Reading the Defense: Linebacker Tiers

Updated tiers and strategy on how to approach the linebacker position during your draft


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.


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.


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.


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.

Luke Kuechly <> LB1   Fundamental high tackle option w/ big play value
Lavonte David <> LB2   Tampa system boosts already elite statistical upside
NaVorro Bowman <> LB5   Participated in drills throughout offseason; no concerns in camp


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.

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 <> LB16   Achilles injury seems well behind him and will again be every-down ILB anchor
Jamie Collins Sr <> 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
Bobby Wagner <> LB4   Would be elite tier if not for assist-heavy home stat crew
Clay Matthews <> LB38 XX Will be inside linebacker on base downs and pass rusher in subpackages; 70-10 possible
Justin Houston <> LB14 XX 50-14 floor good enough to consider in LB1 tier in all leagues
Karlos Dansby <> LB17   Disappointing 2014 but opportunity knocks again this year


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.


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. 


This tier is also tight from top to bottom. I've stashed Jerod Mayo, Danny Trevathan, 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.

As always, this tier is where the value lives. I've had drafts recently where I've added 3-4 players from this tier ten rounds (or more) after the first linebackers have been drafted. In one league, I drafted Derrick Johnson, Preston Brown, Clay Matthews, and Christian Jones late and feel like I've got a group of backers every bit as good as those who started sooner. I also have two elite defensive ends and a very strong offensive bench.

I'm including Mack in the linebacker tiers for reference. It's more and more likely he'll remain classified at linebacker in MFL leagues.

Jelani Jenkins <> LB15   Strong numbers as starter; marginal competition for tackles
Khalil Mack <> LB24 XX Time running out for re-classification; still a strong fantasy play
Sean Lee <> LB11   Reports are promising enough to list here; could move up if looks good in game action
Mychal Kendricks <> LB13   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 <> LB50   May miss a dime snap now and then but looking strong early in camp
Lawrence Timmons <> LB23   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 <> LB20   Very likely to be every-down middle linebacker w/ Moore still recovering
Telvin Smith Sr <> LB22   Burst onto scene in nickel role and kept momentum as every-down linebacker
Stephone Anthony <> LB34   Has won starting middle linebacker job and should play every down
Avery Williamson <> LB49   Widening gap over Brown now and will have high opportunity
Brandon Marshall ^^^ LB32   Now cleared for full contact and played in preseason game
Nigel Bradham <> LB36   BUF defense may limit its own opportunity; competition high w/ Brown
Jerod Mayo <> LB27   Patellar tendon injury a major concern; may not recover to previous form
Danny Trevathan <> LB37   Still hasn't participated in preseason game but expected to be ready W1
Vontaze Burfict <> LB33   Rehab more promising than last month but still long way to go to be ready W1


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.

Paul Worrilow <> LB12   Marginal talent w/ elite opportunity; won’t fault anyone for slotting him higher
Keenan Robinson <> LB19   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 <> LB21   Tackle trend drops him out of elite tiers but still has strong LB2 floor
Stephen Tulloch <> LB35   Was elite producer last year before injury; now recovered from ACL tear


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. I've moved him up -- along with Clay Matthews and Justin Houston -- into a more elite tier. Von Miller has a strong argument for moving up, too, and should be a n elite tier option in sack-heavy scoring leagues.

Von Miller <> LB38 XX Phillips’ scheme may drop tackle numbers slightly but 50-12 upside remains
Ryan Kerrigan <> LB57 XX Strong enough to separate from matchup rush LB tier


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.


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.

