This week, we begin to get to the bread and butter of linebacker rankings as we start seeing most of the LB2s and bottom half of the LB1s. These are the guys you are going to have to reach for on Draft Day and take a risk on as some are coming off of injuries. I admit, I am high on the rookies in this piece; there is even one rookie that will be a man amongst boys. Last week, I promised a packed rankings for this week and now I must deliver.
40.) Aldon Smith (SF)- Smith is a lot like a good number of talented young players these days; he’s very solid on the field but has a variety of off-field issues. Smith was suspended the first nine games of the season last year, and in his seven games with the 49ers, he registered a mere two sacks and two stuffs. If Smith can put 2014 in his rear view mirror and get back to being his old self, we are looking at one of the premier sack leaders in the league. Since he entered the league, up until his suspension at the beginning of last season, Smith had accrued 42 sacks, second only to Jared Allen. This season, Smith’s defense will be paramount for the 49ers as they have lost three of their best defenders to retirement (Willis, Smith, Borland) and are seeking to find consistency on offense. Yes, he comes with risk, but he’s worth it. (Photo courtesy of stltoday.com)
39.) Sio Moore (OAK)- A lot of people are high on Moore after his 90 tackle, three sack, eight stuffs performance in 11 games last season, but I’m not sold. Yes, that has top-30 fantasy LB numbers written all over it if extrapolated over a full 16 games, but he also missed a ton of tackles. He is coming off “major” hip surgery surgery in the offseason, and is battling Malcolm Smith for the weakside gig. As of this writing, he still is slow coming back from the surgery and may not be ready week one. If he is healthy for week one, expect some rust and for Smith to steal some snaps early on. He serves as a nice pass rush complement opposite Khalil Mack, but with free agent acquisition Curtis Lofton, his tackle numbers are sure to take a dip.
38.) Mychal Kendricks (PHI)- Due to a bad calf last season, Kendricks was no where near 100% after injuring his calf in week two and missing four games. This offseason, the Eagles were looking for trade offers on Kendricks as he was a no-show up until voluntary workouts, the Eagles are actively trying to trade him for a second round pick. With Demeco Ryans and Kiko Alonso on the inside and Graham and Barwin outside, Kelly and Co. have decided Kendricks is expendable. Fantasy-wise, we hope he lands in a spot where he will be a middle linebacker or starting inside linebacker as he is an absolute stud when healthy. Even through calf issues last season, Kendricks was nasty, six stuffs, three passes defensed, four sacks. Kelly’s loss will be someone else’s gain (not sure what Kelly is thinking, honestly) because Kendricks is very young (24), an emerging stud, and a defensive centerpiece a team can build around. Trading Kendricks is a bad idea for the Eagles because, Demeco Ryans is slowing down, is a major liability now in coverage and not nearly as effective against, and has had two torn Achilles in the last five seasons. No, the problem isn’t that Chip Kelly is just blind, it’s he does not like Kendricks…at all. I have an idea for Kelly, Trade Demeco Ryans instead.
37.) Brandon Marshall (DEN)- The lesser-known Brandon Marshall has more playoff experience than the better-known one (the now, Jets receiver) and the linebacker might be the better all-around talent. In the final year of his rookie contract, Marshall is unlikely to hit the free agent market as an RFA next season. The Broncos view him as their long-term inside linebacker (although he play OLB in Denver’s 4-3 last season) alongside Danny Trevathan. After last season’s breakout performance (113 tackles and two sacks), Marshall got a nice bonus in the offseason and will look to build upon his momentum this season. The Lisfranc surgery he underwent in the offseason should not hinder him once the season starts, but the Broncos will be careful with him initially. If you are looking for a sure-fire tackler and hard hitter, Marshall is your man, as he was the top OLB last season, and only missed four tackles all of last season in 830 snaps.
36.) Bernardrick McKinney (HOU)- If you think this is high for a rookie, you should see where I place a few others above him. No, I’m not over-ranking him, as this guy is a real talent, and he’ll get a chance to contribute immediately playing on the same line as the best defender in the game right now. McKinney comes into the league as your prototypical inside linebacker, and he’s one hell of a thumper as well. Drawing to comparisons of Dont’a Hightower as an inside thumper is high praise, and he’ll be exactly that in Romeo Crenel’s aggressive defense. While he may never develop into a superstar linebacker due to deficiencies in coverage, he is going to be a high-tackling, run stopping beast in the middle of Houston’s insanely tough defense. Invest with confidence.
