Whether you do a full set of projections to compare players or put your rank lists together by gut feel, every cheat sheet can be broken out into tiers. The process is simple and its rewards are many. Breaking your rankings into tiers forces you to crystallize your opinions on players. It will help you make good strategic decisions during your draft, by keeping you on the right side of runs or highlighting positions that may be sloughed a round longer than you thought or that you should target early than you expected. Testing your tiers in a few mock drafts will leave you prepared for every contingency during your draft and keep you from scrambling when you're on the clock in those all-important middle rounds.
This series will walk you through our tiering process position by position, including the major defensive position, and offer our strategic insights along the way. We'll have thoughts on whether you should go with a top quarterback or QBBC, whether you should target a top TE over your RB3 or WR3, whether you should prioritize DL over LB and whether there are any defensive backs worth drafting early.
Previously covered installments
In this installment, we cover the bread and butter of the defensive positions, the linebackers.
This year should provide lots of interesting rank lists. A huge number of free agent linebackers changed teams. The lack of OTAs and spring coaching sessions kept us from regular updates on some promising young players and muddied the waters for a less than impressive group of incoming rookies. A few teams changed schemes, some unexpectedly. This year, more than any other year in recent memory, do not make the mistake of drafting from last season's stats.
Patrick Willis Lawrence Timmons David Hawthorne
To me, this tier is reserved for those few linebackers with the very highest upside. I doubt anyone would argue that Willis has the talent and opportunity to continue to put up 100 solos. Timmons is the rarest of players with 90 solo / 8 sack potential. Having Hawthorne here may already have some of you dismissing this list as the work of a lunatic. It clearly looks like an instance of Sesame Street's "Which One Of These Is Not Like The Other." But, if you can get that tune out of your head, hear me out.
While filling in at MLB for Lofa Tatupu in 2009, Hawthorne had 56 solos in his last eight games. Last season, despite playing OLB in the base defense only and missing over 400 of his team's snaps, Hawthorne managed a more impressive than it looks 76 solos. I'll flesh this argument even further in a coming From the Gut feature, but Hawthorne has more than proven himself capable of a 100 solo tackle effort. He's now the every-down MLB. He has only Kam Chancellor competing for tackles. And a Tarvaris Jackson led offense won't hurt his per game tackle opportunity. Just because you won't have to draft him this highly doesn't mean he doesn't belong in the tier. He does.
The only reason to have an LB from this tier is if you can get Hawthorne outside of the top 10 - and I suspect that if you can, you get him outside of the top 15 or even top 20. Timmons scares me because his tackle numbers dropped in the second half of the year and he is closer to the profile of a big play dependent 3-4 OLB than most realize. I love Willis, but it is just not worth it to break the seal on IDPs by taking him when LB is so deep.
High Floor LB1
Desmond Bishop Jerod Mayo Derrick Johnson Paul Posluszny Ray Lewis Rey Maualuga
I think these six are safe plug-and-play LB1 targets. Barring injury, each one should top 90 solos and all have some big play ability in both pass rush and coverage. The argument for Bishop in this tier is similar to the argument for Hawthorne above. He no longer has competition for nickel snaps and has been ultra-productive in whatever role he's been asked to play. Like Hawthorne, he put up LB3 numbers (75 solos, 3 sacks) last year despite standing on the sideline for over 250 of his team's defensive snaps.
I think New England's move to the 4-3 hurts Mayo a little, but not enough to drop him out of the top ten. His role won't be that much different from last season's WILB role. Maualuga will also be an outlier in the top ten, but his preseason play has been extremely impressive. There's no one else in the back seven that will regularly beat him to the ball for tackles. He'll get tons of opportunity and is a good bet to become the first 95+ solo season by a Cincinnati defender in a long, long time.
Again the idea here is to get guys from this tier outside of the top. Johnson is a great candidate as he looks primed for a career year, both in the level of his play and the potential for KC to come back to earth in a big way and have their defense on the field a lot. Maualuga is a potential instant top 10 LB that everyone is sleeping on. Otherwise, I would avoid the rest of this group at their ADP.
