been in the past. Look for San Diego to focus their efforts on re-signing Burnett and let Cooper walk. On the same note, he would be attractive to the 49ers for a couple of reasons. He would fit well opposite Patrick Willis in the middle and is probably looking for a one year deal to improve his stock heading into the 2012 free agent season.
Dhani Jones, Cincinnati Bengals
2010 Stats: 125 Tackles, 86 Solo, 1 Sack, 2 Passes Defended, 1 Forced Fumble
Analysis: Extremely underrated player, Jones has been a solid contributor for every team that he has played for. Originally brought in by Cincinnati for depth, Jones ended up becoming a full time starter. He isn't getting any younger, but a 1 year contract would work well for both him and the 49ers if Spikes isn't re-signed.
Kirk Morrison, Jacksonville Jaguars
2010 Stats: 89 Tackles, 64 Solo, 1 Passes Defended
Analysis: I really liked the way Morrison played for the Oakland Raiders. He was all over the field and wasn't afraid to take chances in coverage. This allowed him to force ample turnovers and reek havoc on the offense. However, Morrison's play seemed to slip a bit with Jacksonville in 2010. Another solid candidate for the 49ers if Spikes isn't back in 2011.
Barrett Ruud, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2010 Stats: 118 Tackles, 85 Solo, 2 Sacks, 4 Passes Defended, 1 INT, 2 Forced Fumbles
Analysis: Tampa Bay has the most money to spend of any team in the NFL, so they will not let Ruud walk. He is one of the better inside linebackers in the NFL, and is still relatively young. Unless a team is willing to dole out 40-50 million expect him to return to Tampa Bay on a new contract. Even if Ruud does change teams in 2011, it won't be with the San Francisco 49ers.
Takeo Spikes, San Francisco 49ers
2010 Stats: 109 Tackles, 82 Solo, 9 Passes Defended, 3 INT
Analysis: The most attractive free agent to the 49ers on this list for a couple of reasons. First, he has great chemistry with Patrick Willis in the middle of a real solid San Francisco LB corp. Secondly, Spikes has been a stalwart player over the course of his couple of seasons in the bay. Finally, he has absolutely no problem grooming Bowman to eventually replace him. I see no reason why Spikes doesn't return to San Francisco in 2011 in an attempt at his first playoff experience in a border line hall-of-fame career.
Franchised: Two 1st round picks as compensation
David Harris, New York Jets
2010 Stats: 99 Tackles, 69 Solo, 3 Sacks, 3 Passes Defended, 1 Forced Fumble
Analysis: Harris will be back with the New York Jets in 2011 and should receive a sizable payday. I am extremely happy the 49ers are not in New York's situation in regards to Harris. He isn't a top 5 MLB in the NFL but will receive a payday that rivals that of Patrick Willis. Sometimes, you just have to let a player walk and find someone of better value. In fact, I could make the argument that TKO had a better 2010 season and he will be brought back at between 3-4 million, not the 7-10 that Harris will be asking for.
Possible Free Agents Under New 2011 Free Agent Rules: Each player will have accrued enough NFL experience to hit the open market if a new CBA is agreed to. I will indicate tender offers as they relate to each player below. Tender offers mean that their current team offered some sort of restricted free agent tender. This tender means that the team signing each player would have to give up what was tendered.
Stephen Tulloch, Tennessee Titans
2010 Stats:160 Tackles, 111 Solo, 1 Sack, 6 Passes Defended, 1 INT
Contract Situation: Will be an unrestricted free agent if new collective bargaining agreement is made. Tennessee tendered Tulloch at an unknown round, however, that tender wont take effect unless the league decided to go through with free agency under 2010 league rules.
Analysis: I am extremely surprised that the Titans did not franchise Tulloch because he is going to make top 5 middle linebacker money anyway. Maybe they just assume he isn't worth the money. Well, that is a huge mistake if you ask me. Tulloch is right up there with the Ray Lewis and Patrick Willis' of the NFL and will be a dominating figure for years to come. Expect him to get a huge payday elsewhere.
Paul Posluszny, Buffalo Bills
2010 Stats: 151 Tackles, 103 Solo, 2 Sacks, 4 Passes Defended
Contract Situation: Buffalo extended original round tender (2nd round) to Posluszny, however, if a new collective bargaining agreement is made he will be an unrestricted free agent and that tender will be void.
Analysis: Injuries have been an issue for PP in the past, but he had a great 2010 season. This is a type of player I hope NaVorro Bowman turns into. PP is all over the field and makes plays consistently. I see no reason to expect him leaving Buffalo, but stranger things have happened.
Stewart Bradley, Philadelphia Eagles
2010 Stats: 60 Tackles, 49 Solo, 1 Sack, 6 Passes Defended, 1 INT
Contract Situation: Philadelphia did not tender Bradley a contract with the anticipation that he will be an unrestricted free agent. However, if the 2010 free agent rules apply and a new collective bargaining agreement is made they will have the opportunity to match any offer for him.
Analysis: Talk about a career hurt by injuries. First the legs issues and now the concussions. If Bradley can make it back to full strength he is one of the best LBs in the NFL. Bradley may take a one year contract to build up his value for next season. If that is the case he remains a viable option for San Francisco.
Jameel McClain, Baltimore Ravens
2010 Stats: 71 Tackles, 46 Solo, 1 Sack 2 Passes Defended
Contract Situation: Baltimore extended a 2nd round tender to McClain, who appears happy with a 1.9 million dollar salary in 2010. Even if a new collective bargaining agreement is made McClain will be a restricted free agent.
Analysis: Learning from the best, Ray Lewis, seemed to have helped this former un-drafted rookie free agent. No matter what happens with the CBA, McClain will be back with Baltimore in 2011.
Analysis: The 49ers have a myriad of options at middle linebacker if TKO doesn't return for the 2011 season. First, they could promote NaVorro Bowman to the full-time LB role opposite Patrick Willis and bring in an unheralded veteran as the primary back up to both positions. Secondly, they could find a stopgap to fill the void until Bowman is ready.
That said, this list just confirmed what I believe to be true before. Spikes is the 49ers best option period. He compares favorably to pretty much every player on this list and would end up costing a lot less in terms of salary and length of contract. He is the perfect fit opposite Patrick Willis as the two seem to work great with one another. In addition, Spikes has acted as a great role model for NaVorro Bowman, who many of us expect will eventually take over for him.
Besides that, it wouldn't be fair for the 49ers to let Takeo Spikes walk and make the playoffs in 2011. He has suffered through miserable losing seasons for every team he has played for and deserves to be part of a winner. However, we all know that the NFL is a business and personalities aside, he will do what best for him as the 49ers will do what is best for them. If Spikes does walk these are my top options to replace him.
1. Stewart Bradley
2. Stephen Cooper
3. Dhani Jones
4. Akin Ayodele
But, chant with me.........WE WANT TKO BACK!!!! WE WANT TKO BACK!!!!! Jam up with Twitter feeds, email him; do what you have to, but show TKO that we fully support his return to San Francisco in 2011.