Reading the Defense (Preseason Part 2)
By Jene Bramel
June 27th, 2011

As I write this, all indications are that the NFL will re-open for business by mid-July. With the early leaks indicating that restricted free agency will end and that those players with four or five years of service time will be added to the free agent pool, the end of July is shaping up to be a mad dash of player acquisition and depth chart change. Make sure you're following my Twitter feed and checking out the analysis and conversation in the IDP Forum for all the latest news.

This is the second Q&A installment and I'll put one more together if there's interest before the usual scheme/free agent movement and preseason update columns to come later in July and throughout August.

If you missed the first installment, you missed discussions on Desmond Bishop and Charles Johnson, Ndamukong Suh and Jamar Chaney, how to handicap the 2011 prospects of the rookie linebackers, which part-time 2010 defensive ends could make the leap into the top 20 this season, what to make of last season's huge defensive back numbers and more.

Please send your questions and follow-up thoughts for the third installment to bramel@footballguys.com.

How will the new "shared solo" default affect IDP value?

In March, Chris Hoeltge, the developer of the NFL game statistics application and administrator of its stadium stat crews, was kind enough to stop into the IDP Forum to let us know of a change in how the stat crews will record tackles this year.

The NFL records three types of tackles - solo, shared and assisted. When a crew awards two tackles on the same play then can either award a shared solo and assisted tackle or two assisted tackles. In the play-by-play section, the two tacklers are separated by a comma on a shared-assisted play and by a semi-colon on an assisted-assisted play.

Currently, the statistics application defaults to the shared-assisted model when the stat crew awards a split tackle. That default is changing this year. Now, the statistics application will default to an assisted-assisted model when a split tackle is recorded. According to Hoeltge, the stat crews can override that default and still award a shared tackle and assisted tackle when recording a split tackle, but says that default values are rarely overridden in practice.

Because a shared tackle is recorded as a solo tackle in the NFL statistics application, the new default could significantly change the numbers of solo and assisted tackles for defenders on some teams this year.

How significantly?

Based on numbers Hoeltge shared with me, 27 teams awarded at least 96 shared solos on defensive plays last year. 11 teams had shared solos account for at least 20% of their total solo tackles for the year. 13% of all of last year's solo tackles were shared solos. Put another way, if every shared solo tackle on a defensive play last year had been an assisted tackle, each team would have recorded eight fewer solo tackles per week on average.

As we all know, however, all stat crews are not created alike. Six teams had at least 198 shared solos on defensive plays. Five had less than 90. There are home and away considerations that aren't accounted for in the team totals, but that's clearly significant.

Here are the eleven teams most likely to be impacted by the new default, listed in order of highest ratio of shared solo to solo tackles.

  1. Buffalo (32% of all solo tackles were shared solos)
  2. New England (27%)
  3. Indianapolis (24%)
  4. NY Giants (24%)
  5. Tennessee (23%)
  6. Cleveland (22%)
  7. Baltimore (21%)
  8. Pittsburgh (21%)
  9. Washington (20%)
  10. Houston (20%)
  11. Seattle (20%)

If you're in a tackle heavy league, be aware that the linebackers on these teams carry some increased statistical risk this year. Paul Posluszny is at extreme risk of losing solo tackles to his assist column this year. Jerod Mayo and Stephen Tulloch (if he stays in Tennessee) are also concerns. Gary Brackett, D'Qwell Jackson, Ray Lewis, London Fletcher, both Houston inside backers could also be affected. LaRon Landry may be the most affected secondary player, but there are other big names on the watch list, too.

On the other side of the spectrum, players with San Francisco (8%), Philadelphia (8%), Chicago (9%) and St. Louis (10%) are relatively safe from seeing their solo tackle counts drop. Still, each of those teams awarded at least 28 shared solos to their linebackers last season and it's not inconceivable that guys like Patrick Willis, Brian Urlacher and James Laurinaitis could see 8-10 fewer solos next year.

I'm not yet ready to drop a stud a tier or more on my draft board. I want to see what happens during the first preseason games and early in the regular season. It's possible that teams, players and agents won't be happy to see a drop in solo tackle numbers if teams continue to record their usual number of split tackles without overriding the default and there'll be a quiet reversal by midseason if the early season shows a major trend toward more assisted tackles.

The effect may end up being minor, but it's something you'll want to consider. Be aware early in the season that a 4-5 solo game may no longer be a dud. We may see a 4-6 stat line become the norm. 90 solos (with 60 assists) may become the new line for a stud linebacker. The MLB on a stat crew that consistently overrides that default might become a major target and another "rookie corner" of sorts.

