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Reading the Defense: Linebacker Tiers [Post NFL Draft Update]

Updating the linebacker tiers after the draft and as OTA season begins

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 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'm also including 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'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 later this summer. 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 three every-down linebackers to start.

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 over 100 players I could see earning a place in my August tiers. There are 25 linebackers with a shot to finish in the top ten and a LB3+ floor. There are many who may move up from the risk-reward tiers if they look good this summer. 

Some of those who have a place in these May tiers will drop out of the rosterable range after 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.

With the relatively poor fantasy depth in the DL tiers and the expected strong depth at linebacker, I'm advocating 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. Kuechly and David remain in the prime of their career and are the safest bets at this position. I've added Bowman to this tier after he quietly and successfully returned to the field during the first San Francisco OTAs.

PLAYER TREND ADP CONTEXT
Luke Kuechly <>   Fundamental high tackle option w/ big play value
Lavonte David <>   Tampa system boosts already elite statistical upside
NaVorro Bowman ^^^   Participation in voluntary minicamp a good sign for full recovery

TIER 1A | ELITE LB1 UPSIDE

This tier has it all. Established veterans, talented players recovering from serious injury, young players who look likely to produce for years to come, and older players who should still have a strong season left in their tanks. However, there's something in the profile of each player that worries me. It's a small worry, but enough to keep each out of the above tier, which represents those players I believe have elite upside and a top ten floor.

PLAYER TREND ADP CONTEXT
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
Jamie Collins <>   Return of Mayo means more competition for tackles; offset by big play upside
Paul Posluszny <>   31 yrs old recovering from pectoral tear w/ more competition for tackles
Karlos Dansby <>   Disappointing 2014 but opportunity knocks again this year
Bobby Wagner <>   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 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. The high risk and high floor player may "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. Unfortunately, it may be mid-August before roles are defined and depth charts are settled.

The 2B (High Floor LB2) and 2C (Rush LB2) tiers should remain straightforward and stable. But you should consider the bottom of the 2A (Risk-Reward LB2) and top of the 3A (Upside LB3) fluid right now. A number of the names in the Tier Jumper table will be in play here, too.

That's well over 30 players who could represent top 15-25 value this year. Quality and quantity.

TIER 2A | RISK-REWARD LB2

Don't get caught up on Jenkins atop this tier. It's a large group of players, but extremely close from top to bottom. And it's still early in the OTA process.

If Lee and Johnson look healthy early in camp, they'll move into the elite tiers. I've added both Bradham and Trevathan to this tier now. Bradham is now clearly an every-down player and more likely to play weak inside linebacker than Preston Brown. Trevathan will move up in preference after he proves he's in form and Wade Phillips confirms his usage. Brandon Marshall's Lisfranc surgery is an underreported story and could keep him out into the regular season.

PLAYER TREND ADP CONTEXT
Jelani Jenkins <>   Strong numbers as starter; marginal competition for tackles
Sean Lee <>   Cleared for OTAs but durability remains concern; elite upside w/ move to WLB
Mychal Kendricks <>   Inconsistency makes tough to slot in elite tier; now has Alonso to compete for tackles
Kiko Alonso <>   Felt he was over-valued before injury; will have more competition in PHI
Lawrence Timmons <>   Never seems to capitalize on tackle-sack upside; role under Butler TBD
Derrick Johnson <>   Vote of confidence after KC did not prioritize ILB in free agency or draft
Alec Ogletree <>   90 solos w/ good peripherals = strong floor; athletic enough to have shot at Top 10
Nigel Bradham ^^^   Now locked in as every-down starter; more likely to play WILB than Brown
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
Danny Trevathan ^^^   Healthier than Marshall; in line for every-down duty in favorable Phillips scheme

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 (if healthy) a tad, but I don't believe the talent or athletic ability equals the players in the 1A or 2A tiers.

