As we count down the top 100 linebackers, we are officially a bit over half way there. A few more rookies make their debuts here, while some others are still not ranked. This list has been, by far, the hardest one to do because I could make a case for at least 2-3 guys at each position, but had to leave some for next week; or possibly the week after. This is where we start getting to the good linebackers, and the ones who are very solid or have very nice upside. There will be NO discounts on these guys, and come draft day, you very well may need to reach for some of these guys.
60.) Terrell Suggs (BAL)- Like fellow teammate, Elvis Dumervil, (who I ranked last week) Suggs is a sack artist who offers more in the ways of tackles upside. Suggs is nothing too flashy, but for an OLB who is almost a lock to rack up double digit sacks, take the 60 or so tackles and the rest is gravy. He and Dumervil make a nasty 1-2 punch on the outside of Baltimore’s defensive unit. (Photo courtesy of usatoday.com)
59) Curtis Lofton (OAK)- If you draft Lofton this season, prepare for a regression in stats as Oakland has a tendency to kill fantasy player’s appeal. True, Oakland is in complete rebuild mode, so the defense will be on the field a ton this season (again). Don’t expect a ton in the way of stats outside of tackles, as it’s the Khalil Mack Show on Turf when Oakland’s defense is out there. Just when Lofton got out of the division that features Matt Ryan, Drew Brees, and Cam Newton, he now has to contend with Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers. Lofton is solid against the run, but lacks ideal size and quickness for a middle linebacker. So, while he will rack up the tackles, he’ll struggle in other facets of the game.
58.) Brandon Graham (PHI)- His stats may not suggest it, but Graham is a top 10 outside linebacker in the NFL and a name all fantasy owners should know. He is competent in coverage, but is extremely undervalued as a pass rusher. In his tenure with the Eagles, he has only started in one of 33 games, but grades out as one of the best outside linebackers in very limited action. With Trent Cole out of Philly, Kelly is going to turn the reigns loose on this undervalued, unknown pass rusher.
57.) Perry Riley (WSH)- In his first two seasons with the Redskins, Riley underperformed some, but has picked up his play after the 2011 season. He will never be a household name for fantasy purposes at inside linebacker, but if he can contribute over 100 tackles, toss in around four to five sacks and some other stats, you have a solid linebacker who could be used to exploit very good matchups. While Riley will never be particularly strong against the run or pass, he has proven that he has found his niche with Washington and will continue to receive a high-volume of snaps.
56.) Shaq Thompson (CAR)- This rookie class is loaded to the teeth with talent at linebacker, and Thompson will play alongside the very physical Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly at weakside linebacker. To say Thompson is versatile would be an understatement, he played both on offense and defense while at Washington, including three forced fumbles for scores in 2014 alone. There was speculation that he might slip outside of the first round of the NFL Draft, but the Panthers wisely took him at 25. True, he is a project and a tweener who may struggle on the weakside early in the season, but that’s because he will be adjusting to being a full-time backer instead of safety/LB hybrid player. Immediately expect Thompson to rack up the tackles, some sacks and put his nose on the ball as he is a ballhawk who should be able to hold his own against the pass in the NFL, given his experience at safety. The only question is how early do YOU feel like drafting him?
55.) Daryl Smith (BAL)- It always helps when you’re signed to a four-year deal after posting a career-high in tackles (123) in 2013, then having the honor of playing alongside a rookie phenom (C.J. Mosley) in 2014. Fortunately for Smith, that’s exactly his situation. The Ravens signed Smith in 2014 due to his prowess in coverage, and to guide the young linebackers of the Ravens. He will continue to be an asset in coverage while Mosley continues to explode opposite him on the inside. Leagues counting passes defensed should have him queued for the late middle rounds as Smith is a lock for a 120+ tackles, two interception, ten plus passes defensed season in 2015. (Photo courtesy of articles.baltimoresun.com)
54.) Nigel Bradham (BUF)- We have all seen what a defensive genius Rex Ryan can be, and now he will try his hand at the immensely talented Bills defense. Make no mistake, Bradham staying outside at weakside (speculation he may move inside) will be good for his fantasy appeal, but it may not all click in Ryan’s inaugural season in Buffalo. Coming off a career best season in 2014, Bradham may see some snaps at middle linebacker for the Bills defense, leaving Lawson at strongside and Preston Brown as the main middle linebacker. Playing some on the inside may hurt his numbers in the run stopping department, but he should continue to be a tackling machine and be in line for a career high in sacks. Rex Ryan must feel like a kid in the candy store with all these defensive weapons at his disposal.
