The first round of preseason games gave us answers to some of our questions and clues to others. They also brought up some new questions. Most teams held out their dinged up starters as a precaution, and there are a number of guys who are just not healthy enough to go yet. Some teams started veterans over rookies who are expected to be in the lineup week one etc. The point being that much is still unsettled and week three of the preseason is the most important. Most clubs played their starters for a series or two in these first games. These are the interesting/important things that caught my eye in these games.
The offseason reports that had Vontaze Burfict moving to middle linebacker were not true. The coaching staff may have taken a look at that, but when they took the field against Atlanta it was Rey Maualuga in the middle with Burfict on the weak side and James Harrison at strong. In the nickel sub packages Burfict moved to the middle and second year pro Emmanuel Lamur came off the bench as the second linebacker. Despite not being full time in the middle, this arrangement should make Burfict a quality third starter with a little upside.
The side note here is that Harrison seemed to be a regular in the base defense. It was initially anticipated that he would be a situational player. This does not mean that he will have significant value for us, but he could have a considerable impact on this defense.
The battle at strong safety is going to be closer than expected and may produce a surprise winner. Second year man George Iloka made the start over rookie Shawn Williams. Iloka saw all the playing time with the starters and looked good. williams also made a strong showing, though it was with the second team. It will be interesting to see if Williams gets a chance with the starters in week two. Either way, Taylor Mays may as well pack his bags.
Margus Hunt also came on with the second team. He worked almost exclusively at end and was impressive for the most part. Hunt was able to get good pressure on the quarterback and the Falcons second offensive line struggled to block him in the run game. With Michael Johnson playing under the franchise tag, Hunt's play this year may be the key to how much effort the organization makes to keep Johnson.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Mason Foster owners will be happy to know that he was on the field in nickel sub packages against Baltimore. Foster opened last season with 32 solo tackles in four games before being bumped from the sub packages. If you have not yet drafted, move him up your draft board to the LB2 range.
Rookie corner Johnthan Banks was not in the starting lineup against Baltimore. Initially he was the nickel corner but he moved up when Danny Gorrer was injured. Once in the game however, Banks wasted no time making an impact. Many coaches believe in making rookies earn their playing time, so do not read too much into Banks not starting this game. If he is not there by the third warmup game it will be time to worry.
New Orleans Saints
Maybe the most interesting note from the Saints preseason opener is the fact that they came out in a 4-3 front for the first couple of snaps. The 4-3 showed up a few more times during the first half but they used mostly 3-4 sets after the initial series. In the 4-3 the lineup was Curtis Lofton in the middle with David Hawthorne on the strong side and Will Herring weak. In the 3-4 it was Lofton and Hawthorne inside with Will Smith and Jay Richardson on the outside. We already had a pretty good idea what to expect from Lofton so the important observation here is that Hawthorne remained on the field in the nickel sub package. Keep in mind that Jonathan Vilma did not play in this game so nothing is settled for certain, but Hawthorne's stock gets a boost with this news.
The other position of interest in New Orleans is safety. As expected Roman Harper got the call at strong safety with Malcolm Jenkins at free. Rookie Kenny Vaccaro saw time with the first team in sub packages only. He lined up on the slot receiver in most nickel situations and made a good impression. With the second unit Vaccaro lined up as an in the box strong safety on most plays. This could be bad news for Harper owners as the coaching staff may want to get Vaccaro on the field full time soon. The presence of the versatile rookie gives Rob Ryan a lot of options. On one snap early in the game he had Harper line up at outside linebacker and rush the passer while Vaccaro lined up at strong safety. I still expect Harper to be fine this season but being a Harper owner in several leagues myself, I am a little concerned.
New York Jets
Nothing earth shattering here so this is mostly for confirmation. The Jets played their inside backers as right and left rather than strong and weak. David Harris lined up on the right and was on the field in all sub packages. Demario Davis worked on the left and participated in the nickel packages. Neither player was particularly impressive.
Calvin Pace and Quintin Coples were the starters at outside linebacker. Coples was able to put his hand down in some situations and looked better than expected in his new role. Not enough better to get excited about, but enough better to make his progress worth tracking.
St. Louis Rams
The Rams are playing right and left outside linebacker as expected. Jo-Lonn Dunbar is working on the right with rookie Alec Ogletree at left. This will put Ogletree on the weak side more often. Most importantly, Ogletree has already claimed the spot next to James Laurinaitis in the nickel sub packages. The rookie looked quick and physical against the Browns and should put up good numbers in this situation. Dunbar was also hit with a four game suspension that will put Will Witherspoon on the field for at least the first month of the season.
