Before we get started this week I need to let everyone know with the next two Wednesdays being Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve, this will be my last column for this season. It has been a great year despite all the challenges of injuries, new scheme approaches, and coaches who refuse to make up their minds.
William Moore left Sunday's game with an ankle injury and has since been placed on IR. Kemal Ishmael put up a solid 5 tackles and 2 assists in relief. With the Falcons defense struggling, the numbers may be tempting, but beware. Ishmael split time nearly evenly with Robenson Therzie. Ishmael has clearly been the more productive of the team's options at the position (including Moore) but the coaching staff refuses to give him the job for some reason.
Bene Benwikere suffered a broken leg in week fourteen and is done for the year. This is a big blow for the Panthers who were already a little short on depth at corner. Charles Tillman has missed the past four games with a sore knee so the Panthers coaxed Cortland Finnegan out of retirement three weeks ago. Finnegan is now in line to start against a Giants team that has been an excellent match up for corners. Over the past five weeks the opponents corner positions have averaged 11 solo stops, 2 assists, 3.6 passes defended and have totaled 3 interceptions.
With 7 tackles in week fourteen Adrian Amos has put up at least 7 solo stops in three of the Bears last four games. Antrel Rolle is officially done for the season and the Vikings have been an excellent match up for safeties pretty much all season. Since week nine their opponents safety position have averaged 13.2 tackles, 3.2 assists, half a sack, and just short of 1 turnover.
I like Shea McClellin this week as well. He is not much of a big play threat but has been on quite a roll since returning from injury in week ten. In his last five games McClellin has reached double digit fantasy points four times. Adrian Peterson was shut down last week but the Bears are not a good enough defense to get that done. McClellin will have a lot of opportunity.
It is also worth mention Lamar Houston is coming off his best game of the year (8-1-1) and has 5 sacks in his last six games.
It is easy to get excited about a player who puts up 11 solo tackles in a game but before you plug in Vontaze Burfict this week, understand that he played just over 60% of the Bengals defensive snaps against the Steelers (47 plays). The San Francisco offense is not going to provide the same opportunity. Burfict may only be on the field for 30-35 plays this week.
The Browns had a whopping 9 sacks last week against San Francisco. While it is an interesting foot note to their season, we should not read much into it and certainly we cannot expect a carryover to this week's match up with the Seahawks. Early in the season Seattle was allowing big numbers of quarterback pressures and sacks. As good teams do, they have since cleaned up their pass blocking. Seattle has allowed less than a sack and a half on average since week nine.
Rolando McClain had a respectable stat line (5-6-0) against the Packers on Sunday. Unfortunately he took a shot to the helmet late in the game and was clearly woozy on the sideline. McClain is currently in concussion protocol and from what he looked like on game day, it will be a surprise if he plays this week. The Jets are a quality opponent for inside linebackers so have Anthony Hitchens on your speed dial if you need a solid starter this week.
Demarcus Lawrence has been on a big roll of late. He was 4-1-1 on Sunday giving him 6 sacks on the season but more importantly, 5 sacks in the Cowboys last 5 games. It may be too little too late for this year but the future sure seems bright for this young man. Pick him up and stash him for next year if you can and consider him a solid start this week if you are still alive.
Greg Hardy woke up with a 4-2-1 in week fourteen but after such a long hiatus I am not inclined to put much trust in him. A few weeks ago Jerry Jones was talking about a possible extension for Hardy. With Lawrence stepping it up and first round pick Randy Gregory expected to do the same, Dallas will have the option to dump the headache and move on this offseason. Hardy had better impress the rest of the way because there may not be another team willing to suffer through all the baggage.
Barry Church has been on fire since the Cowboys started playing a lot of three safety schemes. He has been up in the box often with Byron Jones stepping into the safety coverage duties often. Church should be an every week play for us at this point but if you have a decision to make, start him this week against the Jets.
Most offenses try to avoid Aqib Talib but the Steelers will likely be an exception. Talib will be on Antonio Brown most of the game and we know how much Ben Roethlisberger likes to target Brown. Talib is a playmaker so he could have a big play or two to go along with 4 or 5 tackles. Start him this week as a CB2 with upside.
