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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 can be hard to see the all-important context in the consensus rankings and sheets. It's critical 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 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 of equal value left 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.
HOW TO USE THE TIERS
Note 1: These tiers are based on 2015 expectation in a balanced IDP scoring system. I stopped producing dynasty rankings years ago when it became clear I weighted the current season significantly more than future seasons. In deeper dynasty leagues, I'll save a roster slot for a strong developmental prospect but otherwise still use these tiers as my primary roster philosophy. A separate dynasty stash tier is included at the end of each positional article.
Note 2: I'm basing positional classifications on the MFL database (which syncs to the Rotoworld depth charts). Early in the offseason, I'll deviate from the Rotoworld depth chart when I'm reasonably certain a positional change is coming that Rotoworld will reflect later in the offseason.
Note 3: I'll add a ^^^ for those players making a move up in my tiers and vvv for those players who have dropped since the previous tier release. For reference, you'll be able to see the earlier versions of these tier articles within the IDP article list, but the trend column should help you see where player movement is happening within the tiers at a quick glance. I'll also be including an ADP column after training camp begins. The ADP number will be an average of our FBG rankings, the FantasyPros Consensus Rankings, and ADP data from drafts at MFL.
Finally, the date on this article represents the last time the tiers were updated. Each update will be published as a stand-alone article. Make sure you are viewing the most recent tier article by checking the complete IDP article list here.
That's a long, but necessary, introduction to the important stuff. Thanks for bearing with me.
Linebacker has long been thought of as the anchor position in IDP leagues. Most leagues allow you to start more linebackers than any other position. Tackles are the highest volume stat -- they happen on almost every play and are less prone to variance than sacks and interceptions -- and linebackers are the tackle-producing defenders in nearly every defense.
Those factors help to elevate the importance of linebackers so much that even smart fantasy owners can't help themselves from drafting a linebacker over a defensive lineman, even when the defensive lineman may be demonstrably more valuable.
In each of the last two seasons, the number of consistently valuable fantasy linebackers dropped considerably. And "dropped" probably understates reality. Severe injuries and the rise of platooning run-stopping and coverage linebackers often made it hard for those in deeper leagues to find enough every-down linebackers to start in their fantasy lineup.
I have hope that 2015 will be different. I can't predict injuries and there are many, many unsettled situations heading into the draft and OTAs. But while the linebacker tiers are very fluid right now, I think we'll see more fantasy depth at linebacker than we've had in the past 2-3 seasons.
In July, I identified over 100 players I could see earning a place in my draftable tiers during the preseason. That number will naturally be smaller in these August updates, as we learn which players have the best shot at playing time in the regular season. But I still have over 40 players tiered into groups with LB2 potential or better. Of course, it's impossible for 40 players to finish in the top 25 year end rankings.
Recognizing this depth has value for your draft strategy. As I wrote in the defensive line tier feature, I'm recommending prioritizing an elite DL over an elite LB as your first IDP drafted and planning to draft two defensive ends among your first three IDP selections.
TIER 1 | ELITE LB1
These three are the class of this year's group. I'm still considering moving C.J. Mosley and Derrick Johnson into this group, but have just enough concern about their floor to hold them out for now. If you're convinced you need an elite linebacker on your roster, make sure it's one of these three.
|Fundamental high tackle option w/ big play value
|Tampa system boosts already elite statistical upside
|Participated in drills throughout offseason; no concerns in camp
TIER 1A | ELITE LB1 UPSIDE
I wish I knew where to slot Bobby Wagner. He's arguably my favorite linebacker to watch play and I'll always have a great memory of the first time he had my spidey senses going with his play at the Senior Bowl practices. But I can't ignore the eight games a season he'll play in front of a stat crew that's more likely to give him a 3-7 line than a 8-2. And the Seahawks will again limit their own tackle opportunity signfiicantly. This tier is very tight, so don't read too much into Wagner's place at the "bottom" of this group.
|Hard to hold out of elite tier; strong candidate to move up
|119 solos w/ league’s 4th worst tackle opportunity; regression coming
|Participated in OTAs and reportedly looking fully recovered in camp
|Return of Mayo means more competition for tackles; offset by big play upside
|31 yrs old recovering from pectoral tear w/ more competition for tackles
|Disappointing 2014 but opportunity knocks again this year
|Would be elite tier if not for assist-heavy home stat crew
LUMPING VERSUS SPLITTING
Here's the point where I again remind everyone -- veteran and newbie readers alike -- that I'm a lumper, not a splitter.
