By the time I was able to get back to work from my IR adventure it was too late to squeeze in the AFC and NFC articles; my apologies. I will work in a little extra on those teams in this column where it is needed.
These are my notes and/or thoughts on the preseason games and a few other important happenings since the opening of camps. As usual the first round of games answered as few questions and confirmed some things, while throwing a curve or two as well. There are still plenty of important jobs up for grabs.
One interesting observation; league wide there were a lot of teams running with two three-down linebackers. At the end of last season those guys were becoming a rarity. I think a big part of it is the vanilla defenses most teams run during the preseason. Others were probably because coaches want to see what they have in some new starters. If the trend continues into the regular season linebacker is going to be a very deep position.
Since I missed the AFC West let's start with Oakland. At linebacker it was Malcolm Smith lining up on the weak side as expected, with Ben Heeney in the middle and Bruce Irvin on the strong side. To make room for Irvin Oakland has moved Khalil Mack to defensive end in the 4-3 base package and nickel situations. He is still at outside linebacker when a 3-4 is called. Against Arizona Mack played on eleven snaps by my count. His hand was in the dirt on nine of those snaps. This is particularly important news for those who use MyFantasyLeague, as they have not yet switched him from outside linebacker. Many of the other league hosting sites have already moved Mack to end. Check out the situation in your league. As a linebacker Mack was anywhere from an LB4 in tackle heavy leagues to an elite tier one in big play based scoring. As a defensive end he would be second to J.J. Watt. The positional tweak may shave a handful of tackles off Mack’s 2015 totals but it should not have much effect on his sack total.
Ben Heeney is flying under the radar in a lot of leagues but is a guy people will be very familiar with soon. He looked good over the second half of last season and has continued to improve. Not only is Heeney playing all three downs, he is wearing the communications helmet and calling plays. Against the Cardinals he was quick and disruptive. I will stop short of calling Heeney a better option than Smith, but will not be shocked if both finish in the top twenty.
Karl Joseph is one of my favorite rookie players this year. He looks like the perfect replacement for Charles Woodson. Joseph is probably the best big play safety to come out of college in the last decade and he loves to tackle. The Raiders are lining him up at strong safety with free agent addition Reggie Nelson at free. One important consideration he is the Raiders scheme does not call for the same safety to stay deep on every play. This is what allowed Woodson to make the tackle at the line of scrimmage on one play and intercept a deep pass on the next. Nothing is certain here but Joseph looked fast and fluid on the field and made some good plays against Arizona.
The other part of this equation is Nelson. He too is a playmaker coming off a big season and is worthy of fantasy consideration. He is not as physical or aggressive when it comes to tackling but is sound. Nelson will have his share of opportunity near the line and has a good shot to finish with 60+ tackles and 5-7 turnovers.
The Cardinals gave us no surprises. Kevin Minter is still a two down inside linebacker working next to Deone Bucannon who seems to be everywhere on every down. The only real question we had going in was how the secondary would line up. With Tyrann Mathieu not playing what we ended up getting is somewhat of a false read.
Tony Jefferson worked as a three down strong safety and spent a lot of time within 7 yards of the line of scrimmage. This is a good sign for his fantasy potential. If he continues in a full time role Jefferson could be surprisingly productive. He has not shown much in the big play columns over his career but we could get a lot of tackles from him.
D.J. Swearinger Sr worked full time as the deep free safety with Patrick Peterson and rookie Brandon Williams on the corners. Williams falls under the rookie corner rule. Playing opposite one of the best in the league made him a target of the Raiders passing game and will continue to make him a target all season. Williams stood up well under the pressure and made some good plays. It looks like he will be able to take advantage of the extra opportunity.
Tyvon Branch was the fifth defensive back in nickel packages. He will not have enough opportunity in that role to make much of an impact and his role could be greatly reduced once Mathieu returns. The coaching staff likes to move Mathieu around a lot and is will be a shock if he is not a three down player.
There was not much surprise with the Lions either. Tahir Whitehead is working at middle linebacker with Josh Bynes on the weak side and Kyle Van Noy at strong. Whitehead and Bynes stayed on the field in most nickel sub packages. A lot of people are high on Whitehead; I am not one of them. He had an opportunity once before and was not able to hold the job for long. There is not much behind him on the depth chart so there is little doubt Whitehead will have plenty of opportunity. Unless he is bumped back into a two down role again, he should be somewhat productive simply on volume of plays. If he has indeed blossomed like some believe Whitehead could have a big season.
Bynes has been around long enough for to know what he is; a serviceable starter who plays smart and makes few mistakes either physical or mental, but does not put up big numbers. Even with the full time role he will be no more than depth or a marginal third starter.
