Trend Checker - Linebackers
Linebackers have long been the backbone of NFL defenses. They’re responsible for relaying the play calls, audibling pre-snap and making sure everyone is on the same page. It’s not that much different in IDP fantasy football leagues.
Most leagues require you start at least three linebackers and putting up points from each position consistently gives you a big leg up on the competition. The challenge is that generally speaking there’s not much variability between linebackers. Veteran owners don’t want to lose value by selecting a player rounds earlier than a similar producer.
Much like running back on offense, linebackers in the NFL have been devalued the last few years as the league becomes more passing game dominant. Pass rushing linebackers are still at a premium. But they don’t produce the kind of consistent production we’re looking for week in, week out. It’s all about players who can rush the passer and cover receivers. So as fantasy owners how should we adjust to the changing landscape of defense in the NFL?
Here’s some recent trends to keep in mind as you prep for your 2014 fantasy football drafts. For analysis on defensive line trends check out the first article in this series.
Getting Nickeled and Dimed
According to our own data here at Pro Football Focus 45% of all defensive snaps were in the nickel. Add 12 % dime packages and you can see that subpackages are actually more common than base defenses.
There are only at most two reactionary linebackers on the field 57% of the time. By this, I mean that only two of the players are diagnosing the play and flowing to make the tackle. 3-4 teams will have their third linebacker in passing situations but he’ll be used as a pass rusher.
Linebackers in coverage are much more likely to make a tackle than one rushing the quarterback. But NFL teams are using fewer linebackers in coverage at all.
It’s vital that you draft linebackers who play in subpackages. Don’t waste a pick on a linebacker who can’t cover. There’s really no such thing as a two-down backer anymore. We should probably start using the term “one-down” player to refer to linebackers who come off the field in passing situations.
Man in the Middle
In the defensive line portion of this series I outlined how half the league is now using 3-4 defensive personnel. This trend makes it much more difficult to pinpoint the most productive linebacker without doing some research.
Traditionally, the 4-3 middle linebacker was the most productive role for IDP fantasy football leagues. While Luke Kuechly is still amassing points as such there’s fewer players with this role putting up huge numbers. In fact last season Kuechly and Pual Posluszny of Jacksonville were the only 4-3 “Mikes” to finish in the top 10.
We’re seeing more 4-3 teams play with a middle linebacker not in a three-down role. Some even have a different linebacker wear the “coaching” helmet to receive plays. So which linebackers are staying on the field?
Weakside = Points side
In 4-3 defenses it’s the WLB. The top linebacker last season was Lavonte David. He’s a 4-3 weakside linebacker who excels at chase and tackle football and in coverage. As the NFL game becomes more and more pass happy these types of linebackers will become more and more valuable.
As a rookie Alec Ogletree didn’t play particularly well from an NFL standpoint but excelled in IDP leagues due to his role and skill set. Look for these types of player in your draft. They’re also the types of players that can turn big plays into touchdowns as an added bonus.
Four of the top 10 were 3-4 inside linebackers. Players like Karlos Dansby and Navorro Bowman. As is the case in the 4-3, the weakside inside linebacker is usually better in coverage and will garner a three-down role.
Tennessee and Atlanta (to some degree) have joined New Orleans, Philadelphia and Baltimore as teams switching to 3-4 defenses. When evaluating players with upside look for ones who could win this role on 3-4 teams.
Know Your Scoring on the Strong Side
Khalil Mack and Anthony Barr were both just drafted to play strong side linebacker and rush the passer in 4-3 schemes. Depending on the scoring format these types of players could have no value to substantial value in your IDP league. Need help deciding?
Look back to Von Miller’s best season. That’s the ceiling for a player with this role. If he didn’t score that well then avoid this type of player all together in your league.
The floor? Even if these players are on the field for substantial snaps there’s always a risk that they can’t pile up enough tackles to compete with other linebackers. Plan accordingly and you’ll be one step ahead of the competition.
Nate Hodges is a lead writer for PFF Fantasy and radio host for Tennessee Sports Radio (Saturdays at noon eastern). Listen at TNsportsradio.com. His work can also be found at TopTierFootball.com. You can follow him on Twitter – @NateNFL