How many of you football fans are counting down the days until football returns? Hell, if they made calendars specially made for that countdown I’d buy it right now. With the NFL Draft over and teams starting OTAs, the season is not too far off, so at least we have some football to watch. OTAs, training camp, and pre-season is the time we all get our first look at our newly drafted rookies, FA signings, and other findings. Some we will instantly start to like, others we will grow to hate, some we will adopt a wait and see approach, and others…well we just wish would go away (yes that’s you Kroy Bierman). We can’t all get our wishes to come true, but some re-signings are just baffling. The best part of all these offseason moves; we get a sneak peak at our team’s new pieces and which ones we see as being immediate impacts.
Determining who will be an impact is the hard part, especially when it comes to rookies. That’s precisely what I am going to try to get at in this piece and my next piece as I tackle rookie linebackers. When it comes to production, we find it’s the rookie linebackers that are most likely to provide an immediate impact on their team’s defensive unit. Some are instant hits, like Luke Kuechly or C.J. Mosley. Some are highly touted and fizzle, like Jarvis Jones. And some will be projects, like Pernell McPhee (CHI). Whatever the case is for certain players, we all want to see them help our teams in the best manner that they can and not be a burden on or off the field. The linebackers discussed are ones that will have both an immediate real life impact and fantasy impact, so be sure to target these 3 players, plus the 3 covered next week.
Eric Kendricks- In my last piece, I stated that Kendricks was going to dominate. I stand by that. Mike Zimmer is building a monstrous linebacker core in Minnesota, and it’s one that will dominate for years to come with Kendricks manning the middle alongside former college roommate Anthony Barr. Kendricks is everything you want in a middle linebacker, and then some. He’s explosive, diagnoses plays quickly, can cover, and tackle. In addition, he is a force in the run game, although he does drop his head at times and miss the ball carrier behind the line occasionally. If he can just clean that aspect of his game up, his production in his rookie season could potentially eclipse that of C.J. Mosley (BAL) who had 132 tackles, 3.5 sacks and 2 interceptions. (Photo courtesy of foxsportsradio.com)
After finishing 14th in total defense last season, the Vikings could creep into the top 10 this season with Kedricks on board to help the Vikes 25th ranked rush defense. Already armed with a stud safety Harrison Smith, Xavier Rhodes (18 PDs), and the breakout performances from DE Everson Griffen (12 sacks, 1 forced fumbles), the Vikings are quickly building one of the better young defenses in the NFL, and one that looks poised to take huge steps forward in 2015. The problem now: The Packers and Lions.
The former Bruin, and Butkus Award winner (awarded to the Nation’s top LB) had 10+ tackles in all but two of the Bruins games last season, finishing with 145 tackles and 45 tackles for loss. Coming out of college Kendricks has drawn rave reviews from Rotoworld experts who exclaim that, “He’s one of the best cover linebackers I’ve ever seen”, and “He reminds me of the Dallas LB Sean Lee.” Yes, in other words Kendricks will dominate from day one. Opponents will need to game plan for him, and try to double him because he is quick off the snap and explodes through his tackles.
While the Pac-12 is thrilled Kendricks is out of the conference, opposing NFL offenses are cringing because they see the freight train coming and are quickly reacting, but they are already ran over like an EF-5 tornado ripping through town. Double team him all you want, he’s still going to rock your world, disrupt plays, and be a game changer. He might not be a top 5 overall linebacker this season, but his upside could be in the echelon that houses Luke Kuechly, James Harrison in his prime, Lavonte David, and other absolute forces in the game.
A smart fantasy owner will grab Kendricks and slot him as your LB 1/2, but be advised you will have to reach for him because he will not last long once Kuechly, David, Mosley, and all the elite LBs go. He is going to be the DROY and will post an absurd line of 150 tackles, 5 sacks, 2 interceptions, and a handful of passes defensed. Yes, the price is right on him.
