2015 Sleepers at the Linebacker Position
If you are playing in an IDP league for the first time, the linebacker position can be hard to figure out. Defensive players can be mystifying to many fantasy owners, because they are so counter-intuitive.
Offensive players are easy to figure out in comparison: you want elite athletes in a position to make plays. That means you want the starters on the best offenses, plain and simple. When it comes to receivers, you might like players on bad teams which have to throw to even the score. That’s about as exotic as it gets.
Even with Team Defense, it’s pretty straightforward. You want a defensive unit which holds the opponent to a low score, while making big plays themselves. Getting a defense which plays opposite a good running game or ball-control passing game is important, because this shortens the game and keeps them off the field as much. At the end of the day, you want good defenses, though.
Sleepers at the IDP Linebackers
With Individual Defensive Players, everything goes against normal fantasy football logic. You often want players on bad teams.
Think about it: the more plays a defender is on the field, the more chances they have to fill their stats sheet.
The bad defensive untis are the ones on the field all day. Their linebackers and safeties, especially, get more chances than guys on good defenses (pass rushers are an exception). So some of the sleepers below are on bad teams, or have bad circumstances.
What Is a Sleeper?
Every fantasy football hobbyist has their definition of “sleeper”. Some view a sleeper as someone they’ve never heard about, which is an impossible standard. Some view it as a guy who isn’t an obvious star, someone you draft in the mid-rounds. I view it somewhere between those two goal posts. Often, the question depends on how many defensive players are drafted and started in a particular league.
There’s no reason to get into a debate, so I’ll just define my terms. I equate a sleeper to: “a player that the average casual fantasy football owner might not know about”.
Most solid FF owners are going to refer to a cheat sheet, an average draft position (ADP) list, a fantasy magazine, or last year’s stats. Sleepers might appear on rankings lists they have, but they’ll pass over them or draft them by luck.
What Traits Do Sleepers Have?
Usually, a special circumstance means the player is off-the-radar. Perhaps it’s a late-August injury replacement. Perhaps the coaches have decided to demote a veteran and start a rookie. Perhaps the player is a returning stud, but he was injured all last year. Or the last two seasons.
Whatever the case, he’s either fairly obscure or forgotten in most drafts. In deeper leagues, the sleeper pick is essential to maintaining a competitive edge. IDP gets a little less attention than most positions, so here are a few linebackers you might have missed.
Tip #1: Find Middle Linebackers.
When searching for a sleeper in an IDP draft, first highlight all the middle linebackers which can be drafted in your league. MLBs rack up more tackling stats than any other player. Tackles are more consistent than sacks, interceptions, and fumbles. They can be depended upon. Let tackles be your guide in finding linebackers.
Below is a list of little-known or forgotten middle linebackers.
Kwon Alexander, MLB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Weight: 227 lbs.
College: LSU Tigers
NFL Draft: 4th Round, 124th Overall, 2015
Kwon Alexander is the new middle linebacker for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He replaces Mason Foster, who left for the Chicago Bears in the offseason (and was waived by them). The Bucs statistically had the worst defense in the NFL in 2014, which explains their having the #1 pick in the NFL Draft. Mason Foster was not the only problem, but Lovie Smith seems to have wanted to replace him.
Look at Mason Foster’s tackle statistics the last couple of years. While he might not have been effective in real world NFL terms, Mason Foster was a fantasy football stud when he was on the field. That is the basis for this pick.
You might notice that Kwon Alexander is undersized for an NFL middle linebacker. He was not supposed to become the starter at this position so soon–perhaps not ever. Kwon Alexander began training camp as a weakside linebacker, but was moved inside out of necessity.
The team signed Bruce Carter to be the middle linebacker. Bruce Carter is an anomaly. He’s big. He’s fast. On the Dallas Cowboys, Carter always held promise, but he continually disappointed coaches, scouts, and fans. He had trouble in coverage, which was odd for the fastest linebacker on the team. He never became a force, despite having ideal size. Bruce Carter never had “it”. The Buccaneers found out all of this in training camp. They eventually moved him to weakside linebacker, where he’ll be a backup.
Thus, Kwon Alexander was forced into this position. He’s too small to play it for long, but could be a one-year IDP monster. Alexander might be prone to injury, if forced to log long stretches at MLB. He should be good when he’s healthy.
Additional Hint: Learn whom Kwon Alexander’s primary backup will be. Keep this player on a watchlist. If and when Alexander gets dinged up, simply add this player and plug-and-play.
Christian Jones, MLB, Chicago Bears
Weight: 248 lbs.
