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Reading the Defense: Linebacker Tiers [First 2015 Update]

RTD's first linebacker discussion and tiers for 2015

WHY TIERS?

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.

PLAYER TREND ADP CONTEXT
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.

PLAYER TREND ADP CONTEXT
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.

PLAYER TREND ADP CONTEXT
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.

PLAYER TREND ADP CONTEXT
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.

PLAYER TREND ADP CONTEXT
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. 

PLAYER TREND ADP CONTEXT
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.

PLAYER TREND ADP CONTEXT
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.

PLAYER TREND ADP CONTEXT
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

PLAYER TREND ADP CONTEXT
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

dynasty stash

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.

PLAYER TREND ADP CONTEXT
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
Dee Ford <>   WHEEEEEE!!! 
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