Fantasy football rookie preview: Linebackers

Fantasy football rookie preview: Linebackers

Rookie Analysis

Fantasy football rookie preview: Linebackers

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Haason Reddick – 3-4 ILB

6’1” 234 lbs Temple
Pick 13, Round 1 (13)  Cardinals
Twitter: @Haason7Reddick

The first LB off of the board is a very interesting pick from a scheme prespective. A high school running back and safety, Reddick walked onto to a Temple Owls team and played all over the defensive side of the ball with a good chunk of snaps coming as a 3-4 OLB. At 6’1″ 234 lbs, Reddick is much too small to play 3-4 OLB in the NFL. One of the biggest criticisms of Reddick was an inability to shed blocks when engaged and that will be exponentially harder at the pro level. However, I don’t think that the Cardinals will try to pound a square peg into a round hole here. Reddick’s strength is his speed, athleticism and versatility. The Cardinals will likely play him inside as a player with high-end pass rushing chops as far as an inside linebacker goes as well as elite coverage ability sideline to sideline. It wouldn’t hurt my feelings if he could pack on a few pounds of muscle though. Starting WILB Deone Bucannon, whose 5th year option got picked up for $8.7 million in 2018, and Karlos Dansby, 35 years old and a free agent after 2017, are the only other ILBs to speak of on the team. Reddick’s path to meaningful snaps is pretty clear. I expect to see a timeshare with Dansby until after the Cardinals bye week. Afterwards, I’d be surprised if Reddick doesn’t run away with a starting role. While a starting role at SILB might not be a full complement of snaps, you don’t draft someone at 13 to sit them on the bench either.

Fantasy Impact/Value

Redraft: Reddick figures to play into the Cardinals’ plans early but he might have a tough time winning a starting role over veteran Karlos Dansby clean out of camp. Late round flier or priority free agent mid-season for me with more value given to him in big play leagues given his pass rush ability unless you have deeper benches and can afford to wait on him.

Dynasty: Reddick’s upside might be higher than any LB in the draft given his big play ability but his scheme fit is a risk and it’s uncertain how the Cardinals will use him. A gimmicky defensive usage cripples his value but I think you have to lean towards the thought that players who are drafted in the top half of round 1 don’t sit on the bench much. Reddick is my LB3 of the draft based on pure upside but he doesn’t come without risk.

Jarrad Davis – 4-3 MLB

6’1” 238 lbs Florida
Pick 21, Round 1 (21)  Lions
Twitter: @J_Davis_40

The Lions draft a former Gator linebacker who revered for his intangibles as much as his quality play on the field. As pure of a defensive leader as the draft can get, Davis is the kid that can lead not just a depleted linebacker corps but an entire defense that struggled mightily at times last year. Davis is a player that can play three downs for the Lions. His speed and agility allows his to smoothly attack gaps to disrupt plays. He’s not a violent hitter but rather a textbook wrapup tackle. He is better in coverage than he is given credit for and will be more than capable enough to play in space against NFL runningbacks and tight ends. What’s most interesting here is that the Lions could have taken what I, along with many others, thought was a superior prospect in Reuben Foster. For whatever reason, Davis was the choice. Perhaps the persistent rumors of a poorly healing shoulder scared the Lions off of Foster given that they need a player to play right away. For fantasy purposes, the news that Lions GM Bob Quinn is expecting Davis to play Mike this season and beyond is a vote of confidence and future clarity that few rookie LBs get this early. Given the Lions weakness at linebacker, this shouldn’t surprise anyone. Former LB1 DeAndre Levy was released in the offseason and never seemed to get back on track after multiple lower body issues. 2016 MLB Tahir Whitehead figures to move to an outside linebacker spot with UFA signees Paul Worrilow and Nick Bellore along with waiver claim Thurston Armbrister to fight for the remaining OLB spot.

Fantasy Impact/Value

Redraft: Easily the top choice for redraft leagues as, barring injury, Davis is a lock for Mike snaps in a defense that produces tackles for its LBs. Tahir Whitehead put up 132 total tackles last year for the Lions so not only is Davis the LB1 among rookies for redraft, he is high-end LB2 among all NFL LBs simply on opportunity with more value being present for tackle-heavy leagues.

