MHR University - Preseason Depth Chart Analysis and How to Watch Preseason Games

One of the most fun ways to prognosticate about a team during the reloading season is to put together and discuss projections for depth chart placement.  Then, as always, a team will put out an initial depth chart (preseason) that can have fans scratching their heads. 

What is the purpose behind the initial depth chart?  Why do teams put them out, and what can be learned from them?  What should we watch for as a team heads into the preseason?

Let's take a look at the initial depth chart for the Denver Broncos (released 9-10-09) and start a discussion on what we think the chart indicates.  Let's also review what to watch for in preseason games.

(The caption says he is practicing during a drill.  But I like to think that Champ is asking forgiveness for the doubters amongst the fan base). 

First, I'm going to borrow from a previous article I wrote about how to watch preseason games (edited to update us for this year)...

How to Watch the Preseason Games -

Let's talk about the mysterious and controversial preseason games.  Controversial, because coaches have to weigh the value of getting players ready or evaluated versus injured.  Controversial, because the League, networks, and even fans can't agree on issues surrounding ticket prices and revenue for games that "don't count".  But mysterious, because we as fans have to balance cheering for our team to win knowing that the team isn't going all out for a win.  So what do we watch for?

Here's a guide to watching the preseason games in a manner that allows you to learn about the team, evaluate players, and gauge the team's success moving forward, regardless of what the scoreboard says.

Different coaches approach the preseason differently, but all coaches are a little more vanilla than they would be if the game counted.  They aren't going to show every wrinkle of a system.  They are also going to call plays to test a team in a situation, even if the situation doesn't exist (such as a two-minute drill at the end of a half even though the team leads, or going for it on fourth down, even though the game condition calls for a punt).

Some coaches, like Mike Shanahan, believe in the school of thought that you "Play a preseason game like you would a regular game."  In other words, play to win.  Denver fans may be used to winning preseason games, but this may not happen under Josh McDaniels.  Shanahan took it easy on the players in camp (compared to most teams), but in the PS he generally called the game the way he might in a regular game.  For this reason, he also got a lot more PS wins.  Did this count against his ability to evaluate?  Not at all.  Mike is also a coach that has his mind pretty much made up near the start of camp who is going to be on the roster, so he is ahead of the curve.  Still, he'll make some calls to try out scenarios that he wouldn't do if the game counted.

We'll have to see if McDaniels is more concerned with evaluating talent and schemes than pumping up the team early with wins that are (to some degree) "meaningless".

So what do we watch for in a Denver PS game?  The coaches are still holding back, and the competitions are more settled than most fans might think, right?  Well, there's a lot to watch for.  Here's what I'll be watching for if I'm lucky enough to catch a game.

The Players

Some position things to watch for:

  • Denver placed a high emphasis on receivers being able to run block (Pittsburgh is an example of a team that also demands receivers can run block).  Will we see that continue this year? 
  • Despite raw talent, which receivers demonstrate chemistry with Kyle Orton?  Which TEs?
  • The safety's first movement is towards an assignment or a zone.  His second move indicates how well he's read the play.  That's the move to watch.
  • How well do the halfbacks protect Orton if held back to pass block?
  • Many teams stress TE coverage from the strong safety or the LOLB (even though both players take a role from time to time).  Who will get the emphasis under McDaniels?  Whoever gets the assignment, how well do they do?  Does the SS play back, or closer to scrimmage?
  • Will we see the Ted Block scheme in our system?  Will our new 3-4 be played more like a traditional 3-4, or more like a 5-2 (with pass-rushing OLBs)?
  • Are we doing more 1- or 2-gap schemes on the defensive line?  Is the NT handling (or demanding) double teams? 
  • It's almost too obvious to write, but who are the first eleven players on the field for the first plays on offense and defense?  But here's something else to consider: who plays STs on the kickoff?
  • How does the OL do in pass protection?  Most vanilla calls by the defensive coordinators will be simple slants designed to get to the QB.
  • Who looks tired at the end of each quarter?  When a play is blown, how well does a player shake it off?
  • Does our starting RB get spelled, rotated, changed for pace, or play every down?
  • When a pass play for the offense goes for long yardage, was the error made by the CB or the SAF?

The Systems

Here's what to look for in terms of defining the new defensive system.  Some of these things are similar to what to watch for in the "position" list above.  However, those are tactical evaluations for each player.  This list is strategic for the overall system view.

