• The IDP Saga of the Third-Round Linebacker: Buyers Beware

    Sep 12, 2021; Jacksonville, Florida, USA; New Orleans Saints linebacker Demario Davis (56) looks down the line during the first half against the Green Bay Packers at TIAA Bank Field. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

    Every year we fall in love with incoming rookies. But very few profiles are a bigger trap to IDP players than the third-round linebacker!

    Linebackers are some of our favorite dynasty targets. Injuries or other transactions can propel any player to full-time deployment and instant fantasy relevance, just ask Jack Sanborn.

    In particular, Linebackers with Third Round draft capital hold a special place in our hearts.  They have day two draft capital and are often players we liked during the pre-draft process. Sometimes they are a faller from consensus big boards, like Nakobe Dean, Chad Muma, Christian Harris, or Malik Jefferson. Some of these players, like Dean, were pushed up dynasty rankings ahead of other players with superior draft capital, like Quay Walker and Troy Andersen.

    The problem is that third-round Linebackers have relatively poor hit rates. This is especially true in their rookie year, with only two players since 2011 having a breakout at the top 24 level, and five total who achieve a top 48 finish.

    But what about our big board fallers you say? Kevin Cole pointed out just after the NFL Draft that draft steals aren't a thing, with those players performing similarly to others drafted in the same range.

    With this year's crop of third-rounders - six if you count Marte Mapu - mostly coming into situations where there is a Linebacker or two that dynasty players are tired of, it's natural to project the incoming rookies to pass the dusty veterans. So I thought it would be worthwhile to look at successful third-round Linebackers from past years, to see the situations they landed in and their path to playing time.

    Note: All Positional finishes are based on true position settings with Sleeper's default scoring.

    Linebackers with Some Level of Success as a Rookie

    Chris Borland (2014)

    Chris Borland doesn't play at all for the 49ers until week 6 when Patrick Willis hurts his toe. Borland proceeded to put up 108 tackles on 476 snaps for an absolutely wild 23% tackle rate. Borland injured his ankle and goes on IR after week 15. After the season he retires, citing concerns about head trauma. Borland's 2014 is a true tackle rate outlier, but we will never know what would have happened if he came back to play in 2015.

    Snaps Played: 476 (53%)

    Finish: LB 15

    Fred Warner (2018)

    Jan 22, 2023; Santa Clara, California, USA; San Francisco 49ers linebacker Fred Warner (54) celebrates with teammates after an interception during the second quarter of a NFC divisional round game against the Dallas Cowboys at Levi's Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

    Reuben Foster gets suspended the July after Warner is drafted. Warner opens the season with 2014 UDFA Brock Coyle, who plays 86% of snaps in week 1 before going on injured reserve for the rest of the season. Foster comes back but then gets arrested for domestic violence several weeks later and is cut by the team. Warner plays out the year alongside 2017 7th-rounder Elijah Lee. Fred Warner ends up being an awesome player, who's put up five top 24 seasons.

    Snaps Played: 1060 (99%)

    Finish: LB 22

    Preston Brown (2014)

    Kiko Alonso tears his ACL in July, but Brown still doesn't win a starting job. Nigel Bradham gets suspended for week 1, and Brown plays 100% of snaps. Brown covers for an injury to Keith Rivers, before taking his job by week 7.

    Snaps Played: 1019 (94%)

    Finish: LB 31

    Mason Foster (2011)

    Foster beats Tyrone McKenzie (5 career tackles by the point, finishing his career with 17). No snap count info is available.

    Finish: LB 40

    Jerome Baker (2018)

    Dec 17, 2022; Orchard Park, New York, USA; Buffalo Bills running back Devin Singletary (26) runs the ball against Miami Dolphins linebacker Jerome Baker (55) in the fourth quarter at Highmark Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

    Baker is named the starter alongside Kiko Alonso but only plays 40% of snaps in week 1.  This increases to 70-80% by the end of the year. To win his starting job, he beat out Stephone Anthony (former Saints 2015 1st round pick), Mike Hull (2015 UDFA, career-high 183 snaps the year before), Chase Allen (2017 UDFA, career-high 217 snaps the year before), and Quentin Poling (2018 7th round pick).

