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Reading the Defense: Linebacker Tiers

How to approach the linebacker position during your draft

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 2015 expectation in a balanced IDP scoring system. I stopped producing dynasty rankings years ago when it became clear I weighted the current season significantly more than future seasons. In deeper dynasty leagues, I'll save a roster slot for a strong developmental prospect but otherwise still use these tiers as my primary roster philosophy. A separate dynasty stash tier is included 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). 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'll add a ^^^ for those players making a move up in my tiers and vvv 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 after training camp begins. 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.

In each of the last two seasons, the number of consistently valuable fantasy linebackers dropped considerably. And "dropped" probably understates reality. Severe injuries and the rise of platooning run-stopping and coverage linebackers often made it hard for those in deeper leagues to find enough every-down linebackers to start in their fantasy lineup.

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 July, I identified over 100 players I could see earning a place in my draftable tiers during the preseason. That number will naturally be smaller in these August updates, as we learn which players have the best shot at playing time in the regular season. But I still have over 40 players tiered into groups with LB2 potential or better. Of course, it's impossible for 40 players to finish in the top 25 year end rankings.

Recognizing this depth has value for your draft strategy. As I wrote in the defensive line tier feature, I'm recommending prioritizing an elite DL over an elite LB as your first IDP drafted and planning to draft two defensive ends among your first three IDP selections.


TIER 1 | ELITE LB1

These three are the class of this year's group. I'm still considering moving C.J. Mosley and Derrick Johnson into this group, but have just enough concern about their floor to hold them out for now. If you're convinced you need an elite linebacker on your roster, make sure it's one of these three.

PLAYERTRENDADPCONTEXT
Luke Kuechly <> LB1 Fundamental high tackle option w/ big play value
Lavonte David <> LB2 Tampa system boosts already elite statistical upside
NaVorro Bowman <> LB4 Participated in drills throughout offseason; no concerns in camp

TIER 1A | ELITE LB1 UPSIDE

I wish I knew where to slot Bobby Wagner. He's arguably my favorite linebacker to watch play and I'll always have a great memory of the first time he had my spidey senses going with his play at the Senior Bowl practices. But I can't ignore the eight games a season he'll play in front of a stat crew that's more likely to give him a 3-7 line than a 8-2. And the Seahawks will again limit their own tackle opportunity signfiicantly. This tier is very tight, so don't read too much into Wagner's place at the "bottom" of this group.

PLAYERTRENDADPCONTEXT
C.J. Mosley <> LB3 Hard to hold out of elite tier; strong candidate to move up
DeAndre Levy <> LB6 119 solos w/ league’s 4th worst tackle opportunity; regression coming
Derrick Johnson ^^^ LB21 Participated in OTAs and reportedly looking fully recovered in camp
Jamie Collins <> LB9 Return of Mayo means more competition for tackles; offset by big play upside
Paul Posluszny <> LB7 31 yrs old recovering from pectoral tear w/ more competition for tackles
Karlos Dansby <> LB23 Disappointing 2014 but opportunity knocks again this year
Bobby Wagner <> LB5 Would be elite tier if not for assist-heavy home stat crew

LUMPING VERSUS SPLITTING

Here's the point where I again remind everyone -- veteran and newbie readers alike -- that I'm a lumper, not a splitter.

I group players together by their upside-floor profile rather than how I'd rank them from 1-100. Lumping players with a similar point expectation into a group with a high floor and questionable upside, a group with high upside and a worrisome floor, or a group mostly dependent on sacks is very helpful during the draft.  If I've already rostered a number of high risk players, I may want a higher floor option in the same tier. Put another way, the high risk and high floor player will "rank" differently in different draft / roster scenarios.

It's also why I resist the draft board approach I use in the combined rookie draft board feature. I could present these tiers side-by-side. But there would be very little separation from top-to-bottom and left-to-right. Yes, there are a lot of names lumped together. But that's why I love tiers. Knowing before your first round pick that the players you've tiered together as your possible LB2 targets will come off the board over many rounds is huge. 

So be true to this process. If you know you will draft Kiko Alonso rounds before any other player in your X tier, he either needs to be moved up to the "bottom" of your earlier tier or the other players in Alonso's tier need to be moved down.

The lumping of players into three separate "Tier 2" groups is my way of identifying that a Tier 2B player (higher floor, lower upside) is very different than the Tier 2A player (higher upside, lower floor) but both could finish in the 10-25 range at year's end if things break as expected.


THOUGHTS ON TIER 2

I believe the second tier will bring both quality and quantity this year.

The 2B (High Floor LB2) and 2C (Rush LB2) tiers should remain straightforward and stable. The bottom of the 2A (Risk-Reward LB2) and top of the 3A (Upside LB3) are now starting to come into focus, but many of those names will be interchangeable. Don't hesitate to move a player in that range up or down. 

