We have been blessed with some phenomenal rookie performances over the past decade at the linebacker position. Darius Leonard is the most recent boom rookie linebacker that helped lead a lot of fantasy owners to championships on the defensive side of the ball. However, for every Darius Leonard (2018 2nd Round – Pick 36), there is a Dante Fowler (2015 1st Round – Pick 3) that gets injured and produces nothing year one or a Bjoern Warner (2013 Round 1 – Pick 24) that never was anything.
The purpose of this article is to take a look at the last decade of drafts and the draft capital spent on linebackers and how that translates to rookie season production. I will look at 1st-3rd round draft picks and how many of them were successful in their rookie seasons. Some drafters enter their rookie draft or even their redraft league draft thinking that grabbing Isaiah Simmons or Patrick Queen (Check out IDP Guys ADP for these rookies here)is going to be a league-winning move, but history tells us that getting an LB1 rookie season is more of an anomaly than a safe bet. I’ll include some pretty pictures for you to look at as well as analysis breaking down some of these players and the careers they went on to have even if they didn’t have superb year ones.
Rookie Linebacker 1 – Chasing the Ghost
To say you’d be better off finding a unicorn would be an understatement. Since 2010 there have only been 8 linebackers out of 128 drafted in the first three rounds of the draft who end up as an LB1 in their rookie season. Here’s the list:
2012 Round 1 Pick 9, Carolina Panthers, Luke Kuechly
This one is a bit of a sore spot for owners as his sudden retirement this off-season shook many owners and now have them scrambling for a replacement LB1. Kuechly finished as LB3 overall that season, and we know he would go on to have a fantasy hall of fame career. Kuechly topped 100 solo tackles five times in his career and was an LB1 all but one season. Talk about a blue-chip elite stud for your IDP. Keep in mind this is the exception, not the rule.
2013 Round 1 Pick 30, St. Louis Rams, Alec Ogletree
Alec Ogletree at one time was considered an IDP stud. His rookie season he was a borderline LB1/2 depending on your scoring and was an LB1 three of his first four seasons. In the last couple of seasons his skills and production have dropped off, but he was at one time a stud linebacker. He had a short run, but his rookie season was very good.
2014 Round 1 Pick 17, Baltimore Ravens, C.J. Mosely
Mosely was LB #5 in his rookie season and was part of a quite good group of 1st round picks with Ryan Shazier (could have been an LB1 if he didn’t get injured), Khalil Mack and Anthony Barr. Mack and Barr, we will discuss later, but all four players have been good for fantasy. Moseley was an LB1 for three seasons including his rookie campaign and an LB3 and LB4 one season each. He missed most of 2019 with an injury and is looking to get back to LB1 territory in 2020. He was a late first early second fantasy pick in that year and paid off for owners until recently.
2018 Round 1 Pick 16, Buffalo Bills, Tremaine Edmunds
The 2018 season for linebackers was just ridiculous. 5 of the linebackers finished in the top 24 including Edmunds. This recency bias is what inspired me to look back on this topic in the first place. Edmunds finished as an LB2 in 2019 but looks to be on track for a very successful career.
2018 Round 1 Pick 19, Dallas Cowboys, Leighton Vander Esch
Leighton Vander Esch was my LB1 in dynasty last season. He was primed to produce year after year after a great rookie season. Taken 3 picks after Edmunds, Vander Esch was excellent for the Cowboys. 2019 was an injury-shortened season, but he looks to come back healthy in 2020. If healthy he should return to form alongside his teammate and fellow top linebacker option Jaylon Smith. When they are both on the field they will probably eat into each other’s production though.
2012 Round 2 Pick 47, Seattle Seahawks, Bobby Wagner
I may be slightly biased here, but Bobby Wagner is a bonafide stud. His rookie season he finished 6th in linebacker scoring. He has had over 100 tackles in 5 of his 8 seasons and was an LB1 five of those seasons, LB2 twice, and an LB3 even in his injury-shortened 2014.
2012 Round 2 Pick 58, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Lavonte David
David was a steal for fantasy owners and the Buccaneers. David has been an LB1 all but one of his seasons. That season, he was an LB2. SO disappointing. He is going to continue his career, unlike Kuechly, making this even more of a bargain. The second round has been a good breeding ground for success at the linebacker position, just not necessarily in their rookie season like David.
2016 Round 2 Pick 52, Atlanta Falcons, Deion Jones
Deion Jones was another 2nd round stud joining Lavonte David, Bobby Wagner, and Darius Leonard as the only 2nd rounders to be LB1s in their rookie season for the decade. He has been elite with the exception of a 2018 injury-shortened season. In 2019 he was overshadowed by De’Vondre Campbell but was still an LB2 by the end of the season. Campbell is gone this year by the way.
2018 Round 2 Pick 36, Indianapolis Colts, Darius Leonard
The “Maniac” did what only Luke Kuechly had done this decade and was THE LB1 in his rookie season. He even missed a game in that season. Despite missing three games in 2019 he was still an LB1 as well. Hopefully, the injuries will subside and concussions do not pile up as Leonard could have a fruitful and long career for fantasy managers.
Rookie Linebacker 2 – Some Gold Spotted
There were actually fewer LB2s than LB1s that came out of the 128 linebackers drafted in rounds 1-3 for the decade. Six players were able to become LB2s in their rookie season, but only a couple could be considered a success and one of those was a 2019 draft pick.
2015 Round 1 Pick 31, New Orleans Saints, Stephone Anthony
This is what I meant by disappointing. Besides his rookie season, Anthony was a huge letdown to people who drafted him thinking they had a 10-year stud on their hands. You got one season out of Anthony and even in 2019 you had people thinking that he could get a chance in Miami. Don’t fool yourself. The ship has sailed.
