One of the top, if not the top, IDP positions in Fantasy Football is the linebacker position. Because of the players’ ability to rack up tackles, sacks and interceptions, they are highly regarded in all IDP leagues. Below are my top-10 rookie linebackers, some of whom could start making contributions as early as 2012.
1. Lavonte David (Tampa Bay Buccaneers) – Early word is that David will be inserted as a starter at WLB in the Tampa defense. In this role, he has the ability to become the next Derrick Brooks for them. However, I would monitor this situation closely. I could easily see David proving to be a far better player than last year’s rookie LB Mason Foster. I wouldn’t put it past Tampa to eventually move David into the MLB role and have him command their defense. David is lightning fast. And while he is a bit undersized, he is also a very sound tackler. I remember sitting in my barber shop waiting to get my haircut before Thanksgiving last year and watching David when Nebraska played Michigan. He was all over the field. I mean EVERYWHERE! He ended that game with 17 tackles and a half a sack. That is the type of impact he can have. I fully expect him to lead the Bucs in tackles this year, whether from the weak side or eventually from the middle.
2. Luke Kuechly (Carolina Panthers) – I admit I was a bit shocked when the Panthers selected Kuechly with the 9th overall pick. Firstly, the Panthers already have some good LBs in Jon Beason and James Anderson and also have Thomas Davis too. Now where it makes sense is to cover themselves since Davis is coming off of back-to-back season-ending knee injuries and Beason is coming off of a season-ending Achilles injury. Carolina also lost Dan Connor in free agency. Kuechly was the best LB in this draft class and many think the most complete LB to come out since Patrick Willis. The question is where do the Panthers play him? Early word is that Kuechly may slot in at MLB in Carolina as they move Jon Beason back to WLB. Whether he plays WLB or MLB he will be a virtual stud and likely a 3-down LB. The only reason I have him below David is that Kuechly will need to compete with Beason and Anderson for tackles where David has little to no competition.
3. Mychal Kendricks (Philadelphia Eagles) – Kendricks is a very interesting prospect. He is a very, very talented LB and is a sideline-to-sideline tackling machine that should stuff box scores in the NFL. He also landed on a LB-needy NFL team in Philly. The early word has Kendricks plays the SLB spot in Philly. I am not sure I like that move for him. The reasoning has been that the Eagles like his pass rushing ability, but the fact is the Eagles have enough pass rush with Babin, Cole, Jenkins and now Fletcher Cox. They need their LBs to cover the middle of the field and tackle. This is where Kendricks would be an excellent fit at either WLB or MLB. Truthfully, I think he is a better fit at MLB than DeMeco Ryans is for the Eagles. Ryans looks washed up to me, but we will see what he does early on in Philly. If Ryans struggles to regain his old form of a few years ago, Kendricks could become the present and the future at MLB in Philly and could be a gem.
4. Bobby Wagner (Seattle Seahawks) – Wagner is a fast and versatile LB who can play any of the LB positions and played them all in College. He was selected with the vision of him filling the void left with the departure of MLB David Hawthorne. Wagner will initially be behind free agent signee Barrett Ruud, but Ruud is recovering slowly from surgery and looked to have lost a step or three last year. Wagner could see immediate time in sub packages and I would expect him to take over for Ruud as the starting MLB in Seattle by mid-season. When he does so, he will threaten to be a perennial 100 tackle player.
5. Don’t’a Hightower (New England Patriots) – Hightower has the chance to be an immediate starter and a potential stud in the NE defense. The question is how does he fit? Will NE run a 4-3 or a 3-4? If it is a 4-3, expect Hightower to step in as the starting MLB with Jerod Mayo moving to WLB where NE prefers him. If NE goes back to their 3-4 roots, expect Hightower to start next to Mayo inside and fill the TED backer role that Tedy Bruschi used to fit in NE. Either way expect close to 100 tackles out of him as he develops, as long as he remains healthy.
6. Sean Spence (Pittsburgh Steelers) – Spence is quick and can cover and tackle with the best of them. He has drawn many comparisons to his Alma Mater’s prototype Jonathan Vilma. That said, he is a bit buried on the depth chart. Spence was not drafted as a long term replacement for James Farrior. Pittsburgh came right out and said they do not see him as a “Buck” linebacker (where Farrior plays) but sees him as a “Mack” backer (where Lawrence Timmons plays). This means that Spence will play a reserve role until he can bump Timmons over to Buck or outside. This could be a couple of years, so you may have to wait for the return on investment in Spence.
7. James-Michael Johnson (Cleveland Browns) – Johnson is a thumper who excels in making plays on ball carriers, but also has been known to struggle a bit in coverage. He is primarily seen as a MLB in Cleveland’s 4-3 scheme, which would put him squarely behind current starter and all-world talent D’Qwell Jackson. Don’t forget, however, about how brittle Jackson has been. If anything happens to him, Johnson could step in and be extremely productive. Also Cleveland has some glaring weaknesses at OLB. I would not put it past them to insert Johnson at MLB and move Jackson out to OLB if that was the best situation for their LBs as the year progressed.
8. Zach Brown (Tennessee Titans) – I have to admit that I am not a Zach Brown fan. He is extremely fast and can chase down RBs and TEs all over the field which makes him extremely valuable and versatile in today’s pass-happy NFL. That said, he does not take on blockers well. In fact he doesn’t do so at all. There were plenty of whispers and giggles around the internet where analysts made claims such as “Brown is allergic to contact.” That is not something you typically want said about your 2nd round pick. However, Titans DC Jerry Gray has already hinted that he sees Brown as their starting WLB over Will Witherspoon from day one. If so, Brown should jump up to at least 6th on this list and maybe even higher due to opportunity alone.
9. Jerry Franklin (Denver Broncos) – Franklin is a heck of an instinctive LB who just finds a way to accumulate tackles and make plays. I was surprised that he went undrafted and think Denver did really well to sign him as an undrafted FA. I could see him competing for a starting spot long term in Denver and he could benefit if DJ Williams has to sit out early in the year. I am not sure what Denver envisions for him or where they see him playing on their defense, but he is a nice dynasty prospect.
10. Vontaze Burfict Cincinnati Bengals) – As one can see, this was not the most stellar draft in terms of depth at LB for fantasy purposes. A lot of the 3-4 OLBs will be in time-shares and most of them are currently listed as DEs for fantasy purposes (although that may change later as the season approaches). Enter Burfict. Nobody’s draft stock has plummeted as badly in recent memory. He went from a late first round prospect to being completely undrafted. That is unheard of. Of course he would end up in Cincinnati. That said he has a real opportunity here. Zimmer is a heck of a DC and he will find a way to maximize Burfict’s talent. Don’t forget that Rey Maualuga was a SLB for a long time in Cincy. He was not seen as the ideal MLB for their team from the start. Burfict could develop into a future MLB in Cincy if he can keep his head on straight and can play more to his physical talent then he has.