Rank lists and cheatsheets can be deceiving when they're presented without commentary. Our rankings have been vastly improved by staffer comments in recent seasons, but it's hard to see context in the consensus rankings and sheets. It's important 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 -- with or without commentary -- 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 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.
These tiers are based on 2013 expectation only and I'm basing positional classifications on the MFL database (which syncs to the Rotoworld depth charts). I have included a separate dynasty stash tier and discussion at the end of each positional article.
The Big Picture
The linebacker position is deep again this year. Unfortunately, despite my strong attraction for some of the LB2 and LB3 upside prospects, I'm less sure of their floor than in previous years. Injuries, inconsistent preseason play and the lack of clarity in some nickel competitions have me worried. So, unlike the past few seasons, I think I'd forego adding depth at wide receiver in the 9th or 10th round and make sure you add an elite linebacker.
Tier 1 - Elite LB1
I believe these are the three safest linebackers on the board. Kuechly thrived after moving to the middle last season and should continue to improve. His competition for tackles hasn't changed, making him a strong bet to again top 100 solos. Laurinaitis and Johnson have been steady, all-around producers and are durable. I anticipate elevating 2-3 players into this tier later this summer, but these three are locks to stick barring a preseason injury.
Tier 1A - Elite LB1 Upside
- D'Qwell Jackson
- NaVorro Bowman
- Bobby Wagner
- Sean Lee
- Patrick Willis
- Paul Posluszny
- Jerod Mayo
- Lawrence Timmons
- Daryl Washington
Washington's four game league suspension and subsequent legal troubles drop him to the bottom of this tier. Don't expect Washington to put up double digit sacks again. He won't see nearly as many blitz opportunties with Ray Horton moving onto Cleveland. The ripple effect of Horton's move also involves Jackson, who could move into the elite tier if the preseason shows that Horton will use Jackson as aggressviely as he did Washington.
I'm still nervous about Bowman. His role isn't ideal, he's got extreme competition for tackles from Willis, and the San Francisco defense is good enough to restrict their own tackle opportunity. I'm having a hard time keeping Lee and Wagner out of the elite tier. I think both are elite talents, but Lee's durability questions and the possibility that the Seattle defense could severely depress their own opportunity makes it tough to project Wagner to 100 solos.
There will be a lot of overlap in the straight 1-60 cheatsheet-style rank list of the players in the next five tiers. There are 12 players already tiered and more than 30 in the closely bunched tiers to follow. Every player in the next three tiers has LB2 upside or better. Any of them could be ranked well within my top 30 overall.
I realize that's confusing. When I translate these tiers to a straight rank list, I'm forced to decide exactly how much upside I think Lawrence Timmons or Demario Davis has this year. Depending on the day, I may feel that Timmons is clearly a better bet than Von Miller or Curtis Lofton. I may feel differently the following week. Even if I do feel differently and rank Timmons behind Lofton I may decide during a draft that I want the safest LB2 on my board (e.g. Wes Woodyard) or a high variance, high weekly upside play (e.g. Von Miller) to complement my current roster.
So I like lumping the next 30+ players into specific categories that show at a glance how I see a given player's risk profile and roster fit. I do this so that I don't forget during the draft that my LB34 isn't that different from my LB18. You should tailor your tiers and draft board to your own philosophy and specifications.
Tier 2A - Risk-Reward LB2
- Lavonte David
- Mychal Kendricks
- Brian Cushing
- Bruce Carter
- Zach Brown
- Brad Jones
- Sean Weatherspoon
- Arthur Brown
- Demario Davis
- Vontaze Burfict
Tier 2B - High Floor LB2
- Chad Greenway
- Wesley Woodyard
- London Fletcher
- Daryl Smith
- Nick Roach
- Dannell Ellerbe
- Donald Butler
- Jerrell Freeman
- Curtis Lofton
- Stephen Tulloch
Tier 2C - Rush LB2 / Big Play LB1
Here's the crux of why I'm concerned advising you to slough the linebacker position until 12-15 linebackers have been drafted.
I still like the upside of Kendricks, Cushing, Carter, Brown and Davis. It won't surprise me if any or all of them end up as LB1 options in most weeks. But the floor for each worries me just enough that I'd rather not go into the season with Cushing, Kendricks and Davis as my three starters. I'd be much more comfortable with them filling my LB2 / LB3 / LB5 slots with another high floor option mixed in.
If you're looking for a high floor option with upside, the top four players should be your primary targets but the entire tier should be safe bets for every-week production. I've moved MIller down in his tier with the six game suspension, but if you're certain you can roster enough talent to float him on your roster, don't move him down far on your list.