Defense -

  1. How often do we switch between 3-4 and 4-3?  In 4-3, is the MLB more man or zone?  In 3-4, are most 4th pass rushers (a LB) coming from the inside, outside, or balanced?
  2. In the 3-4, how wide are our DEs playing?  Do the OLBs primarily rush (such as 5-2), or play common man, zone, and blitz responsibilities?
  3. CBs in man or zone? (Unlikely we'll see much zone with talents like Champ Bailey and Andre' Goodman available).
  4. Where is the SS positioned?
  5. 1- or 2-gap play by the DL?
  6. How often do we blitz?
  7. Do the #2 and nickelback CBs play tight, on, or off in their coverage?  (Bailey is allowed to always play off, which fits his personal style).  In fact, will Bailey be allowed to continue his own preference?
  8. Is the defense playing "bend, don't break", "hold the line", or aggressively?  How much blitzing is there?
  9. Is the 3-4 the base formation?  It likely is.  Is it a standard 3-4, or a variation (wide, in, over, under, etc.)?
  10. Is the defense trying to force the pass or the run, or playing it even?
  11. Are there certain plays that have more prominence?
  12. Who is covering the TE - the SS or the SAM?
  13. Does the WILL play more "zone and blitz" or "zone and man"?

Offense -

  1. How much misdirection will we use this year?  While Orton is more of a pocket passer than previous Denver QBs, is the bootleg really gone?  (The bootleg is a great combination with zone blocking, because of the type of misdirection it foists on the defense).  More importantly (critical to me), is "How much zone blocking do we keep from previous years"?
  2. How smooth does Orton sell the play-action pass, and how often is it used?
  3. Do we see Orton making audibles on the line?  How much leeway is he getting from the coach on the sideline?
  4. When Orton throws an INT (and he should), was it a bad decision on his part, on the part of the receiver, or good defense?
  5. How much does the TE figure into the pass game this year?  Does it seem to be planned or a check down?
  6. Does Orton have favorite targets, or does he spread the ball?  Do the routes seem more timed, or opportunity driven?
  7. How do the cheerleaders look?  Are they as hot as last year?  (Yes, this is important).
  8. Is there more run, or pass?
  9. Do we see more formations with 3 or more receivers, or less?
  10. How much do the RBs (RB and FB) get into the game going out for passes?  Are they screens, or actual common routes?
  11. Do we see a FB often, or more sets that are single back or 2 RB (no FB).

A lot of fans will watch to see who makes the big plays.  My opinion is that this isn't the way to go.  The coaches are probably more interested in who plays consistently well, and less on who makes a game-changing play.  But that's just my opinion.  I think the decision on who starts is made before the preseason with most teams (believe it or not), but when a new coach arrives, this all changes for the first year.  The decisions left to be made for most teams are only for a few players on the bubble, or if a player really blows it time after time.  This year will be more wide open than the last several years because we have a new HC.

Another thing that I consider is that I don't get excited by how many wins or losses we have.  Good play can be indicative of how the other team runs their preseason, and losses might have been wins if the team were going all out.  However, if the team loses and played very poorly, that is something to watch for, too.  So for what it is worth, try not to get hung up on who wins, and instead focus on "how" each player plays and how the team plays as a whole.  McDaniels may try to win a few games to boost the confidence of the players and fans, or he might sacrifice wins to get deeper analysis of what he's working with.

Denver's goal is to get the players up to speed, and to give the players some confidence heading into the season.  Let's hope for the best, but let's take the preseason into its proper context and watch it with a studious eye.

What will you be watching for?

The Initial Preseason Depth Chart

I don't put very much into the preseason charts.  Neither do most hardcore fans (notably Guru, who mentioned pretty much the same thing in his story on Monday).

That said, is there any worth to a preseason chart for the fans?  Sure.  Any time that we as fans are writing about, talking about, or reading about the team, we are learning.  Here's my take on some of the things in the initial chart to get the conversation rolling.

OL

No surprises on the OL.  From left to right, we see Ryan Clady, Ben Hamilton, Casey Wiegmann, Chris Kuper and Ryan Harris.  Harris is hurt, and (as of this writing) we don't know how badly.  In the worst event, expect Polumbus to take his place.  The depth chart says it's Brandon Gorin, but that's because a depth chart won't list a player twice who backs up two positions.  Tyler Polumbus is the primary backup for both tackles.

WR 

Sometime ago I wrote that it was possible we might not see Brandon Marshall as our #1 starter.  Pehaps it was 1 or 2 folks that chimed in that I was out of my mind.  Perhaps I wasn't.

