Will Early Returns on Value Picks at LB Continue?
Fantasy football gamers accept statistical outbursts as indications of good play and predictors of future results. The fickleness of tackles in IDP is underappreciated.
Over time, a good linebacker will compile tackles largely as a result of earning and retaining a full-time role. Almost all will make a tackle at a rate of at least one per ten snaps, while the average is about one tackle per eight snaps. The linebacker posting huge numbers for fantasy gamers can collect a tackle for every six snaps resulting in a distinct advantage each Sunday.
Very few players can sustain this rate of a tackle every sixth snap across an entire season. Defensive context would have to hold or at least frequently recur for 1,100 or more snaps.
The context that fuels tackle compilation can be schematic or situational. Teams like the Bears keep their safeties back and send their defensive ends upfield. They rely on athletic linebackers to cover a lot of ground in the middle of the field.
Jon Macri, a defensive analyst and IDP fantasy writer for Pro Football Focus, finds that zone coverages increase tackle rates for linebackers. More specifically, his analysis indicates that zones with two high safeties (Cover-2, 4, and 6) allow linebackers to collect more tackles. The findings support the intuition that linebackers in the box without company from the strong safety will collect more tackles.
The most intuitive situation that renders big tackle numbers is a team killing the clock by rushing. Weather conditions can have a similar effect. Both Jacksonville linebackers piled up tackles against the Eagles' volume run game last Sunday in windy, rainy Philadelphia.
A linebacker can also compile tackles in the passing game if he's a liability. Seattle's Jordyn Brooks led the NFL in solo tackles and completions allowed by a linebacker. Opposing quarterbacks collectively earned a rating of 118.4 when targeting him in coverage, per Pro-Football-Reference.com.
2022 Top Ten to Date
The top ten linebackers by fantasy points at Footballguys.com include four highly drafted players, two upside bets drafted later, and four sleepers. The mix is similar to the end-of-season ranks for 2021 but stands in contrast with 2020. Name-brand players dominated fantasy scoring two seasons ago and rejuvenated robust-linebacker draft strategy.
The value plays in 2021 were recognizable names in good situations (e.g., De'Vondre Campbell and Kyzir White). That summer, fantasy gamers reasonably questioned whether the quality of their play would enable them to maintain productive roles throughout the season. Some of 2022's value picks have ranged from similar in kind to 2021 to those flabbergasting IDP gamers.
Chicago's Roquan Smith, Jacksonville's Foye Oluokun, and Seattle's Jordyn Brooks are on pace to repeat as top-ten finishers. Devin White of Tampa Bay is currently on pace to duplicate his first overall finish among linebacker scoring in 2020.
Zaire Franklin, Indianapolis
Injuries to All-Pro linebacker Shaquille Leonard created opportunity for Zaire Franklin, the fourth-year player from Syracuse, to see the field full-time. He capitalized such that he appeared to have surpassed Bobby Okereke and remained on the field full-time upon Leonard's return in Week 4, a development few fantasy gamers saw coming.
Through four weeks (before Thursday night's game in Denver), Franklin played every defensive snap for Indianapolis (258) and ranked second in the NFL with 45 total tackles behind Roquan Smith (46). His rate of tackles per snap, 17.4%, is slightly lower than the rate Denzel Perryman posted for the Raiders last season. Perryman played linebacker in Las Vegas for defensive coordinator Gus Bradley, who now leads the Colts' defense.
Franklin is accomplishing something Perryman never has – playing full-time. Perryman nevertheless finished eleventh in fantasy points in 2021 (Footballguys.com scoring). Bradley's conservative defense, with little blitzing and plenty of zone coverage, tasks its linebackers with keeping the ball in front of them and coming up to make tackles.
Leonard should still return and re-emerge as a fantasy force in his own right; however, Franklin's usage and warts in pass coverage should preserve most of the fantasy value he's accrued. Currently ninth in fantasy scoring, Franklin is an LB1 for fantasy gamers as long as he can hold off Okereke. Bradley turned the Raiders' linebacker corps on its collective head more than once last year.
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