Projected Three-Down Linebackers In 2021
I usually compare linebackers to the running back position. There are two-down guys and three-down guys, and obviously, the three-down guys are the ones you want to target for IDP leagues.
We're heading into training camp and the preseason. COVID muddled things up last season, but for 2021, we're on track for a normal offseason program. We should get our training camp reports and preseason games will help shape the story.
This will be updated throughout the rest of the offseason and during preseason games as news breaks and information is presented.
Here's a look at the projected three-down LBs for 2021 and who'll wear the dot.
|Team||Player||2020 Snap Rate||2021 Projected Playcaller|
I was not expecting the Cardinals to draft Zaven Collins in the first round, a year after drafting Isaiah Simmons at No. 7 overall. In what seemed like seven seconds, Steve Keim iterated Collins would be the MIKE linebacker and call the plays. So, where would that leave Simmons? Simmons appears to be on track to be a three-down LB with Jordan Hicks now becoming an after-thought. Arizona's base defense, they typically deployed two linebackers frequently, so Collins and Simmons project for a lot of work. Arizona lost Haason Reddick and De'Vondre Campbell to free agency, so Chandler Jones will have to pick up the edge-rushing slack left behind by Reddick.
Green Dot: I think Zaven Collins gets it.
Deion Jones and Foyesade Oluokun will return as Atlanta's three-down LBs in 2021. Oluokun enjoyed a career year, recording 117 tackles which resulted in a 13.1% tackle rate. He also added pass rushing, as he was deployed on 137 pass-rush snaps and generated a 16.8% pressure rate. Jones enjoyed a solid season with 106 tackles and pitched in 4.5 sacks and two INTs. Both should be on the field for the majority of the snaps in 2021 with Jones wearing the dot and calling the plays.
Green Dot: Deion Jones
Patrick Queen enjoyed a breakout year as a rookie where he recorded 100-plus tackles. Queen went through typical rookie struggles especially against the Chiefs in Week 3. One of his biggest issues, which I hope he cleans up, is the missed tackles. Queen missed a tackle in every five attempts - resulting in 23 misses total. Those are significant fantasy points left on the field. He was efficient as a pass rusher, producing 21 total QB pressures and a 19.4% QB pressure rate. The Ravens deployed one-LB on over 20% of their defensive snaps, so I'm not really enamored with their options in two-LB sets. Queen is the only Baltimore LB I'm targeting.
7/31/2021: Keep an eye on Malik Harrison. He could be in line for more snaps this season alongside Queen. There will be competition between Harrison, LJ Fort and Chris Board. I do see Harrison separating himself from those two at some point.
Green Dot: Chuck Clark. He called the plays last season, and I think that continues. We'll learn more during camp and preseason.
Buffalo is pretty vanilla with their defense and should continue to run Tremaine Edmunds and Matt Milano as their three-down LBs. Milano tested the free-agent waters but returned back to Bills Mafia. Milano ended up missing three games during the season but was deployed more on pass-rush situations, though he was better in coverage - allowing a 68% completion rate when targeted. Edmund is still an IDP producer, but we'll see how long that continues. He's still young, having just turned 23, and is entering his fourth season. Edmunds should still call the plays and wear the dot. As long as he's on the field, he'll produce fantasy-relevant numbers. He's coming off his third-straight 100+ tackle season and produced a 13.1% tackle rate over 911 defensive snaps.
Green Dot: Tremaine Edmunds
Shaq Thompson is the only Carolina LB I'm targeting from this group as he's the only true three-down LB. Thompson played over 1,000 snaps in 2020 and his role should remain the season heading into 2021. He needs to make plays and cause more turnovers.
Green Dot: Shaq Thompson
While Danny Trevathan wasn't a true three-down linebacker, he was more than serviceable in 2021 and was a consistent IDP producer. He had five games of six tackles or fewer and four games of double-digit tackles. He's one of the more underrated linebackers you can get at the tail-end of your draft. Trevathan appeared in all 16 games and produced a 13.6% tackle rate - resulting in 113 tackles.
Roqaun Smith was the star of the defense and notched a career-high 139 tackles. He also contributed big plays, producing two INTs and four sacks. Chicago will continue to run two-LBs, but they did tinker with single-LB packages. I've got Smith as a tier-one LB and Trevathan is a solid LB4 target.
