Week 16 gave us a few good games but, in large part, it was reminiscent of watching the replacement games back in 1987. While it is a shame to see so many teams drastically handicapped, there are still fantasy championships to be won. If you are still with us entering week seventeen, chances are, you are playing for one. Let’s see if we can navigate injuries and the covid minefield one more time.
After a strong start, Isaiah Simmons has been rather disappointing for the most part this season. In week sixteen he managed to turn an excellent matchup versus the Colts, into a dismal two-tackle performance. This week’s game in Dallas is another solid matchup, but if you are considering Simmons, be aware he was limited to 57% of the snaps last week. This was presumably due to the sore shoulder he has been dealing with for the last few games. Regardless of why the bottom line is Simmons has more than two solo stops just once in the last five games.
The Ravens looked like one of those replacement teams against Cincinnati. Nearly their entire secondary was out at the beginning of the game, then Anthony Averett suffered a broken rib early in the contest taking the last starter out. Baltimore got some guys back on Monday and should have several more clear before this week’s critical matchup with the Rams.
Patrick Queen has put together back-to-back double-digit fantasy scores for the first time since weeks one and two. The Rams have become a much better matchup for linebackers since discovering Sony Michel on their roster four weeks ago, but even more importantly, the Ravens seem to be using Queen a little differently of late. They are now moving him around more, making it harder for offenses to focus blocking schemes on him. As a result, Queen has been free to make more plays over the last two games.
It’s hard to tell if Haason Reddick has hit the wall physically or if his falloff in production has more to do with the Panthers not playing as well of late. Whatever the cause, after piling up 31-22-10.5 over the first eleven games, Reddick is 6-9-.5 over the last four. A matchup with the Saints, who just gave up eight sacks to the Dolphins, would seem to be just what the doctor ordered for Reddick in fantasy championship week. Be careful here though. New Orleans did not allow more than two sacks in any other game since week ten and they should have many of their covid list players back this week, including Taysom Hill. On the other hand, if Ian Book has to play again, Reddick is your huckleberry.
Last week I talked about how Akiem Hicks and his fresh legs were looking for a second straight big game against the Seahawks. Shortly after the article was posted, he landed on the covid list. If he can get off the covid list in time, Hicks has another great opportunity this week against the Giants. New York is giving up just over two sacks per game on average but defensive ends tend to make a lot of tackles with this matchup.
So far, the Bengals have not fallen into the covid mess. With a week seventeen matchup against Kansas City on the horizon, it is important they stay healthy from that perspective. The one major injury they are dealing with is Logan Wilson, who is already being counted out by the team. Germaine Pratt continues to shine and is a good starting option this week, but if you are in a pinch, take a look at Marcus Bailey. He is replacing Wilson and lining up at middle linebacker much of the time. Bailey played 78% of the snaps against Baltimore, including many sub-package snaps, and managed a solid 4-4 in the lopsided win. I expect a busy day for both Bengals linebackers this week, especially if the Chiefs get Travis Kelce back in time to play.
No team has been hit harder with injuries and covid than the Browns. They are starting to get players back with Jadeveon Clowney, Troy Hill, and Ronnie Harrison among those clearing on Monday. While that is great news for the Browns, it brings uncertainty to the IDP front. Do the Browns start Harrison and Grant Delpit at safety or do they stick with M.J. Stewart over one of them for another game or two? Stewart has been all over the field in his two starts, racking up 17 tackles, 4 assists, and a forced fumble. If he goes back to the bench, keep these two games in mind for the future. You can bet other teams will have noticed so Stewart could get a starting shot somewhere next year.
Myles Garrett played against Green Bay but was clearly not 100% as he deals with the sore groin. There is little doubt he will play in this week’s critical matchup with the Steelers, and there is no doubt he will still not be healthy. Garrett was a solid 3-1-1 in the first meeting of these teams. Pittsburgh has allowed at least three sacks in four of their last six games, so the matchup is good if you have to roll with Garrett. If you have other quality options, however, I would probably lean that way.
