Going through each game of the first week of preseason can be akin to watching paint dry, unless you’re a super nerd for IDP like me. I love it, because it helps me answer lots of questions and test assumptions on what the offseason and training camp has set in motion.
Allow me to break down each team’s defensive movers, position battles, and rookie impacts for you.
Zaven Collins and Isaiah Simmons are indeed the starting ILBs. That confirms what we’ve heard all summer about Jordan Hicks being replaced. Both Collins and Simmons played well and seemed comfortable as a duo. Arrows are pointing way up on these guys. At this stage I’d lean Collins ever so slightly as he’s the signal caller, but that’s splitting hairs.
No Budda Baker, Chandler Jones, or J.J. Watt, but the Thompson Twins (Deointe Thompson and Jalen Thompson) were the starting safeties and were essentially interchangeable. That said, I don’t see either of these being fantasy relevant except in leagues where you start four DBs.
In typical Dean Pees fashion, the safety rotation was three-fold and largely unpredictable. But we did get another clue that Erik Harris and Duron Harmon are the starting safety duo. They’ve been running with the 1s all camp and sat out the first preseason game along with other presumed starters Grady Jarrett, A.J. Terrell, Foye Oluokun, and Deion Jones. Second-round rookie Richie Grant played most of his snaps in the slot, while UDFA Dwayne Johnson, Jr. graded very well per PFF playing a ton in the box. That’s a name to pencil in at the bottom of your dynasty notes.
Second-year DL Marlon Davidson is having a strong camp which translated to 3 tackles and 1 sack in his 34 snaps. Another second-year player — LB Mykal Walker — is also having a strong camp, but that didn’t translate to success in his first preseason game. He did split a sack on a blitz. Walker is ticketed for the 3rd LB role, which is essentially a backup to Jones and Oluokun. Speaking of Oluokun, he’s moved to the MIKE backer spot and is now the signal caller. That means he’s their 3-down LB. We’ll see Jones on almost every down too of course, but it’s noteworthy for Oluokun’s currently-depressed draft value.
The main starters saw about 8-10 snaps, including secondary stalwarts Chuck Clark, DeShon Elliott, Marcus Peters, and Marlon Humphrey. What’s notable is that they kept Patrick Queen out there for 20 snaps, getting work in with fellow LB Malik Harrison. Harrison has been doing well in camp and had 4 tackles in his first preseason action. We could see more of Harrison this season, but it’s unlikely it will be enough to make him fantasy relevant. Baltimore’s defense is complex, and no one shows anything remotely complex in preseason, so there’s not much to glean here, other than the development of these young LBs. Third-round rookie safety Brandon Stephens is in position to be the team’s third safety, which is a big leap for a player who until recently was a running back.
As I detailed in my IDP Defensive Flyover, the Bills have a predictable (read: reliable) defense, so we’re not expecting many surprises here. Most of the starters rested, so again not much to glean from this first preseason action. One person stuck out: rookie EDGE Greg Rousseau. Our man Greg Cosell thought Rousseau was one of the best edge-rushing prospects in the draft and Rousseau is making him look like a smart man. It helps that Cosell IS a smart man, but you get the point. Rousseau had 3 total pressures (including 1 sack) on 12 pass-rushing snaps. Beyond the numbers, he looked the part: disruptive, quick, and powerful. As also detailed in the IDP Defensive Flyover, the Bills will rotate a lot on their line, so Rousseau won’t be valuable in balanced or tackle-heavy leagues, but he’s got tons of big-play upside as a rotational pass rusher who should see more snaps than other rookie EDGEs.
Not that there was much doubt about whether he was a Day One starter, but Jaycee Horn didn’t play this weekend because the starters sat. Kenny Robinson, Jr. — Jeremy Chinn’s backup — had a strong game with 2 tackles and an INT. But perhaps more interesting is his alignment. He mostly played deep safety. I don't think Chinn will play deep that much, but it’s another clue to add to the Panthers and Chinn talking about keeping him healthier by having him move farther from the line of scrimmage. I’m still not completely convinced this will be the case.
