Reading the Defense - August Update
By Jene Bramel
August 9th, 2010

We have yet to watch a preseason game snap, but depth chart decisions, coaching comments, injuries and beat writer speculation have made for an eventful first week of camp. Here's what happening on the defensive side of the ball.

Karlos Dansby likely to play WILB

This is what we expected all along, but it's nice to have it confirmed after beat writers suggested that Dansby would take over for Channing Crowder (who played SILB last year). That speculation felt wrong from the start, as it seemed reasonable to expect that Mike Nolan would want to use his better playmaker at the playmaking spot in his 1-gap 3-4. Now, reports from camp are suggesting that Dansby has been playing WILB. It still needs to be confirmed on the field during the preseason, but it's worth moving on Dansby now. The WILB role in the 1-gap 3-4 is the same position that Patrick Willis, D.J. Williams, Ray Lewis, Donnie Edwards and Keith Brooking have racked up triple digit solos from in recent seasons. It's not at all a stretch to think that Dansby, who's also a lock to play every down, will be a top five LB in this role.

Eric Berry likely to line up at SS

It wasn't absolutely clear during OTAs, with Jon McGraw and Kendrick Lewis also taking snaps at safety, but it sounds like the Chiefs are planning to use Berry as a do-everything safety rather than leave him in deep coverage. That's yet to be confirmed by the coaches, but Rodney Harrison said as much in an interview recently. Harrison said that Berry would be used in a similar role to the one he was used in by then Patriots' defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel. That enough confirmation to me to consider Berry a top ten DB this year. Keep your eye on Lewis, too. He's shown enough that he might start at the other safety spot sooner than later.

Jon Beason still at WLB

Opening camp, the Panthers still had Beason at WLB, Dan Connor at MLB and James Anderson at SLB. Darin Gantt told me on Twitter that Anderson has the second nickel job currently. He had previously suggested in a report that Connor wasn't a lock to stick in the middle, speculating that he may not be quick enough in coverage to handle the Tampa-2 responsibilities asked of him. I've liked Anderson's potential in the past, even suggesting that he might be the heir to Dan Morgan in the middle before Beason was drafted. There's some potential for a very strong LB3 season from him if he plays every down. Without the nickel snaps, Connor's game logs will look a lot like Andra Davis or Keith Brooking – strong against running teams, weak against passing teams.

Louis Delmas has a worrisome groin injury

Delmas opened camp on the active PUP list with a groin injury. After rumors that he might need surgery, it's been reported that Delmas has decided against surgery after visiting specialists. Visiting a specialist to discuss surgical options for what's been reported to be a high groin injury is worrisome for a sports hernia. Delmas' injury has been called “short term” by Jim Schwartz and Delmas himself hasn't looked limited to observers during his side workouts. Still, he's no longer a lock to be ready for Week 1. For now, Marvin White and C.C. Brown have been the starters at safety. White may be the better bet to play SS, with or without Delmas in the lineup, and certainly deserves later round consideration.

Rey Maualuga remains in holding pattern

Though it would appear that Mike Zimmer has been ready to move Maualuga to the middle for some time, the Bengals opened camp with Dhani Jones at MLB. Presumably, Marvin Lewis and company remain leery of trusting Maualuga to play within the defense and trust Jones not to give up a big play by leaving his gap too early. It's certainly not helping that Maualuga has been fighting nagging leg injuries throughout the offseason. At some point, the big play potential of Maualuga and likely SLB replacement Michael Johnson will outweigh the risks in starting two aggressive backers. Watch the nickel packages closely when the move is made, as Maualuga may only have fantasy value against teams likely to run the ball more often than they pass if he sits in subpackages.

E.J. Henderson already practicing

There's no reason to be concerned about Henderson's broken leg. It's not a joint, ligament or back injury and he was cleared to practice as camp opened. The Vikings are letting him practice just once a day at most for now, but Henderson will be back in the lineup as the every-down MLB opening weekend.

David Hawthorne likely locked in at WLB

Leroy Hill's off field issues may have caught up with him for good in Seattle. Hawthorne has been impressive at WLB and should remain there even if Hill gets himself straightened. There's still no definitive word on how Seattle will align this year (more Tampa-2 or more Carroll style with an Elephant), but Hawthorne's value should remain high if he stays on the field every down.

Morgan Burnett wins SS job by default

We've been pushing Burnett as a strong option since draft weekend, noting that his second round pedigree and all-around talent were probably a better fit for the aggressive Green Bay front than Bigby. In the meantime, Bigby refused to sign his RFA tender and didn't show up to OTAs, giving Burnett plenty of time to establish himself with the first team before camp. Then, Bigby hurt his ankle in a pre-camp conditioning test and will have surgery. Burnett was arguably going to win this job anyway, but he gets it by default now and has been impressive enough that it's very hard to see Bigby becoming a factor again. Burnett has top 20 upside easily and could be one of the rare 80 solo, multiple big play safeties that anchor your roster for years to come.

