Top 5 Most Underrated Every-Down Linebackers
Linebackers who see the field in subpackage formations have increased fantasy value because of their higher number of opportunities to make plays. These every-down linebackers are some of the most valuable fantasy assets each season. As NFL rosters and starting lineups start to take shape around the league, IDP owners need to take stock of the linebackers who are projected to be every-down players.
Based on Jeff Ratcliffe’s and my rankings, here are the Top 5 most underrated every-down linebackers as of June 23rd.
Wesley Woodyard – Denver Broncos
Ross’s Rank – LB No. 17, Jeff’s Rank – LB No. 14
Last season’s suspension to DJ Williams gave Woodyard a free run at the weakside linebacker role, where he seemed to thrive in during the early part of the year. Through the first nine weeks he racked up five double-digit tackle games (including a four-game streak), as well as three sacks, a forced fumble and two interceptions. That fantasy production made him an LB1 during that period.
An ankle injury in Week 13 slowed Woodyard’s season, as he missed the following game and could not return to his previous levels of fantasy production. Woodyard ended the year having scored as a high-end LB2 and enters 2013 with little competition for his spot in nickel and dime formations from Nate Irving, the current projected starting middle linebacker. Having played all defensive snaps in ten games last season Woodyard is likely to exceed 1,000 snaps this season and could be a dark horse for LB1 honors.
Nick Roach – Oakland Raiders
Ross’s Rank – LB No. 25, Jeff’s Rank – LB No. 19
A free agent signing this off-season, Roach steps into a revamped Raiders linebacker corps. Rolando McClain and Phillip Wheeler were given their walking papers, while Miles Burris will be demoted to a back-up spot. Roach is currently penciled in along with veteran Kevin Burnett and rookie Sio Moore in the starting spots.
With such a degree of turnover there is no certainty as to who will play in an every-down role although, HC Dennis Allen confirmed in March that Roach was signed to man the middle. Since then Allen called Roach the “quarterback of the defense,” suggesting that he’ll be used as a three-down linebacker. Roach was solid as an every-down players last season for Chicago in the final four weeks of the season after Brian Urlacher was sidelined. Over those final four games Roach averaged 7.75 tackles per game and a tackle frequency of 11.2%, flashing the fantasy potential to be a solid LB2.
DJ Williams – Chicago Bears
Ross’s Rank – LB No. 21, Jeff’s Rank – LB No. 22
Of the five players listed, Williams carries a slightly higher degree of risk. When he was signed Williams told the Chicago Sun Times that he’d be playing an every-down role in the middle if Brian Urlacher didn’t return, but since then DC Mel Tucker has announced that rookie Jon Bostic is in an “open competition” to start at middle linebacker.
Even if Williams wins the job, he’ll still need to beat out the newly signed James Anderson to play alongside Lance Briggs in the sub-packages. Williams played as a three-down inside linebacker for Denver in 2009 and 2010, averaging 120 total tackles, 4.5 sacks and two forced fumbles. If he wins the role, we can expect production in that range This puts him squarely in the LB2 range, which is well above his current ADP as LB44.
Jerrell Freeman – Indianapolis Colts
Ross’s Rank – LB No. 26, Jeff’s Rank – LB No. 20
Freeman’s problem of being underrated is threefold. First, few IDP owners knew who he was because he unexpectedly won the starting inside linebacker job in the preseason last year after Pat Angerer (an IDP sleeper in his own right) suffered a broken foot. Second, although he was pretty decent from a fantasy perspective, he wasn’t scoring like an every-week LB1. He only had one double-digit tackle performance in his first four games and had a Week 4 bye that artificially caused him to rank lower in fantasy leagues in the first half of the season. Third, the Colts offense got most of the spotlight last season, while Freeman flew under the radar.
Freeman ended the season on fire, charting five games with 10-plus tackles in the final seven weeks. Angerer has had further foot surgery and did not participate in OTAs, which puts further question marks over his ability to return as a viable starter. There seems little in the way of serious competition for Freeman’s role or the sub-package snaps that makes him a reliable fantasy option.
Mychal Kendricks – Philadelphia Eagles
Ross’s Rank – LB No. 48, Jeff’s Rank – LB No. 35
Having played 955 snaps as a rookie, Kendricks makes list because he’s shifted inside to an inside linebacker role in the Eagles new 3-4 defense. This spot better suits his playing style than strong side linebacker, which was where he played most of last season. Despite difficulties at times, Kendricks recorded 75 total tackles and also showed some ability against the pass (allowing under 70% of passes in his coverage to be completed).
It’s easy to forget Kendricks following such a low-key performance last year in a loaded rookie linebacker class that also included Luke Kuechly, Bobby Wagner and Lavonte David. However, the switch in positions for him could unlock his fantasy value. He’ll be one of the players most overlooked linebackers in fantasy drafts this season.
Ross Miles is a Lead Writer for Pro Football Focus Fantasy. Follow him on Twitter – @PFF_RossMiles