The Bears sent their on-ball starters out — including EDGEs Khalil Mack and Robert Quinn, and DTs Akiem Hicks and Bilal Nichols. NT Eddie Goldman just came off the COVID-19 list, so we didn’t see him. Instead, rookie Khyiris Tonga saw snaps with the starters when the alignment called for a nose. Second-string LBs Christian Jones and Alec Ogletree got the “start,” which could be an indication that neither is a threat to Danny Trevathan’s job next to Roquan Smith. Trevathan is 31 but still playing well.
Chicago is hoping CB Duke Shelley hangs onto the slot corner job, so naturally he started there. But he needs to continue to earn that spot. The other position battle is between veteran Desmond Trufant and second-year corner Kindle Vildor. Trufant is nursing a groin injury, so Vildor had a clear shot to prove he belongs in the starting lineup. If he wins this, the Bears will be sending out a young group of corners (including fellow second-year corner Jaylon Johnson).
The Bengals starters played a series, so we were able to check in with them briefly. We got semi-confirmation that Logan Wilson is poised to be the 3-down LB for Cincinnati. He started and stayed on the field for all 6 starting defense snaps. Yep. 6 whole snaps. Hence the “semi-confirmation.” Wilson continually has strong practices and has been wearing the green dot, so it looks like all systems go for Wilson to be a solid fantasy contributor this season. Rookie Joseph Ossai started and had 7 pressures, 1 sack, and 2 tackles in 23 snaps…mostly against Tampa Bay’s strong starting O-line. It’s still early, but that’s as good as a rookie can do to earn significant snaps in September. A bad sign for his September snaps is the wrist injury he suffered. As of this writing, there’s no update on the severity of it.
We saw a 5-man front to open the game, an indication of the rising usage of this Bear (Bear-like) front across the league. We also saw the Bengals’ Speed package of three DEs (Sam Hubbard, Ossai, and Trey Hendrickson) and one DT (rookie Cameron Sample, who subbed for Larry Ogunjobi who is nursing a hamstring). Not that we were worried, but it was nice to see Hubbard remain on the field for early and late downs. He’s normally a run-stopper, so seeing him still used as a pass-rusher is a good sign for his ceiling.
Cleveland mostly rested their defensive starters like Myles Garrett, Jadeveon Clowney, and Denzel Ward. But with Anthony Walker still injured, the team was a bit thin at LB. Jacob Phillips, Sione Takitaki, and Mack Wilson all played early, though Wilson left the game with a grade-1 AC joint shoulder sprain. The star of the game was rookie (and second-rounder) Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, who had a great game but was clearly running with the backups. Outside of Walker, things are still up in the air in terms of LB usage and playing time.
There’s a battle for the cornerback job opposite Ward. Greedy Williams and rookie Greg Newsome II are competing for a potentially fantasy-relevant spot. Both started with Ward sitting, but neither had a particularly good showing. This one is still TBD.
Watching these LBs rotate around gives me a headache. Granted, it doesn’t take much to confuse me, but this will take some time to sort out. So far, it’s looking like Micah Parsons is the guy to roster. Color me concerned about Jaylon Smith’s playing time. I was already concerned about Leighton Vander Esch’s playing time. Neither Smith nor LVE played well last season, and Parsons has been burning up training camp and preseason. All three LBs should play a good number of snaps, but if I didn’t know any better, I’d say DC Dan Quinn is copying Kansas City’s 4-man rotation in the box: three LBs and one safety (Keanu Neal, playing the part of Daniel Sorensen).
Last year’s third-round pick DT Neville Gallimore suffered an elbow injury and is expected to miss some time. Gallimore is slated to start at the 3-tech spot this season. Second-round CB Kelvin Joseph was solid but had some bad miscues against opposing backup QB Colt McCoy, which doesn't bode well for his chances to supplant Anthony Brown across from Trevon Diggs comes Week One.
In his two preseason games (including very limited action in the Hall of Fame Game), Keanu Neal has played all his snaps as an LB. We’ve seen Neal and Parsons featured as a duo on obvious passing downs.
Last season, LB Josey Jewell had been a liability in coverage and the Broncos hoped that rookie Justin Strnad would provide some relief on passing downs next to Alexander Johnson. Strand suffered a season-ending wrist injury and missed all of last season. This time, it’s Jewell who is injured (though nowhere near as severely) and Strnad has picked up the slack in practice and in his first preseason action (5 tackles in 23 snaps). Consider Jewell’s grip on the full-time 2nd LB spot tenuous.
