Reading the Defense: Transactions Update

Making sense of an offseason of changing defensive personnel, schemes, and roles



The Cardinals arguably made the highest impact defensive addition this offseason when they traded for Chandler Jones. It'll be interesting to see how often Arizona chooses to align Jones on the same side Calais Campbell and force offenses out of their comfort zone in pass protection. Both should remain highly productive pass rushers, but it's difficult to see both topping 50 solo tackles if they play on the same side of the formation. For fantasy purposes, the major story here is positional classification. Early reports have the Cardinals planning to list Jones as an outside linebacker on their depth chart. With Deone Bucannon already listed at linebacker on Rotoworld's depth chart, this season's DL and S tiers are likely to down one elite option each. The safety rotation also deserves our close attention. Tyrann Mathieu is recovering from an ACL tear, Tyvon Branch was added early in free agency while Rashad Johnson remains on the market, and D.J. Swearinger Sr may finally have found a scheme to match his talents. Branch and Swearinger may be battling for Johnson's productive in-the-box role.


There are lots of defensive names on the Falcons' transaction list, but arguably nothing of note here. Derrick Shelby is the headline acquisition, but doesn't profile as a 800+ snap impact pass rusher. Atlanta is already saying they see Shelby inside in their passing subpackages. Sean Weatherspoon couldn't carve out a role in Arizona's threadbare linebacker depth chart last year, but may work into an every-down role by default back in Atlanta. Ricardo Allen and Kemal Ishmael are early favorites to start at safety. With the lack of range at linebacker, both could be every week fantasy options at defensive back. Both Justin Durant and William Moore remain available as free agents.


Eric Weddle is the major acquisition in Baltimore and will remain an elite fantasy safety. C.J. Mosley will remain an elite fantasy linebacker. Everything else in Baltimore is an unknown. Veteran Daryl Smith was released. Arthur Brown is in a contract year, but has yet to do anything to suggest he's ready for a regular role. Zach Orr flashed late last season, and has a clearer path to a starting (and possibly every-down) role. Lardarius Webb is being transitioned to safety. If Webb can stay off the training table, his coverage ability will allow the Ravens to use Weddle in more of a run support role. Terrell Suggs is recovering from an Achilles tear and expects to return.


Mario Williams was a mess in Rex Ryan's scheme, but played nearly 900 snaps and the Bills do not have a ready replacement on the depth chart. If Buffalo cannot find a pass rushing threat to replace Williams -- and there may not be an NFL-ready talent in the draft -- teams will be able to focus more attention on Jerry Hughes. Ryan could choose to move back toward a 3-4 front, with Hughes moving to a standup outside linebacker role. However, the loss of Nigel Bradham leaves the inside linebacker options as thin as the pass rushers. How the Bills approach the draft will provide clues on Ryan's leaning here. The lone addition of note is Robert Blanton, who won't be guaranteed a starting role.


There haven't been many changes to the Panthers' defense. The Panthers released Charles Johnson, but were able to re-sign him after he took a handful of free agent visits. Kony Ealy will see another uptick in playing time with Jared Allen retired. The linebacker group is set with Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis, and Shaq Thompson. The only true unknown is how the Panthers will approach the safety position this offseason.


The Bears have turned over their linebacker group again, adding Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman. Christian Jones and Jonathan Anderson are still in Chicago, but neither are likely to crack the base defensive rotation. Keep an eye on developments in OTAs, however. Freeman doesn't have the range he once had, and neither Freeman nor Trevathan have been durable players in recent seasons. Any linebacker with every-down responsibilities in Chicago will arguably have elite tier opportunity. I like Trevathan much better, especially if he returns to the every-down responsibiilty the Broncos protected him from last season.


The Bengals couldn't keep Emmanuel Lamur from joining Mike Zimmer in Minnesota, but kept another key piece of their rotation by re-signing Vinny Rey. There's opportunity here for Paul Dawson, especially with Vontaze Burfict out for the first three games, but he'll have to show he can play the run fundamentally.  At safety, the Bengals were able to keep George Iloka but apparently frustrated Reggie Nelson with a lowball offer. Nelson hasn't had many suitors on the open market, but Cincinnati may be ready to move on with Shawn Williams or Derron Smith.


