2023 IDP Rookie Review: Linebackers

Jason King

When trying to evaluate this crop of rookie linebackers, I felt like I’d just asked a Magic Eight Ball lots of questions and received a steady stream of non-committals in return. Apply “reply hazy, try again,” “ask again later,” or “cannot predict now” to almost any of these off-balls and it’s a fair response.

Only three rookie off-ball linebackers played more than 260 snaps on defense. There’s not a lot to go on so far.

Add in some free agency decisions that would impact the short- and long-term outlook for several of these rookies, and you can understand why I struggled to provide tiers and rankings.

I did my best, but these rankings could look a lot different in a month or two. So when I “ask again later,” I’m hoping for a lot more affirmative answers than negative.

About the Series and Statistics

If you missed the first three articles in this series, part one focused on interior defensive linemen. The edge rushers warranted two parts: one for elite assets and current or future fantasy starters, and one for everyone else. The next and final article will hit on the safeties. The cornerback class was nice too but corners simply don’t carry dynasty value from year to year, so I don’t pay them much mind when looking through a dynasty lens.

Before getting into the rankings and brief reviews, credit goes to Pro Football Reference (PFR) for all statistics except for pressures, which come via Pro Football Focus (PFF). The “backfield disruption score” is quarterback hits plus tackles for loss, divided by snaps and multiplied by 100. (See the 2022 edge review for an explanation. I was referring to it as “plays in the backfield” at that time.)

Tier One: Elite Assets

Within tiers, there are tiers. I’m not arguing the one linebacker in this tier should be grouped with the likes of Roquan Smith, Foye Oluokun, Nick Bolton, Ernest Jones, Fred Warner, Quay Walker, Patrick Queen and a few others. But it’s not too far off that we could see our top rookie linebacker among or ahead of some of those studs. He’s a tier tweener, if you will.

1. Jack Campbell, DET

  • Drafted: first round, No. 18 overall pick (Iowa)
  • Listed height and weight: 6-5, 243
  • Age prior to kickoff of 2024 season: 24

Stats to know:

  • played in all 17 games; 639 defensive snaps (59 percent)
  • 52 solo tackles, 43 assists; five tackles for loss; ten missed tackles (9.5 percent missed tackle rate)
  • 25 completions on 31 targets (80.6 percent completion percentage); one pass defensed; zero interceptions
  • 43 blitzes; nine pressures; two sacks; three quarterback hits
  • Backfield disruption score: 1.26
  • zero forced fumbles; zero fumble recoveries

At the time I’m writing this article, we’re a couple of days away from the linebackers taking the field at the NFL Scouting Combine. It was at last year’s combine that Campbell’s stock seemingly erupted, and his testing numbers resulted in a 9.98 Relative Athletic Score. His mid-first-round draft status may have provided some unrealistic expectations for his rookie season, but Campbell’s arguably an elite IDP asset despite a rookie season that didn’t quite provide us with starter-worthy statistics.

All that really seems required with Campbell is patience. Campbell’s landing spot initially seemed like an ideal situation for player and team for fantasy – it turned out to be more true in real football terms. Playing as the third linebacker behind Alex Anzalone and Derrick Barnes, Campbell’s presence seemed to bring out the best seasons in both players. So much so that it’s not out of the question (perhaps likely?) that Campbell again plays third fiddle behind Anzalone, who has two years remaining on his contract but is already 30, and Barnes, who has a year remaining on his rookie pact. For dynasty, the thought of losing another season of potential LB1 or LB2 play is tough, but I can’t see it taking any longer than year three for Campbell to erupt as one of fantasy’s top linebackers. And should Anzalone or Barnes regress or suffer an injury, we’re suddenly cooking with gas with Campbell.

Tier Two: Current or Future Fantasy Starters

The linebackers in this tier are already considered weekly starters in “start three” or “start four” setups, or have weekly starting fantasy upside as early as 2024. Depending on your depth they may be matchup-based starts, but they certainly have value as dynasty IDP assets.