Dynasty: Davis doesn’t possess the big play abilities that some of the other rookie LBs do but the expectations to man the middle with no competition in sight in Detroit for years to come makes him arguably the safest dynasty pick as well. I have him at a ranking of LB2 among rookies for dynasty and low-end LB1/high-end LB2 and that makes him a solid draft target.

TJ Watt – 3-4 OLB

6’4” 252 lbs Wisconsin
Pick 30, Round 1 (30)  Steelers
Twitter: @_TJWatt

It’s really hard to argue against the bloodlines here so I won’t. Pittsburgh’s newest 3-4 OLB is TJ Watt, former NFL defensive player of the year JJ Watt’s younger brother. Eager to shed the moniker of little brother, TJ stole the show at the combine, grading out higher than many expected him to. For those who are interested, TJ Watt ran his 40 in 4.69 seconds versus older brother JJ’s 4.84 but put up 13 less reps than his older brother’s 34 on the bench. It’s worth mentioning that JJ is about 40 pounds heavier than his younger brother. Brothers aside, the tape of TJ at Wisconsin isn’t as flattering as the combine or bloodline hype would lead you to believe. For a pure pass rusher, his power moves and bend isn’t really first round pick caliber. I am not the first person to note that his first step lacks explosion either.  However, he does have quality hand fighting technique and a knack to shed blocks even when outmatched physically which leads to him winning engagements. This won’t be as easy to accomplish in the NFL however. He does possess an elite motor which is a major plus for any pass rusher. It’s worth mentioning that Watt has suffered through some fairly serious injuries to both knees in his time at Wisconsin. In addition, Watt has only started at OLB for one year of college after switching from tight end earlier in his career. All that said, many scouts have noted that Watt is a player who has improved every step of the way and should be a much better pro in a couple years than he his now. Following that line of thinking, Pittsburgh doesn’t like to start rookies out of the gate at linebacker and a criticism of Watt has been his play in the run game so I look to Watt to come off the bench in obvious pass rush situation. James Harrison, who will be 40 when the season starts, and Arthur Moats are the other players vying for snaps alongside mainstay Bud Dupree at OLB. Expect that TJ gets into a solid rotation early with more snaps likely being contingent on Pittsburgh’s OLB corps health and Watt’s own development.

Fantasy Impact/Value

Redraft: I would probably shy away from taking Watt in redraft leagues. Even in big play leagues, he is unlikely to take enough snaps to make a big impact in fantasy.

Dynasty: I might look at Watt in big play leagues where sacks are given some higher value but I wouldn’t look at him at tackle heavy leagues until the very late rounds if at all. If a 40 tackle, 10 sack guy doesn’t show up in your league top 40 for LBs, don’t take Watt. If they do, be prepared to wait a year or two to get that production out of him.

Reuben Foster – 3-4 ILB

6’0” 229 lbs Alabama
Pick 31, Round 1 (31)  49ers
Twitter: @ferrarifoster

It is hard not to like what the 49ers got here. I realize that there are some off-the-field issues at play here including an incident at the combine that got him sent home as well as rumors of him needing shoulder surgery for rotator cuff and labrum issues. But looking at the tape, Foster is the best LB of the draft without question. From what I saw, he has the ability to range sideline to sideline. He has fluidity in coverage that allows him to be an asset on 3rd down. He is a violent hitter that attacks a ballcarrier and finishes the play. I watched him routinely shoot gaps cleanly to disrupt plays in the backfield and when he was engaged, he managed to shed his block more often than not. And if those points weren’t enough to convince you, he can blitz too. I didn’t see many things that are worth criticizing either. At times he overpursued and got washed out of the play on cutback runs but those were few and far between. To me, Foster is the complete LB and is the kind of player who can walk in day one, start on almost any LB corps and make an impact. The 49ers have former all pro NaVorro Bowman coming off of an Achilles injury and recently signed Malcolm Smith to a 5year, $26.5 million deal to play ILB. Both contracts are such that neither is an easy cut until 2020. However, given that Smith’s play in Oakland last year was inconsistent at times and NaVorro Bowman has played a total of 20 of a possible 48 regular season games, Reuben Foster is very likely to have a path to starting snaps defined fairly soon in his career. That is assuming that his shoulder is indeed healthy enough to play of course. The former Alabama LB had surgery on his shoulder in February and medical rechecks in April indicated that further surgery work might be required. Foster insists that this isn’t the case but until he put on pads and plays, this situation is unlikely to be sorted anytime soon. It’s worth mentioning that the original recovery timeline was stated as 4 months so if your rookie draft isn’t until July, you have the luxury of waiting to see if Foster takes in any contact work before deciding to draft him.

