Week 14 is the first week of playoffs for the majority of leagues out there and depending on your league, you may or may not be playing this week depending on first round byes and the like. Regardless, I am going to try to leave you with a couple pointers for getting through the fantasy playoffs. The number one rule I follow is that matchups in the fantasy playoffs matter with 90% of my focus being on winning in the current week. None of the teams you will be facing are going to be pushovers as they needed to beat at least a third of your league (or at least they should have) to get where they are. Name value tends to be just that. Don’t be shy about sitting a player with a bad matchup but a better season scoring average to this point. Number two is paying attention to the NFL team implications of your game. Case in point for the positive side of this is the Bears. With fantasy assets like Jay Cutler, Alshon Jeffrey, Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman not playing for various reasons, one might write off the Bears for any fantasy impact. The reality of the situation is that the replacements for these guys are playing for jobs and guys like Matt Barkley, Josh Bellamy and Nick Kwiatkoski can make an impact on your fantasy squad if you pay attention, watch the matchups and are willing to gamble. The most famous negative example of this is the number one seed wrapping up playing meaningful games by week 15 and seeing starters get rested. This was the bane of owners of Colts’ players for years in the Manning/Dungy era. Pay attention to the situation surrounding the teams that your players play for. With the Cowboys locking in a playoff spot already in week 13, they are the first team to monitor in this respect. Finally, you need to stay in front of the player side of things. This is two-fold in that both playing time and health become important things to watch. A team that is out of the playoff hunt might decide that risking further injury to a critical veteran player isn’t worth it so that veteran gets shut down for the year. In a similar vein, that veteran might be rested in favour of giving playing time to an up-and-coming rookie so that the coaching staff knows what they are working with going into next season. These are both awful scenarios for fantasy owners because there is rarely any predictability for either situation. The best remedy for these problems is a deep bench. And the only way to fill a bench at this juncture is through the waiver wire.
Nick Kwiatkoski was the best of the LB recommendations last week. He led the Bears in solo tackles with 9 and added 2 PDs to set up a great night in tackle-heavy and balanced leagues. He remains a solid add in a week that poses a weaker waiver wire class and should be considered a good to great matchup until Jerrell Freeman returns in week 16. John Timu played 72% of the snaps as opposed to Christian Jones but he failed to add more than 3 total tackles and a PD. DeAndre Levy failed to return in week 13 despite another week of limited practice. With Tahir Whitehead struggling with his own injuries, Levy can’t come back soon enough. AJ Klein logged 5 total tackles but was otherwise invisible. The Panthers failed to contain the Seahawks at either juncture of the Sunday night game and while that normally is a good thing for opposing LBs fantasy stats, Thomas Rawls was ripping off such big chunks that the secondary was making all of the tackles. In the Monday night game, Edwin Jackson led the Colts in tackles with 7 (6 solo) and Darron Lee put up a solid 8 total tackles (4 solo) in a blowout win for the Colts.
Josh Bynes/Tahir Whitehead DET LB – MLB 4-3
Another week gone by and another heaping helping of crow. I said in last week’s column that Josh Bynes, who had been playing WLB in the absence of DeAndre Levy, hasn’t worth a start if Levy didn’t play given the fact that he hadn’t produced very well with the part-time snap count he had been receiving. What I didn’t count on was Tahir Whitehead missing week 13 against the Saints with a knee injury. I also didn’t think that the Lions defense would be so stifling that Drew Brees would have his worst game of the season against the Lions defense. Josh Bynes stepped in for the ailing Whitehead and posted 8 total tackles (5 solo) and a PD. Bynes remains the favorite to start again should Whitehead miss any more time. Levy is a bit of a wildcard in the situation as well. Whitehead is an established LB2-3 and is significantly less likely to be available but I like the short passing game and new commitment to the running game that week 14 opponent Chicago Bears are bringing on offense in terms of an opposing LB matchup. Whichever of Bynes or Whitehead that gets to man the middle in week 14 for the Lions should be plus start.
Roster Recommendation: Low-end LB2 to Low-end LB3
Nick Bellore SFO LB – ILB 3-4
I have been pounding the table for Nick Bellore for a few weeks but a couple stats I looked up on the weekend confirmed that he needs to be mentioned again. Since Nick Bellore started getting a full complement of stats in week 5, he has amassed an amazing 8.25 total tackles per game. Not bad for a first year starter. Elite LBs are pulling in around 10 tackles per game on average so he’s in some pretty good company. Granted those numbers include some special teams tackles so hopefully your leagues scores those. Depending on your scoring system, Bellore has been knocking on the door of LB1 status over the last 9 weeks. In week 13, Bellore tied his season-high with 9 solo tackles, adding another 2 assists in a beatdown received from the Bears. It’s hard to believe that the imploding 49ers with offer much in terms of resistance down the stretch after losing 11 in a row and given the injuries sustained at inside linebacker, the cupboard is pretty bare in terms of replacements if the coaching staff wanted to replace him. I think the Jets and Falcons in weeks 14 and 15 respectively are quality matchups for Bellore with the Rams in week 16 being contingent on what Los Angeles team shows up. Despite the numbers and the upside though, Bellore’s percentage owned in fantasy is below 20% for some providers. Give him a look even if it’s just for depth.
