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DE Everson Griffen, MIN (7 solos, 1 asst, 3 sacks, 1 FF)
The Vikings signed Griffen to a $42 million contract this offseason, and that resulted in them releasing veteran Jared Allen when he wouldn’t take a paycut. At this point, that is looking like a wise investment. Griffen roughed up Kyle Orton and the Bills offensive line with 3 sacks and 8 tackles on Sunday. That gives him 5 sacks over his last 3 games and 7 on the season. With matchups coming up against Tampa and Washington, he could get to double digits by the time the Vikings have their week 10 bye.
DE Jason Pierre-Paul, NYG (6 solos, 2 sacks)
The big plays haven’t been there for Pierre-Paul this year, but he is back to playing like a truly elite player again. He had gone four games without a sack, but exploded for 2 against Tony Romo and the Cowboys this week. Although he’s unlikely to get back to his days of 60+ solo tackles like he posted in 2011, he’s nearly on pace for 50 and the sacks will likely come given the pressure he’s been putting on QBs just about every week.
DE Jerry Hughes, BUF (3 solos, 2 asst, 1.5 sacks)
It took Hughes a few weeks to get going, but he has looked dominant for 3 weeks in a row now. With 1.5 sacks against the Vikings this week, he is now up to 4.5 in his last 3 games. Given that he is just 26 years old and entering the last year of his contract, the Bills will likely regret not signing him to an extension earlier as he could be one of the top free agent players available in 2015.
DE Cory Redding, IND (3 solos, 1 asst, 1 sack)
Redding is 33 years old and far from an exciting player (just 10 solos through 7 games), but he is making plays for the surprising Colts defense. He has 3 sacks in his last 4 games and could provide a short-term fix for fantasy owners who need some help at the DE position.
DT Jay Ratliff, CHI (5 solos, 2 asst, 3.5 sacks)
Ratliff missed a few games earlier this year while recovering from a concussion, and it started to look like the Bears not get much from him. However, he was maybe the only player who showed up for them on Sunday in a tough loss to the Dolphins. As impressive as his stat line looks, it’s even better when you consider that 6 tackles and all 3.5 sacks came in the first half. He’s only played a part-time role in 4 games and has 3.5 sacks while Jared Allen and Lamarr Houston have combined for just 1.5 sacks all season.
DT Aaron Donald, STL (4 solos, 1 asst, 1 sack)
The Rams didn’t give Donald a ton of playing time early on, but they have turned him loose the past two weeks. He started both games and averaged almost 60 snaps, so it’s no surprise that he has also seen a spike in his production. He posted 4 solo tackles in back to back games and this week added a sack and 3 tackles for a loss. Donald is going to be a very disruptive force in the middle of that Rams defensive line.
LB Telvin Smith Sr, JAX (3 solos, 1 asst, 1 sack, 1 FF, 1 INT, 2 PD)
Smith is a rookie who the Jaguars are taking things slow with, but they may need to give him more playing time after a game like this. He only played about half the game but in those 40 snaps, he outscored just about every other fantasy linebacker in most scoring systems. Smith has struggled in coverage but was great against the Browns and even picked off his first career pass. With Paul Posluszny suffering a torn pectoral muscle this week, there figure to be a lot more snaps and tackle opportunities up for grabs and Smith likely has the most upside in this LB group even though he’s likely too small to play MLB.
LB Dont’a Hightower, NE (9 solos, 4 asst, 1 sack)
Hightower returned to the lineup on Thursday and posted some big numbers in the first game without Jerod Mayo. Look for him and Jamie Collins to play an everydown role, and both players should remain reliable starters given their complementary skills. Hightower is better rushing the passer while Collins is better in coverage.
LB Chad Greenway, MIN (7 solos, 8 asst, 1 FF, 1 PD)
Obviously, Greenway is a player that you should stat whenever he is healthy and he confirmed that with a huge game against the Bills this week. He was likely helped by the favorable stat crew in Buffalo with 8 assists on 15 tackles, but he also added a forced fumble and pass defensed.