You can be certain that I'll be following this extremely closely throughout the preseason and regular season in the RTD and on our podcast. Make sure you're reading to stay ahead of your competition on this.

What should we expect from DeMeco Ryans and Brian Cushing at ILB?

It's been rare in recent seasons for a 3-4 team to have two starting inside backers that it trusts as much in pass rush and coverage as in run support. Because of that, most 3-4 teams have had just one every-down inside linebacker and it's been easy to identify the most attractive IDP prospect. That won't be the case in Houston, where Ryans and Cushing should both be on the field for every snap.

Still, while both Houston backers will hold a consensus ranking in the top 25 overall linebackers this year, there are questions.

As of this writing, Ryans carries a consensus ranking of LB8 at FBG (range LB5-LB13). I have him as my LB7, but it's clearly a ranking leaning toward the optimistic side given Ryans' durability issues in recent seasons. A true every-down talented WILB in Wade Phillips' 1-gap 3-4 has been a stud more often than not, however, and Ryans has the 95+ solo tackle upside to belong in the top ten.

It's Cushing that has generated the most discussion, however. He carries an ADP of LB18 through 30 MFL drafts and a consensus FBG ranking of LB21. Two factors will determine whether he can greatly outperform that ranking or fall into the LB3 tier in the future.

First, Cushing's upside is tied to how Phillips uses him. If he plays inside in both the base defense and subpackages and gets his share of blitz opportunities on passing downs, he has Lawrence Timmons upside. Bradie James filled that role for Wade Phillips over the years and had a very impressive stretch of 50 solos and six sacks over his final eight games in 2008. Cushing certainly has the talent to equal those numbers. If he plays inside linebacker in the base defense and rotates to a rush OLB role in subpackages, his upside takes a significant hit.

Second, and more importantly, Cushing's upside is dependent on how he adapts to the SILB role. He did not look comfortable at MLB after Ryans' injury last year and was eventually moved back outside. He'll have to play more decisively and shed blocks much better if he is to push for 85-90 solos this year. There are reasons to be concerned about Cushing's explosiveness and leverage in the box after his performance-enhancing drug history.

I think Cushing has top 15 upside, and my current LB22 ranking is a hedge until I see his role and comfort level during the preseason. If you're drafting now, I'd let someone else take the risk until at least 20-25 linebackers go off the board.

Does Rolando McClain deserve to be ranked in the top 25?

I have him ranked as my LB16, bringing the FBG consensus ranking up to LB27 as the next highest individual ranking for McClain is LB28.

There's no argument that McClain (and his 59 solo tackles) bitterly disappointed owners who drafted him hoping for the next Jerod Mayo or Paul Posluszny. But, by year's end, he showed signs of becoming the instinctive, productive player every scouting report expected him to be. Over his last five games, despite a foot sprain that hobbled him in Weeks 14-16, McClain played downhill more often, shed blocks better and tackled more consistently. He had 29 solo tackles, an interception and three passes defensed over that time period. Projected over a full 16 games, that pace would have given McClain more than 90 solos for the year.

I'd be even more confident in my top 20 ranking if McClain had a full offseason of OTAs and coaching, but I think there was enough on tape last season to justify the ranking, especially given McClain's suspect surrounding cast.

McClain's fantasy situation doesn't happen too often among linebackers. Usually, if a well-regarded linebacker prospect starts his career poorly, the tape shows that his issues may not be easy to overcome. But McClain (and Aaron Curry to a lesser extent) are not the next versions of Keith Rivers and A.J. Hawk.

Don't be surprised if my LB16 ranking ends up too low or that McClain ends up being a very fast riser in the FBG consensus rankings after a preseason game or two. I certainly think it's more likely that McClain finishes in the top 15 than outside the top 30.

Is Chris Gocong a LB2 or matchup LB5?

I think he's much less likely to be a LB2.

Gocong has had a nice buzz surrounding him since reports surfaced that the Browns saw him a MLB prospect in their move to a 4-3 front. Fantasy owners haven't fully bought in yet, however, and with good reason.

Gocong has been a very good run defender, but his range is limited. Unless the Browns have very high tackle opportunity next year, it'll be hard for Gocong to top 80 solos. Against the Jets last year, in what amounted to a five quarter game that featured nearly 40 rushing attempts, Gocong managed just four solos despite playing every down.

There's also no guarantee that Gocong will play every down with D'Qwell Jackson and Scott Fujita likely to flank him at OLB. And it's also not guaranteed that Gocong will play MLB. In an early June interview, it was suggested that the Browns will also give Jackson a look inside.

There's just too much uncertainty to expect Gocong to play like Jeremiah Trotter or Andra Davis. I wouldn't risk rostering him as more than LB5.

