After a few years of volatility, when rookies would enter the rankings at No. 1 with a bullet, in 2009 we saw a shift back towards stability. Yes, some rookies were very impressive, and we had our share of breakout stars. That will happen every year.
But these days there are quite a number of LBs who have established a basis for reliable annual production.
Also, I believe this season will see limited free agent movement, considering the most attractive candidates will become restricted unless a new bargaining agreement is reached. That's another factor working in favor of stability.
In this climate, it becomes even more to your advantage to wait to draft linebackers. It should not be too difficult to acquire three of the players in my top three tiers, and most of them can be taken relatively late in any draft.
I don't think I'd be too critical if you reached early for Patrick Willis, but other than that, great value at LB can always be found in the last rounds or on the waiver wire.
Ages listed are as of Sept. 1, 2010. In putting together this list, I was amazed at the number of these players who were born in January.
Note: These rankings are for Dynasty/Keeper leagues.
Tier 1 - Top Studs
1. Patrick Willis, 25, 49ers - Willis really should be in Tier 1 all by himself. He certainly was in 2009. Willis had five or more total tackles in every game, and there is no reason to believe he can't keep it up.
2. Jon Beason, 25, Panthers - Beason gets just a little bit better every year. This year he started adding sacks to his repertoire. Beason is basically a guarantee for over 110 tackles a year, which is the definition of an elite LB.
3. Curtis Lofton, 24, Falcons - Lofton seemed to run out of gas towards the end of his first season as an every down LB. Those who were expecting more of a breakout this year still shouldn't scoff at his 105 solo tackles. All Lofton has to do to reach elite status is show us some consistency.
Tier 2 - Solid LB1s
4. Barrett Ruud, 27, Bucs - I traded Beason for Ruud straight up last offseason and don't particularly regret it. Ruud is somewhat in the position in which the explosive rookie LBs of recent years have found themselves--one of the few bright spots in a defense that is rebuilding from scratch.
5. Paul Posluszny, 25, Bills - "Poz" has been cursed by injuries in his first two seasons, but they are more of the freak-accident variety rather than some indication of brittleness. With his numbers, he would have finished higher than Beason if he had played all 16 games.
6. David Harris, 27, Jets - Harris struggled a bit to find his place on every down in the first year of operating in Rex Ryan's defense and still finished fifth on the season. That indicates even here I may be ranking him too low.
7. D'Qwell Jackson, 26, Browns - Jackson is one of those fifth-year players who will be ensnared in restricted free agency if there's no new deal between the league and the union. You bet the Browns are going to keep him. Jackson should be fully recovered from this torn pectoral muscle by camp. However, the latest from Browns beat reporter Tony Grossi on Jackson is, "There have been no updates on his condition reported by the team, and efforts to get in touch with him have not been successful." Not a good sign, but he's still enough of a monster to leave him in this tier for now.
Tier 3 - Probable LB1s
8. Justin Durant, 24, Jaguars - Injuries kept Durant sidelined for a quarter of the season, so he didn't quite get to capitalize on all that upside we saw in him last offseason.
9. James Laurinaitis, 23, Rams - Although he didn't come in and lay down a new law like Willis or DeMeco Ryans before him, those who drafted Laurinaitis can't be disappointed. This may be his peak value though, as his career path could more likely follow Ryans' as the rebuilding Rams continue to add pieces around him.
10. Brian Cushing, 23, Texans - The reason Cushing isn't ranked higher after finishing as the third-ranked LB in 2009 is because the Texans defense is still a work in progress, where LB values can change from year to year. That and the fact that no one ranked above him has to share the field with Ryans.
11. David Hawthorne, 25, Seahawks - While we were all waiting for Aaron Curry to produce, Hawthorne stepped in and made a major statement. Odds are relatively decent he can keep this up as he gains an every down role. However, like Cushing he is surrounded by other talented LBs who may cut into his production.
12. Jerod Mayo, 24, Patriots - Mayo really started to put it together at the end of the season, finishing with exactly 100 total tackles. He'll continue to realize his upside in 2010 and will also benefit from the rebuilding effect. The Patriots defense is finally too old, and Mayo will be the rock they build the new one around.
13. Brian Orakpo, 24, Redskins - Except for one monster game in Week 14 against the Raiders, Orakpo seemed to hit the rookie wall at Week 11. He may take another year to develop into a stud LB, but he is well on his way.
14. Stewart Bradley, 26, Eagles - Don't forget about Bradley just because he spent the year on injured reserve. He'll step right back into the rosy projections we had for him before he tore his ACL.
15. LaMarr Woodley, 25, Steelers - It's harder to rank the Steelers LBs this year because they have four guys who all can take turns having a huge game. Woodley closed strong, with at least half a sack in every one of the last eight games. He also started putting up six or seven tackles most games, which is what you need in a linebacker who thrives on the big play.
