1. Desmond Bishop, Green Bay: Bishop dominates the middle of the Packers defense with the speed to fly around and make plays. He has racked up more than 100 tackles the last two seasons and is the leader of the Green Bay defense. It took the Packers a couple of years to realize what Bishop could do and get him on the field. Don’t make the same mistake as a fantasy owner.
2. D’Qwell Jackson, Cleveland: Jackson consistently produces huge fantasy stats when he is healthy, and that is the only concern when analyzing his game. He had eight games in 2011 in which he put up double-digit tackles. He put up 3 1/2 sacks to go along with more than 155 tackles and three fumble recoveries last season. He is pure fantasy gold heading into 2012.
3. James Laurinaitis, St. Louis: He has never had less than 100 tackles in any of his three seasons in the league. He is the consummate three-down linebacker who excels in coverage as well as blitz packages. He will thrive even more under new St. Louis head coach Jeff Fisher. Draft Laurinaitis early and enjoy the fantasy production.
4. Patrick Willis, San Francisco: Willis is still one of the premier inside linebackers in the NFL, but the improvements the 49ers have made in surrounding him with talent have affected his fantasy numbers. He still possesses rare play-making ability but now has Navorro Bowman sharking away some of his tackle opportunities. Still a Top 5 talent, but may never regain the tackle numbers he enjoyed a couple of years ago.
5. Derrick Johnson, Kansas City: Saw his fantasy value dip a little bit while digging his way out of former coach Todd Haley’s doghouse. He has dominated the position the last two seasons, racking up more than 120 tackles in each of those years. He may not be the flashiest linebacker out there but he excels in all facets of the game and puts up top-tier linebacker fantasy scoring as a solid-three down player.
6. Daryl Washington, Arizona: Washington had five sacks last season to go along with 94 solo tackles and is a fantasy force on the rise. He plays inside linebacker in a Ray Horton defensive scheme, in a division that loves to run the football. All this adds up to a fantastic 2012 fantasy campaign for Washington.
7. Colin McCarthy, Tennessee: The new man in the middle for the Titans is going to have a very nice 2012. In eight games last season, once he took over for an injured Barrett Ruud, he amassed 63 total stops, two forced fumbles and a sack. As a full-time starter from Week 1 on, the sky is the limit for what McCarthy could produce in 2012.
8. Navorro Bowman, San Francisco: Bowman exploded onto the fantasy scene last season for the 49ers. He actually outperformed teammate Patrick Willis while compiling 143 total stops. His numbers may dip a little in 2012 if Willis plays a full 16-game schedule, but he will still be a Top 10 fantasy option at linebacker. Bowman flashed big play potential as well, adding two sacks and three fumble recoveries to his 2011 resume.
9. London Fletcher, Washington: Simply an ageless wonder. A tackling machine that has also forced six fumbles over the last two seasons. He is 37-years-old and has never missed a game during his career. He is purely and simply solid, a top-end fantasy producer from the linebacker position. I will not fall into the trap of saying, “His play could fall off due to his age” again. Fool me once, shame on me … you get the picture. The guy just keeps going and going.
10. Ray Lewis, Baltimore: Another candidate for the ‘old man river’ award but another highly productive fantasy force. He is definitely slowing down and his days as a three-down linebacker may be coming to an end, but it hasn’t happened yet. His 95 tackles in 12 games last season prove that Lewis is still getting it done in Baltimore. Should his role change to that of a two-down option, his ranking here will reflect that.
11. Sean Lee, Dallas: Lee is the man for the Cowboys and burst onto the scene with more than 100 total tackles and four interceptions last season. He is entering his third NFL season. He’s still improving at his position and that is very good for fantasy owners. Keep in mind, he played most of 2011 with a broken wrist and is still getting comfortable in Bob Ryan’s complex schemes. This kid could finish Top 5 by seasons end.
12. Curtis Lofton, New Orleans: With Jonathan Vilma gone for the season, Lofton steps right in as the starting middle linebacker for the Saints. The Atlanta Falcons let him walk as they did not view him as a three-down player in their scheme any longer but he will stay on the field for all three downs in New Orleans. Grab Lofton early in your drafts as he is going to go off for the Saints. A line of 145-150 tackles are not out of the question in 2012.
13. Sean Weatherspoon, Atlanta: The departure of Lofton is good news for Weatherspoon, as he will absolutely improve on his tackle totals from 2011. He put up four sacks last season and will be a three-down player for the Falcons again in 2012. Finishing in the Top 5 of fantasy linebackers would not be out of the question by seasons end.
14. Paul Posluszny, Jacksonville: Posluszny had a nice first season for the Jaguars, notching 119 tackles, two interceptions and a pair of sacks, although his totals paled in comparison to the better than 150 tackles he amassed during his monster 2010. He is a versatile linebacker but has played in 16 games only twice during his five years in the league. That being said, he has put up more than 110 tackles in each season he has played, so there is consistent fantasy production there.
15. Karlos Dansby, Miami: The Dolphins are transitioning to a 4-3 defense for 2012 and Dansby is slated to be playing in the middle. He had a nice bounceback season in 2011 after dipping to only 95 tackles in 2010, his first season for the Dolphins. Manning the middle in the 4-3 for 2012 could see Dansby put up monster totals and return to LB1 status for fantasy purposes.
16. Pat Angerer, Indianapolis: A tackling machine for the Colts he finished fourth in tackles in 2011. Good players on bad teams always equate to great fantasy stats, and Angerer’s situation in Indianapolis fits that to a ‘T.’ He is an every-down linebacker on a defense that will spend a lot of time on the field as the Colts rebuild. Could push for Top 10 fantasy numbers by the time the 2012 season comes to an end.
17. Stephen Tulloch, Detroit: Tulloch will be anchoring the middle of the Detroit defense in 2012 and should improve on the 111 tackles, three sacks and two interceptions he totaled last season. He will be more comfortable this season and has a nice new contract in place as he takes the field for 2012. The Lions defense is built on big plays, and along with big hits, Tulloch has the chance to reach the 150-tackle mark in 2012.
18. Chad Greenway, Minnesota: Greenway is the real deal and has put up nearly 300 tackles the past two seasons for the Vikings. He has been used as a pass rusher, racking up more than eight sacks in his career to go with five interceptions. A highly productive fantasy option from the outside linebacker position in a 4-3 format that can do it all. Solid, consistent fantasy point producer who you can draft and count on for 8-10 points at the least every week.
19. Brian Cushing, Houston: After a down 2010 season, Cushing led the Texans with 114 stops last year and registered four sacks and a pair of forced fumbles. The Texans parted ways with DeMeco Ryans, and that should help Cushing moving forward. He can pressure the quarterback from his inside linebacker position, covers the pass well and has shown nice consistency in his overall play. Will never reach the 15-sack total he amassed in 2010, but is a very productive fantasy linebacker.
20. Jon Beason, Carolina: Once the cream of the linebacking crop, Beason has seen his value plummet as he missed nearly all of 2011 with an Achilles injury. Linebackers in general score well in the Carolina defensive scheme, and if Beason can stay on the field for 16 games he will be a fantasy producer. Look for his numbers to be down as rookie Luke Kuechly supplants him as the middle linebacker for the Panthers. Look for Beason to line up as the weak-side linebacker in 2012.