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As we enter the second year with three preseason games, there is still no consensus on how teams will handle their personnel in these contests. Most teams played few or no starters while there was a handful that wanted to see their first teams for a series or two. We got very few sure answers to our pressing IDP questions but between the games and teams releasing their initial depth charts, there were some clues and signs.
One thing that everyone needs to be fully aware of, the depth charts we are getting from many teams are put together by someone in the media department. Some of them are fairly accurate while others will make us wonder if the person putting them together has any clue at all. At any rate, this is what I have seen in the last week or so.
There are a few quirks and head-scratchers with both what teams are showing on the field and some of the initial depth charts. Nothing, however, has been so puzzling as the Cardinals depth chart that shows Zaven Collins and Ezekiel Turner as the starting off-ball linebackers while Isaiah Simmons and Nick Vigil are listed as third and fourth string respectively. If that isn’t enough to make you wonder what’s going on, Budda Baker, Jalen Thompson, and Zach Allen are also showing as third string. If any of these were true, it would be a front-page story in Arizona.
What I believe happened here is that the intern responsible for posting a depth chart simply looked at the preseason starters and listed those guys as the first team while the guys that didn’t see any action went to third string. The moral of the story is, don’t panic and don’t pay any attention to this source until they get someone with some knowledge to take over the job.
One thing that is a concern, with most of the starters sitting, Zaven Collins was in the lineup. With Simmons expected to move around in a rover type of role, could we see Nick Vigil as the lead linebacker in Arizona this year?
Atlanta played their starters for a while but we still have no answer to the biggest question with this team. With Deion Jones on the PUP, Mychal Walker and Rashaan Evans were the starting inside linebackers and because he is not on the active roster, Jones is not on the team’s depth chart either.
On the field, we saw both Evans and Walker play in the Falcons' nickel base defense. Walker moved around, lining up wide or over the tight end a few times while Evans started in the middle of the field on virtually every snap that he played. This points to Evans having a little more fantasy juice on most weeks if he is indeed the starter when the season opens. The Falcons looked horrible, so unless something changes, there will be a ton of opportunity for both inside backers to thrive on the stat sheet.
The Ravens gave up no secrets as the only starter to see action was edge defender Odafe Oweh. There were likely two factors in him seeing the field. One, the second-year man needs some reps, and two, the Ravens are thin at the position with some guys on the mend.
The only eyebrow-raiser from Baltimore’s first game action is that first-round pick Kyle Hamilton both worked with the second team and is listed as a backup on the first depth chart behind Marcus Williams at free safety. This is interesting but is not something for managers that drafted Hamilton to be concerned about at this stage. However, if he is not in the lineup for the second game, it will cause some nervous hand-wringing.
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Buffalo played no starters and the closest thing to a surprise on their depth chart is Matt Milano listed as the strong side starter, which I am pretty sure is a mistake since he’s always played weak. Von miller shows as the right defensive end despite being listed as a linebacker on the team’s roster. Keep in mind that there are unofficial depth charts, usually put together by someone in the media department.
Except for Shaq Thompson who is on the PUP, Carolina played their starters against Washington. Damien Wilson worked in the middle with Cory Littleton filling in for Thompson on the outside and Frankie Luvu seeing some action in three linebacker looks. From a personnel perspective, the Panthers were rather vanilla, playing a nickel base on most downs with Wilson and Littleton staying on the field in those situations. With Wilson in the middle and Littleton listed as the backup to Thompson, it looks as if Wilson might see enough sub-package action to have some value.
Yetur Gross-Matos has settled in as the starting defensive end opposite Brian Burns. He looked like a starter on the opening series, making a couple of solid plays against the run and getting some pressure on Carson Wentz.
The biggest story out of Bears camp is the request for trade by Roquan Smith. Smith felt insulted by the team’s initial contract offer and believes they were trying to take advantage of him because he represents himself. According to Smith, his trust in the organization has been shattered, and he wants out. The NFL has warned teams about tampering since Smith is currently under contract but the deeper we get into the pre-season, the more it looks as if the Bears may have to trade their disgruntled star. Dallas is one club currently linked as a potential landing spot, and we know Jerry Jones will not hesitate to make such a deal. Maybe he sends Leighton Vander Esch to Chicago as part of the deal? However it works out, this one looks like it could get ugly. The good news for Bears fans, Smith was on the sideline for the first game and will travel with the team for the second one, though he is not expected to play, so there is still hope.
The player that currently stands to gain the most from this situation in fantasy terms, is Nicholas Morrow who would become the number one linebacker if Smith leaves. Morrow looked great and put up excellent numbers for the Raiders in 2020 before missing last season with an injury.
