Congratulations to all who survived last week's games and those that earned a bye. Now let’s see if we can take the next big step into the championship round. There are a number of big-time defensive contributors battling injuries and a lot of quality options emerging to possibly replace them if needed.
If you were riding with Deone Bucannon in Week 4teen and survived his 1-1-0, consider yourself very fortunate. Bucannon played 58 of 60 snaps in the game so his low numbers were not a matter of lacking opportunity. Instead it was a combination of his not being completely healthy and the flow of the game going away from him. Against the Titans, Bucannon seemed a bit sluggish when changing directions and was not as aggressive or physical as normal. Even so I think the Tennessee game plan had a lot to do with his stat totals. The big question is do we trust him to rebound this week against Washington? If you have other quality options I am going to say no. Another week will go a long way toward his being healthy but ankle injuries are easily aggravated; then there is the matchup. Anthony Hitchens had a huge game against the Redskins in Week 13 but no other linebacker has more than 5 solo stops against them since October.
Haason Reddick finally made a box score impact in Week 4teen, going 2-1-1. The big question with Reddick comes down to has the team given up on making him the starter on the inside next year? Dynasty owners invested fairly high draft picks on him so we have to sit tight and see. That said, if he is not working inside next summer I will not be stubborn about moving on and cutting my loss.
No matter how poor the matchup provided by the Browns, C.J. Mosley remains a must-start. The same cannot be said for his sidekick Patrick Onwuasor however. This is a guy many of us have been relying on as a third starter down the stretch. Not only does he have a lousy matchup, Onwuasor has seen a decrease in playing time over the past couple games. In fact, he has been on the field for fewer than 60% of the snaps in those games.
Rookie Marlon Humphrey replaced Jimmy Smith at corner in Week 4teen and is set to start the rest of the way. Cleveland has not provided a lot of tackle opportunity for corners but DeShone Kiser leads the league in interceptions with 17. I am not expecting much more than 3 or 4 tackles for Humphrey but he is a prime candidate for a big play and possibly a pick six.
We should pay little attention to any of the numbers from Sunday's Snow Bowl between Buffalo and the Colts. Rookie linebacker Matt Milano had 10 tackles in that game but the important news is his promotion to starter. Milano had a couple good games earlier in the season when Ramon Humber was injured. At 6'0 and 223 pounds, Milano is undersized but fits the mold of the new NFL linebacker with speed, cover skills and a knack for the big play. In his Week 7 and 8 starts, the rookie accounted for a forced fumble, a recovery, and an interception. He is worthy of consideration as a third starter this week against the Dolphins and is a waiver target for dynasty owners looking to next season.
With Shaq Thompson out, Thomas Davis returned to his full-time role in Week 4teen. With the emergence of Jamal Williams, the Packers have become a quality matchup for linebackers in recent weeks. If Thompson is sidelined again this week, Davis becomes a possible third starter for those in need. If Thompson plays there is a risk of Davis having a reduced role.
Christian Jones helped a lot of owners get into the playoffs. His one assist against the Bengals probably caused a few to make an early exit. Going into this game we knew Cincinnati was a weak matchup but that had nothing to do with his vanishing act. Jones was surprisingly benched in favor of Nick Kwiatkowski. Jones played 10 snaps in the game and I believe those were in garbage time.
At a glance, it would seem the Lions are an excellent matchup for corners and Kyle Fuller has been a solid every week play this year. While the corner position generally makes a lot of tackles versus Detroit, those tackles are often spread around. Fuller had his worst production of the season against the Lions in their Week 11 meeting when he was 2-1-0 with a pass defended.
Geno Atkins was active against the Bears but was clearly not healthy. He lasted a dozen plays before leaving with the toe injury that had him questionable leading up to the game. Youngsters Andrew Billings and Ryan Glasgow were the tackles for most of the game as the Bengals patchwork defense was shredded by Chicago’s running game. It will not get any easier this week at Minnesota. Vontaze Burfict missed the game with a concussion while Nick Vigil was down with an ankle injury. As I write this both are in danger of missing Week 15 as well. Rookie Jordan Evans is filling in for Vigil and is coming off a 9-1-0 box score against Chicago. Vincent Rey replaced Burfict in Week 4teen, finishing with 5 tackles and an assist. Minnesota is a plus matchup for linebackers, so keep an eye on this situation if you are looking for a one-week replacement. I like Evans as my top choice between the backups.
It is probably a good idea to sit your Cincinnati pass rushers this week. Minnesota has done a good job protecting the quarterback and if this game goes as expected, the Vikings are not going to be throwing much in the second half.