What is the ETA and upside for this year's group of rookie defensive linemen?

There are a handful of very intriguing 4-3 defensive end prospects this year. But, as you often should, temper your expectations. The 4-3 defensive end position takes time to grow into. Many of these prospects entered college at 220-240 pound. They'll take time to fill out their frames, refine their pass rush technique and learn to play with leverage against bigger and more athletic offensive tackles. There'll be a Julius Peppers or Mario Williams like talent every 2-3 years, but it's best not to rely on a DE until their second or third season.

DE Jabaal Sheard, Cleveland (ETA: Early 2011 / Upside: DE1/DL1)
I've got Sheard ranked as my #1 overall DE prospect, mostly because I believe his upside is similar to others in this year's top tier but his floor is higher. Sheard doesn't have the talent/size combination to warrant mention alongside Peppers and Williams as immediate IDP contributors, but he may get there on the strength of opportunity and snap count. The Browns' depth chart at DE is extremely thin. It'd be an upset if Sheard didn't win the starting job outright and he could potentially play 700-800 snaps if he holds up.

DE Robert Quinn, St. Louis (ETA: Early 2012 / Upside: DE1/DL1)
The early 2012 ETA expectation might seem misleading. But I don't think Quinn will start this year ahead of James Hall, who was still effective last year. At best, Quinn will play every third series in the base defense and take the majority of subpackage snaps, putting him in the 400-550 snap range. Quinn's pass rush upside is higher than Sheard's, but he may not hold up well enough in run support to push the 45 solo tackle mark. That holds his floor down just enough to make him the 1a to Sheard.

DE Da'Quan Bowers, Tampa Bay (ETA: Mid 2011 / Upside: DE1/DL1)
Bowers fell all the way to the third round, but he's the best all-around defensive end prospect in this group if his knee is close to 100%. He won't be a pure edge rusher in the mold of Dwight Freeney or John Abraham, but he'll get to the quarterback easily enough. And his run defense upside is also strong. The mid-2011 ETA is something of a hedge. If he's ready physically, it'll be hard for Tampa to keep him in a rotational role all year long. If he's not ready, it'll be 2012 before he starts and plays more than 500-600 snaps.

DE Adrian Clayborn, Tampa Bay (ETA: Early 2011 / Upside: DE2+/DL2+)
Clayborn is an interesting case. Like Sheard, he would seemingly have a high floor without elite pass rushing upside. Like Sheard, he looks likely to see lots of opportunity very early in his career. But Clayborn's game depends on leverage and his scouting report reads like those 4-3 ends who take a year or two to develop. Be careful before counting on him as any more than a risk-reward DE3 or DL4 this year.

DE Cameron Jordan, New Orleans (ETA: Mid-Late 2011 / Upside: DE2/DL3+)
I like Jordan a lot and I think his pass rush upside is more projectable than Clayborn. But he'll be a rotational player this year and may still need some seasoning. He may ultimately end up carving out a Justin Smith or Darnell Dockett like career, but I'm not ready to recommend rostering him in redraft leagues yet.

DE Greg Romeus, New Orleans (ETA: Mid-2012 or later / Upside: DE2+/DL2+)
Romeus is a long shot, but the best pass rushing long shot in this year's class. He's not worth rostering except in the very deepest of dynasty leagues or those with large taxi squads.

Worth Mentioning: Houston's JJ Watt, Buffalo's Marcell Dareus, San Diego's Corey Liuget and New York's Muhammad Wilkerson all have a chance to see more than 600 snaps. They'll be 3-4 ends and face an uphill battle for statistical production, but all four are worth watching. Pittsburgh's Cameron Heyward will join that group in 2012, but isn't likely to see enough time to have value this year.

There's also a good group of penetrating defensive tackle prospects. Detroit's Nick Fairley and New York's Marvin Austin may see enough playing time to be considered upside DT2 prospects, but neither is the second coming of Ndamukong Suh. Chicago's Stephen Paea, Indianapolis' Drake Nevis and Minnesota's Christian Ballard could surprise by year's end.

What is the ETA and upside for this year's group of rookie defensive backs?

CB Patrick Peterson, Arizona (ETA: Early 2011 / Upside: CB1/DB2+)
Peterson is the best IDP rookie corner prospect in years. He'll play immediately, is big and physical enough to stir debate on whether he'd be better positioned as a safety in the NFL and draw comparisons to Charles Woodson, will play across from established strong Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and is a known playmaker. There are no guarantees with fantasy cornerbacks, but this is as close as it gets. Given the relative weakness of the safety prospects, Peterson is arguably the safest rookie DB this season.

