Finally, we have some live football to watch! There are a lot of uncertain situations we have been following this summer in hope of getting some clarity. As is always the case with the first round of preseason games, we got a few answers and found some new questions. In years past the first week of preseason seemed to give us a lot more. The way the NFL has evolved over the past decade or so, it is now much harder to tell what is real and what is the coaching staff looking at their depth chart and giving guys a chance to show something. This is what caught my eye in round one of the warm up season, and my best-educated guess as to what it all means. You may notice I do not talk much about corners. At this stage, most teams are looking at a lot of defensive backs and there were a ton of starters that didn't even suit up. We could get a lot of false reads if we pay much attention there before the third warm-up game.
It would have been nice to get some clarity as to what position Jadeveon Clowney is playing this year. Some leagues have him as a linebacker while some call him a defensive end. If our first glimpse at the Texans is any indicator (which I believe it is in this case), there is no right or wrong answer to this dilemma. In the first two series against Carolina, Clowney played end on five snaps and linebacker on four. Keep in mind that most of the time the only difference between the positions is if the player puts his hand on the ground or not. Since there is no strong evidence either way, Where ever he is currently listed in your league's positional settings is probably where Clowney will stay. This situation is a perfect example of why we need to revamp IDP positions to include an outside rusher designation.
Bernardrick McKinney had the night off so rookie Zach Cunningham got an extended look. He started and stayed on the field well into the second team substitutions. Cunningham passed the eyeball test with flying colors. He was aggressive and productive (4-3-0) making no obvious mistakes. If/when Brian Cushing is injured this year, he may find it difficult to get back on the field.
The Panthers sat veteran defensive ends Charles Johnson and Julius Peppers so Mario Addison and Wes Horton were the starters. Addison played particularly well so it will be interesting to see if he or Peppers gets the title of starter. Either way, the playing time is probably going to be shared relatively evenly.
An earlier report said Kurt Coleman would go back to free safety this year. From what I could tell the Panthers were using more of a right and left alignment with Coleman on the right most of the time. He lined up as both a deep coverage free safety and closer to the line as strong safety while the starters were in the game. It doesn't seem to matter where he starts, Coleman has a knack for ending up around the ball.
There was some speculation Thomas Davis might have his role reduced in 2017 to keep him fresh and give Shaq Thompson an opportunity to take on a bigger role. There were no indications from this game to suggest that will happen in 2017. Davis was in his normal three down role next to Luke Kuechly.
The Falcons threw us a little curve when they opened in a 3-4 against Miami. They used the alignment a few times while the starters were on the field but were still in a base 4-3 most of the time. The breakdown of playing time at linebacker was a bit interesting. Deion Jones was full time as expected while LaRoy Reynolds got the call over De'Vondre Campbell as the base down weak side backer on the first series. Campbell played with Jones in the nickel on the first series and came on at WLB in base packages in the second. Rookie Duke Riley also got in the game on series two. He was with Jones at ILB when the Falcons were in the 3-4. Riley had a rough night, missing a tackle or two and not looking good in coverage. I don't think we should take anything from all this other than the coaching staff is giving guys an opportunity and seeing what works. Campbell owners should not get in too big a hurry to part ways with him.
Rookie Raekwon McMillan got the start at middle backer against Atlanta. Unfortunately, we never had a chance to see if he was part of the sub packages. McMillan tore his ACL early in the first series and is done for the year. Instead of moving either Kiko Alonso or Lawrence Timmons inside, Miami inserted Mike Hull and left everyone else where they were. With time to consider all their options, the coaching staff may elect to do something different going forward, so this situation is still somewhat of a moving target. The good news for those with Alonso or Timmons is they are both working in the nickel sub packages. There is no need to worry about which one is designated strong or weak side because both were shifting around. Timmons, in particular, was being moved all over the place. He lined up everywhere from an outside rush position to the gap between guard and center and was used as a pass rusher almost as often as he dropped into coverage. I was not able to determine what they were keying on for alignment other than to say it was not the strong/weak side of the formation as determined by normal standards.
