The information flow is steadily growing. We're still left to wonder in some instances whether the "unofficial" team depth charts are meaningful or whether a defensive coordinator is still looking at base and subpackage combinations. But with each passing training camp practice and preseason game, we're closer to seeing the truth.
After closely following beat writer reports online and Twitter over the past two weeks and getting a look at the first preseason games, I'm ready for a quick run of team-by-team updates and a first educated guess at projecting the every-down linebackers for each team. Check back later this week for another update of my IDP positional tiers.
Beat writers reported a heavy mix of Big Nickel packages in early camp practices, with Larry Foote and Deone Bucannon playing linebacker. That was big news for Kevin Minter (negative) and Bucannon (positive). In the first preseason game, however, the Cardinals showed a traditional nickel with Foote and Minter frequently, using the Big Nickel look only in longer down and distance facing multiple wide receiver sets. Bucannon didn't play in the base defense with the first team. That's slighly better news for Minter. I think Bucannon will take over as a base defensive safety soon, but temper your early season expectations for now.
The Falcons used some 3-4 base fronts, as expected, with Kroy Biermann and Jonathan Massaquoi at outside linebacker. Prince Shembo didn't see any first team snaps in the preseason game, but he's reportedly gaining comfort as he transitions to an inside backer role. I don't see him as a threat to Bartu, but he's on the watch list. Massaquoi and Osi Umenyiora rotated with the first team. Massaquoi looked good and may be ticketed for an every-down role soon. Also of note, Jonathan Babineaux looked good as a shade 5-technique in nickel situations. I'll be adding him to my draftable defensive tackle tier in the next update.
On multiple occasions, local writers have suggested C.J. Mosley will start and play in the nickel but Arthur Brown will see a signficant number of snaps. I didn't buy it and said as much during our weekly IDP podcast. But I wanted a little visual confirmation. Well, I got it last weekend. Mosley started and played every down with the first team alongside Josh Bynes (who was starting for a dinged Daryl Smith). Mosley looked like a veteran, comfortable with his decision-making, shedding blocks well and pursuing effectively. He showed off some pass rush ability, too. There was no sign of Brown until the second team hit the field. And there was a clear difference between the two players. Brown didn't perform poorly, but Mosley is clearly the better player. The Ravens safeties look to be interchangeable; Matt Elam should see enough snaps around the box to have DB2 value.
Every-Down Linebackers: Brandon Spikes
Local writers noted lots of linebacker shuffling in subpackages early in camp, with Brandon Spikes reportedly seeing the fewest snaps. That hasn't been the case in the first two preseason games. Spikes has been the lone every-down backer for the Bills, with Nigel Bradham and Keith Rivers rotating. Preston Brown, who had been seeing first team nickel snaps, is back in his pre-Kiko Alonso injury role as the backup middle linebacker and has yet to see time with the first team in any package through two preseason games. I've pushed Spikes so many times over the past few years I lost track. And he's always burned us with off-field issues, durability problems and inconsistent play. But I'll say it again: A healthy, motivated, every-down Spikes has LB1 upside.The safety situation has also gone through a transition. Early in camp, it was Aaron Williams and Da'Norris Searcy running exclusively with the first team. The second preseason game had Duke Williams starting over Searcy and subsequent camp reports had Duke Williams and Searcy running with the ones. Clear as mud for now. I'll be watching the linebacker and safety developments closely over the next two weeks.
There's not much of note in Carolina. Roman Harper has missed time with a toe injury, but is still expected to start alongside Thomas DeCoud. Charles Johnson is still out with a hamstring injury, but there are no indications it will linger into the regular season.
I'm not 100% confident listing Williams on the every-down linebacker line but he played in every nickel look the Bears ran against Philadelphia. There was one play in which Jon Bostic was trying to get on the field early against a spread set but the Bears weren't quick enough. Whether Bostic is a nickel replacment for Williams remains to be seen. Brock Vereen has been seeing some first team duty in camp, but Ryan Mundy started the first preseason game. That's a battle to watch closely over the next two weeks.
