Adding the COVID outbreak to the normal run of injuries, made Week 15 an adventure. COVID will continue to be an issue as we head to the second round of fantasy playoff games but it should not have as much impact as last week. The NFL and NFL players association have come together to change some of the protocols, making an easier path for many players already on COVID IR to get back on the field for week sixteen, and cutting back on testing so that fewer will be placed on it going forward. If you successfully navigated the minefield, let’s get ready for round two. If you got bumped last week, remember it’s never too early to start working on next year’s team, especially in dynasty leagues
Playoff time is all about the matchups. When it comes to tackle numbers, the Colts are a strong one for every position except corners. Indianapolis does not give up a lot of sacks or big plays, but since week nine, defensive linemen have averaged twelve tackles and over six assists per game against them. Those are among the highest in the league, so Zach Allen is a good option for us. Jordan Phillips might also be an option in deeper leagues, but he is dealing with a sore knee, so be sure to look at the practice reports if considering him.
The Colts have been an above-average matchup for linebackers as well and are a safe start for Jordan Hicks or Isaiah Simmons, but if you have safety Jalen Thompson, the matchup is excellent. Over their last six games, the safety position of opponents has averaged 16 combined tackles and just short of one turnover. Budda Baker has been somewhat of a disappointment of late, totaling six or fewer points in six of his last nine games. This matchup should be good enough to push him into double-digit points one more time.
Strong safety Eric Harris landed on IR late last week, Jaylinn Hawkins the full-time starter. He has not put up particularly good numbers in his previous two starts, but if you find yourself victimized by COVID or otherwise in need at the position, Detroit provides a solid, high floor matchup for safeties. Over their last six outings, eleven safeties have recorded at least five combined tackles against them, including Jalen Thompson who finished 8-2 last week, and Justin Simmons who was 5-1 with a pick the week before.
Sometimes some things simply can’t be explained. Like how did ancient civilizations build megastructures without modern technology, and what the heck is going on with Patrick Queen. After turning a good matchup with the Browns into a two tackle stinker in week fourteen, Queen came back last week and parlayed another quality matchup with the Packers, into thirteen tackles and his highest point total of the season. On paper, Queen has yet another solid matchup with the Bengals this week. On the heels of his monster game, it would be easy to put him in your lineup. Before doing so, consider he has reached double-digit points three times over the last twelve games, put up one tackle and one assist in the first meeting with Cincinnati, and the Bengals will likely be without Joe Mixon in this one.
I rarely mention offensive players in my column but will make a quick exception here. Baltimore’s secondary is in shambles due to injuries and without Mixon, look for the Bengals to take to the air. Start those Cincinnati receivers.
Most of this week’s article is about who to start. With the exception of safety Jordan Poyer and possibly corner Taron Johnson, no one in a Bills uniform will be on that list for me. It was a bad weather game when these teams met in week thirteen. In that one, the Patriots ran the ball on all but three plays, yet linebackers Tremaine Edmunds and Matt Milano combined for six tackles and six assists with neither coming close to double-digit points. New England does not allow many sacks and they protect the ball, so we should not expect many big plays, and they spread the ball around to make opponents defend the entire field, so tackle opportunities are spread as well. As a result, no position group has averaged ten or more solo tackles against the Patriots over their last six games.
The Bears’ defense played Minnesota tough on Monday night, despite having a makeshift secondary. Chicago’s no-name defensive backs got a lot of help from the return of Akiem Hicks, who was a beast in his first game since week nine. After more than six weeks off to recover from his ankle injury, Hicks was fresh, quick, and highly disruptive. He finished the game with four tackles, an assist, and a pair of sacks, but had a bigger impact on the field than even those numbers tell. There is much to be said for a player with fresh legs at this point in the season, especially one like Hicks, who can be dominant. Fresh legs and the matchup with a Seahawks team that allows a lot of sacks, make Hicks one of those guys we can pluck off waivers and start this week.
The Bengals have avoided the COVID bug for the most part but a rash of injuries has left them thin at linebacker. Logan Wilson’s dislocated shoulder in week thirteen was the big one but the Bengals are also without Akeem Davis-Gaither, Jordan Evans, and now Joe Bachie who left Sunday’s game with a knee injury. Germaine Pratt moved into the full-time role when Wilson was lost and has produced double-digit points in three straight games, including a season-high 18 against Denver. The Bengals did not put Wilson on IR, suggesting he might return in fewer than three games. Week sixteen would be three games. Keep an eye on this one and see if Wilson returns to practice. If he does not, look for Pratt to add another big game against the Ravens, who are a stellar matchup for linebackers.
