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There were not many changes or new developments from the first preseason game to the second. There are still a good number of teams running with two linebackers in most of their nickel packages and a few ongoing competitions to check in on. Some of the first outing surprises are looking more and more like the real thing but I am still waiting for game three confirmation before I can be comfortable believing my own eyes in some situations. This is what I saw last weekend and my best guess at what it may mean.
Sean Lee returned to the field and was back in his expected weak side linebacker role. He may have been a bit rusty but moved well and looked healthy. It was good to see that the return of Lee did not change anything for Anthony Hitchens. Hitchens was less than stellar in the first game but was rock solid against Miami. He got off blocks well and made plays all over the field.
Jack Crawford made the start at end opposite Demarcus Lawrence while Tyrone Crawford lined up at tackle most of the time with the first team. Tyrone did take a few snaps at end however. They may not be related but the Crawford’s are hard to tell apart on the football field when you are not able to see the numbers on their jerseys. One somewhat surprising twist here was Terrell McClain starting ahead of Cedric Thornton on the inside. I like Thornton as a sleeper in tackle required leagues so this is one I will be checking out in the next dress rehearsal.
Myles Jack continues to work solely with the second team. He looks good on the field and should be everything the team hopes for when the time comes but his value for this season may still depend on an injury to Paul Posluszny or Telvin Smith Sr, or the Jaguars making an early exit from the playoff race.
One rookie who will not have to wait is Jalen Ramsey. He was nothing short of impressive in the start against Tampa Bay. Ramsey was in on three tackles in the first series and it seemed as if his number was in the middle of the camera shot on every snap. The rookie corner rule is certainly in play here. If Ramsey proves to be the player he looked like in this game, he could be the exception to the rule and continue to be productive beyond his first year or two. I was particularly impressed with the physicality of his play.
Even with Roy Miller sitting out, Sen'Derrick Marks did not see first team snaps in the base packages. Miller was replaced by Tyson Alualu with Marks clearly working behind Malik Jackson at the 3-technique. Marks played a handful of snaps in relief with the first unit and got on the field in some sub packages but it does not look like he will have a significant enough role to warrant a roster spot. If he is already on your roster I suggest waiting until after the third warm-up game before cutting ties just in case. If he was your projected starter it is time to start making working on plan B.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
There are a lot of people with big hopes for Noah Spence. So far he has shown little to warrant grand expectations. He may well have a bright future but after starting game one in a three down role Spence was behind William Gholston against Jacksonville. It is probably not a good idea to count on Spence for much in the short term.
Brent Grimes and Alteraun Verner were the starting corners against Jacksonville with Vernon Hargreaves working as the nickel corner. Hargreaves was working ahead of Verner in practice this week however, and is expected to be a starter this week. He is a talented player with good box score potential. Let's see how he looks in the full time role.
San Diego Chargers
Denzel Perryman is going to be a beast! I was already high on him going into this year but after watching him make plays all over the field last weekend I am comfortable moving him into my top fifteen.
It is generally expected that rookie Robert Nkemdiche will step into the starting job at end once he is healthy enough. Josh Mauro does not seem to be on the same page however. In the absence on Nkemdiche it has been Mauro working with the starters and he has been turning some heads. Mauro has a sack in each of the preseason games and has been solid against the run. He is the underdog for sure but is worth keeping an eye on.
Washington sat a lot of starters against the Jets including inside linebacker Will Compton. The interesting part of this story is Martell Spaight replaced Compton and worked with Mason Foster while Perry Riley and Su'a Cravens continued to see time with the backups. Another interesting side note on this subject; Cravens is now listed as a safety on the team's NFL.com roster. I still believe we are more likely to see him with a full time role at strong safety than at linebacker in the short term.
New York Jets
Erin Henderson continues to hold off Darron Lee for the inside linebacker spot. Lee was expected to crack the lineup as a nickel linebacker in his rookie season but so far there is no sign of that happening either. It looked like Lee might get his opportunity by default when Henderson hurt his shoulder against Washington. On the play following the injury New York put their second team defense on the field which included Lee and Bruce Carter at ILB. Word is the injury to Henderson is not serious and he should be ready for week one.
