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.
Jene Bramel: It's great to have an elite linebacker anchoring your IDP lineup. But you don't have to be among the first owners to draft one to do so.
D'Qwell Jackson, London Fletcher, James Anderson, NaVorro Bowman, Derrick Johnson, Curtis Lofton, Pat Angerer, Nick Barnett, Daryl Washington, Stephen Tulloch, Desmond Bishop and Sean Weatherspoon finished in the top 15 in FBG scoring last year. I highlighted six of them as values to target after 10-12 linebackers were taken in your draft in last year's Perfect Draft article.
Although we've already noted that you don't have to reach for an elite defensive end early this year, I think you can still continue to wait a number of rounds to begin drafting your linebackers.
Desmond Bishop D'Qwell Jackson Colin McCarthy Patrick Willis Derrick Johnson James Laurinaitis Daryl Washington Sean Lee Brian Cushing Donald Butler
I think this is a very tight group this year and I'd be pleased to have any of these ten anchor my lineup each week. I have Bishop slotted as the top player, but can make an easy argument for any player in the upper half of this tier – Bishop through Johnson – as my LB1 overall.
The shine has come off Willis' fantasy star with the emergence of NaVorro Bowman but Willis remains an elite target. Bishop had 91 solos in just 13 games. McCarthy should easily top 100 solos this year.
Once again, I think the back end of this tier makes it easy to wait many rounds after Willis and Jackson are drafted to begin taking your linebackers. Washington and Lee will have relatively high ADPs by the end of August, but should still come at value. Cushing moves to the primo WILB role in Wade Phillips' defense this year and might be a top five IDP. Seems like I've been pushing Butler since he was in middle school now, but I think it's unlikely that Demorrio Williams bumps Butler from subpackages this year. Butler has elite upside as an every-down linebacker.
John Norton: I completely agree that with the plethora of quality linebackers, owners don't have to go early to grab one of the top few, but Jene and I have a slight difference of opinion on a handful of these guys. For starters I believe that in redraft leagues, Ray Lewis, London Fletcher and NaVorro Bowman belong with this first tier. Fletcher and Bowman finished last season in the top five with 96 and 110 tackles respectively, while Lewis was on pace to be right there with them had he not missed four games. I can see the age factor keeping Fletcher and Lewis at the bottom of the tier but neither of them has shown any signs of slowing down considerably, and Fletcher has not missed a game since 1999. Bowman's numbers may have gotten a little boost from Patrick Willis missing some time but it's not as if he put up 50 tackles in the four games that Willis sat out. Bowman was a monster right from the opening gun and I believe he could very well out tackle Willis again this season.
Jene and I both love the potential of Butler and I agree that he could earn a spot among the elite this year. However, we have not yet been able to confirm that he will have an every down role this year. I just can't put him with the first tier until I know for sure that he will be more than the best two down linebacker in the game as he was a year ago. The good news when it comes to Butler is that he can usually be drafted outside the top twenty (unless you are picking against Jene).
Brian Cushing certainly has the potential to belong in this group as well, but I would drop him into the next tier based mostly on consistency and the recent history of Wade Phillips coached defenses. Cushing put up just 76 tackles last season. While he made up for those average numbers with 4 sacks, 2 forced fumble and a pair of recoveries, he still posted 6 or fewer fantasy points in five games. Phillips' five year tenure with the Cowboys produced just 1 top 15 linebackers. That was Bradie James when he went 80-36-8 in 2008. His tackle numbers remained consistent over the next couple of years but he recorded only 2 sacks over his final 48 games there. Cushing is clearly more talented than James, but the coach still has to make the call before he can blitz.
Bramel: Near Elite LB1
NaVorro Bowman Ray Lewis Lawrence Timmons Paul Posluszny Curtis Lofton Pat Angerer Sean Weatherspoon
Most would have Bowman in the top ten / elite tier, but I think his chances of repeating his 110 solo tackle performance are slim. He may finish in the top ten again this year, but I'm not willing to pay the premium draft selection and hope he again hits his ceiling.