53.) Jon Bostic (CHI)- Once a highly-touted linebacker prospect out of Florida, Bostic has largely not lived-up to the billing. It could be make-or-break for Bostic this season as second-year man Christian Jones and Shea McClellin (Man without a true position yet) both chomp at the bit for snaps alongside the mediocre Mason Foster. Bostic is likely the most talented of the trio, but sooner or later, Fangino will run out of patience and try someone else’s hand at inside linebacker. Invest here, but do so cautiously.
52.) Dont’a Hightower (NE)- Recovering from shoulder surgery undergone in February, Hightower should be good to start week one, but may have some rust. Last season, in 12 games, in addition to taking on play-calling duties in the Patriots’ defense after Mayo (patellar tendon) went down, Hightower accumulated 89 tackles and six sacks. Once the rust comes off and Hightower is 100 percent, look for him to continue to dominate in the middle of the Patriots line in 2015 with Mayo at weakside. He has a shot at top 30 numbers this season, shoulder permitting.
51.) Avery Williamson (TEN)- Coming out of Kentucky, Williamson was scouted as a two-down middle linebacker with limited range in coverage, but a sound tackler. In 2014, in a snap-share with Wesley Woodyard, Williamson fared admirably with 79 tackles, three sacks, and two fumbles recovered. With a dearth of competition to start inside, Williamson should see increased snaps as long as he doesn’t seem completely lost in coverage. He is better fit for a 3-4 scheme, where he can use his run-stopping ability to man the middle. But, with Tennessee’s 4-3 scheme, he will be limited to mainly run plays playing inside alongside Zach Brown. When Williamson started seeing more snaps than Woodyard from Week 6 and beyond, he was a bright spot on the Titans line, and they now seem committed to the second year linebacker.
50.) Clay Matthews (GB)- You know what you are getting with Clay Matthews: sacks, sacks, and more sacks. Unfortunately, until the Packers patch-up the middle linebacker spot by Jake Ryan, Matthews will continue to play inside linebacker, limiting his sack production playing on the inside. However, he will still be a must-start most weeks. Matthews doesn’t profile as a typical inside backer, and has questionable coverage skills, but the Packers need bodies inside, so they may be forced to plug him at inside again this season. From week ten on last season, Matthews played inside backer, picking up eight and a half sacks and five passes defensed, suggesting opposing quarterbacks often through at him when he was in coverage. (Photo courtesy of fanpop.com)
49.) Danny Lansanah (TB)- Lansanah currently holds the edge over rookie Kwon Alexander to start at strongside, and flashed playmaking ability last season. If he wins the gig, he is a sleeper in passes defended leagues, as he has a knack for the football and is very smart in coverage; as evidenced by his two INT TDs last season. Tackle-wise, it is unlikely he will approach 100, but he could provide a solid PD total and some tackles for loss.
48.) Preston Brown (BUF)- The Bills felt comfortable enough with Brown manning the middle to ship Alonso to the Eagles. Now, the pressure is on Brown to build off his solid rookie campaign. Brown is a tough as nails tackler who only missed six tackles in his rookie season while filling in for Alonso (ACL), and is phenomenal against the run. He shows bursts of explosiveness, but needs to bring it at all times under coach Ryan to firmly put himself on the IDP map. The upside is immense here.
47.) Jelani Jenkins (MIA)- Jenkins is the only Phins linebacker worth owning this season, as he is the only one who doesn’t have his head stuck in the sand while playing linebacker. Jenkins will start at weakside, and will look to build upon his breakout performance from 2014. He was a top-seven cover linebacker and top 14 pass rushing outside linebacker last season, and should see increased free shots at the quarterback with Suh at defensive tackle.That should make last year’s numbers his baseline for this season. Invest with confidence.
