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Reading the Defense: Linebacker Tiers

Updated tiers and strategy on 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.

Note 4: I've added a column to note which players have added big play value. Refer to this article on big play strategy to get a sense of just how much these players should move up in your own tiers.

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.

PLAYERTRENDADPADDED BIG PLAY VALUECONTEXT
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.

After rewriting an old sack-heavy scoring strategy article this week, I realized I'd been shorting Justin Houston and Clay Matthews in balanced systems. Both are more than good enough to belong in the LB1 conversation.

PLAYERTRENDADPADDED BIG PLAY VALUECONTEXT
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   Achilles injury seems well behind him and will again be every-down ILB anchor
Jamie Collins <> LB9 XX 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
Clay Matthews ^^^ LB39 XX Will be inside linebacker on base downs and pass rusher in subpackages; 70-10 possible
Justin Houston ^^^ LB15 XX 50-14 floor good enough to consider in LB1 tier in all leagues

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 Jerod Mayo, 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 was the big mover last week. 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. 

This week, it's Christian Jones (easily the best mix of talent and opportunity on the Chicago depth chart), Curtis Lofton (now a lock to play every down), and Stephone Anthony (has won the starting middle linebacker job) as those moving up into LB2+ range.

PLAYERTRENDADPADDED BIG PLAY VALUECONTEXT
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
Preston Brown <> LB26   Will play MLB in Ryan's Over-Under fronts
Christian Jones ^^^ LB68   May miss a dime snap now and then but looking strong early in camp
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
Curtis Lofton ^^^ LB22   Very likely to be every-down middle linebacker w/ Moore still recovering
Telvin Smith <> LB16   Burst onto scene in nickel role and kept momentum as every-down linebacker
Stephone Anthony ^^^ LB32   Has won starting middle linebacker job and should play every down
Avery Williamson <> LB51   Widening gap over Brown now and will have high opportunity
Nigel Bradham <> LB29   BUF defense may limit its own opportunity; competition high w/ Brown
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 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.

PLAYERTRENDADPADDED BIG PLAY VALUECONTEXT
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
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; now recovered from ACL tear

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. Earlier this summer, we definitely had one -- 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.

PLAYERTRENDADPADDED BIG PLAY VALUECONTEXT
Von Miller <> LB36   Phillips’ scheme may drop tackle numbers slightly but 50-12 upside remains
Ryan Kerrigan <> LB49   Strong enough to separate from matchup rush LB 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've moved two players to a higher tier this week (Stephone Anthony, Christian Jones) and dropped two down from higher tiers (Zach Brown, Eric Kendricks). But the highlight here this week is the appearance of rookie Kwon Alexander, who was promoted and now in line to start at middle linebacker in Tampa Bay. It's a decent fit for Alexander, who's undersized but physical. If Lovie Smith decides to trust him in subpackages -- and I think he will -- Alexander belongs here. Otherwise, he'll be moved back down to a priority stash spot in dynasty leagues.

PLAYERTRENDADPADDED BIG PLAY VALUECONTEXT
Ryan Shazier <> LB25   Tomlin wants him at ILB and expects Timmons-like development
Kwon Alexander ^^^     Promoted to starting MLB in base and has a shot to play every down
Sean Weatherspoon <> LB45   Great opportunity in ARI but was already slowing down before Achilles injury
Zach Brown vvv LB58   Fundamental issues look to be continuing but high volume may offset
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
Eric Kendricks vvv LB24   Needs to start working in base over Cole soon to have early season value
Devon Kennard <> LB73   Reports grow more promising by day; currently SLB in base and earning nickel snaps
Manti Te’o <> LB67   Think we’ll see him play every down this year; will move into higher tier if confirmed
Sio Moore vvv LB42   Missed another week of practice and losing ground to Smith
Kelvin Sheppard <>     MIA giving him every opportunity to win MLB job; could play every down
Gerald Hodges ^^^     Probably out w/ Barr ready to return but watch for battle with Greenway this week
Malcolm Smith ^^^     Leading WLB battle by TKO currently and playing every down
Daryl Washington <> LB63   If re-instated will be suspended again for multiple games; a roster hold but do not draft

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.

PLAYERTRENDADPADDED BIG PLAY VALUECONTEXT
Daryl Smith <> LB38   Assist counts preserved some value last season; age and Mosley limiting factors
Donald Butler ^^^ LB88   Reported to camp in shape and motivated; playing every down in early practices
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
Shea McClellin ^^^     Cementing himself ahead of Bostic and Foster and will see good opportunity
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
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   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

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.

PLAYERTRENDADPADDED BIG PLAY VALUECONTEXT
Connor Barwin <> LB59 XX Expect some regression from last season’s elite numbers
Terrell Suggs <> LB75 XX Second half 2014 better than first half but not consistent enough to consider elite
DeMarcus Ware <> LB61 XX Can’t project him over 45 solos so he slips back into matchup tier
Paul Kruger <> LB89 XX 12 sacks and solid pressure numbers have me reconsidering him here
Trent Cole <> LB100 XX May be underrating him here; will have less competition for tackles and good rush volume
Pernell McPhee <> LB97 XX Don’t see 50-10 upside as primary rush OLB option in CHI
Brandon Graham <> LB62 XX Not the type of freedom I hoped for him; has to scale per snap numbers to bigger role
Junior Galette <> LB106 XX Now with stronger front seven in WAS and won\'t see many double teams
Brian Orakpo <> LB96 XX Lack of durability has killed his value but there’s still upside here
Elvis Dumervil <> LB104 XX 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

DYNASTY STASH

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

OFF-BALL LBTRENDADPADDED BIG PLAY VALUECONTEXT
Shaq Thompson <>     No clear path to every-down role yet; safety snaps not entirely out of question
Jake Ryan <> LB90   Not ready for a base defensive ILB role yet
Paul Dawson <> LB87   CIN won't push a rookie into lineup over vets like Lamur and Rey and Hawk
Benardrick McKinney <> LB46   No camp buzz whatsoever; HOU plans to ease him into every-down role
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 LBTRENDADPADDED BIG PLAY VALUECONTEXT
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.