In previous seasons we have seen right and left safeties here as well. It appears that will not be the case this season. Rookie T.J. McDonald was consistently up in or near the box in a run support position. He was aggressive against the run, making a couple of nice stops. McDonald made no glaring mistakes in coverage so we can expect more of the same going forward. Darian Stewart spent nearly all of his playing time lining up in a standard free safety role as the furthest defender from the line. He could still put up decent numbers but McDonald is clearly the guy to target here.
The Ravens showed us little in their opener. They are one of the teams that want their rookies to earn starting jobs over the course of the preseason, so neither linebacker Arthur Brown nor safety Matt Elam were in the starting lineup against Tampa Bay. Brown got on the field in passing down sub packages with the starters, and saw a couple of base package snaps with most of the first unit still on the field as the coaching staff transitioned to the second team. He had a solid game and made some plays, but was not really a stand out. All of Elam's playing time came with the second team. He seemed to make good/quick decisions and made a couple of nice plays. I still believe that both of these guys will have significant roles come week one and that they are likely to be on the field full time by then.
With Jameel McClain continuing to battle a back injury and the coaches not ready to conceed a starting job to Brown, Josh Bynes and Daryl Smith got the call against the Buccaneers. Smith made some nice plays while the first team was on the field and is making a case for one of the starting jobs. He remained on the field in all sub packages and looked comfortable with the scheme. Way back in May it was reported that McClain would be the starter upon return. At this late stage that may no longer be true. It may be a good idea to slip Smith onto our draft boards as a late round sleeper. He could be surprisingly productive; especially early in the season.
Just for confirmation, Craig Robertson did indeed join D'Qwell Jackson as the starters at inside linebacker. Robertson was also remained on the field in nickel sub packages. He is not a player that I have been impressed with, but Robertson put up good numbers for a part time player last season and deserves some consideration. He has been largely overlooked in drafts this summer and can be picked up for a song as a LB5 with upside.
Chicago threw a curve at us in their first game. With D.J. Williams sidelined due to a calf injury, rookie Jon Bostic got the call in the middle. Bostic made a great play on an early interception and turned some heads with his play against the run, but he was not part of the passing down packages while the first team was on the field. Those duties were left to Lance Briggs and James Anderson.
The surprise is that on the opening series of the game Briggs lined up on the strong side four times and on the weak side just once, while Anderson worked on the weak side in four of the five base package snaps. Briggs was done after the first series while Anderson continued to play on the weak side with some of the second team. Anderson was in on several plays and looked like he might be the linebacker to have out of this group.
With Jon Beason still unable to go, the Panthers outside linebackers against Chicago were Thomas Davis on the weak side and Chase Blackburn at strong. Unfortunately for Beason, it is beginning to feel like it may stay this way for a while. Luke Kuechly is a beast and will soak up a lot of production, but there is room for a second Carolina linebacker to have some value. Davis took all the first team nickel snaps with Kuechly versus the Bears and has proven his potential in years past. He could prove to be a surprisingly strong LB3 for us in 2013.
There were a lot of questions about the Bills defense entering their game with the Colts on Sunday. One thing that we learned from this game is that they will follow through on the plans to move people around. Mario Williams opened the game in a 2 point stance at outside linebacker, but put his hand down on a few snaps as well. Manny Lawson saw time as both a 4-3 strong side linebacker and a 3-4 outside backer. Alex Carrington lined up at tackle in a 4-3, at end in a 3-4 and I think I even saw him at outside linebacker on a snap or two.
Williams looked explosive regardless of where he lined up. He got plenty of pressure on the quarterbacks and landed a big sack of Andrew Luck right out of the gate. The injuries are behind him and he claims to be happy with his role. It could be another season of 40+ tackles and double digit sacks for Williams.
The big question with this team is at the inside linebacker position. The answer is rookie Kiko Alonso. He was the middle backer in the 4-3, an inside backer in the 3-4 and was on the field for every defensive snap until the starters were cycled out. Alonso made tackles at the point of attack and in pursuit, he broke up a pass to Coby Fleener in the end zone and seemed to be everywhere. It may only be one preseason game but this guy is going to move up my draft board significantly.
Nigel Bradham started at the other inside backer position and played the majority of defensive snaps with the first unit. He was spelled in some but not all nickel situations by Bryan Scott, who also got a few plays in the base packages. The jury is still out on this situation but Bradham would seem to have the most potential at this stage.
The safeties in this game were Da'Norris Searcy in the strong safety role and Aaron Williams standing in for the absent Jairus Byrd at free safety. Searcy consistently played up in the box and was in on several plays. He also whiffed on a tackle that resulted in a long gain but made up for it by recovering the fumble at the end of the play. I have been high on him since the end of last season and nothing I saw in this game causes me to waiver. If Byrd was watching the performance of Williams in this game, he may be on a plane to Buffalo soon. If Byrd is not back with the team soon, Williams may be a good early season waiver pickup for us.
