Reading the Defense (Preseason Part 4)
By Jene Bramel
July 29th, 2011

Here. We. Go.

As we expected, we're seeing three waves of free agency squeezed into a few days. While a couple of bigger names (Stephen Tulloch, Barrett Ruud, Ray Edwards) were still undecided as of Thursday night, there's still much to recap from the first 48 hours of player movement.

Paul Posluszny and Clint Session sign with Jacksonville
Though there was evidence that Posluszny had decided to test the market last week, it's still a bit of a surprise to see him land in Jacksonville. Though he may see fewer tackle opportunities than he did in Buffalo last year and the home official scorer won't be as generous with split tackles, Posluszny remains a safe LB1 with 95 solo upside. Session also got a sizable contract to join the Jaguars. He'll play WLB, with Daryl Smith staying on the strong side. Session should be a coverage upgrade on Justin Durant, but Smith will be hard to bump from the Jaguars' subpackages. That competition will determine which OLB has matchup LB3 value.

Buffalo reportedly made a competitive offer to keep Posluszny, but his reluctance to play ILB in a 3-4 defense was the deciding factor. That leaves the Bills searching for a WILB. Kelvin Sheppard could grow into the role, but his skill set seems better suited to the run-stopping SILB position, where he'll learn behind veteran Andra Davis. Expect Buffalo to sign a veteran and be ready to move when it becomes clear who the every-down ILB will be.

Expect Kavell Conner to get the first look at WLB in Indianapolis, with Pat Angerer continuing to bide time at SLB. Neither may be consistent fantasy performers, however, if the Colts bring back Tyjuan Hagler, who got the call in subpackages ahead of Conner and Angerer late last season.

Charles Johnson re-signs with Carolina
Carolina had no intention of letting Johnson leave. They offered him a monster contract and he took it. As I've written in earlier installments, Johnson's career 2010 season wasn't quite the breakout it seems when you take a closer look at his situational production in 2008 and 2009. I don't think Johnson's 2010 numbers were solely the result of a contract year push. He's only 25 years old and primed for a string of stud DL1 seasons.

Justin Durant signs with Detroit
Stephen Tulloch remains on the market

Tulloch was aggressively pursued by Detroit in the first 24 hours, but either asked for more money or didn't commit to the Lions quickly enough. Shortly after adding Durant, Detroit reportedly moved on from Tulloch and is likely looking to spend the money ticketed for him on an elite cornerback. The inside linebacker market has been quiet thus far, though, and only the Eagles have been reported to have interest in Tulloch. The Titans seem to have moved on, and the first camp practice will tell us whether they'll go with Will Witherspoon, Gerald McRath or Colin McCarthy in the middle.

Unless the Lions come back to Tulloch or pursue another ILB option, it's likely that DeAndre Levy will remain the MLB, with Durant at WLB and Bobby Carpenter the favorite to play SLB. Levy and Durant would be the every-down players. Both are risk-reward LB2+ candidates, with a history of durability concerns and inconsistent on-field play tempering expectations.

Barrett Ruud remains on the market
Quincy Black re-signs with Tampa Bay

The second tier OLB market has been much hotter than the ILB market. There's been very little chatter about Ruud, other than yet another strong report that he won't be back in Tampa Bay. The Bucs did move quickly to give Black a new contract. The loss of Ruud and return of Black should cement Mason Foster as the starting MLB. If he proves himself capable of making the transition to Tampa-2 MLB early in camp, he'll have top 20 value. Expect Ruud to find a new home soon enough. There are plenty of teams in need of ILB help and Ruud should find a spot as the market settles out.

Eric Weddle re-signs with San Diego
Takeo Spikes signs with San Diego
Kevin Burnett, Stephen Cooper and Brandon Siler remain on the market

Weddle was courted by lots of teams, but the Chargers were able to keep him by paying him a truckload of money. Weddle has been inconsistent as a part time in-the-box, part time centerfielding free safety. Should the Chargers not add a veteran to play WILB, the transition at both ILB positions could give him more opportunity this year. Consider him a stable DB2, albeit still prone to roller coaster performances.

Burnett seems to have priced himself out of San Diego's price range and the Chargers turned to Spikes as a veteran anchor. Spikes will slot to the SILB position, which is bad news on the surface for Jonas Mouton, who was expected to get the first look there. I think Mouton is a better fit in a flow and chase role, however, so this may end up as a blessing in disguise for him. Reports suggest that the team continues to prowl for veteran bodies at ILB, so it may be 2012 before Donald Butler and Mouton get into the mix.

Quintin Mikell signs with St. Louis
Steve Spagnuolo comes from the Jim Johnson school of defense and hand-picked Mikell, who has experience in the scheme, for his secondary. With the Rams employing a plug-and-play philosophy at OLB, Mikell should see as much or more opportunity in St. Louis as he did in Philadelphia. It's not good news for James Butler, Craig Dahl or Jermale Hines. Dahl may still see time at FS, but he won't have the dual SS, nickel LB role that allowed him to run up tackles late last year.

D'Qwell Jackson to play MLB in Cleveland
I noted this possibility in the second installment of the preseason RTD in late June, but it's still likely to surprise those who bought into Chris Gocong as the MLB. Durability questions will (rightfully) hold Jackson's value down, but he's again worth considering as a LB2 with upside. Unless Jackson flops, Gocong goes back to the IDP scrap heap as a base defensive OLB.