Karlos Dansby won't be a part of Cleveland's latest rebuilding effort. Demario Davis will replace him as the primary presence at linebacker. With Craig Roberston yet to re-signed, Christian Kirksey will have an open run at full time linebacker snaps unless the Browns draft a linebacker early. Both Davis and Kirksey will see lots of opportunity with a favorable stat crew. The Browns didn't release Donte Whitner and added Rahim Moore, but I wouldn't write Ibraheim Campbell off yet.


It looks like no one wants to touch Greg Hardy, including Jerry Jones. With Randy Gregory suspended for four games and deep into the substance abuse policy program and DeMarcus Lawrence recovering for what could be 3-4 months after a more extensive back surgery than expected, new acquisition Cedric Thornton may be more than a rotational piece immediately. Rolando McClain's five million dollar salary this year makes you wonder whether the Cowboys believe Anthony Hitchens will ever be a viable option in the middle.


The Broncos lost three important pieces from last year's Super Bowl winning defense. The linebacker group has experienced depth with Corey Nelson and Todd Davis, but neither are better than replacement level talent. Give the early nod to Davis, but he won't have a clear path to an every-down role. There's less depth to replace Malik Jackson. Expect the Broncos to address both areas in the draft. 


After reportedly telling Stephen Tulloch he'd be released, the Lions have now reportedly paid him a roster bonus. Whether he'll still be on the roster in August is anyone's guess, but the writing would appear to be on the wall. DeAndre Levy is supposed to be ready for training camp, but there's reason to wonder whether Levy's status had any bearing on Tulloch's developments. The draft and first OTA work will tell us more. The Lions have been in no hurry to re-sign James Ihedigbo, which could give free agent signing Rafael Bush a good chance at a starting job. Aside from Ezekiel Ansah, there isn't much clarity on Detroit's current depth chart.

green bay

The Packers want Clay Matthews back outside. That's clearly the best use of his pass rushing talent and will limit the boom-bust nature of his run defense. Whether Green Bay will give every-down snaps to the recovering Sam Barrington, the inconsistent Nate Palmer, or the still-developing Jake Ryan won't be decided until August. The team invested a high-mid round pick on Ryan and wanted to rely on Barrington heavily before his injury. Those two are the smartest bets currently.


2016 was always going to be the most realistic ETA for Benardrick McKinney. The Texans will hope he can thrive in an every-down role this season, but he'll have to prove he can handle himself in coverage. It's looking like another long offseason of safety evaluations here, without an obvious winner on the depth chart today.


Jerrell Freeman wasn't the same last season, but he was still a stabilizing every-down presence. That leaves an opening for Sio Moore to assume an every-down WILB role, but he'll have to prove he can hold up inside against the run to win base defensive snaps over the recovering Nate Irving. Clayton Geathers was high on my list of future prospects to watch last season and should get the first chance to replace the departed Dwight Lowery. Geathers' upside will be tied to the production of Freeman's replacements.


The Jaguars spent heavily on their defense in March. Malik Jackson doesn't profile as a double-digit sack edge rusher, but his all-around talent should play well as the closed end in Gus Bradley's scheme. Jackson could have elite upside if Dante Fowler recovers to full form after last summer's ACL tear. Prince Amukamara was one of the league's strongest cornerback tacklers in New York, but the surrounding cast in Jacksonville could limit his overall opportunity. Tashaun Gipson Sr's lucrative deal was a surprise. In this scheme, the Jaguars will hope he can play an Earl Thomas like role. Behind a solid tackling front seven and alongside a in-the-box player like Johnathan Cyprien, Gipson isn't likely to be more than a very high variance weekly play.

kansas city

The Chiefs defense is essentially intact, with Sean Smith the only change of note. Josh Mauga withstood a minor challenge from Ramik Wilson last season, returning to his preseason role after recovering from injury. Wilson is worth watching, as is Dee Ford, but any other compelling offseason story will have to come from the draft.

los angeles

The Rams saw enough of Mark Barron at weak side linebacker last season to move Alec Ogletree inside full time and let 29-year old James Laurinaitis go. Laurinaitis was one of the longest tenured starting linebackers in the league, running the Rams' huddle since 2009. It's a transition many outside linebackers have made over the years and Ogletree should manage well enough. William Hayes will get the bulk of the snaps opposite Robert Quinn, who the Rams hope will be much healthier than last season. It'll be a great sign if Quinn is able to participate early in offseason workouts this year. The Rams will also be remaking their secondary with two starters leaving in free agency. It's not yet clear who will start next to T.J. McDonald at safety.