I group players together by their upside-floor profile rather than how I'd rank them from 1-100. Lumping players with a similar point expectation into a group with a high floor and questionable upside, a group with high upside and a worrisome floor, or a group mostly dependent on sacks is very helpful during the draft. If I've already rostered a number of high risk players, I may want a higher floor option in the same tier. Put another way, the high risk and high floor player will "rank" differently in different draft / roster scenarios.
It's also why I resist the draft board approach I use in the combined rookie draft board feature. I could present these tiers side-by-side. But there would be very little separation from top-to-bottom and left-to-right. Yes, there are a lot of names lumped together. But that's why I love tiers. Knowing before your first round pick that the players you've tiered together as your possible LB2 targets will come off the board over many rounds is huge.
So be true to this process. If you know you will draft Kiko Alonso rounds before any other player in your X tier, he either needs to be moved up to the "bottom" of your earlier tier or the other players in Alonso's tier need to be moved down.
The lumping of players into three separate "Tier 2" groups is my way of identifying that a Tier 2B player (higher floor, lower upside) is very different than the Tier 2A player (higher upside, lower floor) but both could finish in the 10-25 range at year's end if things break as expected.
THOUGHTS ON TIER 2
I believe the second tier will bring both quality and quantity this year.
The 2B (High Floor LB2) and 2C (Rush LB2) tiers should remain straightforward and stable. The bottom of the 2A (Risk-Reward LB2) and top of the 3A (Upside LB3) are now starting to come into focus, but many of those names will be interchangeable. Don't hesitate to move a player in that range up or down.
TIER 2A | RISK-REWARD LB2
This tier is also tight from top to bottom. I've stashed Danny Trevathan, Brandon Marshall, and Vontaze Burfict at the bottom of the group while we wait for their injury rehabilitations to fully play out. Burfict made enough progress last month to have a chance to be ready for opening weekend, but I still think he's 50-50 at best to avoid the inseason PUP list.
Preston Brown is the big mover here. The Bills confirmed they'll be using a 4-3 Under front and released a depth chart with Brown at middle linebacker and Nigel Bradham at strong side linebacker. Don't worry about the strong side linebacker designation here. This is still a good role for Bradham. However, the middle linebacker is essentially the weak side inside backer here and Brown's pass rush upside will play under Rex Ryan. I've also moved Clay Matthews up into the middle of this tier. He's all but assured of playing inside on base downs and will still see plenty of pass rushing stats. It's a role that could mean 70 solos and 12 sacks. If I can convince myself Matthews has a high percentage chance at 70 solos, he'll move still higher in future updates.
|Strong numbers as starter; marginal competition for tackles
|Reports are promising enough to list here; could move up if looks good in game action
|Some inconsistency and now competing w/ Alonso for tackles or would tier higher
|Felt he was over-valued before injury; will have more competition in PHI
|Almost certain to play ILB in base and rush in subpackages; may be underrating him
|Will play MLB in Ryan's Over-Under fronts
|Never seems to capitalize on tackle-sack upside; role under Butler TBD
|90 solos w/ good peripherals = strong floor; athletic enough to have shot at Top 10
|Telvin Smith Sr
|Burst onto scene in nickel role and kept momentum as every-down linebacker
|Like narrowly over Zach Brown today but margin is razor thin
|BUF defense may limit its own opportunity; competition high w/ Brown
|Still have concerns w/ Brown’s consistency around the ball but role fits him well
|Patellar tendon injury a major concern; may not recover to previous form
|On active roster as camp started but not fully healthy yet
|Way ahead of schedule in return from Lisfranc but needs to get into football shape
|Rehab more promising than last month but still long way to go to be ready W1
TIER 2B | HIGH FLOOR LB2
There are some very good names on this list. To make this tier, a linebacker has to play every down, be capable of 88-92 solos, and add something in the pass rush or coverage categories (pass rush, passes defensed, etc.). That's a strong every week fantasy performer.