Ryan Shazier <> LB28   Tomlin wants him at ILB and expects Timmons-like development
Kwon Alexander <> LB59   Locked in at MLB and played every down in W2 of preseason
Sean Weatherspoon <> LB46   Great opportunity in ARI but was already slowing down before Achilles injury
Zach Brown <> LB55   Fundamental issues look to be continuing but high volume may offset
Anthony Hitchens <> LB72   Lining up at MLB over Brinkley w/ McClain out; increased value early in seasons
Sam Barrington <> LB43   So-so talent but lock to start at ILB now w/ excellent chance at every-down role
Eric Kendricks <> LB29   In three way battle w/ Cole and Hodges but will be every-down linebacker this season
Jon Beason <> LB48   Knee sprain latest injury to limit him; could miss W1
Devon Kennard <> LB73   Reports grow more promising by day; currently SLB in base and earning nickel snaps
Kelvin Sheppard <> LB95   Likely has won MLB job and is playing every down
Gerald Hodges ^^^     Competing for MLB job; would play every-down if wins
Nick Moody ^^^     Wilhoite back this week but will have to retake job from Moody
Malcolm Smith <>     Leading WLB battle by TKO currently and playing every down
Sio Moore <> LB41   Missed another week of practice and losing ground to Smith
Daryl Washington <> LB85   If re-instated will be suspended again for multiple games; a roster hold but do not draft 


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.

Daryl Smith <> LB30   Assist counts preserved some value last season; age and Mosley limiting factors
Donald Butler ^^^ LB77   Reported to camp in shape and motivated; sitting only in dime for now
Jerrell Freeman <> LB25   Lost half step; won’t have many big weeks w/ assist-heavy IND stat crew
Anthony Barr ^^^ LB44 XX Room for more upside after Top 25 finish in balanced leagues last year
Shea McClellin ^^^ LB61   Cementing himself ahead of Bostic and Foster and will see good opportunity
David Harris <> LB42   High floor option in Bowles’ defense
Manti Te’o <> LB60   Playing every down but not dynamic enough to rank in upside tiers
Thomas Davis <> LB47   Impressive and resilient talent but upside limited next to Kuechly
Demario Davis <> LB31   Has settled into good but not great tier; WILB role should be favorable
Perry Riley <> LB58   Could lose snaps to Compton; favorable stat crew supports his floor
K.J. Wright <> LB56   Solid player limited by low volume of opportunity and strong surrounding cast
Justin Durant <> LB64   Durability major concern and will be high variance every-down WLB
Michael Wilhoite <> LB81   Back in conversation after Willis/Borland retirement but low ceiling
Chad Greenway vvv LB40   Took pay cut to stay in MIN; stat trends not reassuring at all


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.

Connor Barwin <> LB67 XX Expect some regression from last season’s elite numbers
Terrell Suggs <> LB78 XX Second half 2014 better than first half but not consistent enough to consider elite
DeMarcus Ware <> LB51 XX Can’t project him over 45 solos so he slips back into matchup tier
Paul Kruger <> LB94 XX 12 sacks and solid pressure numbers have me reconsidering him here
Trent Cole <>   XX May be underrating him here; will have less competition for tackles and good rush volume
Pernell McPhee <> LB70 XX Don’t see 50-10 upside as primary rush OLB option in CHI
Brandon Graham <> LB65 XX Not the type of freedom I hoped for him; has to scale per snap numbers to bigger role
Brian Orakpo <>   XX Lack of durability has killed his value but there’s still upside here
Elvis Dumervil <>   XX An option in very sack heavy scoring systems only
Derrick Morgan <> LB86   Not sure I see high enough floor or ceiling to move higher
Alex Okafor <>   XX Not convinced he has breakout potential but warrants mentioning
Julius Peppers <>     Still a little left in his tank
Robert Mathis <> LB80 XX Surprisingly activated from PUP list last week; has value if fully recovered


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

Shaq Thompson ^^^ LB89   Seeing first team reps at SLB now; upside limited by role and opportunity for now
Jake Ryan <> LB91   Not ready for a base defensive ILB role yet
Paul Dawson <>     CIN won't push a rookie into lineup over vets like Lamur and Rey and Hawk
Benardrick McKinney <> LB54   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
Aaron Lynch <> LB97 XX Will see snap count increase dramatically w/ Smith release
Jadeveon Clowney <> LB88 XX Early microfracture huge red flag but too much talent to give up on yet
Jeremiah Attaochu <>   XX Chance he breaks out as 45-10 or better this year; big play league sleeper
Bud Dupree <>   XX 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 ^^^   XX May get chance sooner than expected with Galette out for season
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.

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