2. Trenton Simpson, BAL

  • Drafted: third round, No. 86 overall pick (Clemson)
  • Listed height and weight: 6-2, 238
  • Age prior to kickoff of 2024 season: 23

Stats to know:

  • played in 15 games; 46 defensive snaps (5 percent)
  • ten solo tackles, three assists; two tackles for loss; zero missed tackles
  • one completion on one target
  • five blitzes; zero pressures; one sack; one quarterback hit
  • Backfield disruption score: 6.52
  • zero forced fumbles; one fumble recovery

Free agency will ultimately provide some clarity on whether Simpson is worthy of a ranking this high, and though we don’t know for sure yet whether Patrick Queen will be wearing new colors next season, it seems likely and Simpson’s selection last off-season suggests the Ravens knew they wouldn’t be able to retain him after his rookie contract expired.

Simpson was an elite-level linebacker prospect despite slipping to the third round. Though not quite Campbell level, Simpson’s 9.83 RAS demonstrated athleticism showcased by Simpson’s ability to fly to the ball in pursuit. He should fit well as a run-and-chase off-ball who could be a weapon as a blitzer while growing into a complete linebacker as his coverage skills develop. And though we barely saw Simpson over the course of the season, he did see 26 snaps (42 percent snap share) in week 18 with Roquan Smith resting for the playoffs. And in that game, Simpson notched a sack and seven total tackles (two in the backfield). It’s wheels up for Simpson as long as Queen departs as a free agent.

3. Ivan Pace, MIN

  • Undrafted (Cincinnati via Miami of Ohio)
  • Listed height and weight: 5-10, 231
  • Age prior to kickoff of 2024 season: 23

Stats to know:

  • played in all 17 games; 706 defensive snaps (62 percent)
  • 63 solo tackles, 39 assists; two tackles for loss; seven missed tackles (6.4 percent missed tackle rate)
  • 30 completions on 37 targets (81.1 percent completion percentage); two passes defensed; one interception
  • 74 blitzes; 15 pressures; two-and-a-half sacks; nine quarterback hits
  • Backfield disruption score: 1.56
  • one forced fumble; one fumble recovery

Sometimes you just have to trust the tape. Such was the case with Pace, whose lack of size and elite athleticism hurt his NFL outlook to the point he went undrafted. Anyone into the MACtion in 2021, when Pace led the conference in tackles during his third and final season at Miami of Ohio, or caught up in Cincinnati’s run to national prominence in 2022, could have told NFL teams they messed up by letting Pace go free on day three. A dervish at off-ball, Pace was a frequent visitor into opposing backfields and became a nice fit in Minnesota with blitz-happy Brian Flores calling the shots on defense.

So fun to watch and root for, Pace is somewhat problematic as a fantasy asset. He’ll always have a cloud over him after going undrafted. And he’s not perfect, with short arms and a stature that will cause him to get burned in coverage, and locked up by linemen climbing to the second level on runs. Paired with Flores though, Pace is in a great spot to maximize what he does best: get downhill and into the backfield fast. And though Minnesota will surely address linebacker over the next couple of months, Pace and second-year bust Brian Asamoah are all the Vikings have at the position right now, and Minnesota has more pressing issues to address on defense along the line and at cornerback.

4. Daiyan Henley, LAC

  • Drafted: third round, No. 85 overall pick (Washington State via Nevada)
  • Listed height and weight: 6-1, 225
  • Age prior to kickoff of 2024 season: 24 (turns 25 on November 18)

Stats to know:

  • played in 15 games; 53 defensive snaps (5 percent)
  • nine solo tackles, seven assists; zero tackles for loss; zero missed tackles
  • five completions on seven targets (71.4 percent completion percentage)
  • three blitzes; zero pressures

Like Simpson, we barely got a look at Henley as a rookie. And, like Simpson, we’re anticipating the door of opportunity to swing wide open for Henley in year two.

That Henley’s rookie season was mostly a “watch and learn” experience shouldn’t have been a surprise. With just three seasons of experience playing the position at the collegiate level, Henley wasn’t expected to come into camp and beat out veteran Eric Kendricks, or even former first-round bust Kenneth Murray given his three years of experience. Kendricks is still under contract with the Bolts but could easily become a cap casualty as the franchise looks to claw its way out of a $35 million effective cap hole (per OvertheCap.com). And though he was improved in year four, Murray doesn’t seem likely to be back in L.A.

