In IDP fantasy leagues, linebackers are the heart that pumps the blood for your defense. Without them, you are dead. Not on life support, not in a coma, not a vegetable, not just brain dead. You are DEAD! Dead in terms of league standing, likely last place, unless you have an ungodly offense, or have 10 JJ Watts on your defense. Go look at your league settings and top finishers from last season, after the aforementioned Watt, the next leading scorer for IDP in your league was likely Deandre Levy, Luke Kuechly, or Lavonte David. Thus, that is why you must target stud linebackers in all drafts. They carry your team, and can help make up some ground if your offense has a horrible day. Starting from lucky #100, in the first of five sets of linebacker rankings, I will unveil LBs 81-100 of the top 100, ending at, you guessed it, #1.
Of course, you could easily move some names on here up or down a few slots, but these rankings will reflect where these linebackers should finish in leagues. Take note, because a couple of these names on this first list I am going to get my defensively greedy fingers on come draft day.
100.) Bruce Irvin, Seahawks – It’s not always bad to be last on a list. This especially is true when you are in a contract year and are hungry to stay with your current team. I’ve been high on Irvin for the past two seasons, and this season I fully see a breakout season for him as the Hawks strongside linebacker. He will be skinny on the tackles, K.J. Wright and Bobby Wagner will accumulate those, but Irvin is a solid sleeper to produce double digit sacks. He had 8 in 2013, but was often dinged-up last season, so he comes at a discount this draft season. (Photo courtesy of gridirongrit.com)
99.) Anthony Hitchens, Cowboys – Unlike Rolando McClain who will miss the first four games for violating the league’s substance abuse policy, Hitchens enters 2015 with nice upside on the Dallas line. Currently, he will come off the field mainly on third down as he lacks in pass coverage, but he is very solid against the run. In his rookie season, Hitchens played all three linebacker positions, but seems to have found a home at Dallas’ ‘SAM’ position. The knock against him playing the ‘SAM’ is his size, as your prototypical SAM backer is 6-3″-6’5″ and tips the scales around 225-265. Hitchens is a shrub at 6 foot flat. This means it will be critical for him to get the first blow and gain as much leverage as possible, as he’ll be taking on tight ends and linemen inches taller than him. Where Hitchens excels is his ability to get into the backfield and flow to the ball. He doesn’t wait for the game to come to him, he takes it to the game, or in this case the running back or quarterback. For 2015, he is an upside play who should be targeted in the late rounds and tabbed for 90 tackles and a handful of passes defensed (PD) and stuffs (SF).
98.) Bud Dupree, Steelers – I hope I’m not being too aggressive with this ranking, and I doubt I am, but Dupree oozes with potential as the Steelers attempt to reconstruct the Steel Curtain. Arthur Moats will be the competition, but expect Dupree to beat him out for the left outside linebacker gig. Dupree is a raw, athletic pass rusher who got little attention as he played at Kentucky, not a powerhouse. Athletically, he compares to Demarcus Ware, but he needs to prove he can play with his explosiveness consistently and not get pushed out of plays. If he can, the price will be right on draft day for him. If not, Moats will eat into his snaps. He is by no means a finished product, but the slipper could fit just right in Pittsburgh. Target him as your last linebacker and see how he progresses this season.
97.) Brooks Reed, Falcons – The Atlanta linebacker core, outside of Paul Worrilow, is so bad some may view this as a pity ranking. But, Reed can play. He’s not a tackling machine, nor has he have proven himself as the pass rusher he was heralded to be coming out of Arizona, but he will bring fantasy owners a balanced line of middling tackles, three to five sacks, some passes defensed, and stuffs thrown in as extras this season. The Falcons didn’t just sign him to a five year deal worth twenty-two million dollars if they didn’t see him as their strongside man of the future. Dan Quinn has been known for developing pass rushers in the NFL, so let’s see if Reed can help develop into the pass rusher some thought he would be when he came out of Arizona in 2011. Things will be rocky for the Falcons defense in 2015, but Reed could prove a smart gamble on draft day.
96.) James Harrison, Steelers – This might be the last hurrah for Harrison, but one must always respect a true, dangerous pass rusher, even at his advanced age. Look at what he did in his Golden Days as part of that Steel Curtain. Defensive coordinator Keith Butler wants to use Harrison for 15-25 snaps per game to keep Harrison fresh, but that should be plenty for Harrison to still wreak some havoc and draw some attention. If Jarvis Jones continues to underwhelm, Harrison may be pressed to play more plays as the season draws on. He is a solid option to target for sacks and stuffs. His one season in Cincinnati (2014) was disastrous, and he wisely re-signed with the Steelers.
