There were a laundry list of questions heading into our first glimpse of live action. As usual we received varying degrees of answers to many of our questions and saw a few situations bringing up new questions. These are my notes and thoughts after round one of the warm up games.
One big mystery of the offseason was how the Cardinals would use their glut of quality options at safety. Everyone wants to know who will be the odd man (or men) out. Rather than making that tough decision, the Cardinals coaching staff put them all on the field together to open the game against Kansas City. The Chiefs opened in a three receiver set. Most defenses would counter with a base or nickel package. Arizona instead lined up with four safeties, two corners, Kevin Minter as the lone inside linebacker and Alex Okafor as the lone outside backer. Matt Shaughnessy made a surprise start at nose tackle with Frosty Rucker and Calais Campbell at the ends. The answer to our questions came a few plays into the first series when Arizona finally lined up in a base 3-4 with Tyrann Mathieu at free safety and Deone Bucannon at strong. If this is the plan for 2015, it means the teams 2014 tackle leader Rashad Johnson will be a part time player this year, basically swapping roles with Bucannon. Owners sitting on Johnson may not want to over react to this initial news. The Cardinals will likely continue to use a great deal of nickel. It could even be their base defense in many games.
This turn of events also means Minter is in line for a significant increase in opportunity. He has been unimpressive thus far in his career. Maybe he has been saving up for a breakout. At the least Minter has become a player of interest.
There were no surprises in the Falcons front seven against Tennessee. Tyson Jackson started at one end with Vic Beasley at the other. Rasheed Hageman and Paul Soliai were at tackle. Weak side linebacker Justin Durant joined middle backer Paul Worrilow in nickel packages with strong side backer O'Brien Schofield working on early downs. Beasley stayed on the field longer than most of the starters, presumably to gain the experience. He was not particularly impressive, putting only a single assist in the box score.
There were a couple of unexpected names in the secondary where Ricardo Allen was at free safety next to William Moore, and Phillip Adams started at corner opposite Robert Alford. Desmond Trufant did not play so either Alford or more likely Adams will be the nickel corner. For those who have been sitting on Kemal Ishmael in hope he would get a chance, it looks like time to move on. He worked at strong safety behind Moore and posted 3 tackles. Unless Moore goes down again, Ishmael may be limited to spot duty and special teams action.
There was a level of disbelief when the Bills started telling us Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes would be playing defensive end in a Rex Ryan 4-3. Ryan has long championed the 3-4, but give him credit for molding the scheme to fit the excellent talent he inherited. Buffalo did indeed open in a 4-3, though it was not your father's 4-3. The important points to take away from their first live action; There is no threat of Williams or Hughes being reclassified as linebackers, and both Nigel Bradham and Preston Brown were three down linebackers. One additional note on Bradham, he worked on the strong side in most situations. Normally that would hurt his stock, but this is not a typical 4-3. There was not enough of a sampling to tell how much, if any negative impact this will have on Bradham's production. Manny Lawson lined up on the weak side and left the field in sub packages.
We were hopeful the Panthers matchup with Buffalo would shed some light on the competition at end opposite Charles Johnson. It was not to be so. Johnson did not play so Kony Ealy and Frank Alexander were both in the starting lineup. Wes Horton worked with the first defense as well.
Tre Boston was listed as the starting free safety but Kurt Coleman saw most of the playing time with the first unit. Coleman was around the ball a lot as is usually the case when he is given an opportunity. There is nothing to get excited about here yet, but it is worth keeping an eye on.
The Bears inside linebacker situation was a focal point of fantasy interest heading into the preseason. We were able to confirm reports of Shea McClellin and Christian Jones starting on the inside and can now confirm also that McClellin is working in all sub packages. My concern with the former defensive end was his ability in coverage. He gave up a catch to the tight end early but could not have been in better coverage on the play. He was much faster and more smooth than I had anticipated. In fact, he looked pretty darn good overall. I suggest you try to fit him on your roster now while he is still somewhat under the radar.
When we started hearing about the new starting tandem, it was widely speculated Jones would be an every down guy as well. Chicago used two personnel packages in their nickel scheme. On some plays all three linemen would stay in while Jones took a seat. In the other grouping he was on the field and one of the big guys got a break. In the limited sample we got against the Dolphins, the two packages were used about evenly. This news is certainly not enough to ruin Jones's value or upside, but his skyrocketing stock takes a hit with the development. It may take a little while for things to Jell, but Chicago will clearly be improved at inside linebacker with the these two young players.
With Vontaze Burfict still sidelined, Vincent Rey mad the start at weak side linebacker against the Giants. Rey Maualuga returned to the middle and A.J. Hawk started ahead of Emmanuel Lamur on the strong side. Rey stayed on the field in the nickel with Lamur replacing Hawk. If Burfict misses time into the season, Rey should put up good numbers.
