With the new three-game preseason, we were unsure what to expect from the first round of warmup games. As it turns out, there was no uniform response across the league. Some teams played starters for a series or two, other teams sprinkled in a few of their younger starters, and some teams kept their starters safe on the sidelines.
There are a ton of situations we are watching for clarification. The games gave us clues about what is going on with some of them, and we got a little help with most teams posting their initial depth charts ahead of the first preseason games, but we have to be careful and not overreact to some of the things we are seeing early. There are a lot of ongoing competitions across the league. Some coaches use early depth charts as motivational tools to get guys going, and many coaches will make a statement by listing rookies at the bottom of the initial depth charts just to make them earn their way up.
Some veteran starters are not expected to see any action during the preseason. I expect most teams will approach the second round of practice games as they previously used the third one, with starters playing much of the first half. Next week should give us our best look. Until then, this is what I have seen.
J.J. Watt’s career in Arizona is off to a shaky start. He landed on the PUP during training camp after tweaking a hamstring. Watt made it through a full slate of games in two of the last three seasons but has a history of hamstring issues. This one is not believed to be serious, and he has almost three more weeks to get healthy, but we need to keep an eye on this.
With Hasaan Reddick gone, the Cardinals had Marcus Golden starting opposite Chandler Jones at outside linebacker. Golden made a couple of impact plays in the first quarter against Dallas. He is an underrated edge defender and should provide good late-round value for managers in big-play-based leagues.
Isaiah Simmons and Zaven Collins played against Dallas. Simmons looked good, but Collins was downright impressive. He was quick to trigger and highly disruptive while in the game. It was a brief look but was enough to make me say wow.
Jalen Thompson is listed as the starting safety opposite Budda Baker on the initial depth chart. I expected Shawn Williams to be in the mix for that spot, but he is currently third-string behind Chris Banjo. Injuries have made this spot a revolving door over the last couple of seasons, but there is enough potential for whoever starts here to have some value. Banjo left Friday’s game with a hamstring injury.
Atlanta sat most of their defensive starters against the Titans, so there was not much to learn from the game. Their depth chart does give us some insight, though. Steven Means and Jacob Tuloti-Mariner are listed as the starting outside linebackers, with Dante Fowler Jr behind Means. Maybe this is the new defensive coordinator's way of motivating Fowler, but there is nothing good about it for IDP managers.
The Falcons list Eric Harris and Duron Harmon as the starting safeties, with second-round pick Richie Grant third string. Grant looked pretty good against the Titans, so we should not put much emphasis on this. I expect he will be at least the third safety by week one.
Malik Harrison is listed as the starter opposite Patrick Queen on the Ravens' first depth chart, and he lined up with the starters against the Saints. Harrison was strong against the run, making solid plays, including a forced fumble to end the first drive. Unfortunately, he exited stage left on passing downs. Harrison and Queen were the only inside linebackers to see action with the first team, which could signify that Chris Board and L.J. Fort will be relegated to backup roles instead of being part of a rotation as they were last season. By the way, Queen is going to be a beast this year!
Buffalo sat starters, and their depth chart shows no surprises. One player that did catch my eye is rookie Greg Rosseau who had an early sack against the Lions’ starting offense. Rosseau had another pressure or two as well and was generally disruptive.
Carolina sat their defensive starters, but there are some fascinating notes when looking at their depth charts. Jeremy Chinn is listed as the free safety with Juston Burris at strong. The positional designation has little bearing when it comes to Chinn, who moves all over the place. Pro Football Focus charted Chinn all over the formation last season. He lined up in the box on 392 snaps, along the D-line on 84, slot corner 230 times, wide corner 24, and free safety 237 snaps.
However, I am a little concerned with the team’s apparent intent to move Chinn to more of a full-time safety role. When asked about the move, Chinn said, "It's not typical you see 218- or 220-pound linebackers in the NFL, so that definitely played a part. And as far as making plays, I feel like they can be made at either position. When you're a linebacker, you're a little closer to the ball and a little closer to the line of scrimmage. When you're a safety, you can also make plays on the ball in the air." We’ll just have to see if any of this has an impact on his numbers.
The other very interesting situation is with the front seven where Jermaine Carter is ahead of Denzel Perryman at middle linebacker with Hasaan Reddick showing as the right outside linebacker and Shaq Thompson left. Most of us fully expected to see Reddick as a defensive end. There is no doubt the team signed him with the expectation that he will bolster the pass rush. This development could mean Reddick is an early-down linebacker who stays on the field and shifts to the edge in sub-packages. If this is indeed the plan, Reddick could have a huge fantasy season for managers that can play him as a defensive end.