TIER 2A | RISK-REWARD LB2

This tier is also tight from top to bottom. I've stashed Danny Trevathan, Brandon Marshall, and Vontaze Burfict at the bottom of the group while we wait for their injury rehabilitations to fully play out. Burfict made enough progress last month to have a chance to be ready for opening weekend, but I still think he's 50-50 at best to avoid the inseason PUP list.

Preston Brown is the big mover here. The Bills confirmed they'll be using a 4-3 Under front and released a depth chart with Brown at middle linebacker and Nigel Bradham at strong side linebacker. Don't worry about the strong side linebacker designation here. This is still a good role for Bradham. However, the middle linebacker is essentially the weak side inside backer here and Brown's pass rush upside will play under Rex Ryan. I've also moved Clay Matthews up into the middle of this tier. He's all but assured of playing inside on base downs and will still see plenty of pass rushing stats. It's a role that could mean 70 solos and 12 sacks. If I can convince myself Matthews has a high percentage chance at 70 solos, he'll move still higher in future updates.

PLAYERTRENDADPCONTEXT
Jelani Jenkins <> LB13 Strong numbers as starter; marginal competition for tackles
Sean Lee <> LB12 Reports are promising enough to list here; could move up if looks good in game action
Mychal Kendricks <> LB14 Some inconsistency and now competing w/ Alonso for tackles or would tier higher
Kiko Alonso <> LB10 Felt he was over-valued before injury; will have more competition in PHI
Clay Matthews ^^^ LB39 Almost certain to play ILB in base and rush in subpackages; may be underrating him
Preston Brown ^^^ LB26 Will play MLB in Ryan's Over-Under fronts
Lawrence Timmons <> LB20 Never seems to capitalize on tackle-sack upside; role under Butler TBD
Alec Ogletree <> LB8 90 solos w/ good peripherals = strong floor; athletic enough to have shot at Top 10
Telvin Smith <> LB16 Burst onto scene in nickel role and kept momentum as every-down linebacker
Avery Williamson <> LB51 Like narrowly over Zach Brown today but margin is razor thin
Nigel Bradham <> LB29 BUF defense may limit its own opportunity; competition high w/ Brown
Zach Brown <> LB58 Still have concerns w/ Brown’s consistency around the ball but role fits him well
Jerod Mayo <> LB30 Patellar tendon injury a major concern; may not recover to previous form
Danny Trevathan <> LB33 On active roster as camp started but not fully healthy yet
Brandon Marshall <> LB28 Way ahead of schedule in return from Lisfranc but needs to get into football shape
Vontaze Burfict ^^^ LB31 Rehab more promising than last month but still long way to go to be ready W1

TIER 2B | HIGH FLOOR LB2

There are some very good names on this list. To make this tier, a linebacker has to play every down, be capable of 88-92 solos, and add something in the pass rush or coverage categories (pass rush, passes defensed, etc.). That's a strong every week fantasy performer.

What I don't see from this group is 100+ solo tackle upside or the potential for a big play in any given game. I may be underrating Worrilow or Robinson or Tulloch or Lofton a tad, but I don't believe the talent or athletic ability equals the players in the 1A or 2A tiers. But this list of names is a good indication of the kind of linebacker group you can put together if you wait 6-8 rounds after Kuechly and David are drafted to start filling out your linebacker roster.

PLAYERTRENDADPCONTEXT
Paul Worrilow <> LB11 Marginal talent w/ elite opportunity; won’t fault anyone for slotting him higher
Keenan Robinson <> LB17 Strong debut was long time coming; loss of Haslett won’t hurt value
Curtis Lofton ^^^ LB22 Every-down prospects increase w/ Mack to DE and Moore still recovering
D’Qwell Jackson <> LB18 Cannot count on more than six solos per game but will have elite weeks
James Laurinaitis <> LB19 Tackle trend drops him out of elite tiers but still has strong LB2 floor
Stephen Tulloch <> LB37 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 this elite tier. In most seasons, there's a 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. Prior to today, we definitely had one this year -- Khalil Mack. But the Raiders released a depth chart confirming what has been a not-so-closely guarded secret since May. Mack will be listed as a defensive end this season and I fully expect him to be re-classified on league management sites soon.

PLAYERTRENDADPCONTEXT
Justin Houston <> LB15 Franchised by KC; expect another 50-14++ season
Von Miller <> LB36 Phillips’ scheme may drop tackle numbers slightly but 50-12 upside remains
Ryan Kerrigan <> LB49 Reports of knee scope almost immediately after I finally put him in elite tier

THOUGHTS ON TIER 3 AND BEYOND

There's still some work to be done here, but I've cleaned up the Tier Jumper | Preseason Watch List tier. Players I'm comfortable drafting and rostering have been moved into the second and third tiers. I've separated players I'll be deleting in the next update into a separate On Their Way Out tier to close the loop on the Tier Jumper group.