Every-Down Linebackers: Vontaze Burfict, Emmanuel Lamur
Emmanuel Lamur will be a high variance play, but he's an underrated commodity in deeper leagues right now. Vinny Rey played well enough last year that I still get lots of questions about him taking over in the middle. It's not Rey you should be tracking for 2014, it's Lamur. Expect Carlos Dunlap to get the bulk of the snaps along the defensive line, but there will be a four man rotation with Robert Geathers, Wallace Gilberry and Margus Hunt. Gilberry should get 600-700 snaps and be a matchup DL3 play. But watch Hunt's progress carefully. He's playing with better leverage and awareness and could cut into Gilberry's playing time if he stays true to his run fits.
Every-Down Linebackers: Karlos Dansby
I'm only listing Dansby on the every-down line for now. I'll add at least one more name to the list before the end of the preseason. Chris Kirksey has been turning heads in camp and drawing praise from Mike Pettine, but Craig Robertson started the first preseason game. I doubt that lasts, but don't overdraft Kirksey just yet. Paul Kruger and Barkevious Mingo started and played every down with the first team last weekend, with Jabaal Sheard playing with the second team. I'm not certain that holds through the end of the preseason either. Sheard has been very impressive in camp and Mingo looked good against the run in the first preseason game. I think the outside linebacker group will be a three man rotation, with all three on the field in some subpackages.
Ugh. Sigmund Bloom asked me on our podcast last week if the Dallas front seven had an equivalent to the back or receiver on a bad offense who gets numbers on volume and opportunity alone. It doesn't work that way on defense. You have to be good enough to shed a block and close on a play. There's going to be some numbers and IDP value here by default, yes, but good luck guessing who might get them in any given week. Other than Barry Church, who will be cleaning up the mess left behind, I'm not seeing any consistent value in Durant or Carter, even as every-down, high volume opportunity players. I think Carter will put up some strong statistical games, but you'll have to suffer through some pain along the way. Anthony Hitchens did impress in the second half, but he was taking on players who will not be making the Chargers' roster.
DeMarcus Ware looked quick on his feet and showed his pursuit ability in his series of play. Derek Wolfe started opposite him, but second teamers Malik Jackson and Quanterus Smith looked like a pair of condors coming off the edge at times. Smith played under control and with a relentless motor. If he can regain the edge move he flashed at Western Kentucky before his ACL tear, he could be a huge IDP value in years to come. It's just one preseason effort and Smith may not see more than 200-300 snaps this year, but it's always notable when a talented player stands out against the second team.
Ashlee Palmer is holding off Kyle Van Noy at outside linebacker. I think Van Noy will work his way into playing time this season, but he's not seen any reps with the first team in practice. Ezekiel Ansah is still on the PUP list, but those watching him work on the side see no reason to believe that he'll miss regular season time.
Green Bay Packers
This spring, I thought there was a chance Julius Peppers could remain classified as a defensive end after reading that Dom Capers was going to list him as an Elephant. But I grew more skeptical over the past few months and continually moved him down my tier board. I now think it's a near lock that Peppers will be reclassifed to linebacker. Though he had his hand down in subpackages, Peppers was in a two point stance in the base defense and the NFL Gamebook listed him as an outside linebacker. Peppers will still put up solid statistical numbers, but make sure your scoring system supports his value as a linebacker. Camp reports have Brad Jones back in his 2012 role as the team's dime linebacker. That's a big bump to his value if he can stay healthy. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix has been seeing a few snaps with the first team, but the starting safeties are very likely to remain Morgan Burnett and Micah Hyde.
Every-Down Linebackers: Brian Cushing
The Texans rotated Whitney Mercilus with starters Brooks Reed and Jadeveon Clowney in the first preseason game. Neither of the projected starters at inside linebacker, Brian Cushing and Akeem Dent, played. I think Clowney will go on the every-down linebacker line soon, but there's going to be some rotation among all three players here. I doubt Dent plays in the nickel, but I'm interested to see his role in a preseason game. Jared Crick looks to be comfortably ahead of his competition at defensive end.
Henoc Muamba put up the most dramatic solo tackle line of the weekend. Though he's an intriguing former CFL star, there's not much upside behind Jerrell Freeman and D'Qwell Jackson at inside linebacker and the team has had good things to say about Andrew Jackson as well. Bjoern Werner looks a little more comfortable this year and will get extended playing time with Robert Mathis suspended for the first four games, but I'm not buying into him becoming a long term IDP value yet. Both Werner and Erik Walden could play every down until Mathis returns.
