I'm not much on fancy, well-written introductions and lead-ins during the season. And I doubt many of you read this feature hoping to find flowery prose. That's my way of saying I'm just going to get on with it.
Thanks to those of you who have been loyal readers over the years. This feature won't change much this year. If you're new to the inseason columns, welcome. I'll be transitioning from tiers and draft strategy -- though there will still be tiers featured in the coming weeks -- to team-by-team notes, every-down linebacker tables and discussion, and film study of IDP breakouts and disappointments. Those three elements will be a part of the RTD every week. There will also be a healthy dose of the usual metrics -- tackle opportunity, run-pass ratios, stat crew trends -- and more.
When I first began writing this feature years ago, schemes and position were a key part of IDP analysis. They still are. But, back then, there were fewer subpackage snaps and hardly any platoon situations at linebacker. Teams played a base defense -- then usually a 4-3 -- about 65-70% of the time. When they substituted on passing downs, it was almost always to a standard 4-2-5, with a cornerback replacing the strong side linebacker.
That doesn't happen anymore. Teams play a minority of their snaps in the base defense, sometimes as little as 20-25% of their snaps. Those base snaps are multiple fronts, with players switching responsibilities from one snap to the next. The subpackages are more varied than ever. 14-17 defenders may play at least 30-40% of their team's defensive snaps in any given game.
So, over the past few seasons, snap count has become all-important to IDP value. And while there are rotations along every defensive line and substitution patterns of note in the secondary, knowing each team's every-down linebackers has become a key piece of analysis to any successful IDP roster strategy.
I've been producing this table in the IDP Forum for many years. This year, I'm adding it to the weekly RTD. There will be a set of brief notes after the table each week, with extended discussion in the team-by-team notes section to follow.
|TEAM||EVERY-DOWN LBs||75-100% SNAPS||INJ | SUSP|
|ARIZONA||LARRY FOOTE, MATT SHAUGHNESSY||KEVIN MINTER|
|ATLANTA||PAUL WORRILOW, JOPLO BARTU, KROY BIERMANN|
|BALTIMORE||DARYL SMITH, C.J. MOSLEY, TERRELL SUGGS|
|BUFFALO||BRANDON SPIKES, (? KEITH RIVERS)||NIGEL BRADHAM|
|CAROLINA||LUKE KUECHLY, THOMAS DAVIS|
|CINCINNATI||VONTAZE BURFICT, EMMANUEL LAMUR|
|CLEVELAND||KARLOS DANSBY, BARKEVIOUS MINGO|
|DENVER||VON MILLER, BRANDON MARSHALL||DANNY TREVATHAN|
|DETROIT||STEPHEN TULLOCH, DEANDRE LEVY|
|GREEN BAY||BRAD JONES, CLAY MATTHEWS, JULIUS PEPPERS||A.J. HAWK|
|HOUSTON||BRIAN CUSHING||JADEVEON CLOWNEY|
|INDIANAPOLIS||JERRELL FREEMAN, D'QWELL JACKSON||ERIK WALDEN||ROBERT MATHIS|
|KANSAS CITY||DERRICK JOHNSON, JUSTIN HOUSTON, TAMBA HALI|
|MIAMI||DANNELL ELLERBE||KOA MISI|
|MINNESOTA||CHAD GREENWAY, ANTHONY BARR|
|NEW ENGLAND||JEROD MAYO, JAMIE COLLINS|
|NEW ORLEANS||CURTIS LOFTON||DAVID HAWTHORNE, JUNIOR GALETTE|
|NEW YORK GIANTS||JON BEASON, JACQUIAN WILLIAMS|
|NEW YORK JETS||DAVID HARRIS, DEMARIO DAVIS, CALVIN PACE||QUINTON COPLES|
|OAKLAND||NICK ROACH, SIO MOORE|
|PHILADELPHIA||MYCHAL KENDRICKS, TRENT COLE, CONNOR BARWIN||DEMECO RYANS|
|PITTSBURGH||LAWRENCE TIMMONS, RYAN SHAZIER, JASON WORILDS, JARVIS JONES|
|ST. LOUIS||JAMES LAURINAITIS, ALEC OGLETREE|
|SAN DIEGO||DONALD BUTLER||MANTI TE'O|
|SAN FRANCISCO||PATRICK WILLIS, AHMAD BROOKS||NAVORRO BOWMAN, ALDON SMITH|
|SEATTLE||BOBBY WAGNER, K.J. WRIGHT|
|TAMPA BAY||LAVONTE DAVID, MASON FOSTER|
|TENNESSEE||WESLEY WOODYARD, ZACH BROWN, DERRICK MORGAN, KAM WIMBLEY|
|WASHINGTON||PERRY RILEY, KEENAN ROBINSON, BRIAN ORAKPO, RYAN KERRIGAN|
There is still some needed clarity in this table as we head into Week 1. I've marked some names with question marks, but I'm not 100% confident yet about the status of the outside linebacker rotations for Indianapolis, Houston, New Orleans, the New York Jets, Pittsburgh and San Diego. None of those situations are critical, but they'll be worthwhile information for those looking for good matchups in big play leagues during bye weeks. With rare exception, this table will be locked in after Week 1.