For the most part, when Sean Lee has been healthy, Anthony Hitchens has been relegated to a lesser role. That was once again the case in Week 4teen though not to such a great extent. Hitchens has 26 solo stops in the last three games including 10 against the Giants despite playing less than 80% of the snaps. Dallas has another poor matchup with the struggling Raiders this week but matchup does not seem to be a huge issue here. The bottom could fall out for Hitchens but he clearly has big upside if you need to gamble on the upside.
Jeff Heath is not a guy I have been high on in the past but the more I see of him the more I am warming to his long-term potential. He is not particularly big but is a heavy hitter and has shown surprising big-play production in recent weeks. Heath was 8-3-0 against the Giants, adding his third interception in the last five games.
In last week’s column, I mention Quandre Diggs playing strong safety in Week 13. This week the team made it official by announcing the position change on a permanent basis. Diggs was 6-1-0 with an interception against Tampa Bay. The Bears are an average matchup for safeties but it is noteworthy that Tavon Wilson was 6-1 -0 against them from the strong safety position in the Week 11 meeting.
Zach Cunningham played every snap in Week 13 but most read nothing into it because Brian Cushing was set to return in Week 4teen. Cunningham once again played full time against San Francisco, finishing with a solid 6-3-.5 while Cushing surprisingly went 2-3-.5 while lining up at outside linebacker. This may be a situation where the Texans are just trying to get their best players on the field but it may also give us a hint at what they think about their future. I will be surprised if Cushing ever regains his starting job on the inside.
The situation with Telvin Smith Sr was a bit confusing last week. Reports had him fully participating in practice last Thursday before sitting on Friday and being inactive against the Seahawks. Smith cleared protocol on Wednesday so Paul Posluszny goes back to his part-time role for Week 15. We may not get much from him for the remainder of this season but dynasty owners will want to sit tight and see where he lands in free agency.
Los Angeles Rams
The Rams could be without both starting corners for this week's huge matchup against Seattle. Kavon Webster is out for sure after suffering a torn Achilles and Trumaine Johnson is in concussion protocol for the second time this season. The hit that put him in protocol this time did not look as violent as many we have seen but the fact it is a second concussion since October could mean we have seen the last of Johnson for his fantasy season. Nickell Robey stepped in when Webster went down and finished with a strong 7 solo stops against the Eagles. If you are in need of a replacement for Johnson, Robey might be your man. Seattle has been a solid and consistent matchup for corners this season. (Update) Surprisingly Johnson did not show up on the Rams Wednesday practice report which suggests he is not in protocol at this time. Keep an eye open for developments here as the week rolls on.
Troy Hill came on when Johnson left late in last week's game and would probably be the starter if Johnson is not cleared in time. Hill started a few games last season and put up strong numbers in most of them, including three games with 6 or more tackles. Plugging him into your lineup would be a huge gamble but it might pay off.
Lawrence Timmons has seen both his playing time and production slip in recent weeks. He has not played full time since Week 8 and was on the field for a season-low 61% of the plays in Week 13. Buffalo has been an inconsistent matchup for linebackers with only two recording more than 4 solo tackles against them since Week 9.
Everson Griffen has been dealing with plantar fasciitis since week 10. This is basically a pain tolerance issue so he should be good to start against the Bengals this week. On the other hand, Cincinnati has not been a great matchup for pass rushers and Griffen has been invisible in two of the last four games. If you have another strong option it might be a good idea to consider him this week.
New England Patriots
The Patriots played without Trey Flowers or Kyle Van Noy in Week 4teen. As I write this the team's Wednesday practice report has not yet been released so the status of both players remains up in the air. Flowers was a limited participant late last week so the early expectation is he will play against Pittsburgh.
Van Noy did not practice at all last week with his calf injury. Players often miss two to four weeks with these injuries so I am not expecting him to go. Against Miami, the Patriots used Elandon Roberts on 81% of the snaps with Marquise Flowers seeing action on 71%, Trevor Riley 30% and Jonathan Freeney 21%. David Harris did not get on the field at all. The moral of this story has been the same all season; if Van Noy is not on the field we can write off all the Patriots linebackers.
New Orleans Saints
A.J. Klein (groin) and Trey Hendricks (ankle) are probably done for the fantasy season. With Klein out, Manti T'eo took on an every-down role against Atlanta finishing at 8-2-0. The Jets have been an average matchup for linebackers in general but they may rely more heavily on the running game with Josh McCown out of action. T'eo is not a big play upside guy but he should be good for 5-6 tackles and a couple assists in this one.
