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clarity is coming
The third preseason game often reveals what a team's coaches think about their depth chart. But it's really Week 1 when we truly see how a team wants to attack the opposing offense. There were quite a few questions answered last weekend, but lots of camp battles remain unsettled.
I didn't need to see the Honor Roll performance of Khalil Mack last week, but if anyone had doubts about Mack's upside they should be fully erased after his first half against Arizona. Mack manhandled offensive tackles and double teams, terrorized Carson Palmer nearly ten times, and blew up multiple runs and screens. It's a little disappointing some league management sites won't be reclassifying him to defensive end, but he'll be every bit as valuable as Justin Houston in balanced and big play leagues this year.
EVERY-DOWN LINEBACKER PROJECTION
This chart is still an educated guess. For the most part, it's based off of what I saw in preseason games or what's been reported by a trusted team media source. There are situations still to be settled.
I'll update this table every week between now and Week 17.
TRAINING CAMP NOTES
One issue no longer unsettled is the health and ability of NaVorro Bowman. Despite acknowledging that his knee will require a little more pregame maintenance than it once did, Bowman was in fine form in his first extended action. Welcome back. I still have no qualms slotting him as my third elite LB1. Nick Moody picked a bad time to miss a preseason game with injury. Michael Wilhoite was back in action and playing every down. Moody needs to return this week to make this a competition again.
I think Gerald Hodges may be the best middle linebacker on the Minnesota roster. Hodges was aggressive and shed blocks effectively last week in his first extended preseason action inside. The team continues to take a long look at Eric Kendricks, though. The nickel package is also still an unknown. I expected Hodges to stay on the field, but Kendricks and Anthony Barr played the nickel snaps -- even when Hodges was the base middle linebacker and Chad Greenway the base weak side linebacker. I wouldn't reach for Hodges without those vital nickel snaps. The play here is to roster Kendricks late and patiently wait until he's installed as the starter and every-down middle linebacker.
Jerod Mayo returned for New England this week and played nearly every down, as the Patriots primarily used a 4-2-5 nickel look. The Patriots showed a base 3-4 (with Mayo and Jamie Collins inside, Jabaal Sheard and Rob Ninkovich outside, and Chandler Jones at 5-tech), a base 4-3 (with Sheard and Jones playing end and Ninkovich at strong side linebacker), and a dime subpackage with Collins as the lone inside linebacker. I think those four packages will be >90% of the Patriots' defensive snaps this year. Dont'a Hightower also returned to game action. He replaced Mayo in the second quarter and played the same role. When Hightower was in the game, the Patriots were more likely to use a dime package on passing downs. Mayo didn't play long enough to get a sense of how well he'll hold up over 60+ snaps, but it's a great sign to see him trusted in that role.
The Giants showed a 3-4 front with Robert Ayers nursing and injury and Jason Pierre-Paul still nowhere to be seen. Damonte Moore and Devon Kennard played outside linebacker with Jameel McClain and J.T. Thomas inside. They also shuffled their primary nickel package. Thomas and Uani' Unga played linebacker, with Moore and Owa Odighizuwa at end. That's not good news for Kennard, McClain, or Jon Beason if it carries into Week 1. It was good to see both Landon Collins (who saw lots of snaps in the box) and Prince Amukamara back from injury and in the starting lineup.
Late note: While I was drooling over Khalil Mack, I missed the Raiders taking a look at Ray Ray Armstrong over Curtis Lofton in their nickel look. This spring, I projected Lofton to be out of the nickel and discussed the possibility of Sio Moore and Malcolm Smith paired in subpackages. That never got off the ground due to Moore's slow recovery from hip surgery. If Moore can get healthy, we may still see that happen. Be wary of using Lofton in Week 1, even against Cincinnati.
[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.]