And I'm going to keep pimping Houston. Here's an excerpt from a recent Reading the Defense column:
Justin Houston continues to be undervalued despite a 53-10 season last year. Note that his double digit sack season came on the strength of just 352 pass rush opportunities per Pro Football Focus due to the Chiefs woeful offensive production. For comparison, DeMarcus Ware had 100 more pass rush chances in 140 less snaps. Clay Matthews had 30 more in 275 fewer snaps. A little improvement in the Chiefs' offense under Andy Reid could make Houston a star.
If you're in a big play league, get Houston on your roster this year. If you're in a balanced league and miss on Miller or Smith, Houston will be a nice consolation prize rounds and rounds later.
Tier 3A - Upside LB3
- Brandon Spikes
- Akeem Dent
- Mason Foster
- Kiko Alonso
- Pat Angerer
- Nigel Bradham
- Craig Robertson
- Erin Henderson
- Danny Trevathan
- Sio Moore
- Jon Bostic
Tier 3B - High Floor / Low Ceiling LB3
- Lance Briggs
- Perry Riley
- Russell Allen
- K.J. Wright
- Philip Wheeler
- Thomas Davis
- James Anderson
- Alec Ogletree
- David Harris
- A.J. Hawk
- DeMeco Ryans
- Moise Fokou
- Larry Foote
I'm enamored with Dent and Moore, two young backers who look likely to get every-down roles this year. Bradham seems likely to play 800+ snaps in Baltimore and may end up being the better inside linebacker in Buffalo. Trevathan will be an every-down backer while Miller serves his suspension and deserves a long look in deeper leagues in the first month. I'm not as sold on Bostic or Ogletree. Bostic may be the middle linebacker by default but I wasn't a fan of his college tape and he won't play in subpackages. Ogletree will play every down but he's not putting himself in position to make plays thus far in preseason games. He may start slowly.
Upside Depth Targets
- Karlos Dansby
- Desmond Bishop
- Colin McCarthy
- Jon Beason
- David Hawthorne
- Dont'a Hightower
- D.J. Williams
- Jonathan Vilma
- Manti Te'o
- Kevin Minter
These are players I think have the talent and/or the potential opportunity to jump into a higher tier sometime this summer. They should be rostered in deeper leagues (dynasty or redraft) and monitored closely for a change in situation in shallower leagues (less than 50 linebackers rostered).
Matchup Rush LB
- Brian Orakpo
- Tamba Hali
- Elvis Dumervil
- Paul Kruger
- Robert Mathis
- Ryan Kerrigan
- Barkevious Mingo
- Trent Cole
- Akeem Ayers
- Whitney Mercilus
- LaMarr Woodley
These are rosterable LB3 candidates in sack heavy scoring systems (sacks worth 5x solo tackle or more). Otherwise, until they prove they are a threat for a 3-4 solo tackle / 1-2 sack week regardless of matchup, they should be left on the waiver wire until you need an extreme boom-bust player in your LB3 spot.
- Jarvis Jones (ETA 2014, Matchup Rush LB ceiling)
- Jamie Collins (ETA 2014, Matchup Rush LB ceiling)
- LaRoy Reynolds (ETA 2014, High Floor LB3 ceiling)
- Michael Mauti (ETA 2014, Risk-Reward LB2 ceiling)
- Kevin Reddick (ETA 2014, Upside Depth Target ceiling)
- Khaseem Greene (ETA 2014, High Upside LB3 ceiling)
- Nico Johnson (ETA 2014, Upside Depth Target ceiling)
- Bjoern Werner (ETA 2014, Matchup Rush LB ceiling)
- Jelani Jenkins (ETA 2014, Risk-Reward LB2 ceiling)
- Vince Williams (ETA 2015, High Upside LB3 ceiling)
I've moved Moore and Bostic out of the stash tier as both are already pushing to join their team's starting lineup. That leaves Mingo as the only player with a reasonable shot at rosterable value this year. The others aren't likely to have redraft value until 2014.
I'll be updating this feature throughout the preseason. Questions, suggestions and comments are welcome at email@example.com. Follow me and ask questions on Twitter @JeneBramel.
More from Jene Bramel:
Reading the Defense: Defensive Line Tiers [Post Free Agency] - March 26
Reading the Defense: Defensive Free Agency Review - March 19
Reading the Defense: Defensive Free Agency Running Blog - March 12
Reading the Defense: Linebacker Tiers [First 2015 Update] - March 4
Reading the Defense: Defensive Line Tiers [First 2015 Update] - February 24
Welcome, RB19. The NFL Will See You Now: The Combine Medical Exam - February 18
Reading the Defense: Coaching and Scheme Changes - February 10
Gameday Injury Expectations: Week 16 - December 21
Sunday IDP Notes: Week 16 - December 21
Inside the Injury Report: Week 16 - December 18