I don't generally use the intro space in a column to complain. It's small. Petty. A tad unseemly.
But since I am all of those things (especially 10 weeks into the fantasy football season), I'm going to make an exception for one overriding reason.
Blake Martinez was sent by the universe to ruin me—and I don't know why.
I was high on Martinez over the summer. Really high. Like top-five linebacker high. There was a reason for that. Martinez was reportedly healthy. He logged 140-plus tackles in four straight years from 2017-2020. The competition for snaps and tackles in New York wasn't especially imposing. All the ingredients were there for a bounce-back season.
At least there were until the Giants released him on September 1.
I wasn't the only IDP analyst who was taken aback by the development, but sometimes you just have to roll with the punches. In most of the leagues where I had drafted Martinez, I held onto him, figuring that he'd quickly find a new home. He did find a new team in the Las Vegas Raiders, but it wasn't quickly—it took over a month. Then came more waiting as Martinez watched Divine Deablo and Denzel Perryman make plays in Vegas.
Martinez finally saw significant playing time in Week 9, after Deablo got hurt. And after recording 11 total tackles against the Jacksonville Jaguars, it appeared IDP managers who held and hoped with Martinez were finally going to be rewarded.
At least until he retired from the NFL a few days later.
That double-punch in the junk is far from the only heartbreak that IDP managers have experienced this year—it can be argued (convincingly) that another lost season for Colts linebacker Shaquille Leonard is an even more devastating development. There was a time when Leonard was my No. 1 linebacker for 2022.
There's a lesson to be learned here. Hope is not a strategy. With the benefit of hindsight, the wisest IDP managers were the ones who pounced on guys like Deablo and Frankie Luvu of the Panthers early. Who took full advantage of the opportunity to improve their team. Now, 10 weeks in, it's more likely that holes in the lineup will have to be patched one week at a time.
That's the case with most of the players in this week's Living the Stream. They are short-term fixes. But there's at least one player who should (in theory) have value the rest of the way.
That he also plays for the Raiders in only slightly horrifying.
Here's hoping he doesn't retire, too.
DE A.J. Epenesa, Buffalo (vs. Cleveland)
Epenesa entered the NFL with more than a little hype after a standout career at Iowa, but after just 2.5 sacks in his first two seasons combined, Epenesa's star appeared to have just about dimmed out. However, Epenesa already has more sacks this year (3.5) than in those first two seasons combined. Per Jerry Sullivan of WIVB-TV, Epenesa credited a return to relative normalcy in 2022 with giving him a boost entering the season.
“My first year was Covid. My second year was half-Covid, half-normal,” he said. “I tested positive, so they restricted me, even though I was vaccinated. The last two years were ‘it could be this, it could be that.’ There were some many could-bes. We’ve got a normal year this year. I don’t have to worry whether someone else is sick and how it affects me. I can focus in on myself, I can focus in on the defense. Building relationships with my teammates. Before, I couldn’t go outside the building. I couldn’t hang out with teammates.”
With Gregory Rousseau sidelined by an ankle injury last week, Epenesa played a season-high 50 sacks and made the most of them, tallying three tackles and a sack. There have been three instances this year where Epenesa has played at least half of Buffalo's snaps, and all three times he has logged at least one sack. If Rousseau misses Sunday's home date with the Browns, Epenesa is on the DL2 radar.
EDGE Leonard Floyd, LA Rams (at New Orleans)
Not much has gone right for the Los Angeles Rams this year, including the pass rush. After posting 50 sacks in 2021 on the way to a Super Bowl win, the Rams have just 18 after nine games in 2022—25th in the league. Part of the problem has been a slow start to the season by edge-rusher Leonard Floyd, but as Skyler Carlin reported for Rams Wire, defensive coordinator Raheem Morris has been steadfast in his support of the 30-year-old.
"Let’s just cut to the chase. He has to continue to do what he’s done the last couple of weeks, and that’s get better and better,” Morris said. “The first week of the season, we all got our butts kicked by Buffalo. The next week, he came in a little gimpy; the following week, he looked a little stronger, played a little bit better, got a little bit closer. The next couple of weeks, he got a couple hurries, got a couple force-downs, got a couple things really good for us in the pass rush game, and now he’s got to get more production."
