Finally! We made it to the top 20 linebackers. There are some surprises and the top guy has stiff competition going forward. These will be your difference-makers this season.
20.) Aaron Lynch, San Francisco 49ers- Every season, there is always a linebacker or other IDP starter, to burst into the top 20 at his respective position. This season, do not be surprised if it is Lynch, the 150th pick of the 2014 draft. Last season, it was Chris Borland, who lit the world on fire once he grabbed the starting gig with the injury to Willis, both of whom are now retired. With the retirement of defensive tackle Justin Smith, the 49ers enter training camp with a slew of questions about the pass rush, and Lynch is the vastly superior option to incumbent Ahmad Brooks. If Lynch could finagle the starting gig away from Brooks, fantasy owners could be in for a treat as Lynch is very adept at rushing the passer, defending the run and playing in coverage. When Lynch did play last season, in 100 fewer snaps, he outperformed Brooks, notching six sacks, eight QB hits and 27 hurries. Early reports suggest Lynch is looking strong in camp. Come Draft Day, Lynch is worth a look because he has beast written all over him and is vastly superior to Brooks in every facet of the game. (Photo courtesy of ninersfan.com)
19.) J.T. Thomas, New York Giants- Thomas is in an interesting situation in the Big Apple. He is superior to Kennard versus the run, but also has deficiencies in coverage, which means QBs will throw his way. Last season, in Jacksonville, Thomas posted 85 tackles, two forced fumbles and five passes defensed. He looks as if he’s headed towards locking down the weakside LB spot in New York, moving Kennard to the strongside while Beason mans the middle. This is an aggressive ranking for any Giants linebacker, but if one is to be a huge fantasy asset this season, I’d put my bets on Thomas. He will not generate many sacks and will be a liability in coverage, but the more he’s thrown at, the more opportunities for passes defensed in addition to a solid tackle total and some stuffs.
18.) Julius Peppers, Green Bay Packers- Peppers defies all logic, or at least he did last season in Green Bay. He’s 35 years old folks, he shouldn’t be as big of a threat for sacks and jarring the pigskins loose as he is. He has hardly missed a beat it seems like, and another season opposite Clay Matthews could only help him defy Father Time. Peppers is one of the premier turnover forcers in the game, and he will not likely reach double digit sacks, but he will post at least three forced fumbles and two recovered fumbles this season and contribute some passes defensed. No, Green Bay’s defense is still nasty on the outsides, don’t worry, and both are draft-worthy.
17.) DeMeco Ryans, Philadelphia Eagles- As I said last week, Chip Kelly loves Ryans but hates Kendricks, which leads me to believe he’ll favor Ryans more than Kendricks, though the latter is vastly superior in talent and explosive. If Ryans is truly healthy and recovered from two Achilles injuries the past half decade, then absolutely he could be a top 20 linebacker, but temper expectations as he is still currently limited in the early going. Fantasy owners are drooling over the prospects of a healthy Ryans, as he would be a candidate for a top ten LB as he would post something nuts like 120+ tackles, three sacks, five passes defensed and twelve stuffs. Are you the fantasy owner who wants to take the chance on a linebacker coming back from two Achilles tears?
16.) Khalil Mack, Oakland Raiders- This is going to be the last time you will be able to afford Mack, a future top five talent, at top 20 prices. Mack’s rookie season was merely the tip of the iceberg for things to come, and a sophomore season breakout is in order. The addition of Curtis Lofton to the middle of the Raiders’ defense may curb Mack’s tackle numbers a little, but Lofton will still draw more attention away from Mack than what Oakland had in the middle last season. It is not out of the question that a 20 stuffs, four and a half sacks, 90 tackle season could be in order for Mack. He is that raw and explosive that he is one name you need to reach for on Draft Day. (Photo courtesy of zimbio.com)
15.) Eric Kendricks, Minnesota Vikings- This, ladies and gentlemen, is your Defensive Rookie of the Year, and I’ll put money on that right now. Yes, I’m a gambler, but a smart gambler. A mere look at his numbers from UCLA will prove why the Vikings middle linebacker of the future is going to be a stud at the position for the next decade, and offers a unique talent set for a Mike backer:
I know I’m not reading that 2014 stat total correctly. Damn, Kendricks. I know it’s the Pac-12 and the NCAA, but those numbers are still insane. The one knock on him is he needs to work on meeting the ball carrier behind the line and finishing the job. With fellow battery-mate Anthony Barr on the strongside, the two should produce sweet music to fantasy owners ears, but spell disaster with a capital “D” for opposing offensive lines. 120 tackles, four and a half sacks, ten stuffs would not be surprising from Kendricks this season.
14.) Karlos Dansby, Cleveland Browns- By his standards, before he sprained his MCL in Week 11, Los was having a down season in his first year in Cleveland, but fantasy owners know what type of pedigree he is. Coach Pettine runs an aggressive defense and always gets the best out of his players. Los is now healthy and in 2015, he and Kirksey will surely make sweet music on the inside as two of Cleveland’s best playmakers. Fantasy owners will forgive Dansby for not living up to his namesake last season, but he will get back to his ways of collecting over 130 tackles, at least three sacks and a solid number of passes defensed and stuffs on the inside of Cleveland’s defense.
