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Fantasy Football: The Invaluable Three-Down Linebacker on Each Team's Roster

Matt De Lima

There was a time when football players played both on offense and defense. This became known as “iron man” football. It doesn’t exist anymore at the pro level, but one of the few ways modern-day players show their versatility is the role of the three-down linebacker.

Also known as an “every-down” linebacker, what makes these guys special is they are trusted enough, talented enough, athletic enough (you get the idea), to almost never come off the field whether it's first-and-10 or third-and-long.

The NFL is shifting to a more pass-friendly style of play, and with it defenses have to adjust. This means defenses are more likely to have a third CB on the field, or using what is known as a “nickel” defense. This involves adding another defensive back to the formation, which means oftentimes a linebacker or d-lineman will have to come off the field. Identifying which LBs come off the field will help rank the value of each LB in IDP rankings. You can’t put up stats if you aren’t in the game!

Without further ado, let’s jump right into the three-down linebacker guide. Here I will list all of the three-down LBs for each team (if there are any), the player’s fantasy value, situation and any other need-to-know information.

(Note: Only LBs who play roughly 85% or more of snaps will be listed.)

ARIZONA CARDINALS

Jordan Hicks

Last year with the Eagles, Hicks missed four games from Weeks 12 to 15. When healthy from Weeks 1 to 11, he was on the field for nearly 100% of the snaps. He takes over at MLB for Josh Bynes, who always felt more like a below replacement-level player. Hicks is a borderline top 25 LB. (LB30)

ATLANTA FALCONS

Deion Jones

It doesn’t really get any better than Jones. Despite missing most of the 2018 season due to injury, the Falcons made Jones a rich man by signing him for a four-year, $57M contract extension. Jones is one of the best LBs in the game and you can bet if he’s healthy, he’s going to be on the field. One of the few LBs that you can count on as a stud and start him without a second thought. (LB2)

BALTIMORE RAVENS

Patrick Onwuasor

C.J. Mosley was the team’s lead MLB last season, but he’s moved on to the New York Jets. In his place, Onwuasor is his successor. Mosley played in nearly 100% of the Ravens’ snaps when healthy. We just need to see Onwuasor out there and doing it. Until then, I can’t treat him as a stud LB anywhere near the level of a guy like Mosley, who’s one of the best in the game. Consider Onwuasor a sleeper. (LB43)

BUFFALO BILLS

Tremaine Edmunds, Matt Milano

Between the two, fantasy owners want to focus on Edmunds. The second-year MLB was the 16th pick of the 2018 NFL Draft and he showed up in a big way as a rookie, posting 121 combined tackles, two sacks, 12 passes defended, two interceptions and two forced fumbles. Look for him to continue to grow into one of the best LBs in the game. Milano, on the other hand, doesn’t have the strong draft pedigree. He’s had to work his way up since coming into the league in 2017. He finished 2018 on injured reserve due to a broken fibula. He’s been back at 100% through OTAs and training camp but with Edmunds vacuuming up production, Milano’s upside is limited. (Edmunds LB9, Milano LB46)

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Luke Kuechly

If the term “every-down linebacker” were in the dictionary, there would be a picture of Kuechly alongside it. He’s been a force throughout his collegiate & pro career. There have been injuries along the way and his age is catching up with him. However, Kuechly remains one of the most dominant interior linebackers in the game. Kuechly isn’t putting up the monster stats of his youth anymore (171 combined tackles in 2014) so he’s teetering just on the edge of what I consider the elite tier of the position. (LB5)

CHICAGO BEARS

Roquan Smith, Danny Trevathan

You can’t do a whole lot better than this ILB duo. Smith blew up as a rookie last season, posting 122 combined tackles along with five sacks. Trevathan wasn’t too far behind with 102 combined tackles and two sacks. At 29 years old, Trevathan does have some age risk. Linebackers take on a lot of punishment with all the hits and collisions they are delivered each week. So I am fading him just slightly. On the other hand, Smith is just beginning his prime and has elite tier upside. Both players might even have better stats if the Bears didn’t have such a great defense. Bad defenses get to stay on the field longer! Finally, I have to mention Mack who has far more impact on the field than on the stat sheet. Not to say he doesn’t put up stats, but in fantasy, he doesn’t live up to his own hype unless he’s listed as a DE in your league. (Smith LB4, Trevathan LB29, Mack LB36)

