There are several situations which are muddier now than they were two weeks ago. This is what I have seen or heard and my best guess at what it means.
It may be time to move on from Rashad Johnson. Against Oakland he was playing deep safety in nickel but coming off the field in the 3-3-5 Arizona used as a base package. They are still using a fair amount of the four safety package we saw in the first two games but Johnson sat significantly more often in game three. On the other side of that coin, Deone Bucannon could have a monster season. Not only is he playing every down, he is lining up at inside linebacker most of the time. Kevin Minter is seeing sub package snaps at ILB as well, but he has not been particularly impressive thus far.
The emerging sleeper in the mix is Tony Jefferson. With Bucannon up in the middle, Jefferson was an every down strong safety against Oakland. He was up in the box regularly and was around the ball often. Jefferson was a box score monster early last season in an every down role. If we could count on Arizona to stick with what they were doing against the Raiders, it would be easy to pick out the productive guys. The problem is they have a bad habit of moving guys around and changing up roles way too often. I will be looking to add Jefferson in some league this week but will not be starting him anywhere in week one.
Tyrann Mathieu was moving all over the place in last weekend's game, including a number of snaps as the deep safety whenever Johnson was off the field. I have no grand expectations for him in terms of tackle numbers, but he should have 65+ and enough big play support to be at least a quality third starter. The one thing that has been consistent here, Mathieu and Bucannon have been on the field every snap with the starters.
Adrian Clayborn may be one of the answers to the Falcons woes at defensive end. He has a sack in each of the past two games and there has never been any question about his play as a run defender. The Falcons have been playing him as a three down end and he has performed well. The knock on Clayborn has been his inability to stay healthy. He missed nearly all of 2012 and 2014. In between he was 44-19-6 for Tampa Bay in 2014. As a rookie in 2011 Clayborn had 7.5 sacks.
Kemal Ishmael and Ricardo Allen started at the safety positions again. At this point it is hard to tell if these two are in competition for the starting spot next to William Moore. With Moore struggling to stay healthy of late, we may see a lot of Ishmael at strong safety where he put up good numbers last season as Moore's replacement.
Kony Ealy made his second start in week three and appears to have claimed the starting job at end opposite Charles Johnson. Ealy has not been particularly eye catching on the field but has looked solid in general. He has a sack in each of the past two games and may prove to be rather productive for us. Something like 35 tackles and 7-8 sacks from him would not be a big surprise.
Sigmund Bloom recently called the Bears a "dumpster fire". I can think of no better two word description. Chicago started Shea McClellin and Christian Jones at inside backer again in the third game and it was not pretty. Jones in particular looked lost at times and McClellin had some less than stellar moments in coverage. I am hearing noise out of Chicago suggesting Mason Foster will be back in the starting lineup going forward. I have not yet been able to confirm this, nor have I been able to get clarification on who he would replace. Maybe we will get an answer on this in the final warm-up game.
Adrian Amos started at safety next to Antrel Rolle for a second time. Initially it was thought this was a coach’s decision. Now we are hearing Brock Vereen is dinged which may have been a contributing factor... or not. All signs suggest the Bears secondary will be a busy place. We need to keep an eye on this situation.
In the Bengals second game Vincent Rey was a three down strong side linebacker, teamed with Rey Maualuga and A.J. Hawk in the base scheme and with Emmanuel Lamure in the nickel. The third time out Rey shifted to the weak side (where he is best suited to play) and was paired with Maualuga in the nickel. The only thing that has been consistent is Rey in the three down role. Vontaze Burfict has not yet joined a practice and is in danger of landing on the Physically Unable to Perform list. Rey has a limited upside but is good enough to be productive if his opportunity continues. Personally I will be surprised if we see Burfict before November and who knows how well he will play even then. Chances are it will be next season before he returns to form.
The multi-front trend continues to spread. Cleveland opened the week three game in a 4-3 with Scott Solomon and Desmond Bryant at end, Karlos Dansby at middle linebacker, Craig Robertson on the weak side and Paul Kruger on the strong. They only used that alignment on a few snaps, but it was enough to let everyone know it is now part of their arsenal. Bryant had an excellent game against Tampa Bay. He had a sack and a half along with a lot of other disruptive plays. He is one of those 3-4 ends with the skill set to excel. If he gets to play some 4-3, it can only help his stock.
Christian Kirksey is not seeing much opportunity. He had some nickel snaps in week two but I did not see him on the field with the starters in week three. The Browns are not using much nickel though. Apparently they believe their base scheme matches up well in a lot of passing situations.
Sean Lee was back in action week three. He lined up on the weak side as expected, was wearing the communications helmet and making the defensive calls. Lee did not play long, but he looked fine physically and was in on several plays in his short stint. Anthony Hitchens did not play so Lee was paired with Andrew Gachkar in the nickel and joined by Kyle Wilbur at strong side linebacker in the base. Gachkar looks like the top backup at all three LB positions at this point, but who knows what this group will look like in week five. Rolando McClain has been activated and can practice with the team for a few days until his suspension starts. Hitchens is still banged up and is not a lock to play in week one. Even if he does, will he be 100% and will the coaches move him back to the strong side when McClain returns which was the original plan? Hitchens has big potential but his injury could throw a big wrench into everything we thought we knew (or had hope for) when it comes to his overall value.
