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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.
NOTE: Those listed as every-down in italics are injury replacements who won't be every-down players when injured players return.
|INJ | SUSP
|PRINCE SHEMBO, KROY BIERMANN
|DARYL SMITH, C.J. MOSLEY
|LUKE KUECHLY, THOMAS DAVIS
|DARRYL SHARPTON, KHASEEM GREENE
|LANCE BRIGGS, JON BOSTIC
|VONTAZE BURFICT, EMMANUEL LAMUR
|JUSTIN DURANT, ROLANDO MCCLAIN
|BRUCE CARTER, [SEAN LEE]
|DEANDRE LEVY, TAHIR WHITEHEAD
|A.J. HAWK, CLAY MATTHEWS
|BRIAN CUSHING, WHITNEY MERCILUS
|JERRELL FREEMAN, D'QWELL JACKSON
|ERIK WALDEN, BJOERN WERNER
|JUSTIN HOUSTON, TAMBA HALI, JOSH MAUGA
|GERALD HODGES, ANTHONY BARR
|JAMIE COLLINS, CHANDLER JONES, DONT'A HIGHTOWER, ROB NINKOVICH
|CURTIS LOFTON, DAVID HAWTHORNE
|NEW YORK GIANTS
|JON BEASON, JACQUIAN WILLIAMS
|NEW YORK JETS
|DAVID HARRIS, DEMARIO DAVIS, CALVIN PACE
|MILES BURRIS, KHALIL MACK
|TRENT COLE, CONNOR BARWIN
|LAWRENCE TIMMONS, SEAN SPENCE, JASON WORILDS
|RYAN SHAZIER, JARVIS JONES
|JAMES LAURINAITIS, ALEC OGLETREE
|MICHAEL WILHOITE, CHRIS BORLAND
|PATRICK WILLIS, NAVORRO BOWMAN, ALDON SMITH
|LAVONTE DAVID, MASON FOSTER
|WESLEY WOODYARD, AVERY WILLIAMSON, DERRICK MORGAN
|PERRY RILEY, KEENAN ROBINSON, BRIAN ORAKPO, RYAN KERRIGAN
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.
Larry Foote seems to be wearing down but Kevin Minter isn't on the verge of replacing him anytime soon. Tyrann Mathieu has all but replaced Tony Jefferson in the base defense. If he's on your waiver wire, go grab him. Kareem Martin didn't show enough in his brief look at defensive end and only saw six snaps last week. With Calais Campbell close to returning -- probably Week 8 -- Martin isn't likely to get another extended look this year.
Just when it seemed clear Prince Shembo had earned a major role over Joplo Bartu, Shembo didn't play a single defensive snap last week. After the game, the coaching staff suggested Shembo's disappearance had more to do with his lack of game prep due to a knee injury. I'm willing to buy the explanation, but the 12 special teams snaps Shembo played might be telling. Shembo wasn't playing every down and was a high variance start already. His snap count needs to be watched closely.
The Ravens dramatically increased their pressure packages against Mike Glennon after their big lead. Terrell Suggs finally broke through with a sack, but Suggs, C.J. Mosley and Haloti Ngata all looked good as pass rushers. Elvis Dumervil also continued his solid season. We'll need to see more than a one week performance from Suggs to put him back in our lineups every week.
The Bills stuck to their veteran linebacker lineup against the Patriots. Keith Rivers and Nigel Bradham started outside of Brandon Spikes. Mixing and matching in subpackages, no linebacker played more than 80% of the defensive snaps. Preston Brown ended up playing nearly 50% of the time, spelling all three players at different times. Bradham is the only safe weekly start right now and I'd still recommend holding Brown if you've got the roster space. Da'Norris Searcy looks to have been demoted to a backup role and injuries aren't helping his cause.
The only defenders of value here are Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis. Charles Johnson surprised with a sack against a very strong Cincinnati offensive line, but there's no upside anywhere along the defensive line or in the secondary here.