13.) Lawrence Timmons, Pittsburgh Steelers- The Steel Curtain is currently being shouldered by Timmons, and he needs help if it is to return to being a dominant defensive unit. Pittsburgh has spent three early draft picks the past three seasons in hopes of finding pieces to plug-in for Harrison, Woodley and the line from 2010-11, but have been unsuccessful the past two times with such strategy. They drafted Dupree this season, had Shazier show glimpses of impact last season, and then Jones…well he hasn’t done much. This has left Timmons as the sole consistent and reliable fantasy asset from the generally very genorous fantasy linebacking core in Steel Town. With Timmons, you know you’ll get a boatload of tackles with some extras thrown in, but if he doesn’t get any aid to take extra guards away from him, his tackle numbers could soon see a slight dip.
12.) James Laurinaitis, St. Louis Rams- The Rams defense is stacked, and James L. is merely the veteran leading the way. He is not as explosive as the young Ogletree, or the 2014 disappointment Robert Quinn, but Laurinaitis is a fantasy star. Since Alec Ogletree joined the Rams in 2013, Laurinaitis’ lines have been remarkably consistent: three and a half sacks, 2 recovered fumbles each of the past two seasons, with an average 112 tackles. Expect more of the same from him this season, and a pick or two thrown in wouldn’t be out of character either.
11.) Kiko Alonso, Philadelphia Eagles- Chip Kelly has more potential on defense than he does brains it would appear, after he signed Tebow, but also got former Oregon linebacker Alonso for McCoy (bad decision). The Eagles are arguably four deep at inside linebacker with Hicks, Ryans, Kendricks and Alonso, with Barwin and Graham outside, giving Philly a stacked linebacker core. The problem is Ryans cannot stay healthy and Kelly is trying to trade Kendricks for a second round pick. Alonso is überly talented, but missed all of 2014 with a blown ACL after a monstrous 2013 rookie season. Explosively, Alonso has the most explosion, but it remains to be seen how Chip will utilize Alonso’s skill set at the NFL level. Alonso is a top ten, if not top seven option when completely healthy and will give a fantastic overall line, but coming off ACL injuries can sometimes be a tricky proposition. Chip Kelly knew what he was doing with Alonso back at Oregon, and chances are he will let him produce all over the field for his Oregon-ized Eagles.
10.) Alec Ogletree, St. Louis Rams- Ogletree is St. Louis’ most talented linebacker, and he is just getting started. He has already had two phenomenal seasons, and if he can improve his ability to tackle in the run and pass game, his upside becomes even more astronomical. Although he may not always finish plays due to missed tackles, he is very disruptive in coverage and the pass game, and seems poised to take strides further forward this year. Ogletree did have a few minor bumps in 2014, being benched week eight, but after that he was beyond solid, finishing the second half as the number two outside linebacker. Working alongside Laurinaitis and Quinn, Ogletree and the Rams defense should improve upon last season’s numbers. As a unit last season, the Rams allowed only ten touchdowns all season and was a top five unit over all. If you are doubting the Rams defense of the future, don’t, because it is only on the rise and Ogletree might be the biggest star on the front line. (Photo courtesy of rantsports.com)
9.) Paul Posluszny, Jacksonville Jaguars- Much like Laurinaitis in St. Louis, Posluszny is the Jaguars’ steady rock and veteran that teaches other players on defense. Unfortunately, he also fits the definition of ‘injury prone’ as he has had multiple injuries throughout his career and missed seven games last season due to a torn pectoral muscle. The Jaguars resigned him this offseason to a one year deal, and if he is fully recovered, he will continue to be an IDP monster. For his career, he is averaging 9.7 tackles per game and is always a threat to jar the ball loose with his violence in tackling. Drafting Poslusny will not net you a ton of passes defensed nor upside, but he also will not ever deliver a dud week and is a lock to finish as a top ten linebacker.
8.) Paul Worrilow, Atlanta Falcons- Make no mistake, Paul Worrilow is absolute trash in coverage as evidenced by him allowing 50/57 passes to be completed against him. The troubling trend is these completions are short passes to RBs and TEs and are starting to turn into big plays. His forte is tackling and against the run game. Most of his stuffs have come unblocked, but evidence suggests his play declines when being blocked. The reason this should be alarming is due to the fact that until someone else on the Falcons line steps in and produces (Beasley?), opposing offensive lines can double him, impeding his ability to engage and tackle the would-be ball carrier. The good news is Worrilow is relentless and will not quit until he makes the play. Reports suggest that Worrilow is working on versatility and mobility this offseason and if the Falcons new acquisitions can help provide pressure from the front seven, it would provide Worrilow the opportunity to improve his all-around game. Worrilow will continue to be among the league leaders in tackles, but if he doesn’t get any help, the Falcons defense will too and Worrilow’s value could decline.
