In the overwhelming majority of Individual Defensive Player (IDP) leagues, the linebacker position rules the proverbial roost. This isn’t to say that defensive linemen and defensive backs don’t have value for fantasy managers. But linebackers are both the highest-scoring and most consistent players in most scoring systems. Simply put, most IDP teams will go exactly as far as their linebackers take them.
Given that, it’s hardly surprising that the linebacker position is usually the first hit in IDP leagues. In a recent industry draft I’m taking part in, the first eight defensive players selected were all linebackers — and 10 players at the position were drafted by the end of the seventh round.
A linebacker run that long that early is admittedly a bit unusual, but it goes to show that once linebackers start coming off the board, they will do so en masse.
Getting a higher-end linebacker to anchor your defense is an advisable course of action. And assuming three (or more) starters, obtaining a second weekly starter by the time the Top 25 or so linebackers are taken isn’t a bad idea.
There it is, indeed.
But if you aren’t able to accomplish both of those goals, all hope is not lost. Every year there are linebackers who come off draft boards late who go on to have big seasons. Sometimes, that’s due to injury, as was the case with Houston’s Tyrell Adams in 2020. But there are also linebackers in favorable situations available late in drafts who have the potential to become real fantasy difference-makers like the New York Jets’ Neville Hewitt last year.
Each of the linebackers in this piece has an Expert Consensus Ranking (ECR) at Fantasy Pros outside the Top 40 (I chose ECR as a baseline because it offers as close to an unbiased assessment of these players as we’re apt to get). No one is getting trampled in the stampede to draft them in 2021.
But each also the potential to destroy their relatively modest asking price and become the sort of tremendous value that wins IDP leagues.
Dre Greenlaw, OLB, San Francisco 49ers (ECR: LB42)
Greenlaw has already played a significant role for the 49ers over his first two seasons — the former Iowa standout has started 11 games each of his first two years and has averaged just short of 90 total tackles a season. As Jose Luis Sanchez III wrote for All 49ers, new San Francisco defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans said that he sees big things in store for Greenlaw in 2021.
“When you look at another young player, I still see a young player talk about [LB] Dre Greenlaw and just how he’s developed,” DeMeco Ryans said. “And he’s gotten better throughout these OTAs, and I’m fired up to see his growth this year.”
Ryans has already shown some ability to produce for IDP managers — he posted at least seven total tackles in seven of his 11 starts in 2020, hit eight tackles four times and ranked well inside fantasy LB3 territory last year from Weeks 6-15.
Greenlaw is a talented young linebacker whose best football is ahead of him, and with opponents keying on teammate Fred Warner there should be no shortage of opportunities for tackles in 2021. LB3 numbers are closer to Greenlaw’s floor than his ceiling, and the Top 20 isn’t out of the question.
Christian Kirksey, OLB, Houston Texans (ECR: LB51)
Kirksey is just one of a staggering number of veteran players signed to short-term deals in the offseason. But while most pundits see a Houston team with holes galore on both sides of the ball, the eighth-year veteran said he sees a hungry group eager to prove they can compete at the highest level.
“Me being on a new team and in a new organization, I think it’s a good thing bringing all these guys from different places and a lot of veteran guys who have been in the league and kind of seen different things,” said Kirksey, via Mark Lane of Texans Wire. “I think when you put everybody together like that, you create this culture and you create this atmosphere of guys just trying to compete and guys trying to get better and guys trying to go out there and win. I’m excited where my career’s headed and I’m excited to be a part of this organization.”
Injuries have admittedly been a major issue with Kirksey — the 28-year-old missed five games in 2020 and has sat out a whopping 28 contests the past three years. But in his last full season back in 2017, Kirksey piled up 138 total tackles. The year before that, he flirted with 150.
A likely three-down starter alongside Zach Cunningham on a Texans defense that is going to be on the field constantly in 2021. If he can stay on the field? Jackpot.