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Here we are at last! All the planning and preparations are over and it is time to play some real football. The preseason gave us a lot of answers but there are a number of important situations still lacking clear resolution. Some big expectations were dashed and a few guys rose from the shadows to claim significant roles heading into round one. These are the things that caught my eye and my thoughts as we close in on Baltimore at Denver.
Tyrann Mathieu spent time as the starting free safety during the preseason. He turned a lot of heads with his all out approach and big play production. Once Rashad Johnson was healthy, Mathieu returned to his role as the nickel corner. I still believe he will eventually find a way into a full time role. He could post surprisingly good numbers even as the nickel back, but I suggest keeping Mathieu on the bench for week one until we get a full sample to judge by.
Karlos Dansby and Jasper Brinkley were the starting inside linebacker at the end of the preseason. Both were productive three down players. Brinkley is expected to be the odd man out when Daryl Washington returns from suspension, but anything can happen in the NFL. I was pleasantly surprised at how well Brinkley performed and will be keeping a close eye on his four game audition. Kevin Minter may be the long term answer next to Washington, but it seems unlikely that he will get his shot this season.
Osi Umenyiora has looked good but the Falcons are still searching for a bookend. Kroy Biermann enters the season with the title of starters but rookie Malliciah Goodman and some other new faces are likely to get some snaps. Biermann has established that he is not the answer so watch for someone to step up.
Heading into the preseason I was a big fan of Arthur Brown. My expectations were based on his early draft status and his prospect for stepping into the Ray Lewis role. Brown may eventually get to that point but for now Daryl Smith has thrown a wrench into the gears. Smith is a versatile player who spent the first nine years of his career in Jacksonville. During that time he made starts at all three linebacker positions and was a serviceable LB3 or quality depth most seasons, but Smith was not impressive. He seems to have found a home in a Ravens 3-4 that seems to be a perfect fit. Smith has looked comfortable and has been highly productive throughout the preseason. Grab him if available and do not be surprised when he finishes among the top 24.
Only the names have changed as the Ravens are basically using the same approach at the inside backer positions that we have seen in years past. Smith is playing Lewis, Josh Bynes is playing Jameel McClain (until the real McClain is healthy) and Brown has moved into the Dannell Ellerbe role as the nickel linebacker replacing Bynes. Unless something changes here, the results will be the same as well. Smith will put up quality numbers as the only three down player of the group, while Brown and Bynes/McClain will be marginal at best with a handful of good games over the course of the season.
If you picked up Brown in a redraft league it is not time to panic just yet, but it is time to be looking for options. Unless someone like Smith is available, I would give Brown a week or two in hope that Bynes struggles. Move on quickly if Brown does step into the full time role by week to or after week one if a quality option presents itself.
Dynasty owners should remain patient. The problem here is that Smith is just 31 years old and could end up being the guy for the next 2-3 years. That said, I still have a hard time believing that Baltimore would use a second round pick on a part time inside linebacker. I also believe that Brown has an every down skill set. Everyone needs to keep in mind that Bobby Wagner was a two down LB and a marginal fantasy option at the start of last season.
First round safety Matt Elam has not yet claimed a starting job either, but is in a similar situation as Brown. Elam too is getting on the field in many packages and has worked with the first unit in the base defense during the preseason. James Ihedigbo is a dependable veteran journeyman and will get the official start in week one. Unless he impresses or Elam struggles (which he has not), the rookie is eventually going to move up. Starting either of these guys in week one would be a major gamble, but we should resist the urge to let Elam go if he does not put up big numbers early.
We entered the preseason looking for someone to step up at inside linebacker in Buffalo. Rookie Kiko Alonso has been that guy. Alonso earned an every down role early in camp and has looked pretty good for the most part. Nigel Bradham has also played well. Throughout the preseason he gave way to Bryan Scott in some sub packages. The release of Scott means a three down role for Bradham going forward. These guys are playing behind an excellent trio of linemen and will have plenty of opportunity as the Bills continue to rebuild. Alonso is going to be on a roster in most leagues, but Bradham will have been overlooked in many. Keep him on your short list.
The Bills safety positions have been a source of turmoil this summer. The Jairus Byrd holdout was the media focus but the supposed struggles of projected starting strong safety Da'Norris Searcy probably has the most potential fantasy impact. One report even had him on the roster bubble due to struggles in coverage. Searcy started the first three preseason games. He was at strong safety in the first two and strangely moved to free safety for the third game, with Aaron Williams getting the start at strong. In the final preseason tilt the Bills sat a lot of defensive starters including Williams, while Searcy played behind rookie Duke Williams. Adding even more mud to the water, Byrd now has a foot injury.
