I was not expecting to write the column this week but fantasy karma provided some time, so here we are. Week sixteen with all the marbles in the balance for almost everyone reading this.
Tyrann Mathieu tore his ACL and is obviously done for the year. This injury coming so late in the season puts his 2016 in question as well. Mathieu came back ahead of expectations from his other surgery and that injury looked much worse when it happened. Dynasty owners who have him may need to exercise some patience. For those who do not have him, this could be a grand opportunity to buy low on an excellent young player.
With Rashad Johnson inactive Sunday night, D.J. Swearinger stepped in as the fourth safety. Mathieu's injury came right at the end of the game so we did not get a chance to see how the Cardinals would compensate for having both players out. Johnson was not able to practice last week with his bad ankle and as I write this there have been no word on his possible availability for week sixteen. Arizona will already have to make adjustments in their game plan to compensate for the loss of Mathieu. If Johnson is not able to go, they may have to make drastic changes. Their current depth chart shows no more options at safety after Swearinger. They could use Bethel Johnson at corner and move Jeraud Powers into one of the safety roles or they may elect to use some two linebacker looks with Kevin Minter and Sean Weatherspoon.
Nate Stupar replaced Paul Worrilow as a three down middle linebacker in week fifteen. Worrilow was able to practice on a limited basis last week so there is at least some chance he will be able to return from the knee injury this week against Carolina. The Panthers have been a positive match up for linebackers and Worrilow was 4-4-0 against them two weeks ago before he was injured. Whoever gets the call in this one should be a decent LB3 with some upside in balanced or tackle heavy leagues.
Both C.J. Mosley and Daryl Smith have been less productive or at least less consistent than we expected this season but do not hesitate to start them this week against the Steelers. Pittsburgh has been an excellent match up for linebackers with a couple of them reaching double digit solo tackles in the past three weeks.
The Bills hope to have Nigel Bradham back this week. He had a setback last week in the recovery from an ankle injury so starting him will be a big risk and the Cowboys are only a little better than average as a match up for linebackers.
Charles Tillman returned in week fifteen and started opposite Josh Norman. Courtland Finnegan was bumped into the slot corner role where he still played 66 of a possible 75 snaps. The Panthers will be in a nickel most of the time this week against the Falcons and Josh Norman will be matched up on Julio Jones. That means Tillman and/or Finnegan will have a lot of opportunity. If you need a quality corner start, give Tillman a hard look.
Christian Jones appears to have been a healthy inactive in week fifteen. That in itself was not such a shock. The surprise is he was not replaced by Jonathan Anderson assuming a full time role. Instead it was rookie John Timu stepping into the same role Jones had been playing. Shea McClellin is currently in concussion protocol with his week sixteen in question. It will be interesting to see how the Bears compensate if McClellin is out. The important point here being if McClellin is your guy, have a plan B ready and another Chicago linebacker is not a good plan.
It took until week fifteen but Vontaze Burfict finally got some sub package playing time. He was on the field for 65 of a possible 76 plays including most if not all nickel situations. Vincent Rey took all the snaps in dime packages. Burfict was putting up good numbers as a two down player. With his role expanded he is a must start this week against Denver.
As expected Anthony Hitchens started and played every down in week fifteen. As of Wednesday morning Rolando McClain had not practiced and remained in concussion protocol. Keep an eye on the Cowboys practice reports to see if he is able to return this week. If not, Hitchens will be a good start against Buffalo.
The Lions still cannot figure out what they want to do at safety. In week thirteen Isa Abdul-Quddus played full time at strong safety and put up good numbers. In week fourteen he split time with James Ihedigbo. Last week Abdul-Quddus was once again an every down strong safety and put up solid numbers. San Francisco is not a strong match up but a serious looking concussion suffered by Glover Quin on Monday night probably means both Abdul-Quddus and Ihedigbo are full time safeties this week.
Consider Jason Jones if you are looking for a sleeper defensive end for your championship week. San Francisco has allowed a whopping 17 sacks in their last three games. Ezekiel Ansah was battling an illness on Monday and was clearly not himself, yet he still put some pressure on Drew Brees. Ansah could be the top defensive lineman this week if healthy.
