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No position on the defensive side of the ball is more important to Individual Defensive Players (IDP) owners than the 4-3 middle linebacker and 3-4 WILB, the tackle vacuums whose consistent fantasy production is the anchor of many an IDP lineup. As we get closer to the start of the 2011 NFL season no fewer than a dozen teams are making a change at these positions, and these changes will have a significant impact on the IDP value of the players involved.
It was out with the old and in with the new in Buffalo, as the Bills watched inside linebacker Paul Posluszny depart in free agency and replaced him with former Green Bay Packer Nick Barnett. Barnett, who has topped 100 tackles six times in his eight-year career, moves into a role with tremendous tackle opportunity and some of the most generous scorekeepers in the NFL, making him a rock-solid IDP LB2 for this season with considerable upside.
The much-awaited ascension of Rey Maualuga to starting middle linebacker for the Cincinnati Bengals appears to finally be happening this year, as the Bengals let Dhani Jones walk and signed Manny Lawson to replace Maualuga on the strong side. Should Maualuga lock up a three down role the potential for a Top 20 season is there, but choosing him as your IDP LB2 involves a bit of risk as well.
Early reports from Cleveland that stated that Chris Gocong would man the middle of the Browns new 4-3 defense were apparently incorrect, and it appears that sixth year pro D’Qwell Jackson will line up at MIKE by the shores of Lake Erie. There should be more than ample opportunities for IDP production in the middle of what will likely be a shaky defense, but given that Jackson missed most of the last two seasons due to injury he’s a risk/reward pick as a fantasy LB2.
There may be no murkier linebacker situation than in the Motor City, where DeAndre Levy finds himself displaced at the middle for the Detroit Lions, moving to the weak side in favor of the newly acquired Stephen Tulloch. Tulloch was a Top 5 fantasy performer at his position a year ago in Tennessee, but given that he may well lose nickel snaps to fellow newcomer Justin Durant the uncertainty in Detroit makes the Lions trio of linebackers no better than risky IDP LB3 choices as things stand right now.
At first glance, Paul Posluszny’s move from Buffalo’s 3-4 to the middle of the Jacksonville Jaguars 4-3 may seem like a good thing, as the 4-3 middle linebacker has historically been considered the meatiest of IDP positions. However, Posluszny saw a well above average number of tackle opportunities manning the middle of the Bills porous defense, and the Buffalo stat crew awarded more assisted tackles than any in the NFL last year, making it unlikely that Posluszny will match his 151 tackle 2010 season and dropping him toward the bottom of the Top 10 fantasy linebackers for 2011.
Inside linebacker Kevin Burnett took his talents to South Beach this offseason, signing a four-year deal to join Karlos Dansby on the inside of the Miami 3-4 defense. Dansby slogged through a disappointing 2010 season that saw him record fewer than 100 tackles for the first time since 2007, and should early reports that Dansby will move to SILB to make room for Burnett prove correct Dansby’s days as a fantasy LB2 may be over, joining Burnett as so-so IDP LB3s for 2011.
It’s both a change in personnel and a possible change in scheme that’s making IDP news in Boston, as the New England Patriots seem poised to implement more 4-3 looks to compliment such new additions as defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth and end Andre Carter. In these 4-3 looks, linebacker Jerod Mayo, who led the NFL with 175 stops in 2010, has been kicking outside to WLB, and while this development would not knock Mayo from being an IDP LB1 for the upcoming campaign it would make a repeat performance as the top fantasy linebacker improbable.
No team has made a bigger splash this offseason than the Philadelphia Eagles, who seem geared up for a run at the Super Bowl after signing approximately 137 players. Rookie linebacker Casey Matthews surprisingly started training camp as the team’s starting middle linebacker ahead of Jamar Chaney (who opened at SLB), and not only has Matthews so far maintained his hold on the job he’s also been staying on the field in passing situations. There’s no guarantee that Matthews will win out, but it’s a situation that certainly bears close monitoring as the winner could hold IDP LB2 value as a three-down player, and the latest Matthews linebacker is rapidly becoming the trendy sleeper du jour LB in many IDP leagues.
One change among inside linebackers that’s gone under the radar a bit is in San Diego, where second-year pro Donald Butler seems slated for a three-down role at WILB for the Chargers. Butler missed his entire rookie season with an Achilles injury, so his durability is a question mark, but if healthy and starting the former Huskies standout has considerable sleeper potential.
The departure of Lofa Tatupu from Seattle opened the door for linebacker David Hawthorne to regain the mantle of the starting MIKE linebacker, and no IDP value has increased this offseason more than the fourth-year vet from TCU. Hawthorne has posted back-to-back 100-plus tackle seasons, notched a Top 10 IDP LB finish in 2009 filling in for an injured Tatupu in the middle, and it’s quite possible Hawthorne could revisit the Top 10 again in 2011, making him at least an upside LB2 pick and quite possibly more.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are easing rookie middle linebacker Mason Foster into the starter’s role, as although he’s already supplanted Tyrone McKenzie in the base defense he’s leaving the field in nickel situations in favor of Quincy Black and Geno Hayes. Foster’s value in dynasty formats is more-or-less unaffected (the Atlanta Falcons also worked Curtis Lofton in slowly, and that turned out just fine) but in redraft IDP leagues Foster’s ceiling has been limited to that of a fantasy LB4.
Linebacker Barrett Ruud moved up the road a piece from the aforementioned Buccaneers, replacing the also aforementioned Stephen Tulloch as the middle linebacker for the Tennessee Titans. Ruud will likely be much the same IDP in Nashville that he was in Tampa – a solid, if somewhat unspectacular, performer that will post good tackle numbers but few big plays on his way to a finish in IDP LB2 territory.
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