The Colts have a history of resting starters in meaningless games but it was still surprising that Jerrell Freeman was not in the lineup against Buffalo. Equally surprising is that 2011 undrafted free agent Justin Hickman made the start in Freeman's place. Not only did Hickman start, before leaving with an injury the former UCLA defensive end played in the nickel packages as well. Unless we get some breaking news that Freeman is injured or suspended, I would not read much into this. It is worth keeping an eye on though. It is also noteworthy that Hickman's injury is season ending just in case there was some concern.
Kavel Connor started opposite Hickman, but was pulled in passing situations. Connor then gave way to Kelvin Sheppard who also saw time with the starters. Connor made some good plays versus the run but Sheppard looked to be the more complete player. Pat Angerer is still struggling with the foot injury and seems unlikely to make any impact early on if at all this season. So keep an eye on Sheppard.
Greg Toler was the starter at corner opposite Vontae Davis. Toler has been a fantasy friendly corner when healthy so this could have an impact for owners in corner required leagues.
There are several starters dinged up in the Redskins secondary so we can not put a lot of weight on their lineup against Tennessee, but it could still give us a clue of things to come. In place of DeAngelo Hall and Josh Wilson, Washington started rookie David Amerson and veteran backup E.J. Biggers. Amerson is likely to be the nickel corner once everyone is healthy, and he is speculated to be the replacement for Wilson as a starter down the road. Amerson looked good for the most part but had the look of a rookie in his first start at times. One thing he showed for sure is a willingness to put a shoulder into a ball carrier. If he gets into a full time role this season, Amerson could be a pleasant surprise.
Rookie Bacarri Rambo has been working as the starting free safety since the beginning of camp and seems to have a firm grip on the position. He was far from flawless against Tennessee, but showed a lot of promise. Fellow rookie Phillip Thomas made the start at strong safety and looked very good at times. He lined up in the box on several snaps and made some strong plays in a run support role before leaving the game with a foot injury that will land him on IR.
Brandon Meriweather is supposed to be the starter at one of the safety positions when/if he can get healthy. Keep in mind however, that he missed fifteen games last season, has not practiced yet this year and has not played a full slate of games since 2010. Reed Doughty is looking like the week one starter at strong safety.
Defensive end Jeremy Mincey and strong safety Johnathan Cyprien sat out the preseason opener. At end the Jaguars started Jason Babin and Tyson Alualu. Neither player recorded a sack but Babin was able to supply some pressure. He looked healthy and quick for the most part. Alualu held the corner well against the run and showed good power on a couple of bull rushes, but was not really impressive. Jacksonville started Chris Prosinski at strong safety in place of Cyprien and looked average.
Russell Allen came up hobbling after just a few plays. He left the game to have his ankle looked at and taped, then returned for a few snaps before exiting for good. The injury may not be serious but is worth keeping an eye on.
Oliver Vernon seems to have solidified his position as the starting end opposite Cameron Wake. Vernon did not show up in the box score but had a couple of QB pressures and destroyed the blocking on a couple of running plays. Dion Jordan was on the field sparingly and is apparently not a consideration for a starting job at this point. We may want to slip Vernon onto the bottom our DL draft list.
Just for confirmation; Phillip Wheeler worked on the weak side and joined Dannell Ellerbe in the nickel sub packages.
San Diego Chargers
The good news for Manti Te'o owners is the he did join Donald Butler in the nickel packages. The bad news is that the Chargers were very quick to go with a dime package, putting a safety in the box with Butler and pulling Te'o. They did this against a three receiver set on third and six in the the first series. The other bad news is that Te'o left early with a sore ankle that is expected to keep him out at least another week or two.
The Texans are still resting Brian Cushing so Darryl Sharpton and recent addition Joe Mays were the starters on the inside. Both players saw action in the nickel packages with the interesting note being that Sharpton was the lone linebacker in the dime. Reading between the lines here, this is a good sign that Sharpton may be a three down guy if he can stay healthy.
Danieal Manning made a good showing at strong safety. He could be a pleasant surprise.
Neither Desmond Bishop nor Chad Greenway played against the Texans, so it is hard to get a good read. For those who are keeping score, the Vikings opened in a nickel package with Erin Henderson Marvin Mitchell at linebacker. Gerald Hodges worked on the weak side with the second team and made a couple of nice plays. The rumors out of Minnesota are that Bishop's roster spot is in danger. Another good showing by Hodges would make it much easier for the organization to cut their loss and move on. Watch this one intently over the next couple of weeks.
