I would love to get feedback from my readers. Often times, we get stuck in our own philosophies and tendencies. So, it's nice to get a different perspective on things. Your comments will likely influence my rankings to a certain degree.
Linebackers are undoubtedly the staples of a fantasy defense. However, I believe many owners often times misjudge value at this position. If you aren't able to grab a "Tier 1" linebacker, then I would wait on drafting a linebacker until the later rounds. In my scoring system, the difference between the leading point scorer for linebackers, Ray Lewis, and the 4th highest scoring linebacker, Lawrence Timmons, was 35 points. Conversely, only 35 points separated Timmons from the 17th ranked linebacker James Laurinaitis. This stat shows that after the 1st tier of linebackers, fantasy production is very similar.
In addition, IDP studs always emerge at the linebacker position during the early part of the season (e.g. Lawrence Timmons, James Anderson, Desmond Bishop, Derrick Johnson, etc.). With this being said, I sometimes like to have a player at linebacker who I feel is expendable in order to pick up a potential linebacker stud off of the waiver wire during the season.
Solo Tackle = 2 points
Assist = 1 points
Sack = 7 points
Interception = 12 points
Fumble Recovery = 5 points
DSC = Possible Defensive Scheme Change
S = Sleeper/Undervalued Player
B = Bust/Overvalued Player
R = Injury Risk
ROOKIE = 2011 NFL Rookie
(xx) = Previous Ranking
|1. RILB Patrick Willis (SF) - Willis is a beast. Period. Although he had a down year by his standards from a tackle perspective, he made up for it with producing a career high in sacks with six. The departure of Takeo Spikes to San Diego further lessens Willis' competition for tackles amongst the linebacking corps. San Francisco's defense is likely to be on the field until the cows come home this season. Expect huge numbers from Willis.|
|2. RILB Jerod Mayo (NE) – Out of all the top tier linebackers, Mayo has perhaps the least competition for tackles within the front seven. Add in one of the most generous scorekeepers in the game and you have a recipe for a top 5 fantasy linebacker. Mayonnaise had a monster 2010 season with 171 total tackles (60 of them were assists). Even with the change in official scorekeeping procedures, Mayo should continue to be one of the most reliable and productive fantasy producers at his position.
August 9th Update: News out of Patriots training camp is that the Patriots are going to be running more 4-3 packages than in previous seasons. The Pats recent string of free agent signings on the defensive side of the ball seem to corroborate this report as most of their additions are best suited for a 4-3 role (e.g. Andre Carter, Albert Haynesworth). When New England does decide to use a four man front, Mayo will slide to the weak side with 2nd year linebacker Brandon Spikes coming in to play the middle. The Patriots have played more 4-3 in years past than most people realize and Mayo's value shouldn't be substantially altered as he will still be a three-down linebacker who receives a ton of tackle opportunity. If Brandon Spikes stays in during nickel packages, he could have top 20 linebacker value.
|3. RILB Lawrence Timmons (PIT) – Since entering the league, it's been obvious to those who study defensive players that Timmons was a special type of linebacker capable of producing monster stat lines. It was just a matter of him staying healthy and getting enough opportunity to put up LB1 numbers. The stars finally aligned for him last season when he registered 135 total tackles, 3 sacks, and 2 INTs which was good enough for a top 5 finish in the majority of IDP leagues. There's no reason to suspect those numbers will be much different this season. Timmons should be one of the first linebackers taken off the board.|
|4 (2). MLB Jon Beason (CAR) – 2010 was a bizarre year for Beason. He was moved to WLB due to the season-ending injury to Thomas Davis and he wasn't able to put up the same type of numbers he usually does from his middle linebacker position. With Beason moving back to the middle this season, I expect him to return to his 2007-2009 type of fantasy production. He's too good of a talent not too. With this said, I think he will represent a good value this year for IDP owners. Even though I have him ranked as the second over fantasy linebacker, he may not be drafted as such in some fantasy leagues due to his down year last season.