95.) Melvin Ingram, Chargers – Ingram has the spotlight squarely on him this season after he missed eighteen games over the past two seasons with various injuries. Since 2014, he has lost twenty pounds, which is a positive as it is less weight to carry around. The Chargers defense ranked third-to-last in sacks last season, and they need Ingram to step up if they want to improve that. A healthy season for Ingram could encompass eight-to-ten sacks, around seven stuffs, and a few passes defensed. Health is the key though. The presence of second year line mate Jerry Attaochu could help ease some of the pressure, but the Chargers are counting on Ingram. (Photo courtesy of sportsoutwest.com)
94.) Akeem Ayers, Rams – He, honestly is one of the hardest linebackers for me to rank. He has loads of potential, but has not lived up to the billing as a pass rusher. He was an integral part of the Patriots Super Bowl run last season. Now in St. Louis, after partying at Robert Kraft’s house and collecting his Ring, he’ll join a nasty group of linebackers headed by Laurinaitis and Ogletree. Defenses cannot block all ’em, and chances are Ayers will be the man free to roam playing the strongside for the Rams. I don’t blame you if you reach for him, but don’t reach too much.
93.) Rey Maualuga, Bengals – Look up the definition of mediocrity. Is Maualuga’s photo there? Rey M. only has a starting gig as long as Vincent Rey continues to backup all three linebacker positions and Vontaze Burfict continues to struggle to return from microfracture knee surgery. Vincent Rey is a vastly superior option at middle linebacker as he tallied 32 tackles and three sacks in starts while Maualuga was out. Fantasy owners hope V. wins the gig from the start. I would play Maualuga outside of tackle-heavy leagues.
92.) Ahmad Brooks, 49ers – The 49ers defense took a major hit when Patrick Willis, Justin Smith, and Chris Borland retired, and questions remain whether or not Aldon Smith can stay on the field. The 49ers have major questions at inside linebacker, outside of Navorro Bowman, but Brooks is staying on the outside (was originally an ILB when he entered league with Cincinnati). Drafting Brooks is like window shopping; you see the product, you walk in, you buy it, know its purpose and what you’re getting, then use it for a while until you find a new shiny toy. That’s exactly why you draft Brooks. You want the sacks, a few passes defensed, and stuffs.
91.) Tahir Whitehead, Lions – Whitehead is a surefire sleeper entering this season, but will battle Kyle Van Noy to start at strongside. The plus for Whitehead is he is versatile and can play all three linebacker positions. Although he’s played mostly strongside for his three-year career, when he started for Tulloch last season, he registered 86 tackles and five stuffs. I like him to beat out KVN this season, and his ability against coverage is a plus. Just don’t expect many sacks.
90.) Whitney Mercilus, Texans – Mercilus is a poor man’s Demarcus Ware. He’ll rack up sacks and a few stuffs, but will not get many tackles. Only 24, his upside is still sizable and the Texans hope he continues to produce sacks while Jadaveon Clowney is recovering from microfracture surgery. They have no pass rush after Mercilus with Brooks Reed signing with Atlanta. Double digit sacks is not out of the question for him this season, but don’t overdraft for sacks, and a few forced fumbles and passes defensed.
89.) Justin Durant, Flacons – It seems as if Durant has been around forever, but he’s only 29, on his fourth team. Durant was beasting last season on a very injury-prone Dallas defense with 49 tackles, two forced fumbles, and four passes defensed in seven games before tearing his right bicep and missing the rest of 2014. Make no mistake about it, Durant is a tackling machine, but he needs to stay healthy. From the weakside, it will be interesting to see what Dan Quinn’s defense will have in store for Durant. Paul Worrilow will be the Falcons linebacker to own, but if everything breaks right for Durant, he’ll be a steal on draft day as he could rack up nearly 100 tackles and throw in a few forced fumbles and stuffs. (Photo courtesy of profootballtalk.nbcsports.com)
88.) Devon Kennard, Giants – Currently penciled in to start at SAM for the G-Men, Kennard is probably unknown in fantasy circles. Scouting reports on him from 2014 coming out of Southern Cal might have been incorrect when they said he didn’t have the juice to start on the outside as he tabbed 4.5 sacks and two forced fumbles in 12 games last season. Kennard was heralded as a solid tackler, but lacking explosiveness and versatility. That’s ironic, as he played all three linebacker positions at USC. For 2015, Kennard is a name to keep on the back burner on Draft day, and then watch how he does the first two to three games. He has a decently high ceiling, and should be a boost to a Giants defense with major questions at linebacker.