As strong a matchup as the Ravens are for linebackers, they are even better for corners. Since week nine, opponents corner groups have averaged sixteen tackles, two and a half assists, and over half a turnover. Trae Waynes replaced Chidobe Awuzie last week when Awuzie missed due to COVID. He is also battling a sore foot so there is more to overcome than testing positive. Whoever ends up playing here, is a strong start.
Cleveland started Monday’s game shorthanded due to a slew of positive COVID tests. They should get some guys back in the secondary but may have issues at defensive end now. Jadaveon Clowney was among the positive tests and was out versus Las Vegas. During the game, Tak McKinley was carted off with a torn Achilles and when it was over Myles Garrett limped off gimpy with a groin injury. Joe Jackson will see an increased role, replacing McKinney as the third man in the rotation. He could end up starting if Garrett misses time.
Anthony Walker returned to action against the Raiders but was limited to 61% of the snaps. He should be closer to his normal every-down role this week, in what is a strong matchup with the Packers.
The Broncos got Micah Kiser back from injury in week fifteen. With Kenny Young recovering from a concussion and inactive, expectations were a significant role for Kiser. Instead, Denver plugged in Jonas Griffith who logged 79% of the snaps and finished 8-1. The undrafted rookie has seen a steady increase in playing time since making his debut in week eight. Griffith is probably not someone we can play with any confidence this week, but he is worth keeping an eye on over the final games to see if he has long-term potential.
Alex Anzalone and Jalen Reeves-Maybin returned to starting lineup against Arizona, sending Josh Woods back to his part-time/special teams role at the start of the game. Anzalone lasted seven snaps before aggravating his shoulder injury. Woods came on for a couple of plays before also leaving with a shoulder injury. Detroit finished the game with Reeves-Maybin and Derrick Barnes at linebacker, which could be the way they start against the Falcons. If Atlanta were a better matchup, this could be a very interesting situation to potentially capitalize on. If you find yourself in a pinch, see if one of these guys is available. I would look for Reeves-Maybin first.
Both Kamu Grugier-Hill and Christian Kirksey spent week fifteen on the COVID list. With their starters out, Houston turned to veteran backup Neville Hewitt and rookie fifth-round pick Garrett Wallow. We are used to seeing solid production from Hewitt when he gets on the field, so his 5-5 was not unexpected. The interesting player here is Wallow, who was 6-5-1 versus Jacksonville. The Texans could get both starters back for their matchup with the Chargers this week, so neither Wallow nor Hewitt is sure to have a significant role. Wallow is an interesting prospect for dynasty managers, however. Both Kirksey and Grugier-Hill are set to become free agents at the end of this season and the Texans are looking for good, young, and cheap players to build around in the future. Wallow is showing signs of being one of those guys.
The week fourteen bye was good for Darius Leonard who finally looked healthy against the Patriots. It showed up both on the field where he looked like the player that was once defensive rookie of the year, and in the box score where his 8-2 with a pick and a forced fumble, added up to his best fantasy production of the season. He should have another strong outing this week against the Cardinals.
Andrew Sendejo left last week’s game with a concussion. If he is not cleared in time, look for George Odom to get the start this week.
Rayshawn Jenkins landed on IR early this week after suffering a broken ankle against the Texans. Rudy Ford, rookie Andre Cisco, and Daniel Thomas are all candidates to replace Jenkins. All three saw significant action after Jenkins left the game.
Kansas City Chiefs
With Willie Gay Jr on the COVID list, Nick Bolton played full time and gave us another glimpse of things to come. Bolton exploded for ten tackles, four assists, and three passes defended against the Chargers. While it was his highest point total of the season, it was not the first time we have seen Bolton put up quality numbers. He had a string of double-digit scores earlier in the season when Gay missed time. Unfortunately, we are not able to count on Bolton in week sixteen since he was placed on the COVID list Tuesday. The Chiefs hope to get Gay back for their meeting with the Steelers. Gay could put up good numbers in this one if Pittsburgh can keep the score relatively close.
Las Vegas Raiders
Jonathan Abram was forced out of the week fifteen game with a dislocated shoulder. If the Raiders make the playoffs, there is a chance he could return, but was probably will not see him again in the regular season. Roderick Teamer finished the game and is the favorite to get the start against Denver. The only other obvious option is Dallin Leavitt who has seen a few snaps in almost every game this year.