CINCINNATI BENGALS

Nick Vigil

Vigil has been working up to this crescendo point of his career. After seeing plenty of playing time filling in for Vontaze Burfict over the years whether due to suspension or injuries, Vigil takes his spot at the center of this defense. We haven’t yet seen Vigil play close to three-down snaps over a full season, so we need him to stay healthy and stay productive. He’ll be closer to 85% snaps than 100%. (LB38)

CLEVELAND BROWNS

Christian Kirksey, Joe Schobert

Schobert came out of nowhere in 2017 with 144 combined tackles, three sacks and three forced fumbles. He took a slight step back in his per-game stats (nine tackles per game in 2017 reduced to 7.9 tackles per game in 2018). Now he’s facing pressure from two rookies (Mack Wilson and Sione Takitaki) for playing time. Kirksey, on the other hand, seems to have to his job on lockdown after sliding into the sam linebacker spot previously occupied by Jamie Collins a year ago. Look for Kirksey to blossom into a three-down LB. (Kirksey LB19, Schobert LB20)

Jim Cowsert/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/TNS via Getty Images

DALLAS COWBOYS

Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch

Smith needed a redshirt year back in 2016 after entering the league on torn ACL & MCL ligaments. Now with two seasons on his resume, we see the Cowboys' vision for the future finally reaching fruition. In that same vein, you have to applaud Dallas for their talent evaluation. Vander Esch went 19th overall in the 2018 NFL Draft and produced big-time stats as a rookie. Despite only starting 11 games last year, he finished with 140 combined tackles. The sky’s the limit for this duo. (Smith LB13, Vander Esch LB8)

DENVER BRONCOS

None

Von Miller and Bradley Chubb will likely stay on the field close to 75% of the time. However, neither of the team’s ILBs (Todd Davis & Josey Jewell) is all that great. This leads to the LBs coming off the field often and Denver relying on a lot of nickel and dime formations on defense. If your league scores more for tackles rather than sacks, then even Miller and Chubb are unlikely to crack your top 50 this season.

DETROIT LIONS

Jarrad Davis, Devon Kennard

Right off the bat, it’s worth noting Kennard is not a fantasy option. Despite playing on nearly 88% of defensive snaps last year, he only produced 46 combined tackles and seven sacks. Not quite enough to move the needle on draft day. On the other hand, in the same season, Davis took a small step forward statistically by registering 100 combined tackles and six sacks. I’d like to see a few more tackles considering he played 98.9% of the Lions’ snaps, but he’s a very good LB who deservedly sees a lot of playing time. A more than solid LB2 choice. (Davis LB21, Kennard LB74)

GREEN BAY PACKERS

Blake Martinez

In each of the last two seasons, Martinez has quickly established himself as one of the game’s top linebackers. Last year, he even added five sacks to his stat-line to go along with 144 combined tackles. Set him up as a starter in Week 1 and don’t look back. (LB6)

HOUSTON TEXANS

Zach Cunningham, Benardrick McKinney, Jadeveon Clowney

The Texans like their guys and they mostly stick with them on all three downs. Cunningham likely has the biggest potential to be a reliable IDP starter. However, McKinney has been steady in his own right although rarely spectacular. Clowney’s edge rush leads to a lot of hot and cold scoring so you’ll probably have trouble pinpointing games where he’ll blow up for multiple sacks and hits on the QB. (Cunningham LB18, McKinney LB37, Clowney LB44)

INDIANAPOLIS COLTS

Darius Leonard

The cream of the crop. The walking hit stick. This is the pinnacle of the position. Even though he missed one game, Leonard still led the league in combined tackles and solo tackles. Add in another seven sacks, two INTs, eight PDs and four forced fumbles. If you have Leonard on your team, you have the best IDP LB out there. A step back in production is possible, although this defense is built to funnel everything through Leonard. (LB1)

JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS

Myles Jack

Due to Telvin Smith taking the 2019 season off (huge blow to the IDP community as he was likely 100% owned across all IDP formats.), even more pressure falls on Jack. The former UCLA product played every single snap last year and while we’ve seen incremental progress in his stats, he’s still not quite there among the game’s best. He’s entering his fourth season at only 24 years old so I’m anticipating at least a modest leap in stats this season. (LB14)

