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There was no consistency with teams this preseason as we saw many different approaches. A few teams played virtually no starters; some played starters a lot. As with every other preseason, however, in the end, there are things we can feel confident about, and there are unanswered questions that remain. There has not been a lot of new information or important updates since my last offering, but here is where we are heading to week one.
The Cardinals secondary took a hit with the unexpected retirement of corner Malcolm Butler a week before the first game. Surprisingly, on the same day the team put Butler on the Reserve/Retired list, they released Daryl Worley after letting Darqueze Dennard go the day before. This turn of events leaves the cupboard looking a little bare. As starters, Robert Alford joins Byron Murphy, with rookie fourth-round pick Marco Wilson appearing to be the third man at the position. Arizona traded up 24 spots to take Wilson, who started 35 games at Florida. Cardinals corners have not been particularly IDP friendly in the past, but this situation is worth keeping an eye on as the rookie corner rule could be in play.
There were rumblings of linebacker Jordan Hicks being shopped after the team drafted Zaven Collins, but so far, nothing has developed. It could still happen if a team is hit by injury, but in the meantime, the coaching staff has been tinkering with some five linebacker looks that have Hicks, Collins, and Isaiah Simmons on the field together. With the starters getting limited preseason action, I did not see any situations where Hicks replaced Collins or Simmons with the first team, so those guys seem safe.
J.J. Watt missed some time over the summer with a hamstring issue but was activated from the PUP on August 23rd and is ready for the opener. Watt has a history of hamstring issues, so this is still somewhat of a concern going into the season.
The Cardinals settled on Jalen Thompson as the starting safety next to Budda Baker, releasing Chris Banjo and Shawn Williams. Thompson has shown signs of quality production in the past but has dealt with various injuries over the last two seasons. He is a watch-list guy heading into the season and might be worth pickup consideration in deeper roster leagues.
There were no major plot twists with the Falcons as they set their roster for the start of the regular season, but there are still some questions with this defense. The most glaring is, where will the pass rush come from? The starting edge defenders in Atlanta’s new 3-4 are Jacob Tuioti-Mariner and Steven Means, with Donte Fowler likely in the role of third-down specialist. Tuioti-Mariner has one sack in two seasons as a pro, Means has six sacks in seven years (three in 2020), and Fowler has four or fewer in three of his five-season in the league, including last year.
One thing we did learn this preseason, Mykal Walker is capable of starting in the NFL. With the Falcons playing starters sparingly, he was on the field a lot and played well. If Deion Jones or Foye Oluokun are going to miss time, grab Walker quickly before your competition has a chance to see him play.
Erik Harris is the starting safety next to Duron Harmon on Atlanta’s current depth chart, with rookie Richie Grant listed as third string. There is plenty of potential at the Falcons’ safety spots, but it is hard to get excited about any of these players.
Things have been rather quiet on the defensive side for the Ravens. The starting lineup is set without any surprises. The only thing we need to watch in week one is the playing time for Malik Harrison, who has established his claim on the starting inside linebacker job next to Patrick Queen. Harrison was coming off the field on passing downs early in the preseason but looked to be getting a few of those snaps later in the process. Against Washington in the final warmup game, Baltimore came out in a nickel-base defense with two down linemen and four linebackers, including Harrison. If he holds a three-down role, Harrison should provide solid LB3 production.
In week one, Jerry Hughes and Mario Addison are expected to be the starting defensive ends for Buffalo, but that may not last long. Rookies Greg Rosseau and Boogie Basham have been turning heads since the first time they stepped on the practice field. Both players saw action with the starter during practice sessions and the preseason. Put them on your early season watch list and move quickly if they show up strong against the Steelers.
There are some important questions to be answered when the Panthers take the field against the Jets. Possibly the most important is how much the role change to free safety with hurt the production of Jeremy Chinn. If he lines up well off the ball regularly, as has been the indication, I have a feeling we could see a significantly different player this year.
Keep an eye on Jermaine Carter as well. He is expected to start at middle linebacker, and signs point to a full-time role. If this is the case, Carter could be a priority waiver target and might be worth adding ahead of week one if you have the room.
Carolina continues to list and play Haason Reddick as their right outside linebacker on early downs, moving him into an edge rush role in passing situations. This could be the perfect storm to take advantage of his skill set, and if you can play him as a defensive end, the linebacker snaps could boost his value significantly.
Alec Ogletree and Christian Jones were the Bears’ starting linebackers throughout the preseason. With Danny Trevathan landing on IR, presumably with a sore knee, one of them will line up next to Roquan Smith in week one. The team’s unofficial depth chart shows Jones as the backup to Trevathan, but Ogletree shined during the preseason. With the league’s new IR rules, it is unclear how long Trevathan will be out, but he will miss a few weeks.
