In this series, we are going to look at the top 3 rookies from each position that will make their mark on the league from year one. From the Dynasty perspective, we focus mainly on talent, but if you need a contributor right away from this rookie class, you need to look for opportunity. We will focus on linebackers in this article that have the best chance to make an impact this season for your IDP squads. You can read the past installments for Defensive Tackles and Defensive Ends.
Tremaine Edmunds, Buffalo Bills
Tremaine Edmunds landed in the sweetest spot possible getting drafted by the Buffalo Bills with the 16th pick of the 1st round. Edmunds is a 6’5” 253 lb linebacker from Virginia Tech. Edmunds rose up draft boards throughout the pre-draft process and with his draft position with Buffalo skyrocketed up fantasy drafts from a mid-third round top 2-3 IDPs off the board to in some cases a 1st round selection and 1st IDP off the board. I also adjusted my rankings to reflect Edmunds as my 1A for rookie linebackers.
The main reason IDP fanatics are excited about Edmunds, besides his talent, is a clear path to the middle linebacker spot for a favorable stat crew in Buffalo. Preston Brown manned the middle for the Bills last season, but he moved on in free agency to sign with the Bengals. Brown played 99% of the defensive snaps, 1,098. A massive amount by any player and he was productive in that role.
The other linebackers split time at the weak and strong side with Lorenzo Alexander playing 61% of the snaps, Ramon Humber playing 51%, and Matt Milano playing 41%. Buffalo did not sign anyone of note to take starting time away from Alexander or Milano who currently project to be the outside linebackers for the Bills. I know it might sound crazy, but I can see Edmunds playing 95-99 percent of the snaps this season. They didn’t draft him in the first round to sit on the bench.
Preston Brown had a career-high 84 tackles and 60 assists last season as the Bills’ middle (MIKE) linebacker. I expect Edmunds to take over that role and to have similar production to Brown. He may not get a full complement of snaps like Brown did in 2017, but head coach Sean McDermott had quite a nice MLB when he was the defensive coordinator for the Carolina Panthers in Luke Kuechly. How did Kuechly fare as a rookie MLB under coach McDermott? Started all 16 games and had 103 solo tackles and 63 assists. My prediction for Edmunds is 90 tackles and 50 assists which would put him as LB7 in tackles for 2017. Preston Brown led the league in combined tackles last season, so this is a prime spot for fantasy points.
Roquan Smith, Chicago Bears
Roquan Smith was the first “linebacker” off the board if you don’t count Bradley Chubb who was listed as a defensive end on draft night. Smith shined in the college playoff games against Oklahoma and Alabama putting his athleticism on display on the national stage. Smith is a 6’1” 236 lb menace to offenses. The Bears have used draft capital on the linebacker position in recent years, but not on the inside.
You could argue that the Bears have been looking for a man in the middle since Brian Urlacher retired. Jon Bostic, D.J. Williams, Christian Jones, Shea McClellin, Nick Kwaitkoski, Jerrell Freeman, and Danny Trevathan have all be drafted or brought in, but injuries, suspensions and lack of talent have doomed them all from being the captain on defense the team needs. The Bears thought Jerrell Freeman would be the answer to their linebacker issue in 2016, but two suspensions and a season-ending injury were too much for the Bears to deal with. In 2016 they also brought in Danny Trevathan as the team was switching to a 3-4 scheme and needed 2 inside linebackers. Injuries ended his season in 2016 and in 2017 the only memorable play Trevathan had was a cheap shot on Davante Adams, which he was suspended a game for.
Let’s be perfectly honest here, the Bears did not use the 8th pick overall for Roquan to learn behind somebody. He’s going to play and should see nearly 100% of the snaps. Danny Trevathan is still tabbed to start beside Smith, but there is very little competition for snaps besides Nick Kwaitkoski. So like I said, Roquan will play and play quite a lot.
The Bear’s inside linebackers accounted for 158 solo tackles, 70 assists, and 6 sacks. Since the Bears will continue Vic Fangio’s 3-4 scheme we can expect similar production from the pair of inside backers and Roquan Smith and Danny Trevathan will probably share the stats. If Roquan Smith was able to amass 70 tackles and 35 assists, that would be a successful rookie season. In fact, it would be better than any of the rookies in 2017. I think he can achieve that feat due to the expected playing time. Still, 60 tackles and 25 assists would be a good rookie season if he doesn’t play 100% of snaps.
Darius Leonard, Indianapolis Colts
The Indianapolis Colts traded down from the 3rd overall pick and really helped their team by accumulating extra picks to help out a team starving for talent. One of those picks, while not directly from the Jets at 35th overall, was Darius Leonard, the FCS product from South Carolina State. At 6’2” 234 lbs, Leonard vaulted his draft stock after an impressive Reese’s Senior Bowl performance racking up 14 tackles in the game.
The Colts changed coaches over the offseason and brought in Matt Eberflus from the Dallas Cowboys to run the defense. He brings a scheme change to a 4-3 with him and that was reflected in the way the Colts drafted this season. Last season the Colts had two players manning the middle, Jon Bostic and Antonio Morrison. Bostic and Morrison played most of the snaps with Bostic at 85% and Morrison at 75%. Jon Bostic has moved on to Pittsburgh leaving Antonio Morrison as the only roadblock to MLB snaps for Leonard. Morrison played and started 15 games last season. His tackle numbers were okay but made zero impact plays. He had 1 pass defensed, zero sacks, zero interceptions, zero forced fumbles or recoveries. I feel that even if Morrison plays the middle, there will be an opportunity at weakside linebacker, which is where Sean Lee played in the scheme Eberflus is expected to carry with him from Dallas.
Out of all the linebackers in this article, Leonard is the most difficult to project. He hasn’t been “crowned” a starter, but even though he wasn’t a 1st round selection, the Colts used a high 2nd on him. The Colts don’t have a lot of talent on defense and Leonard should see plenty of time on the field. I can see him playing at least 66% of the snaps and 60 tackles. Even at weakside linebacker Sean Lee only played 60% of the snaps for the Cowboys and collected 70 tackles. I’m not claiming Leonard to be Sean Lee, but an LB2 season isn’t out of the question.
We will move onto Safeties next in this Rookie Impact series. If you would like to read up on the other rookies or look ahead, you can download the IDP Rookie Roundup for FREE. We’ll be talking defense all year long on the IDP Edge Crushers Podcast with my co-host, Darrell Winstead, and I. You can find me on Twitter @seahawksdan8 or comment below. Thanks for reading and remember #IDPRocks!