Danny Trevathan and Brandon Marshall were back as the starting inside linebackers in Denver last week. It's an impressive recovery for both. Marshall, in particular, looks tremendous just six months after Lisfranc surgery. While I don't think it'll stick long, Steven Johnson replaced Trevathan in the Broncos' nickel.
The Cardinals haven't seen Sean Weatherspoon healthy since the first day of the preseason. Although Kevin Minter is playing better than he ever has, it's Deone Bucannon who has my attention. It looks like Arizona is thinking hard about using the Big Nickel as they're base defense. The Raiders used a three wide receiver base offense in the first half so it may just have been Arizona's usual subpackage counter, but plugged in beat writer Mike Jurecki suggested the Cardinals are going to give Bucannon more looks in the box. Bucannon got 700 snaps in that role last year and put up 59 solos. He may be in line for more this year.
I've added Ramik Wilson to the every-down chart. Josh Mauga continues to miss time with a heel injury and Wilson has taken full advantage. Unlike past years, when the Chiefs used Eric Berry as a hybrid linebacker on nickel downs, it appears the plan is to use two inside linebackers in the majority of subpackage situations. Outside of a few dime looks, Wilson will get subpackage snaps next to Derrick Johnson. Ron Parker and Husain Abdullah continue to run with the first team. In extended action last week, Parker was more frequently in the box.
I was never optimistic Vontaze Burfict would play in Week 1 but the Bengals seemed hopeful they'd be able to get him ready for the third preseason week. That milestone came and went with Burfict not yet off the PUP list much less ready to see game action. We'll find out whether Burfict will transfer to the inseason PUP list by Saturday afternoon. It could still go either way.
If you were to listen to the preseason announcers, you'd come away with the impression A.J. Klein is still in the mix to start at outside linebacker in Carolina. Forget about it. Shaq Thompson has won that job. Thompson won't play in nickel packages, but he looks comfortable and aggressive. He'll get a chance to develop on-field and would be a must roster if the Panthers need him in subpackages.
There are hints of a 4-3 in the Pittsburgh 3-4, but no true 4-3 end is being used. More interestingly, the Steelers rotated outside linebacker groups series for series last week. Jarvis Jones and Arthur Moats were one pair, with Bud Dupree and James Harrison the other. Dupree still needs lots of technical work and will be a work in progress in 2015. Lawrence Timmons is still resting his toe injury. He needs to get back on the field soon or he may not be ready for Week 1.
Two weeks ago, the Seahawks used DeShawn Shead next to Dion Bailey at safety. It was difficult to tell who they favored as Kam Chancellor's presumptive holdout replacement. Last week, Steven Terrell got the first team reps next to Bailey. I still think it's Bailey and Earl Thomas in Week 1, with Bailey holding value in deeper roster, deeper lineup leagues only.
I'm not sure how Cleveland plans to rotate Craig Robertson and Chris Kirksey. They may still be searching for the right answer. Two weeks ago, Robertson played all the base snaps, with Kirksey seeing lots of nickel duty. Last week, Robertson played every down in the first two defensive series. In the third and fourth, Kirksey replaced Robertson in the nickel.
Kony Ealy looked more explosive and showed a counter move against New England last week. His sack wasn't special -- it came on an unblocked run off the edge -- but his pass rush overall was the best it's looked in the NFL. A healthy Charles Johnson will give Ealy a shot at variance DL2 value, but don't expect him to put up every week DL2 numbers.
The Chicago safety competition settled this week. Ryan Mundy was placed on injured reserve with a hip injury. Adrian Amos has beaten out Brock Vereen to play alongside Antrel Rolle. I still don't see much upside in Amos, but should the Bears implode there may be enough tackle opportunity for four or five lineup worthy defenders here.
Those in deep roster leagues with sack-heavy scoring systems should consider adding Preston Smith if he's available. Junior Galette is done with an Achilles' tear and Smith is a much better all-around option than Trent Murphy. Alongside Ryan Kerrigan, Smith could have some fantasy-worthy matchups this year.
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.