The Dolphins are currently talking with Rey Maualuga as a possible replacement for McMillan. At most he would be a two down middle backer but Maualuga would probably serve as a backup.
As you may remember from my earlier work on the Bills, I expected Reggie Ragland to play a big part. Apparently, he has really struggled since the opening of camp. Not only is he getting no work at all with the starters, Ragland has only a two down role with the second team. Going into the offseason there were concerns about his fit in a 4-3. It is starting to look as if the gap between schemes is more than he can overcome. Dynasty owners may want to sit tight for a while yet but anyone that has not yet drafted will want to remove Ragland from their draft board altogether.
At this point, Preston Brown is the undisputed three down middle backer and a strong fantasy option. Against Minnesota, he was flanked by Lorenzo Alexander on the strong side and Ramon Humber on the weak side, with Humber staying on for sub package duties. This one was a shocker for me considering Humber is an eighth-year career backup playing with his third NFL team. Gerald Hodges and rookie Matt Milano were the outside backers with the second unit on early downs and were paired in the nickel as well. I still have a hard time believing Humber will stick but whoever plays WLB in Buffalo is probably going to have some value for us. The end of this story has not yet been written so stay tuned.
There was one Buffalo player that really stood out against the Vikings. With Shaq Lawson sitting out, Eddie Yarbrough started at end opposite Jerry Hughes. Yarbrough went 2-1-1 on the first two series and had even more impact on the field than he did in the box scores. Word is he has impressed the coaching staff since early in the offseason and has probably earned the role of third man in the rotation at end. The young man is 24 years old and is a player to keep on our radar as we enter the new season.
It was business as usual for the Vikings with no surprises. Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks were nickel linebackers, Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen were the starters at end. Trae Waynes started opposite Xavier Rhodes at corner but left early with a shoulder injury. We may not see him the rest of the preseason but he is expected back for week one.
New England Patriots
As usual, the Patriots gave us absolutely nothing. I'm not sure a single defensive starter was on the field for the first snap. Maybe we can pluck some clues from them in the third preseason game but I'm not going to hold my breath for that either.
Yannick Ngakoue got the start for Calais Campbell who has missed a few days with an injury. Ngakoue looked much bigger than last year and played well. The surprise was at the other end where Malliciah Goodman started ahead of a healthy Donte Fowler. Goodman was not particularly impressive and gave way to Fowler on passing downs. Fowler is one of the players many owners are looking at as a late round sleeper this year. If he fails to get on the field as more than a third down specialist his chances of being a productive fantasy option are small.
Myles Jack looked alright as the three down middle backer but apparently not good enough for the Jaguars coaching staff. They have been taking a look at their options and plan to move Paul Posluszny back to the middle this week. Posluszny will still be out on passing downs and Jack will continue to work every down, so this news is not going to kill his value. On the other hand, Posluszny will probably make more tackles than any other two down linebacker in the league. That will hurt everyone we were counting on including Telvin Smith who may end up strong side on early downs, and Barry Church who now has three tackle vacuums in front of him.
Tony Jefferson had a quiet debut; so quiet I am a little concerned. Not only was he absent for the box score, Jefferson was hard to find in the picture on most snaps. Baltimore likes to keep their safeties deep much of the time. In the first three series, Jefferson started within ten yards of the line of scrimmage once.
Kamalei Carrea made the start on the inside as expected, but he was not much of a factor and was on the sideline on passing downs.
The inside linebacker battle in Washington is one of the most important of the summer for IDP owners. Unfortunately, we know no more after the first live action than we did before it. Will Compton and Mason Foster opened as the starters. On the second series Zach Brown replaced Foster, and on the third series, Foster replaced Compton. Regardless which two were in the game, they both stayed on the field in sub packages. Basically what we saw was the coaching staff looking at all their possible options. It's always hard to say what the coaches see or why they make some of the decisions they do. That said Brown was clearly the best of the three in my eyes with Foster not too far behind. Both players made several nice plays around the line of scrimmage, were excellent in run support and spot on in coverage. Compton did not make any mistakes but he didn't have nearly the impact of the other two either. After what they showed against Baltimore I don't know how Brown could not be a three down starter and will be surprised if Foster is not beside him.