Both the Broncos and fantasy owners had to be happy seeing Danny Trevathan and Brandon Marshall in the starting lineup against San Francisco. Both players looked okay physically and were around the ball a lot, but neither was a show stopper. They were on the field in nickel packages together as well.
Green Bay Packers
Clay Matthews returned to action against Philadelphia. He lined up at inside linebacker with Sam Barrington while Mike Neal got the start on the outside opposite Julius Peppers. Barrington looked excellent against the run but was torched for a score by Darren Sproles. Sproles can torch most linebackers in that situation so we should not read much into it in terms of Barrington's cover skills or three down role are concerned. Matthews should be a 60+ tackle guy in this situation with his big play contribution making up a lot of ground in terms of fantasy points. Barrington seems settled into the three down role and is a prime candidate to lead the team in tackles.
Eddie Pleasant appears to have claimed the starting at strong safety job in Houston. He made some good physical plays in run support and made no obvious mistakes in coverage against the Saints. Pleasant worked up in the box often and move into an inside linebacker alignment in the nickel. The four year veteran is a physical 210 pound intimidator who could be a pleasant surprise for fantasy owners. At the least he needs to be on our radar as a potential early season add.
Bernardrick McKinney is still not getting a sniff of playing time with the starters.
Not to be outdone by anyone, the Colts are another so called base 3-4 team that opened the third preseason game in a 4-3. Indianapolis actually stayed in the 4-3 almost the entire first series and continued to use it throughout the game. It was obviously more than a gimmick alignment and we can expect to see it from them during the regular season. In the 4-3 Eric Walden was a strong side backer with D'Qwell Jackson in the middle and Jerrell Freeman on the weak side. Arthur Jones and Josh Chapman woked at tackle with Kendall Langford and Trent Cole at end. Jones was injured in the game and may be lost for the season.
Andre Branch left last weekend's game with a knee injury that is expected to keep him out a while. He will likely be replaced by Chris Smith on early downs with Chris Clemons continuing in his role as a nickel rush specialist. Clemons returned to action against Detroit and will be good to go in week one. We could see more of Ryan Davis in the rotation as well.
Kansas City Chiefs
Over the past several years Kansas City has been searching for a three down inside linebacker to pair with soon to be 33 year old Derrick Johnson. They have run through a bunch of two down guys but may have finally found their man in rookie Ramik Wilson. He moved into the starting role when Josh Mauga was injured and has been impressive from the start. It may not mean a lot but the fact Wilson leads the team in tackles during the preseason has to be considered a good sign. I thought he was decisive, quick and physical against Tennessee and was convinced it was time to pick him up when he stayed on the field in sub packages. Wilson could have surprisingly solid numbers this year and may be the long term answer with Johnson getting up there is football years.
Eric Berry is still seeing time only in nickel sets. With Ron Parker and Husain Abdullah playing well, there is no reason to rush Berry back. It may be a while before he regains all his strength.
Koa Misi returned to action in the third preseason contest but he was not back at middle linebacker. Instead he lined up on the strong side where he has spent much of his career. Kelvin Sheppard appears to have won the job in the middle but it was Misi with Jelani Jenkins in the sub packages. Outside of Jenkins, there is not much to see here unless you are in a deep drafted league.
Vikings suddenly find themselves with an excess of quality options at linebacker. Unfortunately for us, they seem to be intent on getting everyone involved. In the base it was Anthony Barr strong side, Gerald Hodges in the middle and Chad Greenway on the weak side. On passing downs Eric Kendricks joined Barr with both Greenway and Hodges on the sideline. Unless something changes here Barr will be the only consistent every week fantasy option of this group.
New Orleans Saints
Rookie Hau'oli Kikaha is starting at strong side linebacker in the Saints new 4-3 look, and working at outside linebacker when they work out of a 3-4. He is making noise as a pass rusher which is significant because some league hosting sites (such as MyFantasyLeague) still have him listed as a defensive end. At this late stage of the game they are unlikely to change his designation. Kikaha could be a valuable commodity with a defensive end designation.
Rafael Bush has been replacing an injured Jairus Byrd at one of the safety spots but it was a surprise to see Kenny Phillips get the start next to him against Houston. I have seen nothing about an injury to Kenny Vaccaro and he is not old enough to earn veteran rest in the third preseason game, so until I hear something different, I'll assume Phillips has outplayed the underachieving former first round pick. Phillips was working as the deep/free safety most of the time so there may not be much to see in fantasy terms from him. Bush is a different story however. Byrd has not yet practiced and is in danger of going on the PUP or possibly even IR. Bush saw a good number of snaps in a run support strong safety role against Houston, which means he is in an excellent situation. He was quite productive for us in a short stint as a starter last season; putting up at least 5 solo stop and at least 9 fantasy points in four straight games.
New Orleans lost starting corner Keenan Lewis for at least a few weeks and possibly for several. They have been using a group of big young corners during the preseason in an effort to become a more physical and create more big plays. It will be interesting to see if any of these guys emerge as either quality NFL starters or starting corners for us.