As for the game against Kansas City, Chicago played starters with the exception of Smith and Robert Quinn. Trevis Gipson is listed as the starter opposite Quinn on the depth chart. He paired with former Colts starter Al-Quadin Muhammad for this one.
Morrow made the start at middle linebacker and looked very good. He is expected to remain in that role even if Smith stays with the team. That means Smith would have the Shaquille (AKA Darius) Leonard role on the weak side. With Smith out, Matt Adams made the start. Adams played under Matt Eberflus in Indianapolis and knows the defense well. He will be the top backup at all linebacker spots and will see action on the strong side in three LB looks.
Rookie Jaquan Brisker got the start at strong safety as expected. He made some rookie mistakes, missing a tackle on the first play and over-running the play on the pass that led to the Chiefs' score on the first drive. It was a learning experience for sure but nothing that is going to keep him out of the lineup.
There is not much to talk about so far as who the Bengals put on the field, which was the entire second team. How they lined up is a different story, however. Cincinnati has traditionally been a 4-3 team but they opened in a 3-4 against Arizona with Cam Sample and Joseph Ossai on the edge, and rookie Zach Carter at defensive end.
When writing my initial team report on the Bengals, these three guys were mentioned as possible future starters. Their play in the opener did nothing to alter that thought process as all three had the look of good young NLF players. I also mentioned that Carter might end up playing the 3-technique tackle spot. The team now has Carter listed as a tackle on their roster.
Jessie Bates has still not reported as he holds out due to a contract dispute. The expectation is that Bates will hold out until the last minute, then show up and play. Heir apparent, Dax Hill, got the start versus Arizona. If not for the different numbers, it would have been hard to tell the difference between Bates and Hill, who have very similar skill sets.
There was speculation entering camp that rookie Cam Taylor-Britt would challenge Eli Apple for the starting corner job. That might happen eventually, but Taylor-Britt is currently sidelined with an injury.
There is an important situation developing with the Browns that we will need to watch closely. When the team released their initial depth chart, Anthony Walker and Jacob Phillips were both listed with the first team at middle linebacker. At first, I did not think much of it but when the team took the field against Jacksonville and Phillips was running with the starters, it got my attention very quickly. Phillips was a third-round pick of the Browns in 2020 but missed most of his first two seasons with a knee injury as a rookie and torn biceps last year. He is faster than Walker but is otherwise a similar player.
Walker brought stability to the position last year and is a quality NFL starter, but there are limitations to his game in that he simply does not make many big plays. He signed a one-year extension in the off-season, which suggests the Browns probably don’t see him as a long-term solution. With Walker battling a sore groin during camp, the door is wide open for Phillips to step through. This battle is not over by any stretch but the situation gives us plenty of reason to avoid Walker until it is resolved.
Against Denver, Dallas played no one that shows up as a starter on their initial depth chart. There was not a great deal to be learned from what happened on the field but there are some interesting signs when we look at the depth chart and who did not play.
The Dallas depth chart shows twelve starting positions, including six defensive backs. Jayron Kearse, Donovan Wilson, and Malik Hooker are all listed as starting safeties with Anthony Brown and Trevon Diggs as corners and Jourdan Lewis as the nickel back. Leighton Vander Esch is the middle linebacker with Micah Parsons on the outside. This does nothing to help us answer the vital question about Vander Esch having a three-down role. That one will have to wait at least one more week.
What is most interesting here is that Dorance Armstrong did not play versus Denver and is listed as the starter at defensive end opposite DeMarcus Lawrence. Those that read my team report on the Cowboys know I have been high on Armstrong since the end of last year. So are the Cowboys, it seems. Slip him onto your list as a late-round sleeper.
Denver played a few of their starters against Dallas, but 40 seconds into the game, they wished they hadn’t. That is when they lost Jonas Griffith to a dislocated elbow. Griffith was impressive down the stretch last year and had been lighting it up during camp. He was starting ahead of Alex Singleton and, before the injury, had all the makings of a breakout player and an IDP steal.
The good news here is that Griffith is only expected to be out for four to six weeks. The bad news is that Denver signed Joe Schobert on Monday so Griffith might have a bigger obstacle than just the injury to overcome. The other thing to remember here is that four to six weeks might be an optimistic expectation. History tells us that these injuries often linger longer than expected and usually have an effect well after the player gets back on the field. Realistically, we should not count on seeing Griffith until after the team’s week nine bye which will give Schobert plenty of time to prove that he belongs.