What I don't see from this group is 100+ solo tackle upside or the potential for a big play in any given game. I may be underrating Worrilow or Robinson or Tulloch or Lofton a tad, but I don't believe the talent or athletic ability equals the players in the 1A or 2A tiers. But this list of names is a good indication of the kind of linebacker group you can put together if you wait 6-8 rounds after Kuechly and David are drafted to start filling out your linebacker roster.
|Marginal talent w/ elite opportunity; won’t fault anyone for slotting him higher
|Strong debut was long time coming; loss of Haslett won’t hurt value
|Every-down prospects increase w/ Mack to DE and Moore still recovering
|Cannot count on more than six solos per game but will have elite weeks
|Tackle trend drops him out of elite tiers but still has strong LB2 floor
|Was elite producer last year before injury; awaiting news on ACL recovery
TIER 2C | RUSH / BIG PLAY LB2
Every season, I'm asked to identify an undervalued edge linebacker who will break into this elite tier. In most seasons, there's a strong candidate. Cameron Wake and Justin Houston didn't have big sack numbers early in their careers but had the per snap rush numbers of elite pass rushers. They also had the tape to back it up.
Last year didn't present a Wake - Houston type candidate. Prior to today, we definitely had one this year -- Khalil Mack. But the Raiders released a depth chart confirming what has been a not-so-closely guarded secret since May. Mack will be listed as a defensive end this season and I fully expect him to be re-classified on league management sites soon.
|Franchised by KC; expect another 50-14++ season
|Phillips’ scheme may drop tackle numbers slightly but 50-12 upside remains
|Reports of knee scope almost immediately after I finally put him in elite tier
THOUGHTS ON TIER 3 AND BEYOND
There's still some work to be done here, but I've cleaned up the Tier Jumper | Preseason Watch List tier. Players I'm comfortable drafting and rostering have been moved into the second and third tiers. I've separated players I'll be deleting in the next update into a separate On Their Way Out tier to close the loop on the Tier Jumper group.
TIER 3A | UPSIDE LB3
I really like the top half of this tier, which is why I wrote above that you can consider players like Ryan Shazier, Eric Kendricks, Christian Jones, and Stephone Anthony as a continuation of the Risk-Reward LB2 tier. But those four players need their roles solidified during training camp to earn slots in the LB2 group. Anthony Hitchens, who may see extended time at middle linebacker now, and Devon Kennard, who is quietly asserting himself as an ascending every-down outside linebacker, both have my attention after strong starts to their training camps.
|Tomlin wants him at ILB and expects Timmons-like development
|Running w/ 2nd team early in camp but seeing nickel snaps w/ ones
|Creating lots of camp buzz and looks likely to start and play every down
|Great opportunity in ARI but was already slowing down before Achilles injury
|Ticketed for every-down ILB role and early reports promising
|Will play MLB but high competition for tackles won\'t help his history of inconsistency
|Believed to be fully recovered but may not be rangy player he once was
|Lining up at MLB over Brinkley w/ McClain out; increased value early in seasons
|So-so talent but lock to start at ILB now w/ excellent chance at every-down role
|Reports grow more promising by day; currently SLB in base and earning nickel snaps
|Cleared to practice but coming along slowly; should win WLB job over Smith
|Think we’ll see him play every down this year; will move into higher tier if confirmed
|MIA giving him every opportunity to win MLB job; could play every down
TIER 3B | HIGH FLOOR LB3
These players would be well into the 30s on a straight rank list. But this group is full of high floor, trustworthy fantasy talent. It feels wrong to put Daryl Smith and Jerrell Freeman here, but the ceiling just isn't there for them any longer. Anthony Barr will move up if he proves his balky knee will allow him to handle consecutive practices. And Demario Davis, Donald Butler, and Justin Durant will likely find themselves inside the weekly Top 30 more often than not.
