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The glamor boys of the Individual Defensive Player (IDP) world are the linebackers, and bolstering your fantasy squad with elite level fantasy producers is vital. After the big names have flown off the board, it is time to identify and target the players who offer value late in drafts to support your stud linebackers and offer solid fantasy contribution.
They are there and they will be available at a value-position after you add some quality defensive lineman and defensive backs. As always, know the specific scoring format of the league you are participating in as some of the following names will be ‘big-play,’ sack-producing options, while others will offer above-average tackle numbers with a chance at producing the occasional big play via interception or forced fumble. Let’s go fishing for those late-round options that can help to keep fantasy teams in the hunt for championships.
Thomas Howard , OLB, Cincinnati : Howard was a Top 25 fantasy linebacker in four of his five seasons for the Oakland Raiders from 2006-10, actually finishing in the Top 15 in 2007 and 2008. He was signed by the Bengals prior to last season as injury insurance to their linebacker position and paid immediate dividends when called upon to replace the injured Keith Rivers. Howard finished the season leading the Bengals in tackles, with just under 100 total stops, a sack and one forced fumble.
Howard finished the season once again among the Top 20 fantasy linebackers, showing the experience and leadership skills that Cincinnati lacked on the defensive side of the ball. He was impressive enough that Cincinnati made the decision to ship Rivers to the Giants, and he is entrenched as a starting outside linebacker for the Bengals heading into 2012. While Howard may never match the 110 total stops he amassed back in 2006, as a three-down linebacker for the Bengals he has an excellent chance at leading the team in tackles once again in 2012. Draft him late as a solid LB3 and insurance for your studs, should they suffer an injury.
Wesley Woodyard , OLB, Denver: Woodyard is often dismissed in fantasy circles due entirely to his size. At 6-foot and 227 pounds, he is considered too small to be a consistent fantasy producer. All Woodyard has done when called upon is put up excellent tackle numbers and prove proficient enough at the position to be a three-down player. He racked up 97 total tackles last season and forced two fumbles while starting in seven games and playing in 15 total contests.
In limited action over the past two seasons, Woodyard has averaged 67 tackles a year while filling in along the linebacking corps in Denver. D.J. Williams is suspended (again) for the first six games of the 2012 season and Woodyard will once again be called upon to man the weak side while Williams sits out. Once Williams returns, Woodyard’s role becomes less defined but I look for him to still be on the field in nickel packages, replacing either Joe Mays or Nate Irving in the middle. The kid from Kentucky is perpetually overlooked or undervalued for fantasy purposes and will come out of the gate in 2012 on fire.
Paul Kruger , OLB, Baltimore: Kruger is in line to benefit from the injury suffered in the offseason by Terrell Suggs, switching from his previous designation as a defensive lineman to outside linebacker for 2012. Early reports from Ravens' training camp are that Kruger has been standing out and could be in line for a breakout season. Kruger has been used sparingly to date in his career, but he did manage 5.5 sacks last season, an indication that he is the primary candidate to replace Suggs in the lineup.
While there is no chance that Kruger can replace all the skills that Suggs brings to the table, he does possess the size and athleticism to man the position. He has improved his big play numbers by improving on his pass rushing skills, which will serve him well in getting after the quarterback.
Rookie Courtney Upshaw will also be in play to replace some of the production that Baltimore lost with the injury to Suggs, but Upshaw looks to be stepping into the vacated strong-side linebacker position, formerly held down by the departed Jarret Johnson. Monitor how Kruger is progressing throughout the preseason in his big play production, as that is where his value will lie in 2012.
Even if he is struggling to get the actual sacks, watch to see the number of opportunities that he is creating. A mediocre preseason performance should not send Kruger to the bench as the Ravens will need all hands on deck; rather it might help him to continue to fly under the radar. He should remain far enough down the rankings to represent fantasy value late as a breakout fantasy producer.
Sam Acho , OLB, Arizona : Acho has made the switch from college defensive end to outside linebacker for the Cardinals and looks to have a solid grasp on a starting position heading into 2012. After languishing on the sideline for the first five weeks of last season, he was inserted into the lineup following Arizona’s Week 6 bye and flourished. In the final 11 weeks he put up 40 tackles, seven sacks and forced four fumbles. His emergence while lining up opposite fellow rookie O’Brien Schofield was one of the reasons the Cardinals were able to turn around a dreadful 1-6 start and go 7-2 in the final nine games of 2011.
He is very quick off the edge, and while not the ideal size for being able to set the edge against the run, proved solid in run support. An entire offseason to work on his pass rushing techniques will make Acho all the more valuable as a fantasy commodity. Arizona has been lacking a consistent pass rush for years, and Acho will be afforded every opportunity to fill that void. He and Schofield will combine to wreak havoc from the outside. Double-digit sacks are not out of the question for the kid from Texas.
Bradie James , ILB, Houston: After spending his first nine seasons with Dallas, James has stayed in state but taken his pads and cleats to play for the Houston Texans. Reuniting with former coach and current Houston defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, James has been tabbed as the replacement for the departed DeMeco Ryans in the middle for the Texans. At 31 years of age, James has seen his stock plummet in fantasy circles after being used in a reserve role for the Cowboys last season and totaling only 44 tackles in limited action. Let us not forget that as recently as the 2010 season, Phillips’ last season as Dallas’ head coach, James led Dallas with 118 total tackles.
Lining up alongside Brian Cushing may keep James from reaching that lofty total again, but his knowledge of the scheme and experience will make him a valuable fantasy commodity. James is a favorite of Phillips and has already been tabbed as the signal caller for the defense. He possesses the size that Phillips has traditionally looked for in his inside backers. He is a nice late-round selection that will produce solid LB3 numbers, and, should he manage to stay on the field for third downs, he could be a fantasy beast. As is, draft him for above-average depth and monitor how Houston utilizes him in its third down packages during the preseason.
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