Fantasy Impact/Value

Redraft: Foster’s shoulder is a huge risk and he has more talent ahead of him than Davis does. However, Foster is also the most talented LB in the draft in my estimation. I’d take the sure-thing in Davis as a week one starter over Foster but he’s not far behind. He’s no worse than LB2 in redraft unless he has a shoulder setback.

Dynasty: I believe that in dynasty, talent shines through what seems to be a murky timeshare between Bowman, Foster and Smith. In addition, shoulder concerns should be alleviated before 2018 at the absolute latest. After that, Foster’s pure talent will elevate him to the top of the class. San Francisco has supported two different LBs to top tier status in recent memory in Bowman and Patrick Willis. I believe they have another successor to that throne and would draft Foster as the top dynasty LB to support that notion.

Tyus Bowser – 3-4 OLB

6’3” 247 lbs Houston
Pick 15, Round 2 (47)  Ravens
Twitter: @tbowser23

The pick of Tyus Bowser serves to help replenish some talent into the Baltimore Ravens’  pass rushing LB corps. Bowser is an athlete coming out of Houston who measures out well with shorts on but is the definition of raw. A multi-sport athlete who only recently began focusing on football, Bowser tends to struggle to translate his immense physical gifts of speed strength and agility into production on the football. Much of that comes with poorer angles, poor handfighting techniques, an ability to shed blocks, overpursuit at times and a lack of football IQ. To Bowser’s credit, he is going to learn from some of the best and after releasing Elvis Dumervil this offseason, the Ravens aren’t as deep at the position as it years past. Bowser currently is on the smaller side as far as typical Ravens OLBs go but then again so was Dumervil so that’s not a huge knock on him. I also think that he has the frame to add some mass which certainly won’t hurt him as he engages with bigger and stronger lineman than in the college ranks. I will admit that Bowser’s ceiling is high as much of his drawbacks can be fixed with coaching and repetition but I have seen better prospects fail as Ravens OLBs than Bowser. Given how raw Bowser is, it’s not a crazy though for him to get a look inside as well given the holes that Baltimore has after Zach Orr’s sudden reitrement but that’s very difficult to predict. Buyer beware on this one.

Fantasy Impact/Value

Redraft: I would pass entirely on Bowser in all redraft leagues. I can’t envision many scenarios that would see Bowser become a realistic redraft commodity.

Dynasty: Similar to Watt, if you are in a big play deep dynasty, you might consider drafting Bowser and sitting on him for a year or two to allow for some development. If those two qualities don’t describe your league, I’d be comfortable passing on him.

Ryan Anderson – 3-4 OLB

6’2” 253 lbs Alabama
Pick 17, Round 2 (49)  Redskins
Twitter: @Anderson_365

Filling the void left by a 4-game PED suspension sustained by Trent Murphy, who finished second in sacks in 2016 for the Redskins with 9, Ryan Anderson was the second of three straight picks to supplement the Redskins defense. Anderson comes from a stellar college defense in Alabama that has produced multiple NFL talents including the aforementioned Reuben Foster. Anderson figures to slot into the Redskins OLB corps early on. He has experience in multiple fronts having played 4-3 SAM as well as 3-4 OLB. Given the current Redskins defensive configuration as well as the talent at ILB vs OLB, it’s easy to see that Anderson belongs on the outside. The strength of the former five-star high school recruit are textbook displays of technique use to win in engagements. He rarely exhibits poor pad level and regularly wins in handfighting despite some shorter arms at 31.5″. His use of lean, angle and pursuit is exactly how you’d build an OLB from the ground up. His gap discipline, edge setting ability and lack of overpursuit will probably leave him more suited to a running down role early on which is somewhat of a rarity for 3-4 OLBs among rookies. He has a big punch that shows his strength but opted not to put that strength on display but passing on lifting at the combine. The downside that I see in Anderson’s game is a lack of elite build and agility. He is pretty stiff in the open field and can get derailed if the play dictates that he needs to change direction quickly. Overall athleticism will not regularly be the reason why he gets to the quarterback. His production and knack for big plays shouldn’t be overlooked but many will point to a lack of measureables indicating that Anderson was a benefactor of an elite defense in Alabama. I don’t necessarily subscribe to that theory given that the competition level in the SEC in so good. He seems like a good football player who doesn’t show well in shorts. Finally, I need to mention that Anderson does come with a little off-the-field baggage in the form of an arrest in 2015.

