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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 ^^^ 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

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, Malcolm Smith, 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 are 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 six LB3 talents w/ projectable upside. Generally, a small handful of players in the tier jumper group move up into these categories, too. That means I see 50+ players I could make a strong argument will put up top 20 caliber fantasy production. Some will be more consistent than others. That's 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 Denzel Perryman, Preston Brown, Jordan Hicks, Darron Lee, Deion Jones, Tahir Whitehead and Will Compton. 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 Zach Orr or Sio Moore or Devon Kennard or Blake Martinez or 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.

PLAYERTRENDADPADDED BIG PLAY VALUECONTEXT
Luke Kuechly       Has more competition in elite tier but still arguably safest IDP on draft board
NaVorro Bowman       118 solos last year w/ another year of huge opportunity coming
C.J. Mosley       Entering prime and competition for tackles drops w/ Smith in TB
Lavonte David       Solos down last year but peripheral stats remained strong
DeAndre Levy       Cleared for contact in mini-camp; healthy and w/o serious competition for tackles
Derrick Johnson       Rock solid and showing no signs of slowing down

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. 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. His competition for tackles is among the worst in the league -- Manti Te'o (a solid player without elite range), Jahleel Addae, and Dwight Lowery.

PLAYERTRENDADPADDED BIG PLAY VALUECONTEXT
D'Qwell Jackson       Have concerns (age, range) but durable and productive w/ weak surrounding cast
Jamie Collins       Has 80+/8+ solo/sack upside and playing for big contract
Alec Ogletree       Top 5 upside w/ move to MLB, potential for new stat crew could boost assist count
Vontaze Burfict       Elite fantasy production but durability and knucklehead factor keeps him here
Kiko Alonso       MIA to move him inside, could be 100+ solos if knee holds up
Sean Lee       Scheme is perfect fit but durability is significant concern
Telvin Smith       Nearly 100 solos & impressive big play stats but opportunity likely to decrease
Bobby Wagner       Deserves to be in elite tier but home stat crew killing his statistical upside
Denzel Perryman       57 solos and 2 sacks in 386 snaps -- deserves more offseason attention
Deone Bucannon       Successful at ILB last year w/ room for more big play upside
Lawrence Timmons       Has become more consistent over time; elite all-around upside
Brandon Marshall       Little competition for tackles and opportunity should increase this year
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

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.

PLAYERTRENDADPADDED BIG PLAY VALUECONTEXT
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
Ryan Shazier       Threat for 8-10 solos and a sack every week but durability and instincts are limiting
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
Mychal Kendricks       Still waiting for that 95+ solo / 6 sack season he's capable of
Darron Lee       Jets only front capable of keeping him clean to make plays
Mark Barron       Free to flow and chase in LA front seven
Avery Williamson       Ascended quickly w/ LeBeau's blessing, will be best option on TEN depth chart
Deion Jones       Question the fit at MLB, no question about opportunity in ATL

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 these two players. I think Paul Posluszny and Jerrell Freeman 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.

PLAYERTRENDADPADDED BIG PLAY VALUECONTEXT
Paul Posluszny       Opportunity trending down and competition trending up, no lock to play every down
Jerrell Freeman       Range isn't there any longer but good opportunity in CHI

TIER 2C | RUSH / BIG PLAY LB2

I was surprised Khalil Mack was listed at linebacker last year. It was a blow to what would have been a stud fantasy season, but his 57-20-15 was still good enough for a Top 20 finish in tackle-heavy leagues. Chandler Jones will move back to linebacker and should be 1A to Mack. 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.

PLAYERTRENDADPADDED BIG PLAY VALUECONTEXT
Khalil Mack       Sacks caught up w/ pressures last year, 59 and 57 solos in first two seasons
Chandler Jones       Has been productive in rush OLB role in past, will work well w/ Campbell
Melvin Ingram       Quietest 50-10 season ever in 2015 and still getting better
Von Miller       Tackle numbers need to come up but upside keeps him in this tier
Jerry Hughes       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).

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. 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 if he seizes the opportunity and wins a subpackage role this summer, he will vault up multiple tiers.

PLAYERTRENDADPADDED BIG PLAY VALUECONTEXT
Tahir Whitehead       Whitehead in line for every-down MLB job w/ Tulloch likely to be released
Benardrick McKinney       Ceiling in every-down ILB role is huge -- still not certain he'll play or succeed in subs
Anthony Barr       Rare SLB w/ 70-10 upside; lot of weekly variance likely
Stephone Anthony       Move to SLB limits upside unless Saints scheme to keep him free to flow
Sam Barrington       GB ILB situation remains messy; could be LB2+ if healthy and playing every down
Ben Heeney       Depth chart and opportunity driving his value; will have to prove himself capable

TIER 3B | HIGH FLOOR LB3

I'll move James Laurinaitis up into the High Floor LB2 tier if he's still an every-down player in August. Will Compton will make the same jump if Washington doesn't force Mason Foster into an every-down role again. I'd like to push Rolando McClain higher, but there's too many durability and knucklehead factors to ignore. With so many other options with similar floors and higher upside, McClain isn't worth the risk.