You'll find a little of everything here. Mostly, I'll be noting depth chart changes and analyzing any scheme or role changes from the previous week's games. I'll also use this section to take an in-depth look at why certain players may be over- or under-performing. I'll try to get through every team each week as often as possible.
Kevin Minter never won the coaching staff over this summer. Worries over how he handled his assignments and a mid-camp pectoral strain cost him a chance at an every-down linebacker job. With Deone Bucannon looking entrenched as a dime linebacker, Minter's stat lines may look much like Mason Foster's over the past two seasons. If you have him rostered, he's not starting material except in deep tackle-heavy leagues until his situation changes. Bruce Arians said Tyrann Mathieu wouldn't play in Week 1 if he wasn't ready for the final preseason game. Mathieu didn't play last week, but Arians left the door open for Mathieu anyway. Regardless, don't expect more than situational snaps for Mathieu in the first 2-3 weeks. And it may be Mathieu's status that paves the way for Bucannon in the starting lineup. With Mathieu in coverage, Bucannon would be free to play in the box in the base defense.
Big play leaguers should watch the snap count and usage of Jonathan Massaquoi. He's seeing lots of pass rush snaps and rotating into the base 3-4 as well. If he starts out hot, I'll have more on him here. Prince Shembo was seeing some first team reps as camp drew to a close. I don't think he's an immediate threat to Joplo Bartu. The Falcons needed to get him coached up and taking as many reps as possible. If there's an injury, he'll be the first off the bench at either inside linebacker spot.
Though it's possible things could change in Week 1, the many offseason reports that Arthur Brown would see playing time in some defensive packages never proved true in the preseason. It's all C.J. Mosley and Daryl Smith. Keep Brown in your mental rolodex, but I don't see him taking any meaningful snaps from the starters early in the season.
Preston Brown is going to start and could play every down with Nigel Bradham suspended this week. I think Keith Rivers will see the majority of nickel snaps, but I'll be watching the news closely. If something changes, I'll have it in the Sunday AM notes and on Twitter. At safety, the Bills listed Da'Norris Searcy and Aaron Williams as the starters on their Week 1 depth chart. There's more competition for tackles than in previous years, but Searcy is a decent DB3+ bet this week.
Roman Harper is reportedly good to go after fighting a turf toe injury for much of the preseason. His upside is limited behind a very strong front seven and two stud linebackers with range and good fundamental tackling skill. I'm interested in seeing how Star Lotulelei is progressing. He may never reach the upper echelon of fantasy defensive tackles due to his lack of projectable pass rush upside, but there's 40+ solo tackle potential there.
The Bears are going to rotate D.J. Williams (base) and Jon Bostic (nickel) in the early stages. I'm still lukewarm on Bostic's potential, but it may not take much to push Williams aside altogether. The Bears still haven't decided on their starting safeties. Marc Trestman said he'd have a clearer picture of the depth chart on Wednesday. Ryan Mundy has taken the majority of first team snaps, but Chris Conte (back from concussion), Danny McCray and Brock Vereen are all still in the mix.
