Rank lists and cheatsheets can be deceiving when they're presented without commentary. Our rankings have been vastly improved by adding staffer comments, but it's hard to see context in the consensus rankings and sheets. It's important to know where a significant drop-off in fantasy value occurs. A simple rank list can't tell you if the DL4 is closer in value to the DL10 than the DL3. A cheatsheet can't tell you if the ranker feels the LB10 is a boom-bust play with LB2 upside and LB40 downside while the LB11 has a much narrower range of expectation.
That's where tiers are helpful.
Using tiers -- with or without commentary -- allows you to lump and split players in context. Using tiers can help keep you on the right side of draft runs. Seeing that you have five linebackers on your board might prompt you to take a player at another position. Noting that there's only one wide receiver left before a major drop in value will show you when you must draft a position sooner than expected. A tiered draft board keeps you from making panicked decisions while on the clock.
These tiers are based on 2014 expectation only and I'm basing positional classifications on the MFL database (which syncs to the Rotoworld depth charts later in the offseason). I will include a separate dynasty stash tier at the end of each positional article.
(The date on this article represents the last time the tiers were updated. Make sure you are viewing the most recent tier article by checking the complete IDP article list here.)
THIS IS THE EARLY TRAINING CAMP UPDATE (LATE JULY)
Training camps are here. With them come injuries and depth chart shuffles, but -- finally -- some clarity on exactly what teams are expecting from their rosters, who will play where and when. The number of names in the redraft watch list tier will dwindle. And the updates to this feature will come more often.
I've added a column to address trends inside and throughout the tiers. I'll add a ^^^^ for those players making a move up in my tiers and vvvv for those players who have dropped since the previous tier release (July 5). For reference, I'm going to preserve the earlier versions of these tier articles, but the trend column should help you see where player movement is happening within the tiers at a quick glance.
I've also included an ADP column. The ADP number (snapshot taken on July 31) will be an average of our FBG rankings, the FantasyPros Consensus Rankings and ADP data from recent drafts at MFL. If a player does not have an ADP in his column, it means he wasn't ranked in the top 60 in at least two of the three consensus rank lists.
TIER 1 | ELITE LB1
Barring some positive signs in the very deep tier jumper category below, this won't be a season to slough this tier and look for safe value later. You'll need at least one of this tier on your roster this year to avoid what could be a frustrating season of chasing matchups and worrying over snap counts for the players in the middle ranks. We've already lost three consensus elite backers to injury or suspension (Sean Lee, Kiko Alonso, Daryl Washington). Riskier names are moving into the lower tiers on numbers alone -- someone has to finish in the LB2 ranks -- but the pool of true every-down strong fantasy options has already weakened. You'll be wise not to let this tier pass you by in favor of deeper WR and RB rosters this summer.
|Luke Kuechly||<>||LB2||May not finish as overall LB1, but arguably still safest target on your draft board|
|Lavonte David||<>||LB1||New scheme is perfect fit, but not much room to improve from last year's solo and big plays|
|Vontaze Burfict||<>||LB3||Depth chart in Cincinnati still full of role players, stat crew no longer a concern|
|Paul Posluszny||<>||LB4||Though not elite talent, opportunity and surrounding cast make him near lock for 100 solos|
|Patrick Willis||<>||LB5||Still a stud, Bowman likely to miss 1/2 season, could be #1 overall fantasy LB again|
|Jerod Mayo [VALUE]||<>||LB11||Favorable home stat crew, marginal surrounding cast, don't underrate him|
|Derrick Johnson||<>||LB8||Steady, big-play capable, KC still hasn't paired him with another talented ILB|
|Karlos Dansby||<>||LB7||Huge 2013 and momentum should follow him to great situation in Cleveland|
|Paul Worrilow||<>||LB14||Play didn't match numbers last year but should improve, little competition for tackles|
TIER 1A | ELITE LB1 UPSIDE
There's an argument to jump these three names up into the elite tier group due to their high floor and scrap this hedge tier altogether. But I'm hopeful that camp elevates a few additional names into this tier by early August. Woodyard stands out to me as the best upper tier value on the board.
|James Laurinaitis||<>||LB10||Gregg Williams as DC could improve big plays, presence of Ogletree limits ceiling|
|Bobby Wagner||<>||LB6||Home stat crew depresses solo tackles, strong defense limits tackle opportunity|
|Wesley Woodyard [VALUE]||<>||LB30||Locked in at WILB, durability concern holding him out of elite tier|
TIER 2A | RISK-REWARD LB2
Here's why you'll want to attack the elite tiers this year. The floor of this group is riskier than usual. Some will establish themselves as stronger options than others during preseason games, but -- other than Jamie Collins Sr -- this isn't a tier that screams value. Also, remember, in a straight rank list the names in this tier will be intermixed with the other Tier 2 players. I'll keep my "rankings-only" list current here so you can see how the tiers mix during camp.
