There's an old adage in IDP leagues that middle linebackers make for the best fantasy options. To quote Dwight Schrute, "False." For fantasy purposes, it really doesn't matter where a linebacker lines up in the base defense.
IDP value at the linebacker position hinges on a player's subpackage role. Simply put, it's very rare for a two-down player to put up consistent fantasy-relevant numbers. So we want to stay keenly aware of the three-down players and use this information to dominate our opponents. So let's take a look at the three-down linebackers from all 32 teams.
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Things are a bit of a mess for the Cardinals, as they’re without their two every-down options from last season – Daryl Washington and Karlos Dansby. Right now, veteran Larry Foote projects to be the only three-down linebacker on the inside with Kevin Minter ticketed for a two-down role. Minter missed a good chunk of the preseason, but managed to get back on the field for Arizona’s final dress rehearsal. He’s someone to monitor, but isn’t worth rostering at this point. Foote is a low-ceiling LB3 option at this point, which isn’t very desirable from a fantasy standpoint.
Sean Weatherspoon’s off-season injury opened the door for Paul Worrilow to essentially cement himself in a three-down role. Worrilow is locked and loaded as an LB1. The Falcons have used Joplo Bartu along side Worrilow throughout the preseason with Bartu staying on the field in the nickel subpackages. Bartu played three-downs last year as well, but didn’t flash a high fantasy ceiling. He’s really only an option in the deepest of leagues.
One of last season’s IDP breakouts, Daryl Smith is back in an every-down role for the Ravens along with rookie C.J. Mosley (sorry Arthur Brown dynasty owners). While Smith is the more likely of the two to finish the year with the most fantasy points, Mosley offers a very intriguing IDP ceiling. Of course, Terrell Suggs will also be on the field for all three downs. He’s a strong option in big-play scoring systems.
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With Kiko Alonso on injured reserve, we weren’t exactly sure how the Bills would navigate their subpackages. Early on, it appeared like Nigel Bradham was going to get Alonso’s role, but Buffalo appears to have confidence in Brandon Spikes as an every-down player. Spikes has shown the ability to rack up tackles in the past, but was never able to secure subpackage duties in New England. Playing all three downs with eight games in front of the league’s most tackle-happy stat crew bodes positively for Spikes’ IDP value. He’s an upside LB2. As for Bradham, we’ll have to wait and see if he plays in the nickel over Keith Rivers.
This one is fairly easy. Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis will again serve as the three-down linebackers. Kuechly is a stud, and you know that. Davis is also a stud, and you might not know that. Obviously, Kuechly eats into Davis’ fantasy value, but he’s a strong option as your third linebacker.
Lance Briggs is back and healthy for the Bears after missing seven games last season with a shoulder injury. He’ll play every down and is a high floor/low ceiling option. As of right now, it’s not clear who will be joining Briggs in the subpackages. It’s unlikely to be D.J. Williams, as the Bears have only used Williams as a two-down option in the preseason. In Chicago’s second preseason game, Jon Bostic rotated on the field for Williams in the nickel, and last week against Seattle Bostic actually started. I know that just got a bunch of you really excited, but don’t get too carried away. Bostic only played in the nickel with the ones, and Williams and Shea McClellin played in the base defense. We’re likely to see this arrangement for at least the near future, but keep an eye on Bostic. He’ll have fantasy value if he works his way into a three-down job.
Last season’s tackle leader Vontaze Burfict is back in an every-down role for the Bengals along with Emmanuel Lamur. You may not be familiar with Lamur just yet, but I have a feeling you will be after this season. A freakish athlete, he’s 6-fot-4 and has sideline-to-sideline ability. Lamur is the perfect high-ceiling option to snag as your fourth or fifth linebacker in deeper leagues.
The Browns landed one of the biggest IDP studs of 2013 in Karlos Dansby this past off-season. Dansby is locked into a three-down job, and remains an LB1 fantasy option. At this point, Craig Robertson is still penciled in as the other starter for the Browns. However, in their third preseason game Cleveland rotated Robertson off the field in passing situations in favor of rookie Christian Kirskey. The third-rounder has drawn rave reviews for his play during camp, and it’s only a matter of time before he usurps the base down snaps from Robertson. Keep an eye on Kirskey’s usage, and be prepared to pounce if/when he gets a three-down job.
