Reading the Defense (Preseason Part 5)
By Jene Bramel
August 1st, 2011

Here. We. Go.

Free Agency Review (Continued)

The news continued to come fast and furious this weekend, with the market shifting to corners and inside linebackers. Free agency will start to wind down now, with training camp battles and practice reports taking precedence.

If you missed my review of the first 72 hours of free agency, you can find it here. If you're looking for real-time updates and analysis, make sure you're watching my Twitter feed (@JeneBramel) and checking the IDP Forum at FBG.

Stephen Tulloch signed by Detroit
It wasn't a very compelling soap opera, but the on-again, off-again courtship between Jim Schwartz, Kyle Vanden Bosch and Stephen Tulloch finally ended as rumored since January. After reports of earlier offers including lots of guaranteed money and a longer term deal, Tulloch managed only a one year, "show me" contract.

It's a good landing spot for Tulloch, who already knows the defense and gets a chance to support the run behind one of the best defensive lines in the league. Despite that, don't expect a repeat of his 2010 numbers. The Titans tackle opportunity was historically high last year and the Lions have rangy OLBs and safeties.

Expect DeAndre Levy, whose vote of confidence as the MLB never felt right, to move to WLB (or ROLB if Schwartz elects to play that way). Justin Durant kicks over to SLB. The value of both take a hit with Tulloch on board, and it's possible neither put up LB3 numbers. ROLB/LOLB alignment, durability questions, nickel roles all tempering my expectations for now for both.

And there's one other potential wrench to throw in the works. There were no guarantees that the MLB would be featured in the Titans' nickel packages when Schwartz was the defensive coordinator. Generally, that was because the MLB was a player like Peter Sirmon or Rocky Boiman, but Tulloch sat in subpackages when the Titans had better options at OLB. There's an argument that Levy and Durant (who the Lions signed sooner and to a slightly better contract) have better range and coverage depth than Tulloch. I think Levy is probably a lock for nickel duty, but Durant could push Tulloch. I'll pass along confirmation on Twitter and the Forum as soon as I see it.

Ray Edwards signed by Atlanta
This signing somewhat alleviates the two major concerns re: Edwards' fantasy value. Worries over the Jared Allen Effect should be minimized with a pass rusher like John Abraham opposite him. And the delay in signing to a relatively smaller DE contract might keep his motivation strong. Say what you will about Edwards feasting on single blocking over the past two seasons. Not many defensive ends are capable of running up the pressure-hit-sack numbers he did. I'll still have Edwards in the top 20, and likely comfortably within the DL2+/DL1 upside tier.

Unfortunately, the addition of Edwards again cools expectations for Kroy Biermann. Biermann may again see 400-500 snaps in rotation, but he's not likely to play enough to project his per snap numbers out to the 40 solos and eight sacks he's capable of. Keep him on your radar, but he's a depth DL4 for redraft leagues at best right now.

Nick Barnett signed by Buffalo
Barnett fills the gaping hole left in the middle of the Buffalo defense with Paul Posluszny moving on the Jacksonville. Channing Crowder, Stephen Cooper, Stewart Bradley and others were rumored as possibility for the Bills, but Barnett was the best WILB fit on the board. If he's in form, he'll play every down and could be just as effective as Posluszny had been. There will definitely be enough opportunity for Barnett to approach 90-95 solos and LB2+ value. The Bills also elected to move Arthur Moats back to ILB. He'll be blocked by Barnett, but he's worth filing away as a viable upside replacement if Barnett has another injury.

Barrett Ruud signed by Tennessee
Tyrone Mckenzie first team MLB in Tampa Bay

Another one year, "show me" contract for a once-solid fantasy option, but Tennessee should be a very good short term scenario for Ruud. There's likely to be plenty of tackle opportunity for the Titans' defense (again) and the Tennessee defensive line will be good. Lots of competition for tackles at CB, S and OLB, but Ruud should play every down and will be playing for his future. He should be a stable fantasy LB2. I still believe that Colin McCarthy is the MLB of the future, but a 2012 on-field ETA makes more sense.

While McKenzie may have impressed the coaches over the past months and may prove himself capable, he's holding this position warm for Mason Foster. Foster will have to play catchup during camp, but I expect that he'll be the starting MLB on opening weekend or shortly after. His upside depends on how soon he earns a nickel role. That, like Curtis Lofton, may not come until his sophomore season.

