Linebacker Tiers

Updated tiers and strategy on how to approach the linebacker position


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 2017 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. If a player has a chance to be classified at multiple positions, I'll add that player to more than one position.

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 -- The linebacker bubble

What a difference a year makes.

Last year, these opening paragraphs were full of excitement over the talent and depth across the linebacker pool. It was a refreshing renaissance after years of major injuries and changing subpackage roles. I wrote about multiple paths to success -- anything from taking a conservative path of high floor studs to a watchful waiting strategy where you could let good value come to you. The excitement didn't last long. Injuries continued to decimate linebacker groups around the league, young talents didn't blossom as hoped, and league trends continue to make navigating the depth charts frustrating.

I'm trying not to be pessimistic this year. But two thoughts continually clouded my thinking as I prepared this first set of 2017 linebacker tiers.

I can make a strong argument not to draft every player in the top few tiers.

Don't misunderstand. There's a lot to like here. And I clearly can't quit guys like Ryan Shazier, Denzel Perryman, and Myles Jack. But I can paint an ugly picture for every player in the elite tiers. More specifically, I think the floor for many of the best fantasy options are lower than usual.

There is a linebacker bubble.

I've been studying and writing about defensive players and statistics for almost 20 years. Linebackers have always been considered the backbone of the IDP roster. Linebackers scored the most points and were the most consistent positional grouping from week to week and year to year. Even when trends changed and the 3-4 front returned to prominence some years ago, I was pushing against the prevailing opinion that a 3-4 inside linebacker should be considered a second class option to the 4-3 middle and weak side linebacker.

Managing fantasy linebackers has been more challenging recently. It was easy to blame it on injuries and subpackage snaps.

But I think this is different. And I'm wondering if we're two years behind the curve already. The signs have been there for years.

I've been loudly advocating targeting stud edge rushers and waiting on linebackers for almost five years. Some of that had to do with depth of talent at both positions but the elite linebacker group hasn't been as projectable in recent years.

I've made fun of teams like the Giants for not prioritizing obvious holes on their linebacker depth charts. That's no longer the exception, it's the rule. Count up the number of non-edge capable linebackers taken in the first three rounds of the draft in recent years. An all-around linebacker drafted in the first round is becoming the zebra in the herd of edge rushing horses. I've made note of how deep my "Tier Jumper" group every year. We've had to wait later and later into the preseason to get clarity on situations. It's because there are fewer "heir-apparent" linebackers on rosters now.

I've written about the ever-increasing number of defensive backs -- corners AND safeties -- who are playing 400-500+ snaps every year. We know that's due to the rise of 11 and other spread personnel groupings on the offensive side of the ball. We know there are multiple situational defenders on the line. I've written about the importance of every-down linebackers and subpackages for well over a decade. It shouldn't be a surprise that we're seeing the linebacker group see similar changes.

Still, I've felt confident about 40+ linebackers in these tier features for many years. This year is different. And I don't think it's an exception. I think the factors above are finally reaching the tipping point -- the linebacker bubble.

You can see the same factors on the defensive back depth charts pervading the majority of linebacker depth charts. As recently as five years ago, the fourth and fifth and sixth linebackers on a 4-3 defensive depth chart (or the seventh and eighth on the 3-4 depth chart) were there -- and sometimes specifically drafted -- as special teams talents. That still applies. But those players are now also a different kind of specialist. They excel in either coverage or run support -- but not both. They may be smaller players incapable of playing to an elite level over 700+ snaps -- so they get platooned in both the base and subpackage defenses.

Scroll through this year's tiers.

I've got four entire linebacker groups without a target. They're listed as placeholders with four or five players still rotating. Some of those teams are still rotating players at multiple positions in multiple packages. There are another handful of teams without a primary target. Fully one-quarter to one-third of the league cannot tell you with certainty who will be running their huddle in September.

And I don't think defensive coordinators particularly care about that any more. They're happy to rotate and platoon their linebackers if they don't have a 1000 snap, all-around stud talent. They value those fifth linebackers who excel in certain packages. They aren't afterthoughts who teams hope aren't needed.

The versatility and specialization we've come to accept and enjoy on the defensive line and in the defensive backfield has been bubbling on the linebacker depth chart for years. The bubble is here.