I still get about a question a week on Vinny Rey, who lingers in the mind of IDP owners who saw him put up much better numbers than Rey Maualuga did when he got a brief run of starts. Rey didn't have a great preseason, however, and he's pegged as a super-sub of sorts without a base defensive role. Maualuga is going to be the base middle backer and Emmanuel Lamur and every-down player on the strong side. Geno Atkins is ready to start in Week 1, but expect him to take a few weeks to work up to a 50 snap effort.
Chris Kirksey turned heads in camp but he'll still rotate -- at best -- with Craig Robertson in the early weeks. What's even more notable to me is that Mike Pettine had no qualms inserting Barkevious Mingo into his base defense, saving Jabaal Sheard for rotational duty. Mingo will cause havoc on passing downs. If he can add an element of run defense into his game, there's elite tier rush linebacker value here. Justin Gilbert will be a subpackage corner for now. I'm still not sure why Donte Whitner isn't getting more love. There's no competition in the secondary for tackles and only Karlos Dansby as a sure thing in front of him. Throw in the additional assisted tackles he'll get from all the AFC North stat crews and you're looking at an easy 100 total tackles.
Welp. You're going to see Bruce Carter at weak side linebacker, Justin Durant at strong side linebacker and Rolando McClain in the middle. I think Durant is the only lock to play every down, but won't be surprised if Carter gets close to every down duty, too. McClain has had conditioning issues and is reportedly battling knee soreness. But Anthony Hitchens isn't ready to call out adjustments yet, so McClain is what's left. The mess means another season of elite tackle numbers for Barry Church. Anthony Spencer was activated off PUP this week and deserves watching. He won't get more than 20-25 snaps, if that, in the early going. But George Selvie is already dinged and Jeremy Mincey hasn't locked down more than rotational snaps either.
Von Miller and Chris Harris Jr are both ready to play every down. If you're in a corner-required league, don't wait for Harris to establish a trend of strong numbers. He's already done that. Stash him now. Brandon Marshall held onto the weak side linebacker job throughout camp and will play every down until Danny Trevathan comes back. That won't be until at least Week 5. Marshall should be solid LB3 value until then. I don't think Nate Irving will see many subpackage snaps but the depth chart is bare if the Broncos want Miller on the line on those downs. I expect the Broncos to use T.J. Ward heavily as a dime linebacker with Marshall, but one injury could thrust Irving into a larger role.
Kyle Van Noy is going to go on injured reserve with a designation to return. He may have a hard time getting snaps when he does return if Tahir Whitehead continues to play well. Whitehead blew past Ashlee Palmer and will provide a strong, physical, all-around presence at strong side linebacker. His fantasy value will be high variance, however, as a base only defender surrounded by capable tacklers. Ezekiel Ansah barely played in the preseason but he was working hard on the side and should be healthy and in condition for Week 1. His matchup (home v NYG) is strong enough to start him immediately. Nick Fairley's conditioning and work ethic were blasted this offseason and he was running with the twos for much of camp. He'll still rotate with C.J. Mosley, but Fairley was elevated back into the starting lineup this week.
It's a new day up front for Green Bay. Youngsters Datone Jones and Mike Daniels will start at end. Neither are man-mountains, but the Packers hope they'll be penetrating disruptive bookends. Josh Boyd likely gets the majority of base snaps with B.J. Raji to injured reserve. Hope you weren't caught off guard by the reclassification of Julius Peppers to linebacker. That has been in the cards since late June. Peppers is a great fit for Capers as an Elephant, however, so if you're in a big play scoring system he may be every bit as valuable at linebacker as he may have been at defensive end. Be careful before starting A.J. Hawk. With the secondary at full strength for the first time in two years, the Packers are going to use lots of dime subpackages. Brad Jones will be the linebacker there. It's not yet clear who will be in the box with him, but it's one of the first things I'll be watching in game review next week. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix will be a subpackage safety only behind Micah Hyde and Morgan Burnett.