46.) Denzel Perryman (SD)- Perryman will be the best Chargers inside linebacker, and that is a FACT! He is instinctive, a great hit and wrap up tackler, and can defend the run. The downside is he is a liability in coverage, which may limit his progression his rookie season. Make no mistake, he is the answer across from Butler, NOT Te’o, and the gig is merely his to lose. See My Nasty Factor Write-Up on Perryman on why the former Cane linebacker is a deep-sleeper from a deep rookie linebacker class in 2015.
45.) Thomas Davis (CAR)- Davis is going to be Mr. Steady Eddie among the youngsters Kuechly and Thompson this season, and will be the equivalent of an old car you just put a new engine in because it keeps on going. Even as he advances in age, Davis is uber-consistent and will provide fantasy owners with just over 100 tackles and a few sacks while not hurting you anywhere. Take any added forced fumbles or passes defensed as extras from your LB3 as he will not disappoint on Carolina’s versatile, nasty linebacker group. It might be the most versatile line again in 2015 after regressing to tenth overall defense in 2014, from a top two or three in 2013. (Photo courtesy of abcnew.go.com)
44.) Ryan Shazier (PIT)- After I anointed him potential Rookie of the year in 2014, he went on to battle various knee and ankle issues. This season, the Steelers need him to be healthy and to contribute against the pass as Big Ben and the offense cannot shoulder the entire load; especially with their stud runningback Bell suspended to open the season. Hopefully, this is the season in which Shazier’s upside comes to fruition as he could be a stud from the inside for fantasy owners with a healthy sack and passes defended total. While Shazier is not a thumper, he is quick and can shadow RBs extremely well.
43.) Ryan Kerrigan (WSH)- With Orakpo officially done in Washington, Kerrigan could see an uptick in sacks; which is his bread and butter. He is currently the only OLB entrenched for the Redskins, and he is also one hell of a playmaker with 4,2,4,5 forced fumbles respectively in his Redskins tenure. How high can he go? He has only begun tapping into his upside as a true sack/big play OLB and he is a terror to see as a QB as he will once more be among the league leader in QB hurries.
42.) Connor Barwin (PHI)- Barwin is a bipolar pass rusher as he has exactly 2 10+ sack seasons, and two five sack or under seasons the past four seasons with Philly and Houston. He profiles well as an edge-setter and pass rusher, and proved that last season with 14.5 sacks; earning him a contract extension this offseason. He is a definite welcomed site for an Eagles pass defense that finished next to last in 2014. If the Eagles secondary can at least hold their own this season, Barwin could continue to emerge on the Eagles defense. The Eagles line could be filthy, if they could just stay healthy: Barwin, Ryans, and newly acquired Kiko Alonso.
41.) Pernell McPhee (CHI)- Let us be straight about one thing, in real life, McPhee is an absolute stud at outside linebacker, but that has yet to be proven in fantasy circles as he played behind the likes of Suggs and Dumervil last season in Baltimore. Even in limited action, McPhee managed seven and a half sacks and four passes defended. Now, an FA signing by the Bears, he will immediately start at outside linebacker and give the Bears lackluster defense a much needed threat. I would put my money on a 12+ sack, two forced fumble, around ten passes defensed campaign for McPhee this season. In other words, grab him. Put it this way, the only better outside linebacker last season was Justin Houston. (Photo courtesy of profootballfocus.com)
Quick, who are names that we have not seen, that we all thought we would have seen by now? Let’s see if anyone can guess some of the BIG NAMES coming up next week! Yes, I am aware I still have not ranked some highly touted rookies. There is a reason for that.
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Major League Fantasy Sports Radio: Join Ej Garr and Corey D Roberts on Sunday July 25th from 7-9pm EST for this week’s episode of Major League Fantasy Sports Radio sponsored by The Sports Palooza Radio Network. Call in at 646-915-8596. This week we will discuss some pitchers that may be laying around on the wire in some leagues, or undervalued that could make for a nice addition down the stretch.