What does that mean for you?

Recognizing a growing chasm between the stud all-around linebackers and the talented, but limited duty, rotational players is the first step. For the most part, we've already made that adjustment. I think it's time to take things a little further, however.

***Be more willing to take linebackers you believe are truly elite all-around talents with equally good opportunity earlier in your draft than usual.

This one is more for fantasy owners like me who slough linebackers until later in the draft looking for value and rarely draft a top five player. 

***If you miss on these players, learn to embrance a "punt and stream" philosophy.

Be ready to move quickly on waiver wire talents who ascend to every-down roles. Open up your range to include edge rushers with strong weekly matchups. Churn the bottom of your linebacker group as much as the bottom of your defensive back group.

***In dynasty leagues, do not hesitate to move a stud linebacker and actively look to trade lesser tier players with blemishes for value.

Turnover is always quick at the top. Lavonte David and NaVorro Bowman are two elite talents that have fallen quickly and unexpectedly. James Laurinaitis and Paul Posluszny also lost favor quickly. It's okay to hold elite players through their decline but don't consider these players untouchable. If you get an offer for a lesser player who doesn't have every-down talent and a strong situation, consider moving on.

***In redraft leagues, do not reach for a player in a favorable but unclear situation.

There is no reason to invest in an Indianapolis, Green Bay, New York, Oakland, New Orleans, or Washington linebacker right now. There are multiple players vying for jobs there for a reason. The opportunity is good but no talent stands out. That's an easy recipe for unexpected turnover and job sharing. Let someone else invest. You'll likely get a shot at a replacement later in the season.

Thoughts on Tier 1

I have 17 players in the two elite tiers right now.

I'm reasonably confident in the top eight players, with a mini-tier break after the top four. I think the next nine are as weak a group as I've ever tiered as having elite upside. All will have 95+ solo ceilings but I'm worried about consistency, durability, talent, and surrounding cast for nearly all of them.


The top four players in this tier have the highest solo tackle floors on the board this year. Kwon Alexander was no fluke and narrowly edges Luke Kuechly for the top overall linebacker spot. I don't like to assign relative risk of injury but it's clear Kuechly will miss multiple weeks should he sustain another concussion. I don't think Jaylon Smith returns to his pre-injury upside which puts Sean Lee in a great spot again this year. Another big play or three from Alec Ogletree will have him contending for top overall linebacker consideration.

I'm buying Ryan Shazier and Benardrick McKinney. Like NaVorro Bowman, I didn't see McKinney's every-down upside in college. There's no reason to question it now. Zach Cunningham may eventually provide some back seven competition for tackles, but McKinney has little standing in his way this year. Last year's 77 solos will hold his value down some but he's a good bet to run up at least 90 solos this year. Shazier is the lead dog in Pittsburgh's back seven now and will put up huge statistics if his knees and ankles hold up.

Kwon Alexander   XXX Blossomed into all-around stud last year, narrowly ahead of Kuechly
Luke Kuechly     Elite talent at risk of multiple missed games w/ another concussion
Sean Lee     No competition for tackles unless Smith beats odds and succeeds at MLB
Alec Ogletree     Would like to see more big plays but tackle ceiling is strong
Ryan Shazier   XXX Durability remains in question, talent does not
Benardrick McKinney   XXX Proved capable of subpackage role and more; will breeze past year's 77 solos
Bobby Wagner     86 solos were career high w/ assist-heavy stat crew
Vontaze Burfict     Knucklehead and durability factors must be considered before drafting as anchor


This tier is ugly. Some will love Deion Jones or C.J. Mosley or Telvin Smith Sr. And I don't necessarily disagree. I think Smith's competition throughout the front seven is better than ever with Myles Jack taking over in the middle and Paul Posluszny and Jalen Ramsey cutting down on Smith's pursuit opportunities downfield. I'd love to push Mosley higher but he's yet to put up an elite tackle season in a division full of favorable stat crews.

I love Jerrell Freeman this year. Danny Trevathan won't return from his patellar tendon tear quickly and the rest of the back seven won't provide much tackle competition. If Freeman can survive the extra snaps he'll see, his tackle numbers project as elite. I don't think much of Darron Lee or Chris Kirksey. But both are guaranteed 1000 snaps if they stay healthy. If they can beat their talented young safeties to the ball, they'll run up huge numbers with the help of favorable stat crews.

