Punch Drunk Wonderland

3-4 Inside Linebackers to watch in 2014

I recently put out a Fantasy IDP Best Practices that mentions the value of the inside linebacker in a 3-4 defense. These are some of the most reliable linebackers when it comes to fantasy production. However, there are several factors to consider. For example, the two inside backers in a 3-4 system are often competing with one another for tackles. That can mean that fantasy relevant numbers may not be optimal for two ILBs on one team.  That’s not to say that it’s impossible for both backers on a team to be good IDP options though.  Below is a look at some 3-4 Inside Linebackers to keep an eye on in 2014.

Patrick Willis (ILB, San Francisco 49ers)

Patrick WillisWillis has suffered through some injury woes in the last few seasons, but he continues to be a top producer when healthy. For the first half of 2014 he’s going to be asked to pick up the slack left behind by Navorro Bowman being injured, so he should be a big producer. Willis has been a top 2 inside linebacker based on PFF’s overall position ratings for the last 7 seasons.

Navorro Bowman (ILB, San Francisco 49ers)

navorro-bowman-2013-02Willis’ counterpart on the inside for the Niners will be out for at least the first 8 weeks of the 2014 season, so his value is extremely diminished. That said, he’s been one of the top producing inside linebackers in the NFL over the last two seasons, so that means he’s worth picking up at a value and stashing until he’s healthy if you have the roster room.

Michael Wilhoite (ILB, San Francisco 49ers)

michael-wilhoite-49ers-01Wilhoite stands to benefit from the injury of Bowman for the first part of the season. He seems to be the front-runner in the position batter, but he’s going to have to hold off rookie Chris Borland and Nick Moody. There will likely be a rotation at the position, but Wilhoite is going to get the opportunity to shine. He’ll be worth watching.

Derrick Johnson (ILB, Kansas City Chiefs)

Derrick JohnsonJohnson has been a perennial top IDP option, and he should remain an elite producer in KC’s 3-4 defense. The word on the street is that new Defensive Coordinator Bob Sutton is installing a more aggressive version of the 3-4 in attempt to generate more takeaways. Regardless of any system change, Johnson remains a top 10 inside linebacker.

Daryl Smith (ILB, Baltimore Ravens)

daryl-smith-ravens-01At 32, Smith is getting fairly long in the tooth, but that doesn’t seem to be stopping his potential for production. He’s in a good defensive system for success and should continue to put up good numbers as long as he’s able to stay healthy.

C.J. Mosley (ILB, Baltimore Ravens)

Baltimore Ravens Rookie MinicampAt this point it looks like the rookie has surpassed Arthur Brown for the starting ILB spot next to Daryl Smith. Mosley is an athletic freak with huge upside. He’s a prototypical Ravens linebacker. His star is likely going to be on the rise quickly, so keep an eye on this kid.  He’s easily the top rookie linebacker in the 2014 rookie class.

Jerrell Freeman (ILB, Indianapolis Colts)

Colts LB, Jerrell FreemanFreeman has elevated to very high level at inside linebacker for the Colts. He’s been a top 20 linebacker in terms of PFF’s overall rating in his first two NFL seasons, and he’s been a solid IDP option. There is some concern that D’Qwell Jackson’s arrival in Indy will lead to too much competition for tackles; therefore, decreasing Freeman’s potential for elite IDP production. I don’t think it’s going to be an issue. I expect both Freeman and Jackson to have nice seasons.

D’Qwell Jackson (ILB, Indianapolis Colts)

dqwell-jackson-colts-02Jackson has seen plenty of time during his NFL career on the top IDP lists, and he’s getting a new start at age 30 in Indianapolis. In recent years he’s struggled in run defense, but he’s always been solid in coverage. He should be able to get plenty of tackle opportunities and assuming the theory that he and Freeman will chop up each other’s production doesn’t hold up, I expect he’ll have a good 2014 season.

Karlos Dansby (ILB, Cleveland Browns)

karlos-dansby-browns-01Dansby had a monster 2013 season that very few expected. Now with the Browns, he looks to show that he can remain an elite inside linebacker at age 32. Dansby is going to be a key piece in the 3-4 system and should be an every down ILB. Assuming he can stay healthy he should be a top 15 IDP linebacker option for 2014.

Christian Kirksey (ILB, Cleveland Browns)

christian-kirksey-browns-01The rookie is coming into a system that will put him to good use along side Karlos Dansby. All indications are pointing to Kirksey pushing out Craig Robertson for the starting spot.  He’s a Pettine darling and is being groomed for a big role on the defense, so expect him to have great upside.

Lawrence Timmons (ILB, Pittsburgh Steelers)

lawrence-timmons-01Timmons is another perennially consistent producer, and I expect him to have a very nice 2014 season. He’s good for 100+ tackles year in and year out, and he may be seeing increased opportunities for big plays as the team relies a little bit more on his versatility this season.

Ryan Shazier (ILB, Pittsburgh Steelers)

ryan-shazier-steelers-01The rookie has great speed and he’s likely going to be in a position to tally a decent number of tackles this season. He’s not a big hitter, but his wheels give him an edge up in terms of both run and pass defense. I have him as the #2 rookie linebacker for 2014.