Brian Cushing made it through the preseason healthy. I still like the upside, but it's hard to trust him to play 16 games. I also still think D.J. Swearinger Sr is underrated. He has only Cushing to compete for tackles; whomever plays inside linebacker next to Cushing and whichever safety sticks next to him won't be big threats to his numbers.
I think we'll see Erik Walden and Bjoern Werner take most of the outside linebacker snaps while Robert Mathis is suspended. But there may be more rotation there than it would appear. Neither player is more than a high variance flyer in big play leagues.
The Jaguars are still a work in progress. The bulk of this team's fantasy value will again come from Paul Posluszny and Jonathan Cyprien. The supporting roles will be Chris Clemons (who will play more than you think at defensive end), Andre Branch (who mostly a heavy rotational player currently), and the platoon of Geno Hayes (base) and Telvin Smith Sr (nickel) at weak side linebacker. The most overlooked player here might be cornerback Dwayne Gratz. It'll take a little better play against the run and for the Jacksonville offense to keep games close for Gratz to hit his ceiling, but there's CB2+ value to found there.
The Tennessee offensive line will be one of the tougher matchups for Justin Houston and Tamba Hali. But I'd not sit either when they're at home. Eric Berry continues to see subpackage snaps in the box. Maybe this is the year he'll finally push himself over the 80 solo mark.
Cameron Wake is healthy and the football gods owe him for the first few weeks of 2013 when he was all over opposing quarterbacks with little to show for it in the boxscore. Koa Misi will play middle linebacker but will give some subpackage snaps to Philip Wheeler. It may not be enough to keep Misi from a very high floor in most weeks though. Jimmy Wilson will replace Reshad Jones in the first month. Set a reminder to grab Jones in two weeks if he's on your waiver wire. This linebacker group will leave him plenty of opportunity when he returns.
What was supposed to be a serious competiion at linebacker never materialized. Jasper Brinkley is the base middle linebacker. Chad Greenway and Anthony Barr are every-down outside linebackers. Barr is not going to be a Von Miller clone, however. Despite his pass rush skills, he's going to be used primarly as an outside linebacker on nickel downs. Everson Griffen gets a shot at 800 snaps and DE1 upside. I'll also be watching Sharrif Floyd's play and usage closely in the first month of the season. There have been hints from beat writers that he made serious progress this offseason.
The Patriots showed a predominantly 3-4 front in the preseason. Thankfully, that didn't manifest itself in depth charts and lead to a new positional classification. That won't hurt the value of Chandler Jones much, but it might decrease the upside of Rob Ninkovich a little. New England was still using a 4-2-5 nickel, so the pass rush value of both Jones and Ninkovich is still strong. But I'm not sure Ninkovich gets 40 assists from a base outside linebacker spot. It'll be worth monitoring closely. Dont'a Hightower was off the field in those packages.
I think Kenny Vaccaro will quickly prove to be an every-week elite fantasy option. Ramon Humber may take more nickel snaps from David Hawthorne than expected. Be prepared for a decline in numbers for Hawthorne. I'm hoping to see Junior Galette play more than 700 snaps this year, but it was hard to tell exactly what the Saints are planning from the preseason alignments. We'll know more this week.
NEW YORK GIANTS
Jon Beason should be back for Week 1. He doesn't have the range to be an elite fantasy linebacker any more. I'm hoping someone stands out in the back seven, though. Jacquian Williams, Antrel Rolle, Walter Thurmond, Prince Amukamara and Stevie Brown are all capable tacklers. We may see another year where no Giants' defender averages more than five solos per week. Jason Pierre-Paul said all the right things in July and August and looked healthy in his limited preseason action. He could be in for a big comeback year. And I think it's finally sunk in around IDP circles that Mathias Kiwanuka is going to play many more snaps than Damontre Moore. That's not to say Moore is an IDP bust. Just don't throw him in your lineups just yet.