The Bengals defensive line was dominating. Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins were instrumental in a pair of three and outs on their two series. Wallace Gilberry Made the start at the other end while Michael Johnson recovers from the sprained knee he suffered early in camp. Johnson could miss time and/or be limited early in the season.
Owners in tackle required leagues will want to have Danny Shelton on the radar. Most 3-4 nose tackles are not going to contribute in the box scores. Shelton was man handling Washington's first team offensive line and taking down every ball carrier who came close. Scott Solomon made the start at outside linebacker opposite Paul Kruger. With Barkevious Mingo on the shelf, Solomon could play his way into a starting job. He made a strong showing against Washington.
There were some interesting notes from the Cowboys first live action. The announced starters and the players who were actually on the field, did not exactly match up. Randy Gregory was listed at end and Jeremy Mincey at tackle when the starting lineup flashed on the screen. The actual starting defensive line was Demarcus Lawrence and Jeremy Mincey at end with Tyrone Crawford and Davon Coleman at tackle. Greg Hardy replaced Coleman in the nickel, lining up inside Mincey. Gregory saw most if not all his action with the backups.
Anthony Hitchens made the start at middle linebacker. He played one series, made 2 tackles and was done for the night. Hitchens had a nickel snap or two while he was in, confirming him as an every down MLB. The more I see of this guy, the further he moves up my list. One thing from the game leaves a little unsettled feeling however. On the second series Jasper Brinkley took over in the middle and ran with the remaining starters. This leaves the door open for Hitchens to possibly move back outside at some point.
Andrew Gachkar stood in for weak side backer Sean Lee who was rested, but it is still unclear who started at strong side linebacker. Number 57 Justin Jackson was the listed starter and there was indeed a number 57 at the position. The back of that jersey said Wilson. Both Jackson and Damien Wilson are linebackers currently on the roster.
Green Bay Packers
The Packers sat Clay Matthews against New England, so we are still left guessing how he will be used. Further confusing the issue, Green Bay started Nate Palmer on the inside next to Sam Barrington and they played Andy Mulumba at outside backer opposite Julius Peppers. This makes it hard to tell which guy was subbing for Matthews. The game did confirm, Barrington as a three down inside backer, solidifying his presence near the top of our sleeper lists at the position.
Mike Mohamed continues to hold off rookie Bernardrick McKinney for the starting inside linebacker job. It would seem only a matter of time before the McKinney gets his shot, but the Texans coaching staff has reportedly been singing the praise of Muhamad. While this was not unexpected, seeing Andre Hal start at strong safety came from nowhere. The transplanted corner did nothing to stand out against San Francisco, but there is not a great deal of quality competition for the job.
There were no surprises from Jacksonville in their first action. Chris Clemons did not play so Tyson AluAlu and Andre Branch were three down ends with Chris Smith getting a few first team snaps on the second series. Both Paul Posluszny and Telvin Smith were on the field in the nickel as anticipated, with Dan Skuta starting on the strong side. John Cyprien continues to see a lot of time in the box while Sergio Brown plays center field at free safety. Ryan Davis was at end when the number two players started taking over. I did not see him in the game with the starters nor did I see him take snaps at tackle where some earlier reports had suggested he might play.
Kansas City Chiefs
Eric Berry continues to run with the second team as he works his way back into football shape. Meanwhile the Chiefs started Ron Parker at strong safety and Husain Abdullah at free. Former Raiders fantasy stud Tyvon Branch was not in the mix with the starters against Arizona.
Koa Misi and Kelvin Sheppard have been competing for the starting job at middle linebacker. Misi has missed several days with a calf injury that kept him out against Chicago. Sheppard has the opportunity to claim the job and may do so. The reality is, neither of these players are more than marginal NFL starters. The winner of the competition however, may have enough shear opportunity to make a decent backup for fantasy owners. Sheppard stayed on the field in nickel packages where he joined weak side starter Jelani Jenkins.
Head coach Mike Zimmer believes in making players earn starting jobs. Eric Kendricks is clearly the most talented middle linebacker on the roster and is the future of the position, but he will have to prove himself before passing Audie Cole on the depth chart. Anthony Barr has a sore knee and was rested, so Cole was joined by Gerald Hodges on the weak side and Chad Greenway at strong. It was the two outside linebackers on the field in sub packages.
