We're nearly two weeks into camp now and defensive coordinators around the league are beginning to show their cards. Depth charts are becoming somewhat clearer. And beat writers are tweeting and writing about who's making plays and who isn't. While that can be deceiving, players who catch the eye of observers often carry their strong starts into the regular season.
camp news and notes
***I'll be rewriting the DL Tiers to reflect last month's report that J.J. Watt had back surgery. Watt most likely had a microdiscectomy to address ongoing symptoms related to a herniated disc. The 6-8 week recovery period isn't unreasonable, but most players who have had this procedure in the summer months -- including Jason Pierre-Paul in 2013 and Dontari Poe in 2015 -- have said it takes closer to three months before they feel themselves again.
***Watt isn't the only elite fantasy defender with an unclear injury situation. DeAndre Levy saw time during OTAs and minicamp, but is mysteriously absent and on the PUP list in Detroit. It feels like there's something new going on here. Watch this one carefully. Tahir Whitehead isn't a world-beating talent, but his situation continues to improve. If he starts the season behind a strong defensive line and flanked by Kyle Van Noy and Jonathan Bostic, his opportunity is going to be stellar.
***While it's silly to read too much into Twitter trends, Jacksonville defensive end Dante Fowler has far and away prompted the most beat writer love thus far. Every day, my timeline serves up multiple Vines of Fowler destroying overmatched tight ends and offensive tackles or notes about him blowing into the backfield for a big play. The 2015 edge rushing class hasn't lived up to its expectation (Vic Beasley Jr, Randy Gregory, Bud Dupree, and Fowler are all yet to return value) but Fowler looks to be coming on strong. He may not have been as quick off the edge as the others, but his tape was full of bad intentions. He looks fully recovered from last week's brutal ACL tear.
***Last offseason, I recommended caution on Benardrick McKinney. There were reasons to worry about his ability to hang in coverage and earn an every-down role, even on a lackluster depth chart. McKinney showed promise toward the end of last season and has consistently been called out as an improved player by head coach Bill O'Brien. The Texans' coaches have frequently noted McKinney's improved coverage skill and all signs point to the second year linebacker playing every down this year. I don't think this is another NaVorro Bowman situation in the making, but McKinney will be moving higher in my next set of tiers.
***The Eagles are going to rotate their defensive ends. Vinny Curry has been playing in all packages, with Connor Barwin and Brandon Graham rotating at the other end. All three will likely see subpackage time, making all three worth rostering.
***Reggie Ragland is drawing the praise of Buffalo head coach Rex Ryan early in camp. Although his tape showed more between-the-tackles ability than range and coverage skill, Ryan installed Ragland at weak inside linebacker to open camp and suggested his pass defense would be able to pass muster. However, you have to wonder just how much zone Ryan can play with a blitzing scheme. And a Friday injury could set Ragland's development back significantly. If things break perfectly and Ragland plays to Ryan's expectation, he'll shoot up my tiers soon.
***Watch the Falcons' first two preseason games closely. Deion Jones hasn't formally pushed Paul Worrilow out of the starting middle linebacker job, but Worrilow is seeing more and more snaps at weak side linebacker. It's probably only a matter of time before Jones wins the job. Jones isn't the only rookie to watch here. De'Vondre Campbell may win an every-down job at one outside linebacker spot, too.
***Ben Heeney set IDP fans abuzz last week after news broke that he'd be trusted with the green dot and helmet communication this year. Heeney was already in line to play every down, but this cements his role. Whether Heeney can be successful over 1000 snaps is an open question, but the trend is good here.
***The Packers are struggling to find workable solutions at inside linebacker. Clay Matthews was never a fit inside and Sam Barrington remains on the PUP list. That has forced the coaches to pair Jake Ryan, who didn't impress last year, and rookie Blake Martinez with the first team. But the most interesting development here is Dom Capers taking a long look at Morgan Burnett in the nickel linebacker role. That's potentially great news for Burnett, who should thrive if used as safety/linebacker hybrid.
***The Colts are giving Sio Moore a long look in the base defense early in camp. Nate Irving will likely rotate into most base packages, but Moore may push the oft-injured veteran aside. Beat reporters are seeing multiple packages in camp practices and a close read of the notes implies that D'Qwell Jackson could see time on the bench in certain situations, too.
***Zachary Orr looked to have easily defeated whatever challenge Arthur Brown had put up to play inside linebacker next to C.J. Mosley in Baltimore. But no one foresaw rookie Kamalei Correa coming. Better known as an edge rusher in college, Correa has impressed the Ravens' coaches with his all-around play early in camp. He's already earning first team reps in rotation with Orr. If his play continues to impress during the first preseason game, Correa will be worthy of a speculative add next week.
***Christian Kirksey is holding off the rest of the depth chart potentials to play inside linebacker in Cleveland. Scooby Wright, Joe Schobert, and Tank Carder have all drawn praise at times, but this is Kirksey's job to lose for now. Never fulfilling the potential Mike Pettine saw in him, I'm still skeptical of Kirksey, who didn't impress with his college tape.
***Stop me if you've heard this before. The Giants do not have a clear plan at linebacker. Earlier in the offseason, free agent signee Keenan Robinson was expected to start at middle linebacker. It didn't take long for Jasper Brinkley to force his way into first team reps and that's how the Giants started camp -- until Brinkley strained a hamstring. Now observers are calling this a three-player battle, with rookie B.J. Goodson in the mix, too. I still like Devon Kennard -- if healthy -- to prove himself the best all-around backer on the depth chart. But nothing is certain except uncertainty again.
***The linebacker battle in Washington isn't much clearer. Will Compton is likely cemented at one spot. But Perry Riley, who started camp on PUP, is already pushing for first team reps over Mason Foster. And Su'a Cravens is going to have a subpackage role as a linebacker. Preseason alignments may be fluid until late in August unfortunately.
***Danielle Hunter may not displace Brian Robison in the base package but he's now a full time subpackage rush end. That could mean 600-700 high opportunity snaps for an athletic and explosive player who has done nothing but improve under Mike Zimmer's scheme and coaching.
***The Jaguars are working Myles Jack behind Paul Posluszny for now rather than putting Jack with the first team at strong side linebacker. This isn't going to last. And with the initial plan being Jack as a backup inside linebacker, it's Posluszny who's most likely to end up outside.
UPDATED tiers are coming
I'll be updating each set of defensive positional tiers over the next few days. Look for them by early next week.
The J.J. Watt news will shake up the strategic plan at defensive end for many of you. And many of the notes above will affect how the linebacker tiers break out.
EVERY-DOWN LINEBACKER PROJECTION
This chart will be a projection for now. It's difficult to project subpackage depth charts during the preseason. Some teams play it straight and align as they expect to during the regular season. Others put different combinations of players on film for teaching and evaluation purposes. Figuring out which is which is often a fool's errand.
That will not stop me from trying, however.
I'll update this table every week between now and Week 17.
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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