|Assist counts preserved some value last season; age and Mosley limiting factors
|Lost half step; won’t have many big weeks w/ assist-heavy IND stat crew
|Room for more upside after Top 25 finish in balanced leagues last year
|High floor option in Bowles’ defense
|Impressive and resilient talent but upside limited next to Kuechly
|Has settled into good but not great tier; WILB role should be favorable
|Could lose snaps to Compton; favorable stat crew supports his floor
|Reported to camp in shape and motivated; playing every down in early practices
|Solid player limited by low volume of opportunity and strong surrounding cast
|May move into higher tier this summer but durability is major concern
|Back in conversation after Willis/Borland retirement but low ceiling
|Just took pay cut to stay in MIN; stat trends not reassuring at all
|Well ahead of McKinney in early camp workouts; good shot at every-down role
|Having a hard time buying McClellin as every-down ILB anchor
MATCHUP RUSH LB
This tier is deeper than ever. Every player on this list has double digit sack potential. Consistency and lack of tackle upside keep them out of the elite tier for now. Those in big play leagues can roster the top half of this list as LB2/LB3 without concern. Balanced league owners should probably plan to stream these players by matchup unless and until one shows elite week-to-week upside.
|Expect some regression from last season’s elite numbers
|Second half 2014 better than first half but not consistent enough to consider elite
|Can’t project him over 45 solos so he slips back into matchup tier
|12 sacks and solid pressure numbers have me reconsidering him here
|May be underrating him here; will have less competition for tackles and good rush volume
|Don’t see 50-10 upside as primary rush OLB option in CHI
|Not the type of freedom I hoped for him; has to scale per snap numbers to bigger role
|Now with stronger front seven in WAS and won\'t see many double teams
|Lack of durability has killed his value but there’s still upside here
|An option in very sack heavy scoring systems only
|Not sure I see high enough floor or ceiling to move higher
|Not convinced he has breakout potential but warrants mentioning
|Still a little left in his tank
|Achilles setback may end his career; won’t be back until midseason
formerly in tier jumper list now well down the draft board
Here are the players I'm deleting from the next tier update unless they show a strong change in fortune. Jon Bostic and Chris Kirksey have the best chance at Week 1 value. All of these players should be in the forefront of your mind should an injury shake up their team's depth chart.
|Finally healthy enough to practice but stuck on second and third team
|May have been passed by Kelvin Sheppard
|Coordinator recently quoted as saying rotation with Robertson to continue
|Could slip into every-down role if Mayo isn’t ready
|Still upside here but Carter getting first shot at MLB job and every-down role
|Doubtful to pass Wilhoite on depth chart but warrants observation
|Disappointment in TB and now behind McClellin at ILB
|Looks like reserve OLB if Anthony wins starting MLB job
|Likely to fall behind Moore at WLB but hanging on for now
|Chargers want competition at ILB; waiting to hear if legit shot at starting
|Four game suspension and knee scope kills whatever minimal value he had for now
|Unlikely to beat out Greenway for playing time now
|Could be every-down WLB but durability and inconsistency are issues
|KC has depth to sit Mauga in subpackages and lots of tackle competition
|May not start over Lamur when Burfict returns
|Lamur ahead of him on subpackage depth chart
|Behind Kennard in pecking order to play every down
|Running with second team early in camp before another stinger
|Fallen off the depth chart behind Sheppard Misi McClain
|Made no progress during offseason
|If re-instated will be suspended again for multiple games; a roster hold but do not draft
Here's a long list of options to consider in deeper leagues.
|No clear path to every-down role yet; safety snaps not entirely out of question
|Not ready for a base defensive ILB role yet
|CIN won\'t push a rookie into lineup over vets like Lamur Rey Hawk
|No camp buzz whatsoever; HOU plans to ease him into every-down role
|Would be great fit if not for LaVonte David
|Will see more playing time w/ Malcolm Smith gone in free agency
|Hold in deep roster leagues; still chance he finds himself in better situation in time
|Disappointing start to career; depth chart still favorable for base duty
|Will see snap count increase dramatically w/ Smith release
|Early microfracture huge red flag but too much talent to give up on yet
|Chance he breaks out as 45-10 or better this year; big play league sleeper
|Needs seasoning but first step and measurables too impressive to ignore
|Athleticism concerns before ACL but is a violent and fundamental football player
|Could work way into matchup rush LB tier this year
|Move to 4-3 defense and SLB role hurts upside even if he sees 500+ snaps as rookie
|To develop behind Ware/Miller this year
|Now or never season off to poor start w/ knee injury
|Fundamental but not impressively athletic
|Won’t surprise if he jumps many of players listed here by end of 2015
|Gets to develop behind Suggs/Doom this year
|Not giving up on him yet
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.