It may be a new season but nothing seems to have changed so far with the Eagles defense. Both DeMeco Ryans and Michael Kendricks looked bad against the Patriots. Ryans was buried on a long run early in the first quarter, and Kendricks bounced off Stevan Ridley on another play. Neither of the linebackers were sharp and the tackling was ugly. This is great news for Patrick Chung owners. He was impressive on the way to 4 solo stops by the time the first team was phased out of the game.
The other guy that caught my eye was Fletcher Cox. He did not show up in the box scores but was consistently disruptive. Cox pushed the pocket and got good pressure on passing downs and was the lone bright spot among the front seven in general. If he continues to play that well, the numbers will eventually follow.
New England Patriots
The only somewhat unexpected news here is that Brandon Spikes may finally be getting his opportunity in the sub packages. He joined Jerod Mayo in the nickel against Philadelphia and made no glaring mistakes in his short period of work. Spikes did record a couple of tackles with an assist despite the limited playing time.
The cardinals were apparently using the first preseason contest to look at some of their depth at linebacker. They started Jasper Brinkley and Reggie Walker on the inside with Lorenzo Alexander and Sam Acho outside. "Backup" Daryl Washington ended up leading all linebackers with 4 tackles and an assist, while John Abraham recorded a sack on one of his few snaps.
Yeremiah Bell got the call at strong safety and was his usual dependable self. At free safety it was Rashad Johnson getting the start. Johnson left early with an injury and Tyran Mathieu proceeded to steal the show. Mathieu finished with 2 tackles and a sack, but he seemed to be everywhere. Head coach Bruce Arians has said the Mathieu can be a starter despite his small stature, and he has already been named the starter for the next game. I was a fan before but Mathieu is shooting up my draft board at this point.
We really had no idea what to expect from the Raiders in their first game, so nothing would have been a big surprise. What we got was Nick Roach as a three down middle linebacker, Kevin Burnett and a three down weak side backer and Sio Moore as a three down strong side backer. Both Roach and Burnett are going to have plenty of tackle opportunity and should be bumped into the LB3 range. Moore is an interesting prospect. On early downs he is working in a normal 4-3 SLB role. In the sub packages he is putting his hand down as a rush end. This resulted in 2 tackles and a sack against Dallas. I continue to be impressed with Moore and love his long term potential.
To make room for Moore up front in passing situations, the Raiders started Jason Hunter at end then shifted him inside on passing downs. Lamarr Houston did not play in this game but he is likely to have the same role as Hunter upon return. On the other side Andre Carter started and played in every situation. Carter is a low mileage 34 year old with the potential to put up decent number.
In years past the defensive tackle positions in Oakland have provided decent numbers. That may come to an end this year due to package substitutions. Chris Bilukidi and Stacy McGee were the early down tackles with hunter and Jack Crawford on the inside in passing situations.
Prior to the first round of preseason action there were reports that Nate Irving was working as the starting middle linebacker. That was not the case against San Francisco. Not only did Stewart Bradley get the call to start, Irving worked on the weak side with the second team. It is probably safe to drop him from the sleeper list if he was ever there.
New York Giants
As expected Mark Herzlich got the start at middle linebacker against the Steelers and look okay as a run defender. He was replaced on passing downs however, by Jacquian Williams. Tom Coughlin told reporters earlier this week the Herzlich does an excellent job calling the plays. That is not exactly a ringing endorsement to my ears. It sounds more like a coach searching for something good to say.
At this point it looks as if Spencer Paysinger is the Giants linebacker to have (if there is one). He is starting on the weak side and working in a three down role. Paysinger has been drawing praise for his play and led the team with 4 tackles and an assist against Pittsburg.
The Antrel Rolle injury is not thought to be serious but may linger into the first few weeks of the regular season. That could give Tyler Sash an opportunity to shine. He looked pretty good against the Steelers backups.
That does it for the first update. I will try to get a short update in after the week three games. Best of luck in all those drafts over the next couple of weeks.
More from John Norton:
Eyes of the Guru: Part 8 - July 30
Eyes of the Guru: Part 7 - July 25
Eyes of the Guru Preseason: Part 6 - July 17
Eyes of the Guru Preseason: Part 5 - July 14
Eyes of the Guru Preseason: Part 4 - July 7
Eyes of the Guru Preseason part 3 - July 1
Eyes of the Guru Preseason: Part 2 - June 23
Eyes of the Guru Preseason: Part 1 - June 9
Eyes of the Guru: Week 17 - December 27
Eyes of the Guru: Week 16 - December 18