The Lions are among those coaching staffs causing a lot of gray hairs for fantasy owners and prognosticators this year. Offensively it is a lack of production from Calvin Johnson and the week to week indecisiveness at running back. On the defensive side it has been the constant shuffle and inconsistent playing time at linebacker and strong safety. James Ihedigbo and Isa Abdul-Quddus have been going back and forth at safety. In week thirteen the two split snaps nearly evenly. In week fourteen Abdul-Quddus played every snap leading us to believe there was finally a decision on the starter. In week fourteen we learned the opposite is true when Ihedigbo started and the two split playing time nearly evenly again. We simply cannot trust any defender in a Lions uniform not name Ezekiel Ansah or maybe Nevin Lawson who should be a quality start against the Saints this week in corner required leagues.
Kareem Jackson reclaimed the starting role in week fourteen with Kevin Johnson working as the nickel corner once again. When Jackson first returned to action from his injury he was used in a part time role.
Sio Moore took over at inside linebacker when Jerrell Freeman left the week thirteen game. We thought Moore might finally get his shot as a starter in week fourteen but it was not to be. Instead the Colts went with Josh McNarry. Freeman has been practicing and has a good chance to get back in the lineup this week against the Texans who have been a hit or miss match up for linebackers.
We have another case of indecisive coaching in Jacksonville where Aaron Colvin was bumped into the nickel role in week thirteen after being a productive starter most of the season. Colvin was one of two players (LB Jordan Tripp was the other) to play every snap for the Jaguars in week fourteen. That said it is hard to tell for sure if this was by design or necessity and Dwayne Gratz lasted five plays before leaving with a hamstring injury. We can worry about why later. For now the only important thing is Colvin being back in the lineup against a Falcons offense that has been a strong match up for corners. It does not hurt to look ahead to week sixteen either. Jacksonville goes to New Orleans next week where Colvin would have another excellent opponent.
Andre Branch and Jonathan Cyprien are players worthy of serious consideration this week. Branch is coming off the biggest game of his career (4-0-2 and a fumble recovery for a score) and the Falcons have struggled to keep Matt Ryan upright. They have allowed 10 sacks in the last three games. Atlanta has also been a strong match up for safeties on most weeks. The Jaguars should get Paul Posluszny back on the field this week but he will be playing one handed with a club on his broken hand.
The good news for Jelani Jenkins owners is he looked good against the Giants on Monday night and posted a solid 6-2. The bad news, he was in and out of the lineup with injuries during the game including what looked to be a possible concussion. Jenkins did not practice on Wednesday with the reason being listed as an ankle. When this guy is healthy he is highly productive. That said, I would advise shelving him until next season. Even if he plays it will be at less than 100%.
Talk about throwing us a curve ball. This one dropped off the table completely. With Andrew Sendejo and Harrison Smith out in week thirteen the Vikings went with Antone Exum at free safety and Robert Blanton as strong. Against the Cardinals Minnesota started undrafted rookie Anthony Harris at safety and surrounded him with corners Trae Waynes, Xavier Rhodes and Terence Newman in base packages adding Captain Munnerlyn in nickel packages. They will probably go back to their "normal" alignment against the Bears with Blanton at strong safety, but we simply cannot count on anything here. Harris made a great showing in his first significant action as a pro, going 7-1 with a pass defended.
With Anthony Barr out Chad Greenway went all the way as a three down linebacker. He finished with a solid 8 solo stops and could have another good game against the Bears if Anthony Barr is out again. Barr did not practice on Wednesday.
New England Patriots
The Patriots offensive injuries have been getting all the attention but they are just as beat up on defense. Jamie Collins Sr is back but Dont'a Hightower was not able to go in week fourteen and is still limited in practice this week. Adding to the problem, Jonathan Freeny left Sunday's game with a wrist injury. He is not practicing this week and seems unlikely at best to play. The team has been doing everything possible to keep Jerod Mayo in a limited role as he is not yet 100%, but their hand may be forced this week. Mayo totaled 7 solo stops and an assist on 41 plays against Houston, proving he can still get it done if called upon. If nothing else he has shown enough to be a sneaky dynasty stash. Mayo and Collins should be full time starters next season.