New England Patriots
The Patriots finally gave us some answers, but they left us with some questions as well. The starting defense was announced as a 4-3 with Jabaal Sheard and Chandler Jones at end, Malcom Brown and Antonio Johnson at tackle, Rob Ninkovich at strong side linebacker, Jonathan Freeney in the middle and Jamie Collins on the weak side. They did not line up that way on any play during the first series however. Instead they were in a nickel all the way down the field. In that package Ninkovich moved up to end opposite Chandler, keeping Sheard on the bench. Collins and Freeney were the linebackers. Neither Jerod Mayo nor Dont'a Hightower were active, so at this point we should not read too much into Freeney running with the starters. That said, it is worth mentioning he finished at 7-2-0. What we can take away from our first glimpse; Sheard is a two down base package starter who will come off the field in most sub package situations. Barring a change or an injury, his opportunity will be limited enough to basically ruin any fantasy value. We have also confirmed Collins will be a three down linebacker and likely a quality LB1. Answers to the MLB question will have to wait a week or two.
The player who really stood out for the Patriots was Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler. He is locked in as a starter and the young man seemed to be everywhere while the number ones were in the game. His box score shows a single tackle but he was much more active than the lack of numbers suggests. Butler knocked down a couple of passes and pretty much shut down everyone he covered. Calling him the next Richard Sherman is a stretch but this is how Sherman started out. Owners in corner required leagues will want to keep a close eye on this guy.
New Orleans Saints
As advertised, the Saints open in a 4-3 against Baltimore. Akeem Hicks sat out so Bobby Richardson started at end opposite Cameron Jordan. John Jenkins and Kevin Williams started at tackle. It was Rafael Bush ahead of Pierre Warren at free safety for Jairus Byrd who is already hurt again. Bush was rather productive in several starts last season. Stephone Anthony had been working with the second team in practices leading up to the Baltimore game, but was promoted in time to start in the middle. Dannell Ellerbe was the starting weak side backer but a toe injury ended his day early. Speculation has David Hawthorne moving into the lineup if Ellerbe misses time.
New York Giants
Cullen Jenkins started at end opposite Robert Ayers against the Bengals. Jenkins also took some base scheme and nickel snaps at tackle. Damontre Moore saw first team snaps only in sub packages where he was joined by Owa Odighizuwa. George Selvie also saw some base package work at end with the starters. Jenkins and Jonathan Hankins may be the only Giants linemen to give us good value this year, and that is limited to tackle required situations.
John Beason was the Giants only three down linebacker. Devon Kennard started at strong side with T.J. Thomas getting the nod on at weak. Both left the field in sub package situations with Jonathan Casillas joining Beason in the nickel. Thomas may have been dinged in the game so be alert for potential injury updates.
Landon Collins worked at deep safety before leaving the game with a knee injury. While playing he lined up so far off the ball, he was not even in the camera view. The injury has been reported as an MCL sprain and is expected to keep Collins out two to six weeks. We will have to keep an eye on his recovery. Even if he does not miss time, the way Collins was used is cause for concern among fantasy owners. This whole Scenario is eerily similar to that of Kenny Phillips a few years back. We know how that one turned out.
Jeromy Miles was a surprise start at strong safety. Nothing in particular stood out about his game, but the Giants strong safety position has traditionally been box score friendly.
New York Jets
On our most recent IDP podcast we talked about how Calvin Pryor should be a great fit in the new scheme and was poised for a breakout season. After watching him against Detroit I am not so sure. Much of the time he was lined up as a deep or cover-2 safety. On Ameer Abdullah's long run, Pryor took a bad angle and whiffed. He also took a bad angle on Golden Tate's touchdown catch. Pryor was late to the party a couple of times and was generally unimpressive. For further evidence, look at the box score where his name is missing all together. Hopefully it was just a bad night, but his stock took a big hit.
The Raiders opened in a 3-4 with Justin Tuck and Justin Ellis at the ends, Dan Williams at nose tackle, Khalil Mack and Ray Ray Armstrong at outside linebacker, Curtis Lofton and Malcolm Smith on the inside. On the second play Oakland showed their 4-3 look. Mack put his hand down at left end, Smith shifted to strong side linebacker and Armstrong went to week. This is not great news for anyone banking on Smith as a three down WLB.
Justin Ellis made a couple of good plays, showing more quickness and range than expected. Owners in tackle required leagues may want to keep an eye on him. There is a long tradition of solid production from Oakland's interior line. Ellis may be the next man up.
The Raiders are looking for their young players to step up at defensive end. Mack is holding up his end of the deal. Some of you may have heard our discussion on Mack in the recent edition of the IDP Audible. My colleague Jene Bramel has been beating the table for him all offseason. I like Mack but have been a little more conservative with expectations. After watching him against the Rams I am beginning to come around to Jene's side. Mack looks like a perfect fit in the role and he gave the Rams offensive line fits. On the second series Shelby Harris, Mario Edwards and Max Vales all saw time with the starters. Harris got to Foles for a sack when the quarterback was flushed from the pocket by Mack. The play looked good but we should not read much into it where Harris is concerned.
