The first week of preseason games are in the book and we now have a better idea about many situations. We also have a few new questions to answer over the next three weeks and some early injuries to deal with. It seems that any player with so much as a hang nail sat out so we didn't get to look at everyone. As I ran through the first round of live action these are the things that I saw.
San Diego Chargers
I will start with maybe the most important bit of info gained. Donald Butler is indeed working as an every down player, and looks very good doing so. The Chargers caching staff has teased us before only to pull him from the nickel packages early in the year, but I have to believe he is there to stay this time. Butler should produce near elite numbers and may well break into the top 10 this year. Takeo Spikes worked as the other inside backer on early downs with Demorrio Williams joining Butler in nearly all the first team sub packages. Keep an eye on this over the next couple of games, Spikes is now 35 years old and is not the player he once was. I for one would not be shocked to see Williams claim a full time role at some point... Those in big play oriented leagues should move Melvin Ingram up their draft boards. He was a beast against the Packers and reminded me of a young/healthy Shawn Merriman.
Green Bay Packers
The knee/hamstring injury to stud Desmond Bishop dominates Packers news. It was ugly when it happened and could be season ending. At best Bishop will return late in the year, likely to late to help us at all. The important name here is D.J. Smith. There has been some gibberish written about how A.J. Hawk will have more coverage responsibilities, but don't drink that Kool-Aid. Smith started three games in place of Bishop last season. In those games he was the signal caller and an every down player, posting 19 solo tackles and an interception. I can't put him in the same category as Bishop but do expect Smith to lead the club in tackle on the way to a very productive year... Youngster M.D. Jennings has replaced Charlie Peprah at safety but don't expect him to put up the same numbers Peprah did. Against the Chargers Jennings had a big role but was not on the field every down. Not to mention that he was toasted for a touchdown by Antonio Gates.
Again injuries get the headlines. Both Rey Maualuga and Carlos Dunlap were lost to knee injuries against the Jets. Initially the injuries looked pretty bad. While the prognosis has improved after the fact, both players are going to miss some time. Maualuga may be back for the opener while Dunlap seems likely to miss a game or two. What we need to keep in mind is that knee sprains tend to linger. History shows us many examples of players who return to the field after recovering from this type of injuries, but take several more weeks before returning to form. Dunlap in particular has been a priority sleeper in drafts over the summer. Drop him well down the list at this point.
First and foremost, DeMeco Ryans is back. He may not reach the gaudy totals from early in his career, but looks very comfortable and healthy as a three down linebacker for the Eagles. Based on what I saw from him against the Steelers, he should give us pretty strong production... The general consensus among the Footballguys IDP staff is that Mychal Kendricks is a very talented player, possibly the best of the rookie class. For the time being his fantasy potential is going to be handicapped by lining up on that strong side linebacker. However, there were some reasons for optimism coming out of the opener. Kendricks took all the first team sub package snaps with Ryans, which is a huge plus. The other thing that caught my eye is that he was not on the strong side every play. I am still not sure what they were keying on, but in the first quarter Kendricks lined up on the strong side 9 times, on the weak side 5 times and in the nickel 5 times. Regardless of where he started, Kendricks made plays all over the field against the Steelers and made a strong impression. The nickel snaps and his ability to make plays in pursuit might make him surprisingly productive... Jamar Chaney and Brian Rolle are supposed to be competing for the weak side job. Chaney sat out the Steelers game with a hamstring injury while Rolle took all the base package snaps with the first team... The battle that was supposed to be at strong safety, has never developed. Kurt Coleman seems to have a lock on that traditionally productive job.
Nothing earth shattering here, but it is noteworthy that rookie Andre Branch got the start at defensive end opposite Jeremy Mincey, and the two remained on the field together in most of the sub packages while the first unit was on the field... The other interesting note from this game is that Russell Allen started at weak side linebacker and remained on the field with Paul Posluszny on passing downs. If this trend continues Allen could replace Daryl Smith as a quality 4th or 5th linebacker on our rosters.
New York Giants
Not only has Chase Blackburn returned as the starting middle backer, he is currently working with Michael Boley in the nickel packages. I still don't know that Blackburn will have much value for us, but he may be worth a late round flier in deep drafted leagues... Fantasy owners have been wondering how the Giants will use their three stud defensive ends. One way they are doing it is to slide Jason Pierre-Paul inside on some passing downs. This is nothing new for the team as they did the same thing with Justin Tuck earlier in his career when Michael Strahan was still playing. I would not expect this to have much impact on box score production other than to allow all three (Tuck, Pierre-Paul and Osi Umenyiora) to push for double digit sacks... Tyler Sash has moved into the nickel role at strong safety with Antrel Rolle shifting over to cover the slot receiver in those situations. This is not a new thing for Rolle who did the same last season with Deon Grant playing safety.
