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Reading the Defense: Every-Down Linebackers

Projecting which linebackers will get the most snaps for their teams this season.

Defensive trends are cyclical. Over the past two seasons, it's become evident to those who follow defensive huddles closely that current NFL defenses arguably should list 13 or 14 starters. Multi-wide receiver concepts are now commonplace as base offensive sets. Defenses are forced to subspecialize on any down and distance to match up. Five to ten years ago, defenses would use a nickel package just 30-40% of the time. Now, it's 60-70% and, in rare instances, over 80%. Some defensive coordinators would probably argue that their subpackage is their base defense.

The percentage of time defenses spend in subpackages had clear fantasy implications when it was just 40-50% of a team's defensive snaps. A middle linebacker who left the field in passing situations might lose 400 or more snaps a season. It's even more critical now. For that reason, I have followed each team's linebacker situation extremely carefully for years at Footballguys, posting year-round updates (with weekly updates during the regular season) in an always-popular Every-Down Linebacker thread since 2008. You can follow the 2013 thread here.

In this week's RTD, I'll break down each team's linebacker situation as we approach training camp. As always, updates on these situations will be a major part of our podcasts and feature articles throughout the preseason. 

arizona cardinalS

Locks: Daryl Washington (susp), Sam Acho
Favorites: Karlos Dansby
Waiting for Clarity: Kevin Minter, O'Brien Schofield
Darkhorses: Lorenzo Alexander, Alex Okafor

There are lots of usable parts on the Arizona depth chart, but not many are clear every-down talents. Washington will again be the centerpiece of the defense when he's in the huddle, but he'll miss the first four games on suspension. I think Dansby will emerge as the most stable every-down option in camp. Minter will eventually be an every-down linebacker, but he's unlikely to be ready for more than a rotational role until midseason at the earliest. With Washington out, it's likely we'll see a mix of Minter, Alexander and Jasper Brinkley opposite Dansby. Any of those players could have a sizable role when Washington's suspension ends. Outside, Acho will play every down. Schofield should see the majority of snaps at the other outside linebacker spot, with Alexander and possibly Okafor also fighting for time.

atlanta falconS

Locks: Sean Weatherspoon
Favorites:
Waiting for Clarity: Stephen Nicholas, Akeem Dent
Darkhorses: 

Weatherspoon is locked in to an every-down role, though the Falcons would like more consistency from him this season. Nicholas has long been a stalwart in Atlanta's subpackages, but wasn't nearly as effective playing every snap last year and turned 30 in May. Dent isn't a great cover defender, but he was getting a longer look in the nickel during OTAs and has a good chance of supplanting Nicholas this year.

Baltimore Ravens

Locks: Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil
Favorites:
Waiting for Clarity: Arthur Brown, Daryl Smith, Jameel McClain
Darkhorses: Josh Bynes, Courtney Upshaw, Albert McClellan

The Ravens traded up to draft Brown but sports hernia surgery cost him critical repetitions during OTAs and minicamp. He's the most likely of the three on the Waiting for Clarity line to play every down this year, but he needs snaps to prove he's ready to handle the rigors of run defense and coverage as an inside linebacker. The signing of Smith also casts some doubt about Brown's role, but questions remain about his recovery from a 2012 groin injury. If Smith is healthy and Brown picks up the defense quickly, I expect the Ravens will rotate McClain (base) and Smith (subpackages) alongside Brown. 

Buffalo bills

Locks: Kiko Alonso
Favorites: 
Waiting for Clarity: Nigel Bradham
Darkhorses: Bryan Scott, Manny Lawson, Arthur Moats

Alonso ran with the first team throughout OTAs and minicamp and is athletic and instinctive enough to hold down a subpackage role. He's not a stone cold lock to play every down on opening weekend, but he's close. Bradham has thrived with NFL coaching. While he's not the next NaVorro Bowman, he's been praised frequently by the coaches this offseason. He'll have to hold off challenges from Scott and Lawson to stick in subpackages.

carolina panthers

Locks: Luke Kuechly
Favorites:
Waiting for Clarity: Thomas Davis, Jon Beason
Darkhorses:

Kuechly looked lost during the first month of his rookie season before finding his stride. He's still learning to apply his instincts and should only get better. I see many in the industry giving a clear edge to Beason over Davis as the better fantasy option, presumably working under the assumption that Beason is a heavy favorite to regain his every-down weak side linebacker role. ADP data shows the same. I'm much less certain. Beason has struggled through Achilles tendon, knee and shoulder injuries over the past two seasons. Davis hasn't been a model of durability by any stretch, but had a very good year in coverage in 2012. Don't be surprised if Davis plays more subpackage snaps than Beason this year. Be careful not to overdraft either player until we get a look at the Carolina defensive plan in the preseason.

chicago bearS

Locks: Lance Briggs
Favorites: 
Waiting for Clarity: D.J. Williams, James Anderson, Jon Bostic
Darkhorses: Khaseem Greene

Briggs had another fine season in 2012 and should continue in his every-down role for another year. I wasn't as impressed with Bostic as the Bears were -- they fawned over his "Speed Score" and athleticism after drafting him -- and believe Williams will begin the season as the starting middle linebacker. But the Bears are calling it an open competition and it's too soon to count Bostic out. I don't see Anderson playing an every-down role, but if Bostic bumps Williams out of the starting job, anything may be possible in Chicago subpackages.

cincinnati bengALS

Locks: Vontaze Burfict
Favorites: 
Waiting for Clarity: 
Darkhorses: Emmanuel Lamur, James Harrison

The Bengals lined up with Burfict on the weak side, Harrison on the strong side, and Rey Maualuga in the middle during OTAs. Burfict and Lamur were the first team nickel defenders. Lamur impressed the coaching staff late last year and has drawn praise throughout the offseason. He looks locked into the subpackage role. If there's an injury during the season, he could move onto the every-down line.

cleveland brownS

Locks: D'Qwell Jackson, Paul Kruger
Favorites: Craig Robertson
Waiting for Clarity: Jabaal Sheard
Darkhorses: Barkevious Mingo

With the reports that the Browns may not see James-Michael Johnson as a fit, Robertson becomes a strong favorite to start and play every down alongside Jackson. Robertson will need to become more consistent in all phases to be more than a short term fix. Sheard is a better fit as a standup strong side 3-4 outside linebacker than he's given credit, but the Browns are likely to find creative ways to get Mingo on the field in subpackages. Depending on Mingo's progression, Sheard and Robertson could lose time on passing downs.

dallas cowboyS

Locks: Sean Lee, Bruce Carter
Favorites: 
Waiting for Clarity: 
Darkhorses:

There's no mystery here. Both Lee and Carter are reportedly fully recovered from the injuries that prematurely ended their 2012 seasons. Both fit well in Monte Kiffin's underfront scheme that asks linebackers to be athletic, rangy and capable in coverage. Ernie Sims and others will not see time on passing downs unless Lee or Carter go down to injury.

denver broncoS

Locks: Wesley Woodyard, Von Miller
Favorites: 
Waiting for Clarity: Nate Irving, Danny Trevathan
Darkhorses: 

Woodyard took advantage of his first chance at extended playing time last season. He has always been strong in coverage; as long he has a spot in the starting base package, he'll be an every-down player. Miller often moves into a defensive end role in subpackages, which opens up a third potential every-down linebacker slot in Denver's 4-3 front. Irving will finally get a crack at the middle linebacker job, but expect any spare nickel snaps to go to Trevathan.

detroit lionS

Locks: Stephen Tulloch
Favorites: DeAndre Levy
Waiting for Clarity: 
Darkhorses: Ashlee Palmer

Justin Durant has moved on and the three-headed subpackage rotation Detroit often used over the past two seasons has likely gone with him. Tulloch was essentially an every-down player last year and should be again. Levy likely moves into a full-time nickel role, but Palmer could slide into Durant's rotational role. It's also possible that -- if healthy -- Glover Quin, Louis Delmas and Amari Spievey form a Big Nickel package on passing downs.

green bay packerS

Locks: Clay Matthews, Brad Jones
Favorites: 
Waiting for Clarity: A.J. Hawk, Nick Perry
Darkhorses: Terrell Manning