The top four linebackers on Chicago's depth chart sat last week with injury. Christian Jones started on the strong side (but didn't play in nickel packages) with Darryl Sharpton inside and Khaseem Greene on the weak side. Both Greene and Sharpton had decent statistical days. Greene didn't look much better on the field than he did in his opportunity last year. Sharpton played well enough to have local writers argue he may be a better option than D.J. Williams. I don't see that happening and Sharpton has a history of poor durability when asked to play every down.
I think Vontaze Burfict suffered another head injury last week based on video review. But he returned to play and struggled. If you're in a redraft league, I'd try to get out of your Burfict shares right now -- and that's despite the fact there are hardly any every-down linebackers left to roster. If you can turn Burfict into any other LB2+ value, do it now. Geno Atkins is getting closer to returning to his dominant pass rushing form. There's still a ways to go against the run (and, therefore, in the tackle column) but it's time to consider him a viable big play option again.
I think we're nearing the end of Craig Robertson in the Cleveland defense. Chris Kirksey is getting nearly every nickel snap and playing every other base series. With a little improvement against the run, the job will be Kirksey's. Barkevious Mingo said last week he wasn't comfortable dropping into coverage and would rather rush the passer full time. It looks like Mike Pettine took him up on that, elevating Jabaal Sheard into the starting lineup in the base defense and dropping Mingo into a situatonal role. Armonty Bryant had ascended to the starting lineup and was generating some buzz as another young 3-4 defensive end of note. An ACL injury ended his season last week.
The Cowboys elected to go with a nickel defense often against Seattle. Justin Durant and Rolando McClain played very well. That won't show in the Seattle boxscores, however. The Cowboys' 19 solo tackle, 26 assisted tackle split on 34 tackle opportunities is a double whammy of stat crew depressed stats and poor opportunity.
The list of injuries at the linebacker position this year is unbelievable. Danny Trevathan lasted just one week before going down with another leg fracture. Now on the injured reserve - recall list, he cannot return until Week 15 at the earliest and isn't likely to have any fantasy value this year. Brandon Marshall goes right back into a full time weak side linebacker role and LB2 value. The question will be whether Nate Irving will be used in the every-down middle backer role in the 2-4-5 the Broncos have shown in recent weeks. That didn't happen after Trevathan's injury last week, but watch closely to see if Irving is back in that role this week.
I wrote last week Ezekiel Ansah may have been on the verge of a huge run. He took a monster first step last week, putting up 2.5 sacks and a forced fumble (Pro Football Focus credited him with four sacks, one quarterback hit and four hurries in just 35 snaps). Drew Brees has been a tough sack in the past, but the New Orleans offensive line isn't the same and Brees isn't as mobile in the pocket. At home, Ansah could have another strong day.
Jamari Lattimore was dinged last week, which brought Brad Jones back into the mix. Lattimore wasn't productive in the box score over the past three weeks (and Jones didn't impress last week in relief of Lattimore) so this is more of an FYI than anything. We're seeing more and more of Ha Ha Clinton-Dix around the box. He and Morgan Burnett will benefit from the mediocre inside linebacker play.
Sometimes things don't make sense with defensive players. For the first time this season, Brian Cushing played every down. It was his worst effort on the field and in the boxscores this season. Justin Tuggle played about 60% of the snaps and wasn't much better. His stat line was much prettier than Cushing's. This may be an opportunity for us, however. If the Texans are now going to trust Cushing with an every-down role, the numbers will rebound quickly. Add him this week in shallower leagues and hope for improvement.
Not much of note with the Colts this week. Another strong week from Bjoern Werner keeps him on the radar for big play leaguers. The tackle opportunity against Houston wasn't great, but Sergio Brown and Mike Adams aren't showing anything to make me think they'll be valuable fantasy options with LaRon Landry out.
Don't sweat the down afternoon from Paul Posluszny. He's been dinged this year, but his poor stat line had more to do with decreased opportunity and the presence of Johnathan Cyprien around the box than anything else. The Jags are getting pressure on quarterbacks but do not have the horses to close the deal in the pocket. If Gus Bradley gets a pass rusher in next year's draft, it'll be a player to watch closely in fantasy leagues.