Those of us who drafted Searcy could be facing a major disappointment, but I would not react too quickly. If everyone is healthy it looks like Byrd and Aaron Williams will be the starters at free and strong respectively. I will not be surprised however, to see Searcy get back into the lineup quickly. Williams is a converted corner who may be better suited as a free safety. He could move there if Byrd struggles with the injury, putting Searcy back in the strong safety role. The other option I see with Searcy is to take over the nickel LB role that has been vacated by the release of Bryan Scott. Keep Searcy on the bench this week and cross your fingers that he has a significant role in the opener. If he does not, move on quickly.
Owners in tackle required leagues need to see if Star Lotulelei is still available. The rookie has been a beast during preseason action. In the third warm up game he recorded 4 solo tackles and a sack against the Ravens. With both defensive ends coming off big seasons, offenses are not going to be able to scheme against the rookie. He could be a top 5 interior lineman this year.
The only surprising thing about the Panthers late addition of strong safety Quintin Mikell, is that they waited so long to do it. Mikell is familliar with the scheme so mentally he can be ready quickly, but physically he will have to play his way into shape. With Haruki Nakamura going on IR, it is a given that Mikell will soon assume the starting job and he may even see action in the opener. What is not a given is a return to fantasy prominence. He will be working behind a trio of quality linebackers and a front seven that may not let much get through. I am a long time Mikell fan but will need to see him produce before I get on board this time.
The other quick note for those who may have missed it, Jon Beason returned to the weak side position but continues to exit in sub package situations. Thomas Davis is lining up on the strong side in the base and getting all the nickel package snaps. Davis has been very active and could be a decent LB3 for us. If he starts strong, it is not a fluke.
Most depth charts have James Anderson listed as the starting strong side linebacker in Chicago and even the announcers of the games were calling him such. Yet, if you know how strong and weak are determined, you will see that he has consistently been on the weak side with Lance Briggs lining up strong. Regardless of the title, Anderson and Briggs are the Bears three down backers entering week one. Anderson has been the most productive of the two and should be at or near the top of our pickup lists. Grab him before week one to avoid competition for his services.
Jon Bostic has been impressive and may be the best two down linebacker in the fantasy game by the end of the season. If you have D.J. Williams on your roster in anticipation that he will eventually get on the field at MLB, cut your losses now. It's not going to happen.
The Bengals strong safety position remains unsettled heading to week one. Taylor Mays saw nearly all the work with the starters over the final two games. He showed much improvement over previous years and is likely to get the call against Chicago, but I am not sold on him. George Iloka started the first preseason game before missing some time with a minor injury. In the fourth game he worked as the backup to Reggie Nelson at free safety while rookie Shawn Williams played behind Mays. If you picked up Williams as a dynasty prospect or a late round sleeper, sit him for now, but I still expect that he will emerge as the starter by the end of September.
Margus Hunt is a physical specimen and will be a monster in the league. He was a physical mismatch for the players he faced during the preseason, throwing then around reminiscent of Reggie White. Hunt has played only four years of organized football. Once he has time to develop as a football player, we are going to be talking about him as one of the league's dominant defensive ends.
From the start there have been question about how well Anthony Spencer will transition from 3-4 linebacker to 4-3 end. His being unable to play throughout the preseason and now likely into the regular season only adds gas to that fire. Meanwhile George Selvie has made the most of his opportunity. Selvie has played well and is a target to keep an eye on early in the season.
We often mention the rookie corner rule as an indicator of fantasy potential. Darius Slay is going to be another example of that rule. The Lions have gone with him as a starter from the early stages of came. They stuck with him even after he was abused at times during the preseason (Kembrel Thompkins 8-116). The rookie will be wearing a big bulls eye as offenses look to take advantage of his inexperience.
Jason Jones has established himself as an every down end. He has been productive between injuries in years past and is healthy entering week one. Jones may slip inside on some passing downs but both Nick Fairley and Ndamukung Suh are pretty good inside rushers. That may keep Jones on the outside most of the time. He has the potential to be a 40 tackle and 6-8 sack guy, so if he starts fast it is not a fluke. Ezekiel Ansah has been starting opposite Jones with Willie Young and Israel Idonije also seeing time. Ansah has been solid but not spectacular throughout the preseason.
Darryl Sharpton has managed to finish the preseason healthy and will start the opener along with Brian Cushing at inside linebacker. Sharpton has been working in a three down role since returning to action and could be a surprise this year if he can stay out of the trainers room for a change.
Rookie D.J. Swearinger Sr is likely to start the opener and possible another game or two as Ed Reed continues to work his way back from injury. The player to keep an eye on here however, is Danieal Manning. Manning played free safety last season but showed fantasy promise in a brief stint at strong. He has settled in to that position full time now and is a player worth having on our radar.
If you are looking to upgrade at linebacker, see if Pat Angerer slipped through the cracks and is available. The Colts activated him before the third preseason game and he immediately stepped into a three down role nest to Jerrell Freeman. He was a little rusty in his first action but Angerer looked better in the first quarter of the final warm up game. He was the team's leading tackler just two years ago and will be a great addition if he proves to be healthy.
