Who is your top linebacker on a different team in 2020? Are you targeting this player in a normal redraft league? Do you think they might be underrated by most of the fantasy community?
Three of the top eight consensus linebackers fit into this category
All three share something in common: they're tackling machines. They also join defenses that need someone in the middle to gobble up running backs and slot receivers on crossing routes. Based on recent production, Martinez is the safest choice, but Littleton has the broadest skill set and can play in any down and distance.
Jason mentioned some key names already, and I concur with his thoughts on Blake Martinez, Joe Schobert, and Cory Littleton. All three will automatically assume the leading tackler role on their respective teams. Here's another name to consider, Christian Kirksey taking Blake Martinez's place with the Packers. Green Bay lost Martinez via free agency, but they signed Kirksey to fill the void, and he comes at a cheaper price than what Martinez was asking. Kirksey battled a hamstring and chest injury in 2018 and 2019 respectively, but he is healthy heading into the 2020 season. He finished in the top five in total tackles in 2016 and 2017 before succumbing to injuries in 2018 and 2019. If he returns to form like Green Bay is expecting, he will dominate the Packers in tackle totals and be a strong IDP option at the linebacker position.
Both Jason and Jeff have pinpointed some of the high-profile linebackers in new spots, so allow me to go off the radar with a couple of players with Carolina connections.
Coaches are creatures of habit. This is especially true of the disciplined figure of Ron Rivera, who took the reins in Washington this offseason and will be keen to stamp his authority on the team. One player who quickly joined Rivera is one of his former disciples, Thomas Davis, a consummate professional who will stand out to his head coach as an ideal bridge option at middle linebacker. Trust is going to be a central tenet of Rivera's early reign, giving Davis the inside track to be a three-down contributor and temporarily sideline younger options such as Jon Bostic and Cole Holcomb.
From a former Carolina coach to a current Carolina player, one signing that went largely unnoticed this offseason was that of Tahir Whitehead by new Panthers head coach Matt Rhule. In case you haven't checked the Carolina linebacker depth chart recently, there is a large Luke Kuechly-sized hole that needs filling. Shaq Thompson is best suited to play the weakside in a 4-3, which Carolina is returning to under new defensive coordinator Phil Snow, so that leaves the Mike spot open. Jermaine Carter and Andre Smith are younger options, but like Davis, Rhule and Snow will value the veteran savvy of Whitehead as the new era begins.
Two other names that stick out as less-heralded candidates for sneaky production are Kenny Young, now an LA Ram and in the frame to pick up some of the production Cory Littleton left behind; and Jatavis Brown in Philadelphia, on a depth chart ripe for the picking.
Joe Schobert in Jacksonville as the Jaguars' new middle linebacker is a strong choice. He should earn excellent tackle totals and we know that he's a good blitzer who can drop into coverage and ball-hawk quarterbacks. The loss of Calais Campbell could hurt him at times because he won't be kept as clean as other middle linebackers and he'll be playing beside rookie Shaq Quarterman, who could have a nice first year but will likely have some adjustments to make, which could also lead to more chances for Schobert as well.
Schobert could wind up an elite producer at the position in tackle-heavy IDP formats.
We saw several highly productive, big-name linebackers change teams this offseason. Guys like Blake Martinez, Cory Littleton, and Christian Kirksey are going to get the job done no matter who they play for, but the change that made me stand up and shout was Joe Schobert to Jacksonville. I immediately envisioned Paul Posluszny’s multiple seasons of triple-digit solo tackles and top-10 finishes. Since Posluszny left, there has been a void at middle linebacker in Jacksonville. Schobert fills that void both as a run defender and a playmaker. He was a solid LB1 while with Cleveland but his new home could put Schobert in the running for the top linebacker spot in 2020.
Schobert is my headliner in this conversation but there are others well worthy of our attention. Nick Kwiatkoski to the Raiders, Jamie Collins Sr to Detroit, and Jatavis Brown to the Eagles are high among them. Kwiatkoski was never able to land a starting job with Chicago but he certainly played the part well when given that opportunity as an injury replacement. He is a stout run defender that can hold his own in coverage or provide a compliment as a pass rusher. Kwiatkoski will be an immediate starter next to Cory Littleton and should be a quality option for IDP managers once we confirm his having a role on third-downs.
There were reports out of New England last year that the Patriots did not view Jamie Collins Sr as a three-down linebacker. His former defensive coordinator Matt Patricia certainly does. In fact, some of Collins’ most productive seasons were while working under Patricia in New England. In 2014 and 2015, Collins played 27 games under Patricia with a combined 126 tackles, 70 assists, 9.5 sacks, 9 forced fumbles, and 3 interceptions. Collins is a do it all player that can stand up strong versus the run, is good in coverage and has a knack for the big play. He is versatile enough to move around the front-seven and Patricia knows how to put him in positions to make plays.
Jatavis Brown is a deep sleeper heading into the summer but is a guy I like a lot in his new situation. He was never able to hold down a long term starting job with the Chargers but is another guy that produces when he gets on the field. There is a great deal of uncertainty surrounding the Eagles linebacker positions. Brown has as good a shot as anyone to emerge as a productive three-down starter, and he is a guy that can be picked up for a song late in drafts.
A lot of great names have already been mentioned and I want to echo the thoughts on Schobert being the most valuable and Jatavis Brown being a deep sleeper that I just can't quit in an unstable Eagles linebacker group.
A few other names to keep in mind:
The Cardinals added these two in free agency and they were expected to round out the starting linebacker quartet before Isaiah Simmons fell to Arizona at #8. The team has said Simmons will be an inside linebacker, which would mean Campbell will lose more snaps to him than Kennard, but expect the situation to be fluid as Simmons shows his best fit and Campbell and Kennard show their abilities in Vance Joseph's defense. Campbell is a better pick in tackle heavy leagues after he led the Falcons in tackles last year, and Kennard is the better edge rusher to monitor in big play leagues with the possibility that he can clean up the havoc created by Chandler Jones on the other side of the defense.
This group will be of more interest in sack heavy/big play leagues. Quinn is being reclassified as a linebacker in Chicago, but he should remain a top sack artist teaming up with Khalil Mack to harass quarterbacks. Van Noy was signed away from New England in free agency and head coach Brian Flores knows him well from their time together in New England. The Dolphins' shutdown cornerback duo could create a lot of coverage sacks. Floyd was released after the Bears signed Quinn, but he could regain his early-career form after being reunited with his former position coach in Chicago, Brandon Staley, who is now the defensive coordinator for the Rams. Floyd is a key member of a defense that is needing edge rush punch after losing Quinn and Clay Matthews this offseason. Beasley only lived up to his lofty draft status once in his five-year Falcons career, but he could have a resurgence in Tennessee playing opposite Harold Landry on a team that can create great game scripts for pass rushers.