|Alec Ogletree||<>||LB9||Instincts questionable but athleticism more than make up for it, near elite option|
|Lawrence Timmons||<>||LB18||High ceiling but questionable floor, narrowly misses Tier 1A|
|Brian Cushing||<>||LB16||Fragile but healthy, has good big play value, little competition for tackles|
|Danny Trevathan||<>||LB13||May be lone every-down LB in Denver, was productive when Woodyard out last year|
|Jamie Collins Sr [VALUE]||<>||LB40||Versatile enough to play inside or outside, OTA evidence suggests full time role|
|Mychal Kendricks||^^^^||LB12||Ryans' rebound limited numbers last year, closer look has me optimistic again|
|D'Qwell Jackson||<>||LB23||Assist-happy stat crew hurts solo tackle upside, must compete w/ Freeman|
TIER 2B | HIGH FLOOR LB2
This group is also riskier than usual. Generally, I use this tier to list players I'd be comfortable using as my LB2 every week in a pinch and would be very happy running out as an every-week LB3 starter in balanced scoring systems. Each of these players put up solid numbers and will be in similar situations this year. But there's an argument that every player on this list will struggle to reach last year's numbers or will have more weekly variance than expected.
|Daryl Smith||<>||LB32||Goofy stat line last year (57-66, 5 sacks, 18 PD), hard to project elite ceiling here|
|Perry Riley||<>||LB19||Could slot in risk-reward tier, but think high floor is better bet than elite ceiling|
|DeMeco Ryans||<>||LB22||Quietly top ten fantasy option last year with strong solos and good peripherals|
|Stephen Tulloch||<>||LB26||Scheme independent high floor fantasy option, should be dependable every-week play|
|Chad Greenway||<>||LB15||Zimmer scheme a positive, but 90 solos may be a tough ask|
|Curtis Lofton||<>||LB27||Steady production last year, will be every-down player again with consistent opportunity|
|Thomas Davis||<>||LB33||Stellar talent, upside blunted due to Kuechly's fundamental play between the tackles|
|Jerrell Freeman||<>||LB17||May be underrating him, but stiffer competition for tackles this year, stat crew an issue|
|Nick Roach||<>||LB37||Expected more solos last year, OAK much more athletic outside, ceiling questionable|
TIER 2C | RUSH / BIG PLAY LB2
I wish this tier was a little deeper, because I'd advocate looking here if you aren't excited about the non-rush prospects. If you're going to use a high variance option in balanced scoring systems, you may as well go all or nothing.
|Terrell Suggs [VALUE]||<>||LB59||Wasn't limited by Achilles last year, still putting up 50-10 seasons|
|Justin Houston||<>||LB35||Would have been T10 in balanced scoring in 2014 if it weren't for elbow dislocation|
|Von Miller||<>||LB20||Will drop if not ready in camp, but late spring reports looked positive|
|Robert Mathis||<>||LB71||Suspended for first four games, will be top tier big play threat when returns|
|Khalil Mack||<>||LB34||Base SLB / nickel edge rusher with Von Miller upside, capable of 60-10|
TIER 3A | UPSIDE LB3
This tier is starting to become more attractive. Foster, Jones, Robinson and Brown are all seeing an uptick in value, making the top half of this tier stronger with each passing week.
|Mason Foster [VALUE]||^^^^||LB38||Impressing Lovie Smith, no indication he'll sit in subpackages yet|
|C.J. Mosley||<>||LB28||OTA work suggests he'll have chance to play every down immediately|
|Brad Jones||^^^^||LB47||Is lone linebacker in dime packages during early camp practices|
|Joplo Bartu||<>||LB72||Gets Weatherspoon's SILB role, will play every-down, high variance play|
|Ryan Shazier||<>||LB31||Warming to his fit in 3-4, already working with starters in OTAs|
|Keenan Robinson [VALUE]||^^^^||LB55||Durability major concern, but arguably has better ceiling than Riley if healthy|
|Zach Brown||^^^^||LB44||Running with first team in camp, could be every-week fantasy play|
|Sio Moore||vvvv||LB49||Battling with Miles Burris in camp, still upside here|
|Manti Te'o||<>||LB60||Should get chance to play in nickel this year, lack of range hurts ceiling|
|Christian Kirksey||<>||LB69||Likely to win ILB job in camp, good chance to play every down|
|Jacquian Williams||<>||LB85||Won WLB job in OTAs, expected to play in subs, durability questions|
|Kevin Minter [CAUTION]||vvvv||LB24||Cardinals using dime subpackage w/ Foote lone linebacker, be wary here|
TIER 3B | HIGH FLOOR LB3
If you decide you'd rather not mess with risky players from the middle tiers, the top half of this tier are solid LB3s you can rely on if you heavily target the elite DE and safety tiers instead.