Jones is locked in as the every-down weak inside linebacker. Hawk has never been a viable cover linebacker in space and the Packers have leaned toward dime subpackages. That's likely to continue this season. Green Bay would like Perry to play every down opposite Matthews and Mike McCarthy had good things to say about Perry after OTAs. Keep an eye on Manning in the long term. He could follow in the footsteps of Jones and Desmond Bishop as valuable reserves who grow into a larger role.

houston texaNS

Locks: Brian Cushing, Whitney Mercilus, Brooks Reed
Favorites: 
Waiting for Clarity: 
Darkhorses: Darryl Sharpton, Trevardo Williams

The specifics of this situation will be sorted in camp, but the general framework is known. Cushing and Mercilus will play every-down roles. So will Reed, though it's not yet known whether he'll play inside, outside, or some package-dependent combination of the two. If Williams -- I don't give Sam Montgomery much chance of being a viable 3-4 outside linebacker option in 2013 -- proves capable immediately, Reed probably sticks inside. More likely, the Texans will use a combination of Tim Dobbins and Sharpton alongside Cushing, with Reed seeing most of his time at outside linebacker.

indianapolis coltS

Locks: Jerrell Freeman, Robert Mathis
Favorites: 
Waiting for Clarity: 
Darkhorses: Bjoern Werner

The Colts have a deeper depth chart than they have in years. Unfortunately, most of their players have significant limitations in run defense or coverage. Freeman performed very well after Pat Angerer's preseason foot injury last year and should be set to play every down again. Barring a surprise in camp, it's likely that Angerer and Kavell Conner will rotate at the other inside linebacker spot. The Colts paid Erik Walden handsomely, but I expect to see Werner rotate in pass-rushing packages early this season.

jacksonville jaguarS

Locks: Paul Posluszny, Russell Allen
Favorites: 
Waiting for Clarity: 
Darkhorses: 

Posluszny and Allen will continue to play every down. Geno Hayes is the only viable option currently should there be an injury in camp. Given the current depth chart, I would expect a veteran signing should an injury happen.

kansas city chiefS

Locks: Derrick Johnson, Justin Houston, Tamba Hali
Favorites: 
Waiting for Clarity: Akeem Jordan
Darkhorses: Nico Johnson

Johnson, Houston, and Hali will play every down. There's room for another every-down linebacker in Kansas City, but no clearly identifiable option. Jordan may have the best chance, but he's likely to wear down as an inside linebacker and never thrived as a cover backer in Philadelphia. Johnson is more run-stuffer than athletic coverage backer. If the secondary meshes well in camp, we could see Eric Berry as a nickel hybrid in the box option again.

miami dolphinS

Locks: Dannell Ellerbe, Philip Wheeler
Favorites: 
Waiting for Clarity: 
Darkhorses: Dion Jordan

Jordan isn't listed as a linebacker in our rankings or tiers. But consider this another public service announcement about his capabilities. He's not a Von Miller clone, but neither is Jordan a one-trick edge rushing talent. He moves well in space and showed the technical skill to play the run from a stand up position and drop in coverage. Koa Misi was very good at times last year, but until Jordan settles into a defensive end role, don't fully discount the possibility that the Dolphins turn him into an every-down hybrid linebacker / defensive end.

minnesota vikingS

Locks: Chad Greenway
Favorites: Desmond Bishop
Waiting for Clarity: Gerald Hodges
Darkhorses: Erin Henderson, Michael Mauti

The signing of Bishop was heralded as a sizable upgrade to the Minnesota linebacking unit. And it may be. But it's hard to discount concerns that Bishop may not be fully healthy after rupturing his hamstring last season. It's likely that Bishop and Greenway are the every-down linebackers here, but watch Bishop's progress closely. Henderson will return to outside linebacker, but could be pushed by Hodges. If that happens, Hodges is more likely to see subpackage time than Henderson, especially if Bishop falters. Long term, a healthy Mauti may be an every-down option, too.

new england patriotS

Locks: Jerod Mayo
Favorites: 
Waiting for Clarity: Brandon Spikes, Dont'a Hightower
Darkhorses: Jamie Collins

