Last week, I wrote about clarity. Clarity came in the first week of preseason games, but not always in the flavor expected. Some depth chart situations played out as expected. Others escalated quickly -- especially the Kwon Alexander story, which narrowly missed my notes last week, was entered into the linebacker tiers feature on a hunch 24 hours later, felt big enough to discuss on the podcast 48 hours later, and then blew up in Tampa Bay on the depth chart shortly after that.
Patience is still in order. But we're ever closer to a time when coordinators can no longer motivate with practice reps or put different combinations together in a preseason game "just to see" how they respond and play together.
EVERY-DOWN LINEBACKER PROJECTION
This chart is still an educated guess. For the most part, it's based off of what I saw in the first week of preseason games or what's been reported by a trusted team media source. There are fewer question marks here than last week, but still room for big changes.
I'll update this table every week between now and Week 17.
TRAINING CAMP NOTES
While I remain unconvinced he'll be more than a league-average linebacker and high floor LB3 for fantasy owners, Shea McClellin looked more comfortable as an inside linebacker than I expected. There were some false steps and overpursuit, but McClellin played a fundamental game between the tackles. Mason Foster was not impressive and Jon Bostic isn't close to the same player he was before his back injury. While it's only 20 reps from each in the first preseason game, it's evident why Vic Fangio has stuck with McClellin. Christian Jones was the more downhill and violent player, but there will be above-average opportunity in Chicago this year and both linebackers could be every-week fantasy starters.
I'm no NFL defensive coordinator, but I never saw the fit for Bruce Carter in Tampa Bay. Lovie Smith runs an execution defense. You must be where you're supposed to be and finish plays fundamentally or bad things happen. That's not Carter's strength. But it's still a surprise to see rookie Kwon Alexander promoted over Carter so soon. And it's going to stick. Carter has been moved behind Danny Lansanah on the depth chart at SLB -- his best fit in this scheme -- and isn't likely to get another shot. Whether Alexander or Lansanah plays in the nickel with Lavonte David is still an open question. I'll have more on Alexander next week. Before the draft, I saw Alexander as a more physical version of undersized players like Telvin Smith Sr. Not quite David-like, but in a similar mold if his development went well. So, there's plenty of upside here.
The Raiders are going to be a multiple front team. There were 12 base defensive snaps and a handful of subpackage snaps taken by the first team defense. Khalil Mack played the same role in all of those snaps, but split his reps in a two point stance and three point stance 6-6 in the base front. Rotoworld has yet to move Mack on their depth charts, so consider this a developing situation. I still expect Mack to be a defensive end this year. If that switch isn't made, Mack still belongs in the Houston/Miller range in the Rush LB tier. Also, with Mack on the line, there's room for two nickel backers. Curtis Lofton and Malcolm Smith are there currently. Sio Moore didn't practice last week and is again losing ground.
Stephone Anthony has won the middle linebacker job. The Saints won't make it official, but Anthony is seeing more and more first team reps and started there in the first preseason game. Anthony looked comfortable setting the defense, was under control and played his run fits well. He aggressively took on blocks and finished plays. With Eric Kendricks still fighting Audie Cole in Minnesota, Anthony has a clear advantage as the rookie linebacker most likely to succeed.
[Make sure you're checking the IDP article list frequently for my weekly tier updates. I'll be shooting for full updates before each week's set of preseason games.]
Unfortunately we aren't any closer to seeing what Bill Belichick has planned for his base defense. The first team Patriots' defense stayed in subpackages exclusively against the Green Bay offense last week. It was a mix of 4-2-5 and 2-4-5 looks, with Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich on the edges. Hopefully, the Saints use more pro sets on offense this week and we get a glimpse of the base New England front.
There may be wrinkles coming to Pittsburgh, too. Mike Tomlin is working some 4-3 looks into the base scheme. Ryan Shazier got the first middle linebacker look, but Lawrence Timmons is being given lots of veteran rest days. There could be big value swings everywhere in the front seven if this becomes more than a change of pace look.
I want to like Zach Brown. I really do. But his first preseason game rep had him taking a step in the opposite direction of the play and he continues to play with an extremely high pad level. None of this may matter if the Titans see as much tackle opportunity as expected, but it limits the tremendous upside Brown would have as the WILB in this defense. Avery Williamson and Da'Norris Searcy will benefit.
All of Buffalo's base snaps were a straightforward 4-3. There may be some wrinkles to come from Rex Ryan's multiple front roots, but any remaining reservations about the positional classification of Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes should be gone. And Mario Williams looked as explosive as ever. You'd have thought he was in his mid-20s. If he can avoid the nagging injuries he's struggled with in recent seasons, he could be a top three fantasy defensive end.
Donald Butler and Manti Te'o look locked in as starters right now. If the first preseason game was an trustworthy indicator, the Chargers may not rotate their inside linebackers by package this year. Butler and Te'o played every down in their two series together. Denzel Perryman and Kavell Conner followed and did the same. Perryman was playing Butler's role with the second team. That means Te'o may not have much competition this year and Perryman's ETA may not be until 2016 if Butler continues his strong play and stays healthy.
I'm always cautious about reading too much into a few preseason game reps, but I'm seeing the same issues with Demarcus Lawrence that were evident on his college game tape. Dallas' defensive scheme asks it's defensive ends to rush the quarterback first and play the run on the way to the pocket. Lawrence looks big and long, but was routinely taken to the ground within one or two steps of being engaged, especially on inside moves. It's a footwork issue and one that has to be corrected soon.
There is still no news on Jason Pierre-Paul. I can't see anyway he's ready for Week 1 now and the longer this goes, the more concerned I'll become about his career.
A few safety nuggets of note: The Bears aren't sure what they want to do opposite Antrel Rolle. Adrian Amos is now getting a look with the first team with Ryan Mundy and Brock Vereen failing to claim the position. D.J. Swearinger Sr may still be in the mix with Major Wright next to Bradley McDougald in Tampa Bay. I don't like the Swearinger fit any more than I liked the Carter fit. Andre Hal started in Houston, but rotated with Eddie Pleasant in the two first team series.
E.J. Gaines was under consideration as a roster-worthy cornerback in my tiers last week. He had surgery for a Lisfranc injury and is out for the season. Landon Collins (MCL) and Johnathan Cyprien (hand) are both expected to be available Week 1, as is Earl Thomas, who is recently back practicing. Keep on eye on calf injuries for Charles Johnson and William Moore.
Follow and ask questions on Twitter @JeneBramel. Reading the Defense will be a regular feature this offseason with free agent commentary, draft prospect previews, tier discussion, links to our offseason IDP roundtable podcasts and much more. Subscribe to The Audible on iTunes or download our IDP podcast here.
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