Linebackers are to Individual Defensive Players (IDP) leagues what running backs are to “standard” fantasy football leagues; the cornerstones of building a championship-caliber roster, and they usually dominate the early individual defensive player selections. Choose wisely, and find that diamond in the rough a bit later in your draft, and it can give you the edge that will propel you to a title. However, choose poorly, reach for a linebacker that falls flat on game day, and you could be left holding your junk as other teams make a run at the fantasy playoffs.
IDPs are an unpredictable lot, so there’s always a risk that that jewel of a linebacker you selected will turn out to be a well-polished turd, but there are players you should be wary of. Some of these players are overvalued and will likely be taken earlier in IDP drafts than their production will warrant, while others are names to keep in mind that you can snag later in drafts that will provide the sort of value that can make the difference between also-ran and contender. It’s those players we’ll examine here, both good and bad, with IDP Chutes and Ladders.
UP THE LADDER (Undervalued Linebackers)
David Harris, ILB, New York Jets: Harris has rapidly become the Santana Moss of Individual Defensive Players, with a bizarre penchant for alternating productive and disappointing seasons. In 2007 and 2009, Harris racked up 127 tackles (twice) and finished in the Top 15 at his position both times, including a Top 5 season in 2009. In 2008 and 2010 it was a different story, as Harris failed to top 100 tackles either year and finished outside the Top 40. It’s an odd-numbered year (I’m not generally superstitious, but there are exceptions to every rule), and the fifth-year pro is the best bet for tackles on an aggressive Jets defense, so given that Harris is being drafted outside the Top 25 linebackers in many IDP leagues and could easily post another 120-plus tackle campaign he represents a nice value selection as an LB2 for IDP teams that take a stud defensive lineman early.
David Hawthorne, MLB, Seattle: If there’s one name you need to remember from this article, it’s David Hawthorne. Say it with me … David Hawthorne. Hawthorne was an absolute beast filling in for an injured Lofa Tatupu at middle linebacker for the Seahawks in 2009, logging 126 tackles in 11 starts and finishing as a Top 10 IDP linebacker. Tatupu is now gone from the Emerald City, making Hawthorne the new full-time starter at MIKE linebacker, but this news has apparently escaped some, because 20-something linebackers are being chosen in many IDP leagues before Hawthorne’s name is called. The former TCU Horned Frog has already shown he can post gaudy fantasy numbers if afforded the opportunity, and that opportunity is here, so taking into account his Top 5 upside and relatively low asking price there’s likely not a better value to be had at the position this season.
Rey Maualuga, MLB, Cincinnati: It appears that the day-day of Rey-Rey has finally arrived in Cincinnati, with Rey Maualuga set to take over for the departed Dhani Jones as the every-down middle linebacker for the Bengals. Jones was a better dresser than linebacker, but he managed to average 119 tackles over the past two seasons in the middle in Cincinnati. It’s not at all unrealistic to expect a much younger, much more athletic Maualuga to improve on those numbers playing in the heart of a defense that will likely be on the field all day long, but apparently many IDP owners aren’t keen to this, as his average draft position among linebackers at myfantasyleague.com is currently in the 30s, which represents a pretty “Reydiculous” value given his LB1 ceiling.
DOWN THE CHUTE (Overvalued Linebackers)
James Anderson, SLB, Carolina: I keep expecting Anderson to show up at my house to kick my ass because I’ve been harping on this all offseason long, but apparently many folks aren’t listening, because he’s still being picked in the Top 25 linebackers. Yes, I know that Jon Beason recently underwent Achilles surgery, which could boost Anderson’s stock early, but the fact remains that his Top 10 season last year was an aberration borne from injuries that decimated the Panthers linebacker corps. Anderson’s 130 tackles last year were twice as many as he’d recorded to that point in a season, Thomas Davis’ return will bump Anderson back to both the strong side and to a two-down role once Beason is healthy, and while it’s possible that Beason’s injury will linger, Davis will blow out his knee for the 38th time, and I’ll sprout wings from my butt. That’s a few too many “ifs” to count on happening for your LB2 pick to be worth what you spent.
Clay Matthews – OLB, Green Bay: Matthews is among the Top 10 linebackers selected according to MyFantasyLeague.com’s average draft position, and unless the folks drafting him are awarded extra points for killer hairdos I’m at a loss as to why. Matthews has yet to top 60 tackles in a season, and while he’s notched double-digit sacks in each of his first two years in the NFL, counting on big plays for fantasy production just isn’t prudent from a player who is being drafted as an LB1. Love the locks, love the lineage (his father was one of the more underrated linebackers of the past 25 years), but unless you play in a format slanted heavily towards sacks I have to hate the idea of drafting Matthews as an IDP linchpin.
Stephen Tulloch, MLB, Detroit: Tulloch was a monster in the middle for the Tennessee Titans in 2010, logging 160 tackles (second in the NFL) and posting a Top 5 fantasy finish. He’s also a prime example of the danger in chasing last year’s numbers, as his situation is now drastically different. Tulloch was supposed to be the man in the middle in Motown, and while that may seem to be a similar set-up he’s reportedly set to either leave the field in nickel situations in favor of fellow newcomer Justin Durant (who is much better in coverage) and/or switch to the weak side, and this loss of snaps and/or tackle opportunities, and the fantasy production that go with them, makes Tulloch’s Top 10 price tag nowhere near worth the LB3 numbers it will get you.