The playoffs are here and it’s going to be a wild ride. On top of the normal late-season injuries and situations, we have a major rash of covid issues affecting multiple teams. It seems there is a new player on the covid list every time I refresh the news feed. All we can do now is stay on top of things right up to kickoff. This is what I know mid-week.
Matchups are always important but never more so than now. With that in mind, don’t downgrade your Arizona defenders too much because they are playing the Lions. Granted, Denver inside linebacker, Baron Browning, turned in a disappointing 1-2 against them last week, but safety Justin Simmons was 5-1 with a pick. The previous week Nick Vigil and Blake Lynch combined for 15-9-2 with a forced fumble and a recovery.
Eric Harris landed on IR this week with a torn pectoral and Richie Grant is nursing an ankle injury that kept him inactive on Sunday. Even if Grant suits up against San Francisco, Jaylinn Hawkins is the favorite to start at strong safety. The 49ers have been feeding George Kittle heavily in recent weeks, which means Hawkins should be busy. Bengals safeties Jessie Bates and Vonn Bell combined for 13-6-0 with three passes defended and a forced fumble with this matchup last week.
Dante Fowler left the week 14 game with a calf injury. Keep an eye on his status if you are considering him.
There were some good reasons to believe in Patrick Queen last week. Yet he was only able to the solid matchup and an 85% snap share into one tackle and one assist. One might think the Packers with their two-headed running attack, would be another great matchup, but that has not necessarily been the case. Chicago’s inside linebackers, Roquan Smith and Alec Ogletree, accounted for five tackles and nine assists between them last week. There have been some strong games by linebackers against Green Bay as well, but considering how inconsistent Queen has been, there is a fair amount of risk with him this week.
Harrison Phillips was not on the field much early in the year. He was even inactive for three of the Bills first six games. Since the bye week, however, he has quietly become a solid contributor for managers in tackle required leagues. Over the last six games Harrison has 16 tackles and 15 assists, falling short of five combined tackles just once. Meanwhile, the Panthers have been a plus matchup for interior linemen. Over their last six games, opponents interior linemen have averaged nearly ten combined tackles against them as a group.
A couple of weeks back I called out Trevis Gipson for his role in replacing Khalil Mack. Gipson has done a solid job, including a pair of sacks over the last four games, but he was bumped to the third man role when Bruce Irvin got the start against Green Bay, despite being with the team for less than three weeks. Gipson might be worth hanging onto in a pinch but his reduced role lowers expectations considerably, especially this week against a Viking offense that does not give up a lot of sacks.
Before he left Sunday’s game with back spasms, Tre Hendrickson managed to extend his streak to nine consecutive games with at least one sack. The early vibe feels like he will be able to play in week 15, but keep an eye on his status as the week moves along. If Hendrickson sits, rookie Cameron Sample would be in line for his first NFL start.
Once again the numbers were not great at 4-5 with a pass breakup, but Germaine Pratt saw action on virtually every defensive snap against the 49ers. There has been no update on Logan Wilson’s shoulder injury as of Wednesday morning, so we have to assume he will miss another game at this point.
Ronnie Harrison missed the great matchup with Baltimore due to an ankle injury. He returned to practice on a limited basis Tuesday but is not a sure thing to suit up against the Raiders. Grant Delpit got the start in week 14 and blew up for eleven solo tackles. Las Vegas is not as strong a matchup as Baltimore for safeties, but they are a solid one. I would be nervous about Harrison if he plays, but if Harrison sits, Delpit could be a solid start for us.
The Browns could be a little short-handed at the corner positions this week. Troy Hill is nursing a sore knee and is not expected to go, while Greg Newsome has not practiced and remains in concussion protocol. Greedy Williams would get the start with either M.J. Stewart or A.J. Green in the slot.
Anthony Walker remains on COVID-IR but could be cleared in time for week 15. John Johnson and Troy Hill were added to the list on Wednesday. The Browns could move M.J. Stweart to free safety for this game, with A.J. Green covering the corner spot.
With the return of Neville Gallimore at tackle, Randy Gregory, and Demarcus Lawrence on the edge, the Dallas defense finally had all their pieces in place when they faced Washington. Micah Parsons moved back to middle linebacker but it did not stop him from making an impact as a pass rusher. When the dust settled, Gallimore, Gregory, and Lawrence each had a sack and Parsons two. The Giants have not been giving up a huge number of sacks but they could struggle with Mike Glennon under center and an offensive line that has struggled much of the season.
In last week’s column I pointed out how Keanu Neal’s fantasy points were good but there was concern with his playing time. After a few solid outings, Neal turned back into a pumpkin, recording one tackle and one assist versus Washington. His snap share rebounded to just short of 70% but was well shy of every-down role he held in weeks eleven and twelve.