Anthony Walker has been back in action for two games but has still not returned to his every-down role. He finished week sixteen at 3-6 on a 73% play share.
The Broncos have gone through a lot of guys at inside linebacker this year. Barring further injuries or covid issues, it’s safe to expect Baron Browning and undrafted rookie Jonas Griffith to finish out the year at the positions. There is no surprise with Browning, who was a third-round pick this spring and was seen as a possible long-term answer from the start. Griffith, however, has been a pleasant surprise for the team. He stepped in when Kenny Young went down with a concussion in week fourteen. In two starts, Griffith has played about 80% of the snaps, going a combined 14-8. The Chargers are a plus matchup for inside backers, so unless Young returns and is reinstalled as a starter, look for Browning and Griffith to put up solid numbers. The long-term question is, has Griffith played well enough to put his mane in the hat for the starting job next year?
Green Bay Packers
Rasul Douglas is on fire, adding seven more tackles and another pair of picks to his total in week sixteen. That makes 49 solo tackles, 5 interceptions, 12 passes defended, and a pair of scores since making his debut with Green Bay in week six, and four picks in the last four games. The Vikings are a middle-of-the-road matchup for corners. Kirk Cousins doesn’t throw a lot of interceptions but Douglas recorded five tackles against them in the week eleven meeting.
Christian Kirksey cleared covid and returned to the field last week but surprisingly, was not back in an every-down role. He finished with three combined tackles on just 34% of the snaps. Meanwhile, Neville Hewitt played full-time and Garrett Wallow 82%. It’s hard to say if this was the coaching staff taking an extended look at other guys, or Kirksey still feeling the effect of covid and not 100%. Hewitt would be the guy to trust here except he landed on the covid list early this week as well. Kamu Grugier-Hill could clear later this week, so the moral of the story at this point is, wait and see who is healthy and start them in a good matchup with the 49ers.
A couple of other things pointing to the coaching staff possibly using these last few games to evaluate future options was the healthy scratch of Terrance Mitchell, and Jonathan Owens making another start at safety ahead of Terrence Brooks. Smith was not particularly impressive but Owens had a solid outing with an interception and a fumble recovery. Put him on the watch list for next year along with Wallow.
Darius Leonard was a last-minute scratch after testing positive shortly before Sunday’s game. Unless the league relaxes its protocols, Leonard will miss week seventeen as well. E.J. Speed stepped in and had a strong outing, going 8-1 with a pass breakup. Speed is a good player that would likely be a starter on most NFL teams. His game is similar to that of Leonard so the Colts are business as usual when he is in the game. If you need a starter this week, Speed is an excellent option.
Myles Jack has been nursing a sore knee for a few weeks so it was not a shock when he was inactive for week sixteen. Now that he’s tested positive, we may not see him again until next season. What did catch many of us off-guard last week, was the Jaguars starting rookie seventh-round pick Russell Chapelle instead of Shaquille Quarterman at the position. With Damien Wilson also landing on the covid list, it looks like both Chapelle and Quarterman will be on the field this week. I have not yet forced myself to watch this game, so I have not looked at Chapelle’s on-field play, but he was solid in the box score at 6-2. The Patriots are a good matchup for linebackers on most weeks and they are sure to be running the clock a lot in this one.
Las Vegas Raiders
What in the world are the Raiders doing at the linebacker position? Cory Littleton has not been all-world this year by any stretch, but he has played well most of the time. Yet he has been relegated to scraps when it comes to playing time, seeing action on five plays in each of the last two games. It would be different if they had some upside guy behind him, but that is not the case. Divine Deablo played well in his first start back in week thirteen and was not horrible against the Chiefs the following week. In those games, he was playing in the middle, replacing a banged-up Perryman. Deablo has been far from impressive since shifting to the weak side in the last two games. With Perryman and Littleton on the covid list, Deablo will likely move back inside where he was effective, with K.J. Wright on the weak side. Everything we do at this point is risky, but I like the chances of Deablo putting up decent numbers in a strong matchup with the Colts.