There’s a strong “glass half empty” argument to be made for Henley though. We simply don’t know how Jim Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Jesse Minter see Henley in their defense. And if they don’t see him as a good fit and he’s not traded, we’re likely in for a frustrating season of watching less-talented and low-priced veterans hogging snaps at linebacker. The Chargers’ approach to linebacker in the draft and free agency is a real storyline to watch. In simple buy-sell-hold terms, Henley’s a hold for me at the moment.

Tier Three: Worthy of a Roster Spot

There are enough reasons to like each of these linebackers that I’d deem them worthy of a roster spot in all-but-shallow league formats. And given the appetite for linebackers in typical IDP leagues, I’m casting a pretty wide net in this tier right now. Ideally I’d like to see how they improve with a full NFL off-season, or where they stand on their respective linebacker depth charts, before making a dynasty determination. So once we get through free agency and the draft, a few of these linebackers could fall to the watch list tier.

5. Henry To’oTo’o, HOU

  • Drafted: fifth round, No. 167 overall pick (Alabama via Tennessee)
  • Listed height and weight: 6-2, 228
  • Age prior to kickoff of 2024 season: 23

Stats to know:

  • played in 14 games; 436 defensive snaps (43 percent)
  • 35 solo tackles, 26 assists; two tackles for loss; 12 missed tackles (16.4 percent missed tackle rate)
  • 27 completions on 33 targets (81.8 percent completion percentage); two passes defensed; zero interceptions
  • 15 blitzes; eight pressures; zero sacks; one quarterback hit
  • Backfield disruption score: 0.69
  • one forced fumble; one fumble recovery

If you thought you had a rest-of-season starter with To’oTo’o after week six, no one would blame you. It looked like Christian Harris had blown a golden opportunity to cement himself as a rising star under Texans linebacker legend DeMeco Ryans. Denzel Perryman was – naturally – already missing games with an injury. The masses weren’t quite ready to accept Blake Cashman as a long-term fixture.

Headed into a week seven bye, To’oTo’o was riding a four-game streak of games in which he played 95 percent or more of the defensive snaps. And though he was struggling, as rookies are want to do, with some tackles and coverage issues, he started in week eight. A bad missed tackle on a D.J. Chark reception may have been the last straw though, and we saw To’oTo’o take a back seat to Harris, Cashman and Perryman the rest of the way.

As rough as it was at times for To’oTo’o, there’s no reason to give up. Ryans is lauded for his ability to coach up linebackers, so the situation is good – even ideal. Both Perryman and Cashman are free agents, and neither would be a shoo-in full-season starter should either or both return. I’m keeping To’oTo’o rostered for now, and hoping Houston doesn’t spend big on the position in free agency, or utilize high draft capital at the spot.

6. Drew Sanders, DEN

  • Drafted: third round, No. 67 overall pick (Arkansas via Alabama)
  • Listed height and weight: 6-5, 233
  • Age prior to kickoff of 2024 season: 23

Stats to know:

  • played in all 17 games; 258 defensive snaps (23 percent)
  • 13 solo tackles, 11 assists; one tackle for loss; six missed tackles (20 percent missed tackle rate)
  • 11 completions on 13 targets (84.6 percent completion percentage); zero passes defensed
  • 12 blitzes; five pressures; zero sacks; zero quarterback hits
  • Backfield disruption score: 0.39
  • zero forced fumbles; one fumble recovery

Though Sanders is included in this off-ball recap, he’s an edge going forward. Broncos general manager George Paton confirmed Sanders’ permanent move on February 27 during NFL Scouting Combine interviews. This is not welcome news for anyone with Sanders shares in tackle-heavy scoring formats, but it was clear Sanders was struggling early in his rookie season.

A promising off-ball prospect, Sanders starred in his one year at the position at Arkansas after transferring from Alabama, where he played sparingly at edge over two seasons despite coming in as a five-star recruit. But like his time at Arkansas, Sanders was at times a liability with missed tackles when he played as a rookie. He saw 101 snaps over two games in weeks three and four, played 13 snaps in week five, and then barely saw the field until week 11. Denver seemingly threw in the towel and from that point on, more than 92 percent of Sanders’ 131 snaps came on the edge.

