Keeping with the theme of moving into the future while looking at the past, we move on to Linebackers. The top crop of LBs in 2013 had a lot of the expected faces, along with a couple of rookies and some throwback performances by Ghosts of IDP Seasons Past. But before we get to the top 20, there are others that warrant some discussion:
London Fletcher – I would be remiss if I did not give a shout out to my all-time favorite IDP. He put up over 90 solo tackles in 11 seasons, and only had less than 133 total tackles in one of his last 14 seasons. Most importantly, he played and started in every single game since the start of the 2001 season. There was never a more reliable fantasy performer at any position, and I know I speak on behalf of IDP owners everywhere when I say that Fletcher will be missed.
Brian Cushing – He’s only played two full seasons due to injuries and a PED suspension, but when healthy he’s a monster. Cush was on pace for 110 tackles when he destroyed his leg in Week 7. There will be a lot of eyes on his recovery in 2014, but I think he’s a great buy-low candidate for next season. Not only will the Houston defense be better than 2013 (hugely so if they get Clowney), but Cushing might be get a little bit of *ahem* help with his rehab.
Von Miller – I feel the opposite about Miller. The Denver defense figures to be a in a bit of flux in the coming season, and their LBs especially could be a mess. Danny Trevathan emerged as a great coverage LB, but Wesley Woodyard, Nate Irving and Paris Lenon don’t inspire much confidence. Miller still has the name recognition, and is another candidate for some chemical assistance in recovery, but I don’t see him returning to his 2012 level next season.
Now onto our top 20 LBs from 2013:
Stats based on tackles, sacks, interceptions, forced fumbles and passes defended. Rankings based on a 3:1 sack to solo tackle ratio.
1. Vontaze Burfict – With Fletcher retiring, Burfict is the frontrunner to by my new favorite IDP. I’ve been a fan since that first time I heard his story (actually since the first time I pronounced his name), and he’s only furthered my infatuation since. For some reason the Bengals haven’t gotten the memo, and continue to play Rey Maualuga at MLB, but if they ever come to their senses then watch out. Preseason Rank #26. Final Numbers: 177/3.0/1/1/8.
2. Paul Posluszny – Buried in the midst of a disaster season in Jacksonville (they couldn’t even win the #1 pick), Poz had a helluva year. I moved to Texas from Jersey over 2 years ago, so I finally feel like I can finally pull off saying “helluva” and get away with it. It may still take some time before I figure out exactly what “Bless your heart” means, but I’m making progress. As for Posluszny, he’ll survive the mess that is the Jaguars right now, and hopefully get his due soon. Preseason Rank #8. Final Numbers: 161/3.0/1/2/9.
3. NaVorro Bowman – No matter what I say about Bowman, all that matters moving forward is how he recovers from that nasty injury in the NFC title game. The collective IDP community is pulling for a full recovery so that one of the most consistent and exciting defensive players in the NFL can continue a career that saw him rack up nearly 500 tackles in his first three seasons as a starter. Preseason Rank #3. Final Numbers: 180/5.0/6/2/9.
4. Lavonte David – Things didn’t start out so hot this year for David, as he single-handedly cost the Bucs their Week 1 game against the Jets. And while things didn’t get much better for Tampa as the season went on, David improved on his already-impressive 2012 rookie year. His tackle numbers were similar, but his combined sacks + picks went from 3 all the way to 11. I think he’ll continue to improve overall, and the tackle numbers will rise, but we may have seen his ceiling as a big-play MLB. Preseason Rank #7. Final Numbers: 145/6.0/5/2/9.
5. Kiko Alonso – When I was growing up, my parents would always play this Los Lobos album that had a song called “Kiko and the Lavender Moon.” It’s got a killer rhythm guitar melody, and is generally just a really good song. Every time I heard Alonso’s name this year it reminded me of that song and the fact that my parents got hammered on the reg without me fully realizing it. Well everyone realizes that Kiko Alonso had a great rookie year, they just might not fully understand why. He had 4 interceptions in his first 4 games, which brought him a ton of recognition, but then didn’t pick off another pass after that. Instead, he led the league with 72 assisted tackles, which were 45% of his total tackles. Do you know who had a similar ratio last year? Vontaze Burfict. Just sayin’. Preseason Rank #44. Final Numbers: 157/2.0/4/1/5.