LB2 With Upside
Jon Beason D'Qwell Jackson DeMeco Ryans Brian Urlacher James Laurinaitis D.J. Williams Rolando McClain Nick Barnett Daryl Washington
I expect to be relatively low on Laurinaitis. The Rams have now improved his surrounding cast tremendously. Gone is the revolving door of below replacement level OLBs and inconsistent secondary play. With Zac Diles, Ben Leber, Bradley Fletcher and Quintin Mikell now part of the back seven, Laurinaitis will have lots more competition for tackles than ever. As the defense gets better, he'll have fewer opportunities to win those competitions. I think he'll finish much closer to 90 solos than 105. The stingy STL stat crew won't help him by running up his assisted tackle count.
Until I see Beason move well on the field, I'm reluctant to draft him as a LB1. Jackson has durability concerns but very little competition for tackles. McClain looked much better during the second half of 2010 and should be much closer to 90 solos this year, if not better. If Washington is comfortable enough with the playbook to allow his instincts and speed to guide him, he could be a top ten fantasy player.
You know what I'm going to say here - target the undervalued LBs (Jackson, McClain, Barnett, Washington), avoid the injured/questionable LBs (Beason, Williams, Ryans). You could easily build an LB corps around two of the top players in this tier without out taking an LB higher than #20. Beason and Williams in particular would have to fall very far for me to consider them because of the injury concerns and potential for missed time going into the year. Washington is the guy here I really want to come away with in every draft.
High Floor LB2
Curtis Lofton Barrett Ruud Chad Greenway Karlos Dansby David Harris London Fletcher Jonathan Vilma
Similar to the discussion during the DL tier feature, I've split this tier into players that are better bets to jump a tier (upside) and those that are safe to use in your LB2 slot (high floor) but are less likely to take a big leap. The top players in this tier will probably rank just above the bottom players in the upside tier. The depth of these two tiers, as well as the high expectations for others outside the usual consensus, means that I'll again be sloughing this position in the draft. I think you can wait 2-4 rounds (or until 10-12 linebackers have been drafted) before taking your first linebacker and still have a top group of starters.
Dansby caught my eye during the first two weeks of the preseason. I had him in the LB2 With Upside tier last year and he largely disappointed. Given how well he was moving in the past two weeks, his so-so 2010 may have had more to do with toe and ankle injuries than a decline in play. He could be available as your LB3. In the past, I've usually been alone in putting Vilma in this tier (and at LB20 or later). This seems to be more of a consensus opinion this year, which could finally drop him in drafts far enough to be considered reasonable value.
It should really drive home just how deep LB is this year when you see the names on this list. Vilma is playing behind a sick set of DTs and could have plenty of big plays this year. Dansby is a borderline LB1 most years. Fletcher should be just fine and he is being discounted for age too much in redraft leagues. Ruud is a productive player in a slot that has traditionally put up very good numbers. I would be pleased with any of these guys as my LB2, but you can easily get them as an LB3.
LB3 With Upside
Thomas Davis Brian Cushing E.J. Henderson Donald Butler Lance Briggs Sean Weatherspoon Von Miller
Any one of these players could deserve mention in one of the two LB2 tiers. Davis looks a little rusty, but if he's back in form quickly and Beason's injury limits him (as it well may), he'll have 90-95 solo potential. I don't trust Cushing to shed blockers consistently enough, but he could easily be a top 25 player this year. Butler looks healthy and will play every down, but seems to be hesitating for a fraction of a second before reacting. He's in the primo WILB role in the Chargers' 1-gap 3-4, though, and could go on an extended run of 7-8 solos per week. Miller could be an Anthony Simmons clone, the rarest of every-down SLB with 75 solos and 6-8 sack potential.
Really? These are LB3's in drafts this year? Davis is top 10 if he can regain pre-injury form. Briggs has been a consistent LB2 for a long time now. Butler is in the money WILB position that made a stud out of Kevin Burnett last year. The fact that we listed 24 LBs before we got to this group is silly. Think of yourself like Kramer in that episode of Seinfeld where he is seeing how far he can drive with the gas gauge on "E" when you are drafting LBs this year. The gas gauge doesn't say E for a long time at this position.