New York Giants
Nothing has changed here since last week. Keenan Robinson is still working with the backups while Jonathan Casillas remains the only three down linebacker. The only reason I mention this again is to confirm nothing has changed and point out the impending value of the Giants safeties. Landon Collins is going to be a busy man this year and rookie Darian Thompson should have plenty of opportunity as well. Thompson is working through a sore shoulder but should be fine for the opener.
Zach Orr continues to look good in a three down role next to C.J. Mosley on the inside. The more I see the more I like him as a late/last round sleeper with LB3 upside. The other Ravens player who caught my eye is ZaDarius Smith. He is a hybrid DE/OLB tweener in the mold of Terrell Suggs and is starting to look a little like Suggs on the field. Smith has been shifting around the offensive formations looking for miss matches and has found a few to exploit. Owners in big play based leagues will want to keep an eye on his progress.
In transplanted corner Lardarius Webb the Ravens may have finally found the answer to their free safety void. Webb has been doing a fine job in the role though I am not excited about his fantasy potential at this point.
San Francisco 49ers
The competition for the job next to Navorro Bowman has been high on our watch list all summer. Michael Wilhoite played the first series in the opener with Gerald Hodges playing the second and the two rotating the rest of the way for most of the first half. In game two the rotation remained with Hodges getting the first shot. The difference this time around was Ray Ray Armstrong throwing his mane in the hat. Armstrong actually worked the second series this time around with Wilhoite playing on the third. Hopefully the coaching staff will make a decision before this week's contest. My guess/hope/expectation is Hodges coming away with the job in the end.
Todd Davis remains the starter at inside linebacker next to Brandon Marshall, but he is feeling some heat from youngster Zaire Anderson. The competition is not all that interesting because neither of them are likely to have a full time role. T.J. Ward has been getting some time in as the nickel linebacker. This could provide a big boost for Ward's production.
There are still some questions at the linebacker positions as Mychal Kendricks continues to miss time with a hamstring injury. The situation got more interesting with the addition of free agent Stephen Tulloch. The general consensus on this signing is Tulloch will only provide depth across a thin position. There has been talk however, of Tulloch being in the mix at middle linebacker. While that is Tulloch's best position, owners who already have Hicks need not lose sleep and those who are drafting in the next couple of weeks need not move Hicks down your board. Simply put, believe it when you see it.
The Eagles are using a real three man rotation at defensive end. Against the Steelers Connor Barwin opened on the right side with Brandon Graham on the left. In the second series Vinny Curry replaced Graham and on the third series Graham replaced Barwin. Graham is my favorite of this trio. I like the fact he is moving from side to side as I believe it can play to his advantage. That said I do not see any of these guys making the top twelve in this situation. We may well see all of them with 30-35 solo tackles and 6-8 sacks though.
The battle for the starting spot at corner opposite Richard Sherman is one we have been keeping an eye on. We learned nothing in game one when Deshawn Shead stood in at strong safety while Kam Chancellor rested. In game two it was Shead in the seat with the starters. Shead is a bruiser with the size of a strong safety (or nickel linebacker these days) and the speed of a starting corner. It does not seem to matter where he lines up, the guy continues to makes plays. He may not yet be a lock as the day one starter but I will be surprised if he is not. Pick him up as a second starter in corner required leagues.
The battle for the starting strong safety job continues between incumbent Andrew Sendejo and free agent addition Michael Griffin. Sendejo started game one while Griffen got the call in game two. This week should tell us who comes away with the job. We already know Sendejo will not give us much in fantasy terms so we need to root for Griffin. He may prove to be a marginal option as well but at least there is some chance with him.
The other thing I still want to see from this team is how they line up at linebacker in nickel situations. We have not yet seen all three of their starters on the field together but we have seen Chad Greenway on the field in some nickel situations. He still has enough in the tank to give up LB3 value if he can get on the field full time.
