With the NFL Draft clearly in the rearview mirror, dynasty leagues are heavy into draft season. Known landing spots and draft capital provide us with a nice guide to short- and long-term value.
In IDP circles, off-ball linebackers are typically hot commodities whether due to tackle-heavy scoring systems, or the dearth of desirable starters given the prevalence of teams providing full-time snaps to just one stack ’backer.
Below, I’ve tiered and ranked the top rookie linebacker options post-NFL Draft. Note that the listed tiers are based on overall rankings (including veterans), and that I’ve included some IDPs with unknown positional designations (Marte Mapu. Nick Herbig and Yasir Abdullah).
I’m considering the linebackers in this tier to be viable starters as early as this season in “start three” or “start four” setups. Depending on league size and settings, and your fantasy team’s depth, they may be matchup-based starts, but they certainly have value as dynasty IDP assets.
Jack Campbell, DET
When Campbell emerged from the NFL Combine with a Relative Athletic Score of 9.98, I figured he had a strong chance at being drafted in the first round, and indeed he was the only off-ball linebacker selected in the first two rounds. Clearly the top rookie option at the position, Campbell is “old school” in his size (6-foot-5, 250 pounds) and physical, downhill style-of-play, and his tape shows he can consistently navigate his way through traffic to flow to the ball.
If you’re looking for immediate downside, look no further than every IDP aficionado’s least favorite every-down linebacker, Alex Anzalone. That the Lions gave him a new contract with $9 million in guaranteed money was one of the off-season’s unpleasant surprises, and the pact makes it likely Anzalone sticks in Detroit for at least two more seasons. As much as we’d all like to see Anzalone relegated to backup status, his mere presence is a concern. Still, I think it shouldn’t take long for Campbell to usurp most if not all of Anzalone’s work on defense, with sophomore Malcolm Rodriguez in the number two role on early downs.
Drew Sanders, DEN
My favorite linebacker prospect pre-draft, Sanders is a converted edge who played just one season at off-ball at Arkansas. And I suppose given the landing spot, there’s always a chance he ends up back at edge, a la his new teammate, Baron Browning. But I think Sanders can stick at his new position if he can clean up the missed tackles – 22 in 2022, according to Pro Football Focus – and play with the same pedal-to-the-metal, explosive demeanor that defined his 2022 season.
Denver’s new defensive coordinator, Vance Joseph, should appreciate Sanders as a blitzer, giving the rookie big-play upside. As for his competition, starter Josey Jewell is on a one-year deal, and number two Alex Singleton – an IDP stud for his tackle production – is borderline NFL starter material. Be patient, and Sanders should still provide us with a fantasy starter with “boom” upside.
Dorian Williams, BUF
Williams hit the linebacker lottery with his landing spot in Buffalo, where Tremaine Edmunds’ departure in free agency left a big hole at off-ball. Veteran Matt Milano is locked up long-term, but the Bills run a two-linebacker scheme and – at the risk of seriously angering Terrel Bernard fans – there’s not another starting-caliber linebacker on the roster. He’s not perfect and has real work to do on shedding blocks, but Williams has an immediate opportunity to compete for IDP value in the short and long term.
Daiyan Henley, LAC
At 225 pounds, Henley is light for a linebacker but uses his long 33-inch arms to keep blockers from eliminating him from run plays. And while he’s quick and fast, he’s not laterally agile – I was disappointed but not surprised he passed on running the short shuttle and three-cone drills at both the combine and Washington State’s pro day. A former wide receiver, Henley is a fun watch, but he has limitations.
Fortunately he landed in a prime spot, with 31-year-old Eric Kendricks representing a short-term play in Los Angeles, and 2020 first-round bust Kenneth Murray in the final year of his rookie deal. With little depth behind those two, Henley slides in as a young option with hopes that he can develop quickly and be ready for a larger role in 2024.
Trenton Simpson, BAL
We ultimately don’t know if Simpson can play with the needed physicality to handle a full-time NFL linebacker job following a college career that saw him play overhang, slot defender and edge rusher in addition to inside linebacker. But given his experience and success as a pass rusher, the Clemson product seemed to fit in well as Patrick Queen’s replacement with nice upside as a blitzing ’backer with coverage traits.
So in the aftermath of the draft, especially after Baltimore declined Queen’s fifth-year option, Simpson seemed to fit like a glove next to Roquan Smith. But General Manager Eric DeCosta later said on a podcast the team would like to extend Queen, calling him a “Pro Bowl-type linebacker.” Maybe it’s just lip service, but Simpson has some Isaiah Simmons-like bust potential if he settles into a jack-of-all-trades role.
Granted, Sacramento State doesn’t play elite-level college competition, but Mapu stands out as a scrape-and-flow, fast linebacker with a mean streak. He’s only about 220 pounds, so he may ultimately end up getting classified as a safety in the mold of a Kyle Dugger-like hybrid box player, but I really like his ability to find and reach the ball quickly.
And like Dugger, a small school star out of Lenoir-Rhyne, Mapu entered the NFL as an older prospect (23), and was snapped up by Bill Belichick. In New England, he’ll have to contend with Dugger, Adrian Phillips and Jabrill Peppers in the short term, but Dugger is on the final year of his rookie deal, Phillips is 31, and Peppers is, well, not as spicy a player as we thought he was going to be coming out of Michigan.