Ezekiel Ansah did not play against the Steelers leaving Devin Taylor and Wallace Gilberry to play end with the starters. Taylor looked quick as a pass rusher landing a sack against the Steelers starting offensive line. I expect Taylor to hold off Gilberry for the starting spot opposite Ansah and will not be surprised if he becomes a solid DL2 for us this year.
I also like strong safety Rafael Bush as a sneaky fantasy prospect. Bush was productive in a stint as the starter in New Orleans a couple of years back. He was flying around against the Steelers and seemed to be in on the tackle or at least in the picture on virtually every snap while the first team played. There are no great linebackers in front of him so Bush will probably be in a target rich environment.
When the Steelers drafted Sean Davis there was a lot of speculation he would start at strong safety sometime this season. If that was indeed the team's plan it has been put on hold for now. When Senquez Golson went down the coaching staff plugged Davis into the slot corner sub package role. He will be on the field a lot but it does not look like Davis will be full time this year.
Robert Golden inherited the strong safety spot last year and made a good showing; enough so in fact that he was signed to a three year extension. Back in June I mentioned Golden as one of my favorite safety sleepers. Nothing I have seen makes me thing any different at this point. He made some good plays against the Lions.
The Bills are off to an ominous start in terms of injuries on defense. Shaq Lawson is likely to miss a few games; IK Enempali is out for the season as is rookie stud Reggie Ragland. Lorenzo Alexander is in line to make a few starts at outside backer early in the season. He should do an adequate job on the field but no threat to make a fantasy impact. The Ragland injury puts Zach Brown in the lineup on the inside and he most definitely does have some fantasy value. Brown is not just getting on the field a little. He is wearing the communications helmet and calling plays. In the team's first preseason action Zach Brown paired with Preston Brown at the inside linebacker positions. Both players stayed on the field in nickel situations but Zach clearly outplayed Preston. He looked quicker, more decisive and simply more comfortable. Zach Brown was also around the ball more. He is not a great player but good players in great situations tend to make quality fantasy options.
This is one of the situations I found to be somewhat of a surprise. Sio Moore appeared to have lost the battle for the starting job even before his hamstring injury. That was not such a shock. It was a surprise to see Nate Irving in a three down role early in the game when Moore was healthy. Irving lined up next to D'Qwell Jackson for the first two series, including sub package snaps. Maybe the coaching staff feels they can hide his coverage shortcomings with scheme. They have had two inside backers in their nickel packages since turning to the 3-4 a few years back so that part is a given. Irving is a thumper against the run. If he continues in a three down role he could be as much as a solid third starter. With Moore likely to miss significant time I like Irving's chances to stick in the every down role. The Colts simply do not have anyone better to replace him.
Moore replaced Jackson on the third series and ran with the starter for a few plays while the second team guys were integrated. He is now sidelined yet again as he deals with what has been termed a serious hamstring injury. Moore simply is not able to stay healthy. It is probably time to cut our losses there.
Clayton Geathers is still expected to be the week one starter at strong safety but it is time to start being concerned about his injury status. We have not heard much about him since early August when he was still in a walking boot due to the broken bone in his foot. Rookie T.J. Green has been getting most of the first team work while Geathers heals. He is expected to be the eventual replacement for Mike Adams who is near the end of his career.
The Ravens are yet another team that showed us two inside linebackers in three down roles last week. We already knew Zach Orr would get the first shat at starting next to C.J. Mosley. Unlike the Colts however, Baltimore has used a nickel linebacker in years past though they have not done so recently with Daryl Smith at the position. I was pleasantly surprised with Orr's play against both run and Pass. He was 19-3-1 in a part time role last season while gaining enough experience to look comfortable in the scheme. If he continues to play like he did against Carolina Orr could give us rather useful numbers.
There were no surprises with the Panthers defense but I did want to mention the strong play of rookie corner James Bradberry. He was surprisingly smooth and did a great job sticking with receivers. Granted the Ravens pass catchers are not among the best in the league but they are in the league. Bradberry was physical and disruptive in tight coverage off the line and held excellent position on most if not all down field passes thrown his way. Most importantly he was around the ball a lot.
New York Jets
After reading some reviews about how good Darron Lee looked against the Jaguars, I sat down to watch the game with big expectations. When watching preseason games there is never enough time to watch every play. I generally watch all of the first team snaps and if there is someone in particular to checking out I will watch a series or two when the second team is on the field. Lee played no snaps with the starters and had done nothing impressive before I moved on late in the second quarter. If he looked great in the second half against fringe players trying to make the team it is much less impressive. He is still a player I like a lot in terms of dynasty value but I need to at least see him in some first team sub packages before giving any thought to him in redraft leagues. That said the way Erin Henderson looked it will be a shock if Lee does not start getting some looks. Henderson is a career backup who has never been more than a marginal short term starter. That is exactly how he looked against the Jaguars.
