The preseason is in full swing, so it's time to take stock of some of the defensive situations with the biggest potential to impact the IDP landscape. In some cases we have more clarity than we did a month ago, while in others the waters remain muddy. With loads of fantasy drafts happening over the next two weekends, here's a look at the IDP news and notes from around the league.
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There’s been a lot of speculation on the Bills linebacker situation since Kiko Alonso went down with a torn ACL in the offseason. While we initially thought we had some clarity, slotting Nigel Bradham into the every-down role, Buffalo has rotated Bradham in and out of the subpackages with Keith Rivers. That leaves Brandon Spikes as the best candidate to play three downs. Spikes has teased us before, flashing huge fantasy upside in New England, but never securing subpackage duties. However, I’d take a chance on this sticking for Spikes. He’s now a high upside LB3 who you can certainly get at a discount on draft day.
You won’t be able to get Chandler Jones at a discount, but the third-year man offers massive fantasy value this season, especially given the news that he’s seeing some snaps at outside linebacker. Jones impressed on Friday night, recording two sacks against the Panthers. This is the season Jones really breaks out. Likewise, I expect Jamie Collins to do the same. The IDP world seems to have caught up to Collins, but there’s a good chance your league mates haven’t. He’s a priority scoop as your LB3.
Dannell Ellerbe was a bit of a disaster at middle linebacker for the Dolphins last season, grading out as the No. 50 inside linebacker out of 55 qualifiers at Pro Football Focus. Miami learned their lesson, moving Ellerbe to the strong side and installing Koa Misi in the middle. Misi has looked good so far in the preseason, but more importantly, he’s playing in the subpackages along with Ellerbe. With his high tackle floor, Misi is an ultra-sneaky late-round LB3 with him getting preference over Ellerbe.
Ryan Shazier looks really fast. The rookie has struggled at times against the run, but he’s racked up 15 total tackles in roughly five quarters of play over the last two preseason games. He may not have a Kuechly-like IDP impact this season, but Shazier is clearly going to be a strong option. Consider him an extremely high upside LB3. At the same time, Shazier’s play has made Lawrence Timmons almost look like he’s standing still. He had a nice play on Thursday where he shot the gap on a toss to LeSean McCoy, but otherwise hasn’t particularly stood out. At this point, I’d almost rather Shazier over Timmons.
Speaking of promising rookies, C.J. Mosley appears to be inked into a three-down role for the Ravens. Last week against the Cowboys, Mosley was in on every defensive snap along with Daryl Smith until about the mid-way point of the second quarter. Like Shazier, Mosley isn’t completely polished yet, but he has looked very comfortable on the field and has even flashed some upside as a pass rusher. He’s right with Shazier in our rankings and should be considered a high-ceiling LB3.
We unfortunately can’t say the same about Christian Kirksey just yet. Despite drawing praise from Browns head coach Mike Pettine, Kirskey is still running behind Craig Robertson on the Cleveland depth chart. Ultimately, this is a matter that will sort itself out over time. Robertson is just another guy, while Kirksey is a dynamic three-down player. It may take a few weeks for him to crack the starting lineup, but Kirksey is still worth a late-round flier.
Staying on the rookie theme, the prognosis isn’t quite as good for Telvin Smith down in Jacksonville. Smith got mixed in with the ones last weekend, but he looked to be more Paul Posluzsny’s replacement than he was an entrenched starter. What we’re most likely to see from Smith in the short-term is a subpackage role only with Geno Hayes and LaRoy Reynolds playing in the base defense. Of course, this is a situation that could change quickly.
One of the players people have asked me about the most this preseason is Jadeveon Clowney. He’s certainly looked the part of a No. 1 overall pick thus far, but his IDP impact may be a bit up and down this season. The Texans are going to use Clowney in an every-down role, but his fantasy value is depressed since most commissioner sites classify him as an outside linebacker. Keep this and your league scoring system in mind if you’re considering drafting Clowney.
The Titans linebacker situation seems to have worked itself out at this point in the preseason. Wesley Woodyard is locked into one of the inside spots, and he’s a fantastic value right now. It appears Zack Brown is entrenched at the other spot, after he played every-down last week against the Saints. Brown has given us moments of joy and pain as IDP owners in the past, but he’s a very quick player who has the chops to hang in coverage. With folks looking elsewhere on draft day, Brown makes for an ideal late-round snag.
Just when we thought we had the Broncos linebacker situation all figured out, Danny Trevathan fractured his left tibia and is likely out for the first month of the season. This doesn’t kill Trevathan’s fantasy value, but you should definitely bump him down a tier on your draft board. If you’re looking to find value in the wake of this event, it’s likely we’ll see Brandon Marshall (no, not that Brandon Marshall) fill in for Trevathan. Marshall started and played every-down with the ones, while Nate Irving rotated off in some subpackages. Marshall is by no means a long-term option, but streamers in deep leagues could get a few weeks of starter production out of him.
The linebacker situation in Oakland has been a bit of an enigma this preseason with Miles Burris and Sio Moore engaged in a battle for the starting job on the weak side. Unfortunately, this situation got even cloudier after Moore was carted off the field Friday with an apparent neck injury. While neck injuries are certainly a very serious matter, it sounds like Moore avoided significant injury. He was diagnosed with a neck strain, released from the hospital, and flew home with the team. At this point, it’s looking likely we won’t have much clarity on this situation any time soon.