7.) Bobby Wagner, Seattle Seahawks- Wagner is becoming widely known in fantasy circles, but he is more crucial to the Seahawks defense given his relentless, hounding playmaking tendencies. When Wagner missed five games last season, Seattle’s defense looked league average and went 3-2 over those games, when he returned, the Seahawks ripped off eight straight victories and were a top unit. The key to his success is his ability to diagnose, react and finish plays. No, opposing RBs and WRs don’t fall down when Wagner hits them, they travel backwards. The best is yet to com from Wagner and the Seahawks knew that as they signed him to a four year contract extension in the offseason. If you want a comparison for Wagner, look at Kuechly. Wagner compares athletically and in terms of his impact on the game and is poised to be the leader of the Hawks defense.
6.) Navorro Bowman, San Francisco 49ers- Bowman is recovering from one of the worst knee injuries you will ever see when he ruptured his ACL and MCL in the NFC Championship game against the Seahwks in January, 2014. He missed all of 2014 recovering and his presence alone is a silver lining for a 49ers defense that has been decimated by retirements this offseason. His healthy return is a must for the 49ers as they are dealing with an up and coming Rams team and an absolutely dominant Seahawks team. This is an aggressive ranking for a linebacker recovering from such a horrific injury, but it is justified as he is the leader of the 49ers defense, and is arguably the best pure inside linebacker in the game. He is a machine in coverage, can blitz very efficiently and doesn’t miss tackles in space. With his absence last season, the 49ers could not just rely on five in the secondary to contain opposing offenses (he was integral along with Willis), and had to become more aggressive in the run game, putting more stress on the secondary. Make no mistake, Bowman is the key for the 49ers defense this season as he provides a multi-level threat and his diagnosing abilities are second to none and you should invest with confidence and make him your LB1.
5.) DeAndre Levy, Detroit Lions- If you are looking for the most consistent linebacker for passes defensed, stuffs and tackles, Levy is your man. Over the past 2 seasons, he has averaged ten passes defensed and 11.5 stuffs, and those stats could increase slightly with Suh now in Miami. While Levy is unlikely to match his career high in interceptions (six) in 2013, it is feasible he’ll eclipse his high of two and a half sacks this season and anchor a Lions defense that was the top overall rush defense, but struggled as a unit after Tulloch went down with the torn ACL that came with his Aaron Rodgers sack celebration. (Photo courtesy of twincities.com)
4.) Justin Houston, Kansas City Chiefs- This one is short and sweet. Houston is the best outside linebacker in the game today, and he has established himself as the best pass rusher outside of J.J. Watt. Flat out, he was the best statistical OLB finishing in the top four in rushing the passer (1st), run and pass defense (4th in both, respectively). Yes, at only 26 years of age, the Chiefs made the right choice by giving him a new six year, $101 million deal, and he could improve from here. That’s scary for NFL offenses, but great news for fantasy owners.
1.c.) C.J. Mosley, Baltimore Ravens- Mosley was an absolute monster his rookie season, amassing 133 tackles, and finishing as the third best middle linebacker. While his forte is stuffing the run, he is also very useful in coverage defending the pass, evidenced by his eight passes defensed. What should Ravens and fantasy fans expect for an encore from Ray Lewis’ replacement? If he has his way, Mosley wants to use his rookie campaign upon which to use as a platform and be better his sophomore season. As Mosley gains more experience at the NFL level and hones his advanced technique in coverage and strong play against the run, it is only a matter of time before he challenges for top fantasy linebacker honors.
1.b.) Lavonte David, Tampa Bay Buccaneers- The difference between Davis and Kuechly is the latter is quicker to diagnose, react, is phenomenal against the pass and a stout run stopper. David lacks the supreme ability that Kuechly has instinctually thus far, but he is also a bigger sack threat than Kuechly. Both interchangeable at the top, but if you are going purely for run defense, David is zero to none as he has nearly posted 20 stuffs in each of his first three seasons. He has shown promise as an above average coverage backer and should be expected to continue his improvement going into 2015. Starting on the weakside with Carter at Mike should increase his looks at the QB, but he will also deserve considerable double team looks. Pick your poison among the two.
1.a.) Luke Kuechly, Carolina Panthers- Kuechly is still the top fantasy linebacker, but if he does not improve his ability to sack the signal caller, he could lose the spot to either of David or Mosley. He plays a lot like Wagner and opposing ball carriers fly backwards once Kuechly gets to him. He may not be the absolute stud against the run that David and Mosley are, but he is only beginning to tap into his big play-making ability and is about to figure out the art of the sack. Tackle-wise, he is among the best pure tacklers and reminds me at times of Ray Lewis when he hits. This is going to be the season Kuechly sets a career high in sacks and forced fumbles as the Panthers upgraded their front seven with Thompson from the Draft. He has been on the verge of a complete break out for three seasons, and the fourth time should be the lucky number for Kuechly as fantasy’s top linebacker. (Photo courtesy of usatoday.com)
Thanks for tuning in the past six weeks as we counted down the top 100 linebackers. I will continue rankings next week as the NFL season draws nearer with pre-season games right around the corner. I would love to hear other opinions on linebackers, though, so bring ’em!
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@brandonziman You are more than welcome Brandon. You were a fantastic writer and a joy to work with. As we move through a very big transition for us hopefully we can continue to work with one anither.