Interior linebackers are the anchor of an IDP defense. Their tackles provide a week-to-week consistency that neither sacks for defensive ends nor interceptions for defensive backs can bestow. However, that consistency can work against you in a dynasty format. The tackles come in such volume that they are hard to hide behind poor luck.
The top 16 interior linebackers, as sorted by solo tackles, are not surprisingly all positive contributors in our overall ratings. The greater part of their composite scores is in run defense, where 14 have positive ratings and only 1 has a neutral and 1 a negative score. But that is only part of the whole.
The real secret to their volume of tackles is in their volume of snaps played. Of the 16, 13 have played at least 850 snaps, and Desmond Bishop was well on his way before he was hurt in week 12. It helps to be on a team with more opportunities, and health is a must, but that isn’t all. In order to stay on the field, those linebackers have to stay above water in coverage, which they have. 2 have neutral ratings, 3 have negative ratings, and the other 11 have positive ratings in coverage.
In order to project increases in snaps for young linebackers, I looked for players that had positive coverage ratings in limited opportunities or neutral coverage ratings with high ratings against the run.
Players that could see increased work
Pat Angerer (1.1 overall, 3.6 coverage) and Colin McCarthy (4.3 overall, 2.3 coverage) are not flying under any radars, but if you are trying to decide whether or not to keep them, you probably should. Angerer has played close to every snap this season, as has McCarthy since week 12, so they won’t see an increase in snaps per game, but neither should see a decrease. Each has thrived in their opportunities given because of injuries to veteran starters, and neither looks to surrender them next season. Their excellent coverage skills should keep them on the field for obvious passing downs, which should lead to continued high tackle numbers.
Donald Butler is the younger half of San Diego’s new interior linebacker tandem, and he looks to be the much better half. Takeo Spikes (3.0 overall in 815 snaps) has been a nice addition, but the second-year Butler (11.2 overall, 0.1 coverage in 575 snaps) has been three times as productive in just over two thirds as many snaps.
D. J. Smith (6.5 overall, 0.5 coverage), a rookie 6th round selection by the Packers, has played in place of the injured Desmond Bishop for the last four weeks. He has produced a positive overall rating in three of those four games, and has held up against the pass. Bishop does not need to worry. His job will be waiting for him when he returns. A. J. Hawk (-0.8 overall rating in 752 snaps) should be a little nervous.
Joe Mays (6.9 overall, -0.4 coverage) and Brandon Spikes (5.2 overall, -0.7 coverage) are highly effective run stoppers and are competent in coverage, which gives them potential for third-down snaps. Of the two, Spikes has the greater upside. Mays could become challenged by rookie Nate Irving if he develops, and Spikes is two years younger and has two years of quality track record. With the sieve that is most of the Patriots’ defensive personnel, Spikes could thrive in the middle, even if Jerod Mayo remains healthy on the outside.
Ray Lewis is slowing down, and Jameel McClain (3.7 overall, -1.0 coverage) is in the position to benefit. McClain has really improved his game since 2010, when he posted a 0.6 overall rating in 584 snaps as an interior linebacker. He has played more on the outside in 2011 and is not much of a pass rusher, but with the injury to Lewis, McClain shifted inside and played every snap for the Ravens from week 11 through week 14 (and accumulated 24 solo tackles in 4 weeks). He reverted to weak-side linebacker when Lewis returned, but McClain could be a useful player if Lewis has trouble staying healthy.
Players that could see decreased work
Jamar Chaney (-11.2 overall, -3.4 coverage) has unfairly shouldered much of the blame for the Eagles’ dysfunction, but that does not mean he has not been overwhelmed. Like his team, much of his damage came early, when he produced a negative overall score in 4 of the first 5 weeks and a negative coverage score in 3 of the first 5 weeks. He has been better in both respects the last three weeks, but that has not prevented him from losing his job in nickel formations to fellow disaster Casey Matthews (-7.1 overall in 163 snaps). I would speculate that the middle linebacker for the 2012 Eagles is not yet on their roster.
Rolando McClain (1.4 overall, -8.3 coverage) has the second worst (110 of 111) rating in coverage among interior linebackers. That is somewhat misleading because he has played 897 snaps, many more than many of the players just in front of him. But the question is still why? McClain is a net positive because he is a good run stopper and pass rusher, but I wonder if the Raiders would be better off to leave McClain on the sideline for obvious passing downs.
Rey Maualuga (-0.6 overall, -3.4 coverage) has spent some of his 2011 season hurt, so it is difficult to make a judgment. That said, Maualuga has definitely failed to live up to his status as a sleeper. Through week 12, he had played almost every snap of the games he was healthy to start, but in the three games since, he has seen those snaps reduced. That trend may well continue into 2012 should he fail to improve in coverage.
Mason Foster (-13.9 overall, -1.0 coverage) had big shoes to fill as a rookie replacing Barrett Ruud in the middle of the Buccaneer defense. Early on, he looked to be up to it. He had become the starter by week 2 and produced back-to-back positive overall ratings in weeks 3 and 4, when he played every snap. Since, Foster has been banged up and never recaptured his early success. He continues to play every down, which his coverage abilities can continue to allow, but he has struggled tremendously against the run. I give him a greater chance of recovery than the rest of the players in this category, but if he fails to improve his run defense, Foster could be in only on third downs.