I'm not convinced that Angerer is an elite talent. His upside depends on how he adjusts to the hybrid scheme and what is role is in both base and nickel packages. The Falcons have said that they'll primarily play 4-3 on base downs, but when they morph toward a 1-gap 3-4 Weatherspoon will be the main beneficiary. And don't dismiss Timmons despite his poor statistical 2011. He'll be very good value if he lasts into the LB15-25 range.
Norton: A little more on the Bowman topic; I can't dispute the point that he is unlikely to match his 2011 tackle total. I do however believe that the presence of Bowman will allow the coaching staff to use Willis a little differently. I expect Bowman to once again put triple digit tackles while Willis is put in position to make even more of a big play impact.
I like Pat Angerer a little more than Jene does but agree with his placement in this tier. Regardless of his pure talent, he is by far the Colts best option on the inside and is a proven tackling machine on a team in the early stages of a rebuilding process. Sometimes opportunity trumps (or at least multiplies) talent.
I thought Lawrence Timmons was very inconsistent last season but he clearly has the talent and now the opportunity to take his place among the elite. He has the most upside of anyone in this tier.
Bramel: I'm breaking the always large LB2 tier into three separate tiers to highlight the depth of the position and the relative meaninglessness of the rank list between LB15 and LB35 this season. Think of the next four tiers horizontally. In a straight rank list, these groups would be mixed together based on likelihood of hitting their ceiling, injury risk, etc.
When you lump the players in this way, you're better able to fashion a roster you like. If you prefer upside and can handle lots of weekly variance, err on the side of risk-reward players and rush linebackers. If you'd rather bank sure points from your LB2-LB3-LB4 lineup slots, stick to the high floor prospects with fewer question marks.
High Floor LB2
London Fletcher Brian Urlacher Nick Barnett DeMeco Ryans Stephen Tulloch Karlos Dansby Chad Greenway Lavonte David
Unless Kelvin Sheppard wins a nickel job, Barnett is the Buffalo linebacker to own. Ryans should have a bounce back season as the every-down middle linebacker in Philadelphia. David wasn't the first team weak side backer in the first OTAs in Tampa, but it'll be a major upset if he's not the every-down starter by the end of August.
Norton: There are a couple of guys in this group that I really like. In my opinion Karlos Dansby should be a tier higher. He has settled in at the middle backer in the new 4-3 and has a proven track record. He was in the top 15 at the end of last season and is the first stud middle backer the Dolphins have had since Zach Thomas.
I don't know if he will be the next Derrick Brooks but the more I see, hear and read of Lavonte David, the more I like the guy. I agree with the placement among the high floor LB2 tier and outside of Dansby, see him having the highest ceiling of the group.
Bramel: Risk-Reward LB2
Jon Beason Jerod Mayo Erin Henderson Rolando McClain Perry Riley Mason Foster Kavell Conner Luke Kuechly Bobby Wagner
This is the group to watch if you like to draft dangerously. Every player on this list has 92-100 solo tackle upside and a higher ceiling than some of the players in the high floor tier. At least one of them will move into a higher tier before camps break. But each of them has a sizable question mark.
The Panthers have opened camp with Beason inside and Kuechly outside, but that could change during the season. Riley and Conner look like every-down weak inside linebacker locks, and could move higher when that's confirmed. Foster's situation is tremendous, but he'll need to greatly improve his on-field play before I'm willing to draft him in the top 20. Wagner is already taking first team snaps at middle linebacker in Seattle. If he holds off Barrett Ruud and wins a nickel job, he will also move out of this group.
Norton: As long as you don't plan to count on any of these guys as your second starter you really can't go to terribly wrong. I'm not a fan of Kavell Conner as a player but like his situation a lot. Kuechly and Beason might both put up good enough numbers to be worthy as a second starter and Wagner could be a big surprise if he comes out of the preseason as an every down player. Riley is the safest pick of this group at the moment and has a lot of dynasty potential.