Rush OLB With Upside
James Harrison DeMarcus Ware Cameron Wake LaMarr Woodley Clay Matthews Tamba Hali Brian Orakpo Shaun Phillips Ahmad Brooks Mario Williams Shawne Merriman
This is always a separate tier for me. In recent years, a few of these players have been consistent enough to trust as every week LB2, but I still prefer at least two non-rush OLB anchors unless the league awards sacks 5x the value of a solo tackle. I think Woodley rebounds very well this year, and I probably wouldn't draft Merriman as more than a depth player in any league.
We have some of the best matchup data anywhere in the known football universe for IDP leagues, and that is how you unlock the value of this tier. I am a fan of Woodley and Orakpo as the best values in this group by far. The Steelers have some real cupcake matchups (the NFC West plus Andy Dalton twice, not to mention the Ravens suspect tackles twice), and the Redskins overall seem to be very well prepared this year. This is the last offseason that we don't automatically include Orakpo in the discussion with guys like Ware and Harrison. On Harrison, it hasn't been that widely publicized outside of Pittsburgh that he is only in month six of a 12-to-18 month recovery from back surgery. Someone else will draft him before you will if you are smart.
High Floor LB3
James Farrior Takeo Spikes Geno Hayes Gary Brackett Daryl Smith Paris Lenon Bradie James Jonathan Goff
There might be an argument that Takeo Spikes has more upside than the others in this group, but this is the steady 4-6 solos per week with little chance of an 8+ solo explosion. I generally avoid these guys unless I'm in a deep league with deep lineups and I need a steady LB3/4 during the bye weeks.
Here's your firewall guys if you somehow get caught on the wrong side of the run for the final top 30 or so LBs and you only have one or two in pocket. Farrior was an LB2 in every league last year and he plays in the best big play defense in the league for Pete Rozelle's sake! Hayes and Brackett are every down linebackers! Have I mentioned that LB is crazy deep this year?
Matchup LB4 With Upside
Stephen Tulloch Brandon Spikes Kevin Burnett Jamar Chaney DeAndre Levy James Anderson Jonathan Casillas Navorro Bowman Quincy Black Rocky McIntosh Aaron Curry Mason Foster A.J. Hawk Michael Boley Ernie Sims Joe Mays
This tier is subject to change. Tulloch, Spikes, Anderson, Chaney and possibly Bowman, Casillas, Curry and Foster could jump multiple tiers if the right combination of playing time and improved play hit for them. I expect to be very low on Tulloch here, but his current role (part time linebacker on an improving defense with lots of competition for tackles) leaves him outside any of the above tiers. Though it isn't a terrible risk-reward bet, I'm just not comfortable putting him inside the top 40 in the hopes that an injury or change in nickel package will come.
I have to say that I am targeting a lot of these guys. Chaney will be on the field for every down and the guy just finds the ball. I don't care if he's not the MLB, he will be startable in leagues that play full IDP. Anderson could come closer to last year's numbers than most expect with Beason ailing and Davis a health question mark. Curry could have a career year with the Seahawks trying to unleash him this season. One of Levy, Tulloch, and Durant should hit. Black is very intriguing as a three-down LB who could even play in the middle if Foster struggles. It's ludicrous that some of these guys will go undrafted in deep IDP leagues. In most years, we are down to guys I wouldn't even roster in dynasty leagues by this point.
Sean Lee Pat Angerer Stewart Bradley Casey Matthews Nate Irving
Short list of players that I'd probably not draft in most leagues right now, but would scream up value boards if put into a better role.
The key here is that you need to keep your eye on young LBs who could grow into important roles and emerge this year. If you did that last year and picked up Jamar Chaney, he might have helped you win a championship. Sooooo much is going to change in the first few weeks, but people often miss the winds of change blowing later in the season, but they will come and these names are likely candidates to be involved.
Hope you enjoyed this installment. We'll be rolling out the others as soon as possible. Comments, suggestions or questions are welcome below or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. You can also follow our active Twitter feeds @SigmundBloom and @JeneBramel. Thanks for reading.