In Part Three of this series (out of five) we will look at the linebacker position to determine the NFL players that will make the biggest impact on the upcoming season.
Again, we are ignoring specific scoring settings, as they vary widely in the IDP world, the focus here is on which players stand to be in the best position to maximize their talent to accumulate worthwhile stats.
Linebackers are the bread and butter of every fantasy team in an IDP league, the axle that the wheel spins around. But, is any one linebacker really that important? There is a debate on the value of the truly elite LB's in a fantasy draft, as compared to the elite defensive linemen, in particular.
The replacement value for linebackers is fairly close, meaning you can replace a stud player with a waiver wire player and pretty much get 75-80% of the production in most league formats.
A player like Dhani Jones (Cincinnati) will most likely not get drafted (unless there is a huge Bengals homer, or a fan of the Travel Channel in your league) and he had 116 tackles last season. There is very little chance that you can find that comparable production from defensive linemen in the free agent pool.
Without disparaging the LB position too much, it is still essential that you select impact players at the position that also provide consistency, which is one thing you won't get from your DL or DBs. The reason this article is titled: Sacks, Tackles, and Shackles is that nearly all linebackers fit into these categories:
Is an obviously named category, in that the player is basically a sack master. Think DeMarcus Ware or Joey Porter here. He basically is an extra defensive end on the field, and quite typically is an NFL team's weak-side linebacker.
The best of them will get some tackles, lots of sacks, a few forced fumbles, and maybe even a fumble recovery or an interception for a TD once in a great while.
As a group they are not as consistent of a source of IDP fantasy points, but the weeks that they do produce it is a watershed of points.
In a 3-4 defense, WOLB's (like Ware) typically are going to be much more consistent year-to-year and game-to-game than their 4-3 WLB counterparts (such as Lance Briggs or Thomas Howard), and have a much higher ceiling.
This is another clearly worded category, as these players are the tackling machines. Patrick Willis and Jon Beason are two of the current tackle kings. They are typically inside linebackers, MLB in a 4-3 and SILB in a 3-4.
Their job is to put there bodies into the point of attack and make plays, a good MLB will require the opposing offense to scheme around him. The most consistent fantasy performers will be MLB in a 4-3 defense (like Beason) but the elite point scorers will be an ILB in a 3-4 defense (like Willis or Jerod Mayo) who has another ILB (Takeo Spikes or Tedy Bruschi) that plugs the hole and takes on the blocker freeing up our tackling machine to take on the ball carrier.
The ILB in a 3-4 defense also has more opportunities in coverage to get interceptions and in disguised blitzes to get sacks.
Ah, that one had you thinking, right? These types of linebackers are really good football players, but usually bad as fantasy prospects. They are the LB's that are forced to cover tight ends, blow up blockers, or man a zone in pass protection.
They are "shackled" to their positional duties, they are the "fullbacks" of the defense, and strong-side linebackers in any scheme and sometimes ILB in a 3-4 defense.
There are a few exceptions to this rule, of course, but they are easily counted on one hand. Chad Greenway of the Vikings is easily the top SLB and a fantasy stud, LaMarr Woodley in Pittsburgh is a force to be reckoned with, and Julian Peterson is a great NFL player but is on the cusp of being fantasy relevant (in regular sized leagues).
But that is about it, three consistent fantasy-relevant players out of 32 starting strong-side linebackers, regardless of defensive scheme. Stay away from these guys no matter how "great" they look in preseason, or how good they are in real football terms, it doesn't equate to statistics that fantasy football currently measures.
The only question you have to ask yourself: is Aaron Curry (or Brian Cushing) an "exception" or "the rule" for this position?
At this time it is wise to avoid the linebacker situations in Green Bay, Oakland, and Kansas City. While there are many good players on those teams there is too much turmoil in regards to playing time, positions, scheme changes, etc to warrant drafting those players before any of the "safer bets" listed.