What a mess. With Sean Lee injured (again), the Cowboys have scrambled to cobble together some semblance of a linebacker corps. Justin Durant opened camp as Lee’s replacement in the middle, but Dallas has experimented with Anthony Hitchens and Rolando McClain there as well. Whether he’s in the middle or not, Durant is all but guaranteed a three-down gig. However, from there it’s really tough to make heads or tails of what the Cowboys are going to do. The fact that Dallas played Hitchens and rested Bruce Carter in their final preseason suggests Carter’s the most likely to started and play in the subpackages, but your guess is as good as mine.
With Danny Trevathan sidelined with a fractured tibia, the Broncos have used Brandon Marshall in an every-down role. All indications are that this will stick until Trevathan returns in late-September/early-October. Marshall is an intriguing short-term replacement LB3 for anyone rostering Trevathan or another injured linebacker like NaVorro Bowman. Von Miller only played nine snaps in the preseason, but he’s still on track with his recovery from a torn ACL. He’ll play base snaps at linebacker and kick to defensive end in the subpackages. Miller moving to end means the Broncos will keep Nate Irving on the field in their nickel packages. Irving won’t play every down, as the Broncos do deploy their share of dime, but he’s still worth a look as a fifth or sixth linebacker in very deep leagues.
This one’s fairly cut and dry. Just like we saw last season, Stephen Tulloch and DeAndre Levy will play all three downs. Tulloch is a steady, high-floor borderline LB2. As he showed us last season, Levy’s ceiling is much higher. But those expecting a repeat performance may be disappointed. It’ll be very difficult for Levy to match the six interceptions he posted last season, so expect some regression.
Through the preseason, the Packers used Brad Jones as their lone three-down inside linebacker with A.J. Hawk coming off the field in some of the subpackages. I’m going to continue to bang the table for Jones, who is criminally undervalued at this point. Hawk may have matchup value at times, but his production will be inconsistent. Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers will also play all three downs. Matthews has massive upside, but like most rush outside linebackers he’s an extremely boom-or-bust fantasy option. He’s best suited to leagues with big play scoring systems. Peppers is getting a defensive line classification on some commissioner sites, and I’d put him in the DL2 range. I’d likely look elsewhere on sites where he’s designated as a linebacker.
Brian Cushing saw limited action in the preseason, and remains on track to open the season as the Texans’ every-down option on the inside. It’s very unlikely we’ll see another three-down player on the inside, but we will almost certainly see Jadeveon Clowney in that role on the outside. The No. 1 overall pick looked beastly early in the preseason, but has been held out of Houston’s last two preseason games with an undisclosed injury. There’s no indication that he won’t be ready for Week 1.
Jerrell Freeman is back for the Colts in an every-down role, and this season he’ll be joined by D’Qwell Jackson. This is a nice upgrade for Indy after relying last season on a patchwork corps that included Pat Angerer, Kelvin Sheppard, and Kavell Conner. Needless to say, Freeman will have a lot more competition for tackles this season. So don’t expect a repeat LB1 season. Both he and Jackson are borderline LB2s. Last season’s league leader in sacks, Robert Mathis, is suspended for the first four games, but he’ll play every-down and will remain a viable fantasy option in big play leagues when he returns.
Gus Bradley’s defense will again turn to Paul Posluszny to anchor the middle and play all three downs. Posluszny is an IDP stud, and you don’t need me to tell you that. But is there any other IDP value to be had in Jacksonville? At least initially, it looks like the answer to that question is no. The Jags will likely use Geno Hayes and LaRoy Reynolds in their base defense with rookie Telvin Smith coming on the field in passing situations. There’s a chance Smith works his way into the base downs, so keep an eye on him.
This one isn’t as easy. Dannell Ellerbe played every-down in the middle for the Dolphins last season, but was a bit of a disaster. Miami wasn’t going down that road again, and they swapped Ellerbe with Koa Misi. It’s not set in stone, but all indications are the Dolphins will go with Misi and Ellerbe as their every-down options with Phillip Wheeler coming off the field in the nickel. Misi has the more intriguing fantasy profile of the two, but I still wouldn’t want to trust him as anything more than my fourth linebacker at this point.