Jacksonville started Dante Fowler and Jared Odrick at defensive end in their base package. In the nickel Odrick slid inside to pair with Malik Jackson and rookie pass rush specialist Yannick Ngakoue lined up on the outside. This young man has an extra gear off the edge. He is too small to be a three down guy so his fantasy value will be limited but he is worth keeping an eye on for owners in big play based leagues.
Sen'Derrick Marks did not play against the Jets so we are still guessing what the Jaguars will look like on the inside once everyone is available. Roy Miller got the call next to Jackson on early down last week. It is getting increasingly difficult to justify holding onto Marks at this point but if you have the roster space it could pay off. At the least he should get a lot of sub package snaps when/if he gets back on the field.
For those expecting big things from Myles Jack this year, you may be disappointed. Paul Posluszny is still the centerpiece of this unit. He played every defensive snap against the Jets including dime packages. Jack is still the second team middle backer and is not getting snaps on the strong side as many expected he would this year. There are many including some of my peers here at Footballguys who believe Posluszny will soon be bumped to the strong side so Jack can get on the field. That is certainly a possibility but I just don't see the coaching staff taking the veteran leader of this very young defense and basically casting him aside. To me it looks as if the team is going to use Jack sparingly while he learns and fully recovers from the knee injury. There is no doubt he is the future for Jacksonville and has big long term value. Dynasty owners should be patient while redraft owners may want to be prepared to move on unless something changes by week one.
We have been hearing all summer and through training camp that Deon Jones has already been anointed the Falcons starting middle linebacker and De'Vondre Campbell has been working with the starters as well. The game film against Washington tells a somewhat different tale. Atlanta surprisingly opened with Paul Worrilow on the weak side and Sean Weatherspoon in the middle. On the second series it was Jones in the middle and Campbell weak. The coaching staff continued to alternate series like that for much of the first half. Maybe the most surprising thing to come from this situation was Weatherspoon outplaying them all. He looked like someone had built a fire under him. Weatherspoon is finally healthy and in a scheme that seems to fit his skill set. He may have been playing on adrenalin in what may be his last opportunity to win a job in the NFL. If he can keep it up it will be hard to take him off the field.
Worrilow was his same solid if unspectacular self while Jones and Campbell both flashed some good plays. The young guns are the future for the Falcons even if one or both of the veterans hold them off for now. Keep an eye on Weatherspoon over the next couple of games. He has struggled to stay healthy which has been his downfall.
Keanu Neal did not play so Kamal Ishmael got the start at strong safety. Hopefully we will get a look at the team's prize rookie this week.
We entered training camp looking for clarity on Washington's inside linebacker situation. We got it in their preseason opener. Will Compton and Mason Foster were the starters and both remained on the field in nickel sub packages. Perry Riley played exclusively with the second team. Both Compton and Foster are flying under the radar at this point with more owners looking at Compton in the LB3 or LB4 range. Foster has been productive whenever given an opportunity. Keep him in mind when you get to the late rounds.
We also have an answer about what the coaching staff will do with Su'a Cravens. As a rookie it looks like they will do little or nothing. Early on we heard talk of his playing safety on early downs and inside linebacker in sub packages. That may still be the ultimate plan but Cravens saw no time with the starters at any position last weekend. He worked some at inside backer with Riley and the second team and stayed at linebacker in the second half. I did not watch all of this game so he may have worked at safety late. Cravens just turned 21; he is talented but young and raw. Tuck him away on a taxi squad but do not expect much in the short term.
The battle for the starting inside linebacker job next to Navorro Bowman continues. Michael Wilhoite lined up at the position on the first series and Gerald Hodges came on in the second series. Both played well but neither did anything to distinguish themselves. It is noteworthy that both stayed on the field in sub packages when it was their turn. Whoever wins this job is going to have decent value for us. Let us see if Hodges gets to go first in the next game.
Jaquiski Tartt put up strong numbers for us down the stretch last season but it looks as if he will have to wait until next year for a starting job. The second year pro is the future of the strong safety position in San Francisco and all signs point to his being a good one. For now the 49ers seem content to stick with the veteran Antoine Bethea who is also a fine player by both NFL and fantasy standards. Bethea was injured last year and has been a forgotten man in many drafts. He would be a fine late round addition.