Washington lost Trent Murphy early in the Baltimore game with a season ending knee injury and Preston Smith did not play against the Ravens due to a sore ankle. These situations mean a lot of playing time for rookie Ryan Anderson who will at least become the third man in the OLB rotation and could push Smith for a starting spot.
Sua Cravens gave us a scare when he left practice with a knee injury last week. He avoided serious damage to the knee but will miss some practice time. Cravens should be good to go for week one.
The most important note from the Browns first game action is Jamie Collins not staying on the field full time. As expected, Cleveland started Christian Kirksey on the weak side, Tank Carder in the middle and Collins on the strong side. Shockingly they left Carder on the field with Kirksey in sub packages ahead of Collins. It's too early to tell if this was done to get a look at Carder as a three down option or if it is the real plan. The Browns did stay in their base package in some situations that would normally call for nickel personnel, so it's not like Collins was out of the game a lot. There is no need to panic if you are a Collins owners but this is a situation we need to pay attention to.
Carder has been with the Browns since they drafted in round five back in 2012. To this point, he has made a living on special teams and has 14 career tackles on defense. It is rare for a player to suddenly blossom after doing nothing for five years but it is not unheard of. I can't help but to be pessimistic when it comes to Carder's fantasy potential but I have learned never to completely write a player off. Carder looked pretty good against New Orleans and has found a spot high on the watch list for the rest of the preseason.
Jabril Peppers got in the game in the third series when most of the starters were still playing but did not show up in the box score. One second team player that did have an impact was Joe Schobert. He replaced Carder at middle linebacker when the starters were done and wasted no time getting his name called. Schobert made a big one on one hit on a running back on one of his first snaps then got to the quarterback on a blitz a few plays later. Schobert was my bet as the guy to step in when the team traded Demario Davis earlier in the offseason and is still the player I believe will eventually land the job.
New Orleans Saints
We have been hearing all offseason about how A.J. Klein was working as the Saints starting middle linebacker. All along I have maintained he is a better fit on the strong side. When the Saints took the field against Cleveland they lined up Craig Robertson on the weak side, Manti T'eo in the middle and Klein on the strong side. When they went to the nickel Klein stayed on the field with Robertson, sending T'eo to the sideline. This may not be a settled situation but if it sticks both Klein and Robertson could have decent value.
Green Bay Packers
So much for our hope of getting a three down linebacker from the Packers. Just like last season, Jake Ryan and Blake Martinez were the starters with Joe Thomas and Morgan Burnett at linebacker in sub packages.
Josh Jones was not in the starting lineup but came on early when Damarious Randall was carted off. Jones worked extensively at the slot corner spot and also saw time at strong safety with the first team in some sub packages when Burnett moved up to linebacker.
Denver's defense took a hit when Derek Wolfe suffered an ankle injury against Chicago. The word is he will miss some time but should be back for week one. On the other hand, the picture Wolfe posted on social media looks much worse. Wolfe may make it back for week one but this is an injury that may bother him for half the season or longer if it's aggravated by playing on it too early. The Broncos have solid depth at the position but no one capable of pressuring the quarterback like Wolfe does.
With Todd Davis and T.J. Ward sitting out, Corey Nelson and Will Parks made the starts at inside linebacker and strong safety respectively. Just as Ward did last season, Parks worked at linebacker in nickel packages.
There were no surprises from Chicago in round one. Leonard Floyd looked strong, recording a sack on the first series. Nick Kwiatkowski got the start for Danny Trevathan who has not yet returned to action. Eddie Jackson was at free safety with the second team.
New York Giants
The Giants were basically as expected versus Pittsburgh. B.J. Goodson got the start at middle linebacker with Jonathan Casillas on the weak side and Devon Kennard strong. In a change from last year's approach, both Goodson and Casillas stayed on the field in most nickel situations. With Keenan Robinson seemingly a forgotten man, Goodson may be in line for quality fantasy production.
Darian Thompson is back as the Giants free safety though he will be hard pressed to maintain any fantasy value playing next to Landon Collins. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie did not play so Eli Apple and Janoris Jenkins were the starting corners.
