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Reading the Defense: Linebacker Tiers [Post Free Agency]

Sorting through the unsettled situations and impressive depth in the linebacker tiers after free agency

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 long, but necessary, introduction to the important stuff. Thanks for bearing with me.


STRATEGY THOUGHTS

Linebacker has long been thought of as the anchor position in IDP leagues. Most leagues allow you to start more linebackers than any other position. Tackles are the highest volume stat -- they happen on almost every play and are less prone to variance than sacks and interceptions -- and linebackers are the tackle-producing defenders in nearly every defense.

Those factors help to elevate the importance of linebackers so much that even smart fantasy owners can't help themselves from drafting a linebacker over a defensive lineman, even when the defensive lineman may be demonstrably more valuable.

So, the last two seasons, which have been filled with severe and long-term injuries and a decreasing number of every-down players as teams platoon run-stopping and coverage linebackers in various packages, have been painful for IDP lovers.

I have hope that 2015 will be different. I can't predict injuries and there are many, many unsettled situations heading into the draft and OTAs. But while the linebacker tiers are very fluid right now, I think we'll see more fantasy depth at linebacker than we've had in the past 2-3 seasons.

In this update, I identified nearly 100 players I could see earning a place in my August tiers. I have ten players I like as elite or near-elite options with another handful of players who will move up from the risk-reward tiers if they look healthy this summer. The group of players with top 5-8 upside could be deeper than it's been in years.

Many of those 100 players will drop out of the rosterable range when OTAs determine who will play where and when in Buffalo, Denver, Tennessee, New Orleans, Oakland, Pittsburgh, San Diego, Green Bay, Dallas, Tampa Bay, San Francisco, Chicago, the New York Giants, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Houston and Minnesota. There's a long list of matchup rush linebackers with potential weekly value. But there's going to be lots of depth behind the elite tiers, too.

Since I don't see very little chance the defensive end tiers expand and improve this summer, I expect to argue for taking two elite defensive line options before addressing the linebacker position this year. Consider the following tiers and developing linebacker situations with that in mind.


TIER 1 | ELITE LB1

I'm not ready to declare many linebackers as clear Elite LB1 caliber fantasy options yet. I expect to have more than two players in this tier by summer, but may choose to keep this tier shallow and emphasize depth until very late in training camp.

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 w/ big play value
Lavonte David <>   Tampa system boosts already elite statistical upside

TIER 1A | ELITE LB1 UPSIDE

This tier has it all. Established veterans, talented players 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 having a top 8-10 floor at this point in the offseason.

PLAYER TREND ADP CONTEXT
NaVorro Bowman <>   Reports on rehab positive; will move into elite tier if OTA/camp news reassuring
C.J. Mosley <>   Hard to hold out of elite tier; strong candidate to move up
DeAndre Levy <>   119 solos w/ league’s 4th worst tackle opportunity; regression coming
Paul Posluszny <>   31 yrs old recovering from pectoral tear w/ more competition for tackles
Jamie Collins <>   Return of Mayo means more competition for tackles; offset by big play upside
Mychal Kendricks <>   Inconsistency makes tough to slot in elite tier; now has Alonso to compete for tackles
Bobby Wagner <>   Would be elite tier if not for assist-heavy home stat crew
Karlos Dansby <>   Disappointing 2014 but opportunity knocks again this year

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 a upside-floor profile, not how they'd rank. In other words. those at the top of the High Floor LB2 tier may rank ahead of those at the end of the Risk-Reward LB2 tier. For example, I'd likely draft Paul Worrilow before many of the Risk-Reward linebackers today. The break point would be somewhere in the Lee-Burfict-Timmons range depending on my roster composition and risk tolerance. You may choose to take a higher risk player (or a rush LB) in balanced leagues based on your own personal roster philosophy.

The lumping of players into three separate "Tier 2" groups is 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.

It is also critical to note -- though not surprising in an April update -- that the second and third tiers are very fluid right now.