Don't draft Denzel Perryman here. And I know I'll be the only one who still has him ahead of Jatavis Brown. I'm willing to live with that. Perryman will miss a huge number of tackles but his tackle per snap numbers were huge again last year in a limited snap count. The Chargers have praised him frequently this offseason and he's expected to play every snap. There's not a lot of difference between the bottom of this tier and the top of the each second tier. Add him later in your draft.

Deion Jones     Snap count and consistency will increase this season
Jerrell Freeman     Healthy entering season w/ no competition for tackles
C.J. Mosley     Want to put in higher tier but has yet to reach ceiling after four years in league
Telvin Smith Sr     Just outside top tier, Jags defense now good enough to limit own opportunities
Darron Lee     Opportunity and stat crew are huge factors but not elite talent
Chris Kirksey     Continues in every down role w/ great opportunity next to Carder
Jarrad Davis     Would not shy away from drafting him in top ten this year
Denzel Perryman     Tackle rate remained elite last year and will play every down 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 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.


Many of the names in the Risk-Reward LB2 tier are more attractive than those at the bottom of the Elite Upside tier. Honestly, there's probably little difference and I expect to see movement between these groups during training camp. However, I'd consider the bottom of Tier 1A closer to Tier 2A than the reverse. In other words don't reach for any player at the bottom of Tier 1A. If you miss on the top few players in Tier 1, it's time to revert to a slough and draft value strategy again this year.


Jamie Collins Sr has always been the exception rather than the rule and is sure to play every down. But it's not clear how he'll be used in subpackages and those snaps will determine whether he's a 65 solo, 7-9 sack player or a 90 solo, 4-6 sack player. He must be watched carefully during preseason snaps. Preston Brown is currently seeing first team middle linebacker and subpackage duty. If he stays inside to start the season, his upside is strong. If Reggie Ragland wins the middle linebacker job and/or Brown loses a subpackage role, Brown's value craters.

It'll be hard to keep Myles Jack out of the top tiers if he looks the part in preseason. There will be more competition than ever in Jacksonville but Jack has elite talent in run support and coverage if he plays to his college film.

Jamie Collins Sr   XXX Tough to project elite tackle numbers as SLB w/ pass rush responsibility
Preston Brown     Currently first team MLB and subpackage player but final rank depends on Ragland
Jatavis Brown     Likely to have higher ADP than Perryman but has significant 4-3 front seven competition
Kiko Alonso     Needs volume for elite production and likely to play weak side w/ more competition
Myles Jack     Will get his chance as every-down MLB this year and has talent to take advantage
Mark Barron     Stud weak side linebacker but hard to continue to project 100 solos
Brandon Marshall     Returns healthy and to his prior every-down role
Derrick Johnson   XXX On target to return in Week 1 from last season's Achilles tear
Avery Williamson     No competition inside this year, should play every down


This is a shallow tier for now. Some of the above players will fall into this category as training camps progress and roles are solidified. Preston Brown, Kiko Alonso, Mark Barron, Brandon Marshall, and Avery Williamson are most likely to fit into this group by the end of August. And a player or two might emerge from the wide open situations in the Tier Jumper group below, too.

Eric Kendricks     May be more upside than this but Minnesota defense will limit opportunity
Deone Bucannon   XXX Ankle injury will keep Bucannon from starting quickly but surrounding cast weak
Nigel Bradham     Eagles linebackers don't have much upside for now


I love this tier. If you're in a balanced league, don't shy away from this group. There will be more variance but the ceiling weeks will be much more valuable than the floor weeks. And the floor with these players will be supported by solid tackle numbers. Khalil Mack, Von Miller, and Justin Houston have a range of expectation that includes top five finishes in balanced systems. Jadeveon Clowney could easily put up a top ten finish. Clowney may also play enough end in the preseason to earn a late reclassification to DL in some league systems.