Green Dot: Roquan Smith
In 2020, this unit was a mess with no true option to depend on. Germaine Pratt led the way among linebackers in snaps, however, he was on the field 65% of the time. Germaine Pratt and Josh Bynes were mostly run stuffers, but Logan Wilson and Akeem Davis-Gaither had more pass-rush snaps. I think Logan Wilson will take on a three-down role, and while Pratt will be the other starter, I'm not counting on him appearing in more than 65% of the snaps.
7/31/2021: It's Germaine Pratt's job to win or lose. It seems like this is make or break season for Pratt. Logan Wilson is entrenched asa three-down guy. Pratt needs to hold off Akeem Davis-Gaither throughout camp for that three-down role.
Green Dot: Vonn Bell. Bell called the plays last season. If the Bengals do give it to an LB, I think it's Logan Wilson.
The Browns' linebackers were a bit weak in 2020 and the front office addressed the room during free agency and the draft, adding Anthony Walker from the Colts and drafting Notre Dame standout, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah. Their base defense in 2020 was a 4-2-5 and Joe Woods could deploy a similar package as his base in 2021, but he has far more speed at his disposal. Their nickel should be deployed on most personnel sets. If the Browns go DIME, their 3-2-6 deployment is going to be feared. This should be their quickest defensive package with Phillips and JOK. I think Walker and Jacob Phillips are going to be the three-down LBs this season. Phillips has experience calling the plays and has more familiarity with the defense, so I'm projecting Phillips to wear the dot.
7/31/2021: On Cleveland's first full-team drill, Anthon Walker, Sione Takitaki and Mack Wilson were the first three linebackers on the field. On passing down packages, Jacob Phillips and Malcolm Smith were the first group. I'm still confident Phillips is going to be one of the three-down guys, but he's going to have to earn it. This is shaping up to be a competition throughout the entire camp.
Green Dot: Jacob Phillips
Jaylon Smith was the play caller and true every-down player. Mostly due to injuries to Leighton Vander Esch and Sean Lee. Lee retired and Vander Esch could be phased out of the defense. Due in part to Dallas drafting Micah Parsons in the first round. There's no doubt Smith, from a fantasy standpoint, is productive. He produced his second consecutive season of 140+ tackles with 154. So far, the plan for Parson is to man the middle and play in the box to utilize his sideline-to-sideline range and speed. As a former DE, he'll be pass rush force from the inside. I think Parsons and Smith are three-down guys this season. We'll see if Dan Quinn utilizes more three-LB packages, as Mike Nolan's two-LB packages dominated. With that said, I'm targeting Smith and Parsons only.
Update 7/27/2021: Micah Parsons, Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith are going to get the bulk of the work. Dan Quinn may very well use all three LBs at the same time. It's expected Parson is going to be used as more than an LB - he'll have sack upside as Quinn is going to utilize his pass rushing prowess. It does appear Keanu Neal is lumped in with this group and could be more of a special teamer.
Green Dot: Jaylon Smith
Josey Jewell had the quietest 100-tackle season I can remember. He also appeared in 1,011 snaps - 93% of Denver's total. After recording 93 tackles in 2019, AJ Johnson produced 124 tackles. Both Jewell and Johnson are entering contract years and it appears they're in line to be the three-down LBs in 2021. I don't see them leaving the field in nickel or dime packages.
7/31/2021: Justn Strnad is going to be a name to place in your memory bank. He's displaying a quick burst and showing no lingering effects from a wrist injury that ended his season. He's still playing behind AJ Johnson and Josey Jewell. He's not going to make it easy, but he'll show he's competent in coverage to break through.
Green Dot: Josey Jewell
This is another group I'm not totally in love with. Jamie Collins is going to be 32, but coming off a decent season - at least from an IDP standpoint. He finished with 100 tackles and added three forced fumbles and six defended passes. Jahlani Tavai is another guy who isn't too mobile and doesn't project well as an every-down player. During rookie camp, Derrick Barnes was playing off the edge and inside. He'll be able to play stand-up and it was reported Barnes looked smooth as an ILB. For the upside, I'm targeting Barnes.
7/31/2021: It's been noted that Derrick Barnes has been picking the brain of Chris Spielman, one of the Lions' LB legends. Barnes is making the shift from edge rushing LB to an off-ball LB. Spielman has taken him his under his wing and it's observed Barnes is getting one-on-one time with Spielman after practices. I'm hoping these sessions translate to the field.
Green Dot: Jaime Collins
Green Bay Packers
Green Bay mostly deployed one-LB around 60% of the defensive snaps. Christian Kirksey began the season as Green Bay's single 'backer, but the all too familiar injury bug got to him again. Krys Barnes received the second-most snaps behind Kirksey. This will be a group to watch in the off-season. While I believe in Barnes, Green Bay brought in De'Vondre Campbell for a veteran presence. We'll have to watch training camp and preseason to see who emerges as the LB in their single-LB packages.