Every-Down Linebackers: Paul Posluszny
Dakoda Watson is still on the PUP list and may start the regular season there. That puts Chris Clemons into a high leverage role on all downs and LaRoy Reynolds back into the lineup as a starter. Andre Branch was a subpackage player with the starters in the first preseason game and his value will be game situation dependent. Telvin Smith Sr, who hasn't been able to get a sniff of first team base defensive reps yet, ran alongside Paul Posluszny in the nickel package last weekend. He looked quick, but it's unlikely he'll challenge Geno Hayes for a base role soon. I was pleased to see Chris Smith more than hold his own against the dregs of the Tampa Bay roster. He's down the Jacksonville depth chart, but could surprise in future years.
Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs are a writer's dream. The studs are known commodities, the role players have little upside. Two items of note here. First, don't write off Dontari Poe after a disappointing statistical second half of last season. His play didn't fall off in any phase and teams were able to focus a bit more on the interior line after Justin Houston's elbow injury. Second, Dee Ford showed a dominating pass rush against Cincinnati's third team offensive line. If the Chiefs can teach him to play the run, Ford may make it easier not to pay Justin Houston next offseason.
Every-Down Linebackers: Dannell Ellerbe
I watched the first preseason game looking for confirmation that Koa Misi was still not a great fit inside. While there were some false steps and slow reactions, I came away more impressed than I expected. Whether that's a case of Misi exceeding low expectations or a clear sign I was wrong about him I can't yet say, but he's earned a long look over the next two weeks. The subpackage alignments still aren't settled, but it looks like the Dolphins are leaning slightly toward Misi and Dannell Ellerbe. It's going to take at least another week to confirm that, however, as Wheeler was in for Misi for a couple of snaps last week. I think Cameron Wake is back. He looked much better coming out of breaks than last season. Along with Jason Pierre-Paul, he's the defensive end I'm most interested in watching next week. Early reports have Jimmy Wilson as the most likely replacement for Reshad Jones while Jones serves his four game suspension. I wouldn't rush to grab Wilson just yet.
I covered the Vikings in-depth during last week's podcast. Nothing I saw last weekend changed my mind: I think this situation is settled. Chad Greenway and Anthony Barr are going to start outside and stay on the field every down. We may see Barr rush the passer, but he's not going to be used as a down lineman on third downs much. Jasper Brinkley will hold off Audie Cole inside. Unfortunately, the team has concluded that Michael Mauti isn't a long term option at middle linebacker. He's with the third string at weak side linebacker right now.
New England Patriots
I've been jumping Jamie Collins Sr up my tier board more rapidly than any other linebacker. I wanted to see how the Patriots might use him last week, but New England chose to evaluate many of their second and third string players against better competition. So, further evaluation of Collins will have to wait until next week.
New Orleans Saints
The Saints were a tough scout last week as they mixed up their fronts and didn't play their starters long. So I'll use this blurb as a reminder than a healthy Kenny Vaccaro has a chance to be an all-around force and a top five fantasy defensive back this year.
New York Giants
Jon Beason's recovery is going very well, but it's not yet clear whether he'll be ready for Week 1. When he returns, Jameel McClain will go back to a base defense only strong side linebacker role. That will push Devon Kennard back to a reserve role. But keep Kennard close on your watch lists. He's been impressive enough to follow. Jason Pierre-Paul sounds and looks healthy. But the most fantasy buzz along the line is on Damontre Moore after two strong preseason games. While Moore's consistent pass rush in the early going is a great sign, he's not likely to push Mathias Kiwanuka aside yet. Kiwanuka's run defense continues to be strong and he's not leaving the field in clear passing situations either.
New York Jets
Go get a snack. There's nothing new of note here.
Every-Down Linebackers: Nick Roach
This front seven is going to be interesting. Miles Burris and Sio Moore are locked in a tight battle to play weak side linebacker. Burris started the first preseason game, but Moore is reportedly running with the first team more often this week. If the first preseason game is any indication, the winner of that battle will play every down. I was surprised to see Khalil Mack leave the field on some nickel downs. The Raiders kept their base front four on the field (and Roach and Burris) on those downs and substituted a nickel back for Mack. I'm not sure what that means, but I'm tentatively leaving Mack off the every down line for now.