NEW YORK JETS
I fully expect this will be the year Demario Davis breaks out since I haven't found the time to repair the blown out wheels on the bandwagon I've been driving yet. It looks like Calvin Pryor will start at strong safety after spending much of camp with the second team. It's hard to know what to expect statistically here. Rex Ryan always finds a way to limit his team's snaps and tackle opportunity and right now the Jets have no viable cornerbacks. The play here is probably to roster and start whomever the Jets start at corner but they'll be at home against rookie David Carr in Week 1, so that plan seems suspect, too. For now, I'd trust Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson until we see how the back seven settles out.
The Raiders brought Khalil Mack off the field in nickel packages throughout the preseason. I can't see that continuing for much longer, but it's good news for Sio Moore, who slides into an every-down role after holding off a challenge from Miles Burris at weak side linebacker. It's also good news that both Justin Tuck and Lamarr Woodley played nearly 100 injury-free snaps each over four preseason games. If they can stay healthy throughout the season, both should be DL2+ fantasy options. I'd put a little money on Tuck to fulfill that promise, but would be hard pressed to throw more than a few pennies on Woodley.
The Eagles will use a dime package on some passing downs this year, with DeMeco Ryans coming off the field. That shouldn't hurt his upside much, but I think the pendulum swings more heavily toward Mychal Kendricks in the tackle column this year. Earl Wolff will get the start at safety over Nate Allen, but Malcolm Jenkins is the safety to own here. In conclusion, Free Brandon Graham!!
Ryan Shazier will be a Jekyll-Hyde defender this year. On some snaps, he'll diagnose quickly, stack with power, shed immediately, take the correct angle and make a textbook physical finish. On others, he'll do none of those things. He's shown enough athleticism, however, that he may make tackles even on his less than textbook efforts. Don't be discouraged if he puts up disappointing 4-5 solo lines in the first couple of weeks.
I'm comfortable starting Aaron Donald immediately in tackle-required leagues. Teams are going to use his first step against him and ride him upfield away from plays, but Donald should still fill up boxscores with enough stats to hold value. T.J. McDonald was coming off the field in some coverage heavy looks early in the preseason, but that seems to have been more evaluation of others than a sign that McDonald may not be a full time player. McDonald needs full time snaps, though, as he'll have lots of competition for tackles from his front seven.
Manti Te'o is dealing with another preseason foot sprain. Last year, his foot sprain quietly lingered through Week 3. Te'o was playing nearly every down this preseason, missing only a rare dime snap. His numbers should be LB3 quality if that holds when he returns. If he's not ready for Week 1, it's not yet clear how the Chargers will rotate without him.
I think Michael Wilhoite has won the majority of snaps next to Patrick Willis to start the season. But I also think the Niners will continue to give Chris Borland lots of practice reps in the hopes that his comfort level begins to match his instincts and range. I'll update later this week if Borland looks likely to see more playing time than I expect. I wrote about Tank Carradine's very strong play against second teamers earlier this preseason. I'm very interested to see how much playing time that will transition to in Week 1, especially after Ray McDonald's domestic violence arrest last week.
The Seahawks will roll with the same defense, minus Chris Clemons, in Week 1. Bruce Irvin has a chance to play a small role Thursday night after missing all of camp recovering from hip surgery. Be wary of starting your Seattle defenders at home, however. The preseason gamebooks are still showing a depressed solo and elevated assist count from the home stat crew. More on that below.
Gerald McCoy and Lavonte David are strong bets to finish as the number one overall IDPs at their positions this year. But there's value everywhere in this defense. I like Mason Foster to breakout this year. That might make it hard for Mark Barron to reach his ceiling, but there's room for three productive IDPs in the back seven. Adrian Clayborn and Michael Johnson may also be strong fantasy options.
The talk of the preseason was Zach Brown's solid play and every-down projection. That's newsworthy, but it's kept the upside of Wes Woodyard hidden more than it should. I'd bet heavily on Woodyard out-tackling Brown this year. Jurrell Casey shows no signs of losing value despite his move from defensive tackle to 5-technique defensive end. Ray Horton's scheme should give him ample opportunity to penetrate and disrupt on all downs.
