For offensive prospects and the corresponding dynasty strategy, we typically hear, “talent always rises to the top” or “don’t buy or draft ‘player X’ based on situation alone.” For IDP purposes, though, talent doesn’t directly correlate with IDP success. Instead, opportunity is paramount in roster construction. This is true on many levels, whether it is linebacker, defensive back or defensive line, but we’ll focus on linebackers as IDP’s blue chip position. Most IDP veterans dream about this concept so the background discussed over the next few paragraphs is unlikely to be anything new for them, but we’ll focus on more player specifics later on, including long-term prospects.
Annually, a marginally talented linebacker can perform at a LB1 level as long as he is faced with tackle opportunities on a high volume of snaps. That’s exactly why the three down linebacker – AKA the ‘every down’ linebacker – is one of the most important concepts across IDP leagues. Don’t get me wrong, talent is important in the long-run for a player in a favorable IDP situation to maintain his starting position, but understanding a linebacker’s skill set to assess whether he possesses the ability stay on the field in various situations is vital. This isn’t only vital for long-term roster construction, but it can also help uncover ideal stopgap options for the short-term.
People frequently talk about three down linebackers in the IDP community, but surprisingly, not all IDP players completely understand 1) what it means and 2) the ramifications. Simply put, a three down linebacker is just that – a linebacker versatile enough to stay on the field in multiple situations. More specifically, these are players with the ability to play in sub-packages.
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If you’re not familiar with the term, a sub-package is a defensive formation outside of the traditional 3-4 or 4-3 defensive alignment. For example, in today’s game, many defenses spend much of the game in nickel or dime packages to add more defensive backs to the field to counteract offense’s going three-, four- or five-wide. A linebacker who is versatile enough to hold up in base formations against the run and cover a receiver or joker tight end to stay on the field in nickel and dime packages is gold.
Take a look at last season’s top 30 in tackle heavy linebacker final rankings (on a points per game basis):
- Of the top 30, 66% played 95% or more of the team’s snaps
- Of the top 30, 87% played more than 90% of the team’s snaps
- Of the top 30, 0% played fewer than 80% of the team’s snaps
- In big-play league with a sack to tackle ratio of 5:1 (above is tackle heavy), other than a shuffling of the order, the only difference is one player who played less than 80% of the team’s snaps in the top 30 – Elvis Dumervil (57%)
In summary, unless you have a linebacker locked for 15 plus sacks, snap volume is king. It’s crucial to identify potential three down players early, especially in deeper leagues where you can stash a possible long-term three down linebacker.
The following lists a sample of notable two-down players who played a high volume of snaps over the last two years. This helps add more perspective on how limiting this role can be for IDP purposes:
- Two down players typically see less than 65% of the team’s snaps.
- On a point per game basis, these players ranked LB50 plus (i.e., not someone to rely on)
As referenced earlier, with the NFL becoming more of a passing league in recent seasons, many team’s spend the majority of the game in their sub-package defense making the three down linebacker ever more critical. As an example, according to Fox Sports, the Packers spent 75% of their defensive snaps in a sub-package in 2014. With the average team spending roughly 60% of their snaps in sub-packages in 2014, a two down linebacker is at a huge a disadvantage with a smaller volume of point producing opportunities.
Based on the above analysis, consider the following as we approach the start of the 2015 season:
Curtis Lofton, MLB OAK
While Lofton signed a big contract with the Raiders this off-season, he struggled mightily in pass coverage last season. He received a hefty contract suggesting the Raiders may envision him as a three down player, but these struggles could ultimately limit his sub-package snaps and IDP upside this season. Specifically, Sio Moore is fully entrenched as a sub-package player while Malcolm Smith, who was also brought in this spring in free agency, is known to be an above coverage linebacker. While a two-down role isn’t confirmed and is my speculation based on the skills of Moore and Smith, if I were to wager on how this plays out, I see Lofton on the sidelines in passing situations beginning at some point during the 2015 season as long as Moore is healthy. Moore started camp on the active PUP, so if he’s out, Lofton should be a sub-package player. Regardless, I’m staying away and/or selling because of his coverage struggles and the value risk it creates.
Khalil Mack is not included in the discussion above because he’s seeing extensive time at defensive end this summer as evidenced by the Raiders’ current depth chart. It appears a position eligibility change is on the horizion even though he’ll still see some snaps from a two point stance. Even if this change doesn’t happen, Mack would be considered a three down linebacker, but a linebacker in base packages and defensive end in passing situations.
Zach Brown / Avery Williamson, ILB TEN
Both linebackers could see a healthy dose of snaps as the Titans’ starting inside linebackers. Brown is still battling Wesley Woodyard for the starting spot, but if he starts 2015 like he started 2014, he should win the job. Brown is known as an athletic sideline-to-sideline player who excels in coverage while Williamson came on strong as a rookie in 2015 and is the leader of the Titans’ defense early in training camp. Williamson should build on his solid rookie year and be the better player to own, but both should be sub-package players seeing a healthy snap volume.