Fantasy Impact/Value

Redraft: At best, Anderson is in the backend of a deep OLB rotation with three players ahead of him including Ryan Kerrigan. While I think that Anderson will be an asset on running downs, he’s not going to produce enough to justify drafting in any format.

Dynasty: Ryan Kerrigan is currently signed until the end of the 2020 season and his production is unlikely to be replicated on the other side of the line. Anderson is a player that probably becomes a good football player but not a good fantasy player. I’d pass in all formats.

Raekwon McMillan – 4-3 MLB/SLB

6’2” 240 lbs Ohio State
Pick 22, Round 2 (54)  Dolphins
Twitter: @Kwon_daTRUTH

I am a big fan of Raekwon McMillan as a football player. His attacking instincts are among the best in the draft in run defense and he plays angry in ball carrier pursuit. McMillan is a quality gap-shooter and tended to be disruptive at best and around the ballcarrier at worst in most of the tape I’ve watched of him. It seems that for many teams, attacking and bruising presences like his for LBs are slowly being phased out in favor of more speed and coverage abilities. Here’s thing about McMillan though. His combine numbers don’t indicate a lack of speed to me (4.61 – 40 yd dash) and he did alright in agility drills as well. I will admit that he’s not an iso man-to-man cover on elite tight ends but he is more than adequate in zone coverage with an ability to read quarterbacks eyes in order to make plays on the ball.  He’s 50-50 when it comes to shedding blocks in order to make plays and his success seems to be determined by whether he is prepared to deal with the block technique-wise. I’d like to see more consistency there. All of that aside, the biggest indicator of early performance of McMillan will be how his team, the Miami Dolphins, chooses to use him in their defense. Miami resigned Kiko Alonso and signed free agent Lawrence Timmons from the Pittsburgh Steelers to bolster their LB corps. The question is how will they be used. All three LBs are within 5 lbs of each other in weight and 2″ in height but I think that the skillsets employed are a little different. Although nothing is for certain right now, I believe that Kiko Alonso is the best fit at WLB and Timmons should play SLB or MLB, leaving McMillan to the remaining MLB or SLB. Although playing MLB a boon of McMillan’s fantasy value, he needs a great showing in training camp and the preseason to prove to the coaching staff that he is a three down LB. With established veterans potentially on either side of him, McMillan may have a tough case to make.

Fantasy Impact/Value

Redraft: Being annointed starting strongside linebacker is almost a fantasy deathknell for McMillan but the starting middle linebacker job is the opposite. That said, a lack of three down plays will cap that upside. If you draft before enough news comes out on his usage is released, you might have to gamble. He has LB3 upside but could be undraftable depending on his slot and usage. My guess is two down MLB this year which slots him in as a depth linebacker/injury replacement LB.

Dynasty: Future upside is capped given the amount of LB talent on the team but a three down MLB role yields LB4 of the draft kind of upside for sure. Second round picks usually end up playing a lot of football for their respective teams so I think that Miami finds a way to get him on the field and keep him there as long as he develops correctly.

Zach Cunningham – 3-4 ILB

6’3” 234 lbs Vanderbilt
Pick 25, Round 2 (57)  Texans
Twitter: @ZCunningham_LB

The Texans needed to add depth to the inside linebacker position this offseason. Bernardrick McKinney came on nicely for the Texans defense last year alongside veteran Brian Cushing who is going into his ninth year as a pro. Cushing isn’t the picture of health as he has only player 16 games in four of his eight completed seasons. Enter Zach Cunningham, the rangy All-American LB from Vanderbilt. Cunningham’s game fits well with how the new NFL is played. Linebackers needed to be able play fast and cover tight ends or backs out of the backfield and that fits Cunningham’s game well as his hips are good enough to run with most coverages he will be expected to execute in the NFL. The junior LB is also a gapshooter that plays the game always looking to make a play. He regularly blows plays up in the backfield by using good instincts to know where to go and how to get there. He can range well to either side following outside plays without overpursuing in most cases. Bigger ballcarriers with good pad level might give him some trouble as his tackling technique isn’t bulletproof and his pad level tends to creep up at times. In addition, a major weakness of Cunningham’s game is the ability to shed blocks. If a blocker gets their hands on him, he typically can’t disengage and will be taken out of the play. Brian Cushing has 3 years left on his contract but could conceivably be cut after this year with little dead money. It’s unlikely that Houston hands Cunningham a starting job out of camp but I expect some subpackage play out of him with injury upside.