2018 Round 1 Pick 8, Chicago Bears, Roquan Smith
Smith played in all 16 games his rookie season and finished as an LB2. He ended up an LB4 last season after an injury cost him his last 4 and a half games. If Smith is healthy LB1/2 should be normal. Smith was a part of the 2018 class that defies the history of having 5 successful linebackers in one draft class.
2019 Round 1 Pick 10, Pittsburgh Steelers, Devin Bush
Devin Bush may have possibly reached LB1 status had the Steelers pushed his snaps down in the middle of the season. Without Roethlisberger and a struggling offense the team seemingly thought they would ease up his snap load. He didn’t reach 60 snaps on defense from week 9 until week 17 when the Steelers were in a playoff fight. Bush is my favorite out of the two Devins from the draft and finished as an LB2 to White’s LB3 status.
2013 Round 2 Pick 46, Buffalo Bills, Kiko Alonso
Kiko Alonso has had a couple of good seasons. He was injured in his second season and then was shipped to Philadelphia as part of a deal for LeSean McCoy. He was injured and then traded to Miami where he resurrected his career putting together 3 good seasons. Miami decided to go with youth and Alonso ended up with the Saints where he played sparingly mainly in base sets. Four good seasons are better than most of the linebackers drafted here.
2014 Round 3 Pick 77, San Francisco 49ers, Chris Borland
Borland was a stud for one season. Then he shocked the NFL by announcing his retirement. Filling in for Navorro Bowman and Patrick Willis, Borland found success racking up tackles. He decided that head trauma and concussions weren’t worth an NFL job and walked away after just one season. Amazingly enough, he did most of his damage in 9 games that season.
2018 Round 3 Pick 70, San Francisco 49ers, Fred Warner
The 49ers struck gold again in the 3rd round with Fred Warner. Warner was forced into action after Reuben Foster’s injuries limited him and Warner became the leader and top linebacker in Santa Clara. The 49ers have seemingly always drafted linebackers well as they also recently drafted Dre Greenlaw in the 5th round in 2019. For the record the 49ers didn’t draft a linebacker in 2020 so don’t go digging for gold.
Rookie Linebacker 3s and 4s – Some Booms and Some Busts
I’m not going to go through every player on this list in-depth, but I’ve split them into three categories: Booms that went onto consistent scoring, busts that did well rookie season then fell flat, and players that are too young to gauge whether they are either.
2014 Round 1 Pick 5, Oakland Raiders, Khalil Mack (LB3) – Got the Raiders a ton of sacks and draft picks.
2012 Round 2 Pick 52, Tennessee Titans, Zach Brown (LB3) – Steady tackle numbers throughout his career.
2011 Round 1 Pick 2, Denver Broncos, Von Miller (LB4) – Depending on your scoring could have been higher.
2014 Round 1 Pick 9, Minnesota Vikings, Anthony Barr (LB4) – Hard to call him a bust, but not 1st round IDP production. We need the Barr category, steady production, but nothing special.
2010 Round 2 Pick 47, Arizona Cardinals, Daryl Washington (LB4) – Burned hot for 4 years and done.
2015 Round 2 Pick 45, Minnesota Vikings, Eric Kendricks (LB4) – Steady producer throughout his career so far.
2017 Round 2 Pick 57, Houston Texans, Zach Cunningham (LB4) – Another steady producer.
2011 Round 3 Pick 84, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Mason Foster (LB4) – Has had 4 good seasons and 3 disappointing seasons. Would still consider him a hit considering where you probably drafted foster in drafts in 2011.
2014 Round 3 Pick 73, Buffalo Bills, Preston Brown (LB4) – Brown had a good run and maximized his tackle opportunities for a few good seasons.
2010 Round 1 Pick 8, Oakland Raiders, Rolondo McClain (LB3) – 2 good seasons wasn’t what you expect from the #8 overall pick.
The Jury is Still Out:
2017 Round 1 Pick 21, Detroit Lions, Jarrad Davis (LB3) – Down 2019, but still a probable starter.
2019 Round 1 Pick 5, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Devin White (LB3) – 1 good year too early to tell.
Poor Rookie Linebacker Season, Good Career
These players weren’t great in their rookie season but went on to be very useful in dynasty and redraft.
2013 – Kevin Minter, Jon Bostic, and Jaime Collins
2018-2019 – Probably too early to project success in their careers. To be honest 2017 I was very generous.
The Thought They Were Going to Be Studs Rookie Linebackers:
This list is why I wanted to explore this topic in the first place. Players that we set high hopes on and they fell flat on their faces. Injuries or lack of opportunity, skill, or a combination of all three dashed the hopes of IDP players in rookie drafts.
2014 – Jeremiah Attaochu
*2019 – Rashan Gary
*2018 and 2019 are hard to say they were busts because of lack of time to prove either way
I’m not trying to tell you to fade drafting linebackers. What I am trying to share with you is that drafting linebackers doesn’t mean that they are plug and play Week 1 of their rookie season. The elite special talents will shine through, but also need the opportunities to see the field. Out of the 128 rookie linebackers drafted on day one or two of the draft about a quarter of them have seen success at a high level. So translating that to your rookie drafts you have about a one in four chance of hitting on a linebacker that will be a stud for your team. Not everyone can be Luke Kuechly and give you LB1 numbers every season he plays. There are far more guys that get hyped up that end up being cut from their own team and your fantasy team before they can even get off your taxi squad.
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