The Raiders linebacker situation is somewhat of a mystery at this late stage in the season. Denzel Perryman has missed the last two games and is questionable for this week with a sore ankle. That part is easy to figure. Once he can play, Perryman will be the man in the middle again. The head-scratcher is with everyone else at the position. Cory Littleton had been rather productive for most of the season, yet his playing time has plummeted over the last three games, all the way down to nine snaps last week. He was on the injury report in week fourteen with a sore shoulder, so that might be a factor, but Littleton was not on the week fifteen injury report.
The mystery does not end there. Divine Deablo has seen action at linebacker over the last three games. He played 79% of the snaps two weeks ago, but despite Perryman being out and Littleton’s role reduced, Deablo logged about 60% of the playing time against Cleveland. Meanwhile, Will Compton was added to the active roster and was expected to play before testing positive, and Marquel Lee had a fairly significant role. The bottom line here, until Perryman returns, stay away from this mess.
Los Angeles Chargers
Derwin James was gimpy going into week sixteen. He tried to play through the hamstring injury but was unable to finish the game. Trey Marshall came on and did a good job in relief, finishing 3-4 on 44 plays or 61% of the snaps. It is hard to say at this point if James will give it another shot this week, but if he is not able to play, the Chargers might have to look for a different replacement since Marshall landed on the covid list Monday. As for who is next up if neither James nor Marshall are available, that is a mystery. There are no other healthy safeties on the roster so either they move a backup corner or pick someone up and plug them in.
The Chargers could also be paper-thin at outside linebacker where Joey Bosa and Chris Rumph II hit the COVID list Monday. If neither are cleared, Kenneth Murray would be in line to start opposite Uchenna Nwosu.
Jerome Baker has been up and down this year, with far too many down weeks. That said, he deserves strong consideration this week. Not so much because of the big point total versus the Jets last week, but because of the matchup. The Saint’s offense has been a mediocre matchup at best for every position except inside linebacker. Since week nine, the ILB/MLB position group has averaged 9.6 tackles and 6.1 assists, with just short of 1 pass defended and half a turnover/sack.
The Vikings dropped a surprise on us last week with the unexpected release of starting corner Bashaud Breeland. The thought process here is anyone’s guess but probably had to do with both questionable recent play by Breeland and solid play from Cameron Dantzler who stepped into the starting role. Dantzler racked up 6-1 and a forced fumble against the Bears and has a fairly strong matchup with the Rams this week.
Early in the year, I was not at all high on D.J. Wonnum. His production was disappointing and he was not showing many signs that it would get better. Be it by default due to all the injuries, or because the Vikings saw much more in him, the team stuck with Wonnum and it has paid off. Heading to week twelve, he had a combined 10-9-1 on the season. Over the last four games, Wonnum is 11-5-5 with a fumble recovery and three batted passes, and he’s coming off a monster 33 point fantasy game versus Chicago. If that is not enough to get Wonnum into your lineup, consider the Rams have allowed twelve sacks to edge defenders over the last six games.
New England Patriots
The Kyle Dugger ejection cost a lot of managers valuable points last week, but at least he will be back to face a Buffalo offense that has been a fairly good matchup for safeties. That may not be the case for linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley who is nursing an ankle injury he suffered early in week fifteen. Jamie Collins Sr replaced Bentley, going 2-3 with a pair of pass breakups on 37 plays. Collins has a much different skill set than the run-stuffing Bentley, giving the Patriots more pass rush options and big-play potential. If you have been bitten by the injury or COVID bug at linebacker, keep an eye on this situation. Collins might be an answer.
New Orleans Saints
The question is, what happened to Kwon Alexander last week? The answer is not so simple, but not all that hard to figure out. It was a combination of the Buccaneers offense being shut down, the injury to Leonard Fournette, and the return to full action by C.J. Gardner-Johnson. The Saints’ defense was fired up last week. I have a hard time believing they can hold that intensity against a Miami team that has been a solid matchup for linebackers over the second half of the season. Look for Alexander to bounce back in this one.
One part of that equation that will not change, is the presence of Gardner-Johnson who piled up a team-best six solo stops with an assist and a pick against Tampa Bay. The Saints use him as an extra linebacker and/or slot defender most of the time. He tends to be a bit inconsistent on a week-to-week basis, but if you are rolling the dice on someone this week, Gardner-Johnson is a high upside option.
New York Giants
The Giants are hurting at inside linebacker where Reggie Ragland and Bernardrick McKinney have struggled, and Jaylon Smith is desperate for one more opportunity. Smith signed with New York last week and was active against his old team. Smith managed three tackles and an assist on just 17 plays and could see a bigger piece of the pie this week against an Eagles offense that is running over everyone. It is hard to say if Smith has a future with the Giants, or even in the NFL at this point, but he has a history of big fantasy production and a great matchup this week. He’s a gambler’s play.