TIER 3A | UPSIDE LB3

I really like the top half of this tier, which is why I wrote above that you can consider players like Ryan Shazier, Eric Kendricks, Christian Jones, and Stephone Anthony as a continuation of the Risk-Reward LB2 tier. But those four players need their roles solidified during training camp to earn slots in the LB2 group. Anthony Hitchens, who may see extended time at middle linebacker now, and Devon Kennard, who is quietly asserting himself as an ascending every-down outside linebacker, both have my attention after strong starts to their training camps.

PLAYERTRENDADPCONTEXT
Ryan Shazier <> LB25 Tomlin wants him at ILB and expects Timmons-like development
Eric Kendricks <> LB24 Running w/ 2nd team early in camp but seeing nickel snaps w/ ones
Christian Jones ^^^ LB68 Creating lots of camp buzz and looks likely to start and play every down
Sean Weatherspoon <> LB45 Great opportunity in ARI but was already slowing down before Achilles injury
Stephone Anthony ^^^ LB32 Ticketed for every-down ILB role and early reports promising
Bruce Carter <> LB56 Will play MLB but high competition for tackles won\'t help his history of inconsistency
Jon Beason ^^^ LB55 Believed to be fully recovered but may not be rangy player he once was
Anthony Hitchens ^^^ LB69 Lining up at MLB over Brinkley w/ McClain out; increased value early in seasons
Sam Barrington <> LB47 So-so talent but lock to start at ILB now w/ excellent chance at every-down role
Devon Kennard ^^^ LB73 Reports grow more promising by day; currently SLB in base and earning nickel snaps
Sio Moore ^^^ LB42 Cleared to practice but coming along slowly; should win WLB job over Smith
Manti Te’o ^^^ LB67 Think we’ll see him play every down this year; will move into higher tier if confirmed
Kelvin Sheppard ^^^   MIA giving him every opportunity to win MLB job; could play every down

TIER 3B | HIGH FLOOR LB3

These players would be well into the 30s on a straight rank list. But this group is full of high floor, trustworthy fantasy talent. It feels wrong to put Daryl Smith and Jerrell Freeman here, but the ceiling just isn't there for them any longer. Anthony Barr will move up if he proves his balky knee will allow him to handle consecutive practices. And Demario Davis, Donald Butler, and Justin Durant will likely find themselves inside the weekly Top 30 more often than not.

PLAYERTRENDADPCONTEXT
Daryl Smith <> LB38 Assist counts preserved some value last season; age and Mosley limiting factors
Jerrell Freeman <> LB35 Lost half step; won’t have many big weeks w/ assist-heavy IND stat crew
Anthony Barr <> LB40 Room for more upside after Top 25 finish in balanced leagues last year
David Harris <> LB43 High floor option in Bowles’ defense
Thomas Davis <> LB50 Impressive and resilient talent but upside limited next to Kuechly
Demario Davis <> LB27 Has settled into good but not great tier; WILB role should be favorable
Perry Riley <> LB60 Could lose snaps to Compton; favorable stat crew supports his floor
Donald Butler ^^^ LB88 Reported to camp in shape and motivated; playing every down in early practices
K.J. Wright <> LB53 Solid player limited by low volume of opportunity and strong surrounding cast
Justin Durant <> LB65 May move into higher tier this summer but durability is major concern
Michael Wilhoite <> LB80 Back in conversation after Willis/Borland retirement but low ceiling
Chad Greenway ^^^ LB44 Just took pay cut to stay in MIN; stat trends not reassuring at all
Mike Mohamed ^^^   Well ahead of McKinney in early camp workouts; good shot at every-down role
Shea McClellin ^^^   Having a hard time buying McClellin as every-down ILB anchor

MATCHUP RUSH LB

This tier is deeper than ever. Every player on this list has double digit sack potential. 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 upside.