Green Dot: Krys Barnes
Zach Cunningham is the only LB I'm targeting as of now. He's an elite LB and a weekly LB1. Cunningham recorded a league-high 164 tackles - producing an elite 17.4% tackle rate over 945 defensive snaps. He was in on 85% of the total. Who will his running mate be, considering they ran two-LBs nearly 80% of the time? I do think there will be a three-man battle between Christian Kirksey, Tae Davis and Neville Hewitt. I think Hewitt emerges as the three-down guy opposite Cunningham. He's proven to be durable, as he's appeared in over 1,800 snaps the last two seasons. The best ability in the NFL is availability and Kirksey really hasn't been. Cunningham is a top-five LB in IDP and I think fantasy managers might forget about Hewitt. I'd target him as an LB4 and hope for top-25 numbers.
7/31/2021: In deeper leagues, you'll want to keep an eye on Kevin Pierre-Louis. Neville Hewitt is competing for roster spot on the 53, s he's not guaranteed anything. It's notable that of all the free agent LBs Houston signed, KPL signed a two-year deal, while the other signed just one-year deals. Houston may like KPL's coverage abilities more - so that gives him a slight edge.
Green Dot: Zach Cunningham
Darius Leonard will be the man for the defense. He's my LB1 for the 2021 season. He'll be Indy's three-down LB and will continue calling the plays. Anthony Walker left for Cleveland in free agency which sets up Bobby Okereke for more snaps in 2021. Okereke played the majority of snaps from Week 2 through Week 8 - appearing on average of 87% of the snaps and averaging nearly seven tackles per game. Leonard will be one of the top LBs off the board and I like Okereke as an LB3.
7/31/2021: Darius Leonard is coming back from ankle surgery in June, so he may miss some training camp. GM, Chris Ballard, showed no concern about his availability once the season starts. Bobby Okereke is slotted in.
Green Dot: Darius Leonard
Joe Schobert and Myles Jack are shaping up to be Jacksonville's three-down linebackers heading into 2021. Jacksonville deployed a vanilla defense and was running two to three linebackers the majority of the snaps. Schobert finished with a 13% tackle rate - resulting in 144 tackles in 2021. Myles Jack enjoyed a solid season from an IDP standpoint. He had seven games where he recorded double-digit tackles and finished with an ultra-efficient 12.7% tackle rate. Schobert is a top-seven LB and Jack is a borderline LB2 on the cusp of being an LB1.
Green Dot: Joe Schobert
Kansas City Chiefs
This was a messy group throughout the entire season and one I shied away from, mostly because of their rotations at the position. They were all over the place with their packages and while they ran two-LBs, it was fewer than 50% of the total snaps. They ran one-LB just over 30% of the time. Anthony Hitchens appeared in just over 750 snaps and was better in coverage and the pass rush. Damien Wilson was just behind Hitchens. Willie Gay, who appeared in 269 snaps, was their best overall LB. I think Willie Gay is set to take a full-time, true every-down role in 2021. While I like Nick Bolton, but I'm a bit apprehensive he could get caught up in the rotations opposite Gay.
7/31/2021: Wiliie Gay is going to make it difficult for coaches to bring him off the field, In just a few days, he's the best LB on the field. He was able to keep up with Tyreek Hill and defended a pass. He knows the playbook and is making plays in camp.
Green Dot: I think Willie Gay earns it. We'll see over the course of camp and preseason.
Las Vegas Raiders
The Raiders ran two to three LBs the majority of their snaps, but it was their two-LB sets that dominated their package deployments. Cory Littleton didn't return on fantasy manager's investments and played well below expectations especially in coverage. Littleton defended 22 passes between the 2018 and 2019 seasons. In 2020, he had Bluto Blutarski's GPA - 0.0. He also saw a 39% decline in tackle output. But, he presents a great buy-low opportunity. Jon Gruden's ego isn't going to get the best of him and I think he'll return as a three-down LB. This will probably elicit some boos, but we need to remove the recency bias and see where opportunity presents itself.
Update 7/27/2021: According to Vic Tafur, Cory Littleton and Nick Kwiatkoski are going to "eat up the snaps" on their two-LB packages. Nicholas Morrow is expected to play often is the next man up in the event of injury or poor play. I really like Littleton as a bounceback candidate and can get him in the later rounds as a high upside LB2/3. Target Kwiatkoski toward the tail-end of your draft.