James-Michael Johnson had his best game of the season against San Francisco. It was matchup-based, however, and not yet an indication the Chiefs are willing to use him in nickel packages. It's time to watch for a shift in that philosophy, though, as we could see Joe Mays back in time. If Josh Mauga continues to see all the nickel snaps, it may mean that Johnson could go back to the bench entirely when Mays returns.
Koa Misi was back and starting inside last week. He and Philip Wheeler rotated in subpackages with Jelani Jenkins remaining an every-down player. That's likely to continue and I think Jenkins is locked in as a LB2 for the remainder of the season. Misi put up a strong eight solos, but he'll have a much lower floor than that. Hope you picked up Reshad Jones last week or the week before. His nine solos will make him a hotly contested waiver wire add this week.
Jasper Brinkley had another strong week in a base defense only role. If you can identify the weeks where he faces a team who will run between the tackles frequently and/or run limited multi-wide receiver sets, he could make a decent bye week replacement. That may include this week's road matchup in Buffalo, where the game script and stat crew are both favorable for a base middle backer. I'd recommend sitting Harrison Smith until he's fully practicing. He's too limited by an ankle injury to support the run effectively or play with range in coverage.
Jerod Mayo also joined the list of every-down linebackers out for the season with an injury. The Patriots haven't confirmed the specifics of Mayo's injury, but all sources agree he's done for 2014. Deontae Skinner saw the bulk of the playing time in his absence, but -- if healthy -- Dont'a Hightower will slide into Mayo's position and be an every-down player. Chandler Jones was back in an every-down standup outside linebacker role. With Hightower needed inside full time, Jones will have to play outside linebacker and the defensive end experiment should be over.
There's not much of note with the Saints. David Hawthorne was back playing every down. And I'm stubbornly holding and playing Cam Jordan and Kenny Vaccaro. If they're dropped this week with New Orleans on bye, try to make room.
NEW YORK GIANTS
Walter Thurmond and now Trumaine McBride have been knocked out of the very favorable slot role for the Giants. Watch for Zachary Bowman here and possibly more consistency from Antrel Rolle. The pleasant surprise has been Quintin Demps, who is running up the numbers I'd hoped to see from Stevie Brown.
NEW YORK JETS
Dee Milliner tore his Achilles just four plays into his first game back as a starter. Antonio Allen didn't get the cornerback job after Millner's injury, Darrin Walls was the primary corner opposite Phillip Adams.
Sio Moore was back and playing every down last week. His seven solo (ten total) tackles led the team. I think he's the clear favorite for tackles in the Oakland back seven as long as he stays healthy. Miles Burris and Khalil Mack both played nearly full time against San Diego. Mack isn't breaking through statistically, but you can see the game slowing down for him. He's been as advertised against the run. If he can start converting some of his hurries into sacks, he'll begin approaching his ceiling. I know he's not getting much run because no one seems to be fighting for him on the waiver wire, but Usama Young looks like a DB2+ right now.
Brandon Graham watch to hold you through the bye week: His 4-0-1, FF line in 33 snaps last week give him 13 solos, two sacks, three forced fumbles in 177 snaps. Pro Football Focus awarded him another two hurries to go with his sack last week. That's 14 hits, hurries and sacks in 64 snaps where he's rushed the passer (rather than dropped into coverage or played the run) and a pass rush success percentage that rivals the best in the league. Will it translate in a larger role? I don't know. But my campaign must continue until we find out for sure.
John Norton's admonition of not knowing where patience ends and stupidity begins aside, I'm still on the Robert Quinn bandwagon. But it's painful to see him refuse to go to a counter move and continue to press the edge rush only when offensive tackles are sitting on that move and pushing him up the field.
The Chargers continue to mix and match players in all packages. Andrew Gachkar, Kavell Conner and Jahleel Addae are all seeing time around the box in various situations. They're essentially killing each other's value. Jerry Attaochu was back in a situational role and should begin seeing more snaps in time. Big play leaguers should have him on their watch list.
Danny Trevathan, Jerod Mayo, and now (potentially) Patrick Willis (and Bobby Wagner) may miss extended time. Willis left Monday night's game with a toe sprain and early reports have him missing at least a week. Chris Borland and Michael Wilhoite both will be every-down players with Willis out. At some point, the loss of NaVorro Bowman, Willis, and Aldon Smith will catch up to this defense and the opportunity levels will rise dramatically. Roster both Wilhoite and Borland this week. The road matchup in Denver should be a good one.