At edge rusher, Sanders will likely work into a rotational role with Baron Browning, Nik Bonitto and Jonathon Cooper. Browning actually serves as a nice blueprint for Sanders after also being drafted as a third-round off-ball and transitioning to outside linebacker after one season. Among rookie edges, I’d probably slide him in between Nick Herbig and Keion White at No. 13 overall – worth a roster spot but mostly as a fantasy backup.

7. SirVocea Dennis, TB

  • Drafted: fifth round, No. 153 overall pick (Pitt)
  • Listed height and weight: 6-0, 226
  • Age prior to kickoff of 2024 season: 24

Stats to know:

  • played in 13 games; 101 defensive snaps (12 percent)
  • 11 solo tackles, two assists; zero tackles for loss; one missed tackle (7.1 percent missed tackle rate)
  • four completions on six targets (66.7 percent completion percentage); one pass defensed; zero interceptions
  • one blitz; one pressure; zero sacks; zero quarterback hits

Outside of week 11, when he had five solos, an assist, a pass defensed and a pressure on 66 snaps, Dennis did little in the regular season despite a promising training camp. We have little to really go on with Dennis as a professional linebacker. So why is a fifth-round pick who barely played 100 snaps as a rookie this high on the list? Opportunity, of course.

It’s safe to say Devin White won’t be back in Tampa Bay. He asked to be traded before the season, and late-season histrionics cost him three games as the Bucs were trying to wrap up a spot in the playoffs (the Bucs won all three games without him). And, franchise stalwart Lavonte David’s deal is up. Granted there’s a decent chance David returns, but there’s at least one spot opening up with Dennis and K.J. Britt as the prime in-house suspects to fill a starting role. Personally I think Britt is more likely to be a starter than Dennis, along with David or another free agent or high draft pick, but PFF’s Jon Macri tabbed Dennis as the club’s early breakout candidate for 2024.

8. Dorian Williams, BUF

  • Drafted: third round, No. 91 overall pick (Tulane)
  • Listed height and weight: 6-2, 230
  • Age prior to kickoff of 2024 season: 23

Stats to know:

  • played in all 17 games; 211 defensive snaps (20 percent)
  • 25 solo tackles, 15 assists; zero tackles for loss; three missed tackles (7 percent missed tackle rate)
  • 18 completions on 24 targets (75 percent completion percentage); one pass defensed; zero interceptions
  • 11 blitzes; two pressures; zero sacks; two quarterback hits
  • Backfield disruption score: 0.95

Few were higher on Williams and his landing spot than I was. And few are likely more disappointed with how Williams’ rookie season played out – especially following Matt Milano’s season-ending knee injury and broken leg in week five. By that point Terrel Bernard had established he was having a breakout season; Milano’s injury seemed to be the opportunity Williams needed to get on the field. And that’s what happened: Williams took over for Milano following the injury, then played close to full-time snaps in week six.

In week seven though, Williams was benched halfway through the game in favor of Tyrel Dodson. And that was pretty much it for Williams’ regular usage, although he looked fast and impactful at times during limited spots. With speed as his best asset, I think we still have a shot to see Williams assume a prominent role in the Buffalo linebacker corps. It may take a while to get there though, considering Milano is contracted through 2026 and Bernard is in tow for two more years on his rookie deal.

9. Owen Pappoe, ARI

  • Drafted: fifth round, No. 168 overall pick (Auburn)
  • Listed height and weight: 6-0, 225
  • Age prior to kickoff of 2024 season: 23 (turns 24 on September 29)

Stats to know:

  • played in 16 games; 114 defensive snaps (11 percent)
  • five solo tackles, six assists; zero tackles for loss; one missed tackle (8.3 percent missed tackle rate)
  • five completions on six targets (83.3 percent completion percentage); one pass defensed; zero interceptions
  • ten blitzes; three pressures; zero sacks; one quarterback hit
  • Backfield disruption score: 0.88

Pappoe spent the majority of his rookie season contributing on special teams, but finally started seeing the field on defense in week 12, and played 101 snaps over the final three games of the season as Arizona dealt with injuries to Kyzir White and Josh Woods.