New York Jets
Elijah Riley was well on the way to another productive day before suffering what was initially called a neck injury but later updated to concussion. He is currently in protocol and is questionable for this week. The Jets are going to make mass roster changes between now and next year. One player widely speculated to move on is Marcus Maye. So the question is, has Riley played well enough to have a shot at sticking and continuing to start in 2022? I like what I have seen from this young man and would be surprised if he is not at least on the roster next year. As for this week, even if he is cleared, Riley has a less than exciting matchup with Jacksonville.
Linebacker Quincy Williams is in a similar situation as Riley, in that he has played and produced well. One sign in favor of Williams is the coaching staff starting him over a healthy Jarrad Davis over the second half of the season. I feel really good about Williams’ chances of keeping the job into the future but we never know with the Jets.
New York has been hammered by injuries across all positions this season. Add star defensive tackle Quinnen Williams to the ever-growing list. Williams left Sunday’s game with a shoulder injury and is considered questionable for this week’s game. With Foley Fatukasi and John Franklin-Myers landing on the COVID list, we could see a lot more of Ronald Blair III in this one. Blair has the versatility to work outside or inside in the Jets 4-3, potentially making him an important swingman this week. Bryce Huff
For anyone still holding hope for Devin Bush, the return of Robert Spillane pretty much stuck a fork in him. As they were starting to do before Spillane was injured a few weeks ago, the Steelers had the two in a timeshare with Bush getting the early-down snaps and Spillane on the field in passing situations. As a result, Bush saw 66% of the action and Spillane 44% against the Titans. This casts serious doubt on the future of Bush in Pittsburgh. Not so much on his being part of the team, but on his potential to ever become a three-down player or an IDP factor.
What the heck got into Carlos Dunlap on Tuesday night? Whatever it was that prompted his three-sack performance, we should not expect to see it happen again anytime soon. Dunlap finished 4-0-3 on just 21 snaps. The only way the 32-year-old will ever become an IDP factor again would be to escape Seattle. Unfortunately, he is signed through next season.
San Francisco 49ers
Safety Marcell Harris got the start at weak-side linebacker against the Falcons but Azeez Al-Shaair returned to practice this week on a limited basis, suggesting he could be available to face the Titans.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
It was a bad week for the Buccaneers all the way around. Not only did they get smacked around and shut out by the Saints, but they also left the game with a bunch of key injuries on both sides of the ball. The big one on defense was Lavonte David who is now expected to miss the rest of the regular season with a foot injury. The team hopes he will return for the playoffs but even that is not a sure thing at this point. Kevin Minter will take over for at least three games and is a quality veteran backup. The only question with Minter is his ability to stay on the field in passing situations. We could see a lot of three safety looks from the Buccaneers over the last three games.
Last week I talked about the uncertainty at the Titans inside linebacker position. Those fears were realized as former three-down starter Jayon Brown was bumped to a nickel role with Rashaan Evans and Zach Cunningham getting the start. The playing time breakdown was 73% for Evans, 67% for Cunningham, and a mere 33% (16 snaps) for Brown. All that remains to be seen now is if Cunningham’s role expands to sub-packages once he has been there long enough to get comfortable. Unless that happens, we are not going to get much from the Titans linebacker position the rest of the way.
Washington Football Team
Covid took a toll on Washington’s roster ahead of their Tuesday game. They got a few guys back in time to play but the secondary was without Kamren Curl and Kendall Fuller. Those two were replaced by Jeremy Reeves and Darryl Roberts respectively, and are likely to be back in uniform this week. Unfortunately, Washington may be without starters Landon Collins and William Jackson III when they face Dallas. Collins had a monster game with going, totaling 4-2 with an interception and a fumble recovery before leaving with a hamstring injury early in the second half. He returned to the field at one point but did not stay long. Shortly before losing Collins, Jackson went to the sideline with an ankle injury and did not return. If both players sit against Dallas, look for Jamin Davis to have a much bigger role, possibly playing full time, and Roberts to make another start. Both have the potential to put up quality numbers for us in this matchup.
That is all I have for you this week. Hopefully, your week fifteen went better than mine. It’s never a good sign when two of your starters are ejected on the same play in one of the early games. That pretty much set the pace for my weekend. Best of luck to you in your quest for the gold!
P.S. The COVID thing is far from over so be sure to follow the news closely and check your lineups right up to game time.
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