Cream of the Crop
Curtis Lofton (ATL) – There was some concern that Lofton would start as a backup to the veteran Keith Brooking, but Lofton was immediately penciled in as the team’s middle linebacker, with Brooking shifting over to the weak side. Lofton is a great athlete, but a rookie nonetheless so there will have to be some learning curve. It may take him awhile to learn pass coverage in the NFL, so it’s not clear if he’ll be an every-down LB from the get-go. That said, don’t expect him to put up the kind of numbers guys like DeMeco Ryans, Patrick Willis or even Jon Beason or David Harris did in their rookie years. Still, Lofton is probably the best rookie linebacker at this point.
Jerod Mayo (NEP) – Mayo was probably the best LB talent coming out of college, but landed in a somewhat precarious position. First, the Patriots run the 3-4 defense, which could cut down on Mayo’s tackle totals. Second, HC Belichick tends to prefer the veteran LBs – even aging ones. But Mayo’s talent will get him on the field. He’ll have a good chance at putting up the best numbers of this rookie class.
Keith Rivers (CIN) – Like Lofton and Mayo, Rivers has a good chance at putting up solid numbers. He doesn’t have the talent of a Mayo, but has landed in a good position like Lofton. He will most likely man the weak side of the line, a spot that the rather average Landon Johnson was able to rack up 109 total tackles in last season. Rivers will lead the Bengals in tackles in 2008.
Jordan Dizon (DET) – On first blush, Dizon appeared to be in one of the best positions for a rookie LB. But Dizon’s off-field problems and the fact that he has to learn a complex defense (the Tampa Cover-2) may limit his chances. If he’s able to get his head straight and picks up the offense, Dizon could actually put up the best numbers of this group.
Middle of the Road
Dan Connor (CAR) – Connor will need an injury to Jon Beason or either Landon Johnson or Na’il Diggs to get consistent work on the Panther line, but he’s a terrific tackler who will find his way to the field somehow. He’s a guy you want to keep an eye on in preseason, or of course if there’s an injury, he could become a solid LB3 in 2008.
Xavier Adibi (HOU) – Adibi will get some playing time for the Texans in 2008, but his prospects are not as good as the likes of the above. I’m putting him in the “middle of the road” category, as the Texan defense is much-improved and could be making big plays on a consistent basis. Adibi was a big-play LB at Virginia Tech and the Texan coaching staff will be wise to get him on the field. He’ll have to beat out a few veterans for consistent playing time. A guy you may not draft, but put him on your watch list from day one, as an injury or two could catapult him into fantasy relevance.
Beau Bell (CLE) – Bell doesn’t land in the best situation, in that he’ll be in the 3-4, and there are a host of solid young LBs in the group (Kamerion Wimbley, D’Qwell Jackson,) as well as established vets (Andra Davis, Willie McGinest). He’s slated to play the weak OLB spot, a spot held by Antwan Peek, who has put up only modest numbers in his career.
Maybe in a Few Years
Tavares Gooden (BAL) – You gotta be pretty pumped if you’re Gooden. While he may not get much field time in 2008, but he’ll have the opportunity to learn under fellow Miami alum Ray Lewis in a system that has produced fantasy studs in both Lewis and Bart Scott. Only way I’d grab him in a redraft is if he moves up the ladder by performing well in pre-season and if there are a rash of injuries to the Raven LBs.
Geno Hayes (TBB) – Like Gooden, Hayes steps into a pretty neat situation (although he probably won’t log much field time) in Tampa. Hayes has been compared to fellow FSU alum Derrick Brooks and will have the opportunity to learn from Brooks here in the twilight of Brooks’ career. Hayes is currently penciled in to learn the MLB spot but could easily slide over to the WLB chain.
Philip Wheeler (IND) – Like both Gooden and Hayes, Wheeler has found himself in a good spot in that he’ll back up a productive veteran. Wheeler appears to be the #2 MLB for the Colts, behind the veteran Gary Brackett. There are a handful of decent young LBs on this squad (Tyjuan Hagler, Clint Session) but it looks like Wheeler has the inside edge on the best spot in this scheme.
Spencer Larsen (DEN) – Niko Koutouvides is currently the starting MLB for Denver, and while he’s getting pretty rave reviews, he has limited experience and Larsen could certainly be in line should Koutouvides slip.
Jonathan Goff (NYG) – Goff’s really just one Antonio Pierce injury away from a possible starting gig for the G-men. And Pierce is no spring chicken. Goff has the size and speed to put up similar numbers to what Pierce has been able to do in his career.