Five new (maybe) middle linebackers
Fantasy leagues that use individual defensive players know that middle linebackers are generally king. These are the players that year in and year out make the most tackles, and if you secure a couple of the top ones, you can leave those players in your lineup all season long. The offseason free agent shuffle has seen some movement at that key spot, and it's early -- we've still got the draft and training camp to come.
Until then, though, here are five players who either will or may be new starting middle linebackers once the regular season rolls around.
Audie Cole, Minnesota. The Vikings went with Erin Henderson for most of last season, but cut him in the offseason. Cole started five games last year and is viewed as the favorite (of what's currently on their roster) to man the middle in 2014. If he wins the job, he'll have considerable value and might be overlooked in many leagues.
Brandon Spikes, Buffalo. Spikes was a starter in New England for most of last season, but he wasn't a full-time player, and was overshadowed by Jerod Mayo (until Mayo got hurt). The Bills plan to shift last year's rookie sensation Kiko Alonso outside and use Spikes in the middle of their 4-3 defense. There's value there, but keep in mind he may not play in obvious passing situations, and Alonso will still be the biggest point-getter. He might lose a few tackles, but could have more opportunities for making game-changing plays.
Wesley Woodyard, Tennessee. Woodyard had an up and down career in Denver, but seems likely to start at inside linebacker in Tennessee's 3-4 next to Zach Brown (a disappointment last season). The opportunity for Woodyard to lead the team in tackles is there. He's got some coverage ability and could be a full-time player.
Kevin Minter, Arizona. The Cardinals let Karlos Dansby sign with Cleveland, and are expected to use last year's second-round pick as his replacement at inside linebacker. He'll be a secondary guy to Daryl Washington, but is still somebody to monitor. Dansby had 122 total tackles for the Cardinals last season.
Nate Irving, Denver. We mention Irving last since he seems least likely to end up starting. Denver may yet try to upgrade on that spot through the draft, free agency, or a trade. If he sticks, though, he'll have plenty of value as a productive tackler in the middle of Denver's front seven.