Bramel: Rush LB2
DeMarcus Ware Von Miller Aldon Smith
These are the only 3-4 rush outside linebackers that I'm comfortable starting in my LB2 or LB3 lineup slot every week regardless of matchup.
Norton: Swap a healthy James Harrison for Smith and I would be in agreement. Smith is a sack machine but competing with Willis and Bowman for tackles makes for a bad formula.
Bramel: That's a total of more than 35 players slotted in a LB2 or better tier (i.e. 90+ solo or 14+ sack potential) for me. Unless you're in a very strong league, you should be able to draft four of these players without reaching. But there are still a number of solid prospects left to consider.
LB3 w/ Top 25 Upside
Michael Boley Brandon Spikes Kevin Burnett David Hawthorne K.J. Wright David Harris Stephen Nicholas Lance Briggs Wes Woodyard / D.J. Williams
All of these players should win an every-down role for their respective teams and could put up 7-8 solos in any given week. Spikes continues to intrigue me, but he's not been durable enough to recommend drafting as more than a LB4. Don't sleep on Nicholas. He'll likely be the LB5 on many of my rosters this year.
Norton: Boley, Briggs and Harris are by far the most dependable of this group. They will all be serviceable third starters albeit with limited upside. D.J. Williams has the most upside of this group and will have fresh legs when he rejoins the team for game seven. Don't forget to grab him in week five before everyone starts talking about his return. I like Spikes as well but he is another of those guys who is a huge risk in that the Patriots seem very reluctant to let him play in the passing down sub packages. If he can get on the field full time I can see him out producing Mayo. Nicholas may be an every down player by default with the Tatupu situation, but the Falcons have not trusted him with that role in the past. When Sean Weatherspoon was injured in 2010 the club gave Nicholas a shot at playing in the nickel. He lasted all of three games before returning to his two down SLB duties. He is worth a shot as a last round flier but I will be happy to let Jene have him as his LB5.
Bramel: Priority Depth/Matchup Targets
Thomas Howard Mathias Kiwanuka Daryl Smith Kelvin Sheppard Dan Connor Mychal Kendricks Rey Maualuga James Anderson Aaron Curry Keith Rivers Akeem Dent
We're now getting into the LB40+ / replacement level range. In this part of the rank list, I like to separate the players I think could break out into a bigger role than expected or that are capable of a predictable LB2 performance against a matchup. These ten players have my attention in June. Bradie James, Takeo Spikes, DeAndre Levy, Jasper Brinkley, Joe Mays, Jameel McClain, Akeem Ayers, Jo-Lonn Dunbar, Quincy Black and others aren't far behind.
Norton: With the exception of Howard and Maualuga, most of these guys are either two down players or three down strong side linebackers with limited potential in their current situations. James Anderson has proven value if one of the starters in Carolina is injured and Smith has consistently put up good enough numbers to earn a roster spot as your LB5. Maualuga in particular has been very disappointing. He has a lot of potential but has shown little reason to believe it will be realized.
Bramel: Rosterable Rush OLBs
Tamba Hali Connor Barwin Clay Matthews Robert Mathis Justin Houston Brian Orakpo LaMarr Woodley James Harrison
My bias is to limit my exposure to rush outside linebackers in balanced scoring systems (our Footballguys default). I think these players are worthy of a roster spot in leagues that go 50-60 linebackers deep, but I'd plan on using them as bye week or matchup starters only. Harrison's recent durability record (he's already missing extended time in camp) make him all but undraftable for me.
Norton: Beyond DeMarcus Ware and James Harrison (if he can get healthy), all 3-4 outside linebackers are undraftable to me except maybe as a bye week fill in based on a quality matchup or if I am decimated by injury and need to gamble.
Bramel: Training Camp Watch List
James-Michael Johnson Bruce Carter Dont'a Hightower Zach Brown Melvin Ingram Nate Irving Demario Davis Nick Perry
Any of these players could claim a significant role in camp and work themselves into enough playing time to warrant consideration by August.
Norton: The recent season ending injury to Chris Gocong may very well make Johnson the Browns starter on the weak side. His potential as a rookie just got a huge boost.