I think Hightower has a very good chance of playing every down this year. He improved as the year progressed and is likely being groomed to take over inside in 2014. However, despite durability issues, Spikes was more likely to play nickel snaps than Hightower when healthy last year. Spikes is in a contract year and should be eager to prove his worth as an every-down player in a market where one-dimensional linebackers don't always get paid. And the Patriots aren't shy about six and seven defensive back formations. Keep an eye on the Patriots in camp. And keep an eye on the progress of Jamie Collins, especially if the Patriots lean toward a 4-3 front and he sees practice time behind Hightower at strong side linebacker.

new orleans saintS

Locks: Curtis Lofton
Favorites: Jonathan Vilma
Waiting for Clarity: Martez Wilson
Darkhorses: David Hawthorne, Will Smith, Junior Galette

Aside from Lofton, who looks well-matched to a 3-4 strong inside linebacker position, the Saints look to be putting square pegs into round holes this year. Vilma has been ahead of Hawthorne all offseason and is better in coverage. But Vilma has never been a fan of the base 3-4, has had knee durability issues, may have to compete with Will Herring or Chris Chamberlain as nickel specialists, and the Saints have a deep group of safeties to play hybrid subpackage roles. Vilma may be listed as a favorite, but he's not exactly sitting pretty. Wilson may be the best bet to play every down with Victor Butler injured, but the Saints could rotate three players for two spots.

new york giantS

Locks: 
Favorites: Jacquian Williams
Waiting for Clarity: Mark Herzlich, Keith Rivers
Darkhorses: 

The Giants have always -- successfully -- prioritized athletic depth along the line and rangy playmakers in the secondary. But their depth chart at linebacker gets more comical every year. New York may look five players deep again this year, but there are major question marks about durability and versatility throughout. Williams and Rivers have played important subpackage roles in prior seasons, but we've seen the Giants use Herzlich -- who may finally be ready for a full time role -- and Spencer Paysinger in some packages. We may get some early clarity in the first preseason games, but this situation is going to be fluid due to injury and matchup all season long.

new york jetS

Locks: Calvin Pace, David Harris, Demario Davis
Favorites: 
Waiting for Clarity: Quinton Coples
Darkhorses: 

Harris and Pace are veteran workhorses without significant competition. Coples could get a chance to play every down if he develops well in camp and Antwan Barnes doesn't force himself into a rotational role. But the jewel of this group should be Davis, who will either prove himself capable of the feats of tremendous fantasy strength I've predicted for him since January 2012 or have legions of Footballguys Insiders pelting me with rotten vegetables and angry emails. I'm giddy with anticipation.

oakland raiders

Locks: Nick Roach
Favorites: Kevin Burnett
Waiting for Clarity: 
Darkhorses: Sio Moore

Dennis Allen gave Roach a loud vote of confidence during OTAs, praising his huddle presence and versatility in coverage. Burnett is likely to see time as the other nickel linebacker unless the Raiders choose to use six defensive backs. I don't think Miles Burris, who didn't play well last year and has been slow to recover from offseason knee surgery, has a shot at passing down duty. I expect that Moore will quickly prove himself as the other outside linebacker. When he does, he has the athleticism and pass rush upside to challenge for an every-down role.

philadelphia eagleS

Locks: DeMeco Ryans, Mychal Kendricks
Favorites: 
Waiting for Clarity: Brandon Graham, Connor Barwin, Trent Cole
Darkhorses: 

Kendricks is a favorite of mine this year and I think he'll finally get a chance to thrive in the Eagles' new hybrid scheme. Ryans was lining up in nickel packages during OTAs and should continue to do so on opening weekend. I expect the Eagles to rotate all three outside linebacker candidates. All three may have a role in subpackages. Camp news should hint at which of the three will get the most base defensive snaps.

pittsburgh steelerS

Locks: Lawrence Timmons, LaMarr Woodley, Larry Foote
Favorites: 
Waiting for Clarity: 
Darkhorses: Jason Worilds, Chris Carter, Jarvis Jones

Timmons becomes the clear centerpiece of the Pittsburgh front seven this year. The Steelers struck out on the development on Stevenson Sylvester and Sean Spence in recent years, so Foote returns to a likely every-down role. All four outside linebackers are likely to see time, but a healthy Woodley will likely see 800+ snaps and meet every-down criteria.