The Dolphins will remain a 4-3 front under new defensive coordinator Vance Joseph but the personnel will be much different. Miami adds Mario Williams and Andre Branch, losing Olivier Vernon and Derrick Shelby, with Cameron Wake working to recover from a torn Achilles tendon. The best case scenario for Joseph will be to see a renaissance season from Williams and a full recovery from Wake, with Branch serving as a rotational rusher. It's not yet clear how the Dolphins will deploy Kiko Alonso and Jelani Jenkins. Neither are great bets to hold up at middle linebacker, but it's unlikely the team will use both at outside linebacker and move Koa Misi back inside. I lean toward projecting Alonso inside, but I'm still nervous about Alonso's knee. It's unusual for athletes to successfully rehab a partially torn ACL -- especially one that's been repaired previously -- without surgery.


With Chad Greenway's best years well behind him, Mike Zimmer prioritized Emmanuel Lamur and got him. Lamur was a regular part of Cincinnati's nickel rotation, but there may not be room for him in subpackages in Minnesota unless the Vikings morph into a front that allows Anthony Barr to play more of a pass rushing role. I don't see Lamur pushing Eric Kendricks to the bench in passing situations. The Vikings will probably keep Andrew Sendejo as their starting safety, but Michael Griffin could push for more than a rotational role. 

new england

The Patriots lose of the most dynamic pass rushers in the league, but Bill Belichick's defense is an scheme of execution and succeeds with and without elite talent. Don't underestimate what a combination of Jabaal Sheard, Rob Ninkovich, Dominique Easley, Dont'a Hightower, Jamie Collins Sr, and Chris Long can do -- assuming those pieces can stay healthy.

new orleans

The addition of James Laurinaitis is an interesting one. Stephone Anthony established himself as a every-down inside linebacker and Hau'oli Kikaha is developing into an all-around strong side backer in the mold of Anthony Barr and others. Unless Dennis Allen is planning to use Kikaha as a defensive end on some base defensive downs, Laurinaitis and Dannell Ellerbe will be competiting for snaps at one outside linebacker spot. Terms on Laurinaitis' deal haven't been released, but he had enough suitors to expect the Saints approached him with the plan to give him a starting role.

new york giants

The Giants have new faces at all three levels of their defense. As it often does in New York's scheme, the most notable changes happened in the front four. Jason Pierre-Paul will be fully recovered from his surgical procedures and playing to prove he's worthy of a lucrative deal. He'll be joined by Olivier Vernon, with second-year talent Owa Odighizuwa hoping to put last season's injury concerns behind him. Damon Harrison is an underrated add on the interior. The Giants added Janoris Jenkins at corner before losing Prince Amukamara. Jenkins is more of a gambler and less of a fundamental tackler than Amukamara. Keenan Robinson was signed to a one-year deal and will compete with the usual underwhelming cast of characters on the Giants' depth chart at linebacker. You'd expect the Giants to add bodies at linebacker through the draft, but I think I've typed that line every other year in this decade.

new york jets

Watch the Jets' moves during the draft. Quinton Coples was released last season, Calvin Pace hasn't been re-signed, and Demario Davis left in free agency. The Jets may have something at outside linebacker in second-year talent Lorenzo Mauldin, but there's nothing on the depth chart at inside linebacker next to David Harris. Erin Henderson has experience with the Jets, but remains a free agent and isn't more than replacement level talent. Should the Jets take an all-around inside linebacker early, there's room for immediate statistical impact here.


Oakland used multiple looks last year and added Bruce Irvin. Looking at the depth chart, it's not immediately evident which way the Raiders will lean, but Irvin made a point to note that he expects to be used differently than he was in Seattle. That would imply the Raiders told Irvin he'd line up at defensive end and rush the passer primarily. If true, it's hard to see Khalil Mack move to defensive end full time and you should expect to see him remain classified at linebacker. Just as interesting will be the Raiders' approach at linebacker with Curtis Lofton released. With Mack seemingly a given at strong side linebacker, Malcolm Smith and Ben Heeney are the current favorites to man the other two positions. Neither is a good fit inside. Neiron Ball could be an option, but he doesn't profile as a between-the-tackles talent either. If the Raiders make no further moves, I'd tentatively project Heeney as their starting middle linebacker.