On this chart, we have Jabar Gaffney at #1, Eddie Royal as a mismatch for anyone at #2, and Brandon Stokley in the slot.  This can happen when folks hold out.  Do we take this chart to the bank?  Not really.  As long as Marshall keeps up a good attitude, plays hard and well, and his next legal case fizzles (a lot of ifs), he can have the position back by the start of the season.  But it is NOT a sure thing, either.  Gaffney has done everything right so far, and Marshall may need to see that he'll have to be 100% on and off the field to keep "his" spot.  Then the question becomes (as I wrote in that other article), who gets the slot - Gaffney or Stokley?

I admit some surprise that Chad Jackson and Kenny McKinley are lower than Lloyd and Swift, but with much of my focus thus far on defense, I may have missed some of the reports on these players.

TE 

Exactly what we should expect - Daniel Graham, then Tony Scheffler, then Richard Quinn.  The only question now is, how many TEs do we keep beyond that?

QB

We knew Orton, then Chris Simms, then Tom Brandstater.  The question is, will Brandstater get a chance to emerge as a future starter, will he displace Simms as the primary backup, or will he be a project that never comes to fruition?

RB

Like Marshall, if you look like you might hold out on the team, you might not make the initial depth chart as a starter.  McDaniels already said Knowshon Moreno is good, but behind the rest of the players in conditioning and understanding the systems (meaning not just the offensive system, but team communications, huddle scheme, terminology, etc.).

Our new regime doesn't use the FB term in the depth chart, so we'll have to figure out where this puts us in terms of starters.  My assumption is that Peyton Hillis is a starting FB if ever there was one, but he may be too useful as a RB (or should I say "tailback" in this new scheme?).

Correll Buckhalter is extremely versatile, and has looked great.  He gets the nod for now.  LaMont Jordan is listed second, and ths may be a surprise to folks like it is to me.  Not that Jordan isn't good, but because I would expect Hillis to be higher.  Hillis is listed third.

This loses meaning beyond the point that preseason charts are "motivators" for players more than being accurate.  Why?  Because we have to consider that we don't know if we'll have a primary back that gets spelled, or a "backs by committee" approach.  In the latter, we might have a rotational scheme or a specialist scheme.

So for fans of Moreno, Ryan Torain, and Hillis, don't put all of your money on Buckhalter or Jordan just yet.  Watch the preseason games, and learn.

DE

Early observations had Ryan McBean looking real good, and he gets the early nod to start at LDE where he'll be stopping the run.  It makes sense to me that Marcus Thomas (a 4-3 DT) would move to LDE in the 3-4, and he now shows behind McBean.

At RDE, I've heard a lot of good things about Rulon Davis, so I'm a little surprised he's near the bottom right now.  (In fact, our own Guru reported from camp that he noticed how well Davis was doing).  But Kenny Peterson has done well so far, and has earned the right to go into the preseason as the current RDE.

I'll say this, I'm far more happy about our DE positions than I was before the summer.  The four players I've listed so far look solid, and we still have 3 others in contention.  For future reference, I hearby bestow the title "PDX" on Everette Pedescleaux.  His name takes longer to type than my entire article!

NT

This is the scariest position for those of us worried about the transition to 3-4.  It is the anchor of the 3-4 as much as the MLB is to the 4-3.  Fortunately, it looks like Ronald Fields (the listed starter) is doing well.  I'm a little surprised that Chris Baker is in front of Carlton Powell.

If I am blessed enough to get any preseason games in my area, NT is one of the positions I'll be watching for the sake of pure analysis.  (I'll be watching safeties for the love of the game).

SAF

May I brag a little?  I had hoped for Brian Dawkins to be the FS, and he lists this way.  I knew that the choice to put him at FS or SS would be tricky to guess at, so I wouldn't have bet either way.  But I agree with the early chart - Dawkins should be at FS, and Darcel McBath is more of a FS than a SS.  McBath should become something special learning under Dawkins.

At SS, I feel good about Renaldo Hill starting.  I had written in an earlier article that David Bruton, Vernon Fox, and Josh Barrett are more at risk than the other three, and I was curious to see who would make the team if we only kept four safeties.  Many folks chimed in with valid reasons that we might keep five or even six.  As of now, Bruton gets the backup at SS, and perhaps Barrett and Fox have to fight for a possible fifth spot.

CB

I felt confident that Bailey and Goodman would start, and they are.  My assumption was that Alphonso Smith would come in as a rookie and learn nickel.  But as well as Smith has played, Jack Williams seems to have improved his play to the point that he is a contender for that nickel position.  Also, given Smith's value at returner on STs, it seems prudent to let Williams play at nickle while Smith learns.  Watch the preseason games to see if one player seems to edge the other for the role at nickel.

This gives us four terrific corners, and a good mixture and experience and youth.  There are still four more corners to round out the chart, not all of whom will make the team.