First-round CB Patrick Surtain II showed up to play. He didn’t give up a completion on 20 snaps, converting one of those pass attempts into a pick-6.
The Lions trotted out their starting D, which makes sense considering the massive overhaul the coaching staff and players went through this offseason. MIKE Alex Anzalone is calling plays, while Jamie Collins continues his hybrid OLB duties next to Anzalone. After cutting Quinton Dunbar, it does look like Amani Oruwariye — who was running ahead of Dunbar in camp — is the starting outside corner opposite Jeff Okudah.
It appears the craziness with safety alignment and usage from last year may have gone the way of the dodo. Will Harris and Tracy Walker were back to being the starters. This should breathe life back into Walker’s fantasy value.
Green Bay Packers
We’ve heard all Summer that Krys Barnes was being handed the keys to the defense and this weekend’s game brought visual confirmation of exactly that. Barnes wore the green dot and graded well per PFF, with 2 tackles and a defensive stop in his 13 snaps. Meanwhile, Oren Burks opened the game next to Barnes (the team is resting vet De’Vondre Campbell) and also had a strong game, with 6 tackles, 2 QB pressures, and 1 sack in 41 snaps. I wouldn’t be surprised if the team doesn’t rotate Burks in at the expense of Campbell’s snaps at some point this season.
The 3rd safety spot behind Adrian Amos and Darnell Savage should belong to Vernon Scott, last season’s seventh-round pick. He’s ascended quickly and while he’s not fantasy-relevant, keeping his name in mind in case of an injury to the starters might help you pick him up before your league mates. Scott had 6 tackles and held up well in coverage (QBs were 2/6 when targeting him) in 64 snaps. Chandon Sullivan seems locked in as the slot corner (and possibly the “star” role as a roving DB). He saw 3 pass-rush snaps in the box, giving him some big-play upside if the Packers run out their Nickel and Dime packages as often as they ran them over the last few years.
Not much to report here as most starters sat. Slot corner Desmond King played well and should be locked in as the nickel corner. What was interesting was Shaq Lawson — a presumed starter — played 27 snaps and didn’t register a pressure. Lawson played way too deep into this game to not raise eyebrows for why he was still out there. While depth charts are notoriously trash this time of year, the fact that he’s not listed as a starter would normally be completely worthless. But coupled with his “I’m trying to make the team” usage in the first preseason game has me worried. I’m sure he’ll make the team, but with the heavy rotation we’re already expecting from this D-line, Lawson’s snaps might not be robust come Week One.
With rookie Kwity Paye a little banged up (he’s back at practice now), no starters of fantasy relevance played this past weekend. FS Julian Blackmon got some much-needed live reps, as did third-safety Sean Davis (and rookie safety Shawn Davis…THAT’S not gonna be confusing at all).
Rock Ya-Sin might have pulled ahead of T.J. Carrie for the starting cornerback spot opposite Xavier Rhodes. Zaire Franklin had a great game and should be snapped up off the waiver wire should anything happen to Darius Leonard or Bobby Okereke.
Unlike most teams, the Jags sent their first-teamers out for some solid reps. With a new HC and DC, this makes sense. Live reps are crucial for installing a whole new scheme. Sure enough, Damien Wilson was starting next to Myles Jack (as we suggested might happen two weeks ago). We also saw Josh Jones and Rayshawn Jenkins as the starting safeties and Shaquill Griffin and Tre Herndon as the starting outside corners. I’m still not sure who will be more productive between Jones and Jenkins. Once they play more snaps, we’ll get a better feel for production and roles for these two. Jarrod Wilson is also rotating with Jones, so I’m avoiding this crew until we have more clarity.
Nothing shocking about their D-line usage: Roy Robertson-Harris, Davon Hamilton, and Malcom Brown in the middle, with Josh Allen and K’Lavon Chaisson outside. They were looking decidedly like a 3-4 unit.
Backups Andre Cisco (safety) and C.J. Henderson (CB) had strong games, so they may find their way into games sooner rather than later.