We did not see much of Cincinnati’s starting defense in the final preseason tilt, but we saw enough in the first two games to tell this is a much different unit than the one they fielded last year. The pass rush is revitalized, and the Bengals have a middle linebacker to get excited about for the first time in years. Sam Hubbard, Trey Hendrickson, Logan Wilson, Vonn Bell, and Jessie Bates III are all going to be significant IDP contributors, but there are some other guys to keep an eye on as well.
Rookie defensive end Joseph Ossai was turning heads before landing on season-ending IR with a knee injury. The team has also placed Khalid Kareem on IR, opening the door for their other rookie end, Cameron Sample, to move up the depth chart. Sample now projects as the third man in the edge rotation. It is earlier than the organization had planned, but he has been looking good.
Another player to keep an eye on if your league starts interior linemen is tackle B.J. Hill. He was buried on the Giants depth chart but is a solid player who can contribute at both tackle positions and even provide some snaps at defensive end on early downs. Hill went 32-15-5.5 as a starter for the Giants in 2018 but was not a good fit when they shifted to a 3-4 scheme. He should make an immediate impact as the third man in the tackle rotation, and if he gets on the field enough, he could be an IDP factor as well.
The Browns fielded about half of their defensive starters against Atlanta, so there was not much we can take away from that game. The one important exception being that middle linebacker Anthony Walker returned to action after missing most of August with a sore knee. He was a little rusty against the Falcons, taking a bad angle on an early pass to Kyle Pitts, but just seeing him on the field brought a big sigh of relief to many IDP managers. With two more weeks to recover after that game, Walker should be 100% in time to face the Chiefs.
For the first time in several years, the Cowboys are not starting the season with injuries and/or suspension on the defensive side. DeMarcus Lawrence is healthy, Randy Gregory is out of the commissioner's dog house, and all starters are expected to be available to face the Buccaneers. Unfortunately, Dallas is not without controversy, at least not in terms of IDP fantasy football. We are still facing a potentially ugly situation at linebacker where the team has four three-down players but only two three-down positions. Micah Parsons, Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch, and Keanu Neal worked in a rotation over the first two games, and the Cowboys did not play starters in the third one.
Parsons seemed to be getting a bigger piece of the pie in the second game, but even he was not always on the field with the starters. Neal got most of his time in passing situations but not exclusively. Vander Esch and Smith were in the game together, often on early downs and three-linebacker packages. Rumors suggest Smith will be the odd-man-out in the long run, but we have not seen that with any regularity yet. This one is a tough call, but the only Dallas linebacker I would be comfortable playing in the opener is Parsons.
The Broncos and their fans have been excited about getting Von Bell and Bradley Chubb on the field together for the first time since 2018. Everyone still believes that will happen, but there could be a little wrench in the gears. Chubb is nursing an ankle injury that has kept him out of recent practices. The injury is not serious, and the hope is that Chubb will go against the Giants.
There has been excitement surrounding rookie inside linebacker Baron Browning since he was drafted. A minor injury slowed his development early in training camp, but Baron moved up the depth chart after the third preseason game. He is currently behind Alexander Johnson and Josey Jewell, but it would not be a surprise to see Baron steal snaps from Jewell as the season progresses, especially if the team struggles early.
There were no defensive starters on the field for Detroit in the third preseason game, but we already have a relatively clear picture of what to expect from this group. The release of Jahlani Tavai solidifies Alex Anzalone as the starting inside linebacker next to Jamie Collins Sr. It also clears the path for Derrick Barnes to get one step closer to the field. Tracy Walker and Will Harris are the clear-cut starters at safety, with Walker returning to free, where he had a big season in 2019. Trey Flowers and Romeo Okwara are the starting outside linebackers, though many league host sites list them as defensive ends.
Green Bay Packers
It is not hard to establish that De'Vondre Campbell will be the centerpiece of the Packers’ defense after they protected him all preseason by keeping him off the field. The only real question is how much the team will use two inside linebackers. In the past few years, Green Bay played a lot of big nickel with a third safety on the field instead. The team’s depth chart shows Krys Barnes as the other starter, but it is worth mention that Oren Burks made some noise over the summer and into the preseason.
The Texans are clearly in rebuild mode but rarely are teams/defenses as bad on the field as they might look on paper. The biggest question for Houston is where the pass rush will come from? It looks like Whitney Mercilus will be the biggest threat on paper, but it is too early to tell how successful he will be with the change from linebacker to defensive end. The team’s unofficial depth chart shows Jordan Jenkins as the starter opposite Mercilus. Jenkins started the first game, but Charles Omenihu got the call in each of the last two. Omenihu had a pair of sacks against Dallas in the second preseason game. He was shut out of the box scores against Tampa Bay but was on the field in a three-down role and played well. Put him on the watch list for week one.
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