New England Patriots
The Patriots opened the preseason in what looked like a 3-4 at a glance, but was really a 4-3 with Rob Ninkovich in a two point stance at right end. As is usually the case with a New England defense, they shuffled several players in and out of the lineup along the line, but they only showed a 3-4 shell on a couple of plays. Ninkovich and rookie Chandler Jones saw a big majority of the playing time at end with the first unit. Jones was particularly impressive; enough so in fact, to keep Andre Carter out of a job. I really like what I saw from Jones, particularly at the point of attack against the run... With Brandon Spikes on the PUP while still recovering from last year's knee injury; the Patriots started Jerod Mayo on the weak side, Dont'a Hightower on the strong side and Dane Fletcher in the middle. When Fletcher went down to a season ending knee injury, Bobby Carpenter came on at SLB with Hightower moving inside. Hightower did not play in the sub packages but it was late enough in the game that the second team guys were starting to work in. We will have to look at this one again in week two.
New Orleans Saints
The big surprise here is that David Hawthorne has not been able to secure a starting job. When he was signed everyone assumed he would step right into the weak side job. He is still in the mix for that job but against the Patriots is was Will Herring working as a 2 down player on the strong side, Curtis Lofton looking like a stud in the middle with Scott Shanle working as a 2 down player on the weak side. In nickel packages Jonathan Casillas joined Lofton at linebacker. Not only does this write Hawthorne off, unless something changes there will be no one beyond Lofton who is worthy of even a roster spot. Being a Hawthorne owner in a couple of dynasty leagues myself, I am keeping my fingers crossed but looking for a replacement.
The club is being cautious with Jon Beason who has been sitting out with a hamstring injury on top of recovering from last year's torn Achilles. Carolina opened against Houston with Jason Phillips in the middle, Luke Kuechly on the weak side and James Anderson strong; with Kuechly and Anderson in the nickel. When the second team started to filter into the mix, Kuechly moved inside. The rookie was stellar regardless of where he lined up. Even a healthy Beason is going to have a hard time beating this kid to the ball. It will be interesting to see who works the nickel with everyone healthy. My fear/feeling is that the coaching staff may limit Beason to a 2 down role because of the injuries and the fact that both Kuechly and Anderson excel on third downs. Anderson has been the forgotten man in fantasy drafts. Maybe we should start to rethink that stand... The other important note is that the Panthers did not use much 3-4 other than on a couple of red zone plays. They did however, have both Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson work out of a 2 point stance a few times.
Bobby Wagner was one of the hot rookie linebackers in dynasty drafts over the summer. As such everyone has been watching to see how the Seahawks will line up at linebacker. The good news is that Wagner seems to have won the starting job in the middle. The bad news is that he is leaving the field in passing situations. In base packages Leroy Hill is working on the strong side with K.J. Wright weak. Against the Titans it was Hill and Wright in the nickel and Wright on the few plays that Seattle used 6 defensive backs (dime). Wagner showed a lot of speed and was near the ball a lot, but looked like a rookie at times. He will have to play better if he is to secure an every down role. Barrett Ruud was nowhere to be seen in the first half as Wagner worked with the first and second team at MLB... Rookie defensive end Bruce Irvin worked only as a nickel pass rusher with the first team but played an every down role when the second team guys started getting on the field... The Seahawks showed some 3-4 looks along the way with several players lining up on the outside, including Irvin, Wright, Hill and Chris Clemons. I never saw them in what I would call a true 3-4 though.
Derrick Morgan and Kamerion Wimbley saw most of the first team action against Seattle, and looked pretty good. They didn't make much of a box score splash but were able to get some pressure on Matt Flynn. Morgan looks stronger and quicker than he did last season while Wimbley looked comfortable with his hand on the ground... Anyone who has not found a spot on the Colin McCarthy band wagon had better get on quickly or there will be no seats left. He was 4-1 with a pick in about a quarter of action.
The Browns have a lot of guys banged up already and started several backups on defense. That made it tough to get much of a read. What I did want to mention is that despite the injury to Chris Gocong and the fact that D'Qwell Jackson did not play, James-Michael Johnson did not see action with the first team. Ben Jacobs started in the middle with Scott Fujita and Kaluka Maiava on the outside. Johnson worked in the middle with the second team and looked pretty good. Maiava seemed to always take a step in the wrong direction and was rarely near the play, even when it came his way. He is clearly not the answer... Strong safety T.J. Ward looked very good and made several plays. He will not have as much opportunity when Jackson returns.
With Cliff Avril joining the team late and Kyle Vanden Bosch hobbled by a sore knee, Willie Young and Lawrence Jackson got the start at defensive end. Both players looked pretty good while working with the first team. Both were able to get some pressure on the quarterback with Young recording a sack. Former Panther DE Everette Brown added a sack and a half and has also looked pretty good in camp. Vanden Bosch is getting long in the tooth and could lose playing time to one of these young guys... Eric Coleman got the start at strong safety and looked OK. He is currently leading the competition for that starting job but I still believe that Sean Jones will eventually blow by Coleman. Jones looked very strong playing with the second team, finishing with a game high 4-5 in the tackle columns... Stephen Tulloch and Justin Durant were the nickel linebackers with Durant surprisingly staying on the field as the lone LB in the dime sub package.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
One of the big surprises of preseason week one was that Lavonte David was not on the field in sub packages. Those duties fell to Quincy Black and Mason Foster. Foster in particular looked very good. He seemed to be much more decisive and aggressive than he was as a rookie. I have to believe that David will eventually land an every down role but this development is a bit of a concern at this point... Mark Barron sat out with a foot injury so we will have to wait at least another week to see him in action. Ronde Barber made his debut at free safety with Cody Grimm lining up at strong. Barber didn't make a lot of plays but looked pretty comfortable already. Grimm did not fare so well.