|Donald Butler||<>||LB21||Inconsistency and durability are concerns, high floor option with upside when healthy|
|Larry Foote||<>||LB80||Likely to stick as every-down ILB in Arizona, upside may be limited next to Minter|
|David Harris||<>||LB50||Strong between tackles, not rangy enough to be elite fantasy option|
|Lance Briggs||<>||LB39||Off to good start last season, questionable surrounding cast, may be underrating him here|
|Koa Misi||<>||LB56||Looks entrenched at MLB with indications he'll be every-down player|
|DeAndre Levy||<>||LB29||Unlikely to repeat 2013 tackle numbers, change in scheme won't boost stats|
|Dannell Ellerbe||<>||LB57||Brutal in run defense last year, moving outside with Misi in middle now|
|Jon Beason||<>||LB42||Running well but still on PUP, may not miss much regular season time after all|
a note about the following tiers
We may still see players move into the draftable tiers above, but it's time to make definitive calls on the long list of players who were previously in the watch list tier. Some have moved up, some will be dropped from the tiers altogether. In addition to the established Matchup Rush LB tier, I'm adding a Early Season Matchup Cloud tier (for watch list players who didn't end up in a better role but still have depth value) and a Inseason Speed Dial tier (for players who will immediately jump in value with any role change).
Your scoring system, roster depth and lineup requirements will determine whether any of these players are immediately rosterable or waiver wire targets in the first month of the season.
MATCHUP RUSH LB
There are some intriguing names here and lots of suitable flyers for those in big play heavy scoring systems. Orakpo, in particular, might move into the LB2 tier if I can convince myself that his ceiling is easily reachable.
|Aldon Smith||<>||LB52||May be short suspension, will move up to Rush LB2 tier if less than four games|
|Tamba Hali||<>||LB64||Always lock for 40-10 floor, solid LB2 in big play systems|
|Brian Orakpo||<>||LB67||Rumors of more aggressive rush scheme, on franchise tag, set up for big year|
|Clay Matthews||<>||LB48||Not enough tackles to rank higher, durability concern|
|Junior Galette||<>||LB88||Needs work against run to be every-week option, pass rush was there in full time duty|
|Barkevious Mingo||<>||LB81||Either dominant or dominated last year, development will skey ratio toward dominant soon|
|Ryan Kerrigan||<>||LB73||High floor with questionable ceiling, may be underrating him a few slots here|
|Jadeveon Clowney||<>||LB36||Elite talent in great situation opposite Watt, tackle stats limiting factor|
|Elvis Dumervil||<>||LB87||Big pass rush numbers, non-existent tackle numbers due to role|
|Melvin Ingram III||<>||LB92||Talented enough to be next Robert Mathis, injuries have slowed development|
|Quinton Coples||<>||Better against run than expected, pass rush upside major question|
|Whitney Mercilus||<>||LB83||Started strong last year, slowed after teams adjusted, upside alongside Watt/Clowney|
|John Abraham||<>||Pressure numbers still strong, boom-bust matchup option|
BEST OF EARLY SEASON MATCHUP CLOUD
This group look locked into to a role already. Most of them have limited upside unfortunately, but could be strong matchup plays for those in tackle-heavy leagues in the right situation. Bradham, Barr and Durant are the most likely candidates to pop early this season.
|Nigel Bradham||^^^^||LB75||Suspended one game, has shot at every-down role w/ continued strong camp|
|Justin Durant||<>||LB61||If healthy and still running with first team at MLB in camp, will move up|
|Demario Davis||<>||LB53||Disappointing stats and hasn't fully developed, but will get snaps again this year|
|Emmanuel Lamur||<>||LB79||Getting another long look as versatile every-down SLB in Cincinnati|
|A.J. Hawk||vvvv||LB45||No longer playing in dime subpackage|
|Michael Wilhoite||vvvv||LB91||Niners likely to use platoon next to Willis|
|Anthony Barr||<>||LB86||Running with first team at OLB, may be every-down player|
|D.J. Williams||<>||LB58||Running with first team, but uninspiring with unclear upside|
|Bruce Carter||<>||LB41||Called out by Marinelli for inconsistent 2013 play, role not assured|
|Jasper Brinkley||<>||Still not guaranteed of starting role, won't play in nickel|
INSEASON SPEED DIAL WATCHLIST
The players in this group have the potential to see their role change into a much more attractive fantasy situaiton at some point this season. Any of them may have a LB3++ ceiling if things break just right for them.