Morgan Fox is ahead of Yetur Gross-Matos as the left defensive end. Fox quietly put up respectable numbers last year, going 21-5-6 with a pair of turnovers on 403 snaps with the Rams. He is someone to keep an eye on.
The Bears played most of their defensive starters for a couple of series. The exception being at inside linebacker where Christian Jones and recent addition Alec Ogletree got the call. This did not look like the same Ogletree that bombed in New York and was released by the Giants and Jets. This version stood out, making some nice plays in both the run and pass game. There has been a buzz about Ogletree since he was signed.
The Bears worked him out earlier in the offseason. When they called Ogletree for a second audition, he showed up 20 pounds lighter and moved like it. Ogletree quickly got the coaching staff's attention when the team hit the practice field, picking off six passes in the first four practices. He turned more heads against the Dolphins with several impact plays. With Danny Trevathan having a history of injuries and a sore knee already, Ogletree is someone we should keep an eye on.
Cincinnati played their starters and have posted their depth chart. There were no surprises with either. Like many teams, the Bengals are showing a nickel base defense. Their version includes four linemen, two linebackers, three corners, and two safeties. The game with Tampa Bay confirmed Logan Wilson as a three-down middle backer. Germaine Pratt was the other starter but was not on the field full time, giving way to Akeem Davis-Gaither in passing situations.
Mike Hilton has settled into the slot corner role where he was so successful with the Steelers. It remains to be seen if the production will follow him, but at least the situation is similar.
Cleveland held most of their defensive starters out of the game against Jacksonville, but they gave us a depth chart to ponder. The closest thing to a surprise is that rookie second-round pick Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah still sits as the third-string weakside linebacker, behind Mack Wilson and Malcolm Smith. It is hard to say if this is purely performance-based or has more to do with his rookie status, but at this point, we should not be counting on Owusu-Koramoah having a significant role early on.
Ronnie Harrison remains ahead of Grant Delpit at strong safety. Both players are currently battling hamstring injuries. Delpit is returning from a torn Achilles that ended his rookie season and has not had much opportunity to impress, so who knows where this competition is heading.
Greedy Williams is listed as the starter opposite Denzel Ward at corner. This suggests Troy Hill will work in the slot as he did with the Rams last year and leaves first-round pick Greg Newsome II II staring at a limited sub-package role for the moment.
One of the big questions for IDP managers heading into this season is, "What will the Cowboys do with four starting linebackers with every-down ability, in a scheme that starts just three?" If the ultimate plan is what they have shown in their two preseason games, IDP managers will not be pleased. In the Hall of Fame Game, the Cowboys started Leighton Vander Esch, Jaylon Smith, and Micah Parsons but quickly rotated Keanu Neal into the mix. They continued to rotate players in this manner against Arizona as well, using virtually every possible combination of two and three of these guys over the two outings. All of these guys could have some IDP value if this approach continues, but it could also mean that none of them reach their full potential. Stay tuned.
Baron Browning is a player that was popular in late rounds of early rookie drafts this summer. Other than the announcement that he was placed on the PUP with a leg injury, we have not heard much about him since that time. Denver did not play starters against the Vikings. With Browning sidelined, Justin Strnad and Josh Watson were on the field to start the game against Minnesota. Browning’s injury remains somewhat of a mystery, and he is currently fourth string on the depth chart.
The Lions went with most of their starting defenders against Buffalo. Alex Anzalone and Jamie Collins Sr started at inside linebacker with Trey Flowers and Romeo Okwara outside. Before anyone gets excited about the prospect of Anzalone, he looked horrible. He was caught up in the wash, pushed around, and consistently late to the party. Linebackers learn in high school that you don’t make plays by running the long way around blockers, but he still tries to do it. He might be better in coverage than Jahlani Tavai, but the two are going to end up in a timeshare if Anzalone is not able to stack and shed blockers better than he showed against Buffalo. Unless that happens, his lack of quality production in New Orleans will follow Anzalone to Detroit.
Green Bay Packers
The Packers played no starters on defense except for Krys Barnes, which brings up the question, is Barnes still a starter? The team’s depth chart says he is, but Oren Burks outplayed him. In fact, Burks was outright impressive going 4-2-1 with a pair of tackles for loss. Burks is currently listed behind Barnes, with De'Vondre Campbell the three-down guy and top IDP target.
