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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 2016 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 UP for those players making a move up in my tiers and DOWN 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.

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

This season should be a blast.

For those new to IDP leagues, this is how the linebacker pool used to look. A deep group of stud talent on top, an even deeper group of younger talent ready to emerge into headlining roles, and a few interesting names changing teams and roles. This is why the long-held default line -- "linebackers are the lifeblood of fantasy football" -- was put forth as gospel. Of course, it's also why the last 2-3 seasons of big injuries and changing subpackage roles and platoons were so frustrating. 

So, enjoy it.

Navigating this group of linebackers should be easy this year. There's so much upside here that everyone should like their fantasy roster heading into Week 1. But you'll have many opportunities to separate yourself with good preparation during training camp and the early weeks of the season. As they always are, snap counts and tackle opportunity will be important. Make a point to consider your roster construction carefully here, however.

I see three equally valuable paths this year. There will be more than enough players in each tier to fit every taste of roster management.

Conservative Path: Exclusively choose high floor players from each tier. A roster of Derrick Johnson, Lawrence Timmons, Brandon Marshall, Will Compton, and Demario Davis should be easy pickings. That's just one example. Start your draft strategy a little earlier and you could get Lavonte David and DeAndre Levy as your headliners and still get Johnson a little later.

Every draft will be different, of course, but you get the idea.  Let your leaguemates take shots on higher variance options like Ryan Shazier and Darron Lee and Denzel Perryman -- all players I like to do well, by the way -- and sit back and enjoy your steady above-league-average production.

Value Path: These tiers are going to change before the end of training camp. But the first set of tiers is the foundation for any tweaks over the coming months. I'm tiering six players as elite LB1, 14 players as having elite LB1 upside, 18 players with LB2 value, and another seven LB3 talents w/ projectable upside. Some will be more consistent than others. But that's 45 players w/ top 20 upside -- a huge number.

So, why not wait and let the draft come to you. Stockpile the best value at every position after round 6. It's going to be impossible to find yourself on the wrong side of a linebacker run this year. Do a mock draft or two and check your tiers. If you get fussy when a particular linebacker misses you, move him up a tier and draft him sooner.

Fun Path: Fantasy football is fun. If you love being ahead of the curve on the Bobby Wagners and Justin Houstons of the NFL, take this path. If you love it when your league types in "WTF?" in the chat or says "Not on my list" while flipping through a four month old magazine, take this path.

This is the perfect year for this strategy. Draft Deone Bucannon, Denzel Perryman, Ryan Shazier, Preston Brown, Jordan Hicks, Blake Martinez,  and Tahir Whitehead. Stash Myles Jack. Maybe Bucannon gets a Top 15 ADP. Maybe Perryman gets enough hype to crack the Top 20. But all of these players can be had for much, much less than their upside expectation. It's the value path on steroids. If it doesn't work out exactly to plan, no worries. If you gravitate toward this plan, you already know the back half of these tiers and the rest of the ascending talent pool well. You'll be comfortable moving on any number of other players who emerge.

In the defensive line strategy section, I wrote that I didn't have a clear draft strategy this season. The tiers to follow are why. You're going to find talent just about everywhere this year. Injuries and irrational coaching and variance are always in play, but you should expect to have a good draft this year. In the past, having a good feel for the defensive values during the preseason was key. It will be again this year. 

But your roster management over the first month of the season will be more critical than usual. Some of these players will bust. Some of them will look like busts but won't be. Some of them will look like studs but be fool's gold. Get a sense of the expectation of most of the players on this list now. We'll be watching very closely during training camp and preseason games and again during the first 2-3 games to steer you in the best directions.


TIER 1 | ELITE LB1

Not much to be written here. These names are standard, with the possible exception of DeAndre Levy. I think Levy will show no ill effects of the hip surgery this preseason and his competition for tackles is weaker than ever. The scheme isn't the same as it was when he put up 117 solos in Detroit, but it's not unfavorable for him. I've had Derrick Johnson in this tier forever and he's not leaving until he drops off the Keith Bulluck cliff. I'm willing to take the risk -- again -- that 2016 isn't the end of his stellar play.

