The 2018 rookie class spoiled us all. Darius Leonard walked into the league and simply tore it up. He led the NFL in solo and total tackles. Leighton Vander Esch and Foyesade Oluokon were ridiculously efficient. They led the league in tackle efficiency for players with 160+ snaps. Beyond them were Roquan Smith, Tremaine Edmunds and Fred Warner who all managed 90 or more solo tackles. This was one of the best rookie linebacker classes in living memory.
So far this off-season, these players have been dominating dynasty ADP. Everyone has been trying to get hold of the young linebackers who are going to dominate the league for a decade or more – and that hype has even bled into this year’s rookie class. Devin White and Devin Bush have both been talked about as top ten or even top five overall picks.
Needless to say, it seems the hype has got out of hand. This article will set out the argument for why overpaying for rookie production is a bad idea and why other rookie LBs are unlikely to be as successful.
This chart shows the last 15 rookie LB classes and how many solo tackles they have managed to record – solo tackles being the biggest single indicator of LB success in IDP terms. Also included is a key that allocates those rookie seasons according to how high we can realistically expect LBs to finish based on those solo numbers.
Based on the past five seasons, 84 solos is the gateway to an LB1 season. 72 is LB2, 62 is LB3, 54 LB4, and 45 LB5. All of the players who hit those thresholds have been highlighted.
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As you can see, 2018 stood out with five different rookies hitting LB1 solo numbers. The only other year close to that many was 2012 when Luke Kuechly, Lavonte David, Bobby Wagner, and Jerrell Freeman all had stellar rookie seasons. Nine out of the 15 years here had just one or fewer rookies hit the benchmark. In 2016 and 2017 combined, just two rookie players managed enough tackles to earn LB2 or higher ranks (Deion Jones and Jarrad Davis).
This is reminder that multiple rookie LBs scoring well is not normal. In fact, it’s very abnormal. Here’s a grid that averages how many rookie LBs has qualified for each of these levels over the last 15 years:
On average, there have been 1.5 rookie LB1s per season, one LB2 and one LB3. So, three and a half rookies per year who are useable in most leagues. That’s a significant step down from the five LB1s of 2018.
This is relevant at this time of year because dynasty owners everywhere are preparing for their rookie drafts. Normally we see LBs typically start going in the early second round, with exceptional prospects sneaking into the late first. With 2018 fresh in people’s memories, there are lots of people looking for “the next Darius Leonard”. You’ll have read that exact phrase or one like it in a mock draft that has one of this year’s class going early to Tampa Bay, Cincinnati, Denver or Detroit.
Some of this at least is due to simple wishful thinking. Inside LB has become devalued in recent years but plenty of football fans and analysts remember when it was the key defensive position and they like to believe it’s still valuable. They are willing to think NFL teams also believe this and therefore taking an LB in the top ten seems like an okay idea.
The past predicts the future in the NFL. We know it’s hard for college players to adapt to the NFL and they generally find it difficult to carve out high snap counts as a result. Although five LBs in 2018 were stellar from the get-go, history shows us how unlikely that is to happen again.
On top of this, there’s a dangerous assumption that Leonard and the others will remain on top of the position for years. This also rarely happens. The difference between a top 12 LB and a top 36 is relatively small. It’s a couple of games out with a hamstring injury, or a couple of sacks where the offensive linemen were confused.
With 64 starting inside LBs every week, the players who finish at the top are the ones for whom everything goes right. And it’s unusual for that to happen two years in a row. Leonard, Smith, Edmunds and Vander Esch are all talented players. But we know the odds of them avoiding all the pitfalls that can limit their production are low.
Let’s look back at the 2012 class of superstars to see how they fared:
- Luke Kuechly: Has averaged over 880 snaps and 106 solos per season. But even he had three years in a row where he failed to play 16 games or reach 100 solos from 2015-2017.
- Lavonte David: Averaged 114 solos in his first four seasons but just 80 in his last three. He’s been a very good player but at this stage, he hasn’t had an elite IDP season since 2015.
- Bobby Wagner: Has played seven seasons and been great in five of them. But he missed a combined seven games in his second and third seasons and thus only managed 159 solos in that two-year stretch. Injury affects almost all defenders in the NFL.
- Jerrell Freeman: Managed 109 solos as a rookie and never managed to hit triple digits again. He averaged 68 solos per season for the rest of his career and hasn’t played since 2017.
This is a cautionary tale. Even for rookie LB classes of incendiary production, it’s easy for those players to have the same trials and tribulations all NFL LBs experience. At the moment, it seems inconceivable that Leonard, Smith, Edmunds, Vander Esch or Warner will ever hit hard times, but they assuredly will.