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Defensive Position Rankings

The Amateur Ward: “2017 Rookie Linebackers to Target”

Welcome to my second installment of rookie rankings. This week we tackle linebackers, and this is a deep class with some having tremendous upside. All the names discussed below need to be on dynasty owners’ radars as some of these will be good from the start, whereas some are more developmental picks that could emerge over the next couple of seasons. True dynasty owners know how to find a diamond in the rough when they see one, and with some very unpolished prospects in the draft, they savvy owner will recognize this and capitalize.

The function of linebacker is to set the table for the defense, so to speak, They control the line and open up the playbook for the rest of the defense, allow the defensive ends to get free to pursue the QB, and enable the secondary to take chances on picks. A strong linebacker core controls the game and limits the opposing offenses’ chances due to effective tackling and limiting the run game. This is why drafting a linebacker early in dynasty drafts is so important: you get a defensive advantage over your opponents, leading to a solid defense and the ability to play ‘matchups’ when necessary. This could make/break an owner’s long playoff run, or finishing last in your league. How will you draft? Hopefully smart.

Jarrad Davis (LB-DET)- Playing MLB in Detroit’s defense assures Davis will eclipse 115 tackles and be a borderline LB1 this season. What he brings to the Lions is a linebacker who understands his assignments and can drop in coverage when needed. He is a sure tackler, and while not much of a thumper, will always be around the ball and could be a sneaky source of strips for a linebacker. Davis will provide the Lions with stability at middle linebacker while constantly being in the backfield and in pursuit. His fluidity in the hips makes it easy for him to change direction. He may not be a sack threat, but, he could rack up tackles for loss and be a force all season long. Dynasty owners need to make him the second linebacker off the board and redraft leagues need to make him the first rookie linebacker off the board.

Reuben Foster (LB-S.F.)- Foster has the highest upside of any linebacker from the draft, but he comes with both off-field, as well as on-field concerns. The drug test is not as big of a concern as the slow recovery from rotator cuff surgery, but it did cause him to drop precipitously in the draft. He is by far the most dynamic linebacker from the class and brings the 49ers potentially a better version of Patrick Willis. He shoots gaps to blow up plays, can dis-engage from would be blockers and is underrated when he blitzes. He is the complete package, and should slot right in at weak side linebacker. Dynasty owners need to make him the first rookie linebacker off the boards as he could be real good real fast.

Haason Reddick (LB-ARZ)- The first linebacker drafted, Reddick lacks the body to play outside, but could be a beast from the inside. He is solid in coverage and quick to the signal caller, but struggles to shed blockers. He will have to beat out Karlos Dansby and the reinstated Daryl Washington, but Reddick has a high upside. His adaptation from a small school linebacker to the pros could be a steep learning curve.  But, he is raw and the Cardinals will be creative with him, given his knack for getting to the QB.

Zach Cunningham (LB-HOU)- Cunningham gives the Texans a linebacker who will get after the QB. He is rangy and can hold his own in coverage, the question is how will he fare when facing tackles? He is quick off the ball, but struggles when he is engaged, meaning he must be quicker off the snap and beat his man. Rangy in coverage, he has the quickness to hang with receivers out of the backfield and tight ends, but must refine his technique versus quicker RBs. Unlikely to begin the season as a starter, his upside this season depends on the health of Brian Cushing, who has struggled to stay healthy throughout his career. With that said, Cunningham is an interesting name to eye in Dynasty leagues.

Raekwon McMillan (LB-MIA)- Landing in Miami, the seeming deathtrap for linebackers’ fantasy value, McMillan should step in and help bolster a line that was subpar last season. His forte is stopping the run, and on a Miami unit that finished 30th in run defense, and 4.8 yards per carry, he will be a welcome addition. Getting off blockers quickly is a plus, giving him the ability to redirect them, but he needs to work on changing direction during plays. He is a sound tackler, but the knock on him is he struggles at times versus more established runners and tight ends, and can be beat on routes. His ability to drop in coverage and eye the QB is a plus but he needs to work on not biting so much on some plays, as he missed some easy interceptions at Ohio State. He will start at strongside linebacker, with a move to weakside in the future a real possibility. McMillan is what the Dolphins needed and he will lead the team’s linebackers in tackles this season.

