Linebacker Tiers
By Jene Bramel and John Norton
Updated August 29th, 2012

Note: For the most part, not much has changed since we published our most recent LB tier update on August 10 and the tiers and context to follow will read the same. We note major changes we've made to the tiers in RED. If you're drafting between now and Opening Night, make sure you're following Jene's Twitter feed @JeneBramel and listening to our weekly podcast for the very latest news and analysis.

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.

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 and argued for the same strategy in this season's version of that feature.

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.

Elite LB1

  • D'Qwell Jackson
  • Daryl Washington
  • Colin McCarthy
  • Patrick Willis
  • Derrick Johnson
  • James Laurinaitis
  • Brian Cushing
  • Donald Butler
  • Sean Lee
  • I think this is a very tight group this year and I'd be pleased to have any of these nine anchor my lineup each week. Jackson sits atop this list with Desmond Bishop done for the season, but Jackson is not the clear top dog in the tier.

    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. I've moved Washington way up in this tier in the past two weeks. The shakiness of the Cardinals' offense should give him lots of opportunity. Couple that with a weak surrounding cast and his coverage and pass rush upside and Washington could be this season's top overall IDP.

    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. Those of you who continued to harbor worries that Butler wouldn't play every down this year can rest easy. He's clearly been the centerpiece of the San Diego defense this preseason.

    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 have both been touting the potential of Butler for a long time, but credit Jene for being more trusting of the Chargers coaching staff than I this summer. That has paid off for him in all the leagues we drafted early this year. Now that we know he is the man, I might even put Butler a couple of slots higher. I don't know if I could put Washington at #2 but I do agree that he clearly belongs high in this tier. I think you could add Butler to the first six guys on this list and draw names from a hat to establish an order. Any of those seven could be our #1 IDP this year.

    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

  • Ray Lewis
  • Lawrence Timmons
  • NaVorro Bowman
  • London Fletcher
  • Sean Weatherspoon
  • Paul Posluszny
  • Curtis Lofton
  • 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. Don't dismiss Timmons despite his poor statistical 2011. He'll be very good value if he lasts into the LB15-25 range and there seems little chance that the team moves him outside this season. 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. I've moved Fletcher into this tier; he's a safe anchor and shown nothing to suggest that we'll see a repeat of last season's nagging injury concerns.

    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 push triple digit tackles while Willis is put in position to make even more of a big play impact.

    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

  • Nick Barnett
  • Stephen Tulloch
  • Karlos Dansby
  • Mason Foster
  • Rolando McClain
  • D.J. Smith
  • Chad Greenway
  • Lavonte David
  • The high floor LB2 and near-elite LB1 tiers have thinned out considerably for me. Injuries to Pat Angerer and Brian Urlacher have dropped them down the board and I've dropped DeMeco Ryans down a tier after his less than impressive preseason. Unless Kelvin Sheppard wins a nickel job, Barnett is the Buffalo linebacker to own. David gave prospective fantasy owners a slight scare after starting the preseason out of the Tampa subpackages, but he was back in an every-down role after the third preseason week.

    I've moved Foster up into this tier based on much better than expected preseason play, his continued presence in subpackages and the very friendly flavor of 4-3 the Buccaneers will use this year. It's possible he's my Rey Maualuga-like late preseason crush this year, but Foster feels legit.

    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. Despite a slow start 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.

    As much as I like his potential, the fact that David is still not seeing many sub package snaps is really starting to be a concern for me. I would have to drop him into the third tier or at least move him to the risk reward group. Mason Foster was the Bucs "other" linebacker over much of the draft season but he has shown a great deal of improvement over his rookie campaign. He shot up my rankings after watching him closely in the second preseason contest.

    Bramel: Risk-Reward LB2

  • Jon Beason
  • Jerod Mayo
  • Kavell Conner
  • Luke Kuechly
  • Erin Henderson
  • Perry Riley
  • DeMeco Ryans
  • Pat Angerer
  • Brian Urlacher
  • This is the group to watch if you like to draft dangerously. Every player on this list has 92-100 solo tackle upside and some feature a higher ceiling than some of the players in the high floor tier. But each of them has a sizable question mark.

    Beason has lots of upside, but a hamstring injury has his availability in question for Week 1. Kuechly looks tremendous, but may be replaced by Thomas Davis in some subpackages. Conner was not in the nickel packages for Indianapolis when Angerer was healthy, but Conner moves back into an every-down role while Angerer recovers. We're being told 4-6 weeks before Angerer returns, but it could be longer. Urlacher has a knee condition that could cost him a week at any time and possibly shut him down before the end of the season. He's the highest risk on this list.

    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 but I am concerned that the Panthers will sit Beason out of subpackages to lighten his work load for a while. James Anderson is a good player and a proven commodity in coverage. He could be in line for a lot of sub package opportunity. Riley is the safest pick of this group at the moment and has a lot of dynasty potential.

    Bramel: Rush LB2

  • Von Miller
  • DeMarcus Ware
  • 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: I like Smith as a player and a sack artist but competing with Bowman and Willis for tackles is not a good formula. I don't think he should be mentioned in the same sentence with Miller and Ware just yet.

    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

  • Kevin Burnett
  • K.J. Wright
  • Brandon Spikes
  • David Harris
  • Michael Boley
  • Stephen Nicholas
  • Lance Briggs
  • Mychal Kendricks
  • 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. Kendricks may be an every-down linebacker after Jamar Chaney missed a big chunk of camp with injury.

    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 all of 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.

    Not only has Kendricks seemed to secure an every down role, he has been consistently making plays all over the field. I would move him up this tier a few slots and will not be surprised if he challenges Von Miller as the top producing strong side linebacker in the game.

    Bramel: Priority Depth/Matchup Targets

  • James Anderson
  • Thomas Howard
  • Daryl Smith
  • Bruce Carter
  • Kelvin Sheppard
  • Joe Mays
  • Bobby Wagner
  • Mathias Kiwanuka
  • Rey Maualuga
  • Phillip Wheeler
  • Keith Rivers
  • Akeem Dent
  • Bruce Carter enters this tier after likely winning an every-down role in camp. He's playing a tough role for him, however, at the strong inside linebacker spot and has looked tentative in pads. Wagner slides down into this tier; he's entrenched as the Seattle middle linebacker but is unlikely to see any subpackage snaps.

    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. 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
  • Melvin Ingram
  • 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: Waiver Wire Speed Dial

  • James-Michael Johnson
  • Dont'a Hightower
  • Zach Brown
  • Demario Davis
  • Nick Perry
  • It'll take an injury or unexpectedly good play for one of these youngsters to earn extended playing time. Johnson is the closest, but the coaching staff in Cleveland still seems reluctant to install him with the first team full time.

    Norton: The recent season ending injury to Chris Gocong gives Johnson an opportunity to start at least the first three games. He has been seeing a lot of playing time during the preseason as the strong side backer with the first unit and in the middle with the second team. He has also been in on a lot of nickel snaps.

    Hope you enjoyed this installment. Comments, suggestions or questions are welcome below or by e-mail at bramel@footballguys.com or norton@footballguys.com.

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