Also, there are just too many good linebackers to list. It is hard to leave players off this list such as Gary Brackett, D'Qwell Jackson, Daryl Smith, Julian Peterson, Keith Bullock, David Harris, Calvin Pace (suspension of course), and many others.
All of them could be in the 20-30 range for one reason or another, especially the two Jets LBs, but a line must be drawn in the sand somewhere. This goes back to the point about "replacement value" being fairly close for linebackers in the free agent pool.
So, here are the top 30 Fantasy Linebackers:
30. Mike Peterson, ATL
I love the move that Peterson is making to Atlanta and to the WLB spot. With John Abraham in front of him and Curtis Lofton next to him, Peterson can return to his glory days of fantasy stardom.
29. Ernie Sims, DET
The primary beneficiary of the Lions adding Julian Peterson at SLB and Larry Foote at MLB will be Ernie Sims. Now able to return to a true WLB role, he will create havoc for the Lions and be a fantasy star once again.
28. Shawne Merriman, SD
It is exciting to see Merriman back in the fold as he can be the most productive fantasy LB when healthy. However Shawne still has a lot of time to make up for with his recovery, by mid-season he should be in full stride, and he is playing for a contract this season with rookie Larry English pushing him also.
27. Joey Porter, MIA
He surprised everyone with his huge sack totals last season, but Porter is a perfect fit in the WOLB spot in Miami. He will continue to get more sacks with the Fins having Jason Taylor back to confuse the offenses.
26. Ray Lewis, BAL
Yes Ray Lewis has been the most dominating LB of our time, but he is also getting older, lost his sidekick (Bart Scott), and D-coordinator (Ryan). I'm not a doubter, Lewis will still dominate, but there will be more separation from Lewis and the top LB's this season.
25. Lawrence Timmons, PIT
In spot duty in 2008 Timmons put up very impressive numbers, now the former 1st round pick will get his chance to be a full-time member of the Steel Curtain. Expect big things from him and you won't be disappointed.
24. Anthony Spencer, DAL
We are going out on a limb with this pick, but Spencer is assuming the SOLB role opposite Demarcus Ware, with a Cowboys defense expected to be more aggressive. If Greg Ellis could be fantasy relevant in this spot, then the much more athletic Spencer will thrive.
23. E.J. Henderson, MIN
With an all-pro cast of players all around him, E.J. cannot help but produce big time numbers from MLB, but he is way more than just a plug in the middle, as the captain of the Purple People Eaters, No. 23 could be his "floor"!
22. James Farrior, PIT
Talk about steady and predictable! There is a reason that the Steelers OLB (no matter who it is) is always near the league's top players, because the middle is rock-solid foundation in James Farrior. Why expect anything different in 09?
21. Lofa Tatupu, SEA
A season of change is a good thing in Seattle as last year only saw many problems exposed in Seattle. With Aaron Curry at "Sam"; Cory Redding and Colin Cole on the line, and his contract negotiation looming, Lofa will return to his versatile play.
20. Barrett Ruud, TB
The Tampa Bay Bucs are now Ruud's team, he is playing for a contract extension, the new staff wants to blitz and put more pressure on the QB. Ruud is a true playmaker at MLB, not just a tackle machine and would not surprise to be on the verge of the top 10.
19. Will Witherspoon, STL
Witherspoon is making a transition back to WLB in St. Louis. Spagnuolo is the new head coach, Chris Long will be in front of him, and they should be on the field a lot as the offense continues to struggle. All that adds up to a great season from Will.
18. Lance Briggs, CHI
The Bears have all the pieces back in place on defence, the most important one being Bob Babich in charge of the LB crew. "The rising tide lifts all ships" and Briggs will be a tidal wave of hits once again.
17. Bart Scott, NYJ
The Jets' Rex Ryan brought in Bart Scott to provide leadership in the transition to his version of the 3-4 defense, but Scott will step out of the long shadow cast by Ray Lewis. The Jets have a strong surrounding cast and Scott will be huge in 2009.
