Linebacker is arguably the most important position on the defensive side of the ball in fantasy. In the NFL, the pass rusher is the most important defensive piece. For fantasy, however, it is overwhelmingly the linebacker. In IDP leagues, the linebacker (whether inside or outside) matches the value of the QB. Unlike a defensive lineman who has one trajectory to the QB. The linebacker is able to move side-to-side effortlessly on each play. Their ability to play in coverage gives them the opportunity to stay in front of ball carriers that linemen cannot. Twenty-three different linebackers had 80 or more tackles and another 30 had more than 50 last year. Because most IDP leagues have a 1 point per tackle scoring system, the value for linebackers is insane. Let’s take a look at a few 2019 linebackers to draft.
Leighton Vander Esch (OLB, Dallas Cowboys)
Vander Esch was a topic of negative conversation following the 2018 draft by most Cowboy fans. The former Boise State walk-on had a very little following from draft simulators and prognosticators. A first-round selection for Leighton would disappoint fans, but boy did he change their minds quickly.
With 113 total tackles, LVE had the 3rd most tackles in the league behind Darius Leonard and Luke Kuechly. But it wasn’t just his tackles that helped him become one of the most dominate fantasy linebackers. Leighton also performed well in pass coverage securing two interceptions throughout the year.
Now a second-year player, Vander Esch should see even more production in the young Dallas defense. As the team continues to grow, LVE’s impact becomes even more valuable to both the team and IDP fantasy owners alike.
Darius Leonard (OLB, Indianapolis Colts)
If Vander Esch had no following, Leonard’s was even worse. The Colts would select Darius Leonard 17 picks after the Cowboys chose Leighton in the first round. Leonard wouldn’t disappoint the Colts faithful either, collecting the most tackles in the league last year. His 119 total tackles would even beat future Hall of Famer Luke Kuechly.
Leonard was an IDP players dream linebacker with six sacks and two interceptions collected as well. Of the linebackers with at least 40 pass-rush attempts, Leonard had the best pass rush percentage at 17.4. This stat combined, hits, hurries and sacks relative to how many times they rushed the passer.
Not only did he disrupt the passing game he was also one of the best at stopping the run. With 35 defensive stops against the run, he ranked 3rd in the league. Leonard is once again going to be a focal point of the Colts defense as he enters his second year.
Luke Kuechly (ILB, Carolina Panthers)
Despite leading the league in tackles, both Leighton and Darius would finish 7th and 11th respectively according to PFF.com defensive grade. Kuechly however, would score the 2nd most tackles and the 2nd highest grade. For the 6th time in seven years, Kuechly would surpass the 100+ tackle mark. With only 2016, a shortened season due to injury, being the only one he failed to reach that mark. Kuechly’s 114 tackles ranked third last year.
If there is anyone who is more reliable of an IDP player, I don’t know who is. Kuechly’s ability to read an offensive scheme and adjust on the fly is unrivaled. He moves sideline to sideline effortlessly and was a key piece in the Panthers’ Superbowl run a few years back.
Bobby Wagner (ILB, Seattle Seahawks)
According to PFF, Wagner has been the best-rated linebacker for two straight years. He would take the crown from Kuechly after a two-year run of his own. The pro-bowl linebacker is well on his way to becoming a Hall of Fame player and it has a lot to do with his control of the defense.
Like Kuechly, Wagner has missed 100 or more tackles just once in his career. That year, it was 98. Since arriving in 2012, Wagner has out-tackled and out-sacked Luke, while also producing 11 interceptions. Like a heat-seeking missile, Wagner locks in on the player he looks to hit well before that player makes their first move. Moments later, that player is no longer moving. This makes him one the leagues most elite tacklers and someone you just can’t skip over on draft day.
With only one missed tackle, Wagner’s 139% tackling efficiency beat out the next best tackler by 70 percentage points. But it wasn’t just tackling that Wagner excelled in. His pass coverage was just as impressive, limiting opposing quarterbacks to an 86 pass rating.
Wagner should continue to terrorize opposing offenses and be the focal point of their gameplans each week. In order to beat the Seahawks, you need to neutralize Wagner and unfortunately, that’s easier said than done.
Roquan Smith (ILB, Chicago Bears)
Smith had most of his rookie year overshadowed by fellow Bears defensemen Khalil Mack and for good reason. However, quietly, Smith had himself a very impressive rookie season. The third rookie on our list, Smith compiled 95 total tackles, five sacks, and two interceptions. Despite the solid showing, his PFF grade was only a 67.3 which would rank 70th in the league.
So why would we suggest him as a top IDP target for 2019? Well, that’s pretty easy. Smith would only rush the passer on 8.7 percent of the snaps involving a pass last year. However, he would rank 4th in Pass Rushing Productivity with 15% of any linebacker with at least 50 pass rushes. Smith isn’t a one-dimensional back, excelling in coverage, stopping the run, and getting to the quarterback.
Smith was touted as one of the best young LBs going into the season last year. He will continue on that trajectory in 2019 and should be even better.
Joe Schobert: The Cleveland Browns linebacker was one of the worst tacklers in the league last year. He missed 24 tackles on 110 attempts giving him the leagues worse tackle efficiency rating. However, he was the best coverage linebacker in the game with a 15.2 forced incompletion percentage. Leagues that score points for breakups or coverage linebackers will want Schobert.
Lorenzo Alexander: This 12-year veteran linebacker led the league in sacks last year for his position with seven. In the last three years, Alexander has compiled 25 sacks. Not really known for his ability to tackle, Alexander will have some deep IDP value for the leagues that favor sacks.
Tahir Whitehead: One of the worst-rated linebackers according to pro football focus, Whitehead collected the 6th most tackles in 2018. Thankfully, for fantasy owners, tackling is the only thing he needs to do. He wasn’t very good in coverage and gave up a ton of yards because of it, but his 99 tackles are well worth the points they bring.
What linebackers are you targeting for your 2019 drafts? Make sure you check out my defensive lineman article as well!