S Jaiquawn Jarrett, Philadelphia (ETA: Early 2011 / Upside SF1/DB2+)
The lockout has cost Jarrett valuable developmental time and he could start the season behind Kurt Coleman. Jarrett is the long-term SS, however, and he won't be on the bench long. He's easily the best SS prospect in this class and should produce numbers similar to what Quintin Mikell has over the past few seasons.

S Shiloh Keo, Houston (ETA: Mid 2011 / Upside SF1/DB2+)
There's some risk with Keo, who fell to the sixth round in a weak class, but the opportunity is there. He won't be as dynamic, but he compares favorably to Bernard Pollard as an in-the-box prospect with suspect cover skills and some big play upside. Barring a free agent signing, he'll have a chance to crack the starting lineup quickly with Troy Nolan as his only competition.

S Quinton Carter, Denver (ETA: Late 2011 / Upside SF2+/DB3+)
Carter was one of the better pre-draft safety prospects, but lasted until the middle of the fourth round. He was the second safety the Broncos selected (behind Rahim Moore), but he's the better IDP prospect. He may begin the year behind Brian Dawkins, but he'll likely be given the first shot at the long-term SS job ahead of Darcel McBath when Dawkins moves on. That may not be until 2012 if Dawkins stays healthy and the Broncos stay in the playoff race until late in the season.

The four defensive backs above are the most likely to have a DB3 or better impact in 2011. But while this class lacks elite upside at the top, it's full of possible gems with later ETAs.

Tampa Bay's Ahmad Black and Denver's Rahim Moore are free safety prospects with marginal tackle upside. They're DB3 targets in deeper leagues with big play leaning scoring systems. Buffalo's DaNorris Searcy may prove to be the best IDP of the 2011 class by the end of 2012. He's not likely to beat out George Wilson (or Donte' Whitner if he's re-signed) but he could be the starter in 2012 and follow Patrick Chung's early career path. St. Louis' Jermale Hines could do the same. Jacksonville's Christopher Prosinski could find a way into the lineup if Courtney Greene slips this year. Chicago's Christopher Conte and Cincinnati's Robert Sands also belong on watch lists.

At cornerback, Houston's Brandon Harris has a chance to join the top four 2011 prospects if the Texans can't find a veteran cornerback in free agency. Baltimore's Jimmy Smith could play early, but has question marks in run support. New York's Prince Amukamara was drafted into a crowded situation and may see time as the outside corner in subpackages only in 2011. New England's Ras-I Dowling is a big corner with upside. And Buffalo's Aaron Williams, San Francisco's Chris Culliver and Pittsburgh's Curtis Brown could move up their team's depth charts anytime between now and mid-2012. All three have strong fantasy profiles.

Can the Titans' defense put five players in the top ten of their respective positions again this year?

Jason Babin (DE8 in FBG scoring), Stephen Tulloch (LB2), Cortland Finnegan (CB9), Alterraun Verner (CB6), Michael Griffin (SF2) all finished as stud IDP performers last year. Chris Hope wasn't far behind as the SF13. Five Titans finished with more than 80 solo tackles.

While those players aren't terrible, they're numbers were all inflated by the highest tackle opportunity figure in the eight seasons I've been following that metric. The Titans finished the season with nearly 58 tackle opportunities per game. Since 2002, the league average tackle opportunity per game has been less than 50. No team has ever finished a season with more than 56. Eight more tackle chances per game translates to 128 more than average. The Titans had 232 more opportunities last year to make a tackle than the Jets, who finished with the league's worst tackle opportunity.

That's a lot of opportunity.

The bulk of the increased opportunity came from their continued inability to stop the pass. The Titans faced the seventh highest number of rushing attempts last year, but the 29.6 per game wasn't too far out of line with league averages. They allowed nearly 26 pass completions per game, however, five more than the league average and a shade higher than their abysmal 2009 number.

The Titans aren't likely to turn things around completely this year, but some regression to league averages is likely. Specifically, it would be shocking to see four secondary players with 80 or more solos this year. Be careful before putting all four defensive backs in the top 30 on your draft board this summer.

The regression theme also applies to high tackle opportunity teams Buffalo (whose 55.80 would have been the highest number since 2002 were it not for the Titans) and Arizona as well as low tackle opportunity teams like the Jets, Chargers, Packers and Giants, whose tacklers could see a bump in their numbers if their defenses slump.


I'm still taking questions for the next installment of this feature. If there's something else vexing you or you have a follow up question on something in the first two installments, send it to bramel@footballguys.com. I'll work all those questions into the next column, then move on to a quick coaching and scheme review before free agency begins.

As always, thanks for reading.

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