2014 LBs – Risers and Fallers
Now that the 2013 NFL season is in the books, and the PFF game charters have watched every snap and collated all the data, it is left for the fantasy analysts to sift through the stats and start to make some assertions about the upcoming fantasy season. For IDP owners the first place to start is with the linebackers, the scoring machines of any championship-worthy fantasy roster.
Last season was like any other; there were things we expected to happen (more Luke Kuechly excellence), things we probably didn’t (DeAndre Levy challenging LB1 status all year) and some things that nobody in their right mind predicted (Paul Worrilow’s 54 total tackles in three games and continued form thereafter). Without further ado, let’s look at players who showed significant improvement and/or upside …
Vontaze Burfict – Cincinnati Bengals
A year after posting 127 total tackles in his rookie season, there was indecision in the fantasy industry as to whether Burfict offered true LB1 potential heading into year two. His 14.8 percent tackle frequency was pushing elite territory, but just playing 121 snaps as a middle or inside linebacker (just 14.1 percent of his total snaps) meant that experts were being cautious with their projections. It shouldn’t be forgotten that Burfict’s off-field issues had hurt his draft stock and there was no certainty that he’d have a long NFL career.
A league-leading 171 total tackles in 2013 and a 17.1 percent tackle frequency (first for players with a min of 600 snaps) and Burfict has cemented his name into the LB1 conversation. Despite a couple of big games for Vincent Rey in Weeks 10 and 11, Burfict still recorded 27 total tackles over those weeks, so his production looks sustainable even if there are upgrades around him. He’s not a lock to be a top-five fantasy linebacker because he is not the dynamic playmaker that some of his peers are, but with 10 double-digit tackle performances charted last season, few players will offer his consistency.
Lavonte David – Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Two years on from the Kuechly-Wagner-David linebacker class there are still no losers among those owners who had to choose between the trio in their fantasy drafts. David may have even been deemed the weakest option of the triumvirate heading into the 2013 season, but less than 12 months later there are analysts out there that can make a strong case that he’s now the premier selection.
The crux of that argument centers on David’s playmaking ability in the back-field as his seven sacks led non-specialist pass-rush linebackers, while his 20 tackles for loss led all linebackers. David also grabbed five interceptions and recorded a safety to pad his impressive stat lines, still managing to notch a 14.7 percent tackle frequency. Although it’s unlikely that David will be quite as dominant at forcing turnovers in 2014, it’s very hard to see how such a game-changing player can be held in check. His versatile scoring ability combines with a near-elite tackle frequency, which will make him one of the first five linebackers off the board in any draft this coming season.
Danny Trevathan – Denver Broncos
Trevathan was a player on no one’s radar heading into the 2013 season, having played just 223 snaps the previous year. The Broncos’ linebacking unit was spearheaded by Von Miller and Wesley Woodyard, and Trevathan was seen as a role player and back-up. Miller’s subsequent suspension and then season-ending injury threw a couple of wrenches into the gears, while an early season stinger and a series of below average performances for Woodyard had the Denver front office looking at their other options. Enter stage Danny Trevathan. Over the course of 2013 and his 901 snaps, Trevathan recorded a 14.3 percent tackle frequency, good enough to be a solid LB2 in most seasons, and also contributed seven double-digit tackle games, including a stretch of four consecutive weeks. No stranger to big plays either, Trevathan had three interceptions and a pair of sacks on the year too.
Projected as the starter on the weak side for the Broncos defense in 2014, playing opposite a healthy Von Miller should help to free up Trevathan to continue making plays on the field. It will be interesting to see how Denver replaces Woodyard in the middle, as he is all but certain to walk in free agency, so that might have a bearing on Trevathan’s top-end scoring potential. That being said, he still profiles as an underrated pick for owners looking for value on fantasy draft day.
Paul Worrilow – Atlanta Falcons
Every season IDP gamers can point to a player who was freely available on waiver wires in 99 percent of leagues across the country, who by the end of the season became an every-week must-play for their fantasy team, often fueling deep playoff runs and championship bids. The 2013 version of such a player was Worrilow (although Cowboys safety Barry Church can also throw his hat into that ring, but that’s for another article).
An already shaky-looking Falcons linebacker corps lost Sean Weatherspoon to injury in Week 2 and had Akeem Dent’s mediocrity exposed before they turned to their undrafted rookie duo of Worrilow and a Jeff Ratcliffe All-Name team favorite, Joplo Bartu. Worrilow posted the more impressive performances as he missed just 15 snaps after Week 7 and put up an unbelievable tackle stat line between Weeks 9 – 11, recording 19, 19 and 16 total tackles, a boon for his owners who were securing their places in their fantasy playoffs. Such a fantastical scoring rate was of course unsustainable, but Worrilow ended his rookie campaign with a 17.0 percent tackle frequency for his 746 snaps.