Schobert was a quality starter for Cleveland from 2017 to 2019 but has become a journeyman since. He put up good numbers as a three-down starter with Jacksonville in 2020, then landed in Pittsburgh but failed to impress the Steelers in his shore stay there last year. Schobert’s career could go anywhere from here. Josey Jewell is not a great player, so Denver has room for a quality starter at inside linebacker, even when Griffith returns. Schobert has the potential to impress, put up good numbers, and earn a contract extension with Denver. On the other hand, he is not a lock to beat out Alex Singleton as the short-term starter. This will be an interesting situation to watch over the next several weeks.
Both the Falcons and Lions opened with their starting lineups on both sides of the ball. One glaring deviation between Detroit’s depth chart and the players that took the field was at linebacker. The depth chart shows Alex Anzalone and Chris Board as starters, but the eyeballs tell us it was standout rookie Malcolm Rodriguez and Derrick Barnes at those positions. Board saw only a few situational snaps with the starters, which is a good sign that he has dropped down the depth chart. Anzalone did not play versus Atlanta, so it is too early to tell what exactly is going on there.
Both Rodriguez and Barnes have impressed from the first day of camp, so maybe the coaching staff is ready to roll with them. If the Lions want to turn their fortunes, they need to move on from their average at best veteran placeholders and continue with these two youngsters as starters. As the old cliché goes, it is foolish to keep doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results. Watching the game it was easy to see the energy these young and hungry players brought to the huddle.
Charles Harris and rookie Aiden Hutchinson started at defensive end, which was expected with both Romeo Okwara and rookie Josh Paschal on the PUP. Hutchinson made an immediate impact with a tackle for loss early in the first series. He didn’t show up big on the stat sheet in this one, but this guy will be a good one.
Green Bay Packers
The pressing question for IDP managers here is the role of rookie inside linebacker Quay Walker. Unfortunately, we will have to wait at least another week for that answer as the Packers sat their starters against San Francisco. The Green Bay depth chart shows no surprises, and there are no pending competitions to be resolved.
If we trust the Texans’ initial depth chart to be true, they played several starters against the Saints. My guess is that we will see a somewhat different lineup come week one. This unit is still finding its way and looking at options. The interesting notes at this point include Kamu Grugier-Hill and Kevin Pierre-Lewis as the outside backers in the new 4-3 scheme. Grugier-Hill was solid last year so that one makes sense. On the other hand, it will be a shock if Pierre-Lewis holds a starting job into the regular season.
The depth chart shows Jerry Hughes and Jonathan Greenard as the starting defensive ends, with Mario Addison and Rasheem Green as their backups. This is not unexpected but it doesn’t mean a lot either. All four players will see plenty of rotational action. Greenard and Addison were the starters against New Orleans.
One somewhat unexpected name that showed up as a starter both on the field and on the depth chart is Jonathan Owens at safety. The safeties lined up as more of a right and left than strong and weak, but when they went to a single deep safety, it was Owens working off the ball.
Two players stood out in this game. Neville Hewitt started in the middle and was around the ball on seemingly every snap when he was playing. When the second unit took over, Blake Cashman came on and looked just as good. In Lovie Smith’s version of the cover-2, the middle linebacker is responsible for the middle of the field in coverage. It’s a role that landed Brian Urlacher in the Hall of Fame and required both speed and coverage. Cashman made a play to knock the ball away on a pass 25 yards down the field. Christian Kirksey is the listed starter, but nothing is written in stone here. When (not if) Kirksey is injured, one of these guys is going to be a great IDP add. We might even see both of them once the coaching staff realizes that Pierre-Lewis is a practice star but not an NFL starter.
Unlike most teams, the Colts put their first defense on the field for a series, minus Shaquille Leonard, who is nursing a back issue. It was not a great sign that the Bills’ second-team offense went right down the field on the first series before stalling on fourth and goal inside the five. No one played long enough to put up distinguishable numbers, and there were no surprises with the starting lineup. This outing and the team’s first depth chart did confirm that rookie Nick Cross will be the starting strong safety. Cross looked good at the position and should be productive for us.
For anyone that looks at the Colts’ depth chart, let me remind you that these are unofficial and usually put together by someone in the media departments. I mention this because this one shows Bobby Okereke as the weak side backer and Leonard in the middle. Okereke lined up at his normal MLB spot versus Buffalo with Zaire Franklin in Leonard’s position.
Jacksonville played everyone we expect to be starters with one glaring exception. Chad Muma was at inside linebacker instead of Devin Lloyd. It was a bummer for all of us that want to get a look at the team’s prize rookie, but he is nursing a sore hamstring.
Travon Walker had a strong debut against the Raiders in the Hall of Fame game. He didn’t appear on the stat sheet against Cleveland but forced a holding call that set the Browns back on the second series. So far his transition from defensive end to outside linebacker is going very well.
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