Off-Season Tracker: LB

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Off-Season Tracker: LB

Welcome to the 2020 Free Agency Review: IDP-style. We break down the major moves this offseason by position. The articles are ordered by players changing teams ("New Homes") and by players sticking with their 2019 teams ("Staying Put"), and players are ordered by their potential fantasy impact in each section. Don’t see your favorite DE or OLB? Be sure to check out the EDGE article for free agent pass-rushers.

New Homes

Cory Littleton (LV) — One of the top free agents signed a three-year, $35.25 million deal with the Raiders

Fantasy Points: One of the most coveted free agent linebackers, Littleton has all the tools to play a prominent 3-down role in today’s NFL. The Raiders are getting Littleton’s prime years (he’s 26) and will pair him with the solid-if-not-underrated Nick Kwiatkoski to hopefully create some consistency in a previously unstable area of the Raiders D.

Littleton is a plus defender in coverage and against the run. In 2019 as a member of the Rams, Littleton posted 134 tackles (78 solo), and racked up tons of big plays, including 9 PD, 6 TFL, 2 FF, 4 FR, 2 INTs, and 3.5 sacks. His 2018 numbers were similar: 125 tackles (90 solo), 13 PD, 9 TFL, 3 INTs, and 4 sacks. Littleton should retain his LB1 status, as his role, his talent, and his age are all in the sweet spot for IDP.

Joe Schobert (Jac) — The former Brown signed a five-year, $53.75 million deal with Jacksonville

Fantasy Points: With Telvin Smith skipping town and Myles Jack disappointing so far, the Jaguars were in desperate need of an every-down LB to stabilize their once-dominant D. Enter Schobert, a 26-year-old every-down player who kept that role in Cleveland even with studs like Jamie Collins and Christian Kirksey surrounding him.

Schobert has been a double-digit tackle guy for three years straight, posting 144, 103, and 133 tackles in his three years as a starter (the 103 tackle season was over 13 games, as injury cut his season short). He hadn’t been much of a big-play guy, but last season he raised his game with 4 INTs, 9 PD, 7 TFL, 2 sacks, and 2 FF. The Jags will hand him the keys to a rebuilding defense, and they’ll be hoping for the big plays to keep coming, but happy as long as the tackles keep coming. Fantasy owners should have the same expectations.

Blake Martinez (NYG) — The Giants signed their centerpiece LB to a three-year, $30.75 million contract.

Fantasy Points: In his three years as a full-time starter for Green Bay, Martinez was a tackle monster of the highest order. With 144, 144, and 155 tackles over the last three years (including over 90 solos in each of those years), he’s been one of the most reliable top-end producers for fantasy. The knock on Martinez has been his ability to produce big plays. He’s averaged just 3 sacks, 4 PD, and less than 1 INT and FF over three years. Yeesh.

Recently, Martinez said that the lack of big plays and abundance of tackles was due to his role in DC Mike Pettine’s defense in Green Bay. It remains to be seen if the Giants hand him a similar role, or if he has the opportunity (and the necessary acumen) for more big plays.

Either way, we’ll take those tackle numbers all day as a rock-solid LB1, which is his most likely projection based on his skills and Big Blue’s needs.

Christian Kirksey (GB) — Kirksey signed a two-year, $16 million deal to presumably take over at MLB for the Packers.

Fantasy Points: A few years ago, Kirksey was a strong fantasy asset. He led the Browns defense and racked up 148 and 138 tackles in 2016 and 2017. During that stretch, he started every game and had just come into his own as a young ILB. But injuries derailed his last two seasons, playing seven games in 2018 and just two games in 2019.

The Packers were entering free agency with the prospect of signing incumbent MLB Blake Martinez, who was reportedly asking for a multi-year deal worth $10 million a season, and instead elected to sign Kirksey to a shorter and cheaper deal than what Martinez eventually landed from the Giants. Kirksey’s first three seasons (including his career-best season in 2016) were played under then HC Mike Pettine, who is now Green Bay’s DC. This assuredly played into the decision to bet on Kirksey’s health. Kirksey already knows the Pettine scheme and excelled in it. But can he stay healthy? If so, he’s got the same LB1 potential as Martinez did in this defense.

Nick Kwiatkoski (LV) — The Raiders fortified their LB corps by signing one of the most underrated LBs in the game to a three-year, $21 million deal.