August 26th Update: Beason still isn't practicing due to an Achilles' injury and his status remains uncertain for Week 1. It wouldn't be a big surprise to see him miss the first few weeks of the season. I've dropped him down into the Tier 2 of linebackers as a result.
|5. WILB Desmond Bishop (GB) – This sixth round pick out of California exploded onto the IDP scene in Week 5 after coming in for injured veteran Nick Barnett and he never looked back. You may be thinking that this is too high of a ranking for a late-round talent who has only started a dozen or so games in the NFL. However, in the games I watched, Bishop looked like a solid NFL linebacker and Packers were comfortable enough with his play to not re-sign Nick Barnett or any other free agent linebacker to put pressure on Bishop for the starting WILB position. If you total the points from the weeks in which Bishop started, he comes out to be the 5th ranked linebacker in my scoring system.|
|6. MLB Paul Posluszny (JAX) – If you've read my site in the past, you know I have no shortage of love for Paul Poz. With this being said, the move to Jacksonville hurts "Poz's" numbers a bit as he won't see as much tackle opportunity in Jacksonville as he did in Buffalo. Additionally, this scorekeeper isn't nearly as generous. The good news is that Posluszny is moving back to his natural position at middle linebacker and I don't expect the Jags to be all that good this season. Top 10 numbers are still easily within reach. DSC|
|7. LILB Ray Lewis (BAL) – It does in some regards seem counterintuitive for a 15 year veteran who is going on 37 years old to be climbing up the IDP rankings. However, when you are as well conditioned and motivated as Ray Lewis is, it makes sense. Lewis is coming off one of his better fantasy years in recent memory and re-established himself as a Tier 1 linebacker. You know when you draft Ray Ray, he's going to produce (barring injury). He gets a couple of bumps up the rankings for his reliability and low risk factor.|
|8. MLB David Hawthorne (SEA) – After an unbelievable 2009 campaign, Hawthorne put up very disappointing numbers last year. In his defense, this was in large part due to the coaching staff pulling Hawthorne out of the game in passing situations. There are only so many tackles you can make if you are only playing 60% of the snaps. With the release of Lofa Tatupu, Hawthorne becomes the Seahawks every-down MLB again. I'm going to be targeting Hawthorne in all my drafts. He has serious top 10, if not top 5 potential this year. S|
|9 (5). MLB James Laurinaitis (STL) – Similar to the Lions, I think that St. Louis is on the verge of becoming a very solid team. This is likely bad news for the majority of the IDPs on both of these teams. However, I really haven't altered my rankings for Laurinaitis at all since he doesn't have much competition of tackles on this defense and a majority of the plays are funneled his way. Their scorekeeper is the stingiest in the league when it comes to issuing assists, however with the expected change in IDP gamekeeping, less assists will likely be handed out this season which makes Laurinaitis a stronger pick since he produces many of his points off solo tackles.|
|10. MLB Curtis Lofton (ATL) - Atlanta received quite a bit of tackle opportunity last season which led to a somewhat inflated number of tackles for Falcons linebackers. Since Atlanta has 3-4 solid linebackers who are all capable of putting up great tackle numbers, Lofton's numbers have a tendency to become a bit diluted and this is a main reason why I have him outside the top 10. He's still a solid low-end LB1, but there's just too much competition for tackles among Atlanta's linebacking crew (Nicholas, Weatherspoon, Peterson) for me to rank Lofton any higher.|
|11. MLB Barrett Ruud (TEN) – From an IDP perspective, Ruud landing in Tennessee is great. Tennessee is likely to struggle again on offense this season which means their defense is going to be on the field a ton. Ruud should see an increase in tackle opportunity moving from TB to TEN. Also, he only signed a one year contract which means he has extra motivation as he will be playing for a new contract. My main concern with him is that he has struggled to shed blockers at times and has missed tackles because of it. Tennessee has one of the better front fours in the league which should help protect Ruud and his numbers should be quite healthy this season. S|