Kevin Burnett signed by Miami
Channing Crowder released by Miami

Crowder has been an underrated all-around ILB at times in his career - better at the point of attack that you'd think, more effective in coverage than you'd expect - but injuries have slowed him considerably over the past two seasons. Rumors suggested Buffalo would consider him, but he'd be yet another SILB fit on a roster stocked with them already. He's in a holding pattern for now, but it's hard to see him regain his once LB2+ value.

Burnett should be a good fit in Miami, though he may be a better fit at WILB and prompt the Dolphins to move Karlos Dansby to SILB. That would limit Dansby's statistical upside. It's possible both players work in subpackages; both could be LB3+ values should that happen.

Stewart Bradley signed by Arizona
Casey Matthews still first team MLB in Philadelphia

Bradley's signing seemed odd to me at first glance, since it appeared that the Cardinals were reasonably happy with Paris Lenon at SILB and have Daryl Washington ready to take over as a full time WILB. Bradley's best fit is at SILB, and while Ken Whisenhunt noted that Bradley was capable of playing either ILB position, I think SILB is likely where he'll fit.

That puts Lenon's role in limbo. Whisenhunt noted Bradley's versatility in subpackages and the Cardinals still think highly of Washington. I think Lenon moves back into a reserve role, where he would have been last year if Washington was ready and Gerald Hayes was fully healthy. Whether Washington can crack the nickel depth chart will determine his upside. Consider Bradley a LB3 with upside for now, with Washington holding similar 2011 value as last year - LB4 with immediate LB2 upside if he earns a larger role.

Though there are rumors that the Eagles continue to troll for veteran ILB help, that market continues to shrink and Luis Castillo continues to talk up Matthews as his MLB. Early reps have Matthews (and Jamar Chaney) as the first team nickel backers, another great sign for him. I don't see Chaney as having more than matchup LB4 value as an every-down SLB, so move him if you can get LB2 value. Matthews should move into the top rookie linebacker tier and he'll be a safe LB3+ option if free agency ends without another Eagles' signing.

Lofa Tatupu released by Seattle
Tatupu wanted no part of a pay cut proposed on the team, but he's likely over-estimating his value on the open market. Might get a one year deal, but the ILB market has obviously been stagnant. Tatupu is a nice veteran presence, but he's not been a downhill player in some time and his range was poor last year. It won't be surprising to see him come back to Seattle, but David Hawthorne's value continues to rise. If Tatupu leaves, Hawthorne is guaranteed every-down MLB duty and has shown LB1 capability there in the past.

Roman Harper re-signed by New Orleans
Not a major surprise. Harper was arguably the best fit among the free agent safety class for the multiple front schemes that Gregg Williams likes to run. Saints should be deep enough at cornerback to allow Harper to reprise his usual in-the-box role, with Malcolm Jenkins a roving coverage defender. Harper remains one of the safest options in the DB1 tier.

Richard Marshall signed by Arizona
Good landing spot for Marshall, who will get to play in a similar, mostly zone coverage based, coverage scheme but could see more big play chances behind a more aggressive front seven. Rangy teammates Adrian Wilson, Kerry Rhodes and Daryl Washington could cut into his run support stats, however. Expect plenty of CB1/DB1 games, but at least as much week-to-week inconsistency this year.

Danieal Manning signed by Houston
The number of teams that are comfortable with an old-school, in-the-box, thumping SS continue to dwindle. Sometimes, our fantasy colored glasses cloud our thinking, but this condensed free agency period shows you the relative value of Eric Weddle, Danieal Manning, Dawan Landry, Bernard Pollard and Donte Whitner. We've had this discussion in years past with guys like Adam Archuleta and Keith Lewis. Pollard may yet find a fantasy-friendly home, but file this as yet another reason to trust only those stud fantasy DB with coverage ability in dynasty leagues.

With Glover Quin rumored to move to safety (and very likely to start at free safety given his skill set and the so-so depth at cornerback), Manning should take over Pollard's SS role. Don't expect Pollard's 80 solo tackle, stud DB1 production, though. The Texans' defense is improved, the offense can control the clock and Wade Phillips has two strong ILBs in front of Manning. I think 70 solos and DB2 value is possible, with some matchup upside, but wouldn't rush to draft Manning as a top 15 fantasy DB.