Like Dennis in Tampa Bay, Pappoe could have a big opportunity in 2024. White will return for the second year of a two-year deal, but secondary linebackers Woods and Krys Barnes are both free agents. I think with a full off-season under his belt, the athletic Pappoe could beat out either for the complementary job next to Barnes should either or both free agents return to the Cardinals. With the biggest threat to Pappoe not being on the roster, only time will tell if he’ll get a shot at fantasy relevance in 2024, or if we’ll have to wait another season and a potential White departure.

10. DeMarvion Overshown, DAL

  • Drafted: third round, No. 90 overall pick (Texas)
  • Listed height and weight: 6-2, 220
  • Age prior to kickoff of 2024 season: 24

With the speed and body type of a safety, Overshown seemed like a tweener and a reach on day two. But he reportedly impressed in camp, and had a nice preseason before tearing an ACL early in Dallas’ second preseason contest. There’s not much to go on from his rookie season given the injury.

Working in Overshown’s favor in year two is a depth chart that currently has a lot of question marks. Leighton Vander Esch has one year remaining on his deal, but after suffering a neck injury that ended his 2023 season after five games, there are strong hints that he’ll be forced to retire. Damone Clark is fine but hasn’t proven to be anything special. Markquese Bell, at 205 pounds, probably isn’t going to stick at linebacker under new defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, who emphasizes run defense and values linebackers that are Vander Esch’s size.

Ultimately, Overshown’s match with Zimmer, along with a mostly missing rookie season, are working against Overshown. I think he’s worth rostering to see how he fits into the new defense in camp, but I’d only consider Overshown to be a taxi squad stash at the moment. I can’t imagine he’ll be any higher than fourth on Dallas’ linebacker depth chart once we get through free agency and the draft.

11. Otis Reese IV, TEN

  • Undrafted (Ole Miss via Georgia)
  • Listed height and weight: 6-3, 214
  • Age prior to kickoff of 2024 season: 26

Stats to know:

  • played in seven games; 90 defensive snaps (19 percent)
  • 12 solo tackles, nine assists; zero tackles for loss; two missed tackles (8.7 percent missed tackle rate)
  • six completions on seven targets (85.7 percent completion percentage)
  • one blitz

I didn’t know much about Reese when he started getting snaps late in the season, but the undrafted rookie impressed while playing 90 snaps from weeks 16-18. If you need a reason to get hyped:

Now, there’s no way Tennessee enters the season thinking Reese is going to be one of its top two linebackers. But Azeez Al-Shaair is a free agent, and other than exclusive rights free agent Jack Gibbens, there’s nothing in the Titans’ linebacker room to get excited about other than perhaps Reese.

Tier Four: Watch List

If you’re in a 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 based on draft capital or brief flashes in their rookie seasons. You’re best served just leaving these linebackers on waivers though, and keeping an eye on developments around them.

12. Amari Burney, LV

  • Drafted: sixth round, No. 203 overall pick (Florida)
  • Listed height and weight: 6-2, 228
  • Age prior to kickoff of 2024 season: 24

Stats to know:

  • played in seven games; 89 defensive snaps (19 percent)
  • ten solo tackles, five assists; zero tackles for loss; two missed tackles (11.8 percent missed tackle rate)
  • four completions on four targets
  • five blitzes; two pressures

I’m relatively intrigued with Burney, a former safety who spent five years at Florida – the final four at linebacker. He’s big enough to play linebacker in today’s game, and flashes speed to serve as a run-and-chase, threat-to-blitz off-ball. Similar in career trajectory to Divine Deablo, Burney could potentially succeed Deablo as a low-cost starter in 2025.

13. Dee Winters, SF

  • Drafted: sixth round, No. 216 overall pick (TCU)
  • Listed height and weight: 5-11, 227
  • Age prior to kickoff of 2024 season: 23 (turns 24 on October 17)

Stats to know:

  • played in 15 games; 60 defensive snaps (6 percent)
  • six solo tackles, four assists; zero missed tackles
  • eight completions on 12 targets (66.7 percent completion percentage); one pass defensed
  • one blitz

Following Dre Greenlaw’s unfortunate Achilles tear during the Super Bowl, San Francisco suddenly has a real need to address linebacker this off-season. Greenlaw, who has one year left on a contract that voids after this season, might become a cap casualty in an ugly but perhaps necessary business move. Top backups Oren Burks and Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles are free agents.