PLAYER TREND ADP CONTEXT
Paul Worrilow <>   Nothing special but has elite opportunity; won’t fault anyone for slotting him higher
Keenan Robinson <>   Strong debut long time coming; loss of Haslett won’t hurt value
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 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. But 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 <>   Driving this bandwagon: 60 solos and (per PFF) 54 sacks/pressures in 2014 = look out
Clay Matthews ^^^   Packers waited until 4th to draft ILB; slots here only if dual duty again this year
Von Miller <>   Phillips’ scheme may drop tackle numbers slightly but 50-12 upside remains
Ryan Kerrigan <>   Reports of knee scope almost immediately after I finally put him in elite tier

thoughts on tier 3 and beyond

Unlike the second tier, I recommend drafting 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 include many 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.

2. Within each team subgroup, I've ranked prospective players by preference.

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

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 soon be lots of value in this group. By August, a small handful will move up to the LB2 tiers. I also expect quite a few players from the still messy Tier Jumper group to declare themselves as strong fantasy options.

PLAYER TREND ADP CONTEXT
Vontaze Burfict vvv   Would be elite tier option if not for multiple concussions and microfracture uncertainty
Preston Brown <>   Seems ticketed for SILB; just barely outside Risk-Reward tier
Ryan Shazier <>   Tomlin wants him at ILB and expects Timmons-like development
Eric Kendricks ^^^   Will get shot at every-down MLB job immediately
Daryl Smith <>   Assist counts preserved some value last season; age and Mosley limiting factors
Avery Williamson <>   Like narrowly over Zach Brown today but margin is razor thin
Zach Brown <>   Still have concerns w/ Brown’s consistency around the ball; likely to play every down
Sean Weatherspoon <>   Great opportunity in ARI but was already slowing down before Achilles injury
Brandon Marshall <>   Offseason Lisfranc surgery bigger issue than reported; may drop further soon
Sam Barrington <>   So-so talent but lock to start at ILB now w/ excellent chance at 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. If you feel strongly about a player in the tier jumper list, don't shy away from targeting him over all but the top 2-3 of 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
Anthony Barr <>   Room for more upside after Top 25 finish in balanced leagues last year
Koa Misi ^^^   Miami depth chart now favorable for every-down role here
David Harris <>   High floor option in Bowles’ defense
Thomas Davis <>   Impressive and resilient talent but upside limited next to Kuechly
Demario Davis <>   Has settled into good but not great tier; WILB role should be favorable
Perry Riley <>   Could lose snaps to Compton; favorable stat crew supports his floor
Mason Foster ^^^   Disappointment to date but running w/ first team early in voluntary workouts
K.J. Wright <>   Solid player limited by low volume of opportunity and strong surrounding cast
Curtis Lofton <>   Likely to start at MLB for OAK; no guarantee he plays every down
Anthony Hitchens <>   Won’t play MLB w/ McClain back but good chance at every-down role
Jon Beason <>   Multiple serious foot injuries mean big durability risk but Giants want him starting
Justin Durant <>   May move into higher tier this summer but durability is major concern
Michael Wilhoite <>   Back in conversation after Willis/Borland retirement but low ceiling

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 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
Mario Williams <>   Productive as OLB earlier in career but unlikely to be elite producer
Terrell Suggs <>   Second half 2014 better than first half but not consistent enough to consider elite
Demarcus Ware <>   Can’t project him over 45 solos so he slips back into matchup tier
Paul Kruger <>   12 sacks and solid pressure numbers have me reconsidering him here
Junior Galette <>   Already correctly re-classified to LB
Trent Cole <>   May be underrating him here; will have less competition for tackles and good rush volume
Pernell McPhee <>   Don’t see 50-10 upside as primary rush OLB option in CHI
Brandon Graham <>   Not the type of freedom I hoped for him; has to scale per snap numbers to bigger role
Elvis Dumervil <>   An option in very sack heavy scoring systems only
Aldon Smith <>   Could produce enough pass rush to be elite but worried about SF opportunity
Vic Beasley ^^^   Falcons will list Beasley as OLB despite plans to use him as LEO i.e. weak side DE
Derrick Morgan <>   Not sure I see high enough floor or ceiling to move higher
Brian Orakpo <>   Lack of durability has killed his value but there’s still upside here
Alex Okafor <>   Not convinced he has breakout potential but warrants mentioning
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

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. But, for now, there are many more teams with unsettled lineups than those with clear depth charts. And unlike past years, when I was comfortable one talented player would easily beat out another less talented player, many of this year's competitions will likely drag well into training camp.