TIER 2A | RISK-REWARD LB2

Currently, I have ten linebackers in the elite range. There are close to 20 more in this three-headed tier (and a few more in unsettled situations with top 15-20 upside in later tiers).

PLAYER TREND ADP CONTEXT
Jelani Jenkins <>   Strong numbers as starter; marginal competition for tackles
Kiko Alonso <>   Felt he was over-valued before injury; will have more competition in PHI
Keenan Robinson <>   Strong debut long time coming; loss of Haslett won’t hurt value
Sean Lee <>   Poor durability much bigger concern than move to WLB; has elite upside
Vontaze Burfict <>   Would be elite tier option if not for multiple concussions and microfracture uncertainty
Lawrence Timmons <>   Never seems to capitalize on tackle-sack upside; role under Butler TBD
Telvin Smith <>   Burst onto scene in nickel role and kept momentum as every-down linebacker
Jerod Mayo <>   Patellar tendon injury a major concern; may not recover to previous form
Derrick Johnson <>   Achilles tear can be overcome but no guarantee at age 33
Alec Ogletree <>   90 solos w/ good peripherals = strong floor; athletic enough to have shot at Top 10
Anthony Barr <>   Room for more upside after Top 25 finish in balanced leagues last year

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
Paul Worrilow <>   Nothing special but has elite opportunity; won’t fault anyone for slotting him higher
D’Qwell Jackson <>   Cannot count on more than six solos per game but will have elite weeks
James Laurinaitis <>   Tackle trend drops him out of elite tiers but still has strong LB2 floor
Stephen Tulloch <>   Was elite producer last year before injury; awaiting news on ACL recovery

TIER 2C | RUSH / BIG PLAY LB2

Every season, I'm asked to identify an undervalued edge linebacker who will break into the elite tier. In most seasons, there's a extremely strong candidate. Cameron Wake and Justin Houston didn't have big sack numbers early in their careers but had the per snap rush numbers of elite pass rushers. They also had the tape to back it up.

Last year didn't present a Wake - Houston type candidate. We definitely have one this year -- Khalil Mack. Mack won't be as under the radar as the UDFA-turned-CFL star or a third round player who fell in the draft due to character concerns, but he fits the breakout profile perfectly. He'll be on lots of my teams this year.

PLAYER TREND ADP CONTEXT
Justin Houston <>   Franchised by KC; expect another 50-14++ season
Khalil Mack <>   This season's breakout pass rusher; 60 solos and (per PFF) 54 sacks/pressures in 2014 = look out
Chandler Jones <>   Possible he will be moved to defensive end if Mayo is healthy; could be re-classified
Von Miller <>   Phillips’ scheme may drop tackle numbers very slightly but 50-12 upside remains
Ryan Kerrigan <>   Tired of underranking him which means a 35-7 season is coming

Unlike the second tier, I'll generally 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.

Also, the 3A (Upside LB) and Tier Jumper Watch List groups are full of two- and three-headed situations. I've tried to tier these situations as clearly as possible. Here are the general rules of engagement:

1. Situations are ranked according to talent of players competing for the role, the opportunity in the role, and the current clarity of the situation. For example, I like the talent and role for the prospective Buffalo ILBs better than the talent and role for the prospective New Orleans ILBs.

2. Within each team subgroup, I've ranked prospective players by preference. For example, I'd rather roster Preston Brown ove Nigel Bradham and David Hawthorne over Dannell Ellerbe today.

3. In general, I'm tiering talent over opportunity and upside over floor here, as always.

What that system misses is that I wouldn't necessarily take Nigel Bradham (if both Bradham and Brown win every-down jobs) over leading candidates Danny Trevathan or Zach Brown. Follow the context blurbs for, well, more context.

As these situations work themselves out in OTAs and we see and hear what coaches feel about their depth chart and player roles, I'll clean these tiers up. Some players will move higher, some players may fall off the tier board altogether.

TIER 3A | UPSIDE LB3

There will be lots of value in this group. By August, a small handful will be in the LB2 tiers. Others won't be draftable/rosterable, but may belong on a speed dial list if there's a depth chart shakeup.

