DEPTH CHART NUGGETS AND KEY INJURY REPLACEMENTS
I focus primarily on linebackers early in the season. As the season progresses and we get a few more data points, important issues in defensive end and secondary rotations will become more clear and make their way into this section more regularly.
***Jordan Hicks had a strong debut and could become a fixture in the Eagles' front for the rest of the season. I think it's only a matter of time before Kiko Alonso thinks better of his desire to play through a partially torn previously repaired ACL and has another reconstructive surgery. Hicks would pair with Mychal Kendricks -- who could return this week -- with DeMeco Ryans playing a minor rotational role only. Hopefully you prioritized Hicks highly in your free agent requests last week.
***If Greg Hardy is on the waiver wire in your league, now's the time to pick him up. He'll return in Week 5 and should see a majority of the Dallas defensive end snaps immediately. If you've missed him, you might get another look. Hardy could start slowly in New England in Week 5 and the Cowboys have a Week 6 bye. If that happens, your competition could get frustrated and drop him. Expect him to begin heating up soon after.
***It's also time to move on Sheldon Richardson if he's available. The Jets will rotate him into a very strong front after their Week 5 bye.
***The Panthers are beat up at linebacker. Luke Kuechly could be close to returning, but whenever a player takes longer than two weeks to get cleared for contact you have to consider his absence indefinite until proven otherwise. And Thomas Davis now has a pectoral injury of concern. It would be A.J. Klein and Shaq Thompson playing every down if neither veteran can return this week. Thompson could get the call as the every-down player if Kuechly returns and Davis is out. Carolina also put Charles Johnson on IR-return with a high grade hamstring injury. Don't expect recent acquisition Jared Allen to play more than 65% of the snaps for at least a week or two. He'll also not be re-classified to defensive end on MFL. Kony Ealy is still struggling to have a statistical impact unfortunately.
***The Steelers rested Ryan Shazier last week. The official report from the team was weakness in his shoulder. Shazier was on the sideline with his shoulder immobilized in a sling. That combination sounds ominously like an extended absence to me. Expect to see Sean Spence and Vince Williams continue to rotate while Shazier recovers.
***The Giants put together a confusing linebacker rotation with Jon Beason active for the first time this season. Beason played just 36% (27 of 76 snaps) of the time, mostly in base packages, with Uani Unga replacing him on some base and some nickel downs. Unga (48/76), Devon Kennard (46/76), and J.T. Thomas (14/76) completed the rotation. Unga had another solid statistical week, but he may only be a subpackage player now.
***There's a break in the inside linebacker rotation in Cleveland. Craig Robertson left last week's game with an ankle injury and is expected to be out this week and possibly beyond. Chris Kirksey may not play every down with the Browns using a fair amount of dime packages, but he's worth a speculative add.
***Ah, variance. The Jaguars were a strong matchup for the Patriots' pass rushers this week. Unfortuantely, though Bill Belichick kept the starting offense on the field well into the second half despite an insurmountable lead, both Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich rested most of the half. Jones and Ninkovich, two of the rare defensive ends who play 90% of the downs, sat for around 20 prime pass rushing snaps each. Keep both in your lineups when the Patriots come out of their bye week. New England also acquired an athletic body in Jon Bostic. If healthy, Bostic could eventually play a role but he won't be displacing Jerod Mayo or Dont'a Hightower if those players stay healthy.
***George Iloka may miss a week or two in Cincinnati with an ankle injury. Shawn Williams continues to replace him when needed. He had three tackles in 31 snaps against Baltimore and would be a solid flyer for those in deeper leagues in need of a DB3.
***Benardrick McKinney started in the Houston base defense but didn't play every down. With Mike Mohamed struggling to return from injury, McKinney will have a good chance to establish himself as the starter next to Brian Cushing. Jadeveon Clowney is healthy enough to play every down now but isn't ready for fantasy use yet.
***Watch the injury news on Ezekiel Ansah. Off to a stud start, Ansah left the game with a groin injury after missing practice last week with back issues. If nagging injury again derails another promising Ansah start, it'll be extremely frustrating.
EVERY-DOWN LINEBACKER PROJECTION
Still some situations left to settle here. I expect more of the unexpected this week, and probably until the end of September.
I'll update this table every week between now and Week 17.
PERFORMANCES OF NOTE
Kenny Vaccaro 10-8, PD (last 2 games) >> Vaccaro isn't yet the all-around stud I hoped he'd become, but he looks healthy and has cut his missed tackles and poor angles down this year. Benefiting from an inconsistent front seven, Vaccaro has parlayed average tackle opportunity into a nice two week run. Let's hope it continues.
