IDP Draft Tiers -- LB (Updated)
I'm still betting on Kuechly if I need to pick a guy to lead the position in points per game, but he ranked just 5th in that category last year (depending on your format, of course). So even though he continues to lead our LB rankings, he no longer sits alone up there.
Brown played well enough on last season's 1-year contract to earn an extension this offseason and overcame some early camp injury issues. He has produced whenever he has maintained a starting role across 3 NFL stops, and the new contract locks in that starter status.
The rest of this group presents familiarly strong IDP performers.
This crew looks pretty safe as well. All 5 finished last season among the top 18 (depending on your format. There's nothing wrong with getting your LB1 here.
Here's where the "maybe" starts. Smith sat higher in our rankings before the extended training-camp absence. If he can avoid injury, there's still immediate upside into LB1 range. He steps into a role that produced big numbers for Jerrell Freeman over the past couple of years.
Classmate Edmunds similarly steps into a situation wrought with fantasy-scoring opportunity. Preston Brown tied for the league tackle lead as Buffalo's MLB last year. In 2016, Zach Brown and Preston Brown ranked 2nd and 6th league wide as the ILBs in the Bills' 3-4 D. Recent reports have Edmunds looking like a young rookie, but Buffalo will have a tough time removing him for sub packages. Weak-side leader Matt Milano is also heading into his 1st year as a starter and proving inconsistent, and veteran strong-side LB Lorenzo Alexander rushes the passer in many passing situations.
Jack is another young upside player who have yet to prove his IDP worth. Barron and Lee sit nearer the other end of their careers but have been producing for a while. Each should be at least solid if healthy.
Foster would sit securely in this range if he weren't facing a 2-game suspension to open the season. He sits much lower in our LB rankings because of the 14-game projectionIt'll be up to you whether to ignore that and draft him.
Mychal Kendricks' release Wednesday removes risk from Schobert and pops him back up 2 tiers.
The big difference between this group and the one that follows is role certainty. All 5 of these LBs should be set in their full-time, starting roles for the season. Williamson saw his playing time dwindle in his final Titans season, but then the Jets threw hefty money his way early in free agency. He steps into the role Demario Davis vacated. Davis, meanwhile, gets his own hefty money from a Saints team that has been trying to answer LB questions for years now.
Every one of these guys might have tackle upside beyond this range as well. Whitehead is the best bet to lead Raiders LBs in snaps, with Derrick Johnson and Marquel Lee splitting MLB snaps in the preseason.
Browns OLB Jamie Collins used to reside in this range, but he's playing a lot less than fellow starters Christian Kirksey and Joe Schobert this preseason -- losing snaps to rookie Genard Avery, whom the Browns clearly like as a pass rusher.
Here's a big final shelf that can present upside LB3 options or even several starters if you elect to wait on the position.
I dropped Cunningham a bit after the preseason failed to give us a clear view of Houston's LB plan. I still believe in Cunningham's upside and am comfy drafting him in LB2 range. But there's some risk Dylan Cole rotates in for ILB snaps. The players ahead of Cunningham don't face any playing-time questions.
Jarrad Davis dropped down the rankings this morning. He struggled as a rookie starter last season and hasn't worked through that yet this summer. It hasn't appeared to affect his preseason playing time, but in-season struggles could lead to decreased snaps like they did in 2017.
Wright drops from the tier above after knee surgery followed the 3rd preseason contest and left him iffy for Week 1.
I had Jatavis Brown in this tier, but then he worked as a non-starter in the 3rd preseason game against the Saints -- logging his 1st tackle in the 3rd quarter. Bye, Jatavis. The Chargers' LB corps looks like a situation to avoid. But if you play in a deeper league and want to buy in, start with Denzel Perryman and then rookie Kyzir White.
Other Upside Notables
Vince Williams: The competition for Ryan Shazier's vacated starting spot has revealed no exciting option. Williams, meanwhile, just got a 4-year extension. That could mean a further playing-time boost for Williams, who reached 80% snaps just 5 times last year and hit 85% once.
Rashaan Evans: The rookie has missed most of camp and the preseason with health issues, which has kept him from winning a starting job to this point. There's still a chance he takes full-time snaps away from journeyman Will Compton, but Evans will open the year as an IDP stash; not a starter.
Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith: The Dallas LB situation lacks clarity still, and Vander Esch isn't expected to play in Saturday's 3rd preseason game because of groin tightness. The latest "unofficial" depth chart lists Smith as the MLB starter and Vander Esch as his backup, with Damien Wilson starting on the strong side. If that holds into the regular season, we obviously can't use the 1st-round pick right away in fantasy. Smith, on the other hand, carries upside well beyond our modest projection.
Vontaze Burfict: The Bengals' weak-side starter should reclaim his full-time role after a 4-game PED ban to open the year. Decide where he fits into your draft plan -- or whether you'll just pass on him.
B.J. Goodson: ESPN Giants beat writer predicts that Goodson will emerge as the team's top ILB -- ahead of import Alec Ogletree. I'm not going along with that, but I guess I can't call it impossible. At the least, Goodson sports attractive upside from a LB5 starting point.
Devon Kennard: Kennard flashed some upside with the Giants but always lacked full playing time. He's in line for it as a Lion and will play under a coaching staff with experience leveraging diverse LB skills. Kennard twice reached 4 sacks as a 4-3 LB with the Giants.
10+ Sack Contenders
Even if you're playing in a balanced scoring setup, sack-chasing edge LBs can win you weeks with big outings. You can leverage that upside by playing matchups, which we'll address in the weekly rankings throughout the year. Here are some top contenders to present much more value than their base ranking might indicate:
Von Miller: Miller's ranking changes quite a bit in different IDP scoring systems. Even in balanced formats, though, he's a bigger asset than his projection indicates because of his big-game upside.
Justin Houston: The Chiefs plan to move him around to leverage his talent a bit more this year. Houston's already coming off a nice rebound year that included 9.5 sacks, 16 total tackles for loss and 20 QB hits.
Jadeveon Clowney: Clowney didn't put in his 1st full practice until Aug. 20, thanks to an offseason knee scope. That adds risk to his 2017 outlook. But he also presents big upside in a healthier Houston defense. (J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus return from injuries.)
T.J. Watt: Watt might make his preseason debut today after dealing with a hamstring injury through most of training camp. But he put together a nice debut campaign and presents a more complete fantasy-scoring package than teammate Bud Dupree.
Matt Judon and Terrell Suggs: We know what Suggs is: a stud pass rusher delivering well beyond the age where most guys have slowed down (or retired). Judon, meanwhile, beat his stud veteran teammate by 6 tackles for loss (17-11) in his 2nd season.
Ryan Kerrigan: Over the past 4 years, only Von Miller has collected more sacks than Kerrigan. No one has forced more fumbles (though 6 others have tied him).
Olivier Vernon: How will a new scheme and no Jason Pierre-Paul affect his production?
Whitney Mercilus: His 12-sack 2015 remains an outlier, with Mercilus collecting no more than 7.5 in any other season. But J.J. Watt's healthy return and Jadeveon Clowney's emergence make for a loaded defense and a situation Mercilus could exploit.
Preston Smith: Smith has already reached 8 sacks in 2 of his 3 pro seasons. Career highs in tackles for loss (10) and QB hits (21, 9 more than his previous best) indicate further upside.
Carl Lawson: Lawson delivered 8.5 sacks as a 4th-round rookie in 2017, with 21 total QB hits behind that. He also collected just 16 total tackles. So he's a zero in any sack-free weeks.