J.J. Watt has not been the same since suffering the broken hand but he looked better in week fifteen than in the previous two games. He seemed to be more aggressive and was using the bad hand more. This is great news for those of use looking to play him in our Championships. The Titans have allowed an average of 3.5 sacks a game since week nine so this could/should be the week Watt shows up again.
Start your Miami Pass rushers this week against a Colts offense that is struggling in all aspects. Indianapolis is not able to run the ball, they have given up an average of 3.2 sacks a game since week nine and may be playing Charlie Whitehurst at quarterback this week. Olivier Vernon and Ndamukong Suh (in tackle required leagues) are must starts while Derrick Shelby is a strong DE2 candidate with upside.
The Colts are not a great match up for linebackers but with Koa Misi now on IR and Jelani Jenkins possibly on the shelf with his ankle injury, Kelvin Sheppard once again be the Dolphins every down linebacker. He has produced well every time he has worked in that role this season.
Danielle Hunter played more snaps than Everson Griffen in week fifteen but it was more due to Griffen not being 100% than a coaching decision. That said, Hunter has 6 tackles and 2.5 sacks in the last two games and has looked excellent all season in his role as the team's third end. Griffen should be back in his usual role this week but stashing Hunter away for next season could prove to be an excellent move.
Keep an eye on the participation reports this week to see if Anthony Barr can get back on the field. If he does not play this week we should not hesitate to start Chad Greenway. The Giants were a great match up for linebackers early in the season before hitting a lull for a few weeks. Over their past two games they have been back. Jelani Jenkins was on the way to a strong game in week fourteen before checking out with the ankle injury. Last week Panthers starting linebackers combined for 19 tackles, 10 assists and a pair of passes defended. In the three games Barr has missed, Greenway is 17-3-1.
New England Patriots
Donta Hightower was back in the lineup for week fifteen but he only lasted about half of the game before the knee injury bit him again. As of Tuesday there were no further reports on his status but I would not count on seeing him for the rest of the regular season. The Patriots will likely shut him down so he can get healthy for the playoffs. Jerod Mayo should have a bigger role in week sixteen and we may see Jon Bostic and/or Darius Fleming get significant playing time.
New York Giants
Start Landon Collins this week against the Vikings. Adrian Peterson rarely has two poor games in a row and the Vikings have made fantasy all stars out of several safeties over the past few weeks. Not to mention Collins is on a roll with 6 or more solo stops and double digit fantasy points in each of the last four games. He has fallen short of 4 solo tackles once this season and that was week one.
Charles Woodson announced he will retire after this season. Congratulation on a hall of fame career Mr. Woodson. See you in Canton in five years! If there were a fantasy hall of fame he would be a first ballot addition to that as well. By the way, we will want to start him this week. Not only will there be the added emotion of his last home game, the Chargers are an excellent match up for safeties.
The Ravens have been a decent match up for linebackers on most weeks but be careful starting Lawrence Timmons or Ryan Shazier this week. I have a feeling this game could be a major blowout with the Steelers linebackers and safety Will Allen having limited opportunity for tackles. If you have to start any of these guys take solace in the fact they will have a lot of opportunity to make big plays.
San Francisco 49ers
Jaquiski Tartt is a strong start this week against the Lions. In every game since week eight at least one of their opponents safeties have reached double digit fantasy points and most often it has been the strong safety.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Danny Lansanah finally landed in a full time role last week. His numbers were not huge (3-5-0 with a pass defended) but he could be a quality start this week against the Bears who have been a plus match up. Several linebackers have put up big games against Chicago since week eight and in most of those games two backers have produced solid numbers.
DaShon Goldson left last week's game with a broken rib. It is not certain he will sit this week but I am not sure how much production we should expect if he does play. If Goldson was your guy have a backup plan ready. That backup plan could be DeAngelo Hall who was 8-1 with a pass defended last week and would likely assume an every down role if Goldson is out. The Eagles are an excellent match up for safeties. Since week nine the safety positions of their opponents have averaged 12.7 solo stops, 4.6 assists, 1 big play and a pass defended. Take advantage of this match up if you can.
That is going to do it for this season. Best of luck to everyone in those Championship games cause it's all about bringing home the gold!