Khalil Mack   XXX Stud
Von Miller   XXX Stud
Justin Houston   XXX Stud
Jadeveon Clowney   XXX As talented as top three in this tier, if reclassified to DL you won't be disappointed


There are some strong names in the Upside LB3 group. Those players with strong camps and a favorable role will probably move up in August. And I think there will be some shuffling of the top of the High Floor LB3 tier, with Jordan Hicks, Lavonte David, and Kevin Minter most likely to move up.

I'm not certain there's any value to be had in the Tier Jumper group. Some names will emerge and move into a draftable tier on the strength of opportunity alone. But NaVorro Bowman is the only player I'd roster in redraft leagues right now unless your league has over 50 players rostered.


There will be movement in this tier.

If the Niners cut NaVorro Bowman, I'll move Reuben Foster up considerably if he's healthy enough to participate in camp. Zach Orr will sign somewhere and there's plenty of high opportunity spots left for him around the league. Ramik Wilson and B.J. Goodson could solidify productive roles early in camp. And I'm very intrigued to see whether Jaylon Smith will play with an AFO or not. If his recovery continues to progress and he gets anywhere near his pre-injury form, watch out.

Lawrence Timmons   XXX Likely to play MLB and every down until McMillan ready to take over
Reuben Foster     Primed to take advantage of opportunity if shoulder healthy and 49ers cut Bowman 
Vince Williams     Moves into every-down role w/ Timmons gone
Ramik Wilson     Wilson played well at times last year but Chiefs may still consider March
B.J. Goodson     May be first every-down MLB in New York for many years
Nick Kwiatkowski     Trevathan not likely to be ready until midseason 
Tahir Whitehead     Moved outside and may not play every down
Zach Orr     Many teams in mix after his decision to play again
Jaylon Smith     Unprecedented to play w/ orthotic but too talented to ignore if recovery continues


What you see is what you get here. It's disappointing to see Lavonte David in this group. He's too talented. But the trend is undeniable and the scheme and surrounding cast are no longer favorable for a return to his former glory. Jordan Hicks and David Harris have the best chance to move up to the High Floor LB2 tier by the end of the preseason.

Jordan Hicks     Argument for both Hicks and Bradham as LB2 tier talents
Lavonte David     Scheme not nearly as favorable now and strong competition for tackles
David Harris     Stat crew favorable if Harris earns more than run support role
Kevin Minter     Likely behind Burfict and Rey for subpackage duty
Thomas Davis     Still productive and still slated for subpackage snaps
Paul Posluszny     Moved to SLB to make room for Jack and unlikely to play every down
K.J. Wright     Steady and consistent production in big play defense
Wesley Woodyard     No competition for snaps until young players develop
Todd Davis     Will have value if holds off Corey Nelson for subpackage snaps but unlikely


I don't see an emerging talent here yet. If I'm targeting a rush linebacker in balanced leagues, I want at least one of the top four above. In big play scoring systems, I'd prioritize one of the big three and then add Clowney ahead of a second DL. Vic Beasley Jr would rank higher but his tackle numbers remain suspect. Lorenzo Alexander moves to 4-3 SLB and it's not clear where he'll align in subpackages with Shaq Lawson ready to contribute and Jerry Hughes likely to rush from the weak side.

Vic Beasley Jr   XXX Belongs in upper tier if raises tackle counts in run support 
Chandler Jones   XXX Still talented and attractive but teams can focus on him w/ Calais Campbell gone
Lorenzo Alexander   XXX Moving to SLB and pass rush upside not clear w/ multiple front four options
Whitney Mercilus   XXX Has to beat Watt and Clowney to the quarterback
Dee Ford   XXX Still developing and could see more snaps this year
Derrick Morgan   XXX Quietly productive in favorable scheme
Brian Orakpo   XXX Improvement in Titans' offense could give more opportunity
Terrell Suggs   XXX May have one more productive season in the tank
Robert Quinn   XXX Too talented not to track as Rams transition to 3-4 front

Tier Jumpers

What a mess.

I've put a relative ranking on the unclear situations in Washington, Oakland, Indianapolis, New Orleans, Buffalo, and Green Bay -- both upside of situation overall and a flowchart of the most likely players to succeed as training camp begins. But nothing is assured and you can expect movement during the season.

I'm hopeful NaVorro Bowman's demise was exaggerated during minicamp season. But the past knee reconstruction with meniscus injury and recent Achilles tear may be too much to overcome. The Niners are one of the most attractive fantasy situations in the league if Bowman sticks.

