Even when virtually all teams would play starters in at least one preseason game, Week 1 always brought us a few surprises along with an outright shocker or two, along with some opportunity to better our teams. It always gives us a few disappointments as well, with some players not in the roles we anticipated.
Never have we gone into the opener as blind as we are this year. Several teams played no starters at all during the preseason, while many others played only their younger starters that could use the reps. For the most part, those who put their starters on the field for a few series kept things vanilla with basic looks and sub-packages featuring their two starting off-ball linebackers, etc. Once we see teams in live action with situational substitutions and so forth, the Week 2 waiver will be a mad scramble.
I wish there were more answers, but unfortunately, much of this week’s column will outline the unanswered questions we will be looking to resolve.
The Cardinals gave us no true insight over the last month. The biggest questions here are what will they look like at the off-ball linebacker positions, was last year’s drop-off by Budda Baker a fluke or the new norm, and can Zach Allen be productive at defensive end in the 3-4?
We think we know that Isaiah Simmons will move around a lot in a fashion similar to Jalen Ramsey, which is not necessarily a great thing for a linebacker. There has been speculation that Nick Vigil will be the starter at the other linebacker spot, which seems to be supported by the fact he did not play in the preseason while Zaven Collins worked with the second unit. One of these guys should have good value but starting either this week is a huge risk.
With the emergence of Jalen Thompson last year, Baker’s role changed as worked as the deep safety more often. The Cardinals just gave Thompson a juicy long-term extension, so Baker’s days as a top-five defensive back could be over.
My focus on Zach Allen stems from his being listed as a defensive tackle at many host sites. He put up decent numbers last year in a rotational role and could be a strong option in tackle-required leagues.
Deion Jones returned from shoulder surgery and saw his first action of the preseason in the third game. Shortly after the game, he was promptly added to injured reserve and will not be available for at least the first four games. It probably doesn’t matter as all the signs suggest Jones is done in Atlanta anyway. The only reason he is still on the roster is the team has to pay him anyway, so they are going to sit tight and see if some other team has an injury.
At this stage, the only question is which linebacker will take the place of Jones as an IDP stud? Mychal Walker and Rashaan Evans will start, and there is a decent chance that both will be highly productive. The Falcons’ defense will be on the field a lot, and this team has given us two excellent options in the past. There are two notes to consider here, though, Tennessee soured on Evans as a sub-package contributor over the last couple of years, while Walker is a homegrown commodity that is good in coverage. The organization is comfortable with Walker, who was wearing the green dot helmet when the starters played during the preseason.
Patrick Queen’s numbers slumped considerably last year, but it was largely due to his reduced role. Baltimore had no three-down off-ball linebacker in 2021. Coincidentally, it was probably their worst defensive showing in a decade, resulting in a new defensive coordinator being hired. Queen should be back in the full-time role, but he did not play during the preseason to confirm it.
The other looming question is can Kyle Hamilton overcome the curse of the Ravens safeties and be an IDP factor? Hamilton is listed as a backup on the team’s depth chart and saw action with the second team during the preseason. The results were mixed in that he did not stand out and lined up as the deep/free safety a good deal of the time.
Buffalo’s starters played sparingly, if at all, in the warmup games. Linebacker Terrell Bernard worked mostly at WLB and looked pretty good. He is listed behind oft-injured Matt Milano but would likely be the next man up at MLB as well. Bernard was also solid in nickel situations. If called upon, he should put up good numbers.
The main question I have with the Bills is their defensive end rotation. Gregory Rosseau has breakout potential, and I’m also a fan of Carlos Basham. The concern is playing time. Rosseau and Von Miller are the starters, but Basham, A.J. Epenesa, and Shaq Lawson could see a lot of rotational snaps. Buffalo has shown this approach in the past and will want to keep their 33-year-old free agent gem fresh for a deep playoff run.
I also want to see if Miller works as a true defensive end or more of an overload strong side linebacker.
The Panthers showed us most of their starters in the final preseason contest, but I’m not sure how much weight to put on what we saw. They opened in a 3-4 with Brian Burns and Frankie Luvu at OLB, Matt Ioannidis and Yetur Gross-Matos at DE, and Derek Brown at NT and continued to mix in some three-man fronts when they were not in a nickel.
