scouting the preseason
Divining the true meaning of the early preseason can be a fool's errand.
Coaches authorize public relations departments to put together a depth chart, making what should be a vital piece of preseason information more misleading than helpful. Players missing time due to injury may be more hurt than what the team has said or just getting some added veteran rest. A player seeing snaps with a group higher (or lower) on the depth chart than expected could be nothing or it could be evidence the coaching staff wants to see how different players fit together on film.
The second full week of preseason games included lots of potential foolers. Is Lawrence Timmons' toe injury more severe than the Steelers are saying? Are the Vikings legitimately considering Gerald Hodges at middle linebacker? Are Manti Te'o and Brian Cushing really their team's only true every-down inside linebackers?
Answers to those questions -- at least what I think are the answers to those questions -- below. But be advised, the fantasy landscape is a lot like Ferris Bueller's Chicago. It's moving fast and it's easy to miss something.
EVERY-DOWN LINEBACKER PROJECTION
This chart is still an educated guess. For the most part, it's based off of what I saw in the first week of preseason games or what's been reported by a trusted team media source. There are many, many situations still to be settled.
I'll update this table every week between now and Week 17.
TRAINING CAMP NOTES
Shaq Thompson started at outside linebacker for Carolina in the second preseason game. I think the Panthers wanted to see him with the first team defense in live game action, but it tells us two important things. First, the Panthers want Thompson to succeed at linebacker. He's not seen any time in the secondary, even in a subpackage variant. Second, Thompson is playing well enough to force his way into the base defensive conversation in Week 1. There will be limits to his upside as a starter -- he won't see many subpackage snaps and there's strong competition for tackles -- but it's nice to see Thompson's development progressing quickly. I still think Thompson projects well enough in coverage and pass rush to have the Panthers consider a 3-3-5 nickel package, and his snap count could increase by midseason.
I've gotten some grief from my friends Sigmund Bloom and Matt Waldman on Leonard Williams. In case it's not been clear, I like Leonard Williams. I think he can be a dominant player and my concerns about his college tape were relieved after hearing how the USC coaching staff asked him to read rather than explode off the ball. My 2015 fantasy worries were tied to opportunity and the usual amount of time it takes a rookie defensive lineman to adjust to the NFL. But with Sheldon Richardson's off-field issues and Muhammad Wilkerson's hamstring woes, it's looking more and more likely Williams could get to 600-700 snaps this year. That's a huge positive. However, don't get too excited about the two sacks from Williams last week. Both were blown assignments. Look instead at his strong first step on 1-gap snaps and his strength when double teamed on 2-gap snaps. Those are more informative. I'm not ready to elevate Williams to DE1 status yet, but he's now worth considering alongside Cameron Heyward and Corey Liuget.
It's time to prepare for a season-long holdout for Kam Chancellor. Both sides seem dug in now. I think there's a slim chance we could see a regular season holdout end between Week 1 and Week 2, but if there's no break in the news in the next week, it may be a long time before we see Chancellor again. The Seahawks have been using Dion Bailey in Chancellor's role. I think DeShawn Shead has been a little better filling in for Earl Thomas, however. Both backups are big and physical. As much as I love Chancellor, I haven't tiered him highly due to home stat crew and opportunity concerns. The same worries would apply to either Bailey or Shead.
[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.]
You are going to read about Gerald Hodges getting a chance at middle linebacker this week. That's been going on since Anthony Barr has returned. It's a three way competition in Minnesota. Last week, Eric Kendricks played the first and fourth series with the first team, while Hodges played the second and third series. Audie Cole did not see time with the starters. I'm not sure there's a leader here, but rest assured Mike Zimmer doesn't care what anyone else thinks. He wants a player who will be in the gap he's supposed to be in and make the tackle when he's there. That could very well be Hodges. What seems clear after watching last week's game is that Chad Greenway's nickel role is in jeopardy. Both Kendricks and Hodges -- unlike Cole -- played with Anthony Barr in the nickel.
The sands in the hourglass are running out on the Khalil Mack reclassification in MFL leagues. Despite multiple blurbs noting Oakland's plan to use Mack at defensive end, Rotoworld has yet to change his position on the depth chart. MFL's last re-classification will likely come soon after this week's preseason games. Through three first half series last week, Mack played outside linebacker in a 3-4 under front nine times, nickel defensive end nine times, 4-3 closed end twice, outside linebacker in a 46 front twice and one snap in a psycho-like nickel package where all but one player stands up in a two point stance. As you can see from the image below, that 3-4 under front is a 4-3 look. [There's a lot more about the nuances of alignments in this series I wrote years ago.] Mack may be given the choice to put his hand down there or not. So, it's incredibly difficult to play the DE v OLB convention game here. Regardless of what happens here, if you've rostered Mack, you have an elite DE or LB if you're in anything but the most tackle-heavy league.
Carolina defensive end Frank Alexander tore his Achilles tendon last week and is out for the season. This will be the break Kony Ealy needs to see more than 600 snaps. Whether Ealy can take advantage is unclear. There are flashes of edge speed and flashes of leverage against the run, but stretches where Ealy is ineffective. Unless you're in a deep dynasty league, keep Ealy on your watch list for now.
Jon Beason told us last week he felt better than he had in multiple seasons. Unfortunately, it's hard to prevent your body breaking down as you age. Beason now has an MCL sprain. He's minimizing its impact, but the Giants -- who regularly minimze injuries themselves -- are already expressing concern about Beason's Week 1 availability. Jameel McClain replaced Beason at middle linebacker and in the nickel.
D.J. Swearinger Sr has reportedly won the starting safety job next to Bradley McDougald. But Major Wright started there in the second preseason game. I don't think Swearinger is a great fit for Lovie Smith's brand of Tampa-2. I also wonder if he'll play on passing downs with Wright and (if healthy) Chris Conte in the mix. And there's too much competition for tackles to run Swearinger up the DB tiers too far. Consider in deeper leagues only.
The rotation between Chris Kirksey and Craig Robertson continues in Cleveland but it's a different rotation than last season. Unlike last season's series-for-series split, the Browns are playing Robertson in the base and Kirksey in the nickel. If that continues, it'll be a little easier to project which player will have the higher snap count by matchup. But neither player will be a reliable fantasy option again.
I'm moving Aaron Colvin up in my cornerback tiers. He's shown no ill effects from his ACL injury in early 2014 and looks entrenched as a starting corner in Jacksonville. He's a good fit for Gus Bradley's defense and a willing tackler. Variance rules the day with corners, but Colvin is a strong flyer/streaming option early this season.
Other injuries I'm monitoring: Jason McCourty (groin surgery) will likely miss a month while recovering from sports hernia surgery, a process that usually takes 5-6 weeks. San'Derrick Marks (ACL) may still have a chance to play Week 1. Like Geno Atkins, however, it's hard to see Marks pick up where he left off in 2014.
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.