The Texans have not yet given us a depth chart, and they sat several defensive starters against the Packers. Or at least I think they did. With so many new players competing for jobs, it is hard to say who the starters are at many positions. It is probably safe to assume Kamu Grugier-Hill and Neville Hewitt are not ahead of Christian Kirksey and Zach Cunningham at linebacker. Still, it was interesting to see Vernon Hargreaves III at safety, with the rest of the secondary being expected starters. Remember that Justin Reid was moved from strong to free safety over the offseason, and Eric Murray is a marginal starter at either position. Hargreaves is a physical corner with good size, so a move to safety might be a great fit.
The Colts did not play starters against Carolina, and there were no surprises on their first depth chart. Kwitty Paye is already a starter at the right defensive end, with Tyquan Lewis penciled in on the left. Bobby Okereke is the middle linebacker, with Zaire Franklin taking over on the strong side.
The depth chart has T.J. Carrie starting at the corner opposite Xavier Rhodes, with Kenny Moore II as the full-time slot defender in a nickel base scheme. Carrie was injured on Saturday, so those plans could change once we know how seriously he is hurt.
Jacksonville is tardy with their depth chart, but they did play starters against Cleveland. There are two highly relevant notes with this team. After trading Joe Schobert to the Steelers, Jacksonville promoted Damien Wilson to starter on the inside. Wilson is a bit of a step down from Schobert in terms of talent but is a good player that could be surprisingly productive in this situation, especially if Myles Jack turns out not to be such a great fit in the new 3-4 scheme. I see Wilson as a solid LB3 option with a little upside.
The other noteworthy observation is that Josh Jones is starting at strong safety with Rayshawn Jenkins working at free. Jones put up good numbers as the starter last season with 59 tackles, 24 assists, and a turnover in 13 games. At 6’2” 220 pounds, Jones is like having an extra linebacker on the field that can cover. If he can hold onto the job, he could put up strong DB2 numbers for us.
Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs played starters for a while against San Francisco, and they have posted a depth chart for comparison. The most interesting notes are the move of Chris Jones to the left defensive end position and Willie Gay Jr finally breaking into the starting lineup, at least on the depth chart anyway.
Jones got off to a great start at his new position, landing a sack early in the game. He has trimmed down a little to get quicker and has expressed excitement about the position change. Jones is an excellent run defender, and with 31.5 sacks over the last three seasons, we know he can get after the passer. Being able to start him as a tackle in most leagues is a huge plus as well.
Gay as a starter is not a surprise, but he still has a lot to prove. He was inactive for the game after being in concussion protocol recently. With Gay out, Kansas City started rookie Nick Bolton on the weak side, Anthony Hitchens in the middle, and Ben Niemann on the strong side. Eventually, we should see Bolton supplant Hitchens and line up next to Gay. Thus it was a good sign that Bolton stayed on the field in sub-packages with Niemann going to the bench.
Las Vegas Raiders
The Raiders had a sprinkling of expected defensive starters see action against Seattle. While that was not enough to show us anything, combined with their first depth chart, it was rather enlightening. Nick Kwiatkoski started the game because he is running with the second team behind Nicholas Morrow.
Morrow was shifted from the strong side to the middle last year due to injuries and played well. It appears he is in line to continue in that role. He finished 2020 at 62-16-3 with 3 turnovers and 9 passes defended on about 65% of the defensive snaps. Morrow played every snap in seven games and should be full-time this year.
Instead of moving Kwiatkoski to the strong side where he has played during his career, the Raiders looked to get faster by replacing Morrow with converted safety Tanner Muse. Muse left the field on passing downs in the preseason opener but could land a bigger role at some point.
Los Angeles Chargers
The Chargers depth chart has Drue Tranquill and Kyzire White listed as co-starters at left inside linebacker, suggesting the competition is still going strong. Further evidence that this battle is undecided can be seen in the preseason game against the Rams. Kenneth Murray was on the sideline with many starters while Tranquill and White drew the start at inside linebacker. White showed up stronger in the box scores, but neither player stood out over the other. We will have to see if the coaching staff saw it differently, but for now, the contest continues.
Los Angeles Rams
Los Angeles showed us nothing in their game with the Chargers, but their depth chart could have important answers. Corey Littleton blew up for two seasons as the Rams’ middle linebacker, and everyone that has lined up there over the last two years has been highly productive as well. Micah Kiser opened last season at the position and was heading for a big year before landing on IR with a knee injury in November. Troy Reeder stood in for Kiser in one game early in 2020 and went off for 8-3-3. He stepped back into the starting role for the final six games and helped many IDP managers win titles with 38 tackles and 22 assists over those six games.
