Ah, the linebacker position. Despite the lofty numbers that J.J. Watt produced from the defensive end spot, linebackers are still the glamor boys of the Individual Defensive Player (IDP) format. They are the quarterbacks of IDP lineups, if you will.
Even the most casual football fan would recognize names such as Ray Lewis or Brian Urlacher. The same can't be said for Jared Allen, Roman Harper or any other high producing defensive lineman or defensive backs in the league.
A solid linebacker corps is essential in having a successful IDP fantasy season and the position generally runs deep with fantasy point producers but precious few reach the lofty level of top-tier elite players.
The league wide shift to a more RBBC (running back by committee) approach has altered the way running backs are looked at and drafted in today's fantasy realm. And the IDP side of the ball has also seen a shift in how often and when certain positions should be targeted in fantasy drafts.
The specialization of the linebacker position has made it a smart strategy to draft as many high point producers at the position as early as possible. Distinguishing three down players from those that leave the field on passing downs is vital when examining and then ranking linebackers.
Some situational players may be poised to take that next step to an every down role and being ahead of that curve can exponentially help an IDP owner to dominate their league.
So, let's take a look at a few linebackers that are ready to step into fantasy stardom and lead IDP teams to 2013 glory.
Perry Riley, ILB, Washington: Riley has been rock solid since replacing Rocky McIntosh at inside linebacker prior to Week 10 of the 2011 season. In the 25 games that Riley has appeared as a full-time player, he has amassed more than 200 combined tackles.
Due to injuries suffered by Brian Orakpo and Adam Carriker, Riley was also utilized in quite a few blitz packages last season, as Washington had to get creative with ways to generate pressure on the quarterback. He responded with 3½ sacks while also holding his own in coverage and was credited with seven passes defended.
Riley is the heir apparent to London Fletcher, if and when, he does finally decide to retire (I'm not holding my breath while waiting for that) and is due for a big bump in fantasy value once that does occur. At 6-foot-1 and 240 pounds, he is a slightly bigger version of Fletcher, and, once he takes over as the lead man in the middle, he can easily surpass 140 total tackles in a season.
Should Fletcher retire prior to the 2013 season, Riley is an immediate Top 10 linebacker in fantasy drafts and easy LB1. If Fletcher holds on for one more year, Riley remains a solid, low-end LB2 and bides his time for a little while longer.
Mason Foster, MLB, Tampa Bay: After starting his rookie season in 2011 playing as a two-down linebacker, Foster was elevated into the nickel package after Quincy Black suffered an ankle injury in the Week 2 game against Minnesota. Foster would post an impressive 10 tackle, one sack and a forced fumble performance in the win over the Vikings.
Foster would suffer an ankle injury of his own in Week 5 against the San Francisco 49ers that would be an issue throughout his rookie campaign. He struggled to get off blocks and sometimes looked lost in coverage but still finished with 84 tackles, two sacks and an interception for the season.
A new head coach (Greg Schiano) and a new defensive coordinator (Bill Sheridan) would arrive prior to the 2012 season after Tampa Bay finished 4-12 and dead last against the run. Foster would maintain his starting spot in the middle of the defense but return to strictly a two-down role, coming off the field in the nickel package.
He finished the 2012 season second on the team in tackles with 82 solos and 106 total stops while playing only 756 of 1109 defensive snaps. The Buccaneers would employ three safeties in their nickel package with Ahmad Black replacing Foster, which greatly diminished his fantasy value.
The thought here is that Tampa Bay gives Foster another shot at a three-down role and elevates his fantasy value back to that of a LB1. Monitor the alignment that the Buccaneers utilize in the preseason and jump on Foster early if he does indeed secure that coveted every down role for 2013.
Jerrell Freeman, ILB, Indianapolis: The Colts signed Freeman, who had just led the CFL in tackles with 105, in January of 2012. In his debut NFL season he was expected to be a special teams contributor and provide added depth at the linebacker position.
When Pat Angerer suffered a broken foot in the preseason, the Colts were in need of immediate help in the middle and the former Mary Hardin-Baylor Crusader (shameless plug for a D3 college). Jerrell Freeman did just that.