87.) Kevin Minter, Cardinals – Minter is taking over Daryl Washington’s old position. He has borderline stud potential, but has yet to tap into his potential after a mediocre 2014 season, following a pectoral injury from 2013. The Cardinals stole Weatherspoon from Atlanta this past offseason, but they will look to Minter to anchor the interior after it appears as if Washington’s days in the NFL might be numbered. Coming out of LSU, he was solid against the run, showed competent ability to rush the passer, and is smart in coverage. He projects best as a middle linebacker in the NFL. He will look to put it all together this season as Arizona looks to return to being one of the top defenses in the league. Buy low on him, and see what he brings to the table. He doesn’t have the upside of Barkevious Mingo, but he could produce at ‘Los-lite levels.
86.) Trent Cole, Colts – Cole is one of the most underrated pass rushers of the past decade, and with Mathis (Achilles) seriously questionable for Week 1, he could have some added value in the early part of 2015. Cole can do it all on the outside, and is a very sound linebacker both against the run and in coverage. He will get more plays off once Mathis returns, but he could approach double-digit sacks this season.
85.) Manti Te’o, Chargers – After his right foot cost Te’o nine games his first two seasons, the pressure is on Te’o to produce and help fix the Chargers 26th ranked run defense from last season. Even when he has been on the field, he has been underwhelming, and has not been much of an impact thus far. He showed glimpses of being an impact linebacker when he picked off Tom Brady (Week 14) and recorded his first career sack against the 49ers Colin Kaepernick (Week 16). The question now, is can he be the disruptive force the Chargers thought they would get when they drafted him in 2013, or did his notoriety and publicity overhype him? In case he doesn’t produce, the Chargers drafted Denzel Perryman who could see a good amount of snaps if mediocrity strikes and the Chargers continue to struggle versus the run. (Photo courtesy of rantsports.com)
84.) Tamba Hali, Chiefs – With him, the writing is on the wall: “One year deal,” and the Chiefs drafted Dee Ford (2014). He was once a lock for double digit sacks and 60 tackles, but now at age 31 and on the decline, enjoy the production from Hali before Ford takes over full-time.
83.) Sam Barrington, Packers – Opportunity knocks for Barrington as inside linebackers Brad Jones and A.J. Hawk are gone, leaving Barrington as the favorite to start alongside Clay Matthews. Pro Football Focus grades him positively as a coverage linebacker, but he lacks against the run. The Packers rave about Barrington and he impressed the last seven games in 2014. In all honesty, his writing on the wall is similar to that of James’ Starks when he produced nicely for the Packers in the 2010 playoffs, and in 1996 when Mike Holmgren pulled the rookie tackle John Michels and replaced him with Bruce Wilkerson in enroute to winning the Super Bowl over the Patriots. This season, Barrington may not be a three-down backer, but when he is on the field, he could rack up tackles and a few passes defensed.
82.) Brian Cushing, Texans – If you are in the business of looking for defensive players who will be undervalued on Draft day, Cushing is your man as he is a stud who could be had at McDonald’s Dollar Menu prices. He is coming off a career worst season last year when he only posted 72 tackles and one sack. To be fair, he is recovering from three offseason surgeries and only played in 12 games between 2012-13, and has had countless other surgeries in the past (including ALC, LCL). He might be a bit rusty heading into OTAs. Starting studs at inside linebacker will not get any cheaper than Cushing this year. Grab him when you can.
81.) Christian Kirksey, Browns – The least known of the 2014 Browns first round picks, Mike Pettine knows exactly what he had in Kirksey when he took over the Browns defense in 2014. Kirksey’s rookie season was very solid and he will look to expand upon it this year. He has “future stud inside linebacker” written all over, and now is the time to grab him while you still can. Mike Pettine has his Kiko Alonso in Kirksey in, and the sweet music is just starting to play. (Photo courtesy of grizlr.com)
Whew that was a tough list to compile, tune in next time for the next installment. Until next time, feel free to leave any questions or comments here, or email me at email@example.com. In the meantime, I have a challenge for all, go back the past two years, and look at my rankings and how pretty accurate they were.
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