35.) Vontaze Burfict (CIN)- It remains to be seen when Burfict will be ready for football, and what percentage he can return to, but if he returns to pre-injury heights, Burfict’s a top 20 talent. In the meantime, he’s ranked here because he is still recovering from microfracture surgery and a concussion and likely will be placed on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list to start the season, meaning he’s going to miss at least the first six games of the season. The Bengals need for him, is understated as, in his rookie season, when he was on the field, the Bengals defense gave up 2.4 yards less per play than when he was not on the field. With Emmanuel Lamur and Rey Maualuga currently entrenched as the Bengals top linebackers, the unit could be off to a bad start with Burfict gone, and no fantasy owner should touch any linebacker on the Bengals not named Burfict. He’s a monster when healthy, but he plays physically and violently, and the Bengals need to find a way to get and keep him on the field. If Burfict cannot go, the Bengals would be wise to give TCU rookie Paul Dawson a look as he has more upside than either Maualuga or Lamur. (Photo courtesy of kgmi.com)
34.) Jerod Mayo (NE)- Mayo is no longer the Patriots linebacker to own, as Collins and Hightower are emerging rapidly on the Patriots defense. He has struggled to stay on the field the past two seasons, has lost his Mike job to Hightower, and will play weakside in 2015. If he can stay on the field, Mayo should approach 150 tackles and two forced fumbles. His days as the elite linebacker on the Patriots are officially over, and I would be sure to have an insurance policy if I draft Mayo. His move to weakside hurts his value on draft day as his tackle clip will be curbed somewhat
33.) Demario Davis (NYJ)- Now here’s a Jet I will draft. Although not the flashiest LB, Davis is a solid one and a name that could be a difference maker most weeks. In 2012, under Rex Ryan, Davis was a special teamer, but has progressed into an every down backer in the middle of the Jets defense. He will never be an elite sack guy, or a guy to rack up a ton of stuffs as many inside linebackers do, but he’ll rack up the tackles and toss in one or two recovered fumbles. He was by far the Jets best linebacker last season and in a contract year in 2015, he has an added incentive to continue his emergence under Bowles.
32.) Anthony Barr (MIN)- Man oh man, are opposing QBs and RBs in trouble with double trouble in Minnesota. Barr had a solid rookie campaign with three recovered fumbles, two forced, 70 tackles and a score. More is to come from the Vikings young stud, but he will need to improve upon his miss rate (missed one in every 4.5 tackles last season) and improve his ability in coverage. Barr had over 20 tackles against the run last season, 11 stops and graded out as Profootball Focus’ fifth ranked 4-3 outside linebacker. Yep, the sky is the limit for this pass rusher, and it is not out of the question to envision ten or more sacks in a season within the next two years. He and rookie battery-mate Eric Kendricks are a dangerous, dynamic duo in Minnesota for the next decade.
31.) Keenan Robinson (WSH)- If Robinson can stay on the field, he is a beast in coverage and is quick. Honestly, Robinson could emerge into Washington’s best all-around linebacker, but he is still raw and learning to play inside linebacker. In 2014, he had some very solid performances, as he had three QB knockdowns in the first two contests. Then, he regressed a ton over the next six due to decline in his form when playing. Headed into 2015, Robinson should continue to improve his overall game as he learns the Redskins defense better and is better acclimated to the pace of the NFL game. He missed all over 2013 with a pectoral muscle tear and battled a sprained MCL late in 2014.
30.) D’Qwell Jackson (IND)- The Colts duo up the middle of Freeman and Jackson is quite productive and nasty. From a fantasy standpoint, Freeman is the better of the two for production, but D’Qwell always racks up an insane amount of tackles. Originally brought into Indianapolis to shore up the run defense from Cleveland, Jackson didn’t exactly light the world on fire on that frontier in 2014 for the Colts, and he flat-out was horrendous in coverage. In other words, the free agent signing didn’t pay dividends immediately. Will he improve in 2015 for the Colts? Fantasy owners hope so, as we need those stats against the run. For his career, Jackson has never been a stud against the run, but his play has declined versus it the past three seasons. When you draft Jackson, you know what you are going to get. Just double-check your scoring for the category. Unintentionally starting Deflategate, as Jackson was the one who wound up with the pick of Brady to start Deflategate. He wanted the ball as a souvenir. The rest is history. (Photo courtesy of colts.com)
29.) Jerrell Freeman (IND)- By all accounts, Freeman had a down season last year, after six forced fumbles in 2014. Injuries had a lot to do with the drop-off in production. He is still the best inside linebacker the Colts have as Jackson is simply atrocious in coverage. Freeman may not be the strongest against the run, but he’s a smart player and knows the system the Colts are running the best of their backers. Simply put, without Freeman on the line, the Colts defense struggles mightily, and they are dependent upon him because of ability to be a difference maker. Indianapolis finished 12th versus the run last season, but still needs help shoring up the middle. If Freeman can stay on the field, the unit could be a bit better this season, but they still need an answer in the run game. Is he a surefire LB1? No, but Freeman is darned consistent and an asset against the pass.
28.) Stephone Anthony (N.O.)- As much as I hate the Saints, Anthony has a good shot at being on some of my fantasy squads because he’s going to be a stud sooner rather than later. Anthony takes the place of departed Curtis Lofton (Oakland) as the Saints Mike linebacker, and he’ll be an immediate threat for DROY and triple-digit tackles. Anthony gets downhill in a hurry, finishes plays and has good sideline-sideline movement. The problem is, he will be outplayed by running backs and needs to improve usage of hands when beating tackles and tight ends; the main reason he will not win DROY. However, Anthony will make his debut in my next rankings. For his rookie season, look for a fair number of stuffs and, given his ability in coverage, don’t be surprised to see a pick or two.
