Linebacker Tiers

Aaron Rudnicki takes a look at the landscape for fantasy linebackers in 2019 and breaks them up into tiers to help with your IDP draft.

Why Tiers?

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 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

  1. These tiers are based on expected performance for the 2019 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 2019 and want to focus on 2020 and beyond.
  2. 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.
  3. 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

These are core pieces for any fantasy roster with IDPs and the type of players you can build a championship team with. They are all going to play just about every snap for their respective teams and have a proven history of production in the league. There is a compelling case to break out Darius Leonard into his own tier at the top considering the huge rookie season he had with 160+ combined tackles and 7 sacks but expect some regression. He’s joined in this tier by several other 2nd-year pros in Leighton Vander Esch, Tremaine Edmunds, and Roquan Smith who look like the future at the position. Deion Jones missed 10 games with a foot injury last year but he should return to form as the young centerpiece of the Falcons defense. Cory Littleton enjoyed a breakout season with the Rams last year and will join Blake Martinez as two of the elite all-around players who were not taken with high draft picks. Bobby Wagner and Luke Kuechly have been at the top of the game for a long time and both seem headed for the Hall of Fame eventually, although Kuechly carries some added risk due to his concussion history. Lastly, C.J. Mosley was the prize of this year’s free-agent crop and should see significantly more tackle opportunities with the Jets than he did in Baltimore.

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