|12. MLB Derrick Johnson (KC) – I've always been a fan of Johnson's and I never understood why the Chiefs organization didn't give him more of a chance to shine in previous seasons. It looks as though KC finally woke up and smelled the coffee as they gave Johnson the starting job early in 2010 and he didn't dissapoint. He quickly became the leader of the defense and he put very nice numbers with 94 solo tackles, 26 assists, and 3 forced fumbles. The only thing that concerns me about Johnson is that he can be a bit sporadic at times; he had over 1/3 of his solo tackles last year come in 3 games.|
|13. WILB DeMeco Ryans (HOU) – Excluding last season where Ryans was injured for a majority of the season, he's averaged roughly 100 solo tackles and 30 assists a season. Those are top 10 numbers. Additionally, there's been a good track record/history of ILBs doing well in Wade Phillips' 3-4, one gap style system (e.g. Donnie Edwards in San Diego, Keith Brooking in Atlanta). I'd feel comfortable having DeMeco as my low-end LB1. DSC, R
August 26th Update: Ryans still seems to be a bit bothered by his Achilles' injury and hasn't performed up to his usual standards so far in preseason. Consequently, I've downgraded him a few spots as Achilles' injuries can linger and cause players to perform at lower than normal standards. Ryans remains a low-end LB1, however.
August 19th Update: Ryans looked a bit sheepish in his first preseason game against the Jets. It's his first real game action since his Achilles' injury, but this is a situation to definitely keep a close eye on. Depending on how he looks in his next preseason game, he may get bumped down a few spots.
|14. WILB Nick Barnett (BUF) – Barnett finds himself in one of the most optimal fantasy positions in the league in Buffalo. A highly productive defender with sideline-to-sideline range, Barnett averaged 109 tackles in his first seven seasons with the Packers. He's a great fit for this scheme and will receive the tackle opportunity to put up top ten fantasy numbers. Based on his current ADP, Barnett is one of the absolute best values in IDP drafts right now. Essentially, you're receiving LB1 value for a player you can likely draft as your LB3. There is some injury risk you assume when drafting Barnett as he is recovering from off-season knee surgery; however, the risk is well worth the reward in this specific case. R, S|
|15 (9). WLB D.J. Williams (DEN) – Some owners are concerned that Williams' numbers will take a dip with the defensive scheme change and his consequent move to the weak side. I really don't see it being a problem. He's still one of the most talented linebackers in the league and he will be playing next to a rookie linebacker in Von Miller who will likely have some growing pains which will ultimately lead to more tackle opportunities for Williams. I'm expecting him to produce as he has in years past. DSC, R
August 31st Update: Williams will be sidelined 3-to-4 weeks after dislocating his elbow in Saturday's preseason game. He could be out until Week 3 of the regular season. Thus, I've downgraded him 5 or 6 spots.
|16. MLB D'Qwell Jackson (CLE) – Because of where he plays, Jackson tends to fly under the radar in both real-life and fantasy terms. When healthy, he's capable of producing top 15 stats. With the departure of Rob Ryan to Dallas, the Browns will be converting to a 4-3 defensive scheme in which Jackson will take over Mike linebacker responsibilities. I don't expect much to change for Jackson in his move from WILB to MLB. As long as he can stay healthy, he should give you 85+ solos with a ton of assists. He does have a slight risk factor because of his injury (torn pectoral) last season. Expect LB2+ numbers from D'Qwell this season if he stays healthy. R
August 19th Update: Jackson played better than expected in his first preseason game. He seems to be a good fit for the MLB position in Cleveland and if he stays healthy, he has a chance for top 10-15 numbers.