The Steelers rested many starters so Robert Golden and Jordan Dangerfield got the call at safety. Tyler Matakevich and Vince Williams were the starters at inside linebacker. Williams was 2-1 in his limited action and looked good. If/when Shazier is hurt, Williams could be huge. T.J. Watt and Arthur Moats were the guys at OLB. Watt got off to a big start with a pair of early sacks. He was nothing short of impressive, finishing at 3-2-2 on the night.
San Francisco 49ers
Everyone hates to see it happen this way but the season ending injury to Malcolm Smith pretty well clears the fog at the 49ers linebacker positions. Navorro Bowman is the clear cut starter at middle backer with Reuben Foster settling in on the weak side. Both were part of the nickel sub packages making this seem like a reincarnation of the days when Bowman and Patrick Willis policed the field. Those who were talking poorly of Bowman early in the offseason are no longer chirping, and Foster is looking like the reincarnation of Patrick Willis.
Many league hosting services will be doing final position updates soon. If you have one of San Francisco's defensive linemen or will be drafting soon, be aware that DeForest Buckner has been working as the 3-technique tackle with Earl Mitchell starting at nose tackle. Chris Jones also saw a good deal of time with the starters against Kansas City. Solomon Thomas worked at end mostly with the second team but was an inside pass rusher in the nickel on the first two series. When he gets on the field more (which should be soon), his positional designation will probably be defensive end.
San Francisco started Arik Armstead right end Tank Carradine left end against the Chiefs. When they went nickel both starters headed to the sideline. San Francisco lined up with Buckner and Thomas on the inside while Elvis Dumervil and Ahmad Brooks were the defensive ends.
The 49ers announced starters at safety were Eric Reid at free and Jaquiski Tartt at strong. I don't believe Tartt played, however, and neither did Jimmy Ward who has been expected to start at free safety. Earlier offseason reports had Reid playing the Kam Chancellor role with Ward as Eric Thomas and Tartt the third safety. Reid has not been able to stay healthy for long over his career and Tartt seems like a better fit for the role anyway. Keep an eye on this situation; whoever lands this job should be a valuable commodity.
Kansas City Chiefs
Ramik Wilson started next to Derrick Johnson at ILB and seems to have finally won the approval of the coaching staff; at least on early downs. With Eric Berry resting a sore foot, Daniel Sorenson made the start at strong safety. As he did last season, Sorenson also doubled as a linebacker in the nickel. Wilson may be a quality fantasy option one of these days, but barring an injury to Johnson, it may not be this year.
The glass is half full for Nick Vigil owners or those trying to figure out is he should be drafted. The Bengals first defense included Kevin Minter in the middle, Vontaze Burfict on the weak side and Vigil on the strong side. In the nickel Vigil paired with Burfict, keeping Vincent Rey on the bench. I like Vigil's chances of being a solid third starter for us if Cincinnati goes into the season with this plan. Their play against Tampa Bay left the coaching staff with no reason to do anything different.
Rookie Carl Lawson has been ripping it up in training camp. He is still behind Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson at end on early downs, but Lawson replaced Johnson in nickel situations. Lawson is a youngster we will want to keep an eye on going forward. Chances are he will not see much time on early downs as a rookie but if his run defense improves he could push Johnson out of a job next year.
William Jackson missed his rookie season with an injury but has impressed the coaching staff this summer. He and Darquez Dennard were the starting corners with Adam Jones coming on in the nickel.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Buccaneers defensive line is where the questions were entering the preseason. The coaching staff has been talking up Noah Spence and newcomer Chris Baker is a guy that could be an excellent fantasy option in tackle required leagues. On the Bengals long opening drive, Tampa Bay used seven different linemen. The starters were Robert Ayers and William Gholston at end with Baker and Gerald McCoy at tackle. Spence was in and out of the lineup seeing a snap or two in the base as well as all the sub package snaps. If the rotation continues this way he should have ample opportunity to produce. Gholston, McCoy and Clinton McDonald all saw snaps at tackle in the nickel and McDonald spelled both Baker and McCoy in the base. Ayers worked as a three down end and was spelled briefly by Ryan Russell. I am fairly comfortable in saying this is the rotation the Buccaneers would like to use all year, with six players seeing about 95% of the playing time across the front. I like Ayers a lot as a decent DL2, Spence has a ton of upside, Gholston should continue to produce good tackle totals and McCoy can always be counted on as a quality starting tackle.
