The first round of preseason games gave us answers to some of our questions and clues to others. They also brought up some new questions. Most teams held out their dinged up starters as a precaution, and there are a number of guys who are just not healthy enough to go yet. Some teams started veterans over rookies who are expected to be in the lineup week one etc. The point being that much is still unsettled and week three of the preseason is the most important. In general, teams played their starters for a series or two in these first games. Here are the interesting/important things that caught my eye in these games.
D'Norris Searcy was full time at strong safety in the Hall of Fame game, but Duke Williams got the start for the Bills against Carolina. The competition continues and We probably will not know who wins the starting strong safety job before at least the third week of the preseason. Searcy has been the most impressive in my eyes but Williams has also played well. Whoever comes away with this job is going to make a significant impact in the box scores, so stay tuned.
Nigel Bradham and Keith Rivers continue to compete for the nickel role beside Brandon Spikes. Both saw time in that role against the Giants and the trend continued into the second preseason game with Bradham in the nickel on the first series and Rivers in that spot on the second. The Bills seem to be playing a right and left rather than strong and weak alignment with their outside backers. Bradham is working on the left which gives him weak side responsibilities about 60-65% of the time. He has looked very good in both games thus far and is emerging as the favorite to earn the three down role by the opener. Preston Brown has been unimpressive through two games and continues to work strictly with the second defense.
New York Giants
With Jon Beason on the mend, Jameel McClain has worked as a three down middle linebacker in each of the Giants preseason games. His performance in that role has not been head turning, but he has been solid none the less. Beason started running a couple of weeks back but has not yet been cleared for a return. While McClain has been moonlighting in the middle, rookie Devon Kennard has been impressing on the outside. New York has been playing their outside backers as right and left rather than strong and weak. Kennard has been working on the left, which will be the strong side the majority of the time. Despite the strong impression on the field, Kennard continues to serve in two down capacity. When/if Beason returns, McClain is expected to shift back outside and Kennard will likely be bumped back to the bench. He does however, remain a player worth keeping an eye on for future potential.
Jacquian Williams has been lining up as a three down right outside linebacker. If he were a true weak side backer I would be more optimistic about his fantasy potential but just the fact that he is staying on the field full time is enough to garner some attention. Williams has seen action as a nickel backer in the past and is a player that excels in coverage. He is not the most physical of linebackers but does have the speed and range to possibly become a factor. Unless he is bumped back into a part time role, Williams is certainly going to have enough opportunity to make a little impact.
The Giants are also using the right and left alignment at safety with Stevie Brown working on the left and Antrell Rolle on the right. These two players are interchangeable and their responsibilities will switch on a play to play basis, but it did appear that Rolle will be getting more opportunity to line up in the run support role close to line of scrimmage. Against the Steelers Brown lined up as the deep safety most of the time.
Jason Pierre-Paul has looked quick and healthy in each of the team's games and could be poised for a big bounce back season. Jonathan Hankins has been disruptive and impressive thus far. He could be a surprisingly strong addition for owners that break out the defensive line positions.
C.J. Mosley and Josh Bynes were both three down linebackers against San Francisco. Mosley was sharp, showing good range and a knack for being around the ball. He seems to have solidified his hold on the three down role. Even with Daryl Smith resting, Arthur Brown was nowhere to be seen early in the game.
The eye ball test confirmed my hope that Matt Elam is being used in the strong safety role. Against the 49ers he often worked from the same depth as the linebackers. Elam looked like a different player than the one we saw last season. He was quicker to react and was in on a lot of plays during the starters short stint. It looks like he is poised for a much bigger second season.
San Francisco 49ers
No real surprise here. Michael Wilhoite and Chris Boreland started at inside linebacker. Neither were particularly impressive and both looked a bit lost early on, especially against the pass. They improved as the game moved along and made some nice plays in run defense before giving way to the rest of the backup linebackers.
Emmanuel Lamur got the start on the strong side and as expected, he worked with Vontaze Burfict in the nickel with the first team. Lamur looked good on the field, showing up particularly well in coverage, but he did not make much of a box score splash in the couple of series he played. We are seeing a growing trend of three down strong side backers but thus far we have not seen any of them show a great deal of fantasy value.