|17. WILB London Fletcher-Baker (WAS) – It's hard to argue with 11 straight seasons of 85+ solo tackles or more. The guy is like the Energizer Bunny, he just keeps going. Owners should temper expectations slightly as LFB did show signs of slowing down a bit in 2010. However, due to a ton of tackle opportunity and a very generous scorekeeper, Fletcher was able to put up top 10 numbers. He's one of the best LB2s in balanced and tackle-heavy leagues.|
|18 (19). MLB Rey Maualuga (CIN) - When the Bengals selected Maualuga was the 38th overall pick in 2009, many expected him to take over the middle linebacker duties from veteran Dhani Jones sooner rather than later. However, due to solid play and leadership from Jones and a reluctancy from the Bengals coaching staff to start an inexperienced playing at such an important position, Maualuga find himself stranded in the fantasy dead zone at strong side linebacker. Things have completely changed this year, however. He's now the every-down middle linebacker and has been playing downhill and has been aggressive so far in pre-season. Dhani Jones should that the MLB position in Cincy is a viable one as he put up back-to-back 120+ tackle seasons as a solid, but not spectacular talent. He's a great sleeper candidate who has definite LB2+ potential. I'll be targeting him in a lot of my leagues. S|
|19. MLB Brian Urlacher (CHI) – Keeping with the theme of old, but awesome linebackers, I present to you Mr. Brian Urlacher. He rebounded in 2010 quite nicely from the injury that knocked him out for the entire 2009 season. He seemed rejuvenated on the field and looks like he's still got a couple of solid years left in the tank. He did benefit a bit from Lance Briggs being hindered with injuries for a decent amount of the season, but there are enough tackles for both of them to be solid LBs this year.|
|20. SLB Chad Greenway (MIN) – Being from Iowa, I'm naturally a pretty big Iowa Hawkeyes fan. Greenway was one of the best linebackers to ever grace the field at Kinnick Stadium and he's developing into one of the best linebackers to wear a Vikings uniform. He plays hard on every down and possesses a true non-stop motor. This allows him to overcome some of the obstacles playing on the strong side presents for many defensive players.|
|21. WILB Daryl Washington (ARI) - As a rookie last season, Washington's box score numbers were not as great as originally expected. He found himself pushed into the less productive SILB role as veteran Paris Lenon played above expectations and turned into a low-end LB1. With a solid year under this belt however the Cardinals are ready to make Washington the foundation of their defense. He will start at WILB while Paris Lenon will slide into Washington's old position on the strong side. Defensive coordinator has said in interviews that he has "big things planned" for Washington this season and envisions him as a desert version of Lawrence Timmons. That last part may be a bit of exaggeration on Horton's part, but it's important that Horton realizes Washington's potential and will give him plenty of chances to be a box score beast. The 2nd year player out of TCU is another great value pick for owners this season. S
For more fantasy linebacker sleepers, click here!
|22. ROLB DeMarcus Ware (DAL) – Ware is one of the few defensive draft selections the Cowboys have gotten right over the past few season (especially from a pass rushing perspective). He's averaged over 13 sacks per season during his first six seasons in the league and is showing no signs of slowing down. Anthony Spencer, although not great, keeps defenses honest enough to free Ware up on occasion. Let's be honest, even if you double team him, he's gonna get his sacks. I only give the slight edge to James Harrison in these rankings because he tends to produce higher tackle numbers and has more support around him to keep the pressure and double teams away.|
|23. MLB Rolando McClain (OAK) – McClain is one of the best buy low candidates this season as he pissed off a LOT of owners last season who were expecting him to put up top 10 numbers. Part of being a good fantasy owner is "forgiving, but not forgetting." And it definitely rings true in this situation. McClain struggled throughout most of the season to adapt to NFL style of play. However, he did show signs of improvement during the last few games of the regular season. Missing a portion of training camp due to the lockout isn't going to help his progress but he will still have the advantage of playing in all the pre-season games and has a good chance to emerge as a solid LB2, if not higher. S|
|24. RILB Karlos Dansby (MIA) – Dansby broke my heart just a little bit last year (in a purely IDP-related way). I had big expectations for him moving into Mike Nolan's defensive scheme. However, he was quite inconsistent throughout the year and ended up with only 78 solo tackles. He was hampered by a leg injury for a good part of the season, but even when he was healthy, he just seemed a bit lost. He seems to have a much better grasp on the defensive scheme this year and I expect him to have a bounce back season.|
|25 (22). ROLB James Harrison (PIT) – Harrison is one of the few big-play linebackers in the league that has the ability to produce 65+ solo tackles in a year on a regular basis. Having Woodley opposite him keeps defenses honest and helps Harrison stay consistent throughout the year. Out of all the sack-reliant linebackers in the league, I would draft Harrison first (even slightly before DeMarcus Ware).
