While many teams held their offensive starters out during the first week of the preseason, most played their defensive starters for at least one series. It provided an earlier than expected look at the base and subpackage depth charts and will give us something to work from in future weeks. Lots of notes from this week's preseason games and an updated every-down linebacker projection to follow.
CAMP NEWS AND NOTES
***The Falcons gave the veterans the first look at linebacker in the first preseason game. However, it wasn't the alignment you'd expect. There were rumors that Paul Worrilow was seeing more snaps at weak-side linebacker early in camp, but it was still surprising to see Worrilow there on the first preseason snap while Sean Weatherspoon played the middle. Weatherspoon looked better than he has in some time, but if he's Deion Jones' primary competition at middle linebacker it won't be long until Jones hits the top of the depth chart. Jones and fellow rookie De'Vondre Campbell played with the second team. Jones was indecisive at times, but Jones was quicker and played fast enough to show off his ability to be physical at the point of attack. It may not happen in Week 1, but Jones and Campbell are the every-down future in Atlanta.
***I was surprised to see Brandon Graham and Connor Barwin get the opening defensive snap for Philadelphia, but this is going to be a three-man rotation. Marcus Smith II isn't likely to work his way into the mix. All three players are going to get looks on the open end and it looks like they'll all get about 45-50 snaps a game while sitting out one of three series each. I still like Vinny Curry over Graham, with Barwin a half tier back of both. And Fletcher Cox is going to be dominant as an every-down three technique. Unfortunately, there's too much talent in this front seven. Between the defensive line studs and Jordan Hicks and Mychal Kendricks, there will be lots of weekly variance. Thankfully, the highs will be good enough to tolerate the spread of numbers.
***My spidey senses are tingling on DeAndre Levy. Still on NFI without an explanation, Levy was defensive in his responses in the locker room early this week when asked if his current absence is due to a knee injury that's been rumored. Levy wouldn't say more, only noting that he doesn't feel last year's hip surgery will limit him. Now nearly three weeks into camp practices, the Lions are going to have difficulty continuing to minimize Levy's absence. Tahir Whitehead and Josh Bynes are taking advantage of the every-down opportunity right now.
***One of the bigger stories this week was going to be the three man inside linebacker rotation in Indianapolis, with D'Qwell Jackson leaving the field on some downs. But Sio Moore blew out a hamstring covering a punt and will be out for an extended time. Durability has always been an issue for Moore and his injury likely closes the door on the rotation for some time. Jackson and Nate Irving are now heavy favorites to play every down in Week 1.
***Dante Fowler is going to be good but he didn't flash in the first preseason game. It's coming, though. Myles Jack looked healthy in his time at middle linebacker with the second team. It's a matter of time before he forces Paul Posluszny to strong side linebacker and starts competing with Telvin Smith Sr for every Jaguars' defensive tackle.
***Mason Foster is ahead of Perry Riley in the competition to play alongside Will Compton in Washington. However, the linebacker to have on your radar here -- particularly in big play leagues -- is outside linebacker Preston Smith. The second-year linebacker continues to look strong against the run and was dominant out of a three-point stance in subpackage alignments. It's a combination that will give Smith a shot at a 50-12 stat line. That's elite rush linebacker range. Su'a Cravens didn't play until later in the game but didn't look out of place at linebacker. Washington didn't show any dime looks, but I think we'll eventually see a Foster-Cravens platoon this year.
***Matt Waldman pointed it out multiple times while we discussed Bud Dupree in his Film Room series and at the Senior Bowl: Za'Darius Smith was easily the most technically sound edge rusher on the Kentucky defense that featured Dupree. Smith continues to look tremendous and toyed with his competition at times in the first preseason game. Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil will eventually be healthy enough to impact Smith's snap count, but there's value here in deep big play leagues.
***Darron Lee has yet to crack the first team on defense in any package. Erin Henderson continues to play ahead of Lee in the base package and Henderson stayed on the field in subpackages. Lee wasn't great in his time with the second team. But Henderson was not good at all. Lee will have to prove himself, but will eventually win this job. He'll need the full force of the New York stud defensive line to keep him clean enough to make tackles. The big beneficiary here -- if he can finally take advantage -- is Calvin Pryor.
***The Cardinals are going to vary their pass rushing looks. In the base, Chandler Jones is playing linebacker on the strong side with Calais Campbell at 5-technique on the weak side. But Jones and Campbell look to be coming from the same side on subpackage downs, with Jones standing up outside.
***Stephone Anthony left the Saints' preseason game with a leg injury last weekend. It was difficult to pick up an injury mechanism but reports suggest he won't miss much time. The more concerning development here is Anthony leaving the field in subpackages before the injury. If Dannell Ellerbe can stay healthy, that means Anthony will be a high variance 15-50 snap per week player.
***The Giants are so frustrating to chart. The defensive line rotation is always fun to watch. Olivier Vernon played very well, Jason Pierre-Paul is getting closer to his former self, and it was great to see Owa Odighizuwa work as the 3-technique in the starting subpackage defense. But the linebacker mess continues. The Giants started Devon Kennard (SLB), Jasper Brinkley (MLB), and Jonathan Casillas (WLB). They then used a mix of Casillas, Brinkley, and Kelvin Sheppard in the nickel packages. NFC East offensive coordinators should be salivating. Keenan Robinson is now the second team weak side linebacker next to rookie B.J. Goodson in the middle. Goodson was getting looks with Sheppard in the second team subpackages. The Giants are liable to do anything at linebacker in any given week, but Robinson's spot on the depth chart isn't good.
***Green Bay was without Jake Ryan and Sam Barrington in the first preseason game and started Joe Thomas and Blake Martinez at inside linebacker. Barrington is off PUP and Ryan will factor in the competition, too, eventually. I think the Packers want Barrington and Martinez to start, but it's too early to project for certain. With Burnett out, it's hard to know just how much dime hybrid looks the Packers want to use. Both inside linebackers played in subpackages, with only one snap where Micah Hyde played a hybrid linebacker role.
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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