However, we do have clarity on the linebacker situation in San Diego. Donald Butler and Manti Te’o are locked in as the starters, but the question ultimately centered on Te’o’s involvement in the subpackages. While Te’o hasn’t played every down, he has been in on a number of the Chargers’ nickel packages. Te’o doesn’t offer the biggest fantasy ceiling, but that’s the confirmation we needed to solidify him in the LB4 range.
Mychal Kendricks has looked like he’s been shot out of a cannon this preseason. Unlike what we saw out of him in his first two seasons, Kendricks appears to be doing a lot less thinking and just reacts to plays. He’s also serving as the lone dime ‘backer with DeMeco Ryans coming off the field. I initially thought Ryans would be the better fantasy option, but the preseason has changed my mind. Kendricks looks like he could be on the verge of a breakout, and makes for a high ceiling LB2.
The going got a little bit tougher in Dallas after Davonte Holloman’s career is likely over following the neck injury he sustained last weekend. With a paper-thin linebacker corps, the Cowboys are experimenting with rookie Anthony Hitchens at middle linebacker. This move shifts Justin Durant back over to the weak side and Bruce Carter off the field. It’s not likely there’s much fantasy value to be had here, but Hitchens might offer some upside if he sticks in the subpackages.
While he’s struggled a bit so far in the preseason, Keenan Robinson appears to have a firm grip on the starting inside linebacker job opposite Perry Riley in Washington. Robinson is a player to target in the later rounds as a fourth or fifth linebacker with the potential to produce LB3-plus numbers.
The Packers have been running with Brad Jones as the lone every-down inside linebacker throughout the preseason, yet the fantasy community has yet to catch on to this development. Jones is still going undrafted in ADP, which means there are roughly 50 linebackers coming off the board before him. That means you can get LB2 value as your fourth or even fifth linebacker, which is downright robbery.
We don’t have anywhere near as much clarity in Minnesota, where Jasper Brinkley and Audie Cole are competing for the starting middle linebacker job. According to head coach Mike Zimmer, Cole and Brinkley are neck and neck, so we’re unlikely to know who wins this battle until the season opens. Even then we’re likely to see some form of rotation between the two. While we’ve seen loads of IDP value out of the Vikings middle linebacker in the past, you’re best bet is to avoid this situation unless a clear-cut three-down player emerges.
There are also questions at middle linebacker in Chicago. D.J. Williams is going to start. That much we know. However, it’s really up in the air if he plays every down. At this point, it’s looking like he won’t after the Bears rotated Jon Bostic in for Williams in the nickel packages last weekend. Bostic struggled last season, but has actually looked pretty good so far in the preseason. There’s still a chance he works his way into an every-down starting job, but not immediately. We’re likely to see a rotation here meaning the only IDP-relevant Bears linebacker is Lance Briggs.
Kenny Vaccaro is one of the players I’m most excited about entering 2014, and he has yet to disappoint so far this preseason. Last week against the Titans, in what was essentially a half of play Vaccaro had four tackles, a sack, and a forced fumble. He’s in store for a big season, and should be a priority defensive back on draft day.
We’ve seen flashes of strong fantasy production out of Mason Foster in the past, but he’s never been able to stick in the subpackages. Well, that looks like it could be changing this season, as Foster has played all three downs for the Bucs and has drawn praise for his coverage thus far in camp. Lavonte David will still get his, so no need to worry on that front. However, Foster offers a high tackle floor with added big play upside. It wouldn’t surprise me if he finishes the season as an LB2.
Like Dallas, the Atlanta linebacker corps was hit hard this offseason, losing Sean Weatherspoon to a torn Achilles. This opened the door for Paul Worrilow to cement himself as an LB1 option, but the question is who plays along with Worrilow. While some speculated rookie Prince Shembo might get a shot, so far it’s been all Joplo Bartu. The second-year man played every down along with Worrilow with the ones last weekend, and looks fairly inked in as a starter. His fantasy ceiling is much lower than Worrilow’s, but those in deeper leagues may want to snag Bartu late. Any three-down linebacker has IDP value.
With NaVorro Bowman likely sidelined until Week 9, the 49ers obviously have a huge to fill in the middle of their defense. So far, we’ve seen them use both Michael Wilhoite and rookie Chris Borland with the first team, and neither player has really taken the job and ran with it. Of the two, Borland looked the slightly better option last week, but it’s still too early to tell if he’ll get the gig. Whoever does start is likely to have strong replacement value, especially for the Bowman owner. So make sure to keep a close eye on this situation in San Francisco’s next dress rehearsal on Sunday.
Like Bowman, Tyrann Mathieu suffered a late-season knee injury. Unlike Bowman, Mathieu will not open the season on the reserve/PUP list. Mathieu was cleared for 11-on-11 work this week, and there’s growing optimism he’ll be on the field for the Cards in Week 1. He may be eased in initially, but this is great news for Mathieu’s fantasy prospects. His injury pushed him down draft boards, so you’re likely to get Mathieu at a nice discount.
K.J. Wright hasn’t proven to be much of a fantasy commodity thus far in his career, but that could all change this season. Seahawks linebacker coach Ken Norton expects Wright to “have a huge, breakout season.” While we often hear coaches making similar comments at this time of year, I’m inclined to buy into what Norton’s saying. At 6-foot-4 and 250lbs, Wright has excellent size for the position, and also excels in coverage. His fantasy value is capped slightly by the Seahawks’ defensive prowess, but Wright is an interesting late-round option who offers some intriguing fantasy upside.
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