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 week one. These are the things that caught my eye in the third preseason games and my thoughts over the week leading up to Seattle and Green Bay.
Kevin Minter sat out against Cincinnati with a pectoral injury and did not suit up for the final preseason contest. He is expected to go against San Diego in the Monday night late game. Over the final two preseason contests the Cardinals played Kenny Demens next to Larry Foote on the inside. It is noteworthy that Demens remained on the field in most sub packages. That could be a sign that Minter will have a three down role as the coaching staff would have wanted the other players to see action in their expected roles.
The anticipation that Deone Bucannon would work at linebacker in the sub packages has never been realized. He continued to see limited snaps with the starters as the sixth defensive back while Tony Jefferson has performed well as the starting strong safety.
Free safety Tyrann Mathieu has been activated and has been practicing, but is far from a lock to start in week one. The club is optimistic that he will be back in action soon but they may ease him back in. Throwing him into our starting lineups this week would be a big risk.
The Cardinals signing of Desmond Bishop a couple of weeks back has gone largely unnoticed but is something that we need to keep a close eye on. He has reportedly looked good in practice. If he is healthy and returns to form, Bishop could emerge as the Cardinals best and most productive inside linebacker.
The Falcons continue to start Joplo Bartu and Paul Worrilow at inside linebacker but Bartu is now giving way to rookie Prince Shembo in passing situations. Shembo has even seen some snaps in the base package. Worrilo has looked better than I expected and is a must start at this point. As many teams do against the Saints, Atlanta will probably use their nickel and a base defense this week. Keep Bartu on the bench until we can get a better read on this situation. Shembo on the other hand, could be a sneaky week one sleeper here.
As expected Darryl Smith and C.J. Mosley are both three down linebackers for the Ravens. Early on we heard that Arthur Brown was going to have a "significant" role. I am not sure what that role is, but apparently it has nothing to do with being on the field.
Rookie Terrence Brooks has won the starting free safety job over veteran Darian Stewart. I have no grand expectations for Brooks when it comes to tackle production but he has shown a knack for the big play.
The Bills may have finally settled on their starting lineup at safety. Against Tampa Bay, Buffalo started Aaron Williams at strong safety and Da'Norris Searcy at free. Duke Williams saw action at strong safety in passing down sub packages with Aaron Williams moving into the slot corner spot. I would feel better about Searcy as a full time strong safety, but it is encouraging that he continues to see snaps up in the box even when lined up on the weak side of the formation. The news could be a lot worse. Now we have to hope that the coaching staff will stop jerking everyone around and leave these guys where they are. Unfortunately it is not a sure thing that they will do so.
Nigel Bradham seems to have earned a spot in most of the sub packages. He has been nothing short of impressive versus the run and has not been a glaring weakness versus the pass. I am picking him up in a couple of leagues this week but will hold off on starting him until we can confirm the three down role.
Roman Harper has missed a lot of time with a toe injury but returned to practice last week. We did not get to see him in preseason action but the veteran is a known commodity. He will be in the lineup against Tampa Bay this weekend and I will not hesitate to plug him into my lineups. The story is the same for defensive end Charles Johnson who has also been rested throughout most of the preseason as he recovers from a hamstring injury. What does concern me a little about both of these players is that their injury are of the sort than can easily be aggravated. Hopefully they have had enough time to get completely healthy.
The third preseason contest confirmed that middle linebacker D.J. Williams will have a two down role for the Bears. Second year pro Jon Bostic continues to replace Williams in sub packages and has actually looked pretty good in that role. At this point there is likely a bigger chance that Bostic replaces Williams in the base package than Williams replacing Bostic on passing downs. The best move for fantasy owners is probably to avoid the situation all together.
Ryan Mundy saw action at both safety positions during the preseason but was back at strong safety in the third preseason game. It would seem that he will be in that spot to open the season. The question mark is with Danny McCray who has beaten out rookie Brock Vereen for the other starting spot. McCray also saw action at both positions and looked good as a starter. In fact he was more productive than Mundy, especially at the strong safety position. Had he landed at strong safety I would be much more excited about McCray. Even at free safety I will not be surprised if he puts up useful numbers.
Both Vontaze Burfict and Geno Atkins were pulled from the third preseason contest after the first series. Burfict was reported to have a tight hamstring and Atkins seemed to be favoring his surgically repaired knee. Burfict remained on the sideline and his body language suggested that he was not seriously injured. That was later confirmed by the team, so he should be fine for week one. I am much more concerned with Atkins who was tentative to say the least and lacked his usual quickness. It almost looked as if he was afraid to bend the knee. If you are counting heavily on Atkins, it might be a good idea to secure a backup plan.
After much speculation Craig Robertson appears to have held off rookie Christian Kirksey for the starting inside linebacker job. Robertson has proven to be a marginal fantasy option and it will be a surprise if Kirksey is not a starter by the end of the season. Redraft owners may want to sit on the rookie for a couple of weeks and see what happens but he should be on the bench for now.