Rashad Jones got the start at strong safety where Yeremiah Bell used to play. The position has a proven history so we will soon know if the production was built into the scheme or if Bell was just that good. Jones made a couple of nice plays but thus far I am not impressed... When the club signed Richard Marshall it was made clear that he was not there to challenge either of the starting corners. Not only did he start ahead of Vontae Davis, Marshall seemed to be in the picture on every defensive snap. The Dolphins have never given us a highly productive corner, but this year could be the trend breaker. Marshall has put up good numbers everywhere he has played and it looks as if his streak will continue. I have to wonder how long it will be before someone moves him to safety?
St. Louis Rams
With Darian Scott nursing a hamstring injury, Craig Dahl saw extensive playing time with both the first and second team defense. If his showing tells us anything, it is that Scott will be back in the lineup once he is healthy. Hopefully Scott will be able to go this week. The only thing likely to keep him out of the starting lineup is if the injury lingers... Jo-Lonn Dunbar got the start at weak side linebacker and stayed on the field in the nickel packages. The first team didn't play very long so it was hard to get a feel for Dunbar's production potential... Owners in corner required leagues will want to note that rookie Janoris Jenkins got the start.
Jason Hunter started at defensive end opposite Elvis Dumervil but failed to make much impact. All 5 of the Broncos sacks came after most or all of the first string players were done. Owners in tackle required leagues will want to keep an eye on rookie Derek Wolfe who recorded a pair of sacks and looked very strong. He could/should get a look with the starters soon... Nate Irving recorded a team best 5 tackles in the game but also saw all of his action with the second unit as Joe Mays got the start. Mays worked only on running downs.
Both Chris Kelsay and Mark Anderson worked at end with the first team. Kelsay actually started and was in for the first series with Anderson taking over on the second series. They seemed to be working in a rotation after that and were on the field together for a few plays with Mario Williams getting a breather. There seemed to be no patter to the substitutions. The bottom line is that Anderson is not working as a pass rush specialist and will get plenty of early down opportunity... I can now confirm that Kelvin Sheppard is working in a two down role as anticipated. In passing situations both he and strong side backer Arthur Moats headed to the sideline with Bryan Scott coming on to work with Nick Barnett.
The big news in Chicago doesn't come from the loss to Denver, but from the injury front. After missing the past couple of weeks with a sore knee Brian Urlacher just had it scoped. He is not expected to miss a lot of time but may not be ready for the opener in three weeks. Against Denver the Bears shifted Nick Roach inside and started veteran Geno Hayes on the strong side. It would be a surprise to see them do anything different if Urlacher misses time early in the season.
The Colts also took a big hit when inside linebacker Pat Angerer went down with a foot injury. Initial reports are that he will have surgery and likely miss six weeks. Yea right! Foot injuries that require surgery rarely heal quickly. This could spell very bad news for Angerer owners all season or at least for much of it. With A.J. Edds already on IR, Kavell Conner's stock gets a huge boost and it is anyone's call who will move into the lineup. Behind Angerer and Conner the Colts have nothing but a collection of career backups and undrafted free agents. This one will be very interesting indeed. Look for the club to scour the waiver wire for veteran help once teams start to cut down. For now Kevin Bentley would probably be the next man up.
Bruce Carter got the start alongside Sean Lee at inside linebacker against the Raiders. Both Carter and Lee stayed on the field in the few nickel sub packages that were called while the first team was still playing. Interestingly, on the second series the Cowboys went to a 4-3 shell for a couple of plays with Dan Conner in the middle, Lee on the weak side and Carter strong. They used three down linemen and had DeMarcus Ware lined up as an end in a two point stance. This is a look we have not seen from the Cowboys in the past. If Carter continues to hold an every down role he will very likely have better than expected numbers. It is worth keeping an eye on over the next couple of games... Rob Ryan has settled on Barry Church as the starting strong safety. Church is a big hitter and has some box score potential.
With Richard Seymour nursing a sore knee, Desmond Bryant and Tommy Kelly made the start at defensive tackle against Dallas. Both looked very good. Look for Bryant to have a big role this season. Lamarr Houston and Matt Shaughnessy were the ends with Houston sliding inside on passing down and Dave Tollefson coming in to rush the passer. At linebacker it was Phillip Wheeler on the strong side and rookie Miles Burris weak. Wheeler worked with Rolando McClain in the sub packages.
That's all I have for this week. I will try to get at least one more update before the bullets start flying for real. That will likely be after the week three games when we see the starters work for a half or more. In the meantime, best of luck in all those August drafts.