Vic Beasley- The only debate here is whether Beastley will primarily play DE or OLB as the Dan Quinn defensive overhaul in Atlanta begins. He is extremely quick and explosive, and will easily be the leading sack guy for the Falcons this year and for years to come. After dominating in the ACC last season with 12 sacks, 21.5 tackles for loss, and 2 forced fumbles, Beasley will be one of Dan Quinn’s newest toys in the new head coach’s inaugural season. We all saw what Dan Quinn did with the Seattle defense that leaves everyone looking in awe as they get ran over by the Seahawks defense, and then backed-up over again. Can he turn the Falcons defense around is the question? (Photo courtesy of greenvilleonline.com)
Beasley is first off the snap, quick to engage then shove off of tacklers, then explode through the quarterback, but can be contained by more advanced blockers if he doesn’t get the first shove. In order to be more effective versus NFL blockers, he will need to bulk up some, work on his technique off the block, and utilize his spin move more to frustrate blockers and devastate QBs and RBs. If the Falcons coaching staff can retool his technique, improve his ability against the run, and encourage him to use his spin move more often, they have a Pro-Bowl caliber defensive player on their hands. Fortunately with the new head coach and coaching staff in place in Atlanta, Beasley should be enabled to reach his full potential.
Under Dan Quinn, Beastley is likely to play the Leo position, similar to in the scheme Quinn implemented as defensive coordinator in Seattle before coming to Atlanta this offseason. In layman terms, Beasley is going to lineup outside the offensive tackle, allowing the rest of the defense to perform its role to enable the Leo to take advantage of his head start on the opposing offensive tackle. To put this in perspective, as a team Atlanta had 22 sacks last season with the limited DE Bierman leading the way with 4.5 of those sacks. Beasley alone will likely have half of what the Falcons had as a team last season. His upside could be that of a potential 20 sack guy in the future if he is properly coached to use his skills, and enhances positioning to rush the passer and get behind the line.
The Falcons got their hands on the best pass rusher in the draft and look to know how to use him, now it’s only a matter of letting him play and wreak havoc as the Falcons climb out of the defensive cellar of the NFL. Even with the release of Osi Umenyiora and Prince Shembo, and signings of Justin Durant, O’Brien Schofield, and the other defensive players the Falcons signed, Beasley will be the key in helping Atlanta improve their defense and return to the playoffs.
Stephone Anthony- Anthony might have been a reach in the first round by the Saints, but he will make an immediate impact in Rob Ryan’s defense and give the Saints an LB that can cover tight ends and running backs, given his size, sideline-sideline movement, and physical tools. Ryan’s defense is the 3-4 only in theory, as the Saints don’t truly play 3-4. Under Ryan’s direction, the Saints often rush four, with extra cover guys blanketing opposing receivers. Thus, the purpose of Ryan’s defense is to have more guys in the secondary than your normal defense and apply pressure with only four, with the primary job of the “Jack” position to track down the QB. He also throws opposing offenses a variety of looks, drops different players into coverage, and rushes someone the offense never saw. This season, first round pick Stephone Anthony will play middle linebacker, and while he is a solid tackler, and very quick, running a 4.56/40, he must improve his leverage when going against interior linemen and blockers, and work on not side-stepping blockers as this only creates running lanes. (Photo courtesy of bleacherrport.com)
Anthony was not as highly touted as former battery mate Vic Beasley coming out of Clemson, but he put on a show at the NFL Combine that left GMs drooling over his skills and rawness. Quick fact for you stat and trend aficionados: There have been 22 inside linebackers taken in the first round of the NFL Draft, some of the names include Ray Lewis, Brian Urlacher, Patrick Willis, Luke Kuechly, and C.J. Mosley. This doesn’t guarantee that Anthony will be a first year stud, or have a Hall of Fame career. The Saints, however knew what they were doing when they selected Anthony in the first round.
In the early going, despite Anthony being anointed the starting MLB for the Saints, coach Peyton has maintained that David Hawthorne will also continue to man the middle given his veteran presence and effective communication on the field. Anthony’s ability to play MLB will be highly contingent upon his ability to be an effective communicator. In the early going this offseason, Anthony is impressing. Look for Anthony to be a three-down backer who will play primarily the middle, but will also be placed on the edge as a rusher and the linebacker who tracks and defends elite tight ends and running backs. New Orleans’ reach appears to be on the verge of reaping the team benefits immediately, and he is a sleeper this coming fantasy season to be one of your better all-around defensive players.
Hope this helps all fantasy and football fanatics as the season draws nearer. These are all must own prospects in the fantasy realm, oozing with potential to be Pro Bowlers, Defensive Player of the Year candidates, and linebackers to be feared for years to come. Next week I will cover rookie linebacker sleepers to try to nab later in your drafts to boost your beastly defenses. In the meantime, feel free to share this or leave a comment below. Sports is not simply my passion, it is my life as many who know me can attest.
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