Considered by some as undersized at 6-foot and 234 pounds, Freeman led the Colts in tackles last season with 145. He also registered two sacks while forcing a fumble and returned his lone interception for a touchdown. He played 1,124 of a possible 1,139 (including the playoffs) defensive snaps for Indianapolis and continued to man the middle of the defense even after Angerer returned from injury.
Freeman is the real deal and earned the nickname "Baby Ray" from his teammates in reference to the soon to be retired all-time great Ray Lewis of the Baltimore Ravens. He posted double-digit total tackles in eight of 16 regular season games last season and topped 12 or more combined stops five times.
Freeman finished as a Top 12 fantasy linebacker in most scoring formats for 2012 and is in prime position to finish even higher in 2013 as the every down man in the middle for Indianapolis. He will only be 27 years old when next season kicks off, is a solid LB1 heading forward and is a Top 15 fantasy linebacker draft option.
Vontaze Burfict, WLB, Cincinnati: What a difference one year can make. After his mediocre junior season at Arizona State that was riddled with personal foul penalties, punching a teammate and throwing the coaching staff under the bus, Burfict decided to enter the NFL Draft. He then proceeded to show up for the NFL combine out of shape having failed a drug test and then followed that up by making things worse at his pro day.
All in all, it was a handbook for how to drop out of the NFL Draft in four easy steps. His free fall out of the draft was complete, as he would not hear his name called and he'd have to hope that some NFL team was willing to take a chance on him. Less than an hour after the draft concluded, the Cincinnati Bengals did just that. The rest as they say, is history.
Burfict finished his rookie season as the leading tackler for the Bengals with 127 total tackles and added one sack. He produced these numbers while not playing a single snap in Week 1 and then being moved to the weak side linebacker position after Thomas Howard was lost for the season in Week 2.
After spending his college career and training camp as an inside linebacker, Burfict showed the discipline and work ethic to not only learn his new position but to excel at it. He showed excellent instincts, athleticism and surprisingly was more than capable when dropping into coverage. Burfict is flat out a tackling machine with a great nose for the football.
Head coach Marvin Lewis may have summed it up best back in November when he said, "'Tez' is a rookie - he makes errors and needs to correct them. But he is one of the most natural young linebackers I've seen."
Lewis would go on to say, "He runs around, flies around, and he makes a lot of tackles -that's part of playing linebacker. You can give the guy a minus, but at the end of the day, it's your job to get the football on the ground, and he does a good job of that."
With Rey Maualuga likely to leave the Bengals via free agency, there is the chance that Burfict will be moved back inside to his natural middle linebacker position. Should that happen, the reclamation project from Arizona State is suddenly knocking on the door as a Top 10 draft selection in IDP leagues. As it stands now he is a solid LB2 with tremendous upside.
Danell Ellerbe, ILB, (free agent): The Ravens are going to make re-signing Ellerbe a priority this off season as he is the player expected to step into the role Ray Lewis will be vacating with his impending retirement.
When Lewis went out with the torn triceps injury, Ellerbe stepped in and performed at a very high level. He assumed a full-time workload beginning in Week 7 and averaged 11 tackles per game during the next month.
An ankle injury sidelined Ellerbe for Weeks 13-15 and he would finish the regular season as the second leading tackler for Baltimore with a total of 92 and would also register 4½ sacks.
In the Ravens' first three playoff games he has posted 23 combined tackles with an interception and two passes defended. After biding his time during his first three seasons in Baltimore in which he had totaled only 90 total tackles, Ellerbe is ready to cash in on his 2012 success.
At 6-foot-1 and 240 pounds, Ellerbe is nearly identical in size to Ray Lewis and as heir apparent to his position on the defense would post huge numbers moving forward. In weeks that Ellerbe has lined up alongside Lewis he has amassed 48 solos and 54 total tackles, and that number easily doubles with Lewis out of the picture.
Monitor carefully where Ellerbe ends up signing for 2013, and, if it's back in Baltimore, he will be a sure fire Top 10 fantasy linebacker draft pick in August.
This list is just a small sample of names to keep a careful eye on between now and August as potential IDP fantasy gold. There will be plenty more names that will emerge as threats to either join or knock someone off the list so as always ... stay tuned!
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