Both Kiser and Reeder were in the running for the job this summer, along with Travin Howard, who led the competition last year before a pre-season injury shut him down. This one is not settled, but Reeder is currently listed as the starter and did not play against the Chargers.
With John Johnson III moving on, Taylor Rapp is set to get back in the lineup full time. Rapp put up good numbers as an injury replacement for Johnson in 2019, and many IDP managers believe he will do so again in 2021. I believe Rapp will give us good numbers but would feel a lot better about him if he played strong safety as he did in 2019. Instead, Rapp is lining up at free safety with Jordan Fuller at strong. Rams safeties are largely interchangeable, so this news does not kill Rapps value, but it could drop him from a low DB1 to a low DB2. Fuller gets a bump as well.
With their multiple-front looks, the Dolphins were a little confusing to watch against the Bears. They had the starters on the field into the second quarter, so we got a good look. As expected, their linebackers moved all over the place. For example, Bernardrick McKinney was the middle backer on the first snap; he lined up on the edge a few plays later. The important notes here are that Duke Riley saw some time with the starters, and Jerome Baker was the only linebacker to stay on the field full time. I was not able to tell for sure if Riley’s playing time was situational or rotational.
Miami’s depth chart offers some interesting notes. For starters, it displays a nickel base defense with three linemen, three linebackers, and five defensive backs. It shows McKinney, Baker, and Andrew Van Ginkel as starters but does not assign positions other than linebacker. First-round pick Jaelan Phillips is listed as third-string behind Van Ginkel and Brennan Scarlett. That situation should change quickly, with Phillips likely becoming part of the rotation at the very least.
Jason McCourty and Eric Rowe are the current starters at safety, with Brandon Jones behind Rowe and rookie Jevon Holland behind McCourty. Either or both of those situations are subject to change, but all four players will likely have roles.
Minnesota sat most of their starters against Denver, but there is some wisdom to be found with their depth chart release, starting with the confirmation that Harrison Smith will line up at strong safety. I talked about this in my initial column this year, and it is a huge plus for Smith’s IDP value.
When Anthony Barr was injured last year, the Vikings promoted Eric Wilson and made him a three-down weakside linebacker. Barr is back and will resume his role on the strong side. The Vikings signed Nick Vigil and have him a the top of the depth chart at weakside linebacker. The question is, who will stay on the field with Eric Kendricks in sub-packages? Both Barr and Vigil have been three-down starters in the past, but neither excels in coverage. Whoever lands the full-time job could have value as an LB4 or LB3 in a pinch.
Stephen Weatherly is currently listed ahead of D.J. Wonnum at defensive end. This will likely be an early-down/passing-down rotation, with Wonnum getting most of the rush opportunity. The depth chart also has Michael Pierce at nose tackle with Sheldon Richardson listed behind Dalvin Tomlinson at the 3-technique. This has the makings of another rotation situation. When the starters get some action, I expect to see a three-man rotation here with Richardson and Tomlinson together on passing downs.
New England Patriots
As usual, the Patriots did not show us much in their first live-action, but they did play several starters. New England played a vanilla 3-4 with Matt Judon and Kyle Van Noy at outside linebacker and paired Dont'a Hightower with Ja'Whaun Bentley inside. Several other players rotated in while the first unit was still on the field, with no one in the front seven playing in all situations. Devin McCourty did not play, so Adrian Phillips and Kyle Dugger were full-time at safety. Chances are, that will not continue into the regular season.
New Orleans Saints
New Orleans played a few starters on defense but not enough of them to give us a real look. Their depth chart was pretty much as expected. The most interesting note was recently signed Kwon Alexander ahead of both Zach Baun and Pete Werner at weakside linebacker and Kaden Ellis on the strong side. Alexander recently began participating in team drills at practice and has declared himself 100% healthy. He appears on track for week one.
New York Giants
Except for a couple of marginal guys, the Giants rested their starting defense against the Jets, and their depth chart held nothing unexpected. Tae Crowder is the starting weak inside linebacker, and Xavier McKinney is behind Logan Ryan at free safety, but we should not read much into that. Like most teams, they will be playing a lot of nickel with McKinney on the field instead of Crowder. I do not anticipate a lack of opportunity for McKinney, and Crowder is not likely to be a factor.