Green Dot: Cory Littleton
Los Angeles Chargers
Kenneth Murray ate up the majority of the snaps at LB and was installed as the play caller from day one as a rookie. The Chargers ran two-LBs on over 80% of the snaps, but things could change under Brandon Staley and Renaldo Hill. The Chargers might use a 34 base, but Staley tends to focus on secondary with his schemes. Murray is going to be in position to make plays. Who'll play opposite Murray? I do think Drue Tranquill gets the first crack. His 2020 season ended after just five snaps. Don't forget about Drue at the latter part of your drafts as an LB4. Murray is a solid LB2 thanks to his secured playing time.
7/31/2021: Kyzir White, Drue Tranquill, and Kenneth Murray have been rotating as ILBs with the first-team defense. Daniel Popper observed Derwin James as the primary signal caller with Drue Tranquill getting some with the dot, as well. This may allowe Kenneth Murray to focus more on pass rushing and getting downhill after the ball.
Green Dot: Derwin James
Los Angeles Rams
Boy, this might be the group I completely stay away from in 2021. I might just target Ernest Jones in the final few rounds and call it a day. You pretty much need to nail their LB, because they ran out one-LB on over 45% of the snaps. Micah Kiser was inconsistent and injuries limited him to just 559 snaps. Troy Reeder was a solid rush linebacker, but all three of his sacks came in one game. Injuries forced him into a three-down role over the final six games. Kiser, Reeder, Jones, Kenny Young and Travin Howard are all in an inextricable battle for snaps. Don't overpay for anyone in this group and get hoodwinked. As far as who calls the plays? That's up in the air, since the Rams lost season's play caller, John Johnson to Cleveland during free agency.
7/28/2021: Jourdan Rodrigue saw Jordan Fuller wearing the dot. This makes sense, as last season John Johnson III wore it last year. This keeps the continuity on the defense and ensures the playcaller doesn't leave the field.
Green Dot: Jordan Fuller
Dolphins weren't too scheme agnostic and were creative with their fronts. However, they ran out one-LB over 50% of the time and two-LBs around 45% of the time. Jerome Baker appeared in 84% of the snaps and still managed to record over 100 tackles. He was nicked up but still managed to appear in all 16 games. He was off the field for just a handful of snaps over the final four games of the season. Kyle Van Noy had LB designation, but he was more on the edge, but he's no longer in Miami and headed back to New England. I think newly added Benardrick McKinney will be Baker's running mate.
Green Dot: Jerome Baker
The departure of Eric Wilson leaves over 1,000 snaps open, but make no mistake, it'll be Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr. Kendricks is a top-10 LB and while Barr gets the snap volume, his deployment in the defense makes for less than ideal IDP fantasy production. He's never topped 80 total tackles in a season. The third LB probably won't get enough snaps to be IDP relevant.
Green Dot: Anthony Barr
New England Patriots
The Patriots had a myriad of opt-outs which complicated things for New England. Their most important defender, Dont'a Hightower, was one of those opt-outs. The way Bill Belichick deploys his fronts bamboozles all fantasy managers. Hightower should be on the field the majority of the snaps and Kyle Van Noy should return to his edge responsibilities on the strong side. This is a group I'll mostly fade in 2021. Devin McCourty called the plays for most of the season, but I think Hightower takes back the responsibilities this season.
Green Dot: Dont'a Hightower
New Orleans Saints
Demario Davis, I feel, is one of the more under-rated IDPs. Davis has been the play caller and has four straight seasons of 110+ tackles. Who'll be his running mate? Pete Werner is trending up as the candidate. I think the three-down guy opposite Davis should provide decent IDP value. They're running two-LBs over 80% of the time. Werner should be in a battle with Zach Baun, but I do think Werner earns the job.
Green Dot: Demario Davis
New York Giants
Don't overthink this one - it's Blake Martinez and move on.
Green Dot: Blake Martinez
New York Jets
The Jets are nothing, if not predictable. Gregg-g-g declares his guys and rolls them out there. Who will be the guys this year? CJ Mosley is back after opting out from the 2020 season. Since signing his big free-agent deal in 2019, Mosley has played a total of two games and 114 defensive snaps. I think he's one of the three-down guys, and I think Jarrad Davis comes out of the preseason as the guy opposite Mosley, but I don't think it lasts. I'm just targeting Mosley and putting Blake Cashman on my watch list for a waiver-wire addition. I'm passing on Davis. Last season's play caller Neville Hewitt, is now in Houston.