KANSAS CITY CHIEFS

Anthony Hitchens

Hitchens was a replacement-level player in Dallas over the first four years of his career. In 2018, he moved to Kansas City and took a significant step forward in his production by publishing 135 combined tackles. He’s not the fastest or the flashiest, but he’s a very formidable player in a defense tailored to provide a lot of tackles to the inside linebackers. (LB23)

LOS ANGELES CHARGERS

None

Whether it be injuries or unfulfilled potential, the Chargers currently don’t have any LBs providing something close to three-down involvement. Jatavis Brown and Denzel Perryman likely lead the way here but both LBs will be lucky to finish among the 50 best-scoring LBs this season.

LOS ANGELES RAMS

Cory Littleton

A promising sleeper last offseason, Littleton blew up with 125 combined tackles, three INTs, 13 PDs, four sacks and one INT return for a TD. He was the only Rams LB to see more than 70% of snaps (95.4% to be exact). The LBs around him are new this year (Clay Matthews from Green Bay, Dante Fowler from Jacksonville and Micah Kiser is a rookie from a year ago). So I expect Littleton to function as the common denominator and more or less match his stats from last season. (LB11)

MIAMI DOLPHINS

Kiko Alonso

Alonso has been steady since arriving in Miami back in 2016. He’s had at least 114 combined tackles in each of his three years with the Dolphins. He’ll probably never again match that magical rookie campaign where he put up 159 combined tackles and two sacks. However, he’s a solid LB3 for fantasy owners looking for a reliable name at the back end of their drafts. (LB27)

MINNESOTA VIKINGS

Eric Kendricks

Now entering his fifth season, we know what to expect from Kendricks. He’s been reliable but never a booming player or an undeniably great player. He seems to miss a game or two per year but he does play 90% or more of snaps when healthy. The problem is that the Vikings always have such great defensive lines that a lot of production never even gets to Kendricks. Another Vikings LB, Anthony Barr, is close to an every-down LB but he is closer to 75% snaps and that’s not quite enough to make the cut. (LB22)

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

Kyle Van Noy

Van Noy is a pocket knife. He can do a little bit of everything but you’d rather have a real knife over a pocket knife. A real screwdriver from that little nubby screwdriver. The stat-line certainly doesn’t jump off the page (92 combined tackles, 3.5 sacks and one INT). That said, Van Noy did play in over 90% of snaps but he’s a non-factor in most IDP formats. (LB51)

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Demario Davis

Now 30 years old, Davis’s best days may already be behind him. And really, those best days were never that special. In his first season with the Saints last year, the stats took a step back from his career-best season in 2017. He posted a solid 110 combined tackles, five sacks and two forced fumbles. A small improvement this year puts him back in the LB2 mix, but then again, a small drop and he’s probably on the waiver wire. I’d prefer to go with youth than take a shot on Davis. (LB31)

Al Bello/Getty Images

NEW YORK GIANTS

Alec Ogletree

He came into the NFL red-hot as a rookie in 2013, but all those big plays have added up. Ogletree missed three games last year and has only one full 16-game season since 2015. If given 16 games, he could push for the top 10 at the position. Unfortunately, the Giants haven’t been known to produce excellent IDP LBs over the years despite Ogletree’s inherent talent. Look for a very good season regardless as the Giants are lacking at the LB position. (LB17)

NEW YORK JETS

C.J. Mosley

Mosley has been one of the elite inside linebackers for years now, but you should always exercise some concern when a stud leaves his original team. He had about a 20% drop in his tackles in 2018 compared to 2017. It doesn’t help that he went from 98.4% of snaps down to 84.5% as well. He did miss a game, but a 15% decrease in snaps is more than one game’s worth. The Jets losing their other starting ILB, Avery Williamson, helps Mosley. My main concern is that this front-seven is pretty awful, so there’s going to be big pressure on Mosley to do it all. I much prefer all the guys under the age of 25 in the top 10 and Mosley certainly isn’t that. (LB7)