St. louis ramS

Locks: James Laurinaitis
Favorites: 
Waiting for Clarity: Alec Ogletree, Jo-Lonn Dunbar
Darkhorses: 

Ogletree has been compared to Keith Bulluck by many. The comparison works. Ogletree is an athletic outside linebacker prospect tabbed highly by Jeff Fisher who may not be ready to contribute as soon as some believe. Dunbar had a strong season as an every-down player last year, but his coverage skills are lacking. The Rams probably would've preferred to play dime last year, but didn't have the bodies. So the opportunity is there for Ogletree, but he'll have to play well in camp to earn it.

san diego chargerS

Locks: Donald Butler, Jarrett Johnson
Favorites: 
Waiting for Clarity: Manti Te'o
Darkhorses: Jonas Mouton, D.J. Smith

Early reports suggested that Te'o would be a rotational player only this year, with the Chargers leaning toward transitioning him to a full time role slowly. With a healthy Mouton fighting for his career and sneaky veteran waiver add Smith competing for snaps, Te'o may not be an every-down player immediately.

san francisco 49erS

Locks: Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, Aldon Smith, Ahmad Brooks
Favorites: 
Waiting for Clarity: 
Darkhorses: Tank Carradine, Corey Lemonier

The Niners will swap a nose tackle for a defensive back, but rarely make any other personnel changes in their subpackage looks. So what you see is what you get. Willis may miss a couple of snaps a game in dime situations, but the four starters are locked in as every-down players until Corey Lemonier or Tank Carradine progress enough to force a rotation.

seattle seahawks

Locks: Bobby Wagner, K.J. Wright
Favorites: 
Waiting for Clarity: Bruce Irvin (susp)
Darkhorses: Malcolm Smith, Ty Powell

Wagner and Wright are growing into one of the best young linebacker duos in the league. If Irvin survives the transition to strong side linebacker in base packages, he'll see pass rushing snaps on nickel downs and join the every-down ranks. Smith showed promise as a rookie but hasn't been consistent enough to nail down an outside linebacker job. The potential move of Irvin has as much to do with the lack of other options on the depth chart as any perceived lack of fit as a defensive end. Keep an eye on Powell. If Irvin can't make the transition, Powell may be the future at strong side linebacker.

tampa bay buccaneerS

Locks: Lavonte David
Favorites: 
Waiting for Clarity: Mason Foster, Dekoda Watson
Darkhorses: 

Foster is an average talent whose fantasy statistics are more impressive than his on-field play. The Bucs used him in some nickel packages, but shelved him for Watson, who often lined up as a down defensive end in dime looks. Foster has a shot at cracking the every-down list early this season,  but must be considered a week-to-week proposition until he begins to show enough consistency to quell the fears of his coaches.

tennessee titanS

Locks: Zach Brown
Favorites: Colin McCarthy
Waiting for Clarity: Akeem Ayers
Darkhorses: Moise Fokou

I don't believe that a healthy McCarthy will be benched for Fokou. If that happens, however, Fokou has seen time as a nickel specialist in Philadelphia and could be a surprise add to the every-down list. Ayers played every down early last season, then was used as a rotational end in nickel situaitons after the emergence of Brown. That's likely to continue this year.

washington redskinS

Locks: London Fletcher, Perry Riley, Brian Orakpo, Ryan Kerrigan
Favorites: 
Waiting for Clarity: 
Darkhorses: Keenan Robinson

The Redskins won't take their starting linebackers off the field in subpackages. There's some durability concern with Fletcher (who finally started to show signs of breaking down last year) and Orakpo. I like Robinson's profile, but he's not established himself as an inside or outside linebacker yet and the lack of consistent practice reps at one position may be a sign that Washington isn't sure he's a fit at either position.

Follow and ask questions on Twitter @JeneBramel or email at bramel@footballguys.com.


More from Jene Bramel:

Gameday Injury Expectations: Week 3 - September 21
Sunday IDP Notes: Week 3 - September 21
Inside the Injury Report: Week 3 - September 18
Reading the Defense: Week 3 - September 17
Monday Injury Rounds: Week 3 - September 15
Sunday IDP Notes: Week 2 - September 14
Gameday Injury Expectations: Week 2 - September 14
Inside the Injury Report: Week 2 - September 10
Reading the Defense: Week 2 - September 9
Monday Injury Rounds: Week 2 - September 8