Linebackers by Dan Kraemer
(written in 2014)
My favorite position in all of IDP. The linebacker.
You might have a hard time being competitive in your Dynasty league if you can’t find consistent linebackers. You generally will have to start at least 3 linebackers each week and you might also have the option to start a 4th in your defensive flex.
I highly recommend considering a linebacker in your flex each week unless you happen to have found a specific player that is super consistent or has an amazing matchup. It’s not unheard of for a no-name linebacker of to outscore the top running back on your team.
A linebacker’s job is to get tackles, sacks, fumbles, and the occasional interceptions. Most middle linebackers are stat monsters. The top linebacker in the league could even end up with close to 300 points in a season.
Now not all linebackers are created equal though. You will notice certain linebackers are way more likely to get sacks, others are way more likely to have a ton of tackles each game, and occasionally there will be elite talents that do can do both. Some will be consistent and some will throw up god awful fantasy stats but be talked about by NFL analysts as a team’s most valuable player. This is usually because you don’t get points for creating pressure on the QB or disrupting a block.
A linebacker’s dynasty success depends on a few things.
First, Is the linebacker a 3 down guy? This is really important. If the linebacker can handle a 3 down role he has more opportunities for stats, simple as that. It also shows that the coaches don’t consider him just a role player. This can be a good indicator that the linebacker is going to put up consistent stats.
Second, is the linebacker on a team with a bad offense? This is actually a good thing for any IDP player. He will usually be on the field a lot more because the offense is going 3 and out more than the average team. That can help an average IDP guy have career stats. This does make it hard to evaluate his consistency year after year though.
Lastly, what defensive scheme is the linebacker mostly in and where does this linebacker mostly lineup in that scheme. I am going to break down the different types on linebackers and the roles they can play in their schemes. Keep in mind, most NFL teams will stick to a base scheme for most of their plays but tend to switch their scheme up depending on where they are in a series/game. There are some that will not commit to a “scheme” and run a little bit of everything. Little bit harder to evaluate for dynasty but should never be disregarded.
4-3 Middle linebackers might be the most consistent roles in an IDP league. Often called the “Mike” linebacker, he is the quarterback of the defense. He calls the plays to the entire defense as they come in from the sideline.
The best Mike linebackers can sniff out the run very fast and they don’t get caught by misdirection plays very often giving them a chance to always be around the ball. A middle linebacker’s main responsibility is to stop the run, so keep that in mind when considering matchups each week.
The 4-3 defense’s design is to funnel the runner to the Mike linebacker. There might be little opportunities for sacks and interceptions because of their defined role but on occasions they will get a sneaky pick on obvious passing downs because the QB forgets to account for them.
A big factor to a Mike linebacker’s success depends on the coaching staff trusting him enough to be on the field all 3 downs, including nickel defense packages. If you can find a guy the plays MLB on all 3 downs then it most likely doesn’t matter what is name is, he will put up exceptional points week after week.
A great example of a 4-3 middle linebacker is Luke Kuechly. He ended 2013 with 247.37 fantasy points consisting of 124.5 tackles, 4 interceptions, and 2 sacks. This made him the 9th best in fantasy points among all linebackers.
4-3 Weak-side linebackers are a unique type of linebacker that have a very similar role to the middle linebacker. They are sometimes referred to as the “Will”. These guys are usually very football smart, very fast, and very athletic. They have to be because they will have to drop into coverage often.
They usually line up five to six yards deep on the weak side of the field. The weak side is usually the opposite of where the tight end or extra lineman lines up. This gives Will LB’s a chance to get a good running start on blitz’s, pick up a slot receiver/ pass catching running backs, or rack up tackles because he often is unblocked on running plays to the weak side. Like the Mike linebacker they are very good at reading the offensive line to know where the run is going.
The Will linebacker is a little bit of a wildcard for offenses because he can stop the run, drop into coverage, and blitz the QB often. There have been many weak side linebackers that rack up over 100 tackles each season but it is not as expected to see as the middle linebacker. However, there is more upside for sacks, passes defended, and interceptions then the Mike linebacker so they can make stats that way.
There won’t be as much room for error when evaluating WLB talent as there is when looking at MLB. The reason being is the WLB is asked to do a lot more than the MLB. His talents have to truly fit that role in order for him to excel at that position and put up big numbers fantasy. So be cautious about linebackers that are just filling in at the WLB spot.
In 2013 Lavonte David had one of the best years of any linebacker, period. From the Will linebacker spot he totaled 298.48 points in his second season from 125.5 tackles, 5 interceptions, 9 defended passes, 6 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, and one fumble recovery. This made him the 2nd best overall linebacker in fantasy points for 2013.
On the other hand Bruce Carter’s 2013 stats shows what happens when a guy is kind of thrown into that position without the experience. The Cowboys’ Bruce Carter ended 2013 with 152.40 fantasy points while at the WLB. Dallas suddenly changed to a 4-3 in 2013 after running a 3-4 for many years. Carter’s stats aren’t terrible but they aren’t usually what I would look for as a week to week starter on my team.
4-3 Strong side linebacker are referred to as the Sam linebacker. They play on the strong side of the field, usually over or near the tight end. If there is no tight end, he lines up in between the last guy on the offensive line and the closest receiver so he can drop into coverage or contain the run from getting outside.
