Small Linebackers are the New NFL Draft Inefficiency

Joe Redemann

Before I ever graded tape on an IDP, before I ever calculated the fantasy points per touch of a ballcarrier, before I even knew all the positions on the gridiron, I had a first love in the sports world: baseball.

It feels vaguely heretical to talk about another sport here, but my love of the diamond is what led me to fantasy writing in the first place. You see, there was a revelatory and revolutionary book called Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game that hooked me into the data of the sports world, and the idea that anything can and should be quantified as we seek greater understanding of our games.

More importantly, Moneyball taught me about the “market inefficiency”. Simply, there are misvalued assets in any economic system – in the sports world, this often refers to players in free agency or the draft – that savvy participants can acquire or avoid and profit by doing so. There are often individual players who are under- or overvalued anomalies, but open-minded teams – both real and fantasy – can notice larger patterns emerge as well.

One recent inefficiency pattern to take advantage of: small linebackers are undervalued in the NFL Draft, and therefore in fantasy football.

Pickin’ Machine

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One of the great things about the culture of talent evaluation in baseball is the progress they’ve made over the last 10-20 years, moving away from conventional and ridiculous ideas like “The Good Face” (that handsome players just look like they can play), or even whether or not a player has an attractive significant other (which supposedly shows confidence). Nonsense has begun to go by the wayside in favor of crunchier stats and more detailed analysis.

Football still holds many of its ancient biases, unfortunately: Russell Wilson was “too short” to play quarterback, Robby Anderson was “too thin” to play wide receiver, and Jerry Rice was “too slow” to do anything in the NFL. The size/speed bias persists to this day, especially on the defensive side of the ball where the physics formula for Force – mass times acceleration – is the main consideration for envisioning a player wrecking an opposing offense. Still, smaller and slower defenders have surprised the NFL in recent years.

Consider Telvin Smith, weak-side (WILL) linebacker for the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Smith was passed over by every team four times in the 2014 NFL Draft, finally selected 144th overall. Teams were not only nervous about Smith’s failed drug test in the pre-draft process, they didn’t know where the 6-foot-3, 218-pound ‘tweener fit in defensive schemes. He seemed too thin to be a quality linebacker, with’s Nolan Nawrocki saying he needed to “bulk up [to] withstand the rigors of the NFL”, and didn’t seem to be explosive enough to be a proficient strong safety.

Even metric analysis seemed to confirm that Smith was a bust in the making. His Force Score – a metric created by adjusting a player’s vertical and broad jump for their weight – ranked 228th out of 259 NFL Combine linebackers over the last decade, and was 22nd out of 23 in his own draft class. His Agility Score – weight-adjusted short shuttle and three-cone – placed him in the same ranking.

Despite this, Smith has averaged 120.1 tackles per-16 games in his career, adding 1.9 interceptions, and 6.5 passes defensed at the same rate, becoming one of the most valuable NFL defenders and IDP assets.

He Looks Funny

When we pick apart the draft results of the last ten years, we can see that the bias against smaller linebackers is running rampant through the NFL, and it even affects the perception of IDP fantasy players.

The NFL average draft position (ADP) of linebackers over the last ten years comes out to 188.4, or a mid-fifth round pick. The table below breaks down the average measurables of a linebacker drafted in the last ten years.

Height (in.)Weight (lb.)BMI40BenchVert JumpBroad JumpThree-ConeShort Shuttle

With the average linebacker around 6-foot-2 and 240 pounds, it’s easy to see why the lithe Telvin Smith was missed by the metrics.

If we start playing with some of these thresholds for size, we can see how undervalued potential contributors are simply due to a preconceived notion we have about them. The tables below show the ADP for a few different categories of players by height and weight.

6-foot-0 or less217.8
Above 6-foot-3187.7
230 lb. or less215.1
250 lb. or more151.7

The smaller or lighter a linebacker is, without fail, the less they are valued in the NFL Draft. This is most noticeably different in weight, where players ten pounds or more below the average fall nearly a round in ADP – versus those weighing ten pounds or more than the average, whose ADP jumps more than a round. Even shorter linebackers lose 29 spots in ADP, however, despite taller ‘backers gaining just one point.

But does it actually matter to their value in the league?

It’s Incredibly Hard

When we look at the career value that players from each category have assembled, there’s not a huge difference in the production each posts.

Linebackers with a lower weight have posted just seven percent less career Approximate Value (AV; a Pro Football Reference analytic) than their heavy side peers, but are about four percent more likely to make a contribution in the NFL. In addition, shorter linebackers have posted 60 percent more average AV than their taller peers and outpace them by about seven percentage points in rate of contribution.

These are relatively small differences on either end of the size spectrum, but the fact remains that smaller players will not look as good in the data, but will be devalued significantly more – and with little reason. For every 6-foot-2, 265-pound Dont’a Hightower who dominates, there’s a 6-foot, 227-pound Wesley Woodyard to match.

Don’t get fooled by the idea that bigger is always better; guys like Telvin Smith, Deone Bucannon, and Shaq Thompson are the cornerstones of NFL defenses, and will continue to be the cornerstones of IDP roster all over. If you can get a discount due simply to a player’s size, take it.

Below are two lists of late-round ‘backers worth a prospective stash from the last two years’ rookie classes, despite size deficiencies.

2016-17 Linebackers, Short Category: Jalen Reeves-Maybin (DET), Hardy Nickerson (CIN), Matt Milano (BUF), Jayon Brown (TEN), Blair Brown (JAX), Ben Boulware (FA), Eric Striker (FA), Tyler Matakevich (PIT), Kentrell Brothers (MIN).

2016-17 Linebackers, Light Category: Tanner Vallejo (BUF), Reeves-Maybin, Milano, Riley Bullough (TB), Striker.