David Thornton listed as the first team ROLB

Unfortunately, he had yet to take a rep through Thursday evening because team doctors had yet to clear him for contact. That only adds to a murky situation that had Thornton listed as the first team ROLB and Gerald McRath listed as the first team LOLB in the week before camp opened. Though it would seemingly make the most sense to have Will Witherspoon fill in while Thornton recovers, the Titans have given Thornton's reps to Colin Allred and Jamie Winborn. Apparently, the team prefers to have Witherspoon continue to learn the LOLB position behind McRath with the second team. The latest depth chart has Thornton listed with the fourth team, with Jamie Winborn listed as the first teamer and Rennie Curran as the second team. Curran may be the most interesting player in the mix. He shouldn't have much trouble beating out Winborn and if Thornton can't recover and Witherspoon isn't an option, Curran might find himself in the every-down ROLB role sooner than anyone expected.

Patrick Chung earning more time with the first team

James Sanders opened camp getting a bigger share of the snaps at SS with the first team. With every passing practice, Chung has seen more time with the ones. The strong safety spot in Bill Belichick's defense is the quarterback of the secondary, and as Chung has grown more comfortable in the playbook, his play has earned him the trust of the coaches. I still think he's the opening day SS and that his skill set compares favorably to guys like Sean Jones and potentially Rodney Harrison, who have thrived in the same role. There's no question that he should be able to equal or better the strong production Brandon McGowan has put up in New England recently. He's got DB1 upside.

Gerald Hayes may not be ready until September

Hayes had been fighting a back problem all offseason long and finally decided it was best to have surgery in July. He began camp on the active PUP list and it's rumored that he may not be ready until the regular season. Paris Lenon and Monty Beisel are running with the first team at ILB currently, but Daryl Washington remains the one to watch. Washington opened camp with the third team, but he'll ascend quickly if he's anything other than a total liability in camp. If Washington can't crack the lineup and Hayes remains out, Lenon has again found himself on a shaky defense with a weak surrounding cast at linebacker. He's worth a pickup if you need a body early in the season.

Donte' Whitner still holds SS job

Surprisingly, Whitner was given the first crack at the SS job during OTAs and remained with the ones early in camp. With coordinator George Edwards planning an aggressive form of 3-4, Whitner's physical presence and potential as a pass rusher may be the driving force behind his ascension up the depth chart. Bryan Scott and George Wilson still deserve our attention, though, as this competition is far from over. Whoever wins the job should be considered in the DB3 with upside tier or better.

T.J. Ward starting at safety in Cleveland

The Browns wasted no time inserting Ward in the starting lineup at safety. It's still undetermined whether he'll play SS or FS long term, but next to the inconsistent Abram Elam, he should have value in either situation. If paired with Elam, I think FS is his more likely starting position, but defensive coordinator Rob Ryan could use him in a robber-like role nearer the line of scrimmage. Free safeties with a good mix of responsibility (Brian Dawkins in Philadelphia, Darren Sharper in Green Bay, Gibril Wilson, Antrel Rolle, etc) are fine targets for fantasy production. Ward would be a DB3 in that role. If he slides over to SS – and Eric Mangini compared him to Lawyer Milloy earlier in the week – there's significantly more upside given the likely weak competition for tackles elsewhere in the back seven.

Elvis Dumervil tears pectoral muscle

Dumervil's injury might cause a significant shift in the Broncos' defensive game plan. Jarvis Moss has been better than ever early in camp, but the team could still move Mario Haggan outside on early downs to leave Moss in his current situational role. If that happens, Akin Ayodele probably takes over at SILB on early downs. Josh McDaniels also noted that the team had practiced some 4-3 looks already in camp, presumably suggesting that anything is possible. It's not clear how the Broncos would align in that scenario, so it's a situation that bears close monitoring as camp progresses.

Chicago wants Danieal Manning at SS

After preferring to slot him as the nickel corner at times last year, it's being reported that the Bears currently see SS as Manning's best role despite dealing Jamar Williams for Chris Harris during the offseason. Chris Harris has missed time with a back injury, but he was at FS as camp opened. Major Wright looked solid when given a chance with the ones, then injured his groin and will have to play catch-up. The only trustworthy player here is Manning. He's got enough big play value to be a reasonable starter if he slides to FS at some point and is a sure enough tackler to have 75 tackle upside at SS.

Darrell Stuckey likely SS in San Diego

The list of rookie safeties with DB2+ fantasy potential continues with Stuckey, who's been physical and impressive since joining the first team in OTAs. Steve Gregory is getting a handful of snaps here and there but Stuckey should earn the opening day nod.

