We’re into the third week of the NFL preseason, and if there’s been one predominant storyline in IDP circles during training camps and the exhibition season, it’s the injuries that have played havoc with the linebacker position across the National Football League.
Beginning with the hamstring injury that ended Green Bay Packers’ inside linebacker Desmond Bishop’s season and continuing through the broken foot suffered by inside linebacker Pat Angerer of the Indianapolis Colts to the injuries that felled two of the New Orleans Saints three starters. In the span of a day, no fewer than four linebackers who began the summer among my Top 20 at the position have suffered maladies that have caused a seismic shift in my rankings.
With fantasy draft season in high gear and live drafts galore taking place in the next week or so here’s a look at some of the players who have either climbed up or slid down my rankings of late due to the rash of injuries that have hit the linebacker position.
UP THE LADDER
D.J. Smith, Green Bay Packers: No linebacker has gotten a bigger IDP boost over the past month than D.J. Smith of the Packers, who steps into the starting lineup after Desmond Bishop’s injury. Smith has shown the ability to be a productive fantasy asset in the past, including racking up 27 total tackles in three starts for Bishop last year. With Smith set to slide into an every-down role the 23-year old becomes a viable low-end fantasy LB2 for the 2012 season that can potentially be had for pennies on the dollar if your league mates aren’t familiar with his situation.
Phillip Wheeler, Oakland Raiders: The Oakland Raiders traded for Aaron Curry last year in the hopes that he could fill their hole at weak side linebacker, but the way things are going right now the former fourth overall pick is going to be as big a bust in Northern California as he was in the Emerald City. A balky knee has kept Curry off the field and the Raiders are reportedly rapidly losing patience with him, which has opened the door for strong side linebacker Phillip Wheeler to move into a three-down role for the Raiders. Granted, the 27-year-old doesn’t possess a ton of fantasy upside, but he did rack up 84 tackles for the Indianapolis Colts last year and is available late in IDP drafts or on many waiver wires, making him worth a look as depth or an injury replacement in deeper leagues.
Jerrell Freeman, Indianapolis Colts: After finishing fourth in the NFL in tackles last year, Pat Angerer was a hot prospect in may IDP drafts conducted earlier this summer. But after breaking his foot in the Colts’ first preseason game, Angerer is likely out until after Indy’s Week 4 bye. Jerrell Freeman, who spent the last four seasons in the Canadian Football League, is listed atop the depth chart in Angerer’s spot right now and has played fairly well in Angerer’s stead, tallying seven total stops in two exhibition games. Sure, Freeman isn’t going to necessarily step right in and replicate Angerer’s production and he’s something of a temporary fix, but it’s not unreasonable to think that given the opportunities he should see in the middle of the Indianapolis defense that Freeman could be capable of LB3 production should he hold onto the starting role until Angerer returns.
Wesley Woodyard, Denver Broncos: It’s not an injury that’s boosted the fantasy stock of Denver Broncos outside linebacker Wesley Woodyard so much as the apparent inability of starter D.J. Williams to get out of his own way. Williams, who was already suspended for the first six games of the 2012 season for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy, was recently convicted of DWAI, which could easily result in an even longer league-mandated vacation. That means that for the foreseeable future the fifth-year pro, who averaged over eight tackles a game in seven starts last year, will be the starting weak side linebacker for the Broncos.
DOWN THE CHUTE
Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne, New Orleans Saints: As if the dark cloud hanging over the New Orleans Saints defense after the “Bountygate” scandal wasn’t bad enough, the team lost both Hawthorne and Lofton to injury recently, placing their availability for the beginning of the season in doubt. Lofton has a high ankle sprain and Hawthorne had surgery to repair a torn meniscus, and while the Saints are hopeful that both players will be back for Opening Day both those injuries are the type that can linger. The Saints apparently have enough doubts about the health of Lofton to trade for middle linebacker Barrett Ruud, and I have enough doubts to drop Lofton into mid-range LB2 level, while Hawthorne dips into the LB4 range.
Jon Beason, Carolina Panthers: After missing almost all of the 2011 season with a torn Achilles, Beason was set to return to the middle of the Panthers defense, but his 2012 campaign has gotten off to a rocky start as well. The sixth-year veteran has been battling a calf problem he attributes to overcompensating due to the Achilles injury, and given those injuries and his now-iffy status for Carolina’s season opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Beason has slid to the bottom of my Top 25 fantasy linebackers for 2012.
Brian Urlacher, Chicago Bears: After suffering a knee injury in last season’s finale, the eight-time Pro-Bowler has undergone at least two surgeries on the knee. At least one recently, and now reports have surfaced that Urlacher underwent an additional “non-invasive” treatment in Europe earlier this spring. The 34-year old has stated repeatedly that he has every intention of being on the field for opening day, but with each new report of additional work on his knee the clouds of doubt regarding Urlacher’s health for the upcoming season grow darker. And given the uncertainty surrounding Urlacher’s knee and his age, the veteran has now become a fairly risky proposition as an IDP LB3.
Akeem Dent, Atlanta Falcons: The second-year pro is set to step into the hole created at middle linebacker by the departure of Curtis Lofton. But there have been a couple of developments that have taken much of the luster off a player that many pundits labeled a fantasy “sleeper” entering this season. First, Dent suffered a concussion in the team’s preseason opener against the Baltimore Ravens, and while Dent has been cleared and returned to practice, the possibility of another concussion, fair or not, now looms over him. Even more importantly Dent hasn’t been playing in passing subpackages, and a role as a two-down “thumper” type knocks Dent from an upside LB4 to an end of the draft flyer as a fantasy reserve.
These are far from the only linebackers whose IDP value is fluctuating as the preseason wears on. To see how all the players at linebacker and each of the “main” IDP positions stack up, be sure to check out the IDP Rankings at Fantasy Sharks. Also, for additional information on these and other Individual Defensive Players be sure to check out the IDP Team Preview Series at IDP Manor, the Fantasy Sharks IDP forum, and for the latest news on IDPs follow IDP Manor on Twitter.