    Snaps Played 678 (62%)

    Finish: LB 41

    Kendell Beckwith (2017)

    Beckwith beats out 3 players with a combined 11 defensive snaps to that point. Starts alongside Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander. Sadly, he suffered a career-ending injury in a car accident in the offseason.

    Snaps Played: 846 (80%)

    Finish: LB 49

    Christian Kirksey (2014)

    Craig Robertson (2011 UDFA) starts ahead of Kirksey in week 1 but gets hurt, leading to Kirksey playing 59 snaps that week. plays 59% of snaps as a rookie due to multiple injuries. Kirksey also covers several games for an injured Barkaveous Mingo. Kirksey plays more than 80% of snaps in four games while also playing under 40% in three others. There is no discernable pattern to his snaps on a weekly basis.

    Snaps Played: 681 (59%)

    Finish: LB54

    Christian Harris (2022)

    Christian Harris missed the first 5 games with a hamstring injury, but came back and pretty much immediately started over Kamu Grugier-Hill. This is a notable example where a third-round linebacker played immediately.

    Snaps Played: 712 (89%)

    Finish: LB 54

    What happened with our second and third-year breakouts?

    Often we expect our favorite third-round Linebackers to take over in their second or third season.  There are six such players since 2011 to finish in the top 24 in their second and third seasons, which include the previously mentioned Christian Kirksey, Preston Brown, and Jerome Baker.

    Bobby Okereke (2019)

    Oct 2, 2022; Indianapolis, Indiana, USA; Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry (22) is tackled by Indianapolis Colts linebacker Bobby Okereke (58) during the second half at Lucas Oil Stadium. Titans won 24 to 17. Mandatory Credit: Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

    Bobby Okereke played 40% of team snaps in his rookie season, behind 2017 fifth-round pick Anthony Walker and 2018 second-round pick Shaquille Leonard. In 2019 he plays 100% of snaps in 2 games Leonard misses, while also partially overtaking Walker to play 60-80% of snaps in most other games. Walker's rookie contract expires after 2019 and the Colts don't add significant competition, allowing Okereke to play 98% of snaps in 2021, breaking out in his third season with a LB 16 finish.

    Quincy Williams (2019)

    Quincy Williams had quite a ride.  He won a starting job as a rookie in Jacksonville and played nearly 100% of snaps in several games early in the year. However, Willaims was benched in week 6 for Najee Goode, a former fifth-round pick in his age-30 season. Williams regained his starting job after Goode sustained a knee injury and went on injured reserve. Williams played 3 more games before picking up a hand injury himself and going to injured reserve. Quincy Williams finished his rookie season with 48 tackles on 493 snaps for a not-great 9.7% tackle rate.  For his part, Goode played 295 snaps in 2019, which was the most of his 8-year NFL career.

    Quincy Williams started 2020 on injured reserve with a different injury and played sparingly when healthy. He was cut by the Jaguars at the end of camp in 2021 and was signed by the New York Jets the following day. Quincy Williams got into the lineup in week 2 due to a lack of better options (Del'Shawn Phillips played his first 57 of 161 career snaps in week 1, before being banished to the bench). Williams played 879 snaps (78%), with better tackle efficiency, finishing as the LB 22.

    Jerome Baker (2018)

    Jerome Baked followed up a promising rookie season by playing 1079 snaps (97%) in 2019 and finishing as the LB 19. Kiko Alonso got traded a week before the 2019 season started. Baker ended up leading the Linebacker room with former Saskatchewan Roughrider Samuel Eguavoen playing a part-time role.

    Preston Brown (2014)

    Preston Brown entered training camp in 2015 after Kiko Alonso (yes, Kiko Alonso happens to be mentioned a lot) is traded in March.  He starts alongside Nigel Bradham, and plays 98% of snaps or more in each of the next three seasons, posting three consecutive top 24 seasons.