That production has finally started to come for Floyd—he has three sacks over the past three weeks, including one against the Cardinals last Sunday. In Week 11, Floyd faces Andy Dalton and a Saints team that admittedly hasn't been a great fantasy matchup for edge-rushers this year. But Alex Highsmith of the Steelers showed last week that hay can be made off the edge against them.
DT Javon Hargrave, Philadelphia (at Indianapolis)
Over the past three weeks, the No. 1 defensive tackle in fantasy football isn't Aaron Donald of the Rams. Or DeForest Buckner of the Colts. It's Javon Hargrave of the Eagles—by a massive margin. That hot streak continued last week against the Washington Commanders, and before that third straight hot game, Hargrave told reporters that he's benefitting from moving up and down the line for the Eagles.
“I was lining up at different places and just doing my normal rushes,” Hargrave said. “I think it’s really fun to play every position. “I just stay positive every game. I don’t really press too hard, but I know that any game could be my game, so I just keep working, and I’m happy that those days came. I feel happy and more confident. You see that being consistent and putting in the work pays off.”
Over that three-game rip, Hargrave has amassed a whopping 28 total tackles and six sacks—including 13 stops and a sack against the Commanders. Yet despite that volcanic outburst, Hargrave remains available in a much higher percentage of leagues than he should be…which is to say he shouldn't be available anywhere. Oh, and Hargrave's Eagles face a Colts team in Week 11 that's tied for the league lead in sacks allowed with 36.
LB Jayon Brown, Las Vegas (at Denver)
Of the linebackers listed in this week's column, Brown would appear to be the safest bet to maintain a three-down role (and IDP value) through the end of fantasy football season. But even that isn't set in stone. Nothing is in Vegas right now.
Brown's first year with the Raiders has already been a roller-coaster ride. He opened the season as a starter with Denzel Perryman out but went from there to a healthy scratch a few games later. He has also battled a hamstring injury. But with Perryman out again last week and Martinez no longer on the roster, Brown was back in the starting lineup and making the defensive play calls last week against the Indianapolis Colts.
Brown's eight total tackles aren't an eye-popping total, although Brown did add a fumble recovery. But Brown was on the field for every defensive snap. He has significant experience as a starter—39 games over five years in Tennessee. And he has shown that he can be productive in the past when the snaps are there, including a 105-tackle campaign with the Titans back in 2019.
LB Kaden Elliss, New Orleans (vs. Los Angeles Rams)
The injury bug has hit more than one linebacker corps across the NFL in recent weeks, and the New Orleans Saints weren't spared—leading tackler Pete Werner was carted from the team's Week 9 loss to Ravens with an ankle injury. That injury thrust fourth-year pro Kaden Elliss into the starting lineup, and he told Terrin Waack of NOLA.com that he's ready to do whatever the team needs while Werner is on the shelf.
“Wherever they need me, I feel like I know all three spots at the linebacker position,” Elliss said. “That is something that (linebackers coach Michael) Hodges has drilled in me and made sure that I'm ready to do so I can step up and step in any role as needed. So yeah, I'm comfortable. I’m ready to roll. I'm just excited for the opportunity to go out there. Whatever they ask me to do, whatever the game plan is exactly, to be able to go out there, fly around and play with this band of brothers, I’m just excited for it.”
For one week at least, Elliss put his tackles where his talk was—last week against the Steelers, Elliss played 96 percent of the Saints' defensive snaps, tallying seven total tackles and adding his third sack of the 2022 season. At first glance, Werner's injury had the look of a multi-week situation. And it appears that so long as he's sidelined, Elliss will plan an every-down role.
LB Sione Takitaki, Cleveland (at Buffalo)
The Browns have been beset by injuries at linebacker this year. Anthony Walker is done for the season. So is Jacob Phillips. Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah has missed time as well. All the injuries have necessitated fourth-year veteran Sione Takitaki playing a larger role defensively, and per Anthony Poisal of the team's website, head coach Kevin Stefanski has been impressed by what he has seen these past few weeks.
