If you’re going to pay up at any defensive position in IDP leagues, it should be at linebacker. Still, LB1 points are available on the waiver wire almost every year, as we saw with Corey Littleton and the Rams last year, so even if you’ve already invested in the position, uncovering a hidden gem is something you should always be striving for.
Talent is secondary here; snaps are everything, especially at MLB, which sees more action than any other position. We’re going to look at three players poised for an IDP breakout at LB in 2019 due to a projected increase in snaps, and in the case of our second candidate, an increase paired with incredibly productive college profile which has flown under the radar.
Shaun Dion Hamilton, Washington MLB
Washington is suddenly looking to fill a massive void in the middle of their defense created when Rueben Foster went down with an ACL injury early in OTAs.
Enter Hamilton, a 6-foot-0, 236-pound LB out of Alabama, which cranks out more NFL talent than any program. He’s had some bum luck in the injury department but now appears to finally have a clean bill of health and a path to a breakout.
The latter wasn’t a given, as Hamilton was expected to be in a rotation with Foster, Jon Bostic and Mason Foster at MLB, but the injury opens up the potential for something closer starter’s snaps.
Despite being prized for his speed and instincts during his time with the Crimson Tide, Hamilton fell to the sixth round of the 2018 NFL Draft after breaking his kneecap the previous November. That and an ACL tear in the 2016 SEC Championship game robbed him of a chance to ever really prove himself in college.
Between the late-career injuries and the early-career struggle to win snaps on a loaded Alabama defense, Hamilton remains a bit of a mystery as a prospect. Here’s what one scouting report had to say about him ahead of the draft:
Team leader and captain. Serves as the quarterback of the Crimson Tide defensive, making pre-snap reads and rarely coming off the field. A solid forum (sic) tackler who can make plays in the open field—can cover the field sideline-to-sideline and has been asked to cover slot receivers and backs coming out of the backfield.
Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban described him as a guy you can “certainly depend on to make the right choice, be in the right place relative to what his responsibility is.”
Hamilton did see some NFL action as a rookie, appearing in six games and getting close to 50% of snaps in Weeks 14-17. He was inconsistent, getting a 85.6 grade from PFF against Jacksonville in Week 15, while looking lost on the way to 25.9 grade against Philadelphia in Week 17. His overall grade of 58.2 isn’t encouraging, but there were also flashes of elite ability:
- An 86.8 pass-rushing grade, fourth among all LBs
- Tackling grade of 84.2
Head coach Jay Gruden singled out Hamilton at OTAs as one of the most improved players from last year.
Gruden on Shaun Dion Hamilton:— Redskins Realm (@SkinsRealm) June 6, 2019
“He's healthy, he’s running faster, way faster now than he was this time last year. I mean he looks fast. He looks instinctive. He's what we thought we could get when we drafted him from Alabama.” … “He's set.”
Anyone who was a captain and play-caller and never left the field (save for injury) while playing in college football’s best program is worth a long look. I was excited to see what he could do after a few years of experience, but Hamilton’s opportunity appears to have arrived earlier than expected.
Full-time starter is unlikely but not out of the question. Foster’s injury means Hamilton should be on the field for at least 60% of defensive snaps. And whether through attrition or just imposing his will on a lineup lacking depth, there are avenues to even more snaps for Hamilton this season.
Josey Jewel, Broncos MLB
Like Hamilton, Jewel was drafted in 2018 and occupies one of the two MLB positions in a 3-4 defense.
Unlike Hamilton, however, last year’s fourth-round Broncos’ selection has a history of elite production and virtually no competition for starters’ snaps. Only Joseph Jones (undrafted in 2017 and on his fourth team), and Alexander Johnson (undrafted in 2018, waived by Broncos before being signed to the practice squad) are listed behind him on the depth chart.
Jewell is going to be a three-down player on a Vic Fangio defense. Here’s what Fangio’s interior LBs have done in fantasy over the past few seasons:
- Roquan Smith: LB5
- Danny Treveathan: LB20
- Treveathan: LB16 in points per game (only played 11 games)
- Leonard Floyd: LB79
That’s three LB2-or-better finishes on a PPG basis, along with the total flop that was Floyd. It’s unlikely that Jewell is a Floyd-like bust. Floyd never topped 75 total tackles once in his three years as a starter at Georgia,1 while Jewell was incredibly productive for Iowa, posting three-straight seasons of 120-plus tackles.
Jewell was an All American and Big Ten defensive player of the year. He probably should have been drafted higher, but his stock fell after bombing the combine with a 4.82 40-yard dash.
Production matters more than measurables, and opportunity matters more than both. Jewell will see plenty of the latter in 2019 after playing at an elite level over a small sample for stretches of his rookie year.
Highest overall grades among LBs over the first 4 weeks of the 2018 season (min. 75 snaps)— PFF DEN Broncos (@PFF_Broncos) June 5, 2019
1. Bobby Wagner – 91.1
2. Lorenzo Alexander – 89.8
3. Josey Jewell – 89.4
Does The Outlaw make a leap in Year 2? #BroncosCountry
I’d be buying any LB manning the interior of a Fangio defense, but the fact that Jewell was such a productive college player puts him squarely in the LB1 conversation.
Kenny Young, Ravens LB
Another second-year player, Young is a candidate to take over significant snaps at MLB after the Jets lured Mosley away with the richest-ever contract for an inside LB.
The favorite for the job is Patrick “Peanut” Onwuasor, who was a starter at weak-side linebacker for most of last year. Young mixed in at both positions but played less than 40% of defensive snaps on the year overall and only had three starts to Onwuasor’s 12. Despite that, the rookie had three more solo tackles than Onwuasor.
Over his final two seasons at UCLA, Young racked up 200 tackles, 6 sacks, 17 TFLs, and 5 passes defended. While the counting numbers were promising in his first year as a pro, PFF didn’t like what they saw, slapping Young with the 11th-worst overall grade among 12 rookie LBs.
#Ravens linebacker Kenny Young will need to step up in the absence of C.J. Mosley. Here are his ranks among rookie linebackers with at least 300 snaps:— PFF BAL Ravens (@PFF_Ravens) March 28, 2019
Overall: 56.8 (11/12)
Run Defense: 60.9 (7/12)
Tackling: 64.0 (7/12)
Pass Rush: 70.1 (4/12)
Coverage: 47.2 (11/12) pic.twitter.com/QqfxFgRG4s
Young doesn’t need to be an elite LB to be fantasy relevant, he just needs to be on the field, and Mosley’s departure facilitates that. The Ravens field an excellent defensive line, giving their LBs plenty of clean looks, just as it’s been for the last decade, and the Ravens made no moves at adding any LBs in the offseason.
We already got a glimpse of what a Baltimore defense with Young and Onwuasfor as interior starters looks like. When Young started for an injured Mosley in Week 3, he tallied 10 tackles against the Broncos.
Image Credit: Todd Kirkland/Icon Sportswire. Pictured: Patrick Young.
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- and then was somehow selected 9th overall (back)