After his strong showing in 2013, Vincent Rey was nowhere to be seen while the first team was on the field. He did get a few snaps with most of the starters as they transitioned to the second team but appears to be the odd man out. Rey Maualuga started in the middle but took a seat on passing downs.
Robert Geathers saw some action at defensive end with the starters but I am not sure if that was by design or because Wallace Gilberry left early. Gilberry was seen rubbing his knee but it did not seem to be a serious injury.
Margus Hunt saw most of his action with the second team and demonstrated the physical ability that has made him so intriguing. This guys is a physical specimen. If he continues to improve as a football player, he is going to have a long and productive career.
The Broncos opened in a 3-4 look with Demarcus Ware at outside linebacker. When they went to the 4-3 Ware lined up as a defensive end but stayed in a two point stance. Whatever it is that the coaches are doing with him, it seems to be working. Ware made a couple of nice plays and seems poised to step in right where Shaun Phillips left off last year.
Nate Irving started at middle linebacker and saw playing time in some (but not all) of the team's nickel packages. He looked faster and more comfortable than I have ever seen him. Irving made a couple of tackles in his limited playing time, He looked good enough that I moved him up my list to the LB4 range even before the news broke about Danny Trevathan's knee injury. With Trevathan expected to be out well into the season, the team may have no option but to make Irving a three down middle baker for the first time in his career. We will be keeping an eye on this situation over the next couple of weeks. Brandon Marshall is the next man up at weak side backer. At this point my expectations for him are not very high.
During offseason activities and into the early part of camp it looked as if the Broncos would play T.J. Ward at free safety. Against Seattle he not only worked at strong safety, but spent most of his time lining up within about eight yards of the line of scrimmage. This is exactly what Ward was built for. He even shared time with Irving as the nickel linebacker next to Trevathan. Factor in the injury to Trevathan and a linebacker corps that was already thin, and we may have a top five defensive back in Ward. I currently have him ranked number three.
St. Louis Rams
The Rams gave us no surprises against the Saints. A few veterans sat out so rookies Aaron Donald, Ray Ray Armstrong and Lamarcus Joyner were running with the starters.
Donald made a bigger impact on the field than he did in the box scores. The numbers will come if he keeps up the intensity.
New Orleans Saints
In 2013 the Saints used several people including David Hawthorne in their nickel packages. With Roman Harper moving on, it looks as if Hawthorne may have moved into a full time three down role. He remained on the field in all of the Saints nickel packages against St. Louis but keep in mind that we had only a limited sample to look at and Rob Ryan may have simply been keeping the defense to the basics. If Hawthorne is indeed and three down linebacker, he could have as much as low end LB3 potential.
New York Jets
Against the Colts, New York gave Calvin Pryor the night off to be sure he is recovered from the concussion. Antonio Allen started at strong safety and Dawan Landry at free. With all the injuries the Jets have at corner, Allen has reportedly shifted to corner until the team can get some guys healthy. Pryor is expected back for the second round of the preseason.
The Colts held LaRon Landry out of the Jets game just to keep him healthy. That leaves us a little uncertain what the starting lineup will look like come week one. Against New York, the Colts started Sergio Brown at strong safety and Delano Howell at free. Landry played free safety last year but is a good (maybe better) fit at strong. I am not expecting much out of Howell or Brown, but the difference between free and strong could be big for Landry's numbers.
It looks as if Jerrell Freeman will be the lone linebacker in the dime package. That puts him a little ahead of D'Qwell Jackson on my list. Both players were on the field in the nickel so Jackson will still have plenty of opportunity.
The first round of preseason action confirmed that Perry Riley and Keenan Robinson are the starters at inside linebacker for Washington. While that was expected, it was good to see both players on the field in the nickel sub package. I like Riley to be a solid LB2 and Robinson remains a strong sleeper.
With Ryan Clark and Phillip Thomas both nursing hamstring injuries, Bacarri Rambo made the start at free safety opposite Brandon Meriweather. If Thomas can ever get healthy I believe he will be the future at one of the safety spots.