Here's the skinny on the unclear situations heading into camp:

Washington: Will Compton and Mason Foster were working with the starters in minicamp while Zach Brown got caught up after signing late. Foster should be considered most at risk and Brown will have to play poorly to not win an every-down job by the end of camp.

Oakland: Cory James and Tyrell Adams were starting in minicamp. Jelani Jenkins was working in at times. I wouldn't trust James or Jenkins but it's likely one or both earn every-down roles.

Indianapolis: Jon Bostic generated most of the offseason buzz. But Bostic, Sean Spence, Edwin Jackson, Antonio Morrison, and even rookie Anthony Walker were rotating with the first team during offseason workouts.

New Orleans: It would appear the Saints want Stephone Anthony to win the every-down middle linebacker job. But there's still competition with A.J. Klein and new addition Manti Te'o will get a look if healthy, too. Dannell Ellerbe is still in the mix for an every-down job outside if he can stay out of the training room.

Buffalo: Preston Brown has held off Reggie Ragland in the middle and in subpackages so far. Ramon Humber has played alongside Brown in nickel packages with Gerald Hodges behind for now.

Green Bay: Avoid this group until we get any reports of substance.

NaVorro Bowman   XXX Rumors throughout offseason he could be cut but great opportunity if healthy
WAS Placeholder     Zach Brown = Will Compton > Mason Foster
OAK Placeholder     Cory James > Jelani Jenkins > Marquel Lee > Tyrell Adams
IND Placeholder     Jon Bostic > Sean Spence > Edwin Jackson = Antonio Morrison > Anthony Walker
Haason Reddick   XXX Could win starting job quickly and Bucannon's ankle may not be ready Week 1
Dont'a Hightower   XXX Hard to know if he'll play every down, could see more pass rush duty
NO Placeholder     Stephone Anthony > Dannell Ellerbe > A.J. Klein > Manti Te'o > Alex Anzalone
Demario Davis     Ton of opportunity in New York
BUF Placeholder     Reggie Ragland > Gerald Hodges > Ramon Humber
GB Placeholder     Jake Ryan = Joe Thomas = Blake Martinez
Kamalei Correa     Will likely play ILB alongside C.J. Mosley
Justin March     Watch for potential challenge to Ramik Wilson in camp
Danny Trevathan     Patellar tendon tear will likely keep Trevathan limited until well into season


There are a few names of note in the off-ball group. Unlike past seasons, I think every player on the off-ball list will get a chance to win a big role over the next two seasons. The edge list is less inspiring but full of talent. Leonard Floyd, Tyus Bowser, and Bud Dupree have top 20 upside if they play to their full potential, with T.J. Watt and Shane Ray in the mix as rosterable talents in all leagues in time.

Zach Cunningham     Will eventually start next to Benardrick McKinney
Reggie Ragland     Near fully recovered, chasing Preston Brown for MLB job
Raekwon McMillan     Will start career at SLB then move inside
Shaq Thompson     Thomas Davis still keeping him from 800+ snaps
Mychal Kendricks     Will be free of Philly rotation in 2018
Zach Vigil     Will see playing time this year but addition of Minter stunts upside
Duke Riley     Will grow into every-down WLB by 2018
Alex Anzalone     Don't see elite talent but depth chart favorable
Marquel Lee     Any talented linebacker on Oakland roster deserves consideration
Anthony Walker     Part of deep competition for snaps in Indy
Jayon Brown     Could displace Woodyard by opening day 2018
Jalen Reeves-Maybin     Detroit has favorable depth chart
Elandon Roberts     New England veterans are aging, Belichick seemed to have trust last year
Leonard Floyd   XXX Still likely to play outside, prolonged recovery from 2016 concussion
Tyus Bowser   XXX Ravens have moved similar players inside in past
Bud Dupree   XXX Still yet to translate athleticism into consistent edge rush
T.J. Watt   XXX Latest PIT draft pick not as flashy but may prove best all-around talent of bunch
Shane Ray   XXX Will benefit from healthy offseason and teams focusing on Miller
Tim Williams   XXX Likely to be situational player only but has double digit sack upside

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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