Justin Durant 17-2, PD (last 2 games) >> Two years ago, when Paul Worrilow and Audie Cole finished the season with LB1 weekly numbers, both John Norton and I preached caution in dynasty leagues. I was hopeful Worrilow would develop, but his range and statistical upside is limited. Now fighting a calf injury, Worrilow is leaving even more scraps on the table for his teammates. With William Moore no longer able to take advantage as he once did, Durant is the main beneficiary. Ride Durant while he's healthy. History says he'll break down if asked to play 70 snaps per week.
Jacquies Smith 4-1, TFL >> Now, I'm really intrigued. I've had my eye on Smith as a situational rusher in a good front four since last year. However, through last week, he had made five non-sack solo tackles in eight games. That's on par (or worse) than what we used to see from Dwight Freeney, Chris Long, Cliff Avril, and other one-dimensional statistical defensive ends. Smith has steadily seen his playing time increase and last week's four solo performance nearly doubled what he'd produced in his career to date. If that continues, he's an elite defensive end.
Eric Kendricks 9-0 >> No, Kendricks isn't yet in the starting lineup and playing every down. But, as easily seen from his game tape at UCLA, Kendricks knows how to find the ball. Finding a way to nine solos in just 40 snaps with Anthony Barr and Harrison Smith alongside is a promising feat. Kendricks may not fully arrive until 2016, but he'll be fun to watch.
Jordan Hicks 9-1, INT, FR >> Hicks is going to be a miss for me. Nothing significant jumped out on him on tape and he didn't regularly catch my eye as Bobby Wagner and Chris Borland did before him at the Senior Bowl practices. But it's easy to like what Hicks is doing right now and I think Kiko Alonso needs to decide on surgery to repair his already once-reconstructed ACL. A healthy Mychal Kendricks will make it harder for Hicks to run up big tackle numbers like this every week, but Hicks is likely an every-down linebacker for the rest of the season.
Stephon Tuitt 5-2-1, 2 TFL >> Tuitt is now 7-3-2.5 over the past two weeks. Cameron Heyward is 6-5-1. Both deserve your attention in tackle-heavy scoring systems, but expect variance throughout the season. The loss of Ben Roethlisberger could go either way here. The Steelers could approach the next month as the Cowboys do -- control the ball with Le'Veon Bell and limit the offenses snaps -- and decrease the tackle opportunities for their defense by winning time of possession. Or they could continue their open offense under Michael Vick and continue to provide Tuitt with enough opportunity to make 3-5 solos per week.
T.J. McDonald 5-3 >> Another solid, if not spectacular week for McDonald. This week, his eight tackles came on fewer tackle opportunities -- just 50. He should be fine.
Kevin Minter 7-1, 2 TFL >> Minter played every down against San Francisco before resting with many of the secondary players late in the second half. His 7-1 came on just 42 snaps. It's difficult to say whether his usage was game plan dependent against a 49ers team that rarely spreads the field or a sign of things to come. I tend to think he's still package dependent, but we'll find out for certain against St. Louis this week.
Stephen Tulloch 7-4 >> The stat line looks better but the Lions haven't put Tulloch back in an every-down role as the Raiders did with Curtis Lofton. Josh Bynes was the lone every-down player last week. Tulloch may be proving healthy enough to push for those nickel snaps again, however. If Marshawn Lynch is healthy on Monday night, Tulloch probably sees at least 75% of the team's defensive snaps this week.
Clay Matthews 3-0-2 >> Nate Palmer is still struggling with a hand injury, but the Packers used a dime package with recently acquired Joe Thomas as the only inside linebacker. Matthews moved outside more often and his pass rush numbers reflect that. Unfortunately, Matthews seems to be missing a tackle every series. He needs to get that cleaned up before we'll see the 5-7 solo weeks he should be able to produce.
WAIVER WIRE PRIORITIES
I'm checking the waiver wire in a mix of my most and least competitive leagues, including expanded lineups. If there's someone on your list who hasn't made mine, shoot me a note and I'll add them here.
stat crew anomalies
I'll have much more on stat crew differences in another 2-3 weeks after we get at least two home and away games for each team.
But I couldn't help notice the 3-12 line for Lavonte David in Houston last week. The Bucs were awarded 50 solos and 47 assists by the Houston home crew last week. The home team was a less assist-heavy 30-12. It's something to monitor. The Texans have been one of the better stat crews for total tackles in recent seasons, but generally aren't skewed so heavily away from solos.
The Jets crew is also generally assist heavy but also skewed much heavier than usual with a 29-38 home line. Five defenders had at least five assists. It'll be a nice boost for the defensive linemen in tackle-heavy leagues if it continues.
And last week was yet another example of why I haven't had my favorite inside linebacker in the elite tier over the past two seasons. Seattle's home stat crew again torpedoed Bobby Wagner's value with a 2-5 line.