LB Pernell McPhee, BAL (2 solos, 2 sacks, 1 FF)
McPhee is not a name player and he’s built more like a defensive lineman than a linebacker, but he has been a pleasant surprise for the Ravens on defense lately. With 2 sacks this week, he now has 4 over his last 3 games and he is generating a lot of heat on opposing QBs. The Ravens have some nice depth at OLB with Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil, and Courtney Upshaw so that limits his upside for now, but he could eventually earn a bigger role.
LB Vincent Rey, CIN (7 solos, 9 asst)
With MLB Rey Maualuga and SLB Emmanuel Lamur sitting out this week with injuries, Rey got the start at MLB. He wound up playing every snap as WLB Vontaze Burfict left early with an injury. That likely contributed to his 16-tackle outing, but Rey is a player who has always been productive when given a chance to play so he could make a nice pickup this week if still available.
LB Christian Kirksey, CLE (7 solos, 2 asst, 1 sack)
Kirksey remains in a time-share at ILB with Craig Robertson, but he was extremely productive this week. Despite only playing about half the game, he was credited with 9 tackles and also picked up a sack. Although it’s likely tough to count on a player who might only see 40 snaps in a given week, his fantasy upside is more apparent when you see what he did with limited playing time and it’s probably only a matter of time before the Browns give him a full-time role.
LB Malcolm Smith, SEA (10 solos, 1 FF)
With Bobby Wagner out of the lineup, an opportunity was created for Smith to play an everydown role. KJ Wright posted 10 tackles (7 solos, 3 assist) as well, but Smith was credited with 10 solos as well as a forced fumble. They put up these numbers despite playing just 51 snaps in St. Louis, which has one of the toughest stat crews in the league. Looks like both players are likely viable starters as long as Wagner is out.
S Robert Blanton, MIN (4 solos, 2 asst, 1 FR, 1 INT, 1 PD)
The one weakness of the Vikings defense appears to be MLB, where Jasper Brinkley is mostly serving as a placeholder. That tends to create more opportunities for SS Robert Blanton, who is putting up steady tackle numbers almost every week. He also added some big plays to his resume this week with a fumble recovery and interception, and may add to that next week in a matchup with Tampa Bay.
S Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, GB (8 solos, 1 asst)
The Packers didn’t force their first round pick into a full-time role right away, but he has played most of the snaps at free safety up until this week while sharing time with Micah Hyde. In their easy win over the Panthers this week, however, Clinton-Dix played every snap and it looks like his time has arrived. Despite not playing a full-time role all year, he has posted 30 solo tackles along with a few big plays and he should be very active again next week in New Orleans.
CB Leodis McKelvin, BUF (4 solos, 2 INT, 2 PD)
McKelvin has taken some heat for his poor ball skills in the past, but he has always been a physical and reliable tackler. Also, he tends to give up quite a few receptions, which generates more tackle opportunities for him. Although he never posted more than 2 interceptions in a season before, his 2 on Sunday brought him up to 4 already in 2014 and the season isn’t half over. He looks like he could be one of the year’s biggest fantasy surprises at corner.
CB Prince Amukamara, NYG (7 solos, 1 INT, 2 PD)
Amukamara was matched up against Dez Bryant for most of the game this week and his numbers saw a nice spike as a result. He gave up receptions on 7 of 10 targets, but also managed an interception to bring him up to 3 on the season. With 34 solo stops through week 7, he’s on a similar pace to what he did last year and looks like a clear #1 fantasy corner.
DE Olivier Vernon, MIA (no tackles)
After posting a huge game against the Packers a week ago, Vernon was a no show this week in a win over the Bears. He played almost the entire game and remains a high upside play next week against Jacksonville, but it’s concerning that he’s been shutout in 2 of his past 3 games.
DE Justin Tuck, OAK (DNP)
Tuck has played reasonably well for Oakland this year, but he has saw a steady reduction in playing time before being declared inactive this week. His health has been an issue in the past and it seems like it’s becoming an issue again. Hopefully, taking the week off will allow him to recover and get back close to full strength.
DE Anthony Spencer, DAL (1 solo)
A ton of things have gone right for the Cowboys this year, but Spencer doesn’t appear ready to make much of an impact. He’s been seeing about 30 snaps/game the past two weeks, but has just 1 solo and 3 assists to show for it. So, in addition to not getting a lot of pass rush opportunities, he also doesn’t appear to be doing much with them.