PLAYERTRENDADPADDED BIG PLAY VALUECONTEXT
David Harris       Value depends on how much competition Lee and Pryor provide
James Laurinaitis       Projecting him to play every down but not a given
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
Will Compton       Expected to win every-down inside linebacker job
Rolando McClain       Could move up if cements every-down role
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 pulled into the gas station with Preston Smith. Roster him now and watch him closely in early August.

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.

PLAYERTRENDADPADDED BIG PLAY VALUECONTEXT
Preston Smith       Has all-around upside to become every week starter if increases tackle count
Bruce Irvin       Another upside bet w/ chance to get to 45-50 solos and double digit sacks
Clay Matthews       Moving back outside and has 40-10 upside
Ryan Kerrigan       Team says they'll let him pass rush more this year
Vic Beasley       Falcons putting multiple talents in goofy linebacker roles
Terrell Suggs       Returning from Achilles surgery, likely situational only
Jadeveon Clowney       Sky remains the limit if explosiveness returns after microfracture surgery
Robert Mathis       Never seems to age but tackle counts aren't there anymore
Jerry Attaochu       Not far behind Ingram in quiet 2015 breakout
Aaron Lynch       Pass rush opportunity limited by lack of snaps playing w/ lead in SF

TIER JUMPERS

I'll keep this simple. Sell Keenan Robinson and Jelani Jenkins now. Don't overpay for Reggie Ragland. Take end-of-roster flyers on Sio Moore, Sean Spence, and Zachary Orr. Watch for continued indications that DeVondre Campbell has a line on an every-down weak side linebacker role. Cross your fingers Devon Kennard progresses enough to force the Giants to scrap their rotation this year.

PLAYERTRENDADPADDED BIG PLAY VALUECONTEXT
Justin Houston       Still unclear whether will recover from ACL/LCL injury in time for regular season
Myles Jack       Career length may be an issue but looks healthy for rookie season, role yet unknown
Keenan Robinson       Durability concerns and may already be losing ground in every-down MLB competition
Donta' Hightower       Could be elite fantasy player if role, health, consistency all dovetail in same season
Jelani Jenkins       Likely every-down weak side linebacker but tackle competition is high
Sio Moore       Will play in subs next to Jackson and has chance to win base snaps over Irving
Sean Spence       LeBeau favorite who may win every-down job over Woodyard
Zachary Orr       Ahead of Arthur Brown in competition to play alongside Mosley
Reggie Ragland       Won't play in subpackages but worth watching as between-the-tackles tackle monster
Karlos Dansby       Could have nice value if plays every-down while Burfict suspended
Todd Davis       Early favorite to play next to Marshall, needs every-down opportunity for stats
Devondre Campbell       Falcons planning to play Jones inside leaving opening at Will
Christian Kirksey       Browns have Schobert and Wright to challenge for snaps next to Davis
Devon Kennard       To play on strong side but could be best all-around linebacker on NYG depth chart
Stephen Tulloch       Still in DET after early offseason reports of release, value will be w/ another team
Jake Ryan       Wide open depth chart once again in GB, will have to beat out Martinez

DYNASTY STASH

This tier is going to be more in flux this year than usual. It starts with Su'a Cravens, who doesn't have a linebacker jersey but has been seeing offseason reps as a subpackage linebacker only. It may result in a linebacker designation that's very difficult to take advantage of in 2016 due to a relatively limited snap count and upside expectation in a very deep group of prospects.

Scooby Wright and Joe Schobert will make things very interesting in Cleveland. Blake Martinez is already impressing in Green Bay. B.J. Goodson has a wide open depth chart in front of him in New York. And the back half of this group all have the potential to force themselves into starting conversations by midseason 2017.

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 LBTRENDADPADDED BIG PLAY VALUECONTEXT
Su'a Cravens       WAS gave him safety jersey but working exclusively at subpackage LB
Jaylon Smith       Elite tier talent in attractive scheme but career in doubt w/ likely 2017 ETA
Shaq Thompson       Could begin seeing subpackage snaps over Davis in transition to future
Scooby Wright       May not have enough athleticism to play on Sunday but upside to monitor
Blake Martinez       Chance at subpackage snaps immediately in GB
B.J. Goodson       Latest in a long line of third day draft picks for the Giants
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 LBTRENDADPADDED BIG PLAY VALUECONTEXT
Bud Dupree       Unbelievable explosion off edge, will be superstar if puts together
Shaq Lawson       Shoulder injury will cost valuable developmental time but long term value stable
ZaDarius Smith       5.5 sacks last season in 407 snaps, more refined pass rusher than Dupree
Leonard Floyd       Needs to develop as pass rusher to become more football player than athlete
Lorenzo Mauldin       Open depth chart for a pass rusher in NY behind strong line
Emmanuel Ogbah       Cleveland tabbed as pass rusher of future, development needed
Kevin Dodd       Will work behind veterans Orakpo and Morgan this year
Kyler Fackrell       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.