Tier 4 - Old Reliables
16. DeMeco Ryans, 26, Texans - The worst game Ryans had last season was 4.5 tackles. He has become someone you can simply plug into your lineup and not worry about.
17. London Fletcher, 35, Redskins - Age does not seem to affect Fletcher. I don't see him having any problems maintaining his production with any changes in defensive schemes in Washington.
18. D.J. Williams, 28, Broncos - Williams quietly put together a top 10 2009 campaign with no bad games. No reason why he can't repeat or even build on that success in the second year under Josh McDaniels.
19. Kirk Morrison, 28, Raiders - Hard to rate a guy who always seems to be in danger of losing his starting job yet still manages to finish the year in the top five. It's also hard to rate Morrison because he's a free agent and his coach could be fired at any moment. But apparently you can't count him out.
20. Stephen Tulloch, 25, Titans - Tulloch may well move up the ratings in the offseason. It took him a bit to solidify his role in the Titans defense, and he closed out strong in his last four games. He could well reach the 100-tackle plateau in 2010.
21. Jonathan Vilma, 28, Saints - In the Saints defense, I believe Vilma has clearly established he will be in the top 15 or 20 every year for the foreseeable future.
22. Karlos Dansby, 28, Cardinals - Dansby will be one of the top names on the free agent market this offseason. For now I'm projecting he will stay in Arizona and keep delivering a consistent 90-95 tackles a year.
23. Ray Lewis, 35, Ravens - Sliding down the list due to age, but he rewarded his owners this year with his consistency and should keep it up for another year or two.
Tier 5 - High Upside
24. Geno Hayes, 23, Bucs - Watch out for this guy. While we weren't paying attention anymore, Hayes blew up in the last three games with 25 solo tackles, three sacks, an interception and a fumble forced and recovered.
25. Derrick Johnson, 27, Chiefs - Towards the end of the season, Johnson finally started to separate himself from Demorrio Williams and lay claim to a very productive role in Kansas City.
26. DeAndre Levy, 23, Lions - I've been raving about Levy all season, and he has justified my faith in him. He'll enter the year as the starting MLB in Detroit with the full faith of his coaches.
26. Anthony Spencer, 27, Cowboys - I really liked what I saw from Spencer to close out the season. I'm a little worried he may become too dependent on sacks for his value, but the tackle numbers are rising. Right now he's between four and five solos a game. I believe he can reach six or seven per game next year.
27. Lawrence Timmons, 24, Steelers - We finally saw a couple of seven-tackle games from Timmons at season's end. He'll see more playing time and should truly begin to blossom over the next two years.
28. Clay Matthews, 24, Packers - I'd feel better about Matthews if he had five strong games to end the season instead of three of those five. He's about two years away from consistent, dominant numbers, but I don't doubt he can get there.
29. Aaron Curry, 24, Seahawks - I'm keeping him here simply because I continue to believe in his talent.
30. Thomas Davis, 27, Panthers - Davis was performing way beyond expectations when he tore up his knee in Week Nine. I'd like to see more of this high level of play from him to truly believe it's sustainable.
Tier 6 - And don't forget...
31. Clint Session, 25, Colts - This is where I have to talk about the guys I should probably rate higher than the previous tier but for whom I have no real passion. If he can stay healthy, Session will most likely get you a bland seven tackles a game.
32. Lance Briggs, 29, Bears - Briggs managed pretty well with chaos all around him this year. He should do better with a healthy Brian Urlacher at his side again. I should probably be ranking Urlacher as well.
33. Nick Barnett, 29, Packers - Speaking of chaos, Barnett was finally the one to emerge with the heavier tackling responsibilities in Green Bay's new 3-4 defense. He should stay settled there, although he could start giving way to Matthews over the next couple of years.
34. James Harrison, 32, Steelers - Harrison failed to tally a sack after Week 11, which pretty much kills his value. I just can't believe that's the end of him though. He should bounce back for a year or three.
35. Gary Brackett, 30, Colts - I feel about Brackett almost exactly as I do about Session, except he's five years older.
36. E.J. Henderson, 30, Vikings - Another year, another injury for Henderson. He's starting to run out of seasons.
37. Keith Rivers, 24, Bengals - I had such high hopes for Rivers coming into this offseason, so I am a little sour on him. But then he started looking great in the last few games of the season, so I'll give him another chance.
Tier 7 - Sack Artists
38. Elvis Dumervil, 27, Broncos - What they do is beautiful to behold, but using the sack artist in fantasy football is very much a boom or bust proposition. In half his games last year, Dumervil had two or fewer tackles. But you know, when he has those four-sack games, you'll wish you had started him.
39. DeMarcus Ware, 28, Cowboys - Ware's numbers this season were his worst in four years. Probably just an off year.
40. Tamba Hali, 26, Chiefs - Hali established himself with solid play in the second half of the season and should only get better under new coordinator Romeo Crennel.