Curtis Lofton (ILB, New Orleans Saints)

curtis-lofton-01I admit, I never give Lofton the love he deserves. For whatever reason he’s never wowed me despite the fact that he’s an extremely reliable linebacker. He’s been durable and consistent, and deserves more recognition than I typically send his way. He’s never missed a game in his 6 year career and he’s only had two seasons in which he fell below 120 tackles. Those are excellent stats. Call him the London Fletcher of my list. All the reliability and not enough love. Expect Lofton to have another good season.

Wesley Woodyard (ILB, Tennessee Titans)

Wesley WoodyardWoodyard is coming into a new 3-4 defense in Tennessee after having a solid last three years in Denver. His addition could very well be marking the end of the Colin McArthy experiment as McArthy went from potential rising star in 2011 to afterthought by 2013 due to injury and poor production. Woodyard will be competing with Zach Brown and Moise Fokou for one of the starting ILB spots, and he should win the job. With the Titans’ run stop woes, he could see plenty of opportunities to tally tackles. Woodyard is definitely worth keeping an eye on for 2014.

Brian Cushing (ILB, Houston Texans)

NFL: SEP 27 Jaguars at TexansCushing has been a great IDP option when he’s been healthy.  That said, he hasn’t played a full season since 2011 and there are definitely some health concerns. He’s going to be playing a very strong Texans defense in 2014 that is going to give him the opportunity for success, so he should have significant upside and could come at a value because of the injury concerns.

Paul Worrilow (ILB, Atlanta Falcons)

Paul-Worrilow-2013-02Worrilow becomes the de facto leader on the defense with the season ending injury to Sean Weatherspoon. He snuck onto the IDP radar last season as an undrafted free agent to fill in for injuries and produced very well. Now in his second year, the team is going to rely on him to produce even more.

Joplo Bartu (ILB, Atlanta Falcons)

joplo-bartu-2013-01Bartu is also going to benefit from ‘Spoon’s injury in Atlanta. He’s going to be on the inside track for the starting position and he has a good deal of upside. He’s an athletic and versatile linebacker that can be moved around in the system, and he’s good in both run and pass coverage. Look for him to be a very nice under-the-radar ILB for 2014.

Donald Butler (ILB, San Diego Chargers)

Kansas City Chiefs v San Diego ChargersButler signed a new deal for the long haul with the Chargers and stands to be the centerpiece of the defense for many years to come.  He’s been good for 75+ tackles in each of his first three NFL seasons, and there’s no reason to think he won’t build on a respectable start to his career. He’s a top 30 linebacker for 2014.

Manti Te’o (ILB, San Diego Chargers)

manti-teo-chargers-01Te’o had limited opportunity and production in his rookie season, but he stands to take a leap in year two. A year removed from the media circus that came along with the Catfish fiasco, Te’o should be able to come into his own.  At the end of the day he’s a solid linebacker with upside.

Mychal Kendricks (ILB, Philadelphia Eagles)

Eagles LB, Mychal KendricksI’ve gotta say, I love this guy. While DeMeco Ryans is currently the veteran leader on the defense, Kendricks is being groomed for a huge role. He’s a solid top 20 linebacker with great athleticism and range. Nothing but upside in 2014.

DeMeco Ryans (ILB, Philadelphia Eagles)

demeco-ryans-eagles-01Ryans is the defensive captain for Philadelphia and will be sharing play calling responsibilities with Mychal Kendricks. He played on 96 percent of defensive snaps for the Eagles in 2013. At age 30, he’s entering the back end of his career, but he has plenty of potential for solid production.

Perry Riley (ILB, Washington Redskins)

Redskins LB, Perry RileyWith London Fletcher officially retired, it’s time for Riley to take the full step into the spotlight for the Redskins. Riley isn’t exactly a thumper, but he’s rangy and is decent in both run and pass defense. I’ve been high on Riley for the last few seasons and he hasn’t stepped up as I would’ve liked.  I expect him to emerge in 2014.

Kevin Minter (ILB, Arizona Cardinals)

Cardinals LB, Kevin MinterMinter and Larry Foote are pretty much the only game in town for the Cardinals defense this season, so there’s nothing but opportunity for success.  The departure of Karlos Dansby and the suspension of Daryl Washington mean the second year player is going to be propelled into a 3-down leader role on the defense. Minter has huge breakout IDP potential for 2014.

David Harris (ILB, New York Jets)

david-harris-01Harris has quietly been a reliable journeyman for much of his career. He’s been good for around 100 tackles year in and year out, and he plays a pivotal veteran role on Rex Ryan’s hard-nosed defense. You don’t hear his name mentioned much in elite IDP discussion, but he’s certainly worth noting. At the end of the day, you can’t ask for much more than the reliability you get with Harris.

Demario Davis (ILB, New York Jets)

demario-davis-01Davis had a respectable 2013 season as he piled up over 100 tackles and tallied a sack and interception. Much like his ILB counterpart in Jersey-B, he’s not a sexy IDP choice, but he certainly has upside. Rex Ryan’s defense is tough and it’s going to bring out the best in his linebackers. Keep an eye out for Davis to have a nice year.



K. Smelser About K. Smelser
Kelly Smelser is Owner/Senior Writer for Punch Drunk Wonderland and PDFantasy Sports. Architect of the PDW fantasy football world and general spinster of NFL and Fantasy Football news and analysis. Long walks on the beach, sunsets, and other such niceties are also fine...