New York Giants
If you have not cut Damontre Moore yet, it may be a good idea to hold that thought. The Giants surprised us by opening in a 3-4 against the Jets, with Moore as an outside linebacker in both the base and nickel. In the base Devon Kennard was the other outside backer with J.T. Thomas and Jameel McClain on the inside. The Giants used several players and combinations of players at linebacker in the nickel packages including Kennard, Thomas, McClain and Uani Unga. Thomas was on the field for the majority of the nickel snaps and seems like the best fantasy option of the group at the moment. The situation will change when/if Jon Beason can get back on the field soon.
Jeromy Miles made another start at strong safety but he may be ousted by Stevie Brown who returned to the team after a cup of coffee in Houston. Landon Collins was back on the field though you would not have known it for much of the game. He continue to line up so far out of the picture we only see him when the ball goes more than fifteen yards down the field. Not a good sign for his fantasy potential.
If the third preseason game is an indicator, the Raiders will look much different at linebacker than most of us had anticipated. Against Arizona they used a combination of three and four man fronts. In the 4-3 they had Malcolm Smith at weak side linebacker, Ray Ray Armstrong on the strong side and Curtis Lofton in the middle. Other than Smith and Armstrong switching sides, this was pretty much as expected. In the 3-4 Armstrong moved to outside backer opposite Kahlil Mack with Smith and Lofton on the inside. This too was as expected. The curve ball came when Lofton left the field in nickel situations with Armstrong and Smith staying on the field. My first though upon seeing this was the coaches were giving Smith an every down role because he was facing his old team. The more the game went on, the more obvious it became that the decision was performance based. Coach Del Rio also threw us a changeup this week when he said Sio Moore was now competing for a position as a role player. Moore returned to practice almost two weeks ago but is firmly planted in the dog house apparently. There are rumors the team is trying to trade the talented playmaker and they may even release him outright if no suitor can be found. Simply baffling. We should probably sit tight on Lofton at least through the opener, though I would not count on starting him. Moore owners may want to hang onto to him until after final cuts. This guy can play and may land in a good spot before the dust settles.
San Francisco 49ers
Over the first couple week of the preseason there were rumblings (mostly from Nick Moody) that he was not going to let Michael Wilhoite have the starting job back when he was healthy. Moody played well enough for the coaching staff to reach a comfort level with their depth at inside linebacker, but apparently he did not impress enough to keep the starting job. Wilhoite returned to the field against Denver and looked like a man playing for his job. With 7 solo tackles and a pair of sacks, Navorro Bowman stole the spotlight in his first game back. But Wilhoite made a lot of plays as well. He showed improvement in coverage and played with more urgency than he did in 2014. He is not Patrick Willis or Chris Boreland, but Wilhoite could put up some good numbers. Eli Harold and Corey Lemonier were the starters at outside backer.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
When D.J. Swearinger signed with Tampa Bay many of us were scratching our heads. His skill set seemed to be a mismatch with the scheme. When he was elevated to starter leading up to the third game it was even more of a surprise. Seeing him on the field brought things back into focus. All we have heard about Swearinger this summer has been positive. Lovie Smith has commented about how smart Swearinger is and how his physical playing style was what the defense needed. If I didn't know better I would swear the guy in the Buccaneers uniform was not the same slow to react, finesse looking safety that played for Houston. Swearinger was flying around and put a couple of solid hits on ball carriers. We know the Tampa Bay strong safety position has good potential. This may be a case of a good player finding a good fit.
Jacquies Smith finished last season strong and has been a sleeper favorite of mine this summer. His stock took a bit hit when Henry Melton started at end against Cleveland. It now looks as if we are going to see Melton on early downs with Smith in a nickel rush role. Smith could still turn in decent sack totals but he is unlikely to reach the 30 tackle mark in a part time situation. On the other hand, George Johnson has turned heads. He made no big splash in the box score against the Browns but Johnson has been disruptive and has put a lot of pressure on quarterbacks.
The Titans are yet another team who surprised us by working in a 4-3 on a significant number of snaps this past weekend. That may not have a big impact on the players we are expecting to produce, but it is worth mention. When Tennessee signed Da'Norris Searcy most of us pictured him stepping in the role previously held by Bernard Pollard. That of an in the box strong safety with an intimidation factor. Instead the Titans are playing him off the ball most of the time in a deep free safety alignment, and have been putting Michael Griffin up in the box regularly. If this trend continues, Griffin will have a huge year. My expectations for Searcy have lessened considerable but I believe there will be a lot of opportunity behind that questionable front seven. Searcy is worth hanging onto until we see a real game.
Duke Ihenacho has played his way into a starting job at strong safety and has been playing well enough to hold off the competition. I love his upside but am concerned about his injury issues. He left the Baltimore game early after what looked like a minor shoulder injury or a stinger. Keep an eye on the injury reports for an update later this week. He was looking good and was around the ball a lot prior to the injury.
For those in corner required leagues; if DeAngelo Hall happens to be available, grab him. He played the third warm-up game and was the same old productive big play corner we have come to expect.
That does it for the preseason. We are almost there!