Chiefs looking at Derrick Johnson and Jovan Belcher

What a difference a year could make. Both Johnson and Belcher have been seeing time with the first team early in camp. Beat writers have speculated that Todd Haley still thinks Johnson's best fit is as a situational player and there's no doubt that new coordinator Romeo Crennel wants to see what he has in pads. We may still see Corey Mays and Demorrio Williams on early downs, but it'll be a target rich environment in Kansas City. An every-down backer here could have top-15 value.

Bills release Aaron Schobel

If Schobel decides to return, many have suggested that Houston could be his destination. Antonio Smith has only been so-so against the run and Schobel could be an upgrade on early downs. Should Schobel land in Houston, Connor Barwin may end up seeing fewer nickel snaps. Since it's more likely that Schobel lands with a 4-3 team, he's worth stashing on your roster before he signs if you have the opportunity.

Cameron Wake playing every down

It wasn't clear entering camp whether the Dolphins would trust Wake as an every-down OLB. With Charlie Anderson stuck on the second team and Wake getting plenty of work in run support and coverage situations, it's clear that the team wants Wake to take the job. Early reports are promising. If Wake can continue the torrid pass rushing pace he put up a situational player, there's very nice big play value to be found here.

Richard Seymour getting reps at defensive tackle

Seymour had seen time at DT in New England when the Patriots used a 4-3 and played DT in some nickel packages for Oakland next season. But he's not been an every-down DT in Oakland. Early in camp, the Raiders had him there, flanked by Tommy Kelly, with Matt Shaughnessy and rookie Lamarr Houston playing end in the base defense. Seymour may not see enough reps to be reclassified on your league site to DT, but it's worth watching. And Houston could have interesting upside in deeper, tackle-heavy leagues if he gets the bulk of the early down duty on the strong side end. The news is good for Shaughnessy on the surface, but it looks like he may sit when the Raiders use a Big Nickel package, with Seymour and Wimbley playing end and McClain and Scott at linebacker.

Surgery recommended for Osi Umenyiora's hip

Umenyiora's chronic hip condition would apparently be improved with surgery but Umenyiora has decided to play through the injury. He's still rotating with Mathias Kiwanuka early in camp and it's difficult to see him earning a larger amount of snaps if he can't consistently remain healthy.

Dannell Ellerbee not assured of starting role

Early reports from Baltimore noted that Jameel McClain was running with the first team at ILB, but don't count Dannell Ellerbee out yet. McClain, Ellerbee and Tavares Gooden are all taking snaps with the ones. There's not a lot of fantasy upside here, but Ray Lewis won't be a Raven forever. Ellerbee is currently the only long term threat to become an every-down player. His slot on the depth chart at camp's end will tell us how high he needs to be on our watch lists.

Lawyer Milloy currently starting SS in Seattle

As camp opened, Milloy was taking reps at SS ahead of Jordan Babineaux. Milloy had seen time with the first team during OTAs and must have shown enough in run support that the Seahawks have decided to give him a long look early in camp.

Chris Gocong getting first shot at LILB job in Cleveland

The Browns brought in a handful of versatile linebackers this offseason and no one was absolutely certain how they'd line up as camp opened. Right now, it looks like D'Qwell Jackson and Matt Roth will continue in the roles they ended 2009 playing. Somewhat surprisingly, it's Gocong and not David Bowens or Scott Fujita playing inside next to Jackson. Fujita has been moved outside, presumably to give way to Marcus Benard in pass rush situations. Bowens and Gocong are similar players. Neither has much tackle upside as long as Jackson is the every-down WILB.

Lesser positional battles to watch

  • Joe Haden isn't a lock to start ahead of Sheldon Brown and Eric Wright in Cleveland.
  • Tyson Alualu was immediately inserted into the first team at the 3-technique role in Jacksonville.
  • Brandon Spikes is impressing in New England, but Gary Guyton holds the starting role and Spikes hasn't shown enough in coverage to play every down if/when he takes over.
  • Jermaine Cunningham could see lots of situational pass rushing time right away for New England.
  • Jamarca Sanford has started seeing lots of first team reps ahead of Tyrell Johnson in Minnesota.
  • Kenny Phillips has acknowledged that he won't be ready for the beginning of the season and Deon Grant is taking reps in his place.
  • Malcolm Jenkins is getting plenty of work at FS, Troy Evans and Jo-Lonn Dunbar rotating at SLB and Bobby McCray rotating with Alex Brown at DE in New Orleans.
  • Nate Allen is the first team FS in Philadelphia.
  • Kyle Moore looks likely to hold off Tim Crowder for a near every-down role at DE in Tampa Bay, while Sean Jones and Sabby Piscitelli split snaps with the first team at SS.
  • As always, thanks for reading. Questions, suggestions and comments are always welcome to bramel@footballguys.com.

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