    Christian Kirksey (2014)

    Jan 9, 2022; Houston, TX, USA; Tennessee Titans running back D'onta Foreman (7) gets stopped by Houston Texans middle linebacker Christian Kirksey (58) during the first quarter at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: George Walker IV-USA TODAY Sports

    Christian Kirksey once again competes with and loses to Craig Robertson in 2015, playing just 54% of snaps that year. However in 2016, Roberson leaves and Kirksey plays 100% of snaps alongside Demario Davis, who had been signed the year before.  Kirkey posts an LB5 finish, followed by the LB8 finish the following year.

    Demario Davis (2012)

    Demario Davis is named the third string (!) Linebacker in his rookie season behind Bart Scott and Josh Mauga. He passes Mauga due to injury and doesn't play a lot as a rookie.

    If you are still reading this, Bart Scott produced one of the funniest NFL moments I can remember, when he pretended to be an airplane before giving the "Can't wait" interview after the Jets beat the Patriots in the 2011 Divisional round. Look it up. Anyway...

    Bart Scott is released in the 2013 offseason and didn't play another NFL game. Demario Davis plays 95% of snaps in 2013. While only producing an LB 42 finish in 2013, Davis went on to give up six top 24 Linebacker seasons in his career.

    What do the Depth Charts Look Like for Our Incoming Rookies?

    Now that we've gone through what successful players have overcome to get playing time, let's take a look at this year's class.

    Drew Sanders

    Oct 29, 2022; Auburn, Alabama, USA; Arkansas Razorbacks linebacker Drew Sanders (42) grabs Auburn Tigers running back Tank Bigsby (4) during the second quarter at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Mandatory Credit: John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

    Josey Jewell is a good Linebacker who is in the final year of his contract

    Alex Singleton is notorious in the IDP world for his tackle efficiency, but he is not a good player. Singleton signed a three-year contract extension in the offseason with guaranteed money into 2024.

    Jonas Griffith. The 2020 UDFA is rarely discussed, but people forget that Griffith started 8 of the first 9 games last year over Alex Singleton. Time will tell if the new coaching staff in Denver feels the same way about Griffith as the old one did.

    Drew Sanders is an early declare, but remember he only has one season of experience as an off-ball linebacker at Arkansas after playing edge at Alabama. He isn't a polished prospect that you can count on to enter the lineup right away.

    Marte Mapu

    We don't have a lot of clarity on Marte Mapu's role in New England because they rotate heavily. Returning players with notable playing time include Ja'Whaun Bentley, Kyle Dugger, Adrian Phillips, and Jahlani Tavai. Devin McCourty retired, but he was used primarily as a deep safety. That is not the role we are hoping for with Mapu. Even if he overtakes Tavai, Mapu inherits a 50% snap share unless he expands on the role.

    Daiyan Henley

    Eric Kendricks comes over in free agency and is expected to be a full-time player.

    Kenneth Murray gets a lot of heat from IDP players, but the Chargers still let him play 89% of snaps in their playoff game. Murray didn't live up to the expectations he has as a 1st round pick, and his 5th-year option was not picked up.  He is likely gone next off-season.

    Similar to Drew Sanders, Henley is inexperienced at the college level.  He was recruited as a Quarterback, and started his career as a Wide Reciever, before playing his last three seasons as a Linebacker. He's also a very old prospect, staying in college for 6 years. Henley turns 24 in November, he's just one year younger than Kenneth Murray.

    Brandon Staley uses his 2nd Linebacker at one of the lowest rates in the league. Henley needs the LB1 job to get a shot at significant production.

    Trenton Simpson

    Clemson linebacker Trenton Simpson (22) tackles North Carolina quarterback Drake Maye (10) during the second quarter of the ACC Championship football game at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina Saturday, Dec 3, 2022. Clemson Tigers Football Vs North Carolina Tar Heels Acc Championship Charlotte Nc

    Roquan Smith. We aren't wasting our time here talking about Roquan Smith.

    Patrick Queen. Similar contract situation to Kenneth Murray, Queen also didn't have his 5th-year option picked up. Queen and Smith both played almost full-time roles after Smith arrived in Baltimore.

    DeMarvion Overshown

    Leighton Vander Eshe has had several serious injuries throughout his career but was mostly healthy last year.  He missed the last three games of the regular season but played about 85% of snaps when he did play, including in their two playoff games.