I have been high on Jonathan Cyprien since he went to the Titans but after seeing them in action I am impressed by Kevin Byard. The Titans are not using a strong and weak safety. Instead, they are lining up Byard on the right Cyprien on the left. As a result, both players are seeing box safety snaps in run support. Byard made more plays against the Jets but the way these guys are being used, that could change on a week to week basis. Considering the Titans are starting Wesley Woodyard and Avery Williams at inside linebacker, the safeties should have plenty of opportunity for both to be quality fantasy options.
New York Jets
The Jets opened in a 3-4 with Demario Davis and Darron Lee at inside linebacker. Steve McClendon was at nose tackle with Leonard Williams and Muhammad Wilkerson at end. Freddie Bishop and Jordan Jenkins were the outside linebackers and the team starter both rookies (Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye) at safety. Sheldon Richardson rotated in at end and saw most of the sub package snaps while the starters were in. It's hard to say if that was a coincidence and it was just his turn to play or if Richardson will be used mostly on passing downs. I have to believe it was a coincidence since Richardson is probably not the past pass rushers of the group.
As expected the Jets struggled at inside linebacker. Lee continues to be swallowed up by blockers. Davis was in on a few tackles but most were five plus yards down field. Fortunately, there is no deduction for that in fantasy scoring.
Adams was in on some plays but was particularly eye catching. He was in the box on a few snaps but was deep on others with Maye up in the box. Todd Bowles talked about his young safeties earlier in the summer, expressing them being interchangeable as one of the things he most liked. They were not necessarily playing right and left but they were both involved in run support.
Dallas played mostly backups in their front seven against Los Angeles; the only exceptions being Taco Charlton at end and Anthony Hitchens at middle linebacker. Kyle Wilbur was on the field as well but playing on the weak side instead of his normal spot at strong. The Cowboys did play their starting secondary, which is not a surprise considering all the new starters. They need all the time they can get working together.
The big news out of Dallas this week was the hamstring injury that kept Sean Lee on the sideline. The injury is not thought to be serious but we know Lee is a slow healer, so this is one we need to be monitoring. Anthony Hitchens would probably become a three down middle backer if Lee were to miss time; assuming Jaylon Smith is not going to be ready for a full workload. Hitchens and Damien Wilson were the nickel backers against the Rams.
Los Angeles Rams
The Rams are supposed to be a 3-4 team this year but they are showing multiple fronts. Their first defensive snap against Dallas was a three man front. On second and five they had five guys on the line with their hands in the dirt. Play three was a somewhat normal 4-3 alignment with an extra defensive back at the linebacker level. Los Angeles got their first team guys out of the game quickly so all we really got was a glimpse. It was not enough to pick up anything of interest other than the multiple looks.
The Raiders were showing a 4-3 on the opening series with Corey James at weak side linebacker and rookie Marquell Lee in the middle. Those two were the nickel linebackers as well. James made a particularly good showing. On the first series, he ran down David Johnson at the sideline on one play, put pressure on Carson Palmer on the next play forcing a bad throw, then hit Chris Johnson for a short gain. James appears to have come a long way from last season. There is no guarantee this is how Oakland will open week one but James certainly helped his cause. I am going to grab him in as many dynasty leagues as possible and will be looking at him in the late rounds of my remaining drafts. Lee was slightly out shined by James but did not play poorly by any stretch. One thing in Lee's favor; he was the lone linebacker in the dime package. That would mean a handful more plays per game. This position was seen as an unaddressed weakness by many prognosticators. Maybe the Raiders knew something we didn't.