I said I'd manufacture something to write about here last week. Unfortunately, it's a concern about Bobby Wagner and a toe sprain that cost him a handful of snaps against Dallas. Hopefully, he's healthy enough to play this week. Expect to see him limited at best in practice. Wagner has played on Sunday despite no practice time in the past and I'll be following up in the Sunday game notes. Byron Maxwell has a high ankle sprain and may miss multiple weeks.
Lavonte David is amazing. Lovie Smith's defense is a more aggressive base 4-3 than the usual Tampa-2, but it's really not a defense designed to allow the weak side linebacker to make plays behind the line of scrimmage. David doesn't care. He's so instinctive and violent downhill he doesn't need the defense to spill plays to him. He makes them himself. Mason Foster was back last week and played every down. Michael Johnson has decided to play through his ankle injury. There weren't many rush opportunities against Baltimore and the Tampa line wasn't getting to Joe Flacco on any of his seven-step drops and play action plays. Hopefully, the bye will allow Johnson to get healthy.
Ugh. It'd be really nice if a linebacker would step forward in Tennessee given the injuries across the league. This situation continues to be ripe for production. However, Wesley Woodyard is injured (Mike Glennon confirmed that he's still dealing with ankle issues despite not being listed on the injury report) and last week's rotation with Avery Williamson in subpackages remained in effect. Williamson is getting closer to every down status -- Zaviar Gooden did not take a defensive snap last week -- but still comes out in some subpackages for a breather. Williamson may get dropped in shallower leagues after his so-so three solo performance, but he's a player to roster expectantly and hope the situaiton breaks further in his favor.
I warned against grabbing George Wilson last week and he managed just one solo and one assist in over 70 snaps. I liked Michael Griffin, but his day wasn't much better. Stick with Griffin, however. He'll put up numbers when teams attempt more than 18 rush attempts and 5 quarterback scrambles.
With luck Perry Riley will be back soon. This week's matchup against Tennessee isn't great -- though it's at home with a favorable stat crew -- but the next two weeks in Dallas and Minnesota are favorable. I wish Brian Orakpo were healthy. He's playing through at least one lower leg injury and contributing to a strong pass rush. He's just not fit enough to close the deal right now.
These are in-season tiers. They're based entirely on lineup considerations and not future value. The linebacker list is a complete and total mess. I have 20 linebackers listed in the injury column of the every-down table who would clearly be full time players if healthy (or not suspended). There are another small handful of backups who wouldn't have been listed on opening weekend, but were added due to injury and are now off the list due to injury.
When I recommended grabbing elite backers earlier than usual this summer, the number of platoon situations and lack of strong depth across the league's depth charts was why. But there's no strategy that's effective when the first six weeks of the season add on to an already brutal preseason injury slate.
I base the linebacker lineup tiers on film study, current stats and recent trends. I'll include some injured players I expect to be back within the next 2-3 weeks. The matchup tier is obviously much, much deeper than what I've listed here, but I've separated a handful of players I'd keep rostered unless I absolutely found a better weekly matchup I liked.
high floor lb1
every week lb3
Mason Foster | Nigel Bradham | Jamie Collins | Ryan Shazier | Jerrell Freeman | Brian Cushing | Lawrence Timmons | Chad Greenway | Bruce Carter | Curtis Lofton | Thomas Davis | Perry Riley | D'Qwell Jackson | Larry Foote | Demario Davis | Dont'a Hightower
must play big play backers
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.
pass rush percentage
I wrote about my long love affair with tackle opportunity last week. Find the teams that should have the most opportunity to make tackles and you're on your way to knowing which linebackers (and defensive backs) are likely to score in fantasy leagues. There's some variance involved, as multiple players may be in position to make tackles on any given play and projecting snap counts and game script isn't an easy task sometimes.