    The rest is interesting. Anthony Barr wasn't re-signed. Damone Clark is a 2022 fifth-round pick, who likely fell in the draft due to having spinal fusion surgery in March of his draft year. Clark played about 80% of snaps in games at the end of the year covering injuries. Jabril Cox is a 2021 fourth-round pick who has played sparingly. Overshown has higher draft capital than both, although Clark may have done enough as a rookie to establish himself.

    Complicating things a little is that Micah Parsons occasionally takes snaps at off-ball Linebacker. Despite talk of Parsons playing edge exclusively this offseason, it makes no sense for Dallas to declare that, nor would it make sense for them to stop playing him there from time to time if he's good at it. That kind of versatility confuses offenses, and in this case, specifically, takes a few snaps away from the other Linebackers.

    Dorian Williams

    Matt Milano is established in Buffalo and there is no serious reason why he won't be a full-time player this year.

    Like Dallas the rest is interesting. Terel Bernard is a 2022 third-round pick and spent last year as Milano's primary backup. Tyrel Dodson is a 2019 UDFA who served as the backup to the now-departed Tremaine Edmunds. Dodson's career high in snaps is 220 last year. We need more clarity from training camp to see what happens here.

    So what are Third-Round Linebackers good for?

    So what are Third Round Linebackers good for?  With a top 24 hit rate of 23% and a top 36 hit rate of 34%, they have a place later in dynasty rookie drafts, when most of the day 1 & 2 offensive players are gone, and premium IDP players have been taken. Top 16 pick Defensive Ends, Top 16 pick Defensive Tackles (DT-required leagues only), and Round One and Two Linebackers all have much higher hit rates and are just much better bets. Early rounds Safeties have higher hit rates too, but their density of hits (ie: if they hit, how often do they repeat) is poor, so you can pick between the bet you want to make with those profiles.

    Third Round Linebackers often end up as direct backups in their rookie season, so they are good end-of-bench players if you want to hold someone who is an injury away from playing. Practically all of the early breakouts from this round benefited from an injury or suspension. Backup linebackers who play due to injury often produce similar to their starters. This is not true for other positions like Defensive End or Tackle, so backups Linebackers are much better bench options than backup Defensive Linemen.

    What Third Round Linebackers are NOT good for?

    Third Round Linebackers are NOT good for anything where you need to count on production this year.  They are bad redraft picks, and they are bad picks in the early to middle rounds of rookie drafts.  According to the ADP from myfantasyleague.com, Drew Sanders is a late third-round pick, while Trenton Simpson and Daiyan Henley are. All three are ahead of Lukas Van Ness and Will McDonald. Both Van Ness and McDonald are in a draft capital bucket (First Round Defensive Ends) that has a higher rate of a top 24 breakout as rookies (32%) as Sanders, Simpson, and Henley have FOR THEIR ENTIRE CAREER. Considering that Dorian Williams, Marte Mapu, and DeMarvion Overshown are being drafted two to three rounds later, there's no reason to spend up at the position to get essentially the same profile.

    I often see the fantasy managers justify taking a third-round Linebacker highly due to their confidence that there is a role for that player next year when an incumbent starter leaves in free agency. While that does happen, it ignored that these players have to avoid getting drafted over, or having another established player sign in free agency. Remember recent examples.

    • Cody Barton is drafted a year before Seattle spends a first-round pick on Jordyn Brooks
    • Ernest Jones looks set up to start in his second year, for the Rams to sign Bobby Wagner
    • The Bills spent a third-round pick on Terell Bernard, only to spend another third-round pick on Dorian Williams.
    • The Vikings spent a third-round pick on Chazz Surratt and then spent another on Brian Asamoah the following year.

    A third-round Linebacker is a profile that carries more risk than we give it credit for.

    Thank you for reading this review of third-round Linebackers. You can find my other articles on my IDP Guys author page and me on Twitter @djkelltown.

    David Kelly

    A Canadian fantasy football player for longer than he remembers. Enjoys the NHL, a good CFL game, and a lively IDP fantasy league.
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