Unlike many teams, the Browns put their starters on the field for a while in the fourth preseason game. Donte Whitner was listed as the starting strong safety after seeing some time in the free safety role in the third game. Thus it is still not completely clear how he will be used. If Whitner is a true strong safety and sees a fair amount of time in the box, he could be highly productive. If he continues to see a lot of time playing centerfield as he did early in the preseason, Whitner will be marginal at best. The good news is that we should soon have an answer.
Starting end George Selvie has been nursing a sore shoulder for the past few weeks. He aggravated the injury in the third preseason contest and left the game. Selvie is expected to start the opener but keep in mind that shoulder injuries tend to easily be aggravated. He is a marginal starter at best even when healthy, so it would be a good idea to look hard for other options this week. Tyrone Crawford has shown nothing to be excited about but he would be the next man up with Anthony Spencer and Demarcus Lawrence still on the mend.
Rookie linebacker Anthony Hitchens was the starter at middle linebacker in the final two preseason games and will keep the job heading into the regular season. Hitchens has some long term potential but for now he will be a two down player. The Cowboys used their nickel package on well over half of the defensive snaps in the third preseason game. Bruce Carter and Justin Durant continue to be the linebackers in that package. In the base, Durant is working on the strong side and Carter weak. Neither Carter nor Durant are great in coverage, so there is the potential for Hitchens role to expand quickly.
The experiment of Nate Irving as a three down inside linebacker was a short one. Against Houston Brandon Marshall started on the weak side and worked in the nickel with T.J. Ward. Irving is back in the two down run stuffer role. Marshall could put up good numbers until Danny Trevathan is healthy. Who knows how long that will be or what will happen with Irving and Marshall when it does. If you need a short term starter with a little long term potential, Marshall would be a good target.
Many owners picked up Ezekiel Ansah as a second or third defensive end in hope that this would be his breakout seasons. We know that he can get after the passer. The issue with Ansah previously has been his marginal tackle totals. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but it looks like we may see more of the same from him this year. Ansah was active against Jacksonville but played the same familiar role we have seen before. In the base packages Detroit started Jason Jones and Devin Taylor at end with Ansah working in passing down sub packages. As they have in the past, the Lions used a lot of bodies in the rotation. There is no doubt the Detroit has some talent and fantasy potential at the end positions. Unfortunately is looks like they will continue to spread the playing time and thus the numbers to thin for fantasy owners.
Green Bay Packers
Veteran Micah Hyde has held off rookie Ha Ha Clinton-Dix for the free safety job. The Packers will use three safeties in a lot of nickel situations so Clinton-Dix will have some opportunity, but Hyde may prove to be a fairly productive option for us. He is a player I will be keeping a close eye on Thursday.
From a talent and potential perspective, safety D.J. Swearinger Sr is a player that has been on the radar since he was drafted last year. His stock gets a big boost now that he is lining up with Brian Cushing as linebackers in the Texans nickel packages. After targeting him as a third defensive back or even depth over most of the offseason, Swearinger now has DB2 potential. Surprisingly, he is still available as a free agent in some twelve team leagues that start three. Pick him up before the competition is alerted.
Another defensive back to keep an eye on is Colts safety Mike Adams. The 33 year old journeyman is not the most talented of players, but he has won the starting job opposite LaRon Landry. This is the same position that made Antoine Bethea a solid fantasy option for a long time. Adams is far from a sure thing, but if he is productive in the opener, it will not be a fluke.
I looks as if the Jaguars have settled on Telvin Smith Sr as the nickel linebacker next to Paul Posluszny with Geno Hayes and LaRoy Reynolds at outside backer in the base. This effectively kills the value of any Jacksonville linebacker not named Posluszny. Smith is worth keeping an eye on but at only 219 pounds, he is going to have a hard time getting on the field in the base package.
Red Bryant continues to start at defensive end opposite Chris Clemons but Andre Branch is going to be a big part of this defense. Against the Lions he continued to see action in nearly all passing situations and was on the field for some base package snaps as well. Branch made a nice play on an interception when Jacksonville had him working as an outside backer in a 3-4 look. I am somewhat concerned that not playing full time will limit his tackle numbers but Branch is making a lot of plays when he is in the game. I am particularly optimistic about his big play potential
Kansas City Chiefs
With Joe Mays sidelined and Nico Johnson a member of the taxi squad, the Chiefs are set to go with James-Michael Johnson next to Derrick Johnson at inside linebacker. James-Michael Johnson is a solid run defender who has struggles in coverage during his time in the league. With the Chiefs being paper thin at safety as well, it will be interesting to see who they put on the field in nickel packages. Johnson has some potential if he can find a way to stay on the field.
