Rank lists and cheatsheets can be deceiving when they're presented without commentary. Our rankings have been vastly improved by adding staffer comments, but it can be hard to see the all-important context in the consensus rankings and sheets. It's critical to know where a significant drop-off in fantasy value occurs. A simple rank list can't tell you if the DL4 is closer in value to the DL10 than the DL3. A cheatsheet can't tell you if the ranker feels the LB10 is a boom-bust play with LB2 upside and LB40 downside while the LB11 has a much narrower range of expectation.
That's where tiers are helpful.
Using tiers allows you to lump and split players in context. Using tiers can help keep you on the right side of draft runs. Seeing that you have five linebackers of equal value left on your board might prompt you to take a player at another position. Noting that there's only one wide receiver left before a major drop in value will show you when you must draft a position sooner than expected. A tiered draft board keeps you from making panicked decisions while on the clock.
HOW TO USE THE TIERS
Note 1: These tiers are based on 2014 expectation only. I stopped producing dynasty rankings years ago when it became clear I weighted the current season significantly more than future years. In deeper dynasty leagues, I'll save a roster slot for a strong developmental prospect but will otherwise use these tiers as my primary roster philosophy. I'll include a separate dynasty stash tier at the end of each positional article.
Note 2: I'm basing positional classifications on the MFL database (which syncs to the Rotoworld depth charts later in the offseason). Early in the offseason, I'll deviate from the Rotoworld depth chart when I'm reasonably certain a positional change is coming that Rotoworld will reflect later in the offseason.
Note 3: I will add a column to address trends inside and throughout the tiers in future articles. I'll add a ^^^^ for those players making a move up in my tiers and vvvv for those players who have dropped since the previous tier release. For reference, you'll be able to see the earlier versions of these tier articles within the IDP article list, but the trend column should help you see where player movement is happening within the tiers at a quick glance. I'll also be including an ADP column. The ADP number will be an average of our FBG rankings, the FantasyPros Consensus Rankings, and ADP data from drafts at MFL.
Finally, the date on this article represents the last time the tiers were updated. Each update will be published as a stand-alone article. Make sure you are viewing the most recent tier article by checking the complete IDP article list here.
That's a necessary, but way too long, introduction to the important stuff. Thanks for bearing with me.
EARLY LB STRATEGY THOUGHTS
Linebacker could be deep again this season. Of course, it looked that way at many points over the past two years before injuries began to decimate the top tiers. There are more names among the top tiers than there has been in years -- but they are in tiers of limbo.
The Elite LB1 Upside tier is very deep. Some of these players will absolutely ascend to the Elite LB1 tier, others will drop into the Risk-Reward LB2 tier. But it's likely I'll have 12-15 names in the top two tiers again. That, along with the (likely) lack of depth at DL, means it should again be possible to target linebackers at value in your drafts this summer.
We'll see if that strategy holds after free agency, the draft and OTAs.
I'm not ready to declare many linebackers as clear Elite LB1 caliber fantasy options yet. There will absolutely be more than two players in this tier by summer, but a lot can happen between now and the beginning of camp.
I'm very comfortable with the majority of players in the Elite LB1 upside tier. You may want to proceed with caution with those coming off season-ending injuries, but every injured player in this tier should still have the talent to be an elite fantasy player.
I'm looking forward to making a more definitive call on these players after free agency and the draft.
TIER 1 | elite lb1
Kuechly and David are safe elite options. Barring injury, nothing will happen between now and August to convince me to move either out of the top two spots in this tier.
|Luke Kuechly||<>||Fundamental high tackle option with enough big play value to earn LB1 overall consideration|
|Lavonte David||<>||Would be elite player even without Lovie/Frazier aggressive Tampa-2 scheme helping value|
tier 1a | elite lb1 upside
This tier has it all. Established veterans, talents still recovering from serious injury, young players who look likely to live in this tier for years to come and older players who should still have a strong year left in their tanks.