Los Angeles Chargers
The Chargers were a mess with many defensive starters out versus Houston. They could get some guys back for this week’s matchup with Denver but are not likely to be full strength for this one either. Drue Tranquill left last week's game with a leg injury. With Kenneth Murray playing on the edge where they were also shorthanded, the inside linebacker snaps fell to Amen Ogbongbemiga. As of late Tuesday, there had been no update on Tranquill. What will be interesting to see here is what they do with Murray if Joey Bosa returns and Tranquill is out. Just how far has Murray fallen in the eyes of the defensive staff? It has little relevance for this week but I view this as an opportunity to gather important insight toward next year’s quest.
Derwin James stung a lot of managers last week when he was active but only as an emergency player. In essence, the coaches had no intention of playing him, but they had so many players on the covid list, there was no need to make anyone inactive. The Chargers face a critical, must-win situation and their next three safeties behind James are currently on the covid list. I expect James to make a go of it but he is still far from 100%, so playing him this week is a major risk.
Los Angeles Rams
If you need to go deep into your bag of tricks this week, take a look at Travin Howard. Ernest Jones left last week’s game and is considered week-to-week with a high ankle sprain. Howard stepped in to finish the game, going 4-1 with a pick and another pass breakup on 24 plays. Had he not been sidetracked by injuries last year, Howard might have been the Rams starter already. Troy Reeder will probably get most of the sub-package opportunities, but Howard has the potential to impress, especially in what should be an excellent matchup with Baltimore.
New England Patriots
The Patriots placed Ja’Whaun Bentley and Matt Jodon on the covid list Monday. That means more opportunity for Jamie Collins Sr, who is next up behind Bentley, and Kyle Van Noy, who should be counted on more as a pass rusher. The Jaguars' anemic offense makes them a poor matchup in terms of tackles, but both Collins and Van Noy could have a considerable big-play impact.
New Orleans Saints
We might have seen a glimpse of the future when the Saints started rookie second-round pick Pete Werner and last year’s third-round selection Zack Baun at middle and weakside linebacker respectively on Monday night. New Orleans struggled offensively but their defense hardly missed a beat with Demario Davis and Kwon Alexander out. The youngsters performed admirably both on the field and in the box score where Werner finished 7-3 and Baun 6-2 on the night. Alexander is set to become a free agent at the end of this year. Davis is signed through 2024 but counts eleven million against the cap in 2022. Neither veteran is sure to be cleared in time to play this week, so we might see another live audition by the young guns.
New York Giants
Jaylon Smith joined the Giants’ starting lineup in week sixteen, playing 75% of the defensive snaps opposite Tae Crowder. Smith was quiet in the box score with just three assists, but then no one in New york’s front seven did much in terms of numbers with Crowder going 1-3. The organization knows what they have in Reggie Ragland and Bernardrick McKinney, which is not much, so I expect they will give Smith another opportunity to rekindle the fire and jumpstart his career. Unless you are desperate, there is no fantasy value here at the moment, but this is our opportunity as well to see if Smith can turn things around. If he is not able to step up in this situation, it makes no difference where or if he plays in 2022.
New York Jets
Jarrad Davis showed up bigger (6-2) in the box score than did Quincy Williams (4-1) last week, but nothing has changed here. Davis was on the field in three backer personnel packages and played 40% of the snaps, while Williams left the field for one play.
With John Franklin-Myers on the covid list and the team apparently souring on Shaq Lawson, Ronald Blair III led the team’s defensive end in snaps against Jacksonville, logging 62% of the action. His numbers were not particularly exciting at 1-1-0 with a fumble recovery, but that was enough to lead the team’s defensive linemen in fantasy points as well.
Will Parker was the next man up at the depleted safety position.