Baron Browning all but vanished in week fourteen, totaling one tackle and a pair of assists. The good news is his role has not changed and Browning saw an 86% play share. The other good news is, Denver will not see the Lions again. Expect Browning to fare much better this week against a strong Bengals running game.
We have been waiting all season for a Lions linebacker to step up. Alex Anzalone has been up and down, Derrick Barnes has been alright but has not seized the opportunity. Maybe fourth-year former undrafted free agent Josh Woods will be the guy? Woods has been seeing action in a limited role for much of the season. In week thirteen his playing time jumped to 57% and he went 6-2 versus the Vikings. That was enough to earn him a shot so he got the start against Denver, where he went 10-3 with a pair of tackles for loss while playing nearly every snap. The tackle totals are good for fantasy managers but a lot of those plays were made five yards down the field, which does not bode well for Woods long term prospects. That said, With Anzalone hobbled by an ankle injury, Woods and Barnes are looking like the starters this week in a strong matchup with the Cardinals.
Green Bay Packers
If you have a Green Bay defender on your roster, start him this week against the Ravens. Over the last six weeks, Baltimore has been an outstanding matchup for any position. Their opponents have averaged over 53 solo tackles and more than 21 assists with literally every position getting in on the tackle bonanza. If that were not enough, they have allowed an average of 4.3 sacks, 1.5 interceptions, 1 forced fumble, and half a recovery. Yes, Baltimore might be without Lamar Jackson for this game, but the offense does not change with Tyler Hunley under center, nor does it seem to suffer. I can easily see DeVondre Campbell being the number one fantasy linebacker this week and will not be surprised if Kenny Clark is the top tackle.
Kamu Grigier-Hill has been on fire since the Texans’ week ten bye but he got the double whammy this week. After leaving Sunday’s game with a knee injury, he landed on the covid list Tuesday. As of Wednesday afternoon, there has been no update on the severity of the knee, so plan as if Hill will not be available even if he clears covid. With Zach Cunningham gone, Neville Hewitt is in line to start with rookie Garrett Wallow as the top reserve. While with the Jets last year, Hewitt proved he can get the job done both on the field and in the box scores. That said, Jacksonville is not a good matchup for linebackers; especially if they continue to leave James Robinson on the bench.
Khari Willis was set to return from his calf injury in week 13 but landed on the covid list instead. While a lot of players are going on the list this week, Willis is one of the few that is coming back. With the extra week of recovery, there is no longer any concern with the calf and the Patriots are a strong matchup.
Kansas City Chiefs
LJarius Sneed was a late scratch last week due to the death of his brother. Mike Hughes got the start and had a very Sneed-like game with eight tackles, an assist, two forced fumbles, and a recovery. Sneed will not play on Thursday so Hughes might be the guy to pick up and start in what should be a plus matchup.
It looks like the Chiefs might be without star tackle this week after he was one of three players to land on the covid list. From my understanding, he is a close contact, so there is a chance he could be cleared in time.
Willie Gay Jr and Chris Jones were among the slew of players placed on the covid list this week. There is no one to step up and produce like Jones at the tackle position but with one less guy in the linebacker rotation, Nick Bolton becomes a what the heck play for those in need.
Las Vegas Raiders
Denzel Perryman missed last week’s game with an ankle injury and was not practicing early this week. If he does not make it back, Divine Deablo will be in line for his second start at middle linebacker. Deablo posted a solid 5-5 against the Chiefs last week but after Patrick Queen’s dismal performance versus Cleveland last week, I am a bit leery of Deablo in this one.
In last week’s column, I mentioned we might see Deablo and K.J. Wright as the starters against the Chiefs. Cory Littleton suited up for the game and got the start, but played just 19 snaps before giving way to Wright. Littleton may give it a go again in week fifteen, but a linebacker with a sore shoulder is a scary prospect at playoff time.
For all the dynasty league managers looking for some guys to stash at the end of the year, take a look at Malcolm Koonce. The rookie third-round pick has two sacks on 22 snaps over the last two games.
Los Angeles Chargers
Derwin James suffered a hamstring injury late last week and was inactive against the Giants. He returned on a limited basis Tuesday and remains questionable for Thursday’s game with Kansas City. Considering the magnitude of this game, James will be back on the field if at all possible, but the short week is not going to help. Trey Marshall started against the Giants and would get the call again this week if needed. Kansas City has been an inconsistent matchup for safeties over the last several games. If James plays, he almost has to be in our lineups. Marshall, however, does not.
Los Angeles Rams
The Rams have been hit by the covid bug yet again. After playing without Jalen Ramsey and Donte Deayon last week, they will likely be without Jordan Fuller against Seattle. Fuller is one of nine Rams players on the list as of Wednesday. Look for Nick Scott to make the start at strong safety if Fuller is not cleared in time. Ramsey and Deayon have a chance to return for week 15. If they do not, David Long would make a second start.