Kansas City Chiefs
With Willie Gay, Jr. inactive due to a concussion, we were robbed of the chance to see how he fits in with this LB group. Instead, we saw vets Anthony Hitchens (green dot) and Ben Niemann, with rookie Nick Bolton as the 3rd LB. My guess is that Gay will replace Niemann, but that’s just a guess. It may be another year of four LBs rotating and also making room for Daniel Sorensen in the box. Gay was back at practice on Monday having cleared concussion protocol, so he should be featured in the 2nd preseason game. Unlike last season, Juan Thornhill seems to be farther down the safety pecking order. It’s currently all Sorensen and Tyrann Mathieu, as Thornhill has had an inconsistent camp and made some gaffes in the first preseason game.
Las Vegas Raiders
Ah, yes. Clelin Ferrell. Now that’s a name I haven’t heard in a long time [to be read in Obi-Wan Kenobi’s voice]. Ferrell has been an inconsistent and disappointing player for the Raiders, but he’s flashed his early-round talent in the past. That makes it hard to get excited about his 3 pressures and 1 QB hit in 13 “starting” snaps. Still, it’s a reminder that if he ever consistently shows his talents, Ferrell could be a stud. For now, especially considering the heavy rotation expected from this D-line, he’s merely a mirage in a dual-sun desert. Come to think of it, Vegas is about as close to Mos Eisley as you can get.
Other defensive starters to see action were DT Quinton Jefferson and starting safety duo Jonathan Abram and Tre’von Moehrig. Moehrig played exclusively deep safety, while Abram bounced from deep safety in 2-high sets to box and slot defender in single-high sets. This aligns with what we pegged these two safeties to do in the regular season.
Los Angeles Chargers
The Chargers went with the “some starters sit, some starters play” approach on defense. Sitting: Joey Bosa, Derwin James, Jerry Tillery, Kenneth Murray, Linval Joseph, and Chris Harris. That created opportunities to see some camp battles. Like Uchenna Nwosu and Kyler Fackrell for primary edge-rushing duties across from Bosa (though both will play in 3-DE pass rush sets). Fackrell won this round, with 3 pressures in 17 snaps, versus 0 pressures in 17 snaps for Nwosu. But that’s a stupidly small sample size.
Both Drue Tranquill and Kyzir White played well in the fight to get snaps next to Murray. That makes this LB rotation still a mess. And with the safety James calling the plays, there’s no guarantee that any of these 3 LBs will be consistent for fantasy.
Los Angeles Rams
Mmm. More backups? Yummy! Not that there was much doubt in how this defense will look in Week One, there’s not much to see here, except a few backup roles being solidified. EDGE Justin Lawler stole the show and — along with his strong camp so far — should have just sealed his fate as the direct backup to Leonard Floyd.
With the top four LBs resting, rookie Ernest Jones got a chance to wear the green dot and he excelled. Deep, deep dynasty stash. Or, more appropriately, a name to file away for down the road.
It was a mix of starters and backups for Miami, as starting CBs Xavien Howard and Byron Jones sat, as well as EDGEs Emmanuel Ogbah and Jaelen Phillips. Do we assume Phillips is the starter because he sat with Ogbah (i.e. the EDGE position group starters sat)? Seems odd to not let the rookie get some live reps, but then again he’s had lots of live reps this week due to joint practices. Either way, Miami rotates a ton up front so it’s doubtful Phillips has a 90%+ snap share out of the gate.
So who DID play? Starting DTs Raekwon Davis and Christian Wilkins played a few snaps. I love both of these guys in DT-required leagues (Wilkins has more upside). Jerome Baker and Benardrick McKinney played in 2-LB sets, and as expected it was Baker as the sole LB in Miami’s Big Dime (3 CBs, 3 Safeties, 4 DLs, 1 LB) sets.
Rookie Jevon Holland got a chance to play some deep safety snaps with the presumed starters, so it’s good to see him on the field. But it was veteran Eric Rowe who played more around the line of scrimmage and should be the better producer for fantasy.
While most starters sat, there is a competition for starting DE across from Danielle Hunter. Stephen Weatherly has been losing his grip on the job to D.J. Wonnum, and the first preseason game only put Wonnum more in the lead. Does this end with Wonnum being a full-time player, or will these two just rotate, making both practically useless for fantasy?