16. Jon Beason, CAR
An elite tackling machine, Beason is the leader of the Panthers defense facing a contract year. But a lingering hamstring strain and the loss of Kemoeatu in front of him taking up double-team blocks he will struggle to replicate his total performance of last season.
15. Jonathan Vilma, NO
Vilma has undergone a remarkable rebirth down in the bayou, and his tackle numbers were huge last season as opposing teams tried to run the ball to keep the Saints passing game on the sidelines. Expect more of the same.
14. D.J. Williams, DEN
Does D.J. Williams feel like the Jason Campbell of LB's? Another year, another coordinator, another scheme, another position. The bottom line: D.J. is tailor-made for his role in Denver's 3-4 but we'll keep him at No. 14 due to the rest of the defense's learning curve.
13. London Fletcher-Baker, WAS
Don't sleep on the tried and true veteran tackle-machine. With the middle of line fired up with Albert Haynesworth and Brian Orakpo roaming the edges, London will see a lot more opportunities to make plays, not just tackles.
12. LaMarr Woodley, PIT
The key to Woodley being such a force from his SOLB position is that the Steelers have FOUR top-tier LB's and nobody knows who to stop first. Woodley is a premiere LB on a premiere defense and will once again be a premiere fantasy LB.
11. Adalius Thomas, NE
It's easy to forget the impact that Thomas has with the Patriots since he missed 7 games last season with an arm injury, but don't forget to properly value this rush LB that makes plays all over the field.
10. Chike Okeafor, ARI
Okeafor will be the new deadliest animal in the desert. A move to the weak-side LB position in AZ's 3-4 defense and that this is his "contract year" makes Okeafor our only crossover LB/DE in the top 30.
9. Keith Rivers, CIN
Rivers will bounce back in a big way from the broken jaw he suffered last season. The Bengals defense added some talented players around him, but they will unleash Rivers on opposing offenses with regularity.
8. Chad Greenway, MIN
Remember all of that "exception to the rule" talk? Well here is our mold breaker. The Vikes have all the pieces around Greenway once again for him to have a dominating season, with insane tackle figures heading your way.
7. Jerod Mayo, NE
Mayo was one of the best rookies of last season, and this season he will be one of the best LB's in the league. The usual suspects return to Foxboro and many of them are in a "contract year" including Mayo. He will have a huge year.
6. Karlos Dansby, ARI
Dansby is the glue of the Cardinals defense that should make their transition to a full-time 3-4 complete. Look for him to continue his dominating play, but temper expectations as the Cards still have work to do on defense.
5. Brian Urlacher, CHI
Urlacher took a vacation from fantasy elite status in 2008, along with the entire Bears defense. That was an aberration, and Urlacher will be back to form in 2009 leading the Bears wrecking crew.
4. DeMeco Ryans, HOU
Quietly, ever so quietly Ryans has ascended to the peak of the LB hierarchy. 2009 is his season. The Texans have a much improved defense, it's a contract year, and Ryans is just hitting his stride. Once a "poor man's" Patrick Willis, now he will be his own star.
3. James Harrison, PIT
Harrison has worked through tremendous odds to become the player he is today, his over-the-top 2008 season will be a hard act to follow, but the surrounding cast in Pittsburgh will allow Harrison the opportunity to try.
2. Patrick Willis, SF
If you could clone Mike Singletary into today's more athletic NFL linebacker you would get….Patrick Willis. I know Mike Nolan drafted him but Singletary has adopted him. Statistically, there isn't much Willis can improve upon but he is an ATM (Automatic Tackling Machine) that never runs out.
1. Demarcus Ware, DAL
There isn't much else to say about Demarcus Ware, he is a quiet family man off the field and weapon of mass destruction when he straps his helmet on. The No. 1 LB in fantasy football is under a contract year and now has Olshansky in front of him.