OAKLAND RAIDERS

Tahir Whitehead, Vontaze Burfict

This is probably the oldest LB crew in the game. Burfict, Whitehead and the other starter Brandon Marshall are all 29. This group is likely to cannibalize itself and distribute stats so evenly that none will be close to an exceptional IDP option. Between age concerns, past injuries, a forgettable defense as a whole … I’ll be passing on this group. (Whitehead LB32, Burfict LB53)

PHILADELPHIA EAGLES

Nigel Bradham

Bradham saw 89.5% of snaps last year and with the departure of Jordan Hicks to Arizona, the middle of this offense is wide open. Zach Brown joins from Washington and while he had a couple of good runs in 2016 and 2017, he seems to be falling apart at the seams and doesn’t feel like a viable IDP candidate. Bradham will soon be 30 and he’s only cracked 100 combined tackles once in his career (2014). The former Florida State Seminole is on my radar this year. (LB64)

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

Devin Bush

If there’s one position that appears to have instant impact potential, it’s at linebacker. So I’m very high on Bush this year. He should jump right into the production that Ryan Shazier tragically had to leave behind and the Steelers could not replace a year ago. With Bush seeing more dependable playing time inside, I foresee a slight decline in T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree’s snap totals, 86.4% and 83.2%, respectively. With that, Bush immediately jumps in and will challenge for LB1 status. (LB15)

SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS

Kwon Alexander, Fred Warner

Alexander is now over two seasons removed from his breakout 2016 season (145 combined tackles, three sacks). He’s missed 14 games over the last two seasons and now finds himself in San Francisco. The 49ers are counting on Alexander to pick up where Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman left off all those years ago. Only 25 years old, there’s still youth to fall back on. Warner, on the other hand, is just getting started. A 2018 rookie, he hit the ground running with 124 combined tackles. Look for Alexander and Warner to be over 95% in snaps played. (Alexander LB12, LB35)

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS

Bobby Wagner

Wagner has been about as elite and consistent as they come. He’s had over 133 combined tackles in all but one season. Wagner has over 90% snaps played in each of the last four seasons. With Seattle opting to use a lot of pass-rushers on the edges with their LBs, look for Wagner to stay on the field like usual. Despite being 29 years old now, Wagner has only missed one game in the last three seasons. He's elite on paper, but his age risk is very real. (LB3)

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Lavonte David, Devin White

In a couple of years, we might view Lavonte David right up there with Derrick Brooks in terms of all-time great Bucs LBs. Maybe not, but he has had an incredible career. I shouldn’t talk about him as though his career is over, but there is some risk here. David recently had surgery to clear up his knee and the Bucs did bring in Deone Bucannon, who spent the last five seasons in Arizona. Presuming he plays 16 games, David is still a top 10 LB in my book. 

This year’s draft most exciting LB prospect just might be Devin White. He’s a raw athlete with upside galore. Once he learns the game and improves his instincts, he’ll be an elite menace on defense. I think he’ll easily match some of last year’s rookies like Roquan Smith, Trumaine Edmunds and Leighton Vander Esch. (David LB10, White LB16)

TENNESSEE TITANS

Jayon Brown, Rashaan Evans

Brown made a big leap in his second season, and it helped that he went from 45% of 2017 snaps to 81.3% of 2018 snaps. We’ll see another uptick in his plays as Evans is groomed into the opposite ILB spot. I think after a few games, Evans will become a three-down LB. So he may not finish the year with the right criteria; he’ll be there once the season gets rolling. The Titans have a lot of age on the field in guys like Jurrell Casey and Cameron Wake, so I imagine they keep their interior LBs on the field when they shift into nickel. It’s tough to speak on specifics so I can’t give Brown or Evans a strong ranking just yet, but the potential is there. (Brown LB24, Evans LB45)

WASHINGTON REDSKINS

None

Washington released Mason Foster and he looked to be the only lock at the inside linebacker spots. Shaun Dion Hamilton is a popular sleeper, but he only played in 12.5% of snaps last year. The Redskins also have Jon Bostic, who’s been OK but never great as a pro. Ryan Kerrigan will probably lead the team in snaps played but he only has value in leagues that place a big reward on sacks. (Hamilton LB39, Bostic LB52, Kerrigan LB60)

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