We had expected to see Oakland work mostly out of a 3-4 this year, but apparently, they are going to be a multi-front hybrid defense. On their first 15, plays they lined up in a 4-3 six times, nickel four times, twice in a 3-4 and three times in a dime. In three of the nickel calls, they used two linemen and four linebackers. James Cowser lined up in the role Khalil Mack will be manning. In the 4-3 he was a defensive end, in the 3-4 and nickel he was a linebacker. We can only assume this will continue to be the case in the regular season, thus there is still no right or wrong answer to the argument over Mack's position.
The Cardinals tell us Deone Bucannon is on track to be ready for the opener but he has not yet returned to practice in any capacity. While he is out rookie Hasaan Reddick is holding down the fort. We knew Reddick would be learning a new position so it was not a shock to see him struggle a little. He overran a play or two, had trouble getting off or avoiding blocks and just looked generally uncomfortable. If Reddick doesn't improve quickly we might see veteran Josh Bynes come week one if Bucannon is not ready.
For those watching Robert Nkemdiche, there was mixed news from game one. He was supposed to be the replacement for Calais Campbell but Arizona started Josh Mauro at the position. Frostee Rucker was the other end with Corey Peters at nose tackle. The good news is Nkemdiche came on in the second quarter and immediately made a couple impact plays against the Raiders second offense. I would wait to see what happens in the third warm-up game before making a decision on him.
The Lions defensive line is a M.A.S.H. unit in mid-August. Both Ziggy Ansah and Cornelius Washington are on the inactive NFI list and they just lost Kerry Hyder for the year with an Achilles’ injury. Anthony Zettel started opposite Hyder with Brandon Copeland coming on initially after the injury. The Lions used several players at the position after the injury so it is hard to say what they will do going forward.
We already knew the Lions were going to make Jarrod Davis their three down middle backer. He looked okay in his NFL debut but seemed a little tentative at times. That should change when he gets into a comfort zone. The most interesting note at linebacker is Tahir Whitehead in a three down role on the weak side. He is not going to put up the kind of numbers we saw last season but could be a solid third starter for us if he holds onto the sub package snaps.
Miles Killebrew started at strong safety but it is unclear if that is because Tavon Wilson is banged up or if Killebrew is ahead in the competition. Hopefully, this question will be answered in the third warm-up game.
The Colts inside linebacker battle is a focus for IDP owners this summer. Sean Spence had been a projected starter for much of the offseason but was Eddie Jackson and rookie Anthony Walker getting the call against Detroit. I liked what Jackson brought to the field late last season and he seems to have picked up right where he left off. He's not the biggest or the fastest but the Lions had a hard time getting him blocked. Jackson stayed in the game for all sub packages which is a great sign that he will be the best fantasy target. Walker gave way to Spence in sub packages which was the same role Spence had in Tennessee. Unfortunately, he was once again bitten by the injury bug, leaving the game with a hamstring injury. Antonio Morrison was inactive for the Detroit game after working with the first team prior to being banged up.
There were no personnel surprises from the Seahawks other than maybe Shaquill Griffin starting ahead of Jeremy Lane at corner. With Deshawn Shead likely to open the season on the PUP list, Griffin has a good shot at making a fantasy impact. A rookie playing opposite Richard Sherman is going to get a lot of attention from opposing quarterbacks.
K.J. Wright is dealing with a sore knee. Pete Carroll said Wright will not need surgery, but he gave little insight into the injury. It is unclear if Wright will miss time but no one in Seattle seems concerned at this point.
Los Angeles Chargers
There were no lineup surprises with the Chargers either. Melvin Ingram put his hand in the dirt as a defensive end on nearly every snap he played, Jatavis Brown lined up at outside linebacker on every snap and on the weak side for most. When he was not weak side it was due to coverage responsibilities and not formation. The only real news with Los Angeles is the ankle injury that will cost Denzel Perryman about half the season. He will have surgery on the ankle and probably be either on the PUP or short term IR when the season opens. Korey Toomer is the next man up in the middle though we could see him on the weak side and Brown moved in. Toomer played well in relief last season and should be fairly productive while in the lineup.
That is going to do it for this offering. I will be back after the third round of games and pass along what I learn from them. Until then, draft well and best of luck to you.