Sheldon Richardson has been on the field for at least 76% of the snaps in three consecutive games. With Michael Pierce returning to action in week thirteen. The Vikings are in good shape on the inside, so most of Richardson’s action has been a defensive end. He had a solid game against the Steelers at 3-0-1 with a batted pass and has a decent matchup this week with Chicago.
New England Patriots
Kyle Dugger has been activated from the covid list and should be a quality start versus the Colts this week.
New Orleans Saints
Demario Davis rebounded with a solid 6-2 in week fourteen but was outscored yet again by Kwon Alexander who landed a pair of sacks and finished 4-0-2. I like both players as starters this week against the Buccaneers. That said, I like Alexander more based on recent production and the fact he will have the extra motivation of facing his former team.
The Saints were without Cameron Jordan last week. He has not been activated from the covid list as of Wednesday but has a good shot at playing against the Buccaneers. Carl Granderson and Marcus Davenport were the starters in week fourteen. Granderson has done a good job when called upon, including a 2-0-1 against the Jets. Marcus Davenport was on a roll before his latest injury but, despite having a 55% snap share, was not able to rekindle the fire in his first game back. With Tampa Bay giving up less than a sack and a half per game on average since week eight, this is probably not the week to gamble on any of the Saints’ pass rushers.
Chauncey Gardner-Johnson returned to action last week as well. Like Davenport, he played a significant role but was not productive in the box score. There is, however, a big difference in the matchup situation in that the Buccaneers are a plus matchup for safeties, especially the ones tasked with covering Rob Gronkowski, as I expect Gardner-Johnson will be doing often.
Malcolm Jenkins could also see his fair share of Gronkowski, but Jenkins is mired in a major slump. He has not reached seven points in a game since week eight, making it hard to trust him against anyone.
New York Giants
Last week I called out Aaron Robinson as a player to stream. That worked out well for those that rolled the dice with me. Unfortunately, we are not going to have him as an option in another good matchup this week. Robinson and Xavier McKinney were sent to the covid list on Wednesday. Adoree Jackson is still not practicing with his quad injury. If he is not available, I have no idea what to expect opposite James Bradberry. They may be forced to use a safety outside. With Logan Ryan returning, J.R. Reed or Stephen Parker might be the fourth defensive back. What a mess…
Once again the Steelers find themselves banged up at the outside linebacker position. T.J. Watt (groin) and Alex Highsmith (knee) were both limited on Wednesday. Early expectations have Highsmith being able to play with the feeling on Watt being less optimistic. Pittsburgh finished last week’s contest with Taco Charlton and Derrek Tuszka working on the edge.
D.J. Reed totaled seven tackles and an assist before leaving last week’s game in the fourth quarter with a bruised sternum. He is currently considered questionable for this week and the team is optimistic. In five of their last six outings, Rams’opponents have had a corner record at least six solo tackles. If Reed is available, he should make a fine starter for round one.
San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers could have a problem at linebacker this week. Azeez Al-Shaair (elbow) and Dre Greenlaw (groin) have not practiced as of Wednesday and Fred Warner has been limited with a sore ankle. We could see Tyrell Adams, Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles, and Marcell Harris as the starters versus Atlanta. Tackle D.J. Jones also sat out Wednesday with a sore knee. Maybe Mike Davis can finally run for 50 yards in a game?
Tennessee won the Zach Cunningham sweepstakes, claiming the veteran inside linebacker off waivers late last week. He was inactive after being with the team for just a day or two but that is likely to change this week. Cunningham is a starting quality player, is built to play in a 3-4, which is what the Titans run, and is healthy. It is a matter of time before he bumps someone from the lineup. The only question now is who and when. We already know the team is not high on Rashaan Evans since they declined his option year last summer, Jayon Brown is in the final year of his contract, and David Long is signed through the 2022 season. The bottom line here is, unless we get some clarification from the team, starting Brown or Evans this week is a big risk.
Washington Football Team
This just in; Landon Collins is a beast at linebacker. Collins went 5-0-2 with a pick against the Cowboys in week fourteen. His ability to get home on the blitz has become vital to the team since their two stud edge defenders have been out, and Collins has the toughness of a throwback middle backer.
With Jonathan Allen and Matt Ioannidis landing on the covid list, Washington will now be without four of their top five defensive linemen when they face division rival Philadelphia. To make things worse, the Eagles run the ball as much, if not more than any team in the league. Look for Collins, Kamren Curl, and Cole Holcomb to all have strong outings this week.
That does it for this edition. Best of luck in those first-round games!
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