Fantasy Points: It must have been cold there in the shadows of Roquan Smith and Danny Trevathan. Kwiatkoski earned consistently above-average marks from PFF in 2019 and 2017 as a fill-in for Chicago’s starting LB duo. The Bears have been blessed to have a ton of talent in their linebacking corps over the last few seasons. The Raiders? Well, they have not been blessed. Enter Kwiatkoski, who should finally be handed a starting role next to newly-signed Cory Littleton. And while yes, it will be chilly in its own right behind an elite player like Littleton, Kwiatkoski should be plenty of time in the sun as a two or three-down player.

Jamie Collins (Det) — Collins reunites with Matt Patricia on a three-year, $30 million deal.

Fantasy Points: The term “hybrid” gets bandied about these days in a multitude of ways, but Collins is truly a hybrid linebacker. Collins split his time almost 50/50 as an edge rusher and a box LB last season with the Patriots, racking up a nice blend of 7 sacks and 81 tackles. His usage was similar a few years back with New England when Patricia was his DC, as it was in his two seasons with the Browns, so we can expect a similar split going forward.

The Lions are not short on linebackers. MLB Jarrad Davis will have Christian Jones and Tahlani Tavai orbiting him, so Collins may play more off the edge, or he may supplant Jones and Tavai as the starter next to Davis. But most likely it will be a mess that will need sorting before we can put our finger on where Collins will play, and how much he will play.

Tahir Whitehead (Car) — The Panthers plug a big hole with Whitehead, who signed a one-year, $2.5 million deal with Carolina.

Fantasy Points: It’s a trick question. How do you fill the shoes left by Luke Kuechly? Yeah, THAT question. The trick is, you can’t. Players like Kuechly are once-in-a-generation talents for a franchise. Instead, you find a fill-in until you can develop or draft his replacement. The Panthers had hoped that Shaq Thompson might fill the void, but he’s been better suited for the old Thomas Davis WLB role.

Whitehead is an established veteran who has played both the MIKE and the WILL and can handily hold this defense together. He’s posted 100 tackles in four years straight and has missed only one game during that stretch. He’s much better against the run than in coverage, so he might not play every down. He also might not last as a starter all season if the Panthers draft an LB early in the draft, or if Jermaine Carter, Jr. takes a step forward. Whitehead won’t put up Kuechly numbers (particularly not with that dismal tackle crew), but he can be a solid LB2.

Patrick Onwuasor (NYJ) — The former Raven signed with the Jets in the hopes of earning a starting role.

Fantasy Points: Onwuasor was supposed to step in for former Ravens 3-down LB C.J. Mosely, but that stint was short-lived. Injuries and ineffectiveness sidelined Onwuasor’s 2019 season, playing 14 games, but starting just 6 of them. He hasn’t surpassed 50% usage since 2017 (when he recorded a career-high 90 tackles). Speaking of Mosely, these two will now be teammates again.

Onwuasor looks ticketed to be insurance for both Mosely and Avery Williamson, as both veterans are recovering from injury. If one or both aren’t ready for Week One (whenever that ends up being), Onwuasor could see a significant role early, but it’s doubtful.

De’Vondre Campbell (Ari) — Campbell goes West on a one-year deal worth $6 million.

Fantasy Points: That $6 million could turn into $8.5 million if Campbell hits come big incentives. He was a solid-but-inconsistent player for the Falcons, lining up on the weak side next to MLB Deion Jones. Now he’ll resume that role next to MLB Jordan Hicks. In his three years as a starter, Campbell posted at least 90 tackles per season, though some of that was replacing Jones when he was injured.

Although Campbell has been an average run and pass defender, he did develop a nose for the football last season. His 2 INTs, 5 PD, 3 FF, and 6 TFL were all career highs. The Cardinals are likely to try and use him more as a Swiss Army knife than a regular box defender, if they use him much at all. Signing a 26-year-old to a one-year deal does not translate to a ton of confidence from the front office. Campbell needs the rest of free agency and the draft to go his way to find himself on the field enough to be fantasy relevant.

Thomas Davis (Was) — The veteran ILB adds some stability to an inexperienced LB corps, signing a one-year, $3.5 million contract with Washington.

Fantasy Points: Davis revived his lengthy career in the California sunshine last season, posting 112 tackles on an 83% snap share. TD spent several years posting triple-digit tackles in Carolina under then HC Ron Rivera, and will now get to play for Rivera again in Washington. What’s different is that Father Time has picked up another year on the 15-year veteran. And Father Time never loses. Davis is 37 and can't be expected to keep this ridiculous run of dominance up for much longer.