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
Daryl Washington <>   If re-instated will be suspended again for multiple games; a roster hold but do not draft
Christian Jones <>   Needs development and was surprisingly running behind Foster/McClellin early
Jon Bostic <>   Improved last season but open ILB competition w/ Foster/Jones/McClellin
Chris Kirksey <>   Never broke into full time role despite earning Pettine’s praise
Bruce Carter <>   Early reports have him playing MLB; not a great fit and lots of tackle competition
Danny Lansanah <>   Still upside here; not convinced Carter sticks at MLB or has every-down role
Malcolm Smith <>   Give him narrow edge to start over Moore and play every down
Sio Moore <>   Still not cleared for contact and LB depth chart now crowded w/ options
Dont’a Hightower <>   Could slip into every-down role if Mayo isn’t ready
Chad Greenway <>   Just took pay cut to stay in MIN; stat trends not reassuring at all
Gerald Hodges <>   May see more playing time than expected if Greenway is on his way out
Stephone Anthony ^^^   Ticketed for every-down ILB role but unsure how quickly
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
Manti Te’o <>   Think we’ll see him play every down this year; will move into higher tier if confirmed
Denzel Perryman ^^^   Chargers want competition at ILB; waiting to hear if legit shot at starting
Donald Butler <>   Hard to see SD phasing him out completely given big recent contract
Josh Mauga <>   May be more here than I’m projecting if Johnson struggles to regain form
Jake Ryan ^^^   GB wants him as every-down ILB but will need some seasoning
Carl Bradford <>   Slim chance at value if Matthews kept at OLB and Ryan slow to win job
Rolando McClain <>   Brought back by Dallas but seems unlikely to play every down
Paul Dawson ^^^   Needs a big camp to join starting lineup if Burfict is healthy
A.J. Hawk <>   Outside shot at every-down OLB role
Rey Maualuga <>   Think Hawk (and Lamur and Dawson) are ahead of him on nickel depth chart
Benardrick McKinney ^^^   Texans plan to ease him into every-down role
Mike Mohamed <>   Competing for snaps but played in subpackages last year
J.T. Thomas ^^^   Early favorite to start at OLB for Giants and could stick in subpackages
Jameel McClain <>   NYG beat writers have Kennard and Thomas projected to start
Spencer Paysinger ^^^   Will have opportunity to beat out Misi for nickel snaps and play every down
Nick Moody <>   Doubtful to pass Wilhoite on depth chart but warrants observation

DYNASTY STASH

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

OFF-BALL LB TREND ADP CONTEXT
Shaq Thompson <>   No clear path to every-down role yet; safety snaps not entirely out of question
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
Devon Kennard <>   NYG signed two players to compete at OLB; rumors may see him as rotational rusher
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
Kyle Van Noy <>   Slim chance at every-down role in future; could have value if DET goes 3-4 front
Lamin Barrow <>   Still on my watch list but solely due to Elway’s praise after drafting him
Ramik Wilson <>   Limited upside but KC depth chart thin
Ben Heeney <>   Value muddled with crowded OAK depth chart but worth monitoring
Ty Powell <>   Next man up at ILB in Buffalo if Brown or Bradham injured
Jordan Tripp <>   Not a fan but MIA depth chart horrible; team liked Tripp last year
Mike Hull <>   UDFA with enough talent to make team and pass Tripp on depth chart in time
 
EDGE LB TREND ADP CONTEXT
Bud Dupree <>   Needs seasoning but first step and measurables too impressive to ignore
Jadeveon Clowney <>   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
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 <>   May step into near every down role w/ Saints immediately
Shane Ray <>   To develop behind Ware/Miller this year
Aaron Lynch <>   Has big play upside with some 2015 breakout potential
Barkevious Mingo <>   This is his now or never season
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