"He's played really well," Stefanski said. "You've seen an increased number of snaps, and I think what he's done with those has been impressive. Sometimes when you're that base linebacker that comes off in nickel, you just don't get the opportunity and you don't get the exposure. I think with added exposure, he's done a nice job. He plays very physical, a good tackler, smart and in the right place. Excited for him to have a continued role in what we're doing moving forward."
Somewhat surprisingly, it hasn't been the recently-acquired Deion Jones who paced the Browns in snaps at linebacker the past two games. It was Takitaki who responded with double-digit tackle efforts in back-to-back games. It's possible that the return of Owusu-Koramoah could muddy the waters here, but at the moment, Takitaki is a three-down linebacker heading into a matchup with a Bills team allowing the sixth-most fantasy points per game to linebackers in 2022.
S Marcus Epps, Philadelphia (at Indianapolis)
There has been no shortage said and written about the Philadelphia Eagles secondary this year, whether it's veteran cornerback Darius Slay or newcomers James Bradberry and C.J. Gardner-Johnson. Safety Marcus Epps has been something of the forgotten man on the back end, and when asked about Philly's new-look secondary by Dave Spadaro of the team's website, even he quickly deflected attention away from himself.
"I think we can get a lot of better, clean up some things," said Epps. "C.J., he has come in here and balled out and really helped complete what we're doing in the secondary. He's playing great. He's a great athlete and he knows where to be at the right time and that's part of our success. We're in that room every day working together, and you see how it is translating to the field. I just think the more we play together, the better we're going to be, so I'm excited about what is ahead for us as a secondary and as a defense."
After nine games, Epps leads all Eagles defensive backs with 52 total tackles, including seven total tackles in last week's loss to the Commanders. Epps has failed to hit the five-tackle mark just once this season, and when the Eagles take the field for the next time, it will be with a Colts team that has allowed the fifth-most fantasy points per game to safeties in 2022.
S Darrick Forrest, Washington (at Houston)
The Commanders knocked off the NFL's last undefeated team last week, and the story of that upset was the play of the Washington defense. The strength of that defense has become the safety trio of Kamren Curl, Darrick Forrest, and Bobby McCain, and Commanders head coach Ron Rivera recently talked up Forrest's growth as a player while speaking to Zach Selby of the team's website.
"You see him playing very fast," Rivera said. "He's very physical. After Kam (Curl), he's probably one of our more physical guys. He's a downhill player. He's very active. He plays with his eyes pretty well. He sees a lot. You see a guy play with confidence, and a guy playing with confidence is gonna play fast."
Like their NFC East rivals in Dallas and a number of other NFL teams, the Commanders are running a lot of three-safety looks. For Forrest, that meant a 100 percent snap share, six total tackles and an interception. Forrest isn't just capable of DB2 numbers in his own right, either—Curl has had some injury issues this season, and were he to go down, Forrest has demonstrated top-10 fantasy upside when the matchup is right,
DB Cam Lewis, Buffalo (vs. Cleveland)
A third-year pro from Buffalo (the college, not the town) who converted to safety in the offseason, Lewis made his first career start last week—Jordan Poyer is injured, and backup Jaquan Johnson has not played well. For a young player making his first career start at a position he only recently started playing, Lewis acquitted himself pretty well. But while speaking to reporters after the game, all Lewis wanted to talk about was the play he didn't make on Justin Jefferson's otherworldly game-saving fourth-down catch.
“I honestly thought it was over his head, but [I’ve] just got to be more aware of the situation,” Lewis said. “(Bleeping) fourth-and-18. Knock the ball down, bro. I’m not a selfish player. I don’t try to be a selfish player. I’m always trying to put the team before me. Just got to knock the (bleeping) ball down. That’s plain and simple. I’ve got to know the situation. I knock the ball down, we (bleeping) win.”
Cam. Language. Think of the children.
The final score and that one play notwithstanding, Lewis played well Sunday, amassing nine total tackles while playing 95 percent of the snaps. Provided that Poyer isn't ready to go by this Sunday's game with the Browns, Lewis should earn another bite at the apple—and the fact that he has positional eligibility as a cornerback is a nice bonus.