My esteemed colleague Jene Bramel has been talking about Bernardrick McKinney working as a three down inside backer this year. He did play every down with the first team last weekend with Brian Cushing not playing but that is all we are able to confirm at this point. I know Jene likes McKinney and I agree he has a lot of potential, but he was far from impressive in his two down role as a rookie. Thus I remain skeptical of his fantasy value at this point. Cushing is a good linebacker in his own right but he has not been a great fantasy option since moving inside in this scheme.
The Cowboys sat some players including Sean Lee but it was not hard to get a read on their plan at linebacker. Kyle Wilbur started on the strong side as expected with Anthony Hitchens working as a three down middle backer. He whiffed on one tackle early in the game but was in on a lot of plays while the first team was on the field. Hitchens has given us excellent production whenever he has been given the opportunity. I expect that trend to continue. With Rolando McClain likely done in Dallas, Hitchens may finally win the favor of the organization and become their full time starter.
San Diego Chargers
Both Manti Te'o and Denzel Perryman stayed on the field in nickel packages against the Titans. This is not breaking news, simply confirmation. Perryman looked like the better fantasy option late last season and picked up right where he left off. I like him as a strong late-middle round pick. Te'o has some potential as well and will also be available late.
The Titans have traditionally given us at least one quality option at safety. That was not so much the case last year. With the addition of Rashad Johnson there is some hope for a return of quality production. That said, it has most often been the Titans strong safety giving us the better value and Johnson is working at free safety. Da'Norris Searcy continues to work at Strong safety where he was a major fantasy bust last year. Hopefully Johnson will be able to get it done. There should be plenty of opportunity for both safeties behind what is possibly the weakest linebacker corps in the league.
Unlike many teams the Titans had only one three down linebacker in the preseason opener. Avery Williamson continues to hold that role. Wesley Woodyard got the start at the other ILB spot but was pulled in favor of Sean Spence in sub packages. There is simply not a great deal of value to be found here. Avery is a decent LB3 with some upside.
The only thing we are in the dark about with Seattle is who will start at corner opposite Richard Sherman. Jeremy Lane and DeShawn Shead are currently locked in competition for the job. We did not learn much from their first live action because Shead was standing in for Kam Chancellor at safety. Shead is the guy we want to win this job but his versatility may make him more valuable to the team in a utility role.
The Miami linebackers lined up as expected with Kiko Alonso and Jelani Jenkins at middle and weak side respectively. Both remained on the field in nickel packages which is also as expected. Jenkins had a horrible 2015 as he tried to play through injuries. He looked good as new against the Giants. Jenkins was flying around making plays and showing no ill effect from last year. Alonso probably should have sat out last season all together. He was simply not right enough to be back on the field. His play versus the Giants came with mixed reviews. He was a little slow to react on a couple of plays and missed a tackle or two. On other played he looked quick and explosive. If Alonso can get back to where he was pre-injury he will be a beast in this scheme. He has not yet shown he is there.
New York Giants
Sifting through the mess at linebacker in New York is one of our priorities this preseason. There is a ton of opportunity and potential to be found here. Unfortunately there may not be anyone capable of maximizing it. Keenan Robinson is the team's best player at the position but he has not been able to stay healthy and has fallen behind Jasper Brinkley. Brinkley started in the middle against Miami but took a seat on passing downs. In fact the only linebacker to stay on the field for all three downs was Jonathan Casillas who has never been more than a marginal fantasy option at best. There is still time for this to sort itself out but right now the Giants safeties are looking pretty good.
Speaking of those safeties, rookie Darian Thompson is working with the first team at free safety and has been turning heads. He made a couple of nice hits against the Dolphins and seems to be putting ground between himself and Nate Behre. Slip Thompson onto the end of your roster if there is room or at least keep him on your radar for a possible early season add.
Eli Apple has not yet broken the starting lineup and he may not do so this season. The coaching staff seems content to plug him in as the nickel corner and let him learn the ropes as a rookie.
Owa Odigizuwa made a big first impression with a couple of sacks in the opener. While it looks great on paper and was even somewhat impressive on film, keep in mind he was not playing against the starters.
Green Bay Packers
This is another linebacker situation that will likely give us a quality starter if we can figure out who it will be. Sam Barrington was expected to have a big role one he returns but he has still not been on the field. In his absence rookie Blake Martinez has been making hay while the sun shines. He and Joe Thomas were the starters on the inside versus Cleveland. Martinez made a play or two and looked pretty good but Thomas kind of stole the show. Both players remained on the field in nickel situations. This competition is far from over and Thomas has probably added his name to the list of potential starters. We will continue to watch this one.
That is a wrap for this week. Hopefully we can get some more answers from round two. Until then remember to Just Win Baby!