Opportunity for pass rushers is different. Snap count, number of drop backs faced, number of times a player rushes vs drops in coverage on those snaps, quality of the offensive lineman faced, etc all affect opportunity. A player may have a high sack count (e.g. Andre Branch or Jason Worilds in 2013) but be a much less consistent pass rusher than another. So, I like to look at a player's success rate -- how many sacks, hits and hurries per pass rush attempt -- compared to their sack count.
Pro Football Focus game charting gives us the data for this. In the past, I'd calculated the metric myself. In the past couple of seasons, PFF has begun adding success percentage to their signature stats section. Larry Thomas does something similar, calculating every team's quarterback hit count as a percentage of the number of drop backs they face. But we don't have access to the game charting data gathered by PFF (or Football Outsiders). So checking in with the deeper data from PFF is a great way to decide whether Robert Quinn has declined in play or just been unlucky. Or projecting which part time player might breakout with a larger role.
If you're looking for an added edge, the PFF premium stats package can be very helpful. I don't use the grades much, but the charting data is a big help in cross-checking my eyes-on analysis each week.
Paying attention to the sack-hit-hurry count, but particularly the hurry count, has helped identify players to go back and study film on in past offseasons. There's some work involved, but there's no secret formula. It's how you can be ahead of the curve on players like Justin Houston and Cameron Wake and Cam Jordan.
Through six weeks, eight 4-3 defensive ends have at least 20 pressures. Cameron Wake (24), Michael Bennett (24), Demarcus Ware (23), Wallace Gilberry (23), Jerry Hughes (23), Lamarr Houston (21), Cliff Avril (21), Ezekiel Ansah (21).
Lamarr Houston clearly stands out on that list. I pushed him as a potential top 15 fantasy DL this offseason. So it's not surprising to see his name here. Why is he nowhere to be found on the current rank lists? It's a combination of things. First, Willie Young is lightning quick to the quarterback right now. Second, and most important, is what I like to call the Kyle Vanden Bosch effect. At some point in a player's career, the closing speed just isn't there any more. The burst off the line, the array of pass rush moves get a player to the pocket, but the last step isn't there to close the deal ahead of a quarterback's decision-making or a teammate's quicker feet. That, plus the drastically underperforming solo tackle count, is killing Houston's fantasy upside right now.
Also, these numbers are why I kept Wake high in my tiers list this offseason. Wake showed no signs of the KVB Effect on film last year. He was just unlucky and then injured. His pressure numbers are the same this year as last. The only difference is they included four sacks right now.
I'm not going to give away too much specific PFF data. The game charters work too hard and what you read in my weekly column often derives from my own analysis of their stats. But let's compare and contrast three other players.
Player A: 134 pass rush opportunities, seven sacks, one hit, six hurries, 14 total pressures
Player B: 111 pass rush opportuntiies, zero sacks, six hits, six hurries, 12 total pressures
Player C: 194 pass rush opportunities, two sacks, two hits, fifteen hurries, 19 total pressures
I like to see a player disrupt the pocket about 10% of the time. These three players are each doing that despite differences in total opportunity and the distribution of their successes -- i.e. sacks vs hurries.
Looking at these numbers, it'd be smart to expect some regression for Player A, some improvement in Player B and the potential for a breakout week or three from Player C.
Guessed who these guys are yet? Player A should be relatively easy. It's Willie Young. Hotter than Venus right now, but making the best of every single chance he's had. Player B is probably an easy guess, too. That's Robert Quinn. Take his analysis a step further shows that he's faced three very solid and athletic tackles (Joe Staley, Tyron Smith and Jason Peters) in his last three games. Yes, an elite defensive end should be doing more. I've discussed my concerns this week and last week about his pass rush plan. But don't give up on Quinn yet.
Player C? Jason Pierre-Paul. That line isn't super elite -- his percentage is in line with others on a per snap basis. But Pierre-Paul managed only 31 total pressures in 336 attempts last year. Increased opportunity, increased success and a clear improvement in how he's played the run are all strong upward trends for Pierre-Paul. Don't be shocked if he has a strong second half.
Want more great ideas for lineup management? Start checking out Larry Thomas' defensive data sheet. It's posted every Tuesday on our inseason IDP content section.
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.