6. Karlos Dansby – The Arizona LB situation was very confusing in the preseason. They had Daryl Washington, coming off an insane year but with a suspension and unclear legal situation looming. They drafted Kevin Minter in the second round, and spoke highly of him during mini-camp. Then they signed Dansby after Miami absurdly released him. I called this a stay-away situation in August, and while I only ranked Dansby, it was admittedly a shot in the dark. He proved me, and everyone else, wrong this year, in what may have been his last as an every-week starter in the IDP world. Preseason Rank #45. Final Numbers: 121/6.5/4/1/19.
7. Luke Kuechly – After a once-a-decade rookie year, it was reasonable to expect Kuechly’s performance to drop off. Instead, he kept his tackles and passes defensed consistent while increasing both his sacks and picks. So why is he LB7 in 2013 when he was LB1 by 20 points in 2012? His competition got better, that’s about it. Granted, his 24-tackle game against New Orleans gave him a late boost in the standings, but I think he will be undervalued in 2014 drafts if that’s even possible. Kuechly should very likely be the first IDP off the board come August. Preseason Rank #1. Final Numbers: 166/2.0/4/0/8.
8. Jerrell Freeman – Another one of my preseason favorites, Freeman had a very similar season to his 2012 “rookie” year. In fact, with a down year for Cameron Wake, Freeman takes the title of “Top Former CFL Player Who The NFL Should Be Collectively Embarrassed They Missed On.” We’ll see if Brandon Browner or Wake can bounce back to take the TFCPWTNSBCETMO award away from Freeman in 2014. Preseason Rank #13. Final Numbers: 144/5.5/2/6/7.
9. DeMeco Ryans – I’m very happy that Ryans had a resurgent year in Philly after taking a few years to fully recover from a scary Achilles injury. But I’m not buying him as a LB1 in 2014. Not only did he benefit from a Philly team that gave him the 10th most snaps of any LB, but also over 80% of his tackles were solo. That’s a fairly unsustainable rate, his highest since his equally unsustainable rookie year, so I would expect Ryans to fall back to the pack next year as a serviceable LB2/3. There’s nothing wrong with that. Preseason Rank #30. Final Numbers: 138/4.0/2/0/8.
10. Stephen Tulloch – I was honestly surprised that Tulloch outscored fellow Lion DeAndre Levy for the year. He did come into the season more highly regarded, but Levy’s breakout apparently made a bigger impression on me. Regardless, one Lion LB’s star is on the rise and one is likely about to burn out. Not quite sure if that’s a metaphor, a Lion King/Mufasa reference, or just gibberish, but take it for what you will. Preseason Rank #39. Final Numbers: 136/3.5/1/0/2.
11. Danny Trevathan – The IDP community as a whole swung and missed on Trevathan. I was extremely high on his counterpart Wesley Woodyard, but he was never quite the same after an opening night injury, which might just be me rationalizing his subpar year. In stepped Trevathan, who replicated Woodyard’s 2012 performance as Denver’s top coverage LB while only 23 years old. It remains to be seen how Trevathan’s numbers will look if and when we ever seen a full season of a healthy Von Miller, but he’s clearly the LB to own in the Mile High City. Preseason Not Ranked. Final Numbers: 152/2.0/3/3/10.
12. Chad Greenway – He was great in 2013 no matter who was lining up next to him or behind him: Erin Henderson, Marvin Mitchell, Audie Cole, Harrison Smith, Andrew Sendejo, Jamarca Sanford, Sanford and Son, Sons of Anarchy, Anarchy in the U.K., wait where was I? Oh yeah, Greenway doesn’t need a consistent supporting case to put up good numbers. He dropped off slightly from an amazing 2012, but I expect him to be a LB1 in 2014. Preseason Rank #10. Final Numbers: 134/3.0/3/0/3.
13. DeAndre Levy – To continue what I think was a Lion King metaphor for Tulloch, Levy fills the Simba role. Now is that the Jonathan Taylor Thomas (or JTT as his friends call him) Simba, or the Matthew Broderick Simba? If he’s JTT, then he has probably already peaked with his 6 interceptions in 2013. But if he’s Broderick, things get interesting. Assuming 2011 and 2013 were his Ferris Bueller and Glory seasons, we’ll see sporadic good games over the course of the next few years (Cable Guy, Election, maaaaybe Godzilla) followed by some good years in the CFL (The Producers on broadway). This will all culminate in killer Super Bowl performance before an abrupt drop to irrelevance. So yeah, I guess I’m hoping for Broderick. Preseason Not Ranked. Final Numbers: 117/0/6/0/15.