His role is cover the tight end or a running back slipping out of the backfield but he also needs to be able to sniff out the run. There are sack opportunities but not as many as other linebackers for most Sam linebackers.
The Sam linebackers, generally, are even more inconsistent than the 3-4 outside linebackers because most do not play all 3 downs. I am not saying they should be avoided completely but there isn’t very much upside in this linebacker role for fantasy stats unless the talent is exceptional.
There are some exceptions though. Players like Von Miller show that the position should not be overlooked. A guy like Von Miller has the whole defense revolve around him. Millers job is usually to rush the passer from the SLB position.
This is a hard position to scout when building your team. Take caution with guys that are just filling the Sam role because of lack of depth on the team. The middle linebacker position could make any player produce big fantasy stats but the Sam doesn’t offer the same grace. There will be NFL teams that are dedicated to the 4-3 scheme but use their Sam linebacker more as a rusher or outside linebacker. If you read or hear anything like this, there will be upside if the talent is there.
Alec Ogletree played Sam linebacker as a rookie for the St. Louis Rams in 2013. He had an outstanding rookie year. He racked up 228.92 fantasy points from 106.5 tackles, 6 forced fumbles, 1.5 sacks, 9 defended passes, and 1 interception which was returned 98 yards for a touchdown. I was worried about the Sam linebacker designation after I picked him up in the 2nd round of the rookie draft so I traded him before the season started. Big mistake.
My point is the Sam linebacker role might not produce that many stars but you can’t disregard exceptional talent at any position. Khalil Mack could be the next guy to make me start putting thought into the Sam role. We will see.
3-4 Outside linebackers are the linebackers that line up outside of the tackles and either right on the line of scrimmage or 5-6 yards off of it. There are two outside linebackers in the 3-4. Their main responsibility is to rush the QB and contain the run to the inside but they can also be asked to drop into coverage in obvious passing situations. On obvious run plays they emulate defensive ends by going into the 3-point stance on the line of scrimmage.
Once again, if your guy isn’t on the field all 3 downs it will be hard to be consistent with his stats and it could show the coaching staff don’t trust him as more than a role player. Unless there is a severe mismatch in a game they will not accumulate a lot of tackles. However, they do live on sacks.
An elite talent will shine at the position but more often this position yields average overall stats. Week to week they can be very inconsistent with fantasy points but they do provide a ridiculous amount of upside in the right matchup.
Tamba Hali in 2013 is a perfect example of inconsistent fantasy stats. In week 7, against a terrible Giants offensive line, he was able to have an unbelievable 37.60 point game off of 5 tackles, 2 forced fumbles, and 2.5 sacks causing 29 sack yards. The following game in week 8 against the Browns, he had 3.2 points from 2 tackles. That’s it. He played the whole game without injury. Tamba Hali ended up with 186.95 fantasy points for the season, 30th among linebackers overall. This is about what you would expect from a good outside linebacker.
Robert Mathis shows you the amount of upside that is available from the position from the right kind of player. In 2013 he had 260.60 fantasy points from 51 tackles, 8 forced fumbles, 1 defended pass, and 19.5 sacks.
3-4 Inside Linebackers offer a lot of the tackle opportunities that 4-3 middle linebackers offer. There are two inside linebackers in the 3-4 scheme. There are many names used for these two positions but usually they are differentiated by what side of the field the play on, right or left. Some teams do show a strong inside linebacker (SILB) and a weak inside linebacker (WILB) on their depth charts but there isn’t much difference in roles.
The 3-4 inside linebackers are usually stronger, faster, and overall more athletic than your typical 4-3 linebacker. They have to be because they are asked to do more. It is hard to put too much emphasis on either because they sometimes switch roles in a game and are both equally productive tackling machines. Defending the run and dropping into coverage are their primary roles but they can still get the occasional sack when asked to rush.
Sack stats are hard to predict for these two linebackers but the best guys will average a few each year. There is more upside for interceptions then a 4-3 middle linebacker. Rushing the passer every down and/or containing the run from going outside are left to the 3-4 outside linebackers.
If a team does show a SILB and WILB designation, the WILB will tend to have slightly better fantasy stats because they are more concerned with the run and can rush the passer often in some passing situations. I wouldn’t be too worried about owning a SILB in a 3-4. They will have a higher ceiling usually then the average 4-3 Sam linebacker.
One other tip if you are trying to decide between two on the same team is, which linebacker is calling the plays for the defense. This is usually the veteran on the team so take age into account first but usually this is who the coaching staff trusts as the linebacker with the most football smarts. Every situation is different but it could help. I would be happy to own either given the right situation.
Like 4-3 middle linebackers, there is a tremendous amount of upside and consistency if they are “3-down guys”. Navorro Bowman and Patrick Willis show how talented these linebackers can be, even with their expectation to drop into coverage often. Bowman ended up with 299.72 fantasy points from 132.5 tackles, 4 forced fumbles, 2 fumble recoveries, 2 interceptions, 5 sacks, 9 passes defended, and 1 touchdown. Those career stats made him the #1 linebacker in fantasy last year. Willis missed 2 games early in the season but ended up with 182.20 fantasy points from 93 tackles, 2 forced fumbles, 3 sacks, and 1 defended pass. He didn’t have any interceptions last year but he has had 7 over his NFL career.