Shaq Thompson, WLB CAR
While Thompson is a Thomas Davis clone who should be a blue chip IDP player at some point in his career, he’ll have to wait his turn. Both Luke Kuechly and Davis are expected to consume a large volume of snaps in 2015 relegating Thompson to IDP benches barring an injury to Davis or Kuechly. The aging Davis should give way to Thompson in passing situations at some point, but it’s unlikely to be in 2015. Mid-season may be a perfect time to approach Thompson owners for a deal as they grow restless with the lack of production due to a short-term two-down role.
Chicago Bears Inside Linebackers
Shea McClellin and Christian Jones are currently tabbed as the Bears’ inside starting linebackers thus far in training camp hypothetically leaving Mason Foster and Jon Bostic out of the regular snap mix. McClellin still needs to prove he can translate his practice production to game day before solidifying his role, but he’s receiving a lot of positive press. Of the two, Jones is physical, rangy and solid in coverage so he should see the higher snap volume of whoever he starts with for week one. Foster should continue to battle McClellin for snaps, so this is a situation to watch, but it’s Jones who could be on the verge of being a 95%+ snap player in my view. He already proved he can produce on Sundays with his starting opportunity late last year.
Green Bay Packers Inside Linebackers
Sam Barrington should be one of the Packers’ starting inside linebackers and see a healthy snap volume, but it’s Clay Matthews who may be the IDP gem this year. Matthews is slotted to play inside on first and second down before kicking outside in passing situations. This should vault Matthews up the 2015 rankings list. In his time inside last year, Matthews was a top 20 linebacker on a point per game basis, if that’s any indication (based on scoring in the above table).
Jerod Mayo, MLB NE
Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower broke out in 2014, which should relegate the oft-injured Mayo to base packages only. While he’s surprisingly looked good in camp thus far, a reduction in snaps makes a lot of sense with his recent injury history. While I don’t think it’s likely, at best, I see a shared responsibility with Hightower and Mayo in passing situations in an effort to keep both healthy. In essence, without injuries, it’s hard to envision a scenario where Mayo consistently plays every down.
Benardrick McKinney, ILB HOU
McKinney is gaining confidence and improving daily based on reports out of Texans’ camp. That’s not surprising since he’s a force defending the run, but what concerns me is his coverage ability, especially at this level. He struggled in coverage in certain situations at Mississippi State and the Texans already stated they’re going to bring him along slowly to see if he can develop his coverage skills. While several think he may develop into a solid coverage linebacker with time, I’m skeptical and view his upside as a dominant two-down thumper (i.e., Brandon Spikes).
Finally, in no particular order, here are some deeper potential every down players to keep an eye on to see how they develop:
Damien Wilson, MLB DAL
The Cowboys are high on him. He’s running with the first team as the Cowboys ease Sean Lee back into the rotation. Jasper Brinkley is manning the middle with Rolando McClain injured and suspended for the early part of the 2015 season, but keep an eye on Wilson. He needs to improve other aspects of his game, but he’s adequate in coverage and could develop into a three down linebacker with the right coaching and opportunity. He has an initial opportunity early in camp.
Ramik Wilson, ILB KC
The Chiefs drafted Wilson to learn from and, hopefully, play inside next to the aging Derrick Johnson. He’ll need to show it through preseason and camp, but soon after the draft, the Chiefs’ scouting department publicly stated they feel Wilson is a three down player when asked to compare him to Nico Johnson. Many others outside the organization believe Wilson struggles in coverage at times, but the views on his coverage skills appear to be split. Regardless, it sounds like the Chiefs will give him a shot at some point, so monitor how he’s faring throughout the 2015 season.
Mike Hull, MLB MIA
With Jelani Jenkins solidified as the starter on the weakside, there is still some uncertainty about the Dolphins’ middle linebacker situation. Without adding another linebacker via free agency or the draft, the Dolphins brought in the Hull after he went undrafted this year’s draft. He’s worth watching considering the lack of depth and talent in the middle of the Dolphins’ defense. He’s not the most athletic, but he’s a high effort and active player who’s adequate in coverage.
Kwon Alexander, MLB/SLB TB
I’m a believer in Bruce Carter this season with a change of scenery, but Alexander offers nice long-term upside. He’s playing middle linebacker for the first time in his career and it’s worked out well thus far. Originally, most thought he would compete on the strong side, but the Buccaneers’ staff liked what they saw from Alexander in the middle in early offseason activities. His responsibility there carried over to training camp where he’s now calling the plays from for the second team defense. His versatility should earn him snaps as a rookie, but it may not be until Carter falters for a consistent high volume of snaps. The long-term upside is there.
Finally, as a reference, we keep a listing of three down linebackers and potential three down linebackers here on the site, which is periodically updated (link).
Follow Steve on Twitter @SteveWyremski