Jason Babin signs with Philadelphia
The DE market hasn't been as hot as expected, but Babin got a very nice deal for a 31 year old with a checkered history of production. Babin was likely to regress this year, but a rotational role on a PHI line full of strong pass rushers might prop his stats up a bit. Gives the Eagles some space to let Brandon Graham start on PUP and/or ease back in slowly.

Thomas Davis and James Anderson re-sign with Carolina
A day after breaking the bank for Charles Johnson, the Panthers continued to lock up their own front seven players. Davis, who is reportedly ready to return to form, goes back to his productive WLB role. If he looks good in camp, he's a risk-reward LB2. Anderson is a nice piece, but without the every-down WLB job, he'll again be a fantasy afterthought.

Nick Barnett will be traded/released
No surprise here, and Barnett could have a number of suitors. Detroit has been rumored, but it's unlikely that the Packers will trade him cheaply inside the division. It's not a given that Green Bay releases him immediately either. They may hold to protect against an injury on their depth chart, and it's been reported that Brandon Chillar has a significant hamstring injury that could cost him time in the regular season. With the cornerback market starting to resolve itself, we may see closure sooner than later with the ILB market.

Mathias Kiwanuka re-signs with New York
I was hoping to see Kiwanuka making lots of visits for physicals and landing with a new team as a 4-3 end. He'll have to prove himself again in New York, who will undoubtedly use him as a hedge against a prolonged holdout from Osi Umenyiora. He could also see some time as a linebacker in some packages. You'll want to watch reports on his health and usage in training camp before committing to him as more than a flyer.

Stewart Bradley released by Philadelphia
In something of a surprise, the Eagles elected to move on from Bradley. Even more surprisingly, they lined up with Casey Matthews at MLB and Jamar Chaney outside early in camp. I'm not convinced that lineup holds throughout the preseason, but it's notable. There are also rumors that the Eagles may have interest in Stephen Tulloch. The only thing that's clear is that the situation isn't settled yet. Drop Chaney down a bit, move on Matthews if you can and be ready to react to any new news.

There's been some noise that the Cardinals are looking at Bradley. That seems an odd fit with Paris Lenon, Daryl Washington and Quin Sturdivant there. It's possible they may see him as a swing option at SOLB, but it's doubtful.

Ray Edwards remains on the market
Edwards is the last of the pass rushers on the market with Johnson, Kiwanuka and Babin signed to contracts. Most are speculating that the market for Edwards has been lukewarm because teams aren't willing to pay for a player who may have benefited from single blocking throughout his career. Still, Edwards has been extremely productive on a pressure per snap basis. He's not likely to be double teamed as a rule wherever he goes, and Edwards can still be a factor for the team that eventually signs him at “their price.”

Thomas Howard signs with Cincinnati
Dhani Jones and Brandon Johnson remain on the market
Yet another third tier free agent and another OLB signs in the early stages of free agency. Howard gets the Bengals to give him three million dollars a year for two years. That sounds suspiciously like starter money and could finally be the confirmation that Cincinnati will move Rey Maualuga inside, with Howard competing for the OLB spot opposite Keith Rivers. Jones wasn't immediately snapped up by the Bengals and will have to wait until the dust settles on the upper tier ILB free agents. Johnson is still an important piece to fall, as the value of Maualuga and Rivers is dependent on how the Bengals deploy their passing subpackages.

Stunts

The Colts elected to stick with Melvin Bullitt at safety after getting priced out of the Weddle sweepstakes. Not a lot of fantasy upside to be had, but Bullitt has always been a safe, matchup DB3 with upside.

Albert Haynesworth whined himself out of Washington and onto a Super Bowl contender, as Bill Belichick and the Patriots took a cheap (and possibly brilliant) gamble on him in trade. Haynesworth is a better fit in the 3-4 than he wants to believe and Belichick could finesse him into a productive situational swing role in any number of fronts. I wouldn't draft him, but if he starts the season well it's probably no fluke.

The Falcons re-signed both Mike Peterson and Stephen Nicholas. There's not a lot of fantasy upside for either, but Nicholas should be kept on your rainy day watch list in case one of the starters gets injured.

The cornerback market seemed to be waiting for Nnamdi Asomugha to choose a new team, but Johnathan Joseph drew first blood among the elite cover corners by taking a big deal to join the Texans. That likely assures that Glover Quin will transition to safety (where he won't be a huge fantasy asset). Joseph has durability issues, but he'll provide whoever plays cornerback opposite him plenty of opportunity. Watch the competition between Kareem Jackson, Jason Allen and Brandon Harris closely.

Should Asomugha sign with the Jets, we might see Darrelle Revis become a top five corner. Revis is the vastly better run support corner and he could see enough targets to push 60 solos and plenty of big plays.

The Saints moved quickly to grab OLB Will Herring, then re-signed Scott Shanle a day later. The competition at OLB will be deep with Jonathan Casillas, Jo-Lonn Dunbar and Martez Wilson also in the mix. The linebacker depth could also mean that the Saints may be using more 3-4 fronts in the base defense this year. Wilson and Shanle could handle multiple positions in the 3-4 and Herring and Casillas potentially able to be run-and-chase WILBs. But it may be David Hawthorne who sees the biggest impact from the Herring signing. Herring was the primary nickel OLB in Seattle last year. If the Seahawks use fewer six and seven DB passing subpackages, Hawthorne could be in line for 5-15 extra snaps a game.

I'll be back with more free agent analysis and training camp practice reports next week, but be sure to follow my Twitter feed @JeneBramel for up-to-the-minute news and discussion.

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