Here’s what we know. Chad Greenway remains a three-down option for the Vikes, and rookie Anthony Barr will play a hybrid outside linebacker/defensive end. From there, it’s unclear how the Vikings will deploy their other linebacker spot. Throughout the preseason, Jasper Brinkley and Audie Cole have gotten work with the ones, but neither has stood out. We could likely see a platoon with Brinkley in the base defense and Cole playing in the subpackages. If that’s the case, there’s no fantasy value to be had here.
Jerod Mayo is locked into one of the Patriot’s every-down linebacker spots, but the question this off-season has centered on who will be out there with him in the subpackages? It appears like last year’s playoff standout Jamie Collins will be that player. Collins is one of our favorite breakout defensive players, and I’ve advised drafting him numerous times this preseason.
There’s not much to see here. Curtis Lofton is again the every-down option with David Hawthorne playing in the nickel. Lofton remains a high-floor LB2, and Hawthorne remains on the fringes of the fantasy radar.
New York Jets
New York Giants
The oft-injured Jon Beason is on track to get back on the field in Week 1, and when he does, he’ll play every down. Jacquian Williams will man the other linebacker spot in the Giants’ nickel, but like the Jets neither player is a particularly appealing fantasy option. For those wondering, if Beason was to miss any more time, Jameel McClain is his most likely replacement in the subpackages.
Nick Roach will be back playing all three downs for the Raiders this year, and rookie Khalil Mack is also ticketed for an every-down gig as a hybrid outside linebacker. Sio Moore appears to have edged Miles Burris for the starting job on the weak side, and has thankfully avoided serious injury to his neck. Moore will most likely play every-down. Roach is the best IDP option here, but Moore and Mack have very interesting fantasy upside.
Like we saw last year, DeMeco Ryans and Mychal Kendricks will be in the Eagles’ nickel packages. However, Philly has swapped the two in the dime, giving Kendricks the every-down job. Kendricks has looked very good this preseason, and is a strong LB2. Expect Ryans to regress from last season’s totals. Of course, Connor Barwin and Trent Cole will also play three-down roles on the outside, but neither player is fantasy-relevant.
Lawrence Timmons and rookie Ryan Shazier are slated to play every down for the Steelers. Shazier has been as advertised in the preseason, and looks incredibly fast. He’ll be in the running to be rookie IDP of the year. Jason Worrilds and Jarvis Jones will also play every down on the outside. Worrilds flashed big play upside last season, and makes for a solid option in sack-heavy scoring formats.
Donald Butler will reprise his role as the Chargers’ every-down option, with Manti Te’o getting subpackage snaps in the nickel. Te’o dealt with a left foot sprain in the preseason, which is unrelated to the offseason surgery he had on his right foot.
To open the season, the 49ers will use Patrick Willis on the inside and Ahmad Brooks on the outside in every-down roles. From there it gets a little tricky. Of course, NaVorro Bowman is sidelined until likely Week 9, and Aldon Smith is suspended for nine games, which puts him back on the field in Week 11. It appears like Michael Wilhoite will be Bowman’s replacement. Both he and rookie Chris Borland got work with the ones this preseason, but the 49ers didn’t play Wilhoite in their final dress rehearsal. Those who took a shot at Bowman may want to take a long look at Wilhoite for replacement-level production.
Of course, Lavonte David will play every down for the Bucs, and it’s looking likely that Mason Foster will be joining him. Foster has been unable to secure a subpackage role thus far in his career, but he’s reportedly impressed the new Bucs coaching staff and has played three downs in the preseason. Foster put up decent numbers in a two-down role in the past, and offers a very high fantasy ceiling this year. It wouldn’t surprise me if he finishes the year as a Top 20 linebacker.
The Titans signed free agent Wesley Woodyard this offseason, and the former Bronco is locked into a three-down job. We weren’t quite sure who else would be out there with him, but Zach Brown has emerged as the preferred option. Brown hasn’t been a model of consistency thus far in his career, but he’ll have IDP value in a three-down role.
With London Fletcher out of the mix, Perry Riley remains in an every-down role along with Keenan Robinson on the inside. Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan will again play all three downs on the outside. While Orakpo and Kerrigan are really only IDP options in sack-heavy leagues, Riley and Robinson are viable in most scoring systems. Riley projects to be in the LB2 range, though we’re not entirely sure what we have with Robinson. Much like Emmanuel Lamur in Cincinnati, Robinson comes in with sideline-to-sideline ability and offers very intriguing fantasy upside.