Jim Schwartz runs a Wide-9 front, which will bring multiple important changes to how the Eagles approach their front seven alignment. Brandon Graham, Vinny Curry, and Connor Barwin will all now play defensive end and rush the passer exclusively. Graham and Curry aren't elite edge rushing talents, but both should be able to get to the passer in Schwartz's scheme. With Kiko Alonso and DeMeco Ryans gone, expect Mychal Kendricks and either Jordan Hicks or Nigel Bradham to play a stacked role behind the front four. The Eagles haven't spoken of their plans, but I think an alignment of Bradham at SLB, Hicks at MLB, and Kendricks at WLB, with Bradham leaving in subpackages makes the most sense. All three players could thrive in each role, however. The addition of Rodney McLeod and contract extension for Malcolm Jenkins would argue the new coaching staff sees Eric Rowe as a long term answer at cornerback rather than safety.


The Steelers might be the least exciting defense in the league right now. Hope for some new and talented additions in the draft.

san diego

The Chargers replaced Eric Weddle with Dwight Lowery, which is the opposite of an upgrade. Jahleel Addae may be the most attractive body at safety statistically. With three strong corners and Lowery at least viable as a deep safety, whomever the Chargers choose to play strong safety could have some value. With Donald Butler and Kavell Conner both released, the Chargers are putting the inside linebacker position fully into the hands of Denzel Perryman and Manti Te'o. It's a smart move. Te'o and Perryman were the most talented performers inside last year and deserved to play every down. Unless the Chargers add another veteran body, expect less rotation this year. 

san francisco

  • Hired HC Chip Kelly, DC Jim O'Neil (Fired Jim Tomsula, Eric Mangini)
  • Additions: LB Ray-Ray Armstong
  • Losses: 
  • Current Free Agents:
  • Re-signed: DL Quinton Dial, DT Ian Williams

Don't expect the Niners' defense to change much. Mangini's 3-4 front wasn't all that aggressive, but O'Neil's wasn't much better in Cleveland. The big difference here will be Kelly's speed offense in the hands of very little talent. Expect the Niners' defenders to be on the field for lots and lots and lots of snaps. If they can stay healthy, it's great news for the stat lines of NaVorro Bowman and Antoine Bethea.


Kevin Pierre-Louis could get an extended look in the base defense with Bruce Irvin moved onto Oakland. If that scenario plays out, expect K.J. Wright to play more on the strong side. Pierre-Louis won't have much statistical upside sandwiched between Bobby Wagner and Kam Chancellor. The other possibility is that the Seahawks transition Frank Clark into Irvin's old role.

tampa bay

Gone is the aggressive form of Tampa-2 zone scheme favored by Lovie Smith and Leslie Frazier. In comes Mike Smith, who runs a conservative 4-3 front with less Cover-2 principles. The Buccaneers added Robert Ayers to a solid, but not spectacular defensive rotation and will likely install veteran Daryl Smith at strong side linebacker. Defensive production will continue to run through Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander, with Bradley McDougald getting a small increase in value with fewer Cover-2 responsibility.


The Titans look to be replacing Zach Brown in their interior linebacker rotation with former Steeler Sean Spence. That's no surprise, as Dick LeBeau favors fundamentally sound front seven players and Brown struggled with run discipline and missed tackles. Spence could compete with Wesley Woodyard for snaps immediately. Avery Williamson should be our primary fantasy target here. There's no immediately attractive replacement for Michael Griffin. Expect the Titans to add at least one potential impact run defender in the draft.


Washington seemed impressed with Mason Foster late last season, but his two year deal was near the league minimum. Will Compton, barring a high draft pick of note, will be our primary target, with Perry Riley and Foster likely competing for snaps alongside Compton. With Dashon Goldson gone, David Bruton could be a sneakily strong defensive back target with DeAngelo Hall a rotational cover safety only.

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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