PLAYERTRENDADDED BIG PLAY VALUECONTEXT
Luke Kuechly     Has more competition in elite tier but still arguably safest IDP on draft board
NaVorro Bowman   XXX 118 solos last year w/ another year of huge opportunity coming
Lavonte David     Solos down last year but peripheral stats remained strong
C.J. Mosley   XXX Entering prime and competition for tackles drops w/ Smith in TB
Derrick Johnson   XXX Rock solid and showing no signs of slowing down
DeAndre Levy UP   Finally activated off NFI, elite option if proves healthy

TIER 1A | ELITE LB1 UPSIDE

It pains me to have Bobby Wagner, Deone Bucannon, and Eric Kendricks in the back half of this tier. But even though these players are ranked in relative order of preference, there's no back half of this tier. This isn't the Risk-Reward LB2 tier or the Upside LB3 tier. I believe every one of these players has top 5-10 upside.

So, think of this tier as an old dot matrix printer that would sometimes catch and print over what it had already printed and make it impossible to read what you'd written. Look at this as 14 elite upside linebackers all printed on the same line.

Denzel Perryman absolutely belongs here. I think he'll see more hype as the preseason progresses, but highlight him on your list. If you're in a casual league, make sure he's your LB4 or LB5. If you're in a more competitive league, he's the type of player you grab in the LB15-25 range if you've chosen to slough linebackers an extra round or three. Perryman put up 57 solos in 386 snaps last year. That's an unsustainably good rate. But the Chargers finished with the 6th fewest tackle opportunities in the league. Although the Chargers were a much better defense than given credit, that's likely unsustainably bad. And Perryman's competition for tackles is among the worst in the league -- Manti Te'o (a solid player without elite range), Jahleel Addae, and Dwight Lowery.

PLAYERTRENDADDED BIG PLAY VALUECONTEXT
Alec Ogletree     Top 5 upside w/ move to MLB, potential for new stat crew could boost assist count
Jamie Collins   XXX Has 80+/8+ solo/sack upside and playing for big contract
D'Qwell Jackson     Have concerns (age, range) but durable and productive w/ weak surrounding cast
Telvin Smith     Nearly 100 solos & impressive big play stats but opportunity likely to decrease
Denzel Perryman     57 solos and 2 sacks in 322 snaps -- deserves more offseason attention
Sean Lee     Scheme is perfect fit but durability is significant concern
Brandon Marshall     Little competition for tackles and opportunity should increase this year
Kiko Alonso     MIA to move him inside; could be 100+ solos if knee holds up
Bobby Wagner     Deserves to be in elite tier but home stat crew killing his statistical upside
Deone Bucannon     Successful at ILB last year w/ room for more big play upside
Lawrence Timmons   XXX Has become more consistent over time, elite all-around upside
Eric Kendricks     Looks underrated at the back end of deep and impressive tier
Danny Trevathan     Should be back in every-down role w/ good opportunity in CHI
Vontaze Burfict     Elite fantasy production but durability and knucklehead factor keep him here

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 one player 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 his 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 well as possible.


THOUGHTS ON TIER 2

The three arms of this tier are not as deep as usual this year, but for a different reason than in recent years. 2016 looks like a banner year for linebackers. I have more names in the top tiers than I can ever remember. That makes this group a little lighter. You'll essentially be drafting all of these players in the same rounds as usual. But you'll hopefully be getting more consistent production from them.

TIER 2A | RISK-REWARD LB2

I can't help it this year. I like everyone. I feel like I'm underrating Preston Brown, Jordan Hicks, and a handful of others in this group by giving them a relative ranking in the mid-20s or lower. But this is again where the tier process is better. All of these players have earned Reward LB2 status, which means Top 15 or better upside for me. Every player in this tier could hit 90 solo tackles without the benefit of an unexpectedly good break or two.