Duke Riley (LB-ATL)- Riley will likely start his career in subpackages and covering kicks, but that does not mean he will not be utilized in ways that will enable him to learn the game and improve his play. Playing with fellow backer, Deion Jones, Riley will look to step in and bolster the Falcons’ defense on run downs and packages where he will play in space and be the sideline to sideline guy. A bit undersized for a linebacker, he may end up at weakside, but Quinn also has stated he plans on using him inside. This means, on occasion, offenses will have to worry about two speed linebackers who can hit and wrap up. While he is quick to the ball, he can be redirected easily and at times has trouble shedding blockers, but he should be able to use his speed to run down runningbacks and pressure the QB.

Tyus Bowser (LB-BAL)- Bowser, is very raw as a pass rusher, but he is quick and can flat out hit. His technique on the rush is built around speed, but he needs to work on beating blockers and developing a move to devastate them. The Ravens needed to get younger at linebacker with Terrell Suggs turning 35 and Elvis Dumervil gone. He will be a project, but Bowser has shown the ability to drop in coverage and cover tight ends nicely. Baltimore will look to get him on the field early and often as they need to establish a pass rush, and Bowser offers them a Bruce Irvin type edge rusher with versatility. He needs to be on dynasty owners’ radars and is worth a stash late.

TJ Watt (LB-PIT)- The Steelers took the third of the Watt brothers, and while TJ may never be the same defensive player as JJ, he has the chance to be a contributor for the Steelers as a pass rusher. Somewhat of a surprise first round pick, Watt brings pass rush ability and has some nice upside, with some comparisons to Clay Matthews. He is a one year wonder though and it remains to be seen if he can continue his play at the highest level. A quick and fast hitter versus blockers, Watt mirrors the QB and has the knack for interceptions as a former tight end. His technique is raw, but with the proper guidance, he could become a force for the Steelers. Dynasty owners need to look at the Wisconsin product late as he offers subpackage sack upside immediately, with more in the tank if he refines his footwork and technique.

Anthony Walker (LB-IND)- Walker will be a project for the Colts, but the Northwestern product has good ability to run with runningbacks and tight ends but needs to refine his technique on beating blockers at the initial point of contact. His frame limits his speed and movement some, however, he possesses great awareness in coverage, reading the QB’s eyes and can close out the ballcarrier. Likely limited to special teams in his first season, if he is properly groomed he could emerge as a middle or inside linebacker for the Colts in the future as he has the passion and mentality to do so.

Kendell Beckwith (LB-TB)- The LSU thumper may ‘redshirt’ his rookie season due to an ACL tear suffered late in the season for LSU, but he is a two down banger that can flat out hit and chase down runners. Limited in coverage and starting with a too high center of gravity will limit his effectiveness versus blockers, but he is strong enough to fight through blocks and pursue. The Buccaneers will groom Beckwith to be a very effective player versus the run, and he will play alongside Lavonte David, in what could be a dynamic duo for seasons to come. He could be underrated in leagues counting stuffs and tackles for loss.

Names to keep an eye on

Ryan Anderson (LB-WSH), Alex Anzalone (LB-N.O.), Derek Rivers (LB-NE), Chris Wormley (DE/LB-BAL)), Vince Biegel (LB-GB)


Thanks for tuning in for this Linebacker edition.  I look forward to providing smart, savvy, timely fantasy advise on defense this season. Please feel free to ask any questions or comment, I’ll talk about anything. Remember, don’t be dumb, draft a strong defense and take chances on some rookie linebackers; some show up in a big way every season.


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