So there’s a slight chance for Winters to have some fantasy relevance as a sophomore and beyond. As a smaller linebacker with nice speed, Winters profiled as a special teamer with an ability to contribute on defense as a blitzer. I’m interested to see how San Francisco addresses off-ball over the next couple of months. If for whatever reason Winters ends up looking like the third option, I’m scooping him up. Otherwise there are likely other IDPs you’d rather roster.

14. Cam Jones, KC

  • Undrafted (Indiana)
  • Listed height and weight: 6-2, 227
  • Age prior to kickoff of 2024 season: 24 (turns 25 on October 21)

Stats to know:

  • played in all 17 games; 81 defensive snaps (7 percent)
  • 14 solo tackles, three assists; zero tackles for loss; three missed tackles (15 percent missed tackle rate)
  • six completions on seven targets (85.7 percent completion percentage)
  • seven blitzes; one pressure

Week 18 can be terrible if you’re having to field a fantasy lineup with a championship on the line. But it does afford us an opportunity to get a good look at some rookies that might not otherwise have a chance to put a full game’s worth of work on film for coaches to consider heading into the next season. And Jones falls into that category, having logged 79 snaps in the Chiefs’ week 18 win over the Chargers.

If you were paying attention, you likely noticed Jones with 11 solo tackles, plus an assist and a pressure (per PFF). Predictably, he was torched in coverage.

With both Willie Gay and Drue Tranquill entering free agency, Jones is a good name to have in the back of your mind should Kansas City emerge from free agency with just Nick Bolton, Leo Chenal and assorted other has-beens and never-will-bes. In short, he’s worth having on your watch list.

15. Noah Sewell, CHI

  • Drafted: fifth round, No. 148 overall pick (Oregon)
  • Listed height and weight: 6-2, 253
  • Age prior to kickoff of 2024 season: 23

Stats to know:

  • played in 13 games; 27 defensive snaps (3 percent)
  • four solo tackles, five assists

I’ve learned not to totally discount slower off-balls after watching T.J. Edwards become one of the top linebacker assets in fantasy. Still, Sewell is kind of a plodding, downhill thumper that is too much of a liability when dropping into coverage or working laterally in space. I could see Jack Sanborn-like tackle production should Sewell see snap volume, but at least for 2024 he’s stuck behind Edwards, Tremaine Edmunds and Sanborn. I might circle back to him next off-season, but for now in my eyes, he’s a limited player with limited opportunity.

16. Ventrell Miller, JAC

  • Drafted: fourth round, No. 121 overall pick (Florida)
  • Listed height and weight: 6-0, 221
  • Age prior to kickoff of 2024 season: 25

We didn’t see a lick of Miller as he spent the season on injured reserve after rupturing an Achilles tendon during the preseason finale. A physical tackler at Florida who profiled as a run-down option, Miller was likely drafted to be free agent Shaquille Quarterman’s replacement – not exactly a fantasy-friendly role. If healthy, Miller will be buried behind Foye Oluokun, Devin Lloyd, Chad Muma and any number of other linebackers the Jaguars will overdraft in late April.

17. Mohamoud Diabate, CLE

  • Undrafted (Utah via Florida)
  • Listed height and weight: 6-4, 225
  • Age prior to kickoff of 2024 season: 23

Stats to know:

  • played in 16 games; 27 defensive snaps (3 percent)
  • three solo tackles, five assists
  • two blitzes; zero pressures
  • zero forced fumbles; one fumble recovery

There’s nothing to judge Diabate on after his rookie season, so he’s only worth mentioning as a great athlete in a decent spot for opportunity in Cleveland. He’s thin for a 6-foot-4, long-limbed linebacker, and when I do watch him he stands out by moving really fast rather than making great football plays.

jason king
Latest posts by Jason King (see all)