The Linebacker Landscape: Youth Invasion - Pt. 2
In the first part of this two-part look at the fantasy linebacker landscape I reviewed players who found success as rookies, but also those who established themselves as fantasy staples after a slower start to their careers. In this piece, I’ll be looking at players yet to breakout, but still may, as well as the 2015 rookie class itself.
Potential from Past Classes?
There are a couple of notable talents from the past two classes that haven’t quiet lived up to expectations, but that’s not to say they can’t have value in the next few seasons, as we’ve seen by the rise to fantasy prominence by slow starters like Jamie Collins and Jelani Jenkins.
One of the biggest flops has unquestionably been Arthur Brown (2013 Round 2, 56th overall). Drafted by the Ravens seemingly as the heir apparent to the retiring Rey Lewis, Brown struggled badly as a rookie and played only on special teams last season following the arrival of C.J. Mosley. It seems unlikely that Brown can turn this around. He’s buried on the depth chart and whereas other players who have recovered from poor starts to their careers have flashed ability or seized an opportunity, Brown has regressed and squandered a relatively easy one.
Keeping with the hype linebacker prospects from 2013, it wouldn’t be fair to skip over Manti Te’o (round 2, 38th overall). Teo was a team leader and lynchpin to the success of Notre Dame during his four years in college, and he proved doubters wrong about his coverage skills with an impressive seven interceptions and 11 pass deflections in his final college season.
Putting aside the whole catfish scandal and any character implications, Te’o still faced questions about his ability to play an every-down role in the NFL. Several nagging injuries have prevented him from getting on the field consistently last year, playing just 476 snaps, although he played an every-down role for the last three weeks of the season, during which he averaged 12.5 ppg, which is high-end LB2 type numbers if sustained for a whole season.
Assessing his competition for playing time, Donald Butler has shown himself to be an average-at-best three-down option, while the Chargers selected Denzel Perryman in the second round this year. All three players will be battling for a starting role, and because of the traditional rookie hype, its likely T’eo will be the cheapest to draft. I’d prefer him to Butler based on potential upside (Butler doesn’t have any), while Perryman is a bigger unknown at a higher price. T’eo makes an intriguing bench LB (think LB4/5) with LB2 upside if he can win the starting job and a three-down role, which isn’t impossible.
Keeping in San Diego, it’s worth taking a longer look at Jeremiah Attaochu (2014 Round 2, 50th overall). Attaochu saw time in 11 games last year, but played only 237 snaps as he recovered from an injury. He’s expected to be a starter as outside linebacker opposite Melvin Ingram this year and is being hyped by GM Tom Telesco. He’s an edge threat for the Chargers 3-4 defense which does limit his fantasy value as there are only a handful of 3-4 OLBs that retain fantasy relevance season to season. In deeper big play leagues Attaochu is a late round flier, but he’s going to struggle to score enough points consistently to be more than a match-up based play in balanced leagues.
Another hype linebacker who hasn’t delivered to date would be Kevin Minter (2013 Round 2, 45th overall) in Arizona. With Daryl Washington and Karlos Dansby on the roster he was expected to sit, learn and bide his time, which was the case in his rookie season as he spent the entire year as a special teamer. Entering 2014, Washington found himself indefinitely suspended for off-field transgressions, while Dansby services were not retained and he left for Cleveland.
Minter had an open door to a starting job yet he couldn’t beat out ageing veteran Larry Foote. He played just 324 snaps on the season, and now heading into 2015 he’s seen the Cardinals bring in Sean Weatherspoon to be their No.1 inside linebacker while awaiting news on Washington’s suspension status. While not as buried as Arthur Brown in Baltimore, signs are not positive for Minter to be able to get on the field and make an impact. He’s a player I wouldn’t want to be investing a sleeper pick on, or keeping as a dynasty stash.
If you want an under-rated young linebacker who is a starter on your fantasy roster, then Sam Barrington (2013 Round 7, 232nd overall) is worth closer attention. He saw time in seven games as a rookie, before starting seven regular season games last year (including the final five) and a further two games in the playoffs.
Of those nine starts he only saw every-down duties in one game (NFC Championship vs Seattle), and now the Packers have cut ties with A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones, which pencil’s Barrington in as a Week 1 starter. He posted three games with double digit fantasy points last year despite only playing 40 or more snaps in four games, so there is some reason to be optimistic. He’s currently ranked as an LB4/5 and he’ll need to see off rookie Jake Ryan in camp to secure a starting role, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him finish the season as a solid LB3.