|NaVorro Bowman||vvvv||LB25||Likely to start season on PUP, target as depth only|
|Audie Cole [CAUTION]||vvvv||LB51||Vikings looked at Greenway inside, still have Brinkley w/ first team|
|Preston Brown||<>||LB62||May beat out Nigel Bradham for snaps outside, but current role nickel only|
|Telvin Smith Sr||vvvv||LB63||Hasn't moved above third team in camp|
|Prince Shembo||<>||Needs to be on watch list, but fit and ILB instincts are questionable|
|Rolando McClain||<>||Durant has history of poor durability, no one else challenger in DAL|
|Vincent Rey||<>||LB46||Longshot, team still prefers Maualuga, healthy Lamur hurts upside|
|Akeem Dent||^^^^||Reed hasn't taken hold of ILB job, Dent running with first team for now|
|Brooks Reed||<>||LB89||Addition of Clowney moves Reed inside full time, may compete with Dent|
FORMER REDRAFT WATCH LIST
These players were listed in the early July tier update. The top four players are worth your waiver wire attention but aren't likely to have every-week starter upside without a lot of help.
|Brandon Spikes||vvvv||LB43||Is not seeing reps with nickel defense|
|Dont'a Hightower||vvvv||LB70||Lapped by Jamie Collins Sr, will not have every-down role|
|Nate Irving||<>||LB90||Wins MLB job by default but not every-down player|
|Jon Bostic||<>||LB68||High speed score does not a MLB make, role and snap count still unknown|
|Kevin Burnett||vvvv||Released by Oakland|
|Jonathan Vilma||vvvv||Never found a job, chances growing slimmer by the hour|
|Jameel McClain||vvvv||Injured immediately after taking over for Beason, whose recovery is going well|
|Devonte Holloman||vvvv||Cowboys signed McClain, no buzz on Holloman in camp|
|Ernie Sims||vvvv||Was obligated to list him given Arizona depth chart woes, nothing to see here|
|LaRoy Reynolds||vvvv||Behind DaKoda Watson and Geno Hayes|
Players listed here are either young vets buried on the depth chart or recently drafted prospects with some long term potential. Or they are named Brandon Graham. If you thought I'd be taking Graham off this list, know that it will now never happen after Graham favorited my "Free Brandon Graham!!" tweet during the draft last month.
|Kiko Alonso||<>||Torn ACL in offseason workouts ends his 2014 season|
|Sean Lee||<>||Torn ACL in OTAs, on injured reserve, out until 2015, long term durability questions|
|Daryl Washington||<>||Suspended indefinitely, to miss all of 2014, early 2015 questionable|
|Arthur Brown||<>||LB66||Still has long term value, but looking likely that Mosley starts and plays every down|
|Kyle Van Noy||vvvv||LB94||Could be base WLB and nickel pass rusher on stud defensive line|
|Sean Weatherspoon||<>||Range dropped considerably before Achilles injury, not great long term bet|
|Jelani Jenkins||vvvv||Dolphins are goofy, insist on starting Wheeler as base OLB|
|Corey Lemonier||vvvv||Could see high leverage rotational role, upside tied to Smith's suspension length|
|Anthony Hitchens||<>||Cowboys giving Durant first shot, signed McClain, ETA may not be until 2015|
|Chris Borland||<>||LB77||Behind Wilhoite for now, needs big offseason to compete for starting job|
|Marcus Smith II||<>||Could move into Matchup Rush LB tier with strong offseason|
|Lamin Barrow||<>||Still questionable fit at MLB, Irving earned job in OTAs|
|Jerry Attaochu||<>||Needs development, Chargers could have strong young pass rush combo soon|
|Khairi Fortt||<>||Intriguing long term ILB option, quick and powerful and every-down capable|
|Devon Kennard||^^^^||LB95||Playing well with first team at SLB in camp, may earn long term look inside|
|Kevin Pierre-Louis||<>||Compared favorably to Telvin Smith Sr, stuck on depth chart for now|
|Michael Mauti||<>||Vikings clearly not ready to give MLB job to Cole, may still be in mix|
|Brandon Graham||<>||FBG!! = Free Brandon Graham!!|
|Avery Williamson||<>||Fifth round selection, but warrants monitoring given lack of depth chart clarity in TEN|
|Christian Jones||<>||Fell in draft due to off-field concerns, talented member of crowded CHI depth chart|
|Dee Ford||<>||Stuck behind Houston and Hali, may follow Mingo development curve|
|Jarvis Jones||<>||LB84||Did not have immediate impact, has chance to show development this year|
|Trent Murphy||<>||Not sure he's more than solid college player, won't have much opportunity in 2014|
|Jordan Tripp||<>||Longshot, but who knows what Miami is thinking given their recent LB decisions|
Follow and ask questions on Twitter @JeneBramel. Reading the Defense will be a regular feature this offseason with free agent commentary, draft prospect previews, tier discussion, links to our offseason IDP roundtable podcasts and much more. Subscribe to The Audible on iTunes or download our IDP podcast here.