DeMarvion Overshown, DAL
Overshown has the body type of a safety and honestly still kind of plays like one with his reaction speed, attacking mindset, and tendency to get eaten up in the box by bigger blockers when they get their paws on him. He’ll work into the rotation in Dallas behind Leighton Vander Esch. Overshown’s primary and immediate competition is 2022 fifth-rounder Damone Clark, who showed well as a rookie, and my guess is Overshown will start the season as the No. 3 linebacker and hold that spot. There’s appeal here, but it might take a couple of seasons to realize an IDP asset.
As long as your roster limits are in the 55-player range, you could consider any of these rookies for the end of your roster in hopes they make a good impression in training camp and the preseason.
Dennis didn’t come off the board until the fifth round, but I really liked him as a defensive leader with sideline-to-sideline range and a knack for finding his way through the line on blitzes. He is of course on the smaller side (6-foot, 227 pounds), but there’s a lot to like about the landing spot considering Devin White’s off-season trade request and Lavonte David’s advanced age of 33. Both veterans are free agents next off-season, and K.J. Britt offers only moderate competition for the current number three linebacker spot.
Owen Pappoe, ARI
Pappoe tore up the NFL Combine, and his athleticism was obvious at Auburn – not many linebackers can run with receivers like Pappoe. Still, despite starting 41 collegiate games, Pappoe at times looks lost and slow to read. And – stop me if you’ve heard this before – he’s undersized at 6-foot, 225 pounds – hence the fifth-round draft selection.
Arizona may turn out to be an appealing new home, depending on whether Jonathan Gannon is truly committed to trying Zaven Collins out at edge. Isaiah Simmons at this point looks like an overhang and slot defender, leaving Kyzir White, signed as a free agent to a one-year pact, as the Cardinals’ only “sure thing” at off-ball linebacker. There are plenty of unknowns in Arizona, so a good immediate impression in camp could put Pappoe on a fast track to defensive snaps.
Henry To’oTo’o, HOU
To’o To’o is a smooth mover but not exactly fast or rangy, and that likely had as much to do with his slide to the bottom of the fifth round as his size (6-foot-1, 227 pounds at the NFL Combine). With the Texans, To’o To’o reunites with his Alabama teammate, Christian Harris. Holdover Christian Kirksey and Denzel Perryman are ahead of To’o To’o on the depth chart, but both veterans are on the wrong side of 30 and are scheduled to be free agents after this season. There’s dynasty stash appeal for To’o To’o in Houston.
Pittsburgh is going to give Herbig a look at edge first, but despite the quick get-off and good handwork he showed rushing the passer at Wisconsin, Herbig has a better shot at off-ball linebacker, where his stature (6-foot-2, 240 pounds) and T-Rex arms won’t be a handicap. Steelers General Manager Omar Khan said on Sirius XM radio that Herbig would get work at both inside and outside linebacker spots, so it sounds like the team has an open mind about his best positional fit.
If you’re in a 14- or 16-team league, or a league with a lot of roster spots and/or oversized taxi squads, you could consider rostering linebackers in this tier. Otherwise, keep an eye on them for good news or injuries to teammates.
Ivan Pace Jr., MIN
Pace is diminutive even by today’s NFL linebacker standards, but he’s too good a player to go undrafted. Standing just 5-foot-10, weighing somewhere between 222 pounds (Pro Day) and 231 pounds (NFL Combine) and sporting arms that measure just 30.25 inches, Pace will have to make a quick adjustment to the speed and next-level physicality to stick on the active roster. If he does make the Vikings’ 53-man squad, opportunity exists behind sophomore Brian Asamoah and soon-to-be 31-year-old Jordan Hicks. Troy Reeder and Troy Dye are also in purple, but neither offers dynasty appeal.
Yasir Abdullah and Ventrell Miller, JAC
If you found yourself frustrated with Jacksonville for adding a couple of somewhat promising off-ball linebackers, you were in good company. With Foye Oluokun realistically under contract for another couple of seasons, and both Devin Lloyd and Chad Muma sporting higher draft capital from the 2022 draft, the road to relevance has plenty of obstacles for Abdullah and Miller.
Abdullah, selected 15 picks after Miller, is actually the more exciting prospect. A stand-up rush edge at Louisville, Abdullah is likely making the move to the off-ball spot due to size concerns at edge (6-foot-1, 242 pounds). He has an explosive first step though, and his 4.47 speed showed up in college when he carried receivers down the field. Miller is more “meh” as a prospect, and that includes his playstyle – he’s just a downhill thumper – and age (already 24).
Noah Sewell, CHI
If you were a team in need of a run-down thumper in the draft, Sewell fit the bill. It’s hard for linebackers with Sewell’s skillset and coverage limitations to see the field enough to merit fantasy consideration, and Sewell has that working against him from an IDP perspective. Consider the day three draft capital, and a depth chart that starts with off-season additions Tremaine Edmunds and T.J. Edwards (both on three-year deals) and includes rising sophomore Jack Sanborn, and Sewell seems like a long shot to reach even “watch list” status for the next several seasons.