There’s clearly zero competition at linebacker. Starters Eric Kendricks, Anthony Barr, and Nick Vigil all rested, while backups Troy Dye, Cameron Smith, and rookie Chaz Surratt struggled mightily and were the main cause of the Vikings’ 33-6 preseason defeat at the hands of the Broncos.
The backup cornerbacks didn’t fare much better, either. Most troubling was potential starter Cameron Dantzler, who struggled while Patrick Peterson, Bashaud Breeland, and Mackenzie Alexander all sat.
New England Patriots
Adrian Phillips’ usage last season wasn’t a fluke. He was used on all three levels in his first preseason action and excelled in this role. Expect a similar outlook for Phillips this season: some great games but also some inconsistency due to his varied roles. That said, he should play every snap if healthy. Second-year S Kyle Dugger also moved around a ton. He’s still third in the pecking order, but he looks poised to replace veteran Devin McCourty when he retires.
Matthew Judon and Kyle Van Noy are definitely the starting OLBs, and rightfully so. They should log the majority of the snaps, based on talent and what we saw in their first preseason action. Josh Uche and Chase Winovich will also rotate in but should be solidly behind Judon and KVN in snaps.
While all the talk is about Ja’Whaun Bentley at ILB, it was vet Dont’a Hightower who played better. This is a good tandem though, and we might see more 2-LB sets in this defense than in years past.
New Orleans Saints
Well hello, Marcus Davenport. Yes, it’s preseason. But the Saints had faith in Davenport's development enough to let Trey Hendrickson go. Davenport instantly rewarded them with 5 pressures and 2 defensive stops in his 25 snaps.
Zack Baun had a strong first preseason game, finishing with a mix of solid run-defense (5 tackles) and pass-rushing chops (1 pressure and 1 PD) in 31 snaps. Baun is now at the WILL, where he will see much more playing time and be used in a mix of box and edge alignments. Last year, the rookie was the SAM, which plays limited snaps and mostly has edge responsibilities (read: bad for an LB’s tackle floor).
In his first action after Patrick Robinson retired, rookie CB Paulson Adebo had a solid but inconsistent game. He still has to gain some ground on Ken Crawley to earn a starting role across from Marshon Lattimore.
New York Giants
Blake Martinez was never going to play in this game (COVID list or not), so my eyes were on second-year Carter Coughlin’s transition from OLB to ILB this season. Coughlin did not disappoint. He posted 5 tackles, 2 pressures, and a forced fumble on 24 snaps and received a PFF grade in the 90s. This is after a strong camp up to that point. Martinez isn't going anywhere, but Tae Crowder’s seat next to Martinez has gotten a little hotter.
After lots of hype in camp, rookie OLB Azeez Ojulari had 0 pressures and 1 tackle in 18 snaps. There are some people who may say that 18 preseason snaps are not enough to label Ojulari a bust. Those people are smart.
New York Jets
C.J. Mosley is back for Gang Green and his new running partner — Jarrad Davis — was the one rocking the green dot. Davis is a magnificent dart throw. He’s all but forgotten so far in drafts and might be an every-down player. Converted safety Hamsah Nasirildeen looks to have earned the WILL spot for DC Robert Saleh. That LB spot is only out there in base (3-LB sets), but it’s still noteworthy that the rookie has moved up the ranks fast.
Starting DT Quinnen Williams sat and starting DE Carl Lawson played just 3 snaps, which gave DEs John Franklin-Myers and second-year rising player Bryce Huff more reps. Both played well, but Huff continues to shine. He’s had a strong camp so far and made his presence felt with 2 sacks in 16 pass-rush snaps (the first sack coming against the Giants’ starting O-line).
Both Derek Barnett (8 snaps, 1 QB hit) and Josh Sweat (6 snaps, no action) have had strong camps and though it’s just one preseason game, it’s looking like these two will rotate across from Brandon Graham. That’s bad news for both of their 2021 IDP values, but it’s good news for both of their dynasty values. Sweat is going much later in drafts than Barnett, for what it’s worth.