August 31st Update: After multiple off-season back surgeries, Harrison seems a bit slow in preseason. Teammate James Farrior even admitted that he thought James Harrison looked a bit fatigued in their latest preseason game. He's getting up there in age and I've dropped him down a few slots because of off-season health issues.
|26. MLB Jonathan Vilma (NO) – VILMA!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I've never been a huge fan of Vilma but, by the end of the season, he always seem to crack the top 25 fantasy linebackers. He's just one of those players that finds a way to generate fantasy points whether it be through tackles, sacks, forced fumbles, etc. If you can handle the week-to-week fluctuation in points, Vilma is a solid LB3+ choice.|
|27. WLB Lance Briggs (CHI) – Up until last season, Briggs had been one of the most consistent fantasy linebackers in the game. He suffered through injuries for a large part of the year which led to him being a step slow and missing out on a decent amount of tackles. Having had the whole off-season to recover, Briggs should be back in full force. He did turn 30 last season however and will probably see a slight tick down in his stat production. R
September 5th Update: Briggs is requesting a trade out of Chicago. Briggs benefits from the amount of Cover 2 the Bears play and will probably see a reduction in box score numbers if he does indeed get traded.
|28 (23). MLB Stephen Tulloch (DET) – Tulloch benefited from seeing a ton of tackle opportunity as Tennessee's defense was on the field quite a bit because of their anemic offense. The move to Detroit is likely to limit the amount of tackle opportunities he will see. On a good note, he will be protected by one of the best, if not the best, front fours in the entire NFL. He would be ranked in the top 15, but much like Curtis Lofton, he has a good amount of tackle competition with DeAndre Levy and Justin Durant playing next to him which ultimately limits his upside. B
August 9th Update: Tulloch took the field for the first time as a Lion last Thursday and was running as the team's first string WLB. He's never played this position before in his career and my bet is he slides back to the middle with Levy moving over to the strong side. The real question for IDP owners is whether or not Tulloch will play in nickel packages. Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz has been known to sit his MLB on 3rd downs and with two other highly athletic 'backers in Levy and Durant, Tulloch could find himself as a two-down linebacker this season. If this happens, he becomes nothing more than a LB4 matchup-type player in tackle-heavy leagues.
Read more about Tulloch in my article analyzing the ADPs of fantasy linebackers.
|29. WILB David Harris (NYJ) - Harris has alternated good year with bad year since coming into the league in 2007. Following this logic, he's due for an above average season this year. He struggled in the tackle column last year as he only had 4 or more games with 5 solo tackles or more. However, he's always good for 3-6 big plays per year which ensures he finishes a top 35-40 player at his position. Based off of last year's numbers, this ranking is a bit high, but he's worth the risk later in rounds as he has top 20 potential in balanced leagues and top 15 potential in big-play leagues.|
|30. MLB E.J. Henderson (MIN) – E.J. "Smart Guy" Henderson reminds me a lot of Karlos Dansby. He never puts up fantastic tackle numbers, but the combination of his above average total tackle numbers and good amount of big plays makes him a decent LB3 option. He rebounded quite nicely from the brutal broken leg injury he suffered back in 2009. As long as he has the Williams brothers plugging up the middle and shielding him from opposing offensive linemen, Henderson will continue to be a pretty good contributor to your fantasy lineup for those in deeper IDP leagues.
Last Updated: September 5, 2011
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