New York Jets
The Jets opened with their starting nickel package, including Jarrad Davis and C.J. Mosley at linebacker, Carl Lawson and John Franklin-Myers at defensive end, Marcus Maye at strong safety, and Lamarcus Joyner at free. There were a couple of unexpected starters to note. Javelin Guidry was the nickel DB, and when New York put a third linebacker on the field, it was converted rookie safety Hamsah Nasirildeen working with the first team ahead of Blake Cashman. Both of these guys are confirmed as starters on the team’s depth chart as well.
With two more preseason games on the schedule, it is probably too early to throw in the towel on Cashman, but this news certainly casts a shadow on his expected value. I doubt that anyone saw this one coming. But we should not be shocked considering that both head coach Robert Saleh and defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich have favored speed and coverage from the linebacker positions at their previous jobs.
The only real question with the Eagles’ defense was how they would line up at linebacker. The answer in the game and on the depth chart is Eric Wilson in the middle, with Alex Singleton on the weak side and both players on the field in sub-packages.
Derek Barnett got the start at defensive end opposite Brandon Graham, but Josh Sweat saw action with the starters. Barnett and Sweat are listed as co-starters on the depth chart, suggesting their near-equal time-share from last year will continue.
With Rodney McLeod recovering from a December knee injury, the Eagles list K'Von Wallace as the starter next to Anthony Harris, but it was Marcus Epps getting the call on Saturday. In late July, McLeod said he would be ready for the opener, but with the injury coming so late in the season, his availability is in question. McLeod has not yet returned to practice.
The Steelers pulled off a trade for Joe Schobert seemingly before the team was off the field on Thursday. That move puts to rest the possibility of Robert Spillane starting. The ripple effect for Schobert and Devin Bush will be interesting to watch. I expect that both will see a little negative impact. Bush will now have more competition for tackles, and Schobert will see fewer plays on a defense that gets off the field quicker. Pittsburgh’s defense faced 61 fewer offensive plays in 2020, which is almost like playing one less game. All things considered, both players should still be solid, every week starters for us.
Between the trade for Schobert and the signing of Melvin Ingram III, the Steelers have made the statement that they are all in to help Ben Roethlisberger win now. Aaron Rodgers has to be jealous. Ingram started opposite Alex Highsmith against the Eagles but is third on the depth chart behind Highsmith and Watt. This may prove to be the best trio of edge defenders Pittsburgh has fielded in many years.
Seattle showed nothing against the Raiders and is one of the teams that has still not posted a depth chart. The most impactful news to come out of Seahawks camp recently is the release of Aldon Smith.
San Francisco 49ers
San Francisco sat most defensive starters and, like their left coast neighbors, have not yet updated their depth chart either. The most interesting recent news is that Nick Bosa will return to practice next week, and Javon Kinlaw is week-to-week with a sore shoulder.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The song remains the same in Tampa Bay, where they have all starters back from last year’s championship team, with no changes to the starting lineup. The starters were on the field for a series against Cincinnati, but there was nothing of note to talk about.
The Titan fielded a mix of first and second-team defenders against Atlanta. Safety Amari Hooker is a player I pointed out in this year’s off-season column. He started next to Kevin Byard in what looked like a right and left safety situation. Hooker was deep on some plays but move up into the box on others. Neither he nor Byard showed up in the box score before rotation out, but Hooker was around the ball regularly.
Until recently, I had Hooker tagged as one of my late/last round sleepers. The recent additions of Bradley McDougald and Clayton Geathers have me re-thinking that. Both of these players are starting quality safeties, so put Hooker on the back burner until we see what happens over the next week or two.
Washington Football Team
Washington’s linebackers are at or near the top of the watch list this preseason. In their first live-action, the football team started Jamin Davis in the middle with Jon Bostic and Cole Holcomb on the outside. Davis went to the sideline in sub-packages, which was somewhat of a surprise. This is likely to change at some point, and it could happen before Week 1, considering Davis excels in coverage. We will continue to follow the situation, and I will update you after the next round of warmup games.
The linebacker situation is the focus but not the only critical situation here. Kamren Curl impressed at strong safety after Landon Collins was lost last year. We knew he would be a starter in 2021, but it was unclear how the safeties would line up. We have our answer now. While the starters were in the game, Curl worked solely at strong safety, with Collins consistently lining up in the deep center field role. This is not great news for Collins’ value, but he has been productive from the free safety position in the past, so this does not ruin his potential. It is, however, great news for those who rolled the dice on Curl.
That does it for this edition. I will be back after the next round of games to pass along whatever catches my eye. Best of luck in your drafts this week.