Despite the gaudy numbers, Worrilow’s IDP fantasy future is not secure. His fantasy production belies his on-field issues, namely a -7.1 grade against the run, an area where Bartu (742 snaps) excelled with a +8.4 grade. Weatherspoon has also failed to deliver on his early promise to be more than a run-of-the-mill LB2, so the linebacker position is an area the franchise may well look to bolster via free agency and the draft.
Despite on the surface having very impressive numbers, there is a lot of uncertainty in Worrilow’s future. I’d be very wary of drafting him as a LB1 in 2014, but the fact his name can be brought into such discussions show how far the Delaware prospect has come.
Daryl Washington – Arizona Cardinals
This is a painful one to write as a vocal advocate and owner of Washington in multiple leagues myself, but of all the LB1s heading into 2013, it’s debatable that any of them took a bigger drop in their value than Washington. Firstly, there was his four-game suspension for substance abuse, which highlighted previously unknown off-field character issues. Secondly, although he was relatively productive when he returned to the field, Washington’s tackle frequency was just 9.8 percent, down from 13.2 percent the season before. He did show he still retains his playmaking ability by adding three sacks and two interceptions (in 766 snaps), but that’s a far way removed from his nine sacks and one interception when Ray Horton had been his defensive coordinator the previous year.
Another reason for Washington’s decline is also the play of Karlos Dansby alongside him for the Cardinals. Playing at a borderline LB1 level himself, Dansby hoovered up 122 total tackles (11.8 percent tackle frequency) whilst also snagging himself 6.5 sacks and four interceptions. Of the two of them, I’d still rather own Washington, but his status as a lock-LB1 is now in question. As for Dansby, he’s a low-end LB2 with Washington back in the fold.
James Laurinaitis – St Louis Rams
Laurinaitis, like the aforementioned Washington, is another NFC West, lock-LB1, who saw a marked decline in their tackle frequency (13.6 percent down to 11.6 percent), as well as the addition of another capable linebacker alongside him (Alec Ogletree) who played some role in restricting his fantasy scoring in 2013. Posting a career-low 85 solo tackles, and seeing his total tackles drop from 142 in both 2011 and 2012 to just 116 in 2013 has sent Laurinaitis plummeting into low LB2 value, and although he should bounce back to some degree, forecasting solid LB1 numbers would seem a stretch.
You can quickly reel off a list of eight or so names of lock-LB1 types assuming they play 16 games: Kuechly, Wagner, David, Lee, Burfict, Posluszny, Mayo and Bowman*. Add in slightly more marginal calls like Cushing, Alonso, D. Johnson, Washington, Willis and Greenway (let alone elite pass-rushers such as Von Miller and Aldon Smith) and you can see why Laurinaitis’ firm grasp on LB1 status has vanished.
I don’t foresee a continued decline for Laurinaitis, who should retain very dependable LB2 value, but his place among the LB-elite is now a thing of the past.
Dannell Ellerbe – Miami Dolphins
A highly-touted free agency signing, moving into a role where players had been productive fantasy assets before – the picture looked rosy for Ellerbe owners in 2013. The end result though was a case of “not as ordered,” because 101 total tackles and a tackle frequency of just 10.4 percent won’t cut it as a top-line starting fantasy linebacker.
Ellerbe’s 101 total tackles was in fact a career high, but it was a long way from his 15.0 percent tackle frequency as a Raven (on 614 snaps) in 2013. The opportunity was there for him in Miami, and he’d shown the ability to produce in a small sample size, but he simply did not deliver on a consistent basis. Although he posted five games with double-digit tackles, Ellerbe also had eight games of four or less total tackles, which made him a nightmare to deal with on a Sunday when setting a lineup. Would he deliver on his top LB2 promise? More often than not, he didn’t.
His five-year, $34.75 million contract means he’ll be back as a starter in 2014, but until further notice downgrade Ellerbe to LB3/IDP flex.
Tackle frequencies for selected linebackers in 2013
|48||Derrick O. Johnson||KC||966||107||4.5||2||11.1%|
Ross Miles is a Lead Writer for Pro Football Focus Fantasy. Follow him on Twitter – @PFF_RossMiles
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