New England Patriots
In typical Bill Bilichick style, the Patriots showed us noting in the first round of practice games. Many starters saw little or no action. I really wanted to get a look at weak side backer Jamie Collins Sr and to see who is running with the first team at strong safety. Duron Harmon is listed as the starter on the team's website. He is a sleeper that I have high hopes for this year. We may not see Patriots full starting defense on the field for a couple more weeks. No choice here but to be patient.
We went into the preseason wanting to know how the Vikings would use first round pick Anthony Barr. Against the Raiders he was a three down strong side linebacker that was moved around the formation in passing situations. It appears the coaches will look to take advantage of Barr's strengths by trying to find mismatches and holes across the pass blocking scheme. This is the best possibly situation for Barr when it comes to box score production but it remains to be seen if he is the next Von Miller.
Jasper Brinkley got the call at middle backer but saw little or no action in the sub packages. Chad Greenway seems to have settled in on the weak side which is great news for fantasy owners. The most productive seasons of his career came when he was on the weak side.
With both Jamarca Sanford and Andrew Sendejo nicked up, Kurt Coleman made the start at strong safety. I would not read much into that at this point but it is worth mention that Coleman played well. This could become relevant if he continues to shine and the other contenders are unable to get back on the field.
It was no surprise to see the Raiders start Kalil Mack at strong side linebacker and Nick Roach in the middle. With Sio Moore banged up for a while early in camp, it was not even a surprise to see Miles Burris get the call on the weak side. What was a little unexpected however, was to see Burris and Roach in the sub packages with Mack taking a seat. Oakland was running a rather vanilla defense in this game. It is safe to expect that Mack will have some sort of sub package role but the early signs suggest that he may not be a full time three down guy. Moore was banged up a little in the weeks leading up to the game. He did see action against the Vikings so the Burris start was not in a backup role. He is currently ahead of Moore on the weak side. Moore replaced Burris as soon as the Raiders started to make substitutions and was in the game with most of the starters for a fair number of snaps. It will be interesting to see if this is a temporary situation due to Moore missing some practice time or if Burris can stick. Either player has the potential to post good numbers. My real fear here is that the coaching staff will feel the need for both players to have a role and will use them in some sort of time share. I will be all eyes on this one over the next couple of weeks.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
As most of you know, Mason Foster is a player that I have been high on despite his two down role last year. Under the new coaching regime he has gained a pretty solid grip on the nickel linebacker job and is set to be a three down middle backer in 2014. Foster will still be second fiddle to Lavonte David but will have a great deal more value this season than last. He could very well land among the top twenty at the position
The Buccaneers cover-2 has Mark Barron lining up fifteen yards deep on nearly every snap in the base package. In the first preseason contest he was consistently getting to the ball carrier just in time to look down at the pile. This is not a good sign for his fantasy value and is the realization of my worst fears.
Jacksonville took a page out of the Seattle play book by starting Chris Clemons at right end and Red Bryant at left. On the Jaguars first defensive snap Clemons strung out a run and was in on the tackle well outside the numbers. We did not see that kind of quickness and range from him last year when he was recovering from the knee injury. He added a sack on the second series and appears to be back to form.
Sen'Derrick Marks looked quick and disruptive as the 3-technique tackle. He put a big hit on Josh McCown on the first series and forced a fumble on the second. Marks gave the Tampa Bay offensive line fits the entire time he was on the field, having an impact on several plays.
The interesting news here is that rookie Telvin Smith Sr started ahead of Geno Hayes at weak side backer. Smith ran with the starters for most of time that they were on the field, looking quick and sharp. It was his pressure on a blitz that forced the bad throw by McCown resulting in a pick six. Smith paired with Paul Posluszny in the nickel as well. Hayes is still listed as the starter on the team's depth chart and was on the field for some snaps with the first defense on the second series, but it was Smith with the lion's share of the first team playing time. This is a situation to keep an eye on over the next couple of weeks.
One other quick note; the Jaguars showed a bit of three man front in this game. When the starters were still playing Hayes lined up at inside backer with Posluszny for a play or two with Andre Branch and LaRoy Reynolds as outside linebackers.