New Orleans Saints
We have seen both Dannell Ellerbe and James Anderson have big games as the Saints weak side linebacker this year. So of course when they are both healthy the coaches are going to have them split time. This was the case in week fourteen when Ellerbe went 5-1 on 33 snaps and Anderson was 3-1 on 19. Just enough to make both players too risky to play. That is just how this season has gone and unfortunately it may be the trend we continue to see into the future. Suddenly those quality two down linebackers we used to shun are looking pretty good.
Start Kenny Vocarro this week against the Lions. The opposing safety position has produced 10 or more solo tackles in each of Detroit's last five games.
New York Giants
The Giants linebacker position has been a glut of lost opportunity for fantasy owners this year so we should not have been surprised to see Mark Herzlich and J.T. Thomas start at outside linebacker against Miami on Monday. No linebacker played more than 48 of the team's 65 defensive plays. Despite the mess this season has been I still like Uani Unga as a future prospect.
Kahlil Mack had an enormous game against Denver. This is a great example of his upside but until we see some consistency from him Mack is still a risky start. He will be in a lot of lineups this week and that is hard to argue with. Keep in mind however, Green Bay is not playing a young inexperienced quarterback and you can bet the Packers will be game planning to stop Mack this week.
There are a couple of Oakland defenders who are must starts this week. Both Malcolm Smith and Charles Woodson have shown us plenty of consistency and a matchup with Aaron Rodgers and a hot Eddie Lacey will provide plenty of opportunity for another strong week from both.
After playing 70 snaps in week thirteen it seemed a give Kiko Alonso would again play full time against his former team. In what was yet another frustrating coaching decision Alonso saw action on 42 of 74 snaps going 2-3 on the day. Mychael Kendricks was one again the most productive Philadelphia linebacker going 7-1 on the day. With DeMeco Ryans in the mix as usual, no Eagle linebacker played more than 47 snaps. This is yet another situation we simply cannot trust.
Start you Eagles defensive backs this week against Arizona. Both the safety and corner positions have averaged 11+ solo tackles a game against the Cardinals over their past five games.
Antwon Blake had a solid 5 solo stops against the Bengals but be aware he was far from an every down contributor. In fact he was on the field less (31 plays) than William Gay, Ross Cockrell or Brandon Boyken.
Start Lawrence Timmons and Ryan Shazier against Denver this week. Curtis Lofton, Malcolm Smith, Denzel Perryman and Derrick Johnson have all had big games against the Broncos in recent weeks and the Broncos will likely have C.J. Anderson back this week.
San Francisco 49ers
Start Jaquiski Tartt and consider Gerald Hodges this week. If Isaiah Crowell can go off against the 49ers struggling defense, Jeremy Hill should have a field day. The Bengals offense will look different with A.J. McCarron under center. I expect they will look more like the 2014 Bengals who rode Hill heavily. Hodges was only 4-3 against the Browns but the sheer volume of opportunity should make him a decent LB3. Tartt on the other hand has been highly productive since stepping into the starting role. He was 7-1 with an interception against Cleveland and should have plenty of opportunity to clean up behind a leaky front seven this week.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
With Bruce Carter banged up heading into last week it was widely speculated Danny Lansanah would get the call to replace Kwon Alexander. As it turned out Carter was active and started going 6-2-1. Before you jump on Carter this week, check out his injury status. He was hauled off the field on a cart with an ankle injury and is listed as doubtful. This all but ensures Lansanah will finally get his opportunity since the Buccaneers are out of options. The Rams have not been a great match up on most weeks however.
B.J. Webb replaced Da'Norris Searcy (hamstring) at strong safety in week thirteen.
As anticipated Keenan Robinson was active in week fourteen but he did not play. The shoulder injury may be part of the issue but it has been made clear Mason Foster and Will Compton are Washington's starters at this point. A strong match up with the Bills makes both starter worthy of consideration this week. Foster finished with 6 solo stops against the Bears while Compton totaled a modest 4. I believe Foster is a starting quality inside linebacker. This is his audition for a possible long term job.
That is a wrap for week fifteen and the 2015 season. Best of luck to you both this week and in the big game next week. May the funny shaped ball bounce your way!