Most fantasy owners are used to drafting off a simple ranking of players, but that can mask underlying differences that exist between players. For example, two players may be ranked right next to each other on a cheatsheet but there could be a wide gap in the expected production for them. In that case, you would probably want to draft the higher-ranked player a full-round earlier than the lower-ranked player. Similarly, there may be a large group of players with very similar projections that are bunched together on a ranking sheet. It may seem that a player ranked 10th is much more valuable than a player ranked 15th, but if only a few projected points separate them then they are roughly equivalent in value. Rather than force yourself to pick one, it may be best to focus on another position and then come back to this position in the next round since you're likely to get a player of nearly identical value.
Grouping players into distinct tiers or buckets provides additional context that allows a drafter to make more informed decisions. The projections we offer at Footballguys also help a lot in this regard, but those are still static projections that may not fully indicate the range of likely outcomes for a player. For example, two players may be projected with similar numbers but one may have significantly more upside and/or a higher floor than the other. Those types of risk vs reward decisions are inherent in any fantasy draft. While drafting the safe players will typically help you build a solid team, you often need to take some chances and hit on some players who significantly exceed their preseason expectations to win.
Rankings are typically helpful in ordering players within the same position group, but tiers can help you figure out which position to take as you move through a draft. If you see a large group of linebackers that are all capable of putting up LB1-type numbers but only one defensive lineman likely to put up elite numbers, it's obviously wise to grab the lineman and assume at least one of the linebackers will be there for your next pick. This helps you maximize the value of your picks, and is a strategy that all strong fantasy players likely use to some extent.
How To Use The Tiers
- These tiers are based on expected performance for the 2018 season in a balanced scoring system. While dynasty owners always need to consider long-term outcomes to some extent, the upcoming season is most critical for player value. I'll highlight some dynasty stash options in a separate tier that you can focus on if you are less concerned about 2018 and want to focus on 2019 and beyond.
- Positional classifications can differ depending on what your league-hosting website uses. For consistency, I will rely on the official Footballguys player classifications. For the most part, these should match up well with the major sources that exist online but there could be differences. Assigning edge rushers to linebacker or defensive end is the main area that causes issues here as the classification can have a huge impact on fantasy value.
- Look for an asterisk (*) next to players that have added value in big-play scoring systems. There is a lot of scoring variability that exists among IDP leagues, so if your league places added value on big plays (i.e., sacks, interceptions, forced fumbles, etc.), this information should help you identify some key targets in each tier.
LINEBACKERS TIER 1: ELITE LB1
- Luke Kuechly, CAR
- Bobby Wagner, SEA
- C.J. Mosley, BAL
- Blake Martinez, GB
- Zach Brown, WAS
- Deion Jones, ATL
- Kwon Alexander, TB
- Telvin Smith Sr Sr, JAX
- Christian Kirksey, CLE
These are the players you want to build your IDP roster around. They all play just about every snap for their respective teams and have put up huge numbers in the past with little reason to expect a dropoff in the years ahead. Luke Kuechly has a history of concussions that has to be taken into account but otherwise, he and Bobby Wagner represent the gold standard for the middle linebacker position. C.J. Mosley, Blake Martinez, and Zach Brown all play inside linebacker in a 3-4 front but clearly have enough upside to reach 100 solo tackles and 50 assists. Deion Jones and Kwon Alexander are two of the best young middle linebackers in the league with excellent all-around games, while Telvin Smith Sr and Christian Kirksey offer similar production and talent from the weakside linebacker spot. If you wind up with two players from this tier, you will have a clear edge over the rest of your league. If you wind up with zero, however, don't panic as there is plenty of talent available at this position so you can still build a solid group overall.