Keeping with the under-rated theme, Christian Jones (2014, undrafted) was a talented prospect, but off-field concerns meant NFL teams and fantasy owners stayed away on their respective draft days. A muddled linebacking corps in Chicago featuring Jon Bostic, Shea McClellin, Lance Briggs, D.J. Williams and Khaseem Greene made it difficult to be confident in projecting his NFL future, but he flashed some potential in his 694 snaps last year.
McClellin, the 19th overall selection in 2012, is now potentially moving to the inside at the behest of DC Vic Fangio following the Bears change to a 3-4, so is a threat to Jones’ playing time. Bostic, as discussed in part one, is expected to start in an every-down role, but Jones’ is my preferred option to beat out McClellin, however he will now face additional competition from ‘JAG’ linebacker and free agency pickup, Mason Foster. Foster has shown his capabilities in Tampa Bay, so if Jones’ is half decent he has a shot to claim the second starting ILB role.
Chris Kirksey (2014 Round 3, 70th overall) earned some interest in his rookie season thanks to a solid pre-season and camp, but wasn’t quite as impactful during the regular season. He started eight games over the course of the year, but wasn’t able to lockdown the starting role and make it his, for example starting in Weeks 11-15, before playing only 49 percent of snaps the following week, and just 23 percent in Week 17.
Kirksey projects to be a starter again in 2015, but will not see every-down work with Karlos Dansby, Paul Kruger and Barkevious Mingo on the roster for their 3-4 defense. As Dansby is 33 years of age, Kirksey is much more interesting in dynasty leagues. He’s currently not worth rostering in redraft leagues unless Dansby gets banged up.
Fantasy Profile of a Rookie Stud
Taking the measurables of the most successful rookie linebackers in their rookie seasons it’s possible to start building a profile of what has helped make these players successful early in their careers.
Of the 12 players who ranked in the top-40 linebackers in their debut season, only one wasn’t drafted (Worrilow), and nine of them were selected in the first two rounds.
11-out-of-12 players were at least 6’0”, the exception being Borland (5’11”), and the average height was 6’2”.
Nine of the players weighed between 230 – 250lbs. Under-sized Smith (218) was the lightest, and Barr (255) the heaviest.
11-out-of-12 players played 800-plus snaps in their rookie season. Again it was Borland (581) who was the exception. To push for LB1 numbers you must play 1,000-plus snaps.
2015 Class Thoughts
Using the above criteria, we can assess the 2015 linebacker class.
Of the 13 linebackers (excluding edge-rushers) selected in the top-150 picks, only three players meet the height-weight-pick criteria – Anthony, Kendricks and McKinney.
Currently only Anthony, Kendricks, and McKinley are projected as Week 1 starters, with Kendricks and Anthony expected to be every-down players. Of this year’s class they are the only two players worth selecting in redraft leagues.
Dawson, a CFF favorite, falls down on his draft spot and will have to outplay A.J. Hawk to get on the field, but is worth rostering in dynasty formats.
Hicks (Eagles) and Watson (Chiefs) meet size and weight requirements and have interesting landing spots. The Eagles have Mychal Kendricks and Kiko Alonso, with Demeco Ryans nearing the end of his career. The same can be said for returning former LB1 Derrick Johnson in Kansas City.
Anthony and Kendricks have both ended up in excellent landing spots for their fantasy potential. Anthony will step straight into an every-down role for the Saints, replacing Curtis Lofton (now in Oakland), who played 1,063 snaps last year, and 1,065 the year before, meaning he has the potential to be an impact fantasy player in his rookie season.
Kendricks landed in Minnesota, where Chad Greenway is on his last legs. As IDP analysts we’ve been looking at the likes of Audie Cole, Jasper Brinkley and other JAGs line up in the middle for the Vikings and just wishing someone half decent would be given the job and start producing some fantasy points. Well, now they have Kendricks, who is on the smaller side for a linebacker but brings coverage skills few of his peers can offer.
Don’t sleep on McKinney either, as the Texans ILB corps is Brian Cushing, McKinney, Mike Mohammed, Akeem Dent and Justin Tuggle. As much of a huge Cushing fan as I am, he’s missed 22 games in the last three years and had another three surgeries this off-season. At 28 he’s not getting any younger either, and he doesn’t seem to be the same player that earned a Pro Bowl spot and Defensive Rookie of the Year honors in 2009. He also wasn’t an every-down ‘backer when healthy in 2014, so McKinney could emerge as a viable fantasy option this season in Houston.
Ross Miles is a Lead Writer for Pro Football Focus Fantasy. Follow him on Twitter – @RossMilesNFL
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