However, I could make an argument against each one of them not providing elite value this year. Some of those arguments would be weaker than others, but it's enough to keep me from fully endorsing them as top five values at this point in the offseason.
|Paul Posluszny||<>||Age 31 coming off pectoral tear w/ more competition for tackles, 100 solos still possible|
|C.J. Mosley||<>||Hard to hold out of elite tier, strong candidate to move up soon|
|Jamie Collins||<>||Return of Mayo would mean more competition for tackles, but offers big play upside|
|DeAndre Levy||<>||119 solos in 2014 with league's 4th worst tackle opportunity. regression coming|
|Bobby Wagner||<>||Would be elite tier player if weren't for assist-heavy home stat crew|
|Mychal Kendricks||<>||May be too inconsistent to trust as truly elite, but 25yo triple threat player|
|Keenan Robinson||<>||Strong debut long time coming, but still just 26yo, loss of Haslett won't hurt him|
|NaVorro Bowman||<>||Elite tier if shows he's ready to return in OTAs and camp|
|Jerod Mayo||<>||Patellar tendon injury major concern, tough road to recover former ability|
|Karlos Dansby||<>||Very disappointing 2014 given lack of compeition for tackles and top five oppotunity|
|Sean Lee||<>||Durability clear and obvious concern, if recovers quickness post-ACL, has elite upside|
|Paul Worrilow||<>||Just a guy in good opportunity, ATL has too many needs to find replacement|
|Patrick Willis||<>||Wearing down, recovering from toe surgery, may not be every-down player|
|Kiko Alonso||<>||Felt he was overvalued before his injury, more competition for tackles in PHI|
|Derrick Johnson||<>||Achilles tear can be overcome, but no guarantee at age 33|
|Vontaze Burfict||<>||Multiple concussions and microfracture surgery are huge red flags|
Here's the point where I remind everyone -- veteran and newbie readers alike -- that I'm a lumper, not a splitter.
That means I group players based on roster type, not how they'd rank. In other words. those at the top of the High Floor LB2 tier would rank ahead of those at the end of the Risk-Reward LB2 tier. For example, I'd recommend drafting Curtis Lofton ahead of every Risk-Reward LB other than Lawrence Timmons. You may choose to take a higher risk player (or a rush LB) in balanced leagues based on your own personal roster philosophy.
These tiers are my way of saying -- X player has a higher floor than a higher variance Y player but both are likely to finish in the 10-25 range at year's end if things break as expected.
tier 2a | risk-reward lb2
Timmons, Trevathan, Brown and possibly Bostic could move up to the LB1 ranks. For now, I don't like their respective floors enough to rank in a higher tier. But there will undoubtedly be some mixing of this tier and the one above in future updates.
|Lawrence Timmons||<>||Never seems to capitalize on huge dual upside, role under Butler TBD|
|Jelani Jenkins||<>||Strong numbers as a starter, marginal compeition for tackles|
|Danny Trevathan||<>||Projects to favorable role in Wade Phillips' 3-4 scheme, durability is a concern|
|Alec Ogletree||<>||90 solos with good peripherals = strong floor, but has small chance at top 10 numbers|
|Preston Brown||<>||Assured of every-down job w/ Alonso trade, upside to depend on ILB teammate|
|Sio Moore||<>||Near-elite numbers when healthy and playing, durability and new staff are worries|
|Ryan Shazier||<>||Never returned to every-down role after getting over MCL and high ankle sprains|
|Telvin Smith||<>||Burst onto scene in nickel role, then kept momentum as every-down LB|
|Jon Bostic||<>||Improved greatly last year, now more than just athlete, may be every-down ILB for Fangio|
tier 2b | high floor lb2
I doubt I'll have anyone other than Lofton on my rosters this year from this group. I see more downside here than upside.
|Curtis Lofton||<>||Quiet 100 solos last year, but no peripheral stats to add upside|
|D'Qwell Jackson||<>||Can't count on more than 5-6 solos per game, but will have elite weeks|
|James Laurinaitis||<>||Tackle trends drop him out of elite tiers, but still strong LB2 floor|
|Daryl Smith||<>||Assist counts kept value up last year, age and Mosley big limiting factors now|
|Jerrell Freeman||<>||Lost half step, will struggle to put up big numbers w/ assist-heavy IND crew|
tier 2c | rush / big play lb2
I've got Mack ranked fourth in this tier right now and I don't like it. It's going to be hard to slot him over established options like Houston, Miller and Jones. But that group might well be 1A through 1D for me. Don't sleep on Mack this year.
