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Questions and Answers
After a long offseason of uncertainty, clarity is just around the corner.
Well, sort of. We’re getting our first look at how teams set up depth chart competitions, but for every question answered early in camp, another is likely to pop up in its place. So stay patient through the first two weeks of camp as coordinators take a long look at different combinations and veterans take days off with minor injuries.
Every-Down Linebacker Projection
But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t read into what the coaches are showing us in camp and the early preseason games to come. So, let’s take an early preseason run at projecting each team’s every-down linebackers. I’m going to make a few assumptions (injury recoveries, projected winners of camp battles, etc.) to make an educated guess at who will be playing every down in Week 1.
I'll update this table every week between now and Week 17.
Training Camp Notes
Rex Ryan used a four man defensive line throughout OTAs and has continued to do so early in camp. That's a major ripple in the IDP landscape. Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes have already been re-classified to defensive end. Long time IDP fans will have flashbacks to the Terrell Suggs controversies here. It also means both Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus will be classified at defensive tackle. Barring an obvious alignment change in the first 2-3 preseason games, those classifications will stick. There won't be much change in linebacker values here. Both Nigel Bradham and Preston Brown will play every down. I'll end up giving a very slight bump in value to whichever players ends up aligned toward with weak side. If it's Brown, his pass rush upside in Ryan's scheme could make him a LB2 with elite upside.
The Cardinals still haven't decided what to do with their safety group yet. All four safeties have rotated as starters in the base defense during the first week of camp, with Rashad Johnson and Deone Bucannon paired in one group and Tyrann Mathieu and Tony Jefferson in the other. I don't see Jefferson in the base defense if the others are healthy, but the rotation is a sign none of the other three are slam dunk every down players. And the Johnson - Bucannon pairing is interesting. I'd have expected those two to compete opposite Mathieu. For now, I'd still bet on Johnson and Mathieu starting, with all three playing 100% of the subpackage snaps.
[Make sure you're checking the IDP article list frequently for my weekly tier updates. I'll be shooting for full updates before each week's set of preseason games.]
Khalil Mack has been taking the majority of his camp reps at defensive end. If the Raiders show a 4-3 front in their first preseason game, we could see Mack re-classified quickly. I've been screaming Mack's praises on our podcast and in my tier updates since January. This week may be your last chance to grab him on the cheap. Make a strong, but not suspiciously strong, first offer.
The Bears started camp with Shea McClellin and Christian Jones as their starting -- and apparently every down -- inside linebackers. I have no idea what Vic Fangio sees in McClellin, but this has been going on too long to ignore. But, frankly, I'm stubborn and I don't see. There's been little talk of Mason Foster since camp opened and Jon Bostic is now healthy but still has work to do. I'm not moving McClellin into a draftable tier yet, but the news coming out of Chicago is very reassuring on Jones. Hopefully, dynasty owners picked up him last season after our frequent suggestions to do so -- and held through the offseason uncertainty.
New Orleans is morphing back toward a 4-3 base after the release of Junior Galette. Reports have Cam Jordan in a 7-technique role and moving around the formation. That means the team sees him as their lone edge rusher on the line and will seek out strong matchups for him. He'll be moving up in my next tier update. Stephone Anthony has already seen time with the first team at middle linebacker and projects to play every down alongside David Hawthorne unless Dannell Ellerbe is an undeniable force in the next two weeks.
Don't fuss over last week's news that Avery Williamson was moved to the strong side in Tennessee. The Titans are moving to a Dick LeBeau style of 3-4. Williamson may see a few more blockers, but he'll see enough opportunity to hold value. Meanwhile, the IDP community seemed more fussy over Williamson than excited by Zach Brown's prospects. There are injury and instinct concerns with Brown, but he's way undervalued right now.
The Cowboys moved Anthony Hitchens inside in the first few camp practices. Unless Jasper Brinkley shows something quickly, Hitchens may be covering for Rolando McClain as the season opens. There will be lots of competition for tackles with Sean Lee, but an every-down middle linebacker role would be an opportunity-rich environment for Hitchens to start the season.
Dallas opened camp with Demarcus Lawrence and Greg Hardy at defensive end and Nick Hayden and Tyrone Crawford at tackle. You'll continue to hear Lawrence as a strong sleeper candidate, but don't ignore Crawford here. He'll be the 3-technique on early downs and should still see nickel snaps. Add him to your tackle lists if he wasn't there already.
Jon Beason says he's healthier than he's been in years but the bigger news in New York is Devon Kennard. Despite lots of early offseason notes portraying him as a subpackage rusher in competition for an outside linebacker spot, Kennard ended OTAs as the starting strong side linebacker and playing alongside Beason in subpackages. Though his ceiling isn't elite this year, Kennard needs to be stashed on dynasty rosters if you have room.
There has been no buzz whatsoever on Benardrick McKinney yet. Instead, journeyman vet Mike Mohammed continues to turn heads and looks like a favorite to play every down in Week 1. McKinney could eventually work into that mix, especially if Brian Cushing can't maintain his health into the regular season.
Geno Atkins is reportedly looking as good as he did before his ACL injury. If the young cornerbacks in Cincinnati play well, Atkins could easily see double digit sacks once again.
I'm getting more and more excited about the prospects of Calvin Pryor (who's moving back to strong safety) and Landon Collins (who's going to see lots of opportunity) as potential DB1 caliber fantasy options.
Cleveland's defensive coordinator told reporters this week he expected to have Chris Kirksey and Craig Robertson rotate in all packages as they did last year. That's not a great omen for Kirksey's immediate fantasy value. It may not be a great omen for his long term upside either.
More linebacker rotations: Audie Cole is seeing some reps with the first team at middle linebacker, but Eric Kendricks is with the ones in subpackages and should earn base duty soon. Koa Misi and Kelvin Sheppard are battling for the Miami middle linebacker job, with Sheppard nudging ahead. Sio Moore is off the PUP list and challenging Malcolm Smith to start.
Additional defensive end nuggets of note: Leonard Williams will now easily crack the 600 snap mark with Sheldon Richardson likely to see an additional suspension. The Panthers want Frank Alexander to win the starting job opposite Charles Johnson. Mike Zimmer is already taking a look at rookie Danielle Hunter in rotation with Brian Robison and Scott Crichton.
And a few defensive back quick hitters: I still like Jeron Johnson's prospects in Washington, but Duke Ihenacho leads the strong safety battle for now. Andre Hal is threatening to beat out Eddie Pleasant at strong safety in Houston. Make sure you keep an eye on Clayton Geathers progress in Indianapolis. And Aaron Colvin (JAX) and Eric Rowe (PHI) may be starting for their teams at cornerback in Week 1.
Follow and ask questions on Twitter @JeneBramel. Reading the Defense will be a regular feature this offseason with free agent commentary, draft prospect previews, tier discussion, links to our offseason IDP roundtable podcasts and much more. Subscribe to The Audible on iTunes or download our IDP podcast here.