PLAYERTRENDADPCONTEXT
Connor Barwin <> LB59 Expect some regression from last season’s elite numbers
Terrell Suggs <> LB75 Second half 2014 better than first half but not consistent enough to consider elite
DeMarcus Ware <> LB61 Can’t project him over 45 solos so he slips back into matchup tier
Paul Kruger <> LB89 12 sacks and solid pressure numbers have me reconsidering him here
Trent Cole <> LB100 May be underrating him here; will have less competition for tackles and good rush volume
Pernell McPhee <> LB97 Don’t see 50-10 upside as primary rush OLB option in CHI
Brandon Graham <> LB62 Not the type of freedom I hoped for him; has to scale per snap numbers to bigger role
Junior Galette <> LB106 Now with stronger front seven in WAS and won\'t see many double teams
Brian Orakpo <> LB96 Lack of durability has killed his value but there’s still upside here
Elvis Dumervil <> LB104 An option in very sack heavy scoring systems only
Derrick Morgan <> LB83 Not sure I see high enough floor or ceiling to move higher
Alex Okafor <>   Not convinced he has breakout potential but warrants mentioning
Julius Peppers <> LB98 Still a little left in his tank
Robert Mathis <> LB81 Achilles setback may end his career; won’t be back until midseason

formerly in tier jumper list now well down the draft board

Here are the players I'm deleting from the next tier update unless they show a strong change in fortune. Jon Bostic and Chris Kirksey have the best chance at Week 1 value. All of these players should be in the forefront of your mind should an injury shake up their team's depth chart.

PLAYERTRENDADPCONTEXT
Jon Bostic vvv LB74 Finally healthy enough to practice but stuck on second and third team
Koa Misi vvv LB70 May have been passed by Kelvin Sheppard
Christian Kirksey vvv LB71 Coordinator recently quoted as saying rotation with Robertson to continue
Dont’a Hightower vvv LB48 Could slip into every-down role if Mayo isn’t ready
Danny Lansanah vvv LB54 Still upside here but Carter getting first shot at MLB job and every-down role
Nick Moody vvv   Doubtful to pass Wilhoite on depth chart but warrants observation
Mason Foster vvv LB57 Disappointment in TB and now behind McClellin at ILB
David Hawthorne vvv LB78 Looks like reserve OLB if Anthony wins starting MLB job
Malcolm Smith vvv   Likely to fall behind Moore at WLB but hanging on for now
Denzel Perryman vvv LB64 Chargers want competition at ILB; waiting to hear if legit shot at starting
Rolando McClain vvv LB76 Four game suspension and knee scope kills whatever minimal value he had for now
Gerald Hodges vvv   Unlikely to beat out Greenway for playing time now
Dannell Ellerbe vvv LB93 Could be every-down WLB but durability and inconsistency are issues
Josh Mauga vvv LB105 KC has depth to sit Mauga in subpackages and lots of tackle competition
A.J. Hawk vvv LB85 May not start over Lamur when Burfict returns
Rey Maualuga vvv LB94 Lamur ahead of him on subpackage depth chart
J.T. Thomas vvv LB66 Behind Kennard in pecking order to play every down
Jameel McClain vvv   Running with second team early in camp before another stinger
Spencer Paysinger vvv   Fallen off the depth chart behind Sheppard Misi McClain
Carl Bradford vvv   Made no progress during offseason
Daryl Washington vvv LB63 If re-instated will be suspended again for multiple games; a roster hold but do not draft

DYNASTY STASH

Here's a long list of options to consider in deeper leagues.

OFF-BALL LBTRENDADPCONTEXT
Shaq Thompson <>   No clear path to every-down role yet; safety snaps not entirely out of question
Jake Ryan vvv LB90 Not ready for a base defensive ILB role yet
Paul Dawson vvv LB87 CIN won\'t push a rookie into lineup over vets like Lamur Rey Hawk
Benardrick McKinney vvv LB46 No camp buzz whatsoever; HOU plans to ease him into every-down role
Kwon Alexander <>   Would be great fit if not for LaVonte David
Kevin Pierre-Louis <>   Will see more playing time w/ Malcolm Smith gone in free agency
Arthur Brown <>   Hold in deep roster leagues; still chance he finds himself in better situation in time
Kevin Minter <>   Disappointing start to career; depth chart still favorable for base duty
EDGE LBTRENDADPCONTEXT
Aaron Lynch <>   Will see snap count increase dramatically w/ Smith release
Jadeveon Clowney <> LB72 Early microfracture huge red flag but too much talent to give up on yet
Jeremiah Attaochu <>   Chance he breaks out as 45-10 or better this year; big play league sleeper
Bud Dupree <>   Needs seasoning but first step and measurables too impressive to ignore
Dante Fowler <>   Athleticism concerns before ACL but is a violent and fundamental football player
Preston Smith <>   Could work way into matchup rush LB tier this year
Hau’oli Kikaha <>   Move to 4-3 defense and SLB role hurts upside even if he sees 500+ snaps as rookie
Shane Ray <>   To develop behind Ware/Miller this year
Barkevious Mingo <>   Now or never season off to poor start w/ knee injury
Nate Orchard <>   Fundamental but not impressively athletic
Lorenzo Mauldin <>   Won’t surprise if he jumps many of players listed here by end of 2015
Za’Darius Smith <>   Gets to develop behind Suggs/Doom this year
Dee Ford <>   Not giving up on him yet

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.