On paper the Raiders defense has a lot of potential holes. On the field they looked pretty good. I like the aggressive scheme and the overall energy is something that has been missing in recent years. There are young players stepping up strong and their veteran free agent additions are looking good. If the Rams game is an accurate indication of who the Raiders are, Oakland could have a good year.
The Steelers were as advertized in their second warm-up game. Lawrence Timmons was rested, so Sean Spence started with Shazier. Arthur Moats started opposite Jarvis Jones on the outside with James Harrison rotating in. Shamarko Thomas failed to make a mark in the box score, but I like the way he is being used aggressively. Much like Troy Polamalu used to do, Thomas is moving around formations and was turned loose on a blitz or two.
San Diego Chargers
Donald Butler is back with a vengeance. This situation seems a little reminiscent of a few years back when Todd Haley benched Derrick Johnson in Kansas City. Johnson was a different player when he finally won the job back. Butler was excellent against the Cowboys. He blew up lead blockers on a couple of plays, made an excellent open field tackle to stop a big game and was generally disruptive. The rest of the story here; both Butler and Manti T'eo remained on the field in nickel sub packages. T'eo played well also, but Butler stole the show in my eyes. Bump both of these guys up your draft list and keep Butler as your late round ace in the hole. He could be a quality starter for us this year.
Jahleel Addae made the start at strong safety. He looked good on the way to a team high 5 solo tackles. Jimmy Wilson was thought to be competing for the strong safety spot. His role with the first team was limited to slot corner. The Chargers strong safety position has not been productive in recent years, but Addae will put an end to that trend if he continues to play like he did against Dallas.
San Francisco 49ers
Nick Moody has been working as the starting inside linebacker while Michael Wilhoite recovers from a leg injury. if Moody continues to play like he did against Houston, Wilhoite may as well find a comfortable spot on the bench. Moody made several plays against the Texans including a couple of big hits on a goal line stand in the first quarter. Navorro Bowman was rested for the game with Shane Skov making the start in his place. Bowman continues to show progress in his recovery and is set to be in the opening day lineup barring a setback.
The only thing we learned from Seattle's game with Denver is DeShawn Shead will start at strong safety if Kam Chancellor continues to hold out, and Marcus Burley appears to be in line for some nickel snaps.
St. Louis Rams
The important news out of St. Louis this week is not directly related to their game with Oakland. The Rams announced E.J. Gaines will be placed on IR after having Lisfranc surgery on his foot. For fantasy owners this means Trumaine Johnson is now the clear cut starter opposite Janoris Jenkins at corner. Rams corners have been box score friendly in general over the past few years. Johnson was 58-10-0 with 4 turnovers and 12 passes defended for the team in 2013. In nine games last season he was on pace for similar numbers. Owners in corner required league will want to take a hard look at Johnson who should be a solid CB2 going forward. It is worth mention he had a pair of tackles and picked off Derek Carr in the game.
Mark Barron was not on the field with the starters.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Bruce Carter started at middle linebacker for the Buccaneers and remained on the field with Lavonte David in nickel sub packages. There are rumblings out of Tampa Bay about Kwon Alexander getting a shot at the MLB. It may still happen before the preseason ends, but Alexander did not see time with the starters against Minnesota.
The other situation in Tampa Bay we needed clarity on, was at safety. Both Bradley McDougald and Major Wright were productive at the strong safety position last season. McDougald became a favorite of coach Lovie Smith by the end of 2014. With the return of a healthy Wright, McDougald has shifted over to free safety where he shined against the Vikings. Christopher Conte is the odd man out at safety for the moment, but it could change at the drop of a hat.
The Titans first defense did not look good in their debut. Avery Williamson and Zach Brown started at inside linebacker and remained on the field together in nickel situations. They were not impressive but the volume of opportunity is bound to give one if not both of them some value. If Tennessee is not able to tighten up the ship in short order, Da'Norris Searcy and Michael Griffin are going to be busy men all season.
Washington's safety situation was on our watch list heading into pre season action. Dashon Goldson was the free safety against Cleveland with Duke Ihenacho getting the call at strong safety. Both of these positions have been fantasy productive at times in the recent past, and both players have at least some history of quality production. Ihenacho is a particularly interesting prospect. As a starter for Denver in 2013, he put up double digit fantasy point in six of seven games before going down with an ankle injury. He returned later in the season but was never the same. He then missed nearly all of 2014. The first defense did not play long enough against Cleveland for anyone to do much. This may be a good thing for those of us who could use Ihenacho. It will give us an opportunity to pick him up before anyone knows who he is.