College: Florida State Seminoles
NFL Draft: Undrafted Free Agent (UFDA)
Christian Jones is the new middle linebacker for the Chicago Bears. For this pick, you have a bit of a stats sheet for a guide. In Weeks 14, 15, and 16 of the fantasy season, Christian Jones got into the Bears lineup. He put up elite fantasy numbers. In Week 14, he had 8 solo tackles and 5 assists. In Week 15, Jones had 11 solo tackles, 1 tackle for a loss, and 1 sack. In Week 16, he had 6 solo tackles, 1 assist, 1 tackle for a loss, and 1 sack. Given his good size and speed, Christian Jones is not only a tackle machine, but he appears to be a blitz specialist.
Christian Jones has an NFL pedigree, too. His father, William Jones, was a star at Florida State who eventually went on to play at the Oakland Raiders. Though the younger Jones was an undrafted free agent, he had good measurables. A failed drug test appears to have been his downfall in the draft process.
This appears to be a case of opportunity meeting talent. Like the Bucs, the Bears were a disaster on defense in 2014. Late in the year, the team decided to play younger players through desperation and perhaps in a talent evaluation mode. They found their 2015 middle linebacker playing out the string during another cold December.
The great thing about Christian Jones in an fantasy league is the Bears were still not convinced. It took the better part of training camp to decide their best choice was the 2nd year man out of FSU. That means few magazines, cheat sheets, or fantasy football tout services have Christian Jones rated that high. Only recently was he for-certain named to be the man in the middle.
Like with Kwon Alexander, you get a player on an awful defense. The 2015 Chicago Bears should be pretty bad. That’s good for Christian Jones owners.
Stephen Tulloch, MLB, Detroit Lions
Weight: 245 lbs.
College: North Carolina State Wolfpack
NFL Draft: 4th Round, 116th Overall, 2006
Stephen Tulloch is a completely different type of NFL player than the two young talents above. From 2009 to 2013, Stephen Tulloch was an elite fantasy linebacker. In stints with the Tennessee Titans and the Detroit Lions, Tulloch proved he has the endurance and the tenacity to be an elite NFL tackler, despite less-than-ideal size. Until 2014, Stephen Tulloch was a perennial IDP stud.
All that changed in Week 3 of 2014. While celebrating a big play, Stephen Tulloch blew out his knee. That in-and-of-itself renders a player somewhat ridiculous. It places one in the same category as one of the Grammatica Brothers. A year later, Tulloch is coming off a major knee injury and he’s just turned 30 years old. A new wave of players comes into the year each league. The Lions were a top defense without him. It’s easy enough to forget a player like Stephen Tulloch.
I’ve noticed it in the league I drafted. I got him in 37th round, long after Kwon Alexander and Christian Jones were drafted. That league is a dynasty league, so you have to expect a 30-year old guy coming off injury won’t go high. Still, I have a team coming off an 11-3 season with holes to fill at the linebacker position. I view Stephen Tulloch as a godsend at that spot in the draft.
Up until the moment he blew up his knew, Stephen Tulloch was elite in fantasy football. He had 6 solo tackles and 2 assists in Week 1 last year. He had 7 solo tackles, 3 assists, 3 tackles for losses, and 1 sack in Week 2. He was celebrating a sack against the Packers in Week 3 when he injured his knee. This was a marathon man before the injury. Tulloch had played in 131 consecutive game. He had started in 75 straight NFL games. Tulloch says the injury was tough on him, because he had never missed an NFL practice.
The Detroit Lions named him the starting middle linebacker. Here’s where Tulloch’s story gets really intruiging…the team lost Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley in the offseason. The Lions linebackers should be tested more often in 2015, and they should have to make more plays. This was the #2 defense last year. Don’t expect the same again. Stephen Tulloch is a major sleeper, if a perennial IDP star like him can be considered a sleeper. Check to see if he’s a free agent in your league.
Linebacker IDPs in Fantasy Football
That’s why the linebacker position should not be drafted too high in IDP leagues. Kwon Alexander, Christian Jones, and Stephen Tulloch have every bit of as good an opportunity to be Top 15 LBs as most of the players drafted ahead of them. Each has lots of opportunity, yet they got almost no attention on the big lists of IDPs.
If you want to expand the list to 3-4 linebackers, take a look at some of the little-known middle linebackers.
- Nick Bradham, ILB, Buffalo Bills
- Preston Brown, ILB, Buffalo Bills
- Michael Wilhoite, ILB, San Francisco 49ers
- Zach Brown, ILB, Tennessee Titans
- Avery Williamson, ILB, Tennessee Titans
- Sean Weatherspoon, ILB, Arizona Cardinals
- Keith Minter, ILB, Arizona Cardinals
Each of the players listed should be available a bit later in drafts. Each is a part of a pair of inside linebackers. While such pairing can often wolf points from one another, very solid players have emerged from 3-4 teams in years past. While I recommend drafting middle linebackers in 4-3 defenses, only a handful of those players exist. If the are expended, simply go to the next list of deep sleepers at the IDP linebacker position. Remember, these are sleepers; don’t overdraft. Once you know how many solid IDP linebackers are out there, you realize you have the luxury of waiting.