14. D’Qwell Jackson – His relatively disappointing 2013 notwithstanding, Jackson is one of the most intriguing LBs heading into 2014. He’s still just 30, and having just been granted release from the cesspool that is the Browns organization, Jackson has the chance to return to relevance next season. His top suitors appear to be Tennessee, where he would re-unite with former D-Coordinator Ray Horton, as well as Denver, where his production would likely dip even further. Regardless of where he lands, he’s a name to watch. Preseason Rank #9. Final Numbers: 140/1.5/1/1/7.
15. Daryl Smith – Smith’s resurgence was one of the best IDP stories in the league this year. Unlike Dansby, whose production wasn’t all that different to his Miami years, Smith came pretty much out of nowhere to have a career year. He was brought in to show 2013 first round pick Arthur Brown the ropes, and instead he essentially kept the rookie off the field. All signs point to Smith returning to Baltimore, but if he does test the market he could find himself in a better situation to put up stats elsewhere. Preseason Rank #42. Final Numbers: 113/5.0/3/2/18.
16. Lawrence Timmons – This was a down year for the Steelers in many regards, but nowhere did they stray from their history more than the Linebacker position. For the first time in what feels like decades, Pittsburgh didn’t have a stable of terrifying LBs patrolling the middle of the field. The lone exception to that was Timmons, who had a solid but not spectacular season. It will be interesting to see how the Steelers address their LB situation moving forward, either by seeing what they have with Vince Williams and Sean Spence, drafting an early-round backer, or breaking with all tradition and looking at the free agent market. Preseason Rank #17. Final Numbers: 126/3.0/2/1/6.
17. Alec Ogletree – It’s hard to determine if Ogletree was the reason behind the drop in James Laurinaitis’ stats this year, or if he just benefitted from it. Regardless, he at least makes Ogletree vs. Laurinaitis an interesting discussion in 2014. The biggest area of growth for Ogletree’s game will be in coverage, and I expect to see him put up double digit passes defensed as early as next year. Preseason Rank #48. Final Numbers: 118/1.5/1/6/9.
18. Thomas Davis – If there is one story that can upstage Daryl Smith’s story, it’s Davis’s unprecedented comeback from a third torn ACL. My preseason ranking of him was what I considered to be a best-case scenario at the time, but Davis went out and proved me and everyone else wrong. Carolina just picked up the next two years of his contract, which might seem risky due to the aforementioned ACL surgeries, but Davis is apparently not human. Here’s hoping that he gets to continue cleaning up Kuechly’s scraps and staying away from the IR. Preseason Rank #49. Final Numbers: 131/4.0/2/1/8.
19. James Laurinaitis – This was a puzzling season for Laurinaitis. He dealt with some nagging injuries but never missed any time, and he set or matched his career high in every major stat category other than tackles, but he fell from LB3 to LB19. Again, it remains to be seen what role Alec Ogletree played in this drop, if any, but I’d have trouble relying on Laurinaitis to be my LB1 moving forward. Preseason Rank #2. Final Numbers: 117/3.5/2/0/8.
20. Derrick Johnson – We have a tie for 20th, but both of these guys should be higher on a per-game basis. Johnson sat out the Chiefs Week 17 game, but when he played he put up a combination of tackles and big plays that makes him one of the more consistent options out there. He only hit double-digit tackles in two games in 2013, but he complemented his 4- and 5-tackle games with a handful of sacks, picks and fumble recoveries. His numbers will likely continue to decline (look out for Nico Johnson in 2014!), but Derrick Johnson remains an every-week IDP starter. Preseason Rank #4. Final Numbers: 110/4.5/2/0/7.
20. Bobby Wagner – Though he missed a couple of games due to injury, Wagner put up 5 sacks in 14 games. That’s the most interesting aspect of his game moving forward, and if he can come close to 10 sacks in a season, then we’re looking at the top IDP option for the next decade. Some of his success is likely due to Seattle’s system, but Wagner is part of why that system works. He’s a legit LB1 in 2014, and he may even represent a draft-day bargain if other owners assume his 2013 stats were from 16 games. Preseason Rank #6. Final Numbers 155/5.0/2/0/7.
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