27.) Jamie Collins (NE)- Collins is an emerging stud on the Patriots, and owners should grab him while they still can. Mayo has struggled to stay healthy the past two seasons, leaving Collins and Hightower as the wave of the future in New England. Don’t get me wrong, a healthy Mayo is an absolute terror for an offense to see, but Collins is extremely versatile and yet to reach his full potential. In his sophomore season in 2014, Collins forced four fumbles and recovered two. He is on his way to being a premier defensive talent and cornerstone for the Patriots at the “Sam” position. Let’s see what he does for an encore in his third season. Just consider him mine on Draft day, though.
26.) Danny Trevathan (DEN)- Trevathan flashed his potential in 2013 when he had ten passes defensed and seven stuffs, and is a top-15 talent when completely healthy. He only appeared in three games last season due to a fractured knee cap, but should be fully good to go for the start of the season. Wade Phillips has two physical and dominating linebackers in Marshall and Trevathan, Trevathan is just a cut above Marhall talent and upside-wise. Opposing offenses are not happy to see him back, and he is a terror to deal with on an every down basis. You could do worse than tab him as your LB1 in leagues counting passes defensed and stuffs.
25.) Sean Lee (DAL)- The domino effect was in full effect for the Dallas linebackers injury-wise in 2014. After Lee (ACL) was lost for the season in 2014, the rest of the linebackers followed suit. Truth be told, Lee is more integral to the Cowboys than he is to fantasy owners. Without Lee, the Cowboys defense can sputter and is a bottom third league defense, and horrendous (26th) against opposing quarterbacks. Surprisingly, the Cowboys were top ten (8th) against the run last season. The good news for ‘Boys fans is Lee will be good to go for the start of the season, and fantasy should target Lee early because he will provide owners with three picks and over 100 tackles. (Photo courtesy of zimbio.com)
24.) Von Miller (DEN)- The Broncos are switching to a 3-4 base defense, where Miller will play strongside in Wade Phillips’ defense, and I have a sneaky suspicion Miller could be in for a career year. We all know his sack prowess and how lethal he is when he hits, but I’m predicting 75 tackles as well. If Miller had played in a 3-4 defense last season, he would have finished as the second best edge rusher behind Justin Houston, who is Miller’s division nemesis. Fantasy owners should be rejoicing for Denver switching up defenses as Miller could potentially top his career high in forced fumbles and tackles all while challenging for the sack lead this season.
23.) Derrick Johnson (KC)- A blown Achilles cost Johnson 14 games last season, and the Chiefs defense suffered massively. Justin Houston and Eric Berry are the two most talented players on the Chiefs defense, but Johnson is the soul of the team and makes the team go. True, ruptured Achilles can be very difficult to overcome in such a demanding sport, especially at Johnson’s age of 32. But, he is expected to be ready for week one, and if he is, the Chiefs pass defense gets a boost as Johnson is a force against the pass, can take on and shed blockers with ease, and is a very capable blitzer. He is a borderline LB1 that may come at an LB2 price on Draft Day coming off his Achilles rupture.
22.) Telvin Smith (JAC)- The sky is the limit for this kid, and towards the end of 2014 he showed us why he was such a highly touted prospect out of FSU. He can do it all: cover, tackle, defend the run, get to the quarterback. He just needs to continue to emerge after his nice rookie season where he posted 102 tackles, eight stuffs, four passes defensed and two recovered fumbles. The Jaguars have their defensive centerpiece for the next decade, now they just need to build around him, and so should you. Draft him as your LB2 and he could easily emerge as your LB1.
21.) Stephen Tulloch- “I don’t always tear my ACL, but when I do, I’m sure to be celebrating a sack of Aaron Rodgers.”
Yes, Tulloch, we all saw you sack Rodgers… then stay on the turf after celebrating. Access to the Discount Double-Check Club: DENIED. In 2013, Tulloch had 135 tackles, and is an absolute force when he is healthy and on the field. Without Tulloch for the vast majority of 2014, Detroit ranked barely inside the top 15 against the pass. Tulloch is an immense presence in coverage as he has phenomenal instincts and closing ability once the receiver has the ball. He gauges very well, diagnoses plays quickly and makes the play. His weakness is the pass rush, but the Lions do not typically ask him to rush or blitz. The Lions defense was nasty as a whole last season, and with Tulloch back, watch out NFC North as the Lions are for real defensively. (Photo courtesy of foxnews.com)
Next week. we wrap up our linebacker rankings, and the names on that list are all MUST owns in fantasy leagues as they will be your bolts for your defense. While these guys are the compliments to those bolts and the ones that lead you to the playoffs or further.
(Click the BLUE link below to listen)
Major League Fantasy Sports Show: Join Ej Garr and Corey D Roberts on Sunday August 2nd from 7-9pm EST for this week’s episode of Major League Fantasy SportsRadio sponsored by the Sports Palooza Radio Network. Call in at 646-915-8596. This week’s discussion will be all about the MLB trade deadline deals, and how they will affect your fantasy teams.