PLAYER TREND ADP CONTEXT
Preston Brown <>   Like a fraction more than Bradham; both could be Risk-Reward LB2 values
Nigel Bradham <>   Great chance to play every down but believe Brown is more versatile producer
Danny Trevathan <>   One of DEN ILB will be a monster in Phillips’ 1-gap 3-4; could move up soon
Brandon Marshall <>   Most likely of options to play next to Trevathan; should also have LB3+ value
Zach Brown <>   Still have concerns w/ Brown’s consistency around the ball; likely to play every down
Avery Williamson <>   May overtake Brown as primary fantasy option if LeBeau gives him keys to huddle
David Hawthorne <>   Moving to SILB for Saints; durability and questionable range may offset volume
Dannell Ellerbe <>   Good chance to play every down but not an elite talent
Malcolm Smith <>   Give him narrow edge to start over Moore and play every down
Sio Moore <>   Wonder about hip and what OAK saw on tape after Moore/Lofton signings
Ryan Shazier <>   Was LeBeau favorite who didn’t return to full time role after two injuries
Manti Te’o <>   Think we’ll see him play every down this year; will move into higher tier if confirmed
Anthony Hitchens <>   Not convinced he’ll play MLB yet even w/ Lee outside but LB2 upside possible
Sam Barrington <>   Packers seem likely to add impact rookie at ILB but until that happens…
Danny Lansanah <>   Still upside here; not convinced Carter sticks at MLB or has every-down role

TIER 3B | HIGH FLOOR LB3

With free agency behind us, I've identified a few more linebackers valuable enough to separate from the large group of matchup dependent depth types that won't make this article. Some of them will fall off the list after the draft and OTAs. 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
Jerrell Freeman <>   Lost half step; won’t have many big weeks w/ assist-heavy IND stat crew
Daryl Smith <>   Assist counts preserved some value last season; age and Mosley limiting factors
Sean Weatherspoon <>   Great opportunity in ARI but was already slowing down before Achilles injury
Michael Wilhoite <>   Back in conversation after Willis/Borland retirement but low ceiling
Perry Riley <>   Could lose snaps to Compton; favorable stat crew supports his floor
David Harris <>   High floor option in Bowles’ defense
Demario Davis <>   Has settled into good but not great tier; WILB role should be favorable
Bruce Carter <>   Early reports have him playing MLB; not a great fit and lots of tackle competition
Thomas Davis <>   Impressive and resilient talent but upside limited next to Kuechly
Chad Greenway <>   Just took pay cut to stay in MIN; stat trends not reassuring at all
K.J. Wright <>   Solid player limited by low volume of opportunity and strong surrounding cast
Justin Durant <>   May move into higher tier this summer but durability is major concern
Josh Mauga <>   Re-signed by KC; Johnson’s recovery not assured; value could change after KC draft

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. 

PLAYER TREND ADP CONTEXT
Jon Bostic <>   Improved last season but Fangio has opened ILB competition w/ Foster signing
Mason Foster <>   Has been disappointment but could get another high opportunity look under Fangio
Christian Jones <>   Needs development but arguably has best upside among CHI ILB potentials
Curtis Lofton <>   Likely to start at MLB for OAK; no guarantee he plays every down
Gerald Hodges <>   May see more playing time than expected if Greenway is on his way out
Chris Kirksey <>   Never broke into full time role despite earning Pettine’s praise
Daryl Washington <>   If re-instated will be suspended again for multiple games
Jon Beason <>   Multiple serious foot injuries will keep him from having consistent value
Jameel McClain <>   Role and opportunity unknown w/ depth chart turnover during free agency
Jonathan Casillas <>   First to sign w/ NYG in free agency and has every-down potential
Rey Maualuga <>   Will move higher if Burfict unable to recover from microfracture surgery
Rolando McClain <>   Re-signed by DAL; durability and snap count keep him out of higher tier
Carl Bradford <>   Don’t see him as viable option but makes watch list until GB adds someone better
Nick Moody <>   Doubtful to pass Wilhoite on depth chart but warrants observation
Mike Mohamed <>   Could be best value on HOU depth chart if ILB not addressed in draft
Brian Cushing <>   Can’t stay healthy; won’t play every down; depth chart too thin to ignore