New Orleans Saints
The Saints were an interesting watch against Houston. Kasim Edibali appears to have moved past Bobby Richardson into the starting job at end. Edibali looked great in the week one outing but we did not hear his name much in game two. He is a little undersized for a three down end but the guy can get after the passer. Keep him on your radar as a possible early add or last round pick.
Nick Fairley is holding down the fort while Sheldon Rankins recovers from his broken leg. Against Houston Fairley played like a talented player trying to salvage what has been a lackluster career. Rankins injury is not as bad as originally thought and he is expected to get back on the field at some point this season. Chances are he lands on either the PUP or short term IR. In the interim we may want to consider Fairley in tackle required leagues.
The most interesting observation from this game was how safety Kenny Vacarro is being used. The Saints ran a lot of big nickel packages with Vacarro lined up at strong side linebacker. The difference being a true SLB would have been on the line of scrimmage over the tight end on a lot of snaps. Vacarro worked from linebacker depth at about four or five yards off the ball. The purpose and effect being he was able to keep big blockers from getting their hands on him quickly and was able to flow virtually freely through traffic to the ball. This alignment was used several times in the first half and looked like a staple of the defense. We can expect to see it often and if this game is any indication, Vacarro is going to have a big year.
Last week I mention how high Jene Bramel is on Bernardrick McKinney and how I had not yet seen it. McKinney was on display against the Saints. He did not look like the same guy that was in the uniform last year or even in the preseason opener. McKinney played all three downs, made a couple of nice plays in coverage and was around the ball often.
One of the things I am watching for this summer is how the Titans are going to use Reshad Johnson. What they showed us in this game was not the perfect answer but it may be enough to make Johnson a factor. The fear was his being stuck as a deep free safety. Johnson did line up as such on some plays but he was an in the box strong safety on others. The Titans have Johnson and Da'Norris Searcy playing right and left safeties. As such each of them will see a fair share of time up near the line in run support but will also see a numbers of snaps each game as the deep free safety. We have seen enough of Searcy at this point to know it does not matter where he lines up, he is going to be average at best. Johnson on the other hand, has the potential to be a 75-80 tackle guy with a handful of big plays. I will check back in on this one next week.
We really have no answers from the Falcons when it comes to their linebackers. Veterans Paul Worrilow and Sean Weatherspoon were the starters on the weak side and in the middle respectively in game one, with Deon Jones and De'Vondre Campbell alternating series and Vic Beasley Jr on the strong side. In game two the rookies started and played two series with Phillip Wheeler on the strong side. When the Falcons started putting in their backups Worrilow, Weatherspoon and Beasley came on. Watching all these guys through two games I have been most impressed with Weatherspoon who had a great game one, and Campbell who has been solid in both contests thus far. Jones has flashed but been inconsistent in general and has been blown out as a point of attack defender more than once. At this point I am more skeptical than ever about his ability to play in the middle. If I were coaching this squad Weatherspoon would be the MLB with Campbell on the weak side. That probably means the Falcons will go with Worrilow and Jones. Hopefully this week's game will give us some answers. What they are doing with Beasley is a real head scratcher. The bottom line being we cannot expect much from him at this point.
The Browns seem content to run with Demorio Davis and Christian Kirksey as their three down linebackers. Both guys were around the ball a lot last weekend and look to be solid fantasy options as long as they can keep the jobs. The problem here being many if not most of their tackles were four or five yards down the field. It may not happen for a while but I still believe we will see Scooby Wright get a shot before the season is over.
The more I watch the Brown front seven play, the more I like strong safety Ibraheim Campbell. He has been a bright spot for the Cleveland defense and should be a busy man this year.
New England Patriots
We have seen this mirage before but I have to mention the Patriots using Donte Hightower in a three down role at middle linebacker. Pick him up if you have room for a guy with fairly high potential but a major bust factor as well.
That is a wrap for this week. I will take a good look at the week three dress rehearsal and pass along what I see in those games, then it is time to gear up for the real thing. Best of luck to you as you build your squad.