Green Dot: CJ Mosley
For some reason, Philadelphia kept trotting out Nathan Gerry and really wanted him to be a thing, even though he looked completely out of place. An injury allowed Alex Singleton to get on the field, and never gave up the reins - we all acknowledged him. Singleton appeared in all 16 games and finished with 748 defensive snaps. His 16% tackle rate will be unsustainable, but I think he'll be an LB2 this season - mostly because of the addition of Eric Wilson. Singleton and Wilson are shaping up to be Philly's three-down guys, as they ran out two-LBs over 50% of the time while running three-LBs 25% of the time. I don't see their third LB providing much IDP production - outside of injury. I think Singleton remains the play caller.
7/27/2021: Eric Wilson has been singled out as a three-down LB, with Alex Singleton and TJ Edwards mentioned. I think when all is said and done, Wilson and Singleton are your three-down guys.
Green Dot: Alex Singleton
Pittsburgh's defense always seems to be productive, no matter the personnel. Their LB group was shaping up to be solid on paper, but injuries decimated the position. Pittsburgh's play caller, Devin Bush, suffered a torn ACL just six games into the season. Pittsburgh deployed Vince Williams and Robert Spillane and acquired Avery Williamson ahead of the trade deadline. Bush appears on track to return in 2021 and should resume the play-caller duties. Hopefully, the ACL injury didn't sap any of his speed.
7/21/2021: Vince Williams has announced his retirement and this puts Robert Spillane on the radar. Spillane appeared in 82% of the snaps from Week 6 through Week 11 until an injury ended his season in Week 12. Deeper and dynasty leagues, keep Buddy Johnson on your watch list. He was a solid off-ball LB with Texas A&M and recorded 163 tackles over his 2019 and 2020 seasons. He's athletic and uses his hands well to fend off blocks.
Green Dot: Devin Bush
San Francisco 49ers
Robert Salah left for Broadway, but former linebacker and IDP stud, DeMeco Ryans will take over. Ryans was an IDP standout in Houston, and I think he's perfect for the continued development of Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw. I'm excited to see what kind of packages the 49ers run out. I'm just targeting Warner and Greenlaw.
Green Dot: Fred Warner
Death. Taxes. Bobby Wagner. He's hitting the "old man value" stage of his career, but still remains the most consistent IDP producer and is still an elite LB. Wagner has appeared in over 1,000 snaps in four of his last five seasons. He hasn't recorded fewer than 130 tackles since 2015. Wagner will be without his running mate, KJ Wright. It does look like Jordyn Brooks is set to take over that three-down role alongside Wagner.
Green Dot: Bobby Wagner
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Tampa ran out two-LBs nearly 100% of the time, and thanks to their defensive line and edge rusher, they're kept clean and able to make tackles. Devin White and Lavonte David are the two LBs to own from Tampa, and them alone. David continues to be disrespected and is one of the top LBs in the game - both real-life and fantasy. He's still a solid, dependable, weekly LB1. His running mate, Devin White, broke out from a fantasy standpoint in 2020. White took over the playcalling duties and recorded 140 tackles. His points per snap spiked thanks to his pass rush prowess. White added nine sacks thanks to his increased usage in the pass rush. White recorded 130 pass-rush snaps and generated a 25.3% QB pressure rate. I don't expect the repeat in sacks, but he's still solidified as a top-three LB in 2021.
Green Dot: Devin White
Injuries have limited Jayon Brown to 24 games over the last two seasons. Brown signed a one-year deal, so he'll be on a contract year to prove he's worth big money. Rashaan Evans is a dependable tackler and missed just five over 958 snaps. Tennessee typically will run two-LBs and I believe Brown and Evans will be on the field for the majority of the snaps. Brown is a good coverage backer and allowed just a 69% completion rate and has 16 defended passes over the last two seasons. Before his season ended, Brown was producing an 11.7% tackle rate.
Green Dot: Jayon Brown
Washington Football Team
Jon Bostic appeared in over 1,000 snaps and recorded 118 tackles. He should remain the signal caller and three-down player. I think rookie Jamin Davis ends up being the other every down LB opposite Bostic. Washington ran two-LBs on over 70% of their snaps and added a third on another 20%. Washington's third LB probably won't be in the mix for IDP production barring injury. I'm targeting Davis as an LB3 and Bostic, while unsexy, is still productive. I'm not overpaying, but if he's available toward the end of your draft, he's worth taking as your LB5. I also think Bostic calls the plays, but it'll be interesting to see if Davis is in the mix for the dot.
Green Dot: Jon Bostic