LINEBACKERS TIER 2: LOW-END LB1/HIGH-END LB2
- Roquan Smith, CHI
- Alec Ogletree, NYG
- Lavonte David, TB (* big play bonus)
- Mark Barron, LAR
- Tremaine Edmunds, BUF
- Sean Lee, DAL
- Jarrad Davis, DET
- Vince Williams, PIT (* big play bonus)
- Joe Schobert, CLE
- Deone Bucannon, ARI
- Myles Jack, JAX
Several players in this tier have the ability to put up numbers comparable with players in the elite tier but they also carry more risk with a lower floor. Rookies like Roquan Smith and Tremaine Edmunds were drafted high for a reason and should eventually become elite fantasy options but there is typically a learning curve. Lavonte David is one of the most talented linebackers in the league but he has seen a noticeable decline in his tackle numbers over the past two years that make him more reliant on big plays. Alec Ogletree should be very productive playing in front of the most favorable stat crew in the league after playing with one of the stingiest for years. His former teammate Mark Barron should also get a boost with the upgrades the Rams have made around him. Sean Lee is a tackling machine but makes very few big plays and is also injury-prone. Deone Bucannon has been held back by injuries of late but can make a solid every-week option when healthy. Jarrad Davis was great against the run as a rookie but needs to show improvement in coverage to stay on the field in nickel situations. Vince Williams will take over for Ryan Shazier as the focal point in the middle of the Steelers defense. Joe Schobert had an incredible season with the Browns last year but now has added competition with the signing of Mychal Kendricks. Now that Paul Posluszny has retired, maybe Myles Jack can finally start to reach his potential alongside Telvin Smith Sr.
LINEBACKERS TIER 3: SOLID LB2
- Jamie Collins Sr Sr, CLE (* big play bonus)
- Kiko Alonso, MIA
- Eric Kendricks, MIN
- Tahir Whitehead, OAK
- Wesley Woodyard, TEN
- Danny Trevathan, CHI (injury risk)
- Demario Davis, NO
- Darron Lee, NYJ
- Avery Williamson, NYJ
- Zach Cunningham, HOU
- K.J. Wright, SEA
- Reuben Foster, SF
As you move down to this tier, you find a group of talented linebackers who are often limited by some factors and don't have the upside of the players ranked above them. They can still be very reliable starters that you can pretty much plug and play into your lineup each week. Jamie Collins Sr is part of a very strong linebacker unit in Cleveland and missed 10 games last year so he may not return to his prior levels of production. Kiko Alonso has only missed one game the past two seasons and hasn't made enough big plays of late. Eric Kendricks is a strong presence in the middle of one of the league's best defenses but his production has been underwhelming at times. Tahir Whitehead emerged as a strong three-down linebacker in Detroit and should become the leading tackler in Oakland. Wesley Woodyard had a tremendous season last year, but he's 32 years old and the team drafted Rashaan Evans as his eventual replacement. Demario Davis left the Jets to upgrade the Saints middle linebacker position, which will also create additional opportunities for Darron Lee and Avery Williamson back in New York. Danny Trevathan hasn't been able to stay healthy of late but should continue to be very productive when he plays. Zach Cunningham looks like the player to target in Houston after an impressive rookie season, while Reuben Foster has the ability to post LB1 numbers once he returns from his two-game suspension.
LINEBACKERS TIER 4: LB3
- Anthony Hitchens, KC
- Kyle Van Noy, NE
- Mason Foster, WAS
- Malcolm Smith, SF (injury risk)
- Brandon Marshall, DEN
- Jatavis Brown, LAC (injury risk)
- Denzel Perryman, LAC
- Raekwon McMillan, MIA (injury risk)
- Preston Brown, CIN
- Haason Reddick, ARI (* big play bonus)
- Vontaze Burfict, CIN (4-game suspension)
- Von Miller, DEN (* big play bonus)
In this group, you start to see more players whose production will be more matchup-dependent on a week to week basis. These are the types of players you can start most of the time but may also need to consider benching when the matchups are less favorable. There are quite a few 3-4 inside linebackers in this group who may have to sift through more traffic than their 4-3 counterparts. This includes Anthony Hitchens who replaces Derrick Johnson in the Chiefs defense as well as proven veterans like Mason Foster and Brandon Marshall. Some of the players like Jatavis Brown and Denzel Perryman have flashed their potential at times but have also struggled with injuries that make them tough to rely on. Vontaze Burfict has been an elite performer for most of his career but he's also a huge suspension risk and will miss the first four games for his latest violation, which creates an opening for Preston Brown. One of the most intriguing options in this group of Raekwon McMillan, who was drafted to take over last year before suffering a torn ACL on the opening kickoff of the preseason. Haason Reddick is another young player to watch who could see a big boost with the move to a 4-3 this year. Von Miller is the first true edge rusher to make the list and a clear indicator of how important scoring system is since he's an elite NFL talent but a marginal fantasy linebacker in balanced scoring.