All starters played except for Shaq Thompson, who Cory Littleton replaced. Littleton and Damien Wilson played in the nickel, with Wilson as the lone linebacker in the dime package. Thompson is likely to be the dime linebacker, but seeing Wilson there is a good sign he will see passing-down action in nickel situations.
The Chicago defense could be a gold mine of IDP value, but other than Roquan Smith, managers have not shown this group much love. Nicholas Morrow is one of the guys I have planted my flag on this year. I believe he will be a poor man’s version of Bobby Okereke, and with Smith likely playing elsewhere in 2023, Morrow could be an excellent dynasty buy low.
I am also intrigued with the Bears’ defensive ends. Robert Quinn tallied 48 combined tackles, 17 sacks, and 5 forced fumbles last year, yet I’ve been drafting him as my third defensive end all summer. Trevis Gipson is also a watchlist guy here and could be a pleasant surprise.
Cincinnati sat most of their starters throughout the preseason and has no real questions about the starting lineup. There are, however, a couple of players on the watch list here. With Jessie Bates returning to the team in time to be ready, what role will Dax Hill have as a rookie? My guess is we will see him on the field regularly as the slot corner, and he might even get some time as a nickel linebacker. The question is, will he get enough playing time to be an IDP factor right away?
The other player to watch here is rookie Zach Carter who turned heads throughout camp and the preseason. He is listed as a defensive end with most league hosts but will see more action as a 3-technique tackle. It’s high praise for a rookie but this guy reminds me a lot of former Bengals great Geno Atkins.
Anthony Walker missed much of training camp while nursing a groin injury. The Browns stirred the muddy water by listing Walker and Jacob Phillips as starters on their training camp depth chart. That caused a lot of managers to avoid Walker, who slid to the late rounds in many drafts. Those that rolled the dice on him could end up winners. There is still the potential for some sort of timeshare hanging over Walker’s head, but it did not take long for him to reclaim the starting role once he returned to action. Walker worked full-time with the starters in the final preseason game while Phillips ran solely with the twos.
The Cowboys gave us next to nothing during the preseason. The closest thing to reliable information about their linebackers was an unofficial depth chart showing Leighton Vander Esch as the starting middle linebacker and Micah Parson on the weak side. There is no doubt Parsons will play all three downs. The expectation is he’ll move around and have plenty of opportunities to rush the passer. It would be a shock if Parsons were not a top-20 linebacker this year and a surprise if he’s not top-12. What we need to know is the role of Vander Esch, who can be a strong every-week starter for us if he plays on all three downs.
The other guy I’m watching closely here is Dorance Armstrong, who was hot down the stretch last year and is expected to start opposite Demarcus Lawrence.
The important info we need from Denver might be available when the Week 1 injury report is released. We already know that Jonas Griffith is in line for the three-down inside linebacker role when healthy. What we don’t know is how close he is to being ready. The organization is putting out there that he might be available for Week 1, but being available and being healthy are two far different stories. Even if he goes, I would be reluctant to trust Griffith until we see him play.
Denver unexpectedly sent Malik Reed to the Steelers as part of their move to get down to 53. Most believe this move cleared the way for Randy Gregory to start. Gregory spent time on the PUP during camp with a bad shoulder and has done little. Meanwhile, Baron Browning has been impressive. Gregory will be a factor and might be the anointed starter, but I believe the trade of Reed was made to get Browning on the field.
As we might expect from a team trying to find its way, the Lions played everyone during the preseason and in several combinations. Rookie Malcolm Rodriguez was the talk of camp, but in true Lions’ fashion, the coaching staff has been wishy-washy about him and the rest of their linebacker as well, for that matter. In their final preseason contest, Alex Anzalone, Chris Board, Derrick Barnes, and Rodriguez all saw time with the starters based on the situation. It looked as if Rodriguez and Anzalone were getting most, if not all, nickel snaps while Board and Barnes were mixed in on early downs. Anzalone is a marginal NFL starter at best, and Rodriguez has the most upside here if he gets to play full-time. The fear is a four-man rotation that would render them all useless to us.
Aiden Hutchinson has been impressive from day one.
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