PLAYERTRENDADDED BIG PLAY VALUECONTEXT
Ryan Shazier     Threat for 8-10 solos and a sack every week but durability and instincts are limiting
Malcolm Smith     Loss of Lofton may require him to shed more blocks but has elite tier upside
Preston Brown     Will play weak inside every down role in front of lots of favorable stat crews
Demario Davis     Target rich environment w/ weak supporting cast
Jordan Hicks     May be over-projection given strong supporting cast but has elite upside
Kwon Alexander     Hard to find elite upside w/ strong DT group and David making plays around him
Mark Barron     Free to flow and chase in LA front seven
Mychal Kendricks DOWN   Still waiting for that 95+ solo / 6 sack season he's capable of
Avery Williamson     Ascended quickly w/ LeBeau's blessing, will be best option on TEN depth chart
Deion Jones     Has yet to formally win MLB job, but will have every-down opportunity when he does

TIER 2B | HIGH FLOOR LB2

Maybe it's the optimistic side of me, but I see upside everywhere right now. I'm relatively down on Paul Posluszny and Jerrell Freeman, who are showing signs of decline and are stuck in the middle of multiple other good tacklers. While still valuable enough to be considered LB2 options, I'm more likely to draft players from riskier tiers. And the groups above are deep enough to ensure I've drafted three or four players before I consider Posluszny or Freeman.

PLAYERTRENDADDED BIG PLAY VALUECONTEXT
Paul Posluszny     Opportunity trending down and competition trending up
Jerrell Freeman     Range isn't there any longer but good opportunity in CHI
Donta' Hightower   XXX Could be elite fantasy player if role, health, consistency all dovetail in same season
Will Compton UP   Well ahead of competition and will start season as every-down ILB

TIER 2C | RUSH / BIG PLAY LB2

I was surprised Khalil Mack was listed at linebacker last year. It's looking very unlikely that will be the case this year, with MyFantasyLeague now likely to move him to defensive end. If he's a linebacker in your league management system, he belongs atop this tier. Chandler Jones will move back to linebacker and assumes the top rush linebacker slot with Mack now at defensive end. Melvin Ingram is hard to tout as the next Cameron Wake, Justin Houston, or Khalil Mack after a 10 sack season, but he's likely to be underappreciated in this tier and available rounds later than Von Miller.

PLAYERTRENDADDED BIG PLAY VALUECONTEXT
Chandler Jones   XXX Has been productive in rush OLB role in past, will work well w/ Campbell
Melvin Ingram   XXX Quietest 50-10 season ever in 2015 and still getting better
Von Miller   XXX Tackle numbers need to come up but upside keeps him in this tier
Jerry Hughes   XXX First broke out as OLB, tackle numbers make him risk at bottom of this tier

THOUGHTS ON TIER 3 AND BEYOND

As usual, there are lots of intriguing names in the Upside LB3 and Tier Jumper groups here. Many of them will move into more attractive LB2 and above tiers as training camp settles the debate on starting units and subpackage roles. If you're in a dynasty league, these are the types of players to stash or make cheap plays to acquire (or move if you're holding onto players with higher than current value like Stephone Anthony or Keenan Robinson -- if you still can).

TIER 3A | UPSIDE LB3

Tahir Whitehead is going to be pushed as a high-upside target this preseason. I don't necessarily disagree -- he's going to be the every-down middle linebacker in Detroit. But he's been a multi-year journeyman for a reason. Despite a number of 50-60+ snap games over the past two seasons, he's had more than five solos in only three games. And he'll have a healthy DeAndre Levy playing next to him. Be careful before betting on him as more than a solid LB2/LB3. I don't see 100 solo upside here.