Washington has a few promising ILBs in Shaun Dion-Hamilton, Cole Holcomb, and oh yeah there’s Reuben Foster (who missed all of 2019). Jon Bostic is also in that LB group as well, so it’s hard to see Davis getting that 80%+ snap share on a rebuilding team. He’s likely some veteran depth and a strong locker room presence who knows Rivera’s defensive scheme like the back of his hand. That last part might be the saving grace that leads him to leapfrogging the youngsters on the field more than expected. But it’s not wise to bet on that lasting long. Father Time remains undefeated.

Nick Vigil (LAC) — The Chargers added some much-needed dept by signing Vigil to a one-year, $2.4 million contract.

Fantasy Points: Vigil was asked to do a lot of things in Cincinnati, some he wasn’t ready for. The Bengals linebacking corps suffered several injuries, inconsistent play, and well, they had to handle Vontaze Burfict. The Chargers have had their own share of disappointing linebacker issues, but last season Thomas Davis settled things down a bit for the Bolts. Davis is now in Washington but the Chargers have Denzel Perryman holding down the fort. Vigil will be battling Kyzir White and Drue Tranquill for snaps, so unless we see something clear where Vigil emerges as an every-down player (or at the least a two-down player), it’s hard to get excited about his fantasy prospects.

Vigil did improve toward the end of last season, so perhaps the Chargers are banking on that improvement to push him into a larger role. But with stud safety Derwin James playing a good portion of snaps in the box, there’s just not likely enough snaps on paper there for Vigil.

A.J. Klein (Buf) — Klein signed a three-year $18 million deal with Buffalo.

Fantasy Points: After backing up Luke Kuechly - and ultimately underwhelming when replacing Kuechly in spot starts - Klein left Carolina and carved out a role in New Orleans. That role was a mish-mosh of edge rusher, MLB, slot defender, and special teams. He was subpar in most facets other than pass rushing. This appears to be a depth signing, as Matt Milano and Tremaine Edmunds were capable of holding down the two ILB spots on this defense. We didn’t see Klein having much value replacing Kuechly, nor much value when he went to New Orleans, and we see nothing here to change our minds.

Jake Ryan (Bal) — The Ravens add a little depth to a very thin ILB crew, signing Ryan to a one-year deal.

Fantasy Points: Ryan hasn’t recorded a tackle since 2017. He was injured all of 2018, then was technically active on the Jaguars for two games (though he was invisible) before he was injured again and then released at the end of the year. Never a full-time starter, Ryan was a 50-80 tackle ILB for the Packers when healthy. But he is just 28 and if he can remain healthy, he could play his way into some significant snaps. It’s a longshot, but the door is wide open for Ryan if he can stay out of the trainer’s room.

Staying Put

Danny Trevathan (Chi) — Trevathan re-signs with Chicago for three years and $21.75 million.

Fantasy Points: One of the more underrated LBs in the game, Trevathan has been a triple-digit tackle threat when healthy. It’s the “when healthy” that has been the issue. Trevathan has played 16 games just twice in his eight-year career. In those two seasons, he’s posted 129 and 102 tackles. He also posted 109 tackles in a 15-game season. The good part is one of those full seasons was 2018. The bad part is the other one was back in 2012. In nine games last season, DT racked up 70 tackles (50 solo). That extrapolates to 124 tackles over 16 games.

This situation might look murky, but we think it’s pretty clear: expect Trevathan to put up low-end LB1 numbers when he’s in, but expect him to miss some time. He just turned 30, and all those missed games have likely saved his legs some wear-and-tear.

David Mayo (NYG) — Mayo stays with the Giants on a three-year contract worth $8.4 million.

Fantasy Points: Mayo defines inconsistency. He’s been dominant against the run and weak in coverage. He’s also been weak against the run and dominant in coverage. We’re honestly not sure which player Mayo is, except for an inconsistent one. But having switched DCs for the last two seasons, and only earning a starting job last season, there’s still plenty of time for Mayo to put it all together. He’s currently ticketed for the spot next to new MLB Blake Martinez, but the draft could change that. He’s a dynasty stash and a backend starter in deep leagues until/unless something changes.

Justin has been holding down the IDP fort for John Hansen and the crew since 2015. In addition to projections and articles, he also hosts an all-IDP podcast called “The IDP Corner,” where he is joined by his fellow FantasyPoints IDP contributor Thomas Simons, along with other special guests.

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