Linebacker Landscape: Youth Invasion - Pt. 1
Over the past three seasons we’ve seen an influx of talented, young linebackers enter the league, who have gone on to have immediate fantasy success. It started with the 2012 class, which was simply, incredible. Lavonte David (Round 2, 58th overall), Luke Kuechly (Round 1, 9th overall), Bobby Wagner (Round 2, 47th overall) were all selected that year, and now all three are universally found rankings as top-five dynasty linebackers.
Fellow 2012 alumni Mychal Kendricks (Round 2, 46th overall) and Vontaze Burfict (undrafted) didn’t have the same instant-impact for their fantasy owners, but have both since propelled themselves firmly into the LB1 tier. Burfict’s second season in the NFL saw him post a league-leading 171 tackles, while Kendricks ranked 8th last year for fantasy points per game among his peers (min. 500 snaps). Although both currently have issues hanging over them (Burfict’s knee injury and Kendricks’ long-term status with the Eagles), they’re both desirable IDP assets with strong futures.
It’s not just the 2012 class that has been adding quality to the linebacker pool come fantasy draft day. In 2013 Kiko Alonso (Round 2, 46th overall) and Alec Ogletree (Round 1, 30th overall) ended their rookie seasons as LB1s, and again in 2014 C.J. Mosely (Round 1, 17th overall) joined the group of elite linebackers who excelled as a rookie.
The last three seasons have produced five rookie linebackers who ended the seasons as top-ten fantasy assets, while another seven rookies finished inside the top 40. Chris Borland (2014 Round 3, 77th overall), who finished 13th in 2014, only played eight games as a starter, in which he averaged 21.9 points per game, and would likely have ended the year as the No.1 linebacker if he played just three more games at that rate of scoring.
Owners of the aforementioned Burfict (51st) and Kendricks (59th) didn’t get an early return on their investment, but as previously mentioned they’ve been compensated since with improved fantasy returns.
Those who have rostered youngsters Sio Moore (2013 Round 3, 66th overall) and Avery Williamson (2014 Round 5, 151st overall), will already be projecting better things for their players. Moore ranked 11th in fantasy points per game (13.62 – missed four games) last season, comparing favorably with C.J. Mosley (13.52) and Mychal Kendricks (13.64), and is a personal favorite.
Williamson’s outlook is perhaps not quite as rosy, as highlighted by his poor tackles per opportunity (tPOP) figure of 11.64 percent, which ranked 52nd of 57 (min. 500 snaps). Although he currently sits atop the depth chart for the Titans at inside linebacker they also have Zach Brown (2012 round 2, 52nd overall), who managed to rank 32nd in his rookie season back in 2012, scoring 156.5pts on 709 snaps. Brown suffered a torn pectoral in Week 1 last season which is what opened the door for Williamson to get on the field for 1039 snaps as a rookie, but comparing their fantasy production it is Brown who is more impressive.
Telvin Smith (2014 Round 5, 144th overall) is comparable to Williamson seeing as he was drafted only five picks earlier and also benefited via an injury to a veteran teammate, in this case Paul Posluszny, allowing him to see significant playing time from Week 8 on. However, of the pair Smith is certainly the player to invest in, as he ended the season with 104 total tackles (versus Williamson’s 79), ranking 32nd in fantasy points (versus 65th), but most impressively charting a 16.92 percent tPOP which ranked 6th. Although Posluszny’s return will potentially put his three-down role in jeopardy, Williamson is not a lock to hold his duties either.
Patience is a Virtue
Despite all this talk of instant gratification in the forms of David, Kuechly, Wagner, Mosely, Alonso, Ogletree – the list goes on… these last few draft classes have added players such as Kendricks, Burfict and Moore, all of whom have developed quickly and now rank firmly as dynasty LB2s or better. Probe a little deeper and more names emerge who have seen their fantasy value flourish after a slow start to their careers.
One of the biggest risers in IDP rankings since last season is Jamie Collins (2013 Round 2, 52nd overall). As of writing Collins ranks 8th in our redraft rankings and is a mid LB1 for dynasty purposes as well, yet his rookie season was not statistically impressive; 650 snaps for 43 total tackles and a fumble recovery, worth a terrible 0.080 fantasy points a snap. The playoffs told a different story though as Collins was finally given an every-down role and in two games he posted 13 total tackles, a sack and an interception, which opened the door for his breakout 2014 season.
Keenan Robinson (2012 Round 4, 119th overall) has bided his time behind London Fletcher and Perry Riley, while also tearing pectoral muscles in both 2012 (Week 12) and 2013 (first day of training camp). As a rookie Robinson only saw 67 snaps, before missing all of 2013, but became a starter in 2014 following Fletcher’s retirement. Now he’s surpassed Riley to earn the No.1 three-down role and is a hot commodity as a rising LB2 in redraft leagues.
Both Demario Davis (2012 Round 3, 77th overall) and Jon Bostic (2013 Round 3, 50th overall) received plenty of fantasy hype as rookies, but neither delivered. Both were seen as hard hitters likely to post good tackle rates, but as rookies Davis struggled to get on the field (293 snaps) and Bostic looked overwhelmed (-14.7 overall grade) and found himself benched for more reliable options. Heading into 2015 Davis hasn’t set the world on fire but ranks as a low-end LB3 with upside, and Bostic has re-established himself as a starter for the Bears (since 2014 Week 13) and has become an intriguing sleeper LB4, with LB2 upside assuming he can hold down the every-down job in the middle.
Jelani Jenkins (2013 Round 4, 104th overall) is another name who savvy IDP owners will be aware of. Despite their issues at linebacker in 2013 Miami didn’t find a way to get Jenkins on the field, and he played just 326 snaps and recorded only 14 fantasy points. Injuries opened the door for him to start the following season and he led the team with 110 tackles and an impressive tPOP of 15.0 percent. He’s now a high-end LB2 in redraft and dynasty formats.
Two other names worth a quick mention after slow starts to their careers both reside in Denver; Danny Trevathan (2012 Round 6, 188th overall) and Brandon Marshall (2012 Round 5, 142nd overall). Trevathan played just 223 snaps as a rookie, while Marshall was cut by the Jaguars three times in his rookie season, only seeing infrequent time on special teams. Both are now capable of solid LB2 numbers in a three-down role, but whether both will get to see enough snaps if both are healthy and with the likes of Von Miller, Shane Rey and DeMarcus Ware on the roster is questionable. Of the two I prefer Trevathan.
If you’re still holding on to some linebackers from the 2013 and 2014 classes that haven’t become fantasy starters yet, it might be too early to throw in the towel. Don’t worry though, as I’ll be highlighting some players to target and those to avoid in a follow up article, as well as starting to take a peek at the incoming rookie class.
Ross Miles is a Lead Writer for Pro Football Focus Fantasy. Follow him on Twitter – @RossMilesNFL
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