|Justin Houston||<>||Franchise tag likely, should hold top value again this year|
|Von Miller||<>||Shouldn't be hurt by Phillips' scheme, 50+ solos / 12+ sacks possible|
|Chandler Jones||<>||If Mayo is healthy, Jones could be moved back to 3-4 DE|
|Khalil Mack||<>||60 solos and (per PFF) 54 sacks/pressures -- look out|
|Demarcus Ware||<>||Added late, cut/paste error|
|Mario Williams||<>||Added late, cut/paste error|
|Aldon Smith||<>||Off-field risk, unknown status w/ new SF coaches but talent remains|
Unlike the second tier, I'll generally always draft the 3A players over the 3B players. When looking for back end lineup and roster players, I'd much rather have a player with an outside shot at the top 10 than a player with a top 40-50 floor but lesser upside.
tier 3a | upside lb3
I love these three players, but wouldn't be comfortable taking them as LB2s yet.
|Manti Te'o||<>||Finished season as most reliable ILB in SD, if stays healthy should play every down|
|Brandon Marshall||<>||Unless DEN targets bigger run stopper, likely to start next to Trevathan|
|Christian Jones||<>||Ended 2015 on nice stretch, good chance to start and play every down for Fangio|
tier 3b | high floor lb3
These five players are valuable enough to separate from the large group of matchup dependent depth types that won't make this article. But don't shy away from targeting many of the players in the tier jumper list over these high floor - low upside names.
|Chad Greenway||<>||Competition for tackles increased, trend not reassuring for now 32yo|
|Stephen Tulloch||<>||Coming off ACL surgery, no guarantee he's returning to Detroit|
|Anthony Barr||<>||Room for improvement after top 25 per game finish in balanced leagues last year|
|Demario Davis||<>||Bowles 3-4 should be favorable, never reached ceiling under Ryan|
|Thomas Davis||<>||Impressive football player but upside limited due to Kuechly|
|Perry Riley||<>||Could lose snaps to Will Compton, favorable home stat crew supports floor|
tier jumpers | redraft watch list
This group will get progressively smaller as the offseason progresses. By the time my final update is published in August, nearly every player on this list will have found a home in a higher tier or have been deleted from the article entirely.
The deeper you go on this list, the less likely I'd be to hold a roster spot. But all warrant close observation as we move through free agency and offseason workouts. Players like Brown, Williamson and Lansanah have LB2 tier upside. Others may not rise above the Upside LB3 tier.
|Zach Brown||<>||Should recover from pectoral injury to play every down, but role not assured|
|Avery Williamson||<>||If impresses LeBeau and holds every-down role could be primary TEN fantasy option|
|Daryl Washington||<>||Likely to get multi-game suspension, but would be potential elite option on his return|
|Sam Barrington||<>||Not impressed but is only viable fantasy option on depth chart entering FA and draft|
|Danny Lansanah||<>||Good chance to stick as every-down LB, may win MLB job|
|Chris Kirksey||<>||Pettine pick, has yet to impress or take advantage of opportunity, needs big Year 2|
|Devon Kennard||<>||Will move into favorable role if Beason cannot return to form|
|Anthony Hitchens||<>||Only fully healthy backer currently signed, has issues but big opportunity possible|
|David Harris (FA)||<>||Team and role to be determined, but talented enough to fit in High Floor LB tier|
|Dont'a Hightower||<>||Will move outside if Mayo healthy enough to play, may not play every down|
|Rolando McClain (FA)||<>||Showed again he can play run productively, but major durability concern|
|Prince Shembo||<>||Falcons want him playing ILB full time, opportunity and upside if successful|