OLB 

Mario Haggan at LOLB?  McDaniels himself said that there was some "loafing" by OLBs, and that Haggan wasn't one of them.  This strikes me as a motivational signal.  Darrell Reid is likely the starter, and early reports are good on Tim Crowder.  If they're loafing, that's a bad sign.  But it is more likely (at least in my mind) that the coach is sending a gentle message rather than really worrying about Reid and Crowder.  The message this sends to Haggan though is kind of weird ("you're starting because the REAL starters are taking it too easy").

But I'm not worried about Reid and Crowder, or the LOLB position in general.  (In fact, a friend of mine who is in tight with the Colts organization tells me that Reid is a steal for us, and we can expect some special things).

At ROLB we have three interesting names.  We all know and love Elvis Dumervil (MHRers know him as "Doom").  He's a terrific RDE in a 4-3, and will likely play more of a pass rushing type ROLB in what would appear to be a 5-2 look.  I'm glad to see him listed at starter.

Robert Ayers is listed next.  He surprises me, because his rookie reports made him out to be more of a run stopper who doesn't always get the penetration needed to get to the QB.  I had him pegged at DE (against the tide of most opinions, I know).  At OLB, I thought he might not be able to keep up with TEs to play LOLB, but he could be a run stopper at that position.  But ROLB seems to make sense.  Starting wider than he would at DE, he has a better rush chance against the QB.  But he can be schemed in several ways, too.  For example, SD goes against the grain of most teams, and prefers to run to the weakside.  Ayers would be a specialist in such games.  With the Ameoba philosophy in place, Ayers may be used as a specialist depending on down, distance, and opponent.

Last is Jarvis Moss.  Moss gets some criticism because he almost quit the team during camp.  However, to a careful eye (and mine has experience in counseling as well as coaching) it sounds like a kid who was having problems that needed help.  Instead of letting him quit and cashing in on the money he (Moss) would have had to fork over, the coaches encouraged him to take a couple of days away to get things straight or to think things over.  I think there is a deeper story here, and one that probably isn't much of our business.  Here's what is important.  Moss came back, was welcomed back, and has been showing good moves for penetrating the pocket.  He may very well have a solid role on this team moving into the regular season.  That the coaches helped him out shows me that the kid has worth as a player, and at the very least as a young man.  I'm in his corner, whether he makes the team or not.

ILB

Before camps, I listed D.J. Williams being moved inside to RILB and Andra Davis getting LILB.  I was pretty proud of myself for getting that one right, as that is how the two players have been lining up throughout the camp season.  So imagine my shock at reading the chart and seeing them switched!  It makes no sense for several reasons.  First, they haven't been playing the way the chart shows; second, it doesn't match their skill set for the Ted block scheme that DC Mike Nolan runs in his defensive systems, and third, Williams is more of a zone- and blitz-LB while Davis is more of a run stopper and big plug kind of guy.

Given that Williams is playing LILB in practice, and Davis is RILB in practice, I'm calling this an error on the chart.  But who knows how far the deception could run?  It would be a shock, but terribly interesting to see McDaniels and Nolan pull a major switch ala the morphing Patriots defense (which changes looks to match opponents like, well, like an ameoba!)

Another intersting tidbit.  Behind these two are Wesley Woodyard and Spencer Larsen, who are excellent ILBs even if they weren't in the backup role.  But look at who each player starts behind!  Larsen (more of a run stopper or Ted blocker) is behind Davis, as he should be.  And Woodyard, who swarms to the ball and gets in on every play, is rightfuly behind WIlliams.  So it follows that the chart is likely backwards at the ILB positions.  Either way, the bottom line is that we have four solid players for two positions, and still have two more players behind them fighting for a roster spot.

My only remarks on STs (where I have next to no coaching experience) is my surprise that Brett Kern is listed as the holder.  It is common for teams to either use a QB or a punter.  The reasoning for QB is that he can throw the ball on a fake FG, or cover up for a blown snap by throwing the ball.  That is the prevailing school of thought in modern football.  But we're going with the punter.  The thinking here is that the punter is more in tune with what the kicker needs when placing and timing the hold.  I don't buy it, but a few minds that know more about STs than I do believe in it.  So there it is.  I would have used a QB, but then again you REALLY don't want me coaching your STs.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

So, have at it.  What are your thoughts on the presason, and preseason charts in particular?  What will you be watching for?  As always, any questions about football are welcome.  I can handle most questions as they pertain to what happens on the field, but MHR is full of experts on just about every aspect of the game ranging from history to caps, from legal to medical, from current events to other teams.

Let's hear from you!  (If you're a longtime reader, but have never joined or posted, why not make this the day?)

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