Eric Wilson had a poor game, while Alex Singleton continues to play well. Wilson is the presumed LB target here, but Singleton played well last year and might be more valuable and reliable if he keeps playing that way. Singleton had 5 tackles in 19 snaps. T.J. Edwards rotated with both LBs early. He’s looking like the next man up if either starter goes down.
Pittsburgh recognized a glaring weakness: their LBs can’t cover. They brought in Joe Schobert via trade to help with that, moving Robert Spillane to a backup role. But it’s not just Spillane. Devin Bush lost all six of his coverage snaps badly, so look for lots of DB help.
Antoine Brooks, Jr. started at SCB and played well there, allowing 0 completions and getting 2 QB pressures on 23 snaps. He could be their new Mike Hilton. That will keep Cam Sutton on the outside this season.
The Steelers believe Alex Highsmith is their starting EDGE across from T.J. Watt and so far he’s proven them right. Highsmith has 5 QB pressures in 36 snaps this preseason. He’ll rotate with veteran Melvin Ingram (who will also join Highsmith and Watt in a NASCAR-type package), but Highsmith is looking like he’s earned the lion’s share of the snaps.
San Francisco 49ers
In another game of virtually zero defensive starters, rotational DLs Arden Key and Maurice Hurst had opposite results. Key had 2 pressures and 4 tackles in 18 snaps, while Hurst had just 1 assist in 20 snaps. Again, 20 preseason snaps for DLs is not enough to seal one’s fate, but as rotational players, these can add up to increased or decreased usage come September.
Presumed starting LB Dre Greenlaw started and played 4 snaps. Shall we break down those 4 snaps so we can overreact to them? Perhaps not.
Jordyn Brooks looked good in his limited action (3 tackles and gave up just 13 yards in coverage in 31 snaps). He and Ben Burr-Kiven started (Bobby Wagner didn’t play). Fellow LB Cody Barton continued to show he’s a solid backup, posting 6 tackles and 2 sacks on 33 snaps. He’s an instant pickup if Wagner goes down. Burr-Kirven started because Barton had been injured the past week. Burr-Kirven also had a strong game with 12 tackles. These young LBs are deep behind Wagner.
Ryan Neal subbed for Jamal Adams, but that’s a moot point now that Adams signed his multi-year deal to remain in Seattle.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
What do you do when your Super Bowl-winning, virtually-intact defensive unit has a preseason game? You play them for 6 whole snaps then hand them towels and sports drinks. What we did see in those 6 snaps was exactly what we expected: the same basic scheme with the same players where they were last season. Granted, wrinkles are coming, but not in the preseason.
The Bucs’ one new addition — OLB Joe Tryon — had a solid opening with 22 snaps of solid but statistic-less football. It was also nice to see a healthy Vita Vea on the field as well.
With much of their starting defense set, many of the stars on this defense were rested. That includes Jeffery Simmons, Denico Autry, Harold Landry, and Bud Dupree up front. And even the ones who did start this preseason affair only played a few snaps. Kevin Byard, Jackrabbit Jenkins, and Rashaan Evans each played 5 snaps, while other presumed starters Jayon Brown (8 snaps) and Amani Hooker (9 snaps) also barely made it into the second series.
That’s a good thing.
The Titans D looks fairly set. But it’s hard not to notice that LB David Long — who showed up huge last season in relief — had a strong game and saw the field early in Tennessee’s first preseason game. He racked up 2 defensive stops and an INT in just 13 snaps.
Washington Football Team
It’s just one game, but the observation by Dr. Edwin Porras about Landon Collins possibly being used more deep than in the box due to his Achilles’ injury proved prophetic. Collins played mostly deep (albeit in his 12 total snaps…), with Kamren Curl playing more in the box. Bobby McCain operated as the third safety.
The fearsome D-line was down a few of its major cogs, but considering everyone’s roles are pretty set heading into the season, there’s not much to note here. Except that Chase Young’s mauling of Cam Newton in the first few plays shows he’s ready for Week One.
Rookie LB Jamin Davis played for much of the first half, picking up 4 tackles in 20 snaps. Davis did not look comfortable and will need to improve if he is to supplant Jon Bostic as a full-time player next to Cole Holcomb. That’s the hope, but rookies have to earn those roles.