One of the situations we were watching closely in the first round of practice games was the Atlanta linebacker positions. It was a given that Paul Worrilow would be the centerpiece on the inside. After that we had little to go on besides some practice notes and a lot of speculation. In their first live action Atlanta showed a good deal of both three and four man fronts. In the 3-4 is was Joplo Bartu who joined Worrilow at inside backer with Kroy Biermann and Jonathan Massaquoi filling the outside linebacker spots. In the base 4-3 Biermann worked at strong side linebacker with Bartu on the weak side, Worrilow in the middle and Massaquoi at end opposite Jonathan Babineaux. Bartu was also part of the nickel package, making him a sleeper target with LB3 potential.
The Falcons first team defense did not look good in this game. Osi Umenyiora was nowhere to be seen. That could be simply a matter of resting the veteran or it may be a sign of things to come. The bottom line is that Atlanta was not able to generate much pass rush against the Dolphins starters and Miami was able to stroll up and down the field. It could be a big year for William Moore if the front seven does not show a lot of improvement.
As expected the Dolphins started Koa Misi at middle linebacker with Dannell Ellerbe on the weak side and Phillip Wheeler on the strong side. Ellerbe stayed on the field in all sub packages while Misi and Wheeler shared snaps in the nickel. Misi made some tackles but was not really impressive on the field. He seemed a bit slow to react and was caught up in traffic in pursuit.
Buster Skrine remains ahead of Justin Gilbert in the battle for the starting corner job. Gilbert worked as the nickel corner during most of his action with the first unit. At inside linebacker it was Craig Robertson getting the start over rookie Christian Kirksey. Considering what quarterback situation has taught us about Mike Pettine's approach to rookies, we should not be reading too much into the current status of these positions.
The important news here was at the safety position where Jordan Poyer got the start at strong safety with Donte Whitner playing deep free safety role. This may be a result of the injury that has kept Teshaun Gipson on the sideline for a while. Until we see Whitner in the strong safety role however, we have to be very concerned about his fantasy potential. Whitner has been stranded at free safety for much of his career and has never been more than marginally productive in that role. Only the hope that he will move back to his natural strong safety position is keeping him on my draft list as a late round DB5 flier at this point.
The other part of this scenario that makes me so pessimistic about Whitner is how well Poyer played. He looked quick, physical and comfortable. Poyer made several plays and was around the ball often. If he continues to impress he could very well come away from camp as a box score friendly starting strong safety.
We already knew that D.J. Williams would be the starting middle backer and Lance Briggs would be the man on the weak side. Our first look at the Chicago defense confirmed that Williams will join Briggs in the nickel packages. We know that Briggs will be a quality LB3 option with a little upside. As a three down player Williams could put up similar numbers. This news makes Williams a solid LB4 target with some upside.
It has little immediate fantasy relevance but is noteworthy that Shea McClellin is starting ahead of Jon Bostic at strong side linebacker. For all of those dynasty owners out there sitting on Bostic, the time has come to strongly consider moving on.
The Titans announced starters at inside linebacker were Wesley Woodyard and Zach Brown, but it was actually Zaviar Gooden next to Woodyard on the first series versus the Packers. That duo remained on the field in the nickel package as well on that series. Unfortunately the Titans were gashed by James Starks who had six carries for 49 yards and a score on that series. Most of those runs were between the tackles with neither inside backer making a strong first impression. Brown replaced Gooden on the second series then remained in the game with the second team when Moise Fokou replaced Woodyard. Colin McCarthy may be headed to IR with a shoulder injury so he is out of the mix. Woodyard is the only sure starter here and even he was less than impressive on first impression. In my eyes it was Brown who made the best impression. We will see if the coaching staff agrees come preseason week two.
Derrick Morgan and Kamerion Wimbley were the starters at the outside linebacker positions while Coty Sensabaugh got the start at corner opposite Jason McCourty. This could be significant for owners in leagues that break out the defensive back positions as Alteraun Verner was rather productive from that position before moving on.
Green Bay Packers
Micah Hyde got the start at free safety where he continues to hold off Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. At strong safety Sean Richardson got the start for Morgan Burnett who was rested due to being a little banged up. Clinton-Dix did see time with the starters so this competition is very much alive.