LINEBACKERS TIER 5: TOP BACKUPS WITH UPSIDE
- B.J. Goodson, NYG (injury risk)
- Benardrick McKinney, HOU
- Rashaan Evans, TEN (rookie)
- Jordan Hicks, PHI
- Darius Leonard, IND (rookie)
- Nigel Bradham, PHI
- Justin Houston, KC (* big play bonus)
- Jaylon Smith, DAL
- De'Vondre Campbell, ATL
- Nick Vigil, CIN (* big play bonus)
- Jadeveon Clowney, HOU (* big play bonus)
- Shaq Thompson, CAR
Most of the players in this group figure to play a full-time role and have enough upside to put up LB3 type numbers but they have a lower floor than the players ranked above them. B.J. Goodson was extremely productive when he played last year but unfortunately that didn't happen often enough. Bernardrick McKinney disappointed last year but could still bounce back to become a quality fantasy starter. Rashaan Evans and Darius Leonard are both rookies who should start right away and put up solid numbers. Jordan Hicks and Nigel Bradham are hurt by playing with one of the toughest stat crews in the league, but both are three-down linebackers who play behind a strong defensive line. Jaylon Smith was limited to a 2-down role last year but could rise quickly if he's able to improve his play in coverage and carve out a role in nickel situations. De'Vondre Campbell and Shaq Thompson are young weakside linebackers who are held back by having a stud middle linebacker play alongside them. This group also includes some of the best edge rushers in the league in Justin Houston and Jadeveon Clowney, who won't put up many tackles but make up for it with some strong sack totals. Nick Vigil is a rare strongside linebacker who is versatile enough to stay on the field in all situations.
LINEBACKERS TIER 6: TACKLE-HEAVY BACKUPS
- Alex Anzalone, NO
- Reggie Ragland, KC
- Oren Burks, GB (rookie)
- Matt Milano, BUF
- Anthony Barr, MIN (* big play bonus)
- Leighton Vander Esch, DAL (rookie)
- Tyler Matakevich, PIT
- Cory Littleton, LAR
- Christian Jones, DET
- Thomas Davis, CAR (4-game suspension)
- Todd Davis, DEN
- Derrick Johnson, OAK
- Anthony Walker, IND
- Jalen Reeves-Maybin, DET
- Jayon Brown, TEN
This group is mostly made up of players who don't have a clearly defined three-down role but who should still be productive tacklers with a chance to do more if things break right. Players like Alex Anzalone, Matt Milano, and Jalen Reeves-Maybin are all second-year pros likely to start at weakside linebacker for their respective teams. Reggie Ragland, Oren Burks, Tyler Matakevich, and Cory Littleton are all young 3-4 inside linebackers with a chance to break out in a starting role. There are also some solid veterans here with limited upside like Anthony Barr, Christian Jones, Todd Davis, Dont'a Hightower, and Derrick Johnson. These are the types of players who you can normally find on the waiver wire in shallower leagues but are worth holding onto in deeper leagues for injury and bye-week protection.
LINEBACKERS TIER 7: SACK-HEAVY BACKUPS
- Matt Judon, BAL
- T.J. Watt, PIT
- Ryan Kerrigan, WAS
- Terrell Suggs, BAL
- Leonard Floyd, CHI
- Olivier Vernon, NYG
- Dee Ford, KC
- Clay Matthews, GB
- Nick Perry, GB
- Whitney Mercilus, HOU
- Bradley Chubb, DEN (rookie)
- Preston Smith, WAS
- Brian Orakpo, TEN
- Bud Dupree, PIT
Unlike the players in Tier 6, these players are primarily edge-rushers who earn most of their value in passing situations. Most are 3-4 outside linebackers who play a role more similar to a defensive end at times, so they are all going to be much more valuable in scoring systems that weight sacks and big plays more heavily. In balanced systems, these are players who you probably don't want to count on too heavily, but they can make solid starting options when the matchup is right. For dynasty league players, there is added value in holding onto to some of these players in the hopes a future scheme change will move them to defensive end and greatly increase their value.
Good luck in your drafts. Feel free to contact me with any questions or comments.
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