With Hendricks likely out, Hau'oli Kikaha will move into the pass rush role in nickel packages. All this really means for fantasy owners is a timeshare and not enough production to matter.
Kenny Vaccaro was looking strong before aggravating his groin injury and sitting out the second half. He was limited in practice on Wednesday which only muddies the water for us. If Vaccaro sits, Vonn Bell will line up at strong safety where he turned in a couple outstanding games in November. Vaccaro is not a player we can trust at this point because he may not finish if he gets the start. If Vaccaro is active, starting Bell is a major risk. Keep a close eye on this one right up to the announcement of game day inactives. The good news here being it is a 1:00 kickoff.
New York Giants
Landon Collins left Sunday's game with an ankle injury and did not return. Early in the week, Collins said he will be fine but he was not on the practice field Wednesday. Andrew Adams would be the replacement at strong safety if Collins is not able to go. He is obviously not in the same conversation talent wise but Adams could still be a productive replacement in your lineup if Collins is your guy. There will be no shortage of opportunity against the Eagles who may look to run more with Nick Foles at quarterback.
Calvin Munson has produced double-digit fantasy points in three straight games including a solid mark of 5-5-0 on 51 of a possible 63 snaps against Dallas last week. B.J. Goodson practiced on a limited basis Wednesday but is far from a lock to play against a Philadelphia offense that has been a quality matchup for linebackers. Kelvin Sheppard has been working as a three-down weakside backer and has also provided decent numbers over those three games. If you are streaming linebackers this is a situation to keep an eye on. Both of these guys are high floor LB3 options if they are starting again.
New York Jets
With Alvin Kamara practicing on Wednesday it looks like the Saints will be at full strength for their game with the Jets. After dropping a close one they should have won last week New Orleans is going to be looking to take out some frustration. All the signs suggest a lot of opportunity for Demario Davis, Darron Lee and safety Jamal Adams this week. Even free safety Marcus Maye is worthy of consideration in deeper leagues. Davis and Adams are guys I see as probable top ten at their respective positions.
The Steelers defense really missed Ryan Shazier in their tilt with the Ravens. Arthur Moats took some snaps at inside linebacker but it was Sean Spence seeing most of the action at the position. Spence knows the defense, having spent most of his career with the team, and is as good a fit as possible for a street free agent in December. The player getting most of the box score boost from the loss of Shazier looks like strong safety Sean Davis. Davis has been a solid contributor all season but his total of 8-4-0 with an interception was by far his best production to date. I expect another busy day for Davis against the Patriots who have been the best matchup in the game for safeties over the second half of the season.
The injuries just keep piling up for the Seahawks, who lost Bobby Wagner to a hamstring and K.J. Wright with a concussion against Jacksonville. Wagner had been nursing the hamstring for a while before aggravating it on Sunday. Both players missed practice on Wednesday. The feeling we get from the team is Wagner could miss some time. Michael Wilhoite is a serviceable veteran who should be able to capitalize on a great matchup with the Rams.
D.J. Alexander came on when Wright was lost and is also a serviceable replacement with box score potential. At this point, I would have to think Wright has a better shot at playing, but my early expectation is Seattle will be without both starters. The problem with Alexander is he is not a cut and dry replacement on the weak side. Marcus Smith II could be in the mix as well.
The other guy we need to be all over this week is strong safety Bradley McDougald who could be in line for a monster game.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Gerald McCoy tore his biceps in Week 4teen but the word out of Tampa Bay is he might try to play out the season before having surgery. With the Buccaneers long out of contention it is hard for most of us to understand why he would do so, but then football players are often a breed apart. The bottom line here in fantasy terms is even if he toughs it out McCoy is not going to be the same player. With Clinton McDonald nursing a back injury, Siliga Sealver is the next man up at the position. Sealver would likely play on early downs with William Gholston sliding inside in sub packages.
When I saw the Wednesday practice report for Washington I had to shake my head. Zach Brown is listed as a non-participant due to illness, toe, Achilles' and hip injuries. He has been nursing the Achilles' for weeks while managing it with limited practice time. This is one tough guy but I have to think he might be forced to pack it in this week. Brown missed eleven snaps in Week 4teen and if he plays I would be very nervous about starting him because he probably will not finish.
With or without Brown on the field, Zach Vigil is worthy of strong consideration this week. His playing time has steadily increased since he first got on the field in Week 12. Vigil played 67 of a possible 72 snaps against the Chargers even with Martell Spaight available.
That does it for my Week 15 offering. Best of luck to everyone as we try to take the final step into the championship round!