One of the answers we were looking for entering the first round of preseason games, was how the Packers would deploy their inside linebackers in the sub packages. In past years A.J. Hawk has been used largely as a two down run stuffer. Last season he became a three down option when Brad Jones was injured. When Jones returned late in 2013, Hawk continued to hold the sub package role with the coaching staff electing to use a safety along with Hawk in their nickel packages instead of Jones. In the small sampling we have seen thus far, Hawk and Jones worked together in the nickel with Jones as the lone linebacker in the dime package. In a full time role Jones is going to have solid LB2 value for us. So long as Hawk remains in the three down role, he should remain a decent third starter or quality depth.
Julius Peppers started at outside linebacker and looked like a square peg in a round hole. He was slow off the line and did not get a sniff of ball carrier or quarterback in the two series he played.
With Ryan Shazier nursing a sore knee, the Steelers started third year man Sean Spence at inside linebacker. Spence is undersize for the job but was nothing short of impressive in his debut. He was the team's third round pick in 2012 and was turning heads before suffering a devastating knee injury during training camp. Spence was not able to return in 2013 but he sure looks ready now. He's a smart, quick and active player with the potential to emerge as a team leader if he can stay healthy and can somehow get on the field. Chances are he will be the number three inside backer and a special teams ace while awaiting his opportunity. Shazier has been working with the first team for most of training camp and will return to that role once he is 100%, but he had better not slip up. Keep Spence on your speed dial and leap on him in the event of an injury to Shazier or Lawrence Timmons.
The Cardinals opened in a nickel package with Kevin Minter and Larry Foote at inside linebacker for a couple of plays. On third and three Deone Bucannon replaced Minter. Tony Jefferson started at strong safety with Rashad Jonson at free. The first team defense played two short series so our sampling was small. It was encouraging to see Minter get some nickel snaps and even more encouraging that he was off the field for only one defensive snap while the starters were still working. The problem is, we have not seen enough to get a true measure of the situation. One thing that is certain, if this continues we can expect very little from Bucannon this season. Apparently he is only seeing first team snaps as the sixth defensive back (lining up at linebacker depth) in the dime package.
The experiment of Brooks Reed at inside linebacker appears to be over. He started on the outside opposite Clowney and remained there until the first team exited. With Brian Cushing on the PUP, Justin Tuggle and Jeff Tarpinian got the call on the inside. Those two are likely competing to see who will start next to Cushing when he is ready. After their poor showing versus Arizona, there has to be some concern within the organization. Cushing was activated this week but may not get on the field for another week or two. He is expected to be ready by week one.
The news was not all bad for the Texans. Jadaveon Clowney looked as advertised. He was a disruptive force. If only he was an inside linebacker.
San Diego Chargers
It was good to see Manti Te'o in on a couple of nickel snaps but discouraging to see that he was not a participant in all of them. Against Dallas the Chargers first nickel package snaps included strong safety Marcus Gilchrist in the linebacker spot next to Donald Butler with number three safety Jahleel Addae taking Gilchrist's spot at safety. Later in the long drive, Te'o remained on the field for a second and long with five defensive backs deployed. This is a situation I will be watching closely over the next two weeks.
As most of us anticipated it was Bruce Carter at weak side linebacker and Justin Durant in the middle in the opener. Both players remained on the field in the nickel package as well. Carter looked like a different player than the one we saw last season. Or maybe he was the same and everyone else was even slower. Either way, he was around the ball a lot and was in on several plays early on. Reports out of Dallas this week have the coaching staff down on him and looking for Rolando McClain to step up over the next three weeks. If McClain can win the job in the middle, the Cowboys could move Durant back to the weak side where he has played throughout much of his career. There is going to be a lot of opportunity for whoever holds these positions. The question that remains is if any of the Cowboys options are good enough to take advantage of it. The more I see of this defense the more I love Barry Church and the higher J.J. Wilcox goes on my sleeper list.
Tyrone Crawford made the start at defensive end ahead of George Selvie in the preseason opener. While this was somewhat of a surprise, keep in mind that Selvie missed a day of practice in the days leading up to the game. Crawford also came up lame with a calf injury on Sunday. At this point there is no reason to think Mincy and Selvie will not be the opening day starters.
That does it for now. I will be back with at least one more update in the next two weeks and possibly two if time allows. Best of luck to all as we enter the heart of draft season.