Early in the preseason the Dolphins were using middle backer Koa Misi and weak side backer Dannell Ellerbe in the nickel packages. In preseason game three Misi was bumped to a two down role with Phillip Wheeler taking over in the nickel. Ellerbe is going to be the player to have here and will likely lead the team in tackles. In the past Wheeler has shown an ability to post useful numbers as a three down strong side backer. At the least he should continue to provide solid depth for us.
The Vikings looked at several options to fill the safety position next to Harrison Smith. Jamarca Sanford was the projected starter but was unable to get healthy. He landed on IR with the final cuts. Kurt Coleman passed the eye ball test and made a lot of plays when he was in that spot early. Chris Crocker made a lot of sense as a veteran who knows the defense. Both of those guys were cut on black Monday. That leaves the Vikings with Andrew Sendejo as a likely option. Sendejo has looked okay and has been somewhat productive in his limited action as a starter. He could have some value as a third or fourth defensive back. We had better make sure Minnesota does not spring some sort of surprise on us before moving on Sendejo, but if he produces in week one, it will not be a fluke.
New England Patriots
New Orleans Saints
After sitting out the second week of the preseason, inside linebacker David Hawthorne returned to his three down role against the Colts in the third warm-up game. Hawthorne has struggled to stay healthy in recent years but he has the ability to be productive if he can stay on the field.
New York Giants
Jon Beason has been activated and is practicing in full this week. After missing the entire preseason, it appears that he will be in the lineup week one. This is great news for the Giants defense and fantasy owners alike. I would be careful starting him until we see that he can make it through a game, but if he is really good to go Beason is a quality second starter for us. Jameel McClain will likely go back to being a two down strong side backer with Jaiquan Williams continuing in the three down weak side role.
Damontre Moore is the other Giants player I want to see in action this weekend. He has been fairly impressive during the preseason and could emerge as a fantasy star even as the team's third end. It was not that long ago that Osi Umenyiora was highly productive as the third end in New York.
New York Jets
The Jets added Jason Babin so late in the offseason that many league hosting sites were hesitant to adjust his positional designation. Babin was a defensive end in Jacksonville but is now working at outside linebacker in the Jets 3-4. Interestingly, he saw more snaps with the first team than Quenton Coples in the third preseason contest. This could be a coincidence, but then again Babin looked pretty good in the role. At worst he is going to see a lot of action as the Jets third outside linebacker. If you can play him as a defensive end, Babin could have surprising value.
After a scary hit in the third preseason game, Sio Moore has returned to practice and is expected to be full go in the opener. As a three down weak side backer it will be no surprise to see Moore push Nick Roach for the team lead in tackles. With Moore's big play potential, it would be a surprise if he fails to out produce Roach in fantasy terms.
San Diego Chargers
Chargers defensive back Richard Marshall has a long history of solid fantasy value. The addition of Brandon Flowers bumped Marshall from the starting job at corner but defensive coordinator John Pagano has found a new way to use Marshall's skills. The veteran has been moved to strong safety. Marcus Gilchrist remains the starter at that position and has been more than adequate, but Marshall's skill set could make him a better option in the long run. This is yet another situation to keep a close eye on going forward.
San Francisco 49ers
Injuries and suspensions have crippled the San Francisco defense heading into week one. By now everyone knows that Aldon Smith will miss nine games and that Ray McDonald could be right behind him. Navarro Bowman was placed on the PUP so he will be out until game seven at the least, and it is no sure thing that he will be ready then. Michael Wilhoite appears to have held off rookie Chris Borland at inside linebacker. Wilhoite should be fairly productive in that role but the guys most likely to benefit from the 49ers losses in the front seven are the safeties. When San Francisco first signed Antoine Bethea I saw it as a death sentence for his fantasy value. While I still think he will be a little less productive than he had been in Indianapolis, Both Bethea and Eric Reid are going to have a lot more opportunity than was expected a couple of months ago.
Washington is still looking to add talent and depth at their safety positions. Phillip Thomas was not able to recover from last year's foot injury and was let go. Brandon Meriweather has managed to stay healthy but has now been suspended for the first two games. That leaves Ryan Clark at free safety and second year man Bacarri Rambo to likely start at strong safety. Rambo struggled greatly as a rookie but has shown a great deal of improvement heading into his second season. If he continues to play well, the coaching staff may consider keeping him in the starting lineup. Rambo has a lot to prove before that will happen. The other interesting note here is that Washington claimed strong safety Duke Ihenacho off waivers from Denver. Ihenacho's release was somewhat of a shock considering how well he had played before being injured last year. The safety positions in Washington, and particularly the strong safety position, has a long history of solid box score production. It will be a few weeks before all is settles here but we could get a solid mid season addition out of this situation.
That does it for the week one offering. Best of luck to everyone as we endeavor to get off to a strong start.