|Emmanuel Lamur||<>||Exposed last year and not very durable, but Burfict an unknown, Maualuga a FA|
|Dannell Ellerbe||<>||Not an elite talent, but should get a chance to start with Misi / Jenkins|
|Sean Weatherspoon (FA)||<>||Already seemed slow before Achilles injury, may not be role for him in ATL|
|Nigel Bradham||<>||May be reserve behind Alonso and Brown but worth tracking|
|Lance Briggs (FA)||<>||Turns 35 inseason, not likely to return to Bears, FA market flooded with other options|
|Rey Maualuga (FA)||<>||Strong between tackles, could forge every-down role in CIN or elsewhere|
|Brandon Spikes (FA)||<>||Role will determine value, flooded market will limit options, knee may not hold up|
|Jon Beason||<>||Not sure he can return to form, range limited before toe injury|
|Wesley Woodyard||<>||Likely projects as reserve in Tennessee, every-down duty wore him down|
|Bruce Carter (FA)||<>||Unlikely to find every-down role in free agency|
|Josh Mauga (FA)||<>||Value dependent on re-signing with Chiefs, Derrick Johnson's health|
|Mason Foster (FA)||<>||Don't see him signing into productive role|
|Malcolm Smith (FA)||<>||Won't be surprised if needy team snaps him up and puts him in significant role|
|Nate Irving (FA)||<>||Slow development, then hurt, longshot to land in productive spot|
|Brian Cushing||<>||Multiple surgeries this offseason, not durable enough to trust|
matchup rush lb
|Ryan Kerrigan||<>||Seems like I underrate him every season, may belong in Rush LB2 tier|
|Rob Ninkovich||<>||RW has him at OLB currently, risk of reclassification from DL|
|Terrell Suggs||<>||Double digit sacks but tackle numbers down, trending toward situational play|
|Brandon Graham (FA)||<>||Talented enough to succeed if signed by 3-4 team to play OLB|
|Tamba Hali||<>||Only six sacks last year, age and knees may finally cost him playing time|
|Clay Matthews||<>||Won't play ILB this year, still a double digit sack threat|
|Robert Mathis||<>||Setback with Achilles recovery a major concern|
|Derrick Morgan (FA)||<>||Not much upside unless he's signed opposite a stud weak side rusher|
I won't argue with anyone who wants to draft Borland in a deeper redraft league. But if Bowman and Willis are healthy, Borland will be a reserve on opening weekend. And, while acknowledging there's no upside in sight, I'm not giving up on Brown's fantasy value yet.
|Chris Borland||<>||Reserve if Bowman and Willis healthy, don't see 49ers going to 4-3 front|
|Jeremiah Attaochu||<>||One of handful of young edge rushers with upside, big opportunity in SD|
|Arthur Brown||<>||No role for him in Baltimore, but still worth holding if you've got room|
|Lamin Barrow||<>||Likely behind Trevathan / Marshall but was Elway favorite after draft last year|
2015 prospect watch
Lots more to come on these prospects over the next few weeks -- check out this extended discussion I had with Matt Waldman on Eric Kendricks for a preview of what's to come -- but I think we'll add at least 3-4 rookies to the draftable tiers this summer.
|Eric Kendricks||Ramik Wilson|
|Shaq Thompson||Ben Heeney|
|Denzel Perryman||A.J. Johnson|
|Paul Dawson||Mike Hull|
|Benardrick McKinney||Martrell Spraight|
|Stephone Anthony||Curtis Grant|
|Hayes Pullard||Trey Depriest|
|Randy Gregory||Owa Odighizuwa|
|Shane Ray||Nate Orchard|
|Alvin Dupree||Danielle Hunter|
|Vic Beasley||Hau'oli Kikaha|
|Dante Fowler||Markus Golden|
|Eli Harold||Zach Hodges|
|Lorenzo Mauldin||Geneo Grissom|
Follow and ask questions on Twitter @JeneBramel. Reading the Defense will be a regular feature this offseason with free agent commentary, draft prospect previews, tier discussion, links to our offseason IDP roundtable podcasts and much more. Subscribe to The Audible on iTunes or download our IDP podcast here.