Michael Huff re-signed by Oakland
The market never materialized for Huff. Teams apparently didn't see Huff as valuable as two-way safeties like Dawan Landry and Danieal Manning - or he priced himself out of contention early - and Huff is back in Oakland. It's possible that Huff plays a smaller coverage role this year, but I think it's more likely a sign that Tyvon Branch isn't seen as a viable FS option with the expected decline in CB play. Expect Mike Mitchell to go back to his nickel safety role. Keep him on your inseason watch list in case of injury, but cross him off your summer sleeper list at DB.

Dawan Landry signed by Jacksonville
None of the defenders added by the Jaguars are threats to go to the Pro Bowl every year. But Paul Posluszny, Clint Session and Landry are excellent fits for them. Relatively weak at cornerback and safety with an inconsistent pass rush and a division with the likes of Indianapolis and Houston, those three players allow lots of flexibility. All three (alongside Daryl Smith) will give the Jags the ability to play their base defense against a team like Indianapolis and still compete in coverage against Austin Collie or Dallas Clark and against the run.

I'll have a better gauge on fantasy values after seeing how the Jaguars plan to use Landry and Courtney Greene, but I think it's reasonable to consider both DB3 candidates and possibly more. The strength in the linebacker group is going to depress the tackle upside for both safeties, however. It's hard to see either running up 70-75 or more solos.

Nnamdi Asomugha signed by Philadelphia
There are all kinds of storylines with this, fantasy and otherwise. It was very refreshing - despite my love for Twitter for all things football related - to see that a player, his agent and a high profile pursuing team could keep their mutual interest so quiet in today's fast moving media age.

I doubt this move improves Asomugha's stat line enough to give him rosterable fantasy value in most leagues, but his presence will help Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. If DRC shows more interest in run support, he could be at least as good in the box score as Dmitri Patterson was during the second half of 2010. And the Nnamdi-DRC tandem will only help the defensive line. Should allow for a variety of blitzes and some additional coverage sacks for the already strong group of defensive ends.

Bernard Pollard and Donte Whitner remain on the market
There are a couple of interesting linebacker names available. Stephen Cooper, Dhani Jones, Rocky McIntosh and Kirk Morrison remain free agents, as does the recently released Lofa Tatupu. Pollard and Whitner are the biggest name IDP values still in limbo. Whitner has been rumored to interest Cincinnati, where he could have DB1 value again. The market for Pollard has been very quiet.

Stunts

The Patriots were showing lots of 4-3 looks during the first two days of camp. Jermaine Cunningham and Eric Moore were the starting ends, with Brandon Spikes at MLB, Jerod Mayo at WLB and Rob Ninkovich on the strong side. New England probably doesn't have the pass rushers to use the 4-3 as more than a change-up front and the two undersized ends and Ninkovich at SLB would likely leave them susceptible to the run even with new acquisition Albert Haynesworth inside. It's worth noting, however, for the possible increase in value it could give Brandon Spikes (especially if he finds a nickel role) and Patrick Chung (who'd likely often drop into the box to support Ninkovich).

There are a couple of lesser linebacker signees worth watching early in camp. The Rams added Zac Diles, who should be their best OLB and has a chance to play an every-down WLB role. Kansas City signed Brandon Siler, who could immediately challenge Jovan Belcher for early down snaps. Both could have LB3 value against strong matchups.

The Browns got Brodrick Bunkley from the Eagles for a fifth rounder. Though Cleveland has two big bodies they like at defensive tackle, Bunkley would provide a penetrating presence and may be capable of DT2 caliber numbers with some pass rush upside. He'll be worth a look in DT specific leagues. Bunkley was available after the Eagles signed former Green Bay DT/DE Cullen Jenkins. Jenkins may not see enough snaps as a rotational body to run up big tackle numbers, but he's a threat to put up 5-7 sacks as a nickel pass rusher.

Finally, I'm bummed to read that the Titans are using Jason Jones at DE full time. I'd been targeting him as a potential DT1 at a discount this summer, but he may be re-classified to DE if his current role sticks. He would still have DL3+ value, with his upside dependent on how many snaps he gets, as a DE, but the reclassification hurts.

Twitter might cool off just a bit with free agency ending, but expect to see lots of juicy nuggets from camp over the next two weeks. Follow me @JeneBramel and keep an eye on the IDP Forum for up-to-the-minute news and analysis. Also, John Norton, Sigmund Bloom and I are back with regular IDP Roundtable podcasts. We reviewed the first 24 hours of free agency last week and are set to record a monster show this week. Shows post to the FBG front page under the Podcast tab or the Audible feed on iTunes every Thursday.

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