Those of you who have been patiently waiting with me through two pectoral tears for Keenan Robinson to get an opportunity in Washington should be handsomely rewarded this year. Robinson is healthy and comfortable in his new role. I thought Perry Riley looked thinner and quicker during the preseason than previous years, so there may be stiff competition for tackles, but Robinson has strong upside. As does Brian Orakpo, who could put up mid double digit sacks in a more aggressive front. I'll have more on the safety situation later this week. Washington added Duke Ihenacho off waivers and may immediately insert him in the lineup while Brandon Meriweather sits suspended for two games.
INSIDE THE METRICS
If you're a long time reader of this column, you know about tackle opportunity and you know about stat crew anomalies. I didn't write about either much last season, but I'm going back to the roots of the RTD and making metrics a regular feature again this year.
The power of the data in this section will grow exponentially as the season progresses and our sample size increases. In time, the tackle opportunity data and pressure metrics and run-pass ratios will be helpful in matchup decisions, waiver wire pulls and more.
There have been too many offseason changes to trust last year's tackle opportunity data and run-pass ratios and pressure percentages, etc. But last year's stat crew data is still very informative.
We've reported on stat crew anomalies here at Footballguys for years. Aaron Rudnicki was the first to post charts and note anomalies, particularly with respect to passes defensed, almost ten years ago. I've been fortunate enough to have a connection with the NFL stat office that's shared information about how the league enters tackle data. Now, we've got Larry Thomas working to add five years worth of charts and data to his huge spreadsheet of defensive matchup data that we release each Tuesday during the season.
Changes in how the stadium crews input tackles two seasons ago greatly impacted the IDP landscape for a few teams. Here are a few examples:
Project Bobby Wagner's seven home games in 2013 over a full 16 game season >> 73 solos, 82 assists. Project Bobby Wagner's seven away games over a full 16 game season >> 91 solos, 27 assists. That's a monster difference. At home, Wagner had lines like 2-5 or 3-6 or 4-7. On the road, Wagner had games with a 6-2 or 9-0 or 7-2 or 8-2 line. For those leagues that give twice as many points for solos as assists, that's enough to push Wagner from LB1 expectation to a LB3 expectation.
Kam Chancellor's home lines over eight games totaled 28 solos and 27 assists. Away, Chancellor was 37-7, and that included a 0-5 line from another notoriously assist heavy scorer in Indianapolis.
The pendulum can sometimes swing powerfully in the other direction.
Over the last three seasons as the starting defensive end in New England, Rob Ninkovich totaled 106 assists. That includes 49 assists last year. 30 of those came at home, including a 0-13 stat line against Denver. The difference is Ninkovich's solo counts were not affected -- he still averaged 39 solos over those three seasons, a very respectable average for a defensive end.
You can make use of these stat crew differences during your draft. It's the reason I pushed Jerod Mayo up into the middle range of my elite linebacker tier while worrying over James Laurinaitis, a tackle monster who was awarded just nine assists in eight home games last year.
Here are the most actionable stat crew anomalies from last year:
- Seattle: Heavy assist expectation, low solo expectation, especially for home defenders
- Baltimore: Heavy assist expectation with moderately low solo expectation
- New England: High assist expectation with little effect on solo expectation
- Buffalo: High assist expectation with no effect on solo expectation
- Washington: High assist expectation with little effect on solo expectation
- Indianapolis: High assist expecation with moderately low solo expectation
- Kansas City, St. Louis, Philadelphia, Arizona, Miami, Jacksonville, San Francisco: Low assist expectation
Things may change from year to year or even within a given season. The Cincinnati stat crew, which tracked very similarly to Seattle's in recent years, abruptly flipped early last season. That sent Vontaze Burfict's expectation through the roof. It didn't take long for us to catch on and adjust our projections last year. Our NFL stat contact has told us the league did not send any new guidance to the stat crews this season, but we'll still watch closely for other unexpected changes this year.
Subscribe to The Audible on iTunes or download our weekly IDP podcast here every Thursday for injury updates, player analysis and matchup discussion. Check my article page on Sunday morning for notes on every team's key injuries, depth chart changes and IDP expectations. Follow and ask questions on Twitter @JeneBramel.