Last year, I caught a little flack for arguing against Benardrick McKinney as a rookie with big upside. His tape didn't show a thumper between the tackles or a player likely to succeed in coverage. In no way is McKinney the next NaVorro Bowman (who looked like a skinny flow-and-chase player on tape but was something entirely different late in his rookie season when replacing an injured Takeo Spikes) but he showed signs of "getting it" last year. His play against the run improved as the season progressed. Of his 35 solos, nearly one-third came on passing plays. Offseason stories about his improvement and expectations from his coaching staff were too specific to be merely fluff. He still has to prove himself in coverage, but there's top 20 upside here.

PLAYERTRENDADDED BIG PLAY VALUECONTEXT
Tahir Whitehead     Locked into every-down MLB job
Blake Martinez UP   Emerging as lone every-down ILB in GB
Ben Heeney     Depth chart and opportunity driving his value, will have to prove himself capable
Benardrick McKinney     Ceiling in every-down ILB role is huge -- still not certain he'll play or succeed in subs
Anthony Barr   XXX Rare SLB w/ 70-10 upside, lot of weekly variance likely
Jelani Jenkins     Likely every-down weak side linebacker but tackle competition is high
Devondre Campbell UP   Falcons planning to play Jones inside leaving opening at Will

TIER 3B | HIGH FLOOR LB3

There are a few new names in this tier, but nothing groundbreaking. James Laurinaitis and (arguably) Anthony Hitchens may belong in the High Floor LB2 tier. Dannell Ellerbe and Sam Barrington are draftable now, but may not be starters for their respective teams for long.

PLAYERTRENDADDED BIG PLAY VALUECONTEXT
David Harris     High floor option w/ favorable stat crew schedule
James Laurinaitis     Playing every down thus far in preseason
Thomas Davis     Hard not to project yet another 75 solo and multiple sack season
Manti Te'o     Fundamentally sound but not dynamic, low variance play w/ good floor
Kevin Minter     Finally worked his way into 800+ snaps last year but competition for tackles everywhere
Anthony Hitchens UP   Will play every-down MLB w/ McClain suspended
Karlos Dansby     Playing every down while Burfict suspended, will have some big weeks
Dannell Ellerbe UP   Playing in subpackages over Anthony in the preseason
Sam Barrington UP   Now off PUP, will play in base and nickel, sit in dime
Brian Cushing     May not be athletic enough to challenge for elite numbers anymore
K.J. Wright     Much better football player than box score filler

MATCHUP RUSH LB

Every year I'm asked for a player likely to make the leap to pass rushing stardom. My track record has been good, thankfully, with Cameron Wake, Justin Houston, Khalil Mack, and others making fantasy owners look good. I've got Melvin Ingram up in the Rush LB2 tier but, as noted in that discussion, he's already made it statistically. I'm not ready to drive a bandwagon just yet, but I've now pulled out of the gas station with Preston Smith, turned up the music, and about the hit the highway on ramp.

I'd love to push Vic Beasley here. But the Falcons seem clueless on what to do with him. The current plan would appear to be: Run him into blockers and drop him into coverage on early downs, then move him around the formation on passing downs. That's workable, but won't pad his tackle numbers and will limit his pass rushing numbers on early downs. I'm hoping for something different in training camp.

PLAYERTRENDADDED BIG PLAY VALUECONTEXT
Preston Smith   XXX Has all-around upside to become every week starter if increases tackle count
Bruce Irvin   XXX Another upside bet w/ chance to get to 45-50 solos and double digit sacks
Clay Matthews   XXX Moving back outside and has 40-10 upside
Ryan Kerrigan   XXX Team says they'll let him pass rush more this year
Vic Beasley   XXX Falcons putting multiple talents in goofy linebacker roles
Terrell Suggs   XXX Returning from Achilles surgery, likely situational only
Jadeveon Clowney   XXX Sky remains the limit if explosiveness returns after microfracture surgery

Moving Out

I had offseason hopes for many of these players, but their value is dropping precipitously. Stephone Anthony and Sio Moore must remain on watch lists and no one in keeper/dynasty leagues should drop Justin Houston. The rest are standard waiver wire fare now.