matchup rush lb

This tier is deeper than ever and likely to grow by 2-4 names after the draft. Almost every player on this list can put up double digit sacks this year. Consistency and lack of tackle upside keep them out of the elite tier for now. Those in big play leagues can roster the top half of this list as LB2/LB3 without concern. Balanced league owners should probably plan to stream these players by matchup unless and until one shows elite week-to-week upsde.

PLAYER TREND ADP CONTEXT
Jerry Hughes <>   Thrived in similar scheme in 2013; low tackle counts keep him out of elite tier
Connor Barwin <>   Expect some regression from last season’s elite numbers
Rob Ninkovich <>   Value much higher when listed as LB
Terrell Suggs <>   Second half 2014 better than first half but not consistent enough to consider elite
Mario Williams <>   Productive as OLB earlier in career but unlikely to be elite producer
Demarcus Ware <>   Can’t project him over 45 solos so he slips back into matchup tier
Aldon Smith <>   Could produce enough pass rush to be elite but worried about SF opportunity
Clay Matthews <>   Still some rumbles he’ll stick at ILB but don’t buy in until after the draft
Brandon Graham <>   Not the type of freedom I hoped for him; has to scale per snap numbers to bigger role
Pernell McPhee <>   Don’t see 50-10 upside as primary rush OLB option in CHI
Trent Cole <>   May be underrating him here; will have less competition for tackles and good rush volume
Alex Okafor <>   Needs to improve tackle numbers to be more than marginal matchup play
Brian Orakpo <>   Lack of durability has killed his value but there’s still upside here
Derrick Morgan <>   Not sure I see high enough floor or ceiling to move higher
Elvis Dumervil <>   An option in very sack heavy scoring systems only
Julius Peppers <>   Still a little left in his tank
Robert Mathis <>   Achilles setback may end his career; won’t be back until November at earliest

DYNASTY STASH

Easy come, easy go. Chris Borland topped this list last month. That removes the only likely elite stash option for redraft league owners and leaves little for shallow-medium dynasty owners to target.

PLAYER TREND ADP CONTEXT
Jeremiah Attaochu <>   Chance he breaks out as 45-10 or better this year; big play league sleeper
Arthur Brown <>   A hold in deep roster leagues only but wouldn’t give up on him until rookie contract ends
Jadeveon Clowney <>   Early microfracture huge red flag but too much talent to give up on yet
Kevin Pierre-Louis <>   Depth chart still crowded with Smith gone, but big talent here
Kyle Van Noy <>   May have bigger and more attractive role should Lions move toward 3-4 front
Devon Kennard <>   NYG signed two players to compete at OLB; rumors may see him as rotational rusher
Lamin Barrow <>   Still on my watch list but solely due to Elway’s praise after drafting him
Aaron Lynch <>   Has big play upside but may not break out until after Smith leaves

2015 PROSPECT WATCH

Lots more to come on these prospects this month -- 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.

PLAYER POSITION   PLAYER POSITION
Eric Kendricks LB   Benardrick McKinney LB
Denzel Perryman LB   Hayes Pullard LB
Stephone Anthony LB   Ben Heeney LB
Paul Dawson LB   Ramik Wilson LB
Shaq Thompson LB   Kwon Alexander LB
           
Randy Gregory EDGE   Owa Odighizuwa EDGE
Vic Beasley EDGE   Danielle Hunter EDGE
Bud Dupree EDGE   Shane Ray EDGE
Dante Fowler EDGE   Nate Orchard EDGE
Eli Harold EDGE   Zach Hodges EDGE
Hau’oli Kikaha EDGE   Lorenzo Maudlin EDGE

 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