There are two things to keep an eye on with the Jaguars in week one. We need to know how the playing time will work out between Tyson Alualu, Jason Babin and Jeremy Mincey at end. Both Babin and Mincey have DL2 upside if they have enough opportunity. Alualu's strength is run defense so I would expect him to either move inside or take a seat in passing situations. Babin is the team's best pass rusher and is all but certain to be in the sub packages. Mincey played sparingly in the final two preseason games but it is hard to say is that was by design or a result of the concussion that kept him out for a good part of camp.
The watch list also includes linebacker LaRoy Reynolds who was impressive during preseason action and may be the opening day starter on the strong side. He is unlikely to have a big impact in that role but his versatility could come into play if there are injuries. Keep in mind that Russell Allen missed time with a sore ankle during the preseason.
Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs have been looking for an inside linebacker to start opposite Derrick Johnson. Rookie Nico Johnson is a run stuffer who has been underwhelming and Akeem Jordan has not been a standout either. Seeing their dilemma, the Browns gifted James-Michael Johnson to Kansas City on cut down day. This guys would seem to best fit as a 4-3 middle backer but could fit well in the Chiefs scheme. He is more of a big physical thumper than Jordan and has better coverage skills than Nico Johnson. Keep an eye on this situation. It would not be a big surprise if James-Michael emerges as an every down inside backer at some point this season.
Owners in tackle required leagues will want to take notice of Jared Odrick. The former 3-4 end struggled as an outside pass rusher last season but has excelled as a 3-technique tackle this preseason. Randy Starks feels that he was benched as punishment for his holdout; maybe he should go watch the game film. Odrick could be the interior playmaker Miami needs to compliment their improved talent at end.
The Vikings seem content to start the season with Erin Henderson as a three down middle linebacker and Marvin Mitchell taking weak side snaps on early downs. Desmond Bishop was not able to win a starting job but the fact that he made the team tells us there is hope. While Henderson holds his current role he will be worthy as a fourth or fifth linebacker on the end of your depth chart, but his upside is limited.
New England Patriots
Brandon Spikes seems to have made it through the preseason without being bumped from the three down role he so desired. If he continues to be on the field full time Spikes could have a huge season. He was far from stellar in coverage during the preseason but did show improvement over season's past. I would be nervous about starting him in week one or after any game in which he struggles, but Spikes certainly deserves a roster spot heading into the opener.
New Orleans Saints
With the Saints shelving Jonathan Vilma for at least half of the season, David Hawthorne becomes a safe option as an LB4-5 with LB3 upside on any given week. He has been seeing time in most sub packages throughout the preseason and is a player who was widely overlooked during draft season.
New York Giants
Once we get beyond the defensive ends and possibly safety Antrel Rolle, the Giants give us little to get real excited about. They do however, give us a couple of prospects to keep a close eye on this week. Spencer Paysinger has risen from the fog as New York's lone three down linebacker. He has been impressive at times during the preseason and could be a roster worthy option. If he has a good week one it is not a fluke. Move on him quickly.
The other player of interest is safety Ryan Mundy who steps in for the injured Stevie Brown. Both Brown and Tyler Sash have landed on IR, so Mundy should be locked into a position that has provided quality numbers recently.
Andre Carter is a player I liked as a sleeper early in the summer, but his play during the preseason made his release no surprise. Carter's release opens the door for Jason Hunter to become a factor. Hunter started for Lamarr Houston over much of the preseason and will simply move to the other side now. He is a better than average pass rusher and will likely continue to move inside on passing downs with Sio Moore or Jack Crawford on the outside. Hunter is unlikely to land more than 5-6 sacks, but could be a 40+ tackle guy. Keep him on your short list and see what week one brings.
Between injuries and suspensions the Seahawks are going to be thin up front in the opener. Look for Michael Bennett to move back outside until reinforcements arrive. Calling out matchups and strong plays in week one is a crap shoot, so I always say when in doubt go with the better player over the expected matchup. With Bennett we are talking about a player that many owners will be starting as a tackle. If that is your situation, he has to be in your lineup.
St. Louis Rams
With James Lauriniatis and Alec Ogletree in front of him, strong safety T.J. McDonald is going to have stiff competition for tackles. That said, I love the way this guy is being used. During the preseason McDonald rarely lined up more than 12 yards deep and most of the time he was within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage. He rushed the passer a few times, lined up at linebacker in the dime packages and has played sound football for a rookie.
Moise Fokou will be the week one starter at middle linebacker by default as Colin McCarthy continues to struggle with injuries. Fokou is a backup quality player who will likely have a two down role. When/if McCarthy can fight his way back to pre-injury form, he will have little trouble dispatching the competition. At this point Zach Brown is the Titans linebacker to play.
That is a wrap for week one. I am already having trouble sleeping and it is only Tuesday. Let's put all that hard work and planning into action. Best of luck to everyone and Just Win Baby!