PLAYERTRENDADDED BIG PLAY VALUECONTEXT
Stephone Anthony DOWN   Move to SLB and not playing in subpackages will kill his statistical upside
Justin Houston DOWN XXX Likely to start season on PUP list, may not fully recover in 2016
Zachary Orr DOWN   Competing w/ Correa for ILB job but likely to survive competiont
Christian Kirksey DOWN   Average talent but no one mounting challenge to every-down duty
Keenan Robinson DOWN   Now second team weak side linebacker on a messy depth chart
Sio Moore DOWN   Hamstring injury in preseason underlines durability concern
Todd Davis DOWN   Will play in base and nickel but not in dime package
Devon Kennard DOWN   To play on strong side but could be best all-around linebacker on Giants' depth chart
Stephen Tulloch DOWN   Signed by PHI and will backup Jordan Hicks at MLB for now
Jake Ryan DOWN   Injured and now behind Martinez and Barrington in ILB pecking order

DYNASTY STASH

Obviously, no dynasty league of any worth should have Myles Jack, Su'a Cravens, or Darron Lee on the free agent list. But none are viable redraft options yet. Jack is very close, however.

I'm hoping for the best for Jaylon Smith, but he's not playing this year. Right now, you need to see him run without any signs of nerve damage in his lower leg. As long as he's still in a brace to prevent foot drop -- and he still was in mid-June -- he's got no chance of returning to the field.

We are going to find out if Bud Dupree can put it together this year. It's probably unfair to continue to list him as a stash only, but the explosive first steps can only take you so far against smart and athletic offensive tackles. He's at the top of my list of players to check in on during the first two weeks of the preseason.

OFF-BALL LBTRENDADDED BIG PLAY VALUECONTEXT
Myles Jack     Jags see as long term MLB, has small chance to displace Posluszny this year
Su'a Cravens     Working w/ backups at ILB, hasn't cracked subpackage rotation yet
Darron Lee DOWN   May finally be gaining on Henderson
Jaylon Smith     Elite tier talent in attractive scheme but best case ETA 2017 w/ career still in doubt
Shaq Thompson     Could begin seeing subpackage snaps over Davis in transition to future
Sean Spence     LeBeau favorite who may win every-down job over Woodyard
Reggie Ragland DOWN   Was very impressive early in camp but ACL injury pushes debut back to 2017
Scooby Wright DOWN   May not have enough athleticism to play on Sunday but upside to monitor
B.J. Goodson     Latest in a long line of third day draft picks for the Giants
Kamalei Correa UP   Used at ILB through much of OTA and minicamp workouts
Joe Schobert     Browns saying Schobert could get looks at ILB
Jatavis Brown     Keep him on your watch list in the hopes SD transitions to safety
Kentrell Brothers     Long term watch behind Greenway in MIN
Josh Perry     Like the measurables but needs to be more physical, buried on SD depth chart for now
Nick Vigil     Fundamentally sound talent who could challenge for snaps in CIN
       
EDGE LB TREND ADDED BIG PLAY VALUE CONTEXT
Bud Dupree   XXX Unbelievable explosion off edge, will be superstar if puts together
Shaq Lawson   XXX Shoulder injury will cost valuable developmental time but long term value stable
ZaDarius Smith UP XXX 5.5 sacks last season in 407 snaps, more refined pass rusher than Dupree
Leonard Floyd   XXX Needs to develop as pass rusher to become more football player than athlete
Lorenzo Mauldin   XXX Open depth chart for a pass rusher in NY behind strong line
Emmanuel Ogbah   XXX Cleveland tabbed as pass rusher of future, development needed
Kevin Dodd   XXX Will work behind veterans Orakpo and Morgan this year
Kyler Fackrell   XXX Developmental prospect w/ upside in Green Bay

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.