Fantasy Impact/Value

Redraft: It’s hard to envision Cunningham making an impact in redraft leagues this year unless Cushing or McKinney fall to injury. If you have room, handcuff him but odds are that you don’t. I’d pass.

Dynasty: I like Cunningham to make a splash in his second year if Cushing gets let go. He is the kind of linebacker that many teams are looking for and he should be a productive pro. He is my LB5 right now but is the LB4 if Raekwon McMillan ends up as a SLB. Understand that you will have to wait a year for him though.

Best of the Rest (Round 3 and beyond)

Duke Riley LSU (4-3 WLB) – Falcons 3rd round – The Falcons are continuing the youth movement with their LBs after doubling down on LBs in last year’s draft. Deion Jones is a fixture at MLB already but I don’t think that De’Vondre Campbell is so safe at WLB. Riley is a little undersized but is great in coverage and that’s something that I think the Falcons will value.

Alex Anzalone Florida (4-3 MLB/WLB) – Saints 3rd round – The Saints fielded one of the worst LB corps in the league last year. Craig Robertson might have been a good fantasy commodity but he’s not a good NFL LB. Danelle Ellerbe was a quality player but can’t seem to stay on the field. Anzalone is a quality LB prospect with experience at all three LB spots. He can tackle, cover and even blitz a little bit. What he can’t seem to do is stay healthy. Anzalone will challenge for a starting role soon if he can stay on the field. He is a great flier to take.

Kendall Beckwith LSU (4-3 MLB/WLB) – Buccaneers 3rd round – If Kendall Beckwith isn’t coming off of a torn ACL, I think he is mentioned in the second round for sure. Beckwith is a strong and sure tackle that ballcarriers won’t want to see coming at them. An adequate blitzer but average in coverage, Beckwith isn’t going to challenge Kwon Alexander or Lavonte David for a starting role anytime soon, barring injury.

Ben Gedeon Michigan (4-3 MLB/WLB) – Vikings 4th round – Gedeon is a textbook Mike LB but offers little as far as elite athleticism or measureables goes. With Chad Greenway hanging it up, Gedeon might be able to pick up those snaps if Emmanuel Lamur falters and could also contribute on special teams. He isn’t ownable unless Eric Kendricks goes down.

Jalen Reeves-Maybin Tennessee (4-3 OLB) – Lions 4th round – Reeves-Maybin is an undersized LB but has the tools to play in the NFL in terms of speed and coverage ability. The Lions have their man at Mike in Jarrad Davis but Reeves-Maybin might challenge for work at OLB given the overall lack of talent in Detroit’s LB corps.

Jayon Brown UCLA (3-4 ILB) – Titans 4th round – At 6’0″ 230 lbs, Jayon Brown is undersized for most 3-4 schemes but he is pretty much the same size as current starting LB Wesley Woodyard. With Sean Spence departing for the Colts, the Titans have very little depth at ILB. I think that Brown becomes the top backup ILB and could see action if Woodyard is replaced as he was at times last year.

Anthony Walker Jr. Northwestern (3-4 ILB) – Colts 5th round – The Colts ILB corps was weak before they released D’Qwell Jackson. With him gone, UFA Sean Spence and sophomore LB Anthony Morrison are projected starters. Edwin Jackson filled in admirably late last year but doesn’t appear to be the future inside. Walker might see meaningful snaps in his rookie year despite being a 5th rounder.

Marquel Lee Wake Forest (4-3 MLB) – Raiders 5th round – Similar to Walker, Lee makes this list simply because of the depth chart in front of him. The Raiders tried multiple players at MLB last year, even signing Perry Riley off the street. None seemed to lock the position down. 2016 6th round pick Cory James is currently tops on the depth chart with 2015 5th round pick Ben Heeney backing him up. Both manned the middle at times last year and both failed to secure the role. IDP production is all about opportunity and Lee might get the opportunity soon.

Recent News

More Huddle
Home