Ho-hum. Free Brandon Graham. The Eagles defense is set, with the only notable battle occurring at strong safety. Earl Wolff was reportedly seeing the majority of first team snaps earlier in camp, but Nate Allen started the first preseason game and played extensively.
Jarvis Jones may belong on the every down line soon. Ryan Shazier didn't play in the first preseason game but all indications are that he'll start and play every down at inside linebacker on opening weekend. The big news last week for Pittsburgh was the return of Sean Spence. I didn't give Spence much chance to return from a catastrophic knee injury that involved nerve damage years ago. But he looked fluid and confident starting next to Lawrence Timmons last week. That led to questions on Twitter about whether Spence is in the mix for playing time. While Spence looked better than could have been expected, he wasn't dominant and still has work to do, I don't see him pushing aside Timmons or Shazier in any package in the near future. But it's great news for the depth chart.
St. Louis Rams
Aaron Donald looks every bit as fast off the ball against NFL players as he did against SEC offensive lines. Donald didn't make any splash plays and he'll have to refine his technique a bit, but he was in the backfield frequently and in control when pursuing down the line. It's going to be fun watching Donald and Robert Quinn work side-by-side.
San Diego Chargers
Every-Down Linebackers: Donald Butler, Manti Te'o
Manti Te'o makes this list in the same way Mason Foster has in the past. There will be some dime situations in which Butler is the lone linebacker on the field. But Te'o looks to be ahead of Reggie Walker thus far in the competition for nickel snaps. I think Melvin Ingram III ascends to every-down status soon, too.
San Francisco 49ers
With NaVorro Bowman likely out for much of the season recovering from last season's knee injury and Aldon Smith likely suspended for 6-8 games, the Niners are going to rotate more at linebacker than ever. Michael Wilhoite and Chris Borland started at inside linebacker in the first preseason game. Neither were impressive. Camp reports suggest that both could see time next to Patrick Willis in the early weeks. Corey Lemonier will see subpackage duty with Dan Skuta playing in the base while Smith is suspended. What stood out to me during the first preseason game was Tank Carradine. While trying to track Borland, my eyes kept wandering to Carradine, whose frame has no trouble carrying the 285+ he wants to be to play 3-4 end. He was quick off the ball, played with leverage and very good hands and closed the pocket very well. He's no Cameron Jordan or Muhammad Wilkerson yet, but he could have that kind of potential.
The Seahawks sat a few key players in the first preseason game, but otherwise lined up as expected. Cliff Avril and Byron Maxwell will see expanded roles this year. The primary concern here is the Seattle home stat crew. That's something I'll note carefully after their first home preseason game to see if the crew remains assist-heavy.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Lovie Smith challenged Mason Foster to get slimmer and quicker this offseason. Foster responded and has reportedly looked good in coverage in camp. The strong offseason has cemented Foster in an every-down role. Lavonte David will keep Foster from elite numbers, but Foster is no longer a matchup dependent LB3. He's still going at a value in drafts.
Zach Brown sat the first series for disciplinary reasons, but he's well ahead of Zaviar Gooden in the compeition to play inside linebacker next to Wes Woodyard. Ray Horton usually leaves both inside backers on the field in his subpackage and the first preseason game was no exception. Interestingly, Kamerion Wimbley played ahead of Akeem Ayers with the first team. The monsoon-like conditions in Tennessee made it tough to evaluate Jurrell Casey in his transition to the 3-4 but I'm not expecting much difficulty for him.
Keenan Robinson has the inside linebacker job next to Perry Riley in hand. Robinson was a little too grabby in coverage and had a false step in run defense at times, but he played downhill and hit hard. Riley looked quicker than in the past. The most impressive defensive starter was Brian Orakpo, who drew a holding penalty on a nice edge rush then cashed in a sack on an inside swim move a few plays later. If you're looking for a later round big play pick, Orakpo looks primed for a big season in his push for a new contract.
Follow and ask questions on Twitter @JeneBramel. Reading the Defense will be a regular feature this offseason with free agent commentary, draft prospect previews, tier discussion, links to our offseason IDP roundtable podcasts and much more. Subscribe to The Audible on iTunes or download our IDP podcast here.