Fantasy: By the Numbers – LB’s

| October 21, 2011

Six weeks into the 2011 season, we’re reaching a point where we can clearly see which players are – and aren’t – in a position to thrive. While some linebackers have started off on too-hot-to-sustain paces, there is enough data available at this point to begin to effectively distinguish the emergent premium performers from the has-beens and never-will-bes. Here’s a look at the linebackers who have outperformed and underperformed expectations, along with some breakout candidates whose statistical production has thus far been subdued…

STARS AS EXPECTED

Patrick Willis, ILB, San Francisco 49ers
A perennial candidate for the top spot on ILB linebacker rankings, Willis has once again been terrific in all facets of the game, posting positive ratings against the run (+4.5), in coverage (+6.0) and on the pass rush (+1.1). And while Willis is now sharing big-play opportunities with emergent teammates Navorro Bowman and Aldon Smith, his productivity is quite consistent on a week-by-week basis and he should deliver at least a couple of huge performances before the season’s over.

D’Qwell Jackson, MLB, Cleveland Browns
The Browns’ switch back to a 4-3 has really agreed with Jackson, who’s emerged as a bona fide every-week starter in the middle of the Browns’ defense. The presence of rookie DE Jabaal Sheard and playmaking second-year CB Joe Haden has made opponents a bit more gun-shy about relying on the pass, no small reasons why Jackson has posted 37 solo tackles through five games (the Browns were on bye in Week 5). Look for Jackson to continue to put up top-tier IDP production, particularly as the weather worsens and AFC North teams run the ball more frequently.

Ray Lewis, MLB/ILB, Baltimore Ravens
The ageless Lewis remains fantastic against the run (+10.7, first overall) and is still without question – along with Ed Reed – the glue that holds the Ravens’ defense together. His play in pass coverage isn’t as strong, but that’s actually a blessing for IDP owners, because more targets equal more interception and passes-defensed opportunities. Much of Lewis’s value moving forward will depend upon the Ravens’ offense. If the offense continues to improve, the defense will be seeing an increasing number of second-half passes, which will suppress Lewis’s value in tackle-heavy leagues.

OUTPERFORMING EXPECTATIONS

Curtis Lofton, MLB, Atlanta Falcons
That Lofton is outperforming expectations is at least somewhat a matter of perspective; I had him squarely in my top 10 before the season started, and he’s done nothing to disappoint in that regard. However, what has been surprising has been the disappointing play of the Falcons’ offense. Because Matt Ryan and company have sputtered badly, the Falcons are seeing opponents run more frequently; if Ryan gets on track and starts performing at an elite level moving forward, look for Lofton’s IDP value to drop consequently.

Sean Lee, ILB, Dallas Cowboys
Last season, Lee didn’t see the field very frequently (169 snaps), and the whispers began that he was going to be a bust. But anyone looking at Lee’s PFF ranking (+9.4) would have seen that on a prorated basis, Lee would have posted a +50 rating if given 900 snaps (a more typical total for a starting ILB). To put that +50 into context, the highest-rated ILB in 2010 (Lawrence Timmons) posted a +31.6 rating in 963 snaps. Lee is a solid tackler and a very smart player; he’s also quickly emerging as one of the most dynamic playmakers on the Dallas defense.

Navorro Bowman, ILB, San Francisco 49ers
Much like Lee, Bowman didn’t see the field much in 2010 (217 snaps), but he showed in the time he got that he had some nice potential (+3.7 rating). This year, Bowman’s thriving as a starting ILB alongside Patrick Willis, posting 49 solo tackles (second best amongst all ILBs) along with five QB hits and three QB pressures. As his confidence grows, look for Bowman’s IDP production to continue to increase, for opponents still must focus the lion’s share of their attention on neutralizing the indomitable Willis.

DISAPPOINTMENTS

Lawrence Timmons, ILB/OLB, Pittsburgh Steelers
This season, it’s become painfully apparent how essential James Harrison is to the Steelers’ success on defense. When Harrison started the season slowly, so too did the Steelers’ D, and now with Harrison out of the lineup (fractured orbital bone), Timmons has been forced to move from the inside (where he’s posted a solid if unspectacular +1.7 rating) to the outside in Harrison’s spot (where he’s been an unmitigated disaster, posting an ugly -5.2 rating in only 137 snaps. Timmons appeared on the verge of stardom after a very strong 2010 campaign (+31.6, first overall), but things have gone downhill quite quickly. That said, Timmons falls into the “buy low” category if you have faith that Harrison will return to full strength in time for Timmons to have a strong second half.

DeMeco Ryans, ILB, Houston Texans
Ryans’ slow start wasn’t entirely unpredictable, given that he was both returning from a serious knee injury and making the shift from MLB in a 4-3 defense to ILB in a 3-4. But though he’s been a fantasy disappointment, Ryans has actually fared reasonably well from a PFF perspective (+4.1 rating overall, +3.1 against the run). So the question becomes, is the glass half-full or half-empty? If you think the strong play is more important, Ryans’s 18 solo tackles are an aberration and his numbers are bound to improve. But if you think he won’t thrive because of the system – that the low tackle numbers are the rule rather than the exception – stay far away from Ryans.

Karlos Dansby, ILB, Miami Dolphins
Dansby has been a huge disappointment, posting an -4.6 rating (including -3.4 against the run), numbers that look even worse when considering the fact that the Dolphins have already had their bye. But making matters even worse is the fact that he’s posted only 17 tackles despite playing in the league’s worst defense and for (arguably) its worst team. If things somehow manage to improve on the offensive side of the ball and opponents run less frequently in the second halves of games, Danbsy’s numbers stand to get even worse. Another couple of weeks and Dansby becomes a necessary “sell low” candidate, as in “get some value in return before he’s been rendered completely worthless.”

BUY LOW CANDIDATES

Cameron Wake, OLB, Miami Dolphins
Whereas Dansby has been a disaster, Wake has actually far outplayed his statistical production. He’s posted a solid +7.9 rating (including +8.1 on the pass rush), and his QB hits (7) and pressures (12) suggest that his sack total will rise, particularly if Dansby manages to improve his play in the middle. Perhaps the most important concern where Wake’s production is concerned is DE Kendall Langford. Last season, Langford was a force at occupying opposing blockers, posting an excellent +14.4 rating. But this year, Langford’s fallen off a cliff (-4.9), which goes a long way towards explaining why Wake hasn’t been sacking opposing QBs at the same rate as last season. If the Dolphins’ offense improves by any meaningful measure, and if the talented players around him start to perform at a higher level on a more consistent basis, Wake could be in line for a very strong second half.

Brian Orakpo, OLB, Washington Redskins
Orakpo’s +12.5 pass-rush rating is second-best amongst 3-4 OLB’s to only DeMarcus Ware, but it’s only translated into four sacks thus far. With 17 QB pressures already, it’s a good bet that the sacks will start to come and that Orakpo will emerge as a fantasy force a la Ware, particularly in those leagues that heavily reward sacks. But do keep in mind that if the Redskins’ slide continues, opponents will pass less frequently and Orakpo’s numbers will consequently suffer.

Shaun Phillips, OLB, San Diego Chargers
Phillips has posted a very strong +12.4 rating this season, but he’s got only one sack and 10 tackles. Look for the peripheral numbers to rise dramatically if he continues to play at a high level… of the three buy-low candidates offered up here, Phillips should come the cheapest; in fact, he might well be available via waivers.

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