DE Cameron Jordan, NO (2 solos, 1 asst)
Jordan was one of the bigger fantasy surprises last year when he blew up with 12.5 sacks. It looks like he’s going to be one of this year’s bigger busts at this point though. Through 6 games, he has only posted a single sack and his tackle numbers (10 solos, 4 asst) probably aren’t strong enough to keep him in your lineup either.
DE Andre Branch, JAX (2 solos, 2 asst)
Branch has shown some flashes this year with a couple of sacks, but he suffered a torn groin muscle on Sunday and is expected to miss the next 6 weeks. This could create a bigger role for pass-rush specialist Ryan Davis, who has looked good in limited snaps so far this year.
DT Geno Atkins, CIN (no tackles)
Atkins doesn’t appear to be the same player we saw prior to him tearing his ACL in late 2013. Despite playing about 60+% of the snaps most weeks, he has only been credited with 3 solo tackles and 3 assists. For a player who was widely ranked as the best fantasy DT in the league not too long ago, this is a huge disappointment. If it’s any consolation, he has been generating some QB pressure but the lack of tackles make him tough to count on in any given week.
LB Paul Posluszny, JAX (5 solos, 7 asst, 1 sack, 1 FR)
Obviously, there was nothing wrong with Posluszny’s stat line this week, but he suffered a torn pectoral muscle late in the game on a sack of Brian Hoyer. The injury will require surgery and end his season, which is a tough blow for fantasy owners as he was a clear #1 LB. Coach Gus Bradley said that J.T. Thomas, who started this week at SLB, will take over in the middle but it's unclear if he'll play a 3-down role.
LB Brian Orakpo, WAS (1 asst)
Orakpo wasn’t having a very productive year with just 1 sack so far, but he was likely playing better than his numbers indicated. Unfortunately, he also suffered a torn pectoral muscle this week and will be lost for the rest of the season. This should create a lot more playing time for this year’s 2nd round pick Trent Murphy out of Stanford.
LB Gerald Hodges, MIN (DNP)
At the same time that Chad Greenway returned to the lineup, Hodges wound up sitting out with a hamstring injury. He didn’t get much playing time early in the year when Greenway was healthy, and will probably need another Greenway injury to get significant snaps since rookie SLB Anthony Barr is also playing a full-time role.
LB Jon Beason, NYG (no tackles)
Beason got the start this week, but aggravated his toe injury early in the game and did not return. The veteran has struggled to stay healthy this year and appears too unreliable to count on. WLB Jacquian Williams remains the only safe option among this crew.
S Usama Young, OAK (5 solos, 1 sack, 1 PD)
Young replaced Tyvon Branch in the starting lineup a few weeks ago and posted 18 solos with a sack over his first 3 starts. Unfortunately, he was carted off the field this week with a torn ACL/MCL and his season is over. Brandian Ross looks like the next man up, and this is a position that has generally been a great source of tackles.
S Eric Reid, SF (0 tackles)
Despite playing 90% of the defensive snaps against a Peyton Manning-led offense, Reid did not show up in the box score. He was victimized several times and has failed to make much of an impact during his second year as a starter. It appears as though San Francisco is using him in deep coverage during most plays, which limits his tackle opportunities while Antoine Bethea is getting plenty of work.
S Aaron Williams, BUF (2 solos, 1 asst)
Williams has not been nearly as effective or productive of late. He sat out last week’s game against the Patriots but has posted just 7 solo tackles and 3 assists in his previous 3 starts. It’s likely that he is playing through some injuries as he has been limited in practice with wrist and neck injuries. Probably a good idea to sit him until he can get closer to full strength, although the matchup with Geno Smith next week does look promising.
CB Marcus Cooper, KC (0 tackles)
Although Cooper has been a starter all season, he has struggled badly at times and was benched this week in favor of Jamell Fleming. Cooper was limited to special teams duties, while Fleming posted 6 solo tackles. Neither player looks like a long-term solution for the Chiefs right now.
CB Brandon Flowers, SD (1 solos, 2 asst)
Flowers has played very well for the Chargers when he’s been in the lineup but he’s had trouble staying healthy. He left the game this week with a concussion and it looks like he is unlikely to play on Thursday night against the Broncos. That could be a big loss for San Diego, and likely would have been a great matchup for him.