Derek Barnett was among those landing on the Eagles covid list this week. His absence means more opportunity for Milton Williams who is in line to start opposite Josh Sweat. One would expect the Football Team to put up more of a fight this week than they did last, but even so, Washington is a plus matchup for pass rushers. They have allowed an average of nearly three and a half sacks per game since week eight with an average of two and a half credited to edge defenders.
With Devin Bush on the covid list, Robert Spillane became an every-down linebacker in week sixteen. His 96% play share was six more snaps than Joe Schobert. Both Spillane and Schobert put up double-digit points with Spillane besting Schobert by three. If Bush fails to clear covid in time, both Schobert and Spillane should be solid starting options for us this week, even though the Browns have not been as strong a matchup of late as they were early in the season.
I am not sure what the Seahawks were saving Carlos Dunlap for but they have finally turned him loose a little. After playing 28 total snaps over three games starting in week eleven, he has been on the field for 83 plays over the last three games. Not so surprisingly, Dunlap has eleven tackles, five sacks, a forced fumble, and a batted pass in those three games. Considering his big production in back-to-back weeks, it is hard to argue against plugging him in as a starter against the Lions. That said, don’t overlook the fact Detroit has allowed just four sacks over their last three games and just over two per game on average since week eight.
San Francisco 49ers
Azeez Al-Shaair has been banged up over the last few weeks. On Monday we learned he will miss the rest of the regular season with the knee sprain he suffered in week sixteen. Dre Greenlaw was expected back weeks ago but has still not returned, leaving the 49ers with converted safety Marcell Harris as the starting weakside linebacker. Whoever San Francisco has plugged in at this spot recently, has been productive. Harris managed four solo stops on 26 snaps last week.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Buccaneers just got most of their defensive backs healthy and were rolling along. Now suddenly, the wheels are coming off. Starting corners Jamel Dean and Sean Murphy-Bunting hit the covid list on Tuesday, a day after it was announced that Shaq Barrett’s knee injury will put him on the sideline with Lavonte David (foot) for the rest of the regular season. Meanwhile, the team hopes to get Antoine Winfield Jr back from his ankle injury this week, but he was not practicing as of Tuesday. The good news for the Buccaneers is none of these injuries are serious or season-ending. The bad news for us is we are not going to have them healthy for our championship games.
Zach Cunningham’s snap count grew a bit in his second game as a starter for the Titans, but the roles of Tennessee’s inside linebackers remained the same. There is no reason to believe anyone will emerge from this scrum as a three-down player before next season.
Washington Football Team
Washington was not able to put up much of a fight against the Cowboys. A look at their injury report and covid lists make it easy to understand why. This team, and especially their defense, was gutted. Starting linebackers Cole Holcomb, Jamin Davis, and Landon Collins were out as was starting corner William Jackson III and several other role players. The coaching staff tried to keep the ship afloat by going to a nickel base defense with David Mayo at middle linebacker and backup safety Jeremy Reeves in the Collins role. The on-field result was a disaster as they were simply no match for a talented Dallas offense. In the box scores, however, there was value to be mined. Mayo turned in a respectable 5-2, Reeves a fairly Collins-like 6-4, strong safety Kamren Curl a solid 4-4, and safety Bobby McCain a team-best 7-3. As of late Tuesday, it looks like Washington will be in a similar situation when they face Philadelphia this week.
That puts a wrap on the 2021 season but there is one more story to cover before I close. As I sit here finishing up this week’s column a little earlier than normal, news broke of the passing of the legend, John Madden. Coach Madden has been an ICON in the NFL for my entire life. He is, in large part, the reason I tell people I am a Bengals fan by birth but a Raiders fan by choice. Growing up in Cincinnati and playing high school football in the late 70s and early 80s, Madded was the epitome of loving the game, giving everything you have for your team and making it unbelievably fun in the process. His energy as a coach later moved to the broadcast booth where coach Madden became the face of NFL football for a generation. The game will never be the same without him but the memories will never be forgotten. Rest in peace Coach, you will be missed.
Best of luck to you in those championship games this week. I look forward to doing it all again next year. Until then, JUST WIN BABY!
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