2012 fantasy football profiles and projections (LBs 1-12)

Statistical projections are provided by EA Sports

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Willis is arguably the best linebacker in the league, even if his 2011 numbers didn't necessarily show it. His past success made him a target for offensive coordinators, who looked to neutralize San Francisco's top defender. As a result, rookie Aldon Smith became the team's top pass-rushing linebacker while NaVorro Bowman was the Niners' leading tackler. Nonetheless, Willis still filled the stat sheet with 97 total tackles, two sacks, an interception, four forced fumbles and two recoveries in 13 games last season. The interception numbers could go up in 2012, though, as the Niners are slated to face the pass-happy Lions, Packers, Giants, Saints and Patriots. Don't be surprised if Willis is the first linebacker off the board in the middle rounds.

Jackson is coming off a monster season in IDP leagues, recording a combined 156 tackles, 3.5 sacks and three fumble recoveries - those totals were enough to rank him first at the position on NFL.com. That was a shock to some, especially after he missed the entire 2012 campaign with a torn pectoral muscle. Now inked to a five-year deal to remain the anchor for defensive coordinator Dick Jauron's 4-3 system, Jackson should continue to rack up the tackles and fantasy points in the 2012 season. In fact, he could be the first linebacker drafted - ahead of Patrick Willis - in countless IDP formats. Overall, he's almost guaranteed to be one of the first three players selected at his position in 2012 IDP drafts.

Looking at Laurinaitis' career numbers, it's surprising to note that he has yet to force a fumble in his first three seasons in the league. That's about the only thing he hasn't done. The former Ohio State Buckeye fills just about every other category an IDP owner could want, and is one of the NFL's most prolific tacklers. In fact, he's recorded a combined 120 total tackles in two of his first three NFL seasons. There's no reason to think 2012 won't be another step in his evolution, especially considering the Rams' schedule isn't loaded with a ton of high-powered offenses. Laurinaitis should also benefit from the presence of rookie DT Michael Brockers, which is even more reason to consider him a top-five fantasy linebacker.

Johnson has recently come into his own at the linebacking spot, picking up 198 tackles in the last two seasons combined. He's not a sack monster - just 16 in seven seasons - but he makes up for it with his ability to create turnovers. In fact, the Texas product has forced at least one fumble in each year of his career and has at least one interception in each of the last five years. Plus, with the Ravens, Bengals, Colts and Bucs on Kansas City's schedule this year, Johnson should have a chance to make hay against some less-than-stellar offenses. A top-10 player at his position last season, Johnson should be consider a No. 1 linebacker and is worth a middle- to late-round choice.

Patrick Willis is the face of the 49ers defense, but Bowman is quickly becoming its muscle. The second-year player was the league's seventh-leading tackler and easily outpaced all of his 49er teammates in that category. He's still searching for his first NFL interception, but with seven passes defended in 2011, Bowman is capable of being a factor in pass coverage. Don't expect him to rack up a lot of sacks - especially with Aldon and Justin Smith terrorizing quarterbacks - because his greatest value is as a tackling machine. As more teams scheme to neutralize Willis, Bowman should be free to make plays. You might have to reach a little earlier and take him in the middle rounds since he won't be a secret much longer.

A fifth-year linebacker out of Oklahoma, Lofton finished among the leaders in fantasy points at the linebacker position last season. In fact, only five players were better for fantasy owners. He recorded a career-best 147 combined tackles, defensed seven passes and even scored his first NFL touchdown. Now in New Orleans, Lofton will fill in at middle linebacker, with Jonathan Vilma suspended for the entire 2012 campaign due to the bounty scandal. Though his status for Week 1 is in question due to a high-ankle sprain, Lofton is a nice bet to continue to post solid tackle totals both on the football gridiron and from a fantasy perspective. Consider him a middle-tier No. 1 fantasy linebacker and well worth a middle- to late-round selection in all IDP formats.

Fletcher has been one of the most prolific tacklers in the entire league during a good majority of his NFL career. In fact, he's recorded no fewer than 116 total tackles in each of his last 11 seasons. What makes that even more impressive is that at 36, he posted a career-best in total tackles with the Redskins in 2012. That also helped him finish second in fantasy points among linebackers on NFL.com. So despite the fact that he's a little long in the tooth, it's tough to look past what Fletcher has been able to accomplish on the gridiron. He's a legitimate No. 1 option at his position in all IDP leagues and well worth a middle- to late-round choice in drafts.

There's not much that can be said about Lewis that hasn't already been said during his Hall of Fame career. Sure he's getting up there in age - he'll be 37 when the 2012 season starts - but Lewis is still one of the premier defensive players in the NFL. Had he not missed time last year, he would have projected to be a top-10 option based on fantasy points. Chances are, some owner may overreach and take Lewis a few rounds too early simply because of name recognition. Wherever you land him, you will get solid production, but be aware that you won't be getting the same Lewis that has terrorized offenses for the past decade and a half.

Washington was tasked with trying to replace the extremely productive Karlos Dansby and took huge strides toward that goal in 2011. He led the Cardinals in tackles and finished third on the team in sacks. But that belies his value as an IDP stat-sheet stuffer. Washington was also tied for second with a pair of interceptions (Arizona had just 10 picks as team, tied for 24th in the league) and defended a total of seven passes. In the offensively-challenged NFC West division, Washington should shine in 2012. And with offensively talented teams on the schedule like the Packers, Lions and Patriots, he'll be plenty busy in pass coverage. Consider drafting Washington somewhere in the later rounds as a borderline No. 1 fantasy linebacker.

Tulloch experienced a decline in fantasy production in his first year with the Lions, ranking 11th in points at linebacker - that was down eight spots from his previous year's finish. Still, he put up 100-plus total tackles for the second straight season while also posting five passes defensed and a career-best two interceptions. An integral part of what is shaping up to be a terrific unit on defense, Tulloch should continue to see more than his share of opportunities in the tackles category. A borderline No. 1 or 2 fantasy option at his position, look for Tulloch to come off the board in the late rounds.

The difference between Weatherspoon's rookie and sophomore seasons in the NFL was truly astounding, as the former Missouri Tiger seemed to figure things out in Atlanta. He proved his worth as an edge rusher with four sacks and wasn't bad in coverage with eight pass breakups. If he puts together another season like he did in 2011, he could creep into the middle rounds. Year Three should prove whether Weatherspoon is ready to make the leap to one of the NFL's best young linebackers, however. We think he's on the cusp, but right now it's safe to wait until later in the draft before taking a chance on him.

Greenway is coming off a monster season, posting career-best in total tackles (154) while also recording two sacks and a pair of defensed passes. The seventh-year veteran out of Iowa has not only been productive at the NFL level, he's also been ultra-durable since missing his entire rookie campaign. In fact, Greenway has been absent from just one regular-season contest in that time. At 29, and in the prime of his career, there's no reason to think his high level of production in tackles won't continue in 2012. He's a borderline No. 1 or 2 fantasy linebacker in all IDP formats.

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