Breakout Candidates – 2020 IDP: Linebacker Overview

Here we are again! This past season saw some great performances from linebackers all around the NFL. There were quite a few value grabs off the waiver wire as well. Some players saw a boost in playing time due to injuries. Others made their stamp on the league based on their solid play. Let’s take a trip down memory lane, and check out how linebackers from my breakout candidates series last summer performed!

Quick rundown: this will be a short and quick series over the next couple weeks. I plan to give you a quick summary of how my predictions went. Last summer, I wrote about some players I thought would have the potential to break out and be value grabs for you in fantasy drafts. Each player will get a paragraph about how they performed in the 2020 season. This article, in particular, will cover my linebacker predictions from last summer. Some of these guys gave us a tease of what they could be. All player statistics are pulled from Pro Football Reference. The first player I’m going to cover missed most of his season due to injury, and that is Drue Tranquill!

Drue Tranquill, LB, Los Angeles Chargers: 1 Solo

What could’ve been? Tranquill logged a whole 5 snaps before he suffered a season ending ankle injury in the first game of the season. Trainers applied an air cast onto him and the cart took him off the field. That was the last action we got to see of him in 2020. He was able to register one tackle though. I’m definitely not mocking him, I’m a Notre Dame fan, I had high hopes for Drue going into 2020. I personally believed Kenneth Murray and Drue Tranquill would make a great one – two punch for the Chargers at linebacker. In 2019, he registered 75 combined tackles. As long as that ankle is fully healed, I think Tranquill will have sneaky value late in IDP drafts. Don’t sleep on him.

Hit or Miss? – Miss, Tranquill’s injury certainly put a damper on his season. Look for him to bounce back in 2021!

Jahlani Tavai, LB, Detroit Lions: 32 Solo, 26 Ast, 2 TFL, 1 QBH, 2 FF, and 1 FR

Tavai, to say the least, was absolutely my most disappointing pick out of all my linebacker breakout candidates. He played a full, relatively healthy season, and was a huge bust. Tavai was finally given the opportunity to show the Lions he could be something special for them. It was a massive failure. He was widely considered to be a reach when Detroit picked him in the second round of the 2019 draft. It looks like that was the correct call. He didn’t give me much hope that he will hold onto that starting middle linebacker position. I’m not even sure he should be an every down player. In reality, the Lions’ defense was arguably one of the worst in the NFL in 2020. Maybe Tavai will be better under this new regime in Detroit?

Hit or Miss? – Miss, I literally have nothing nice to say about Tavai. Mark this down as one of my worst predictions.

Ja’Whaun Bentley, LB, New England Patriots: 50 Solo, 41 Ast, 3 TFL, 1.5 Sacks, 3 QBH, and 2 PD

I am much prouder of this next breakout candidate. Bentley may not have been mind-blowing, but he was certainly a viable IDP asset. If you were in a deep league, Bentley was probably starting on a manager’s team somewhere in your league. He started and played in 13 games. Ja’Whaun never registered fewer than 4 combined tackles in a game. In week 12 against Arizona, he had 14 tackles on 81% of snaps. He showed a lot of promise with his tackling abilities. In a tackle heavy league, he more often than not gave you what you where looking for. His 2021 value certainly depends on any offseason moves the Patriots make. Dont’a Hightower should be returning for New England after opting out of the 2020 season. I’m holding Bentley though.

Hit or Miss?  – Hit, Bentley was a solid IDP play for managers this season. He has a chance to be even more impressive in 2021.

Micah Kiser, LB, Los Angeles Rams: 44 Solo, 33 Ast, 1 QBH, 1 FF, and 3 PD

Micah Kiser was putting up impressive numbers before he went down with an injury in week 11, missing the rest of the regular season. That kind of seems to be the story of his career so far with the Rams. When the season started, Kiser was on a tear. He was putting up great tackle numbers more often than not. I won’t lie, I was awfully proud of myself for planting my flag on him. With that said, I still am. I have not given up hope on Kiser yet. He appeared for the two playoffs games for the Rams as well. He should be back at full strength once the 2021 NFL season starts. I do believe he will have the opportunity to be their starter again too. Although, Troy Reeder came on strong at the end of the season.

Hit or Miss? – Hit, Kiser probably would have been a top 20 linebacker easily if he played more games. He just has to stay healthy.

Shaq Thompson, LB, Carolina Panthers: 64 Solo, 50 Ast, 6 TFL, 2 QBH, 2 FF, 1 FR, and 5 PD

Some fantasy IDP enthusiasts may consider Thompson’s 2020 season a bust. I’m not one of those guys. Obviously, I have a slight bias because I chose him as one of my breakout candidates. I honestly believe he was, to an extent. We were so used to a guy named Luke Kuechly wreaking havoc, that Thompson underwhelmed us. We should have known Thompson isn’t the same player! We didn’t account for the quick emergence of rookie Jeremy Chinn either. Thompson put up his career high in tackles this season! That should have been expected given his increase in playing time. If Thompson can stay healthy, he is an easy LB2 or LB3 for your fantasy IDP squad. He will again help lead the Carolina defense!

Hit or Miss? – Hit, I think the 2020 season was Thompson’s floor. That means his ceiling has yet to be seen, in my opinion.

Nick Kwiatkoski, LB, Las Vegas Raiders: 53 Solo, 28 Ast, 3 TFL, 1 Sack, 2 QBH, 1 INT, 1 FF, and 4 PD

Nick Kwiatkoski started the season with a nagging pectoral injury. That saw him missing some valuable practice and game time. Once he was healthy though, Kwiatkoski looked like one of the best defenders on the field for the Raiders. I predicted he would have a better season than Cory Littleton. It certainly looks like he did. Without missing game time, he could have led the Raiders defense in tackles. Nick Morrow filled in nicely for Kwiatkoski and Littleton when they were out. Nick also missed the last two games of the season after being place on the COVID reserve. Kwiatkoski put up double-digit tackles twice in 2020. Again, if healthy, he has a chance to lead the Raiders defense in 2021. I’m buying Nick all day.

Hit or Miss? – Hit, Kwiatkoski certainly looked like the best linebacker in Las Vegas. Imagine what he could do in a healthy full season.

When it comes down to it, predicting breakout players depends a lot on the situation of said players. Tranquill had a chance to be a stud alongside rookie Kenneth Murray. But, an injury prevented that in 2020. Jahlani Tavai doesn’t look to be the answer in Detroit. I would not be surprised to see them draft another linebacker in this talented class. Ja’Whaun Bentley has a chance to be a leader and part of the future in New England. Don’t sleep on him. Micah Kiser should regain his starting spot for the Rams. He needs to be monitored and drafted when given the chance. Shaq Thompson will continue to be a significant part of Carolina’s defense. His ceiling has yet to be reached. Lastly, Nick Kwiatkoski can still be a star in Las Vegas! Go buy him!


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