Roster Recommendation: High-end LB2 to Mid LB3
Jonathan Casillas/Keenan Robinson NYG LB – WLB 3-4
The Giants LB situation has been infuriating as a fantasy owner as they refuse to play an every-down LB, instead opting to rotate linebackers and play situational packages. This has led to the starting weakside linebacker (Casillas) to lead the team with 627 snaps (72.4% usage) and his backup (Robinson) to be right behind him at 624 snaps (72.0% usage). It’s hard to recommend any Giants LB very strongly because of this but I think that Dallas is a good enough matchup that either will be useable. Against the Steelers in week 13, both LBs scored in double digit fantasy points and I think that it can be done again. My guess is that Robinson is the better play in week 14 with Casillas not too far behind. Casillas’ coverage abilities might lend him to another potential start in week 15 against the Lions but I wouldn’t keep rolling Robinson past one week. Neither represent much splash play potential either.
Roster Recommendation: Low-end LB2 to Low-end LB3
Kyle Van Noy NEP LB – MLB 4-3
Despite being currently listed as the backup MLB of the Patriots, Kyle Van Noy led all New England front-7 players with 41 of 52 snaps played on defense in week 13, eclipsing Dont’a Hightower (32), Shea McClellin (39) and Rob Ninkovich (29). Van Noy used those snaps to log 5 total tackles and nab an interception against the Rams. Van Noy has been listed on this report before as a deeper dig for keeper/dynasty leagues but this mention is based on what I perceive could be a changing of the guard on defense. Dont’a Hightower is on his fifth year option that is paying him $7.75 million this year with him scheduled to hit free agency afterwards. Van Noy is under contract in 2017 with a cap hit of a mere $1.15 million. The usage isn’t crystal clear in terms of Van Noy’s ascendance as one game doesn’t make a trend but for dynasty purposes, it has to be a positive sign the Bill Belichick is willing to use a player so extensively that wasn’t on the team less than 5 weeks ago. Dynasty leagues should consider stashing him in their squad for a potential huge value increase in the offseason should the Patriots fail to retain Hightower. As far as week 14 goes, starting Van Noy would only be an avenue I’d travel down if I had Hightower as a starter and other options weren’t available. There’s too much uncertainty in the situation to gauge what is happening here.
Roster Recommendation: High-end LB3 – Low-end LB3; Dynasty stash
Sneaky Linebacker Plays
Corey Nelson DEN LB – With every down starter Brandon Marshall falling to a hamstring injury halfway through Denver’s week 13 game against the Jaguars, third year reserve inside linebacker Corey Nelson filled in. Despite logging only roughly half of the snaps (40), Nelson converted those opportunities into 4 total tackles and 2 PDs. The expectation is that Marshall will miss week 14 against the Titans in Tennessee. While there is potential for ILB Todd Davis to expand his role to backfill, Nelson was the every-down LB when Marshall missed a game in week 8. If you count on Marshall as a starter or otherwise have an injury, Nelson might be a decent plug-and-play for tackles against a solid rushing attack in the Titans.
Defensive Linemen Plays
Marcel Dareus was the lone acceptable play in week 13 logging four total tackles. Despite playing 83% of the snaps, he was out-tackled by fellow DL Kyle Williams 9 to 4. Michael Bennett played 69% of the snaps in his return to the Seahawks’ lineup but failed to score anything more than 1 assisted tackle. Looking at the score, you can’t help but feel like that was a miss but it’s worth mentioning that despite the lopsided score, Cam Newton wasn’t sacked at all on Sunday night. Dontari Poe returned to the lineup quickly after being sidelined with a back injury reducing Rakeem Nunez-Roches snaps to a little better than 50%. With the Falcons throwing themselves back into the game, the defensive line played a much lesser part of the game than I thought with Poe scoring 2 solo tackles and Nunez-Roches with 1.
Akiem Hicks CHI DE – DE 3-4
Akiem Hicks led all defensive linemen in production in week 13 almost regardless of format with 10 total tackles (8 solo) and 2 sacks in an ugly game against the 49ers marred by inclement weather. San Francisco seemed woefully ill-prepared to protect their quarterbacks in this game and it looks as though many of their players might have already called it a season. I think that Hicks’ numbers might be more about the 49ers than him. That said, by virtue of his game, Hicks finds himself on this list although it’s hard to see him repeating the performance against the division-leading Lions in Detroit in week 14 who are allowing only 2.3 sacks per game over the last three weeks. But on a team depleted of many of their playmakers on defense, Hicks has a decent shot to perform well and he has proven an ability to log tackles with or without producing sacks. The Giants and Cowboys round out the Bears schedule in weeks 15 and 16. Odds are that unless Hicks gets some tackles, he’s only an option for a more desperate owner.
Roster Recommendation: Mid DL2 to Mid DL3
New York Jets defensive line – DL 3-4
Would you believe that one-time DL1 Muhammad Wilkerson is the lowest producing DL out of the big three for the Jets (Williams, Richardson and Wilkerson)? Injuries and inconsistent play from the defensive line and Jets overall has decreased the effectiveness of the once feared line of Gang Green. While Leonard Williams has shined this year, leading the team in sacks, he is not the most well-known of New York’s pass rushers and is available in more leagues than he should be given the production. The reeling San Francisco 49ers host the Jets in week 14 and I expect the heat to be on. In order of my preference, I like Williams, Richardson and Wilkerson here but I’d expect that only one of these guys is available. Whichever one is free, he’s good for a spot start against a team allowing an average of 4 sacks per game over the last 4 weeks.
Roster Recommendation: Low-end DL1 to Mid DL3
Sneaky Defensive Linemen Play
Derek Wolfe/Jared Crick DEN DE – Derek Wolfe is arguably not sneaky in many leagues but he is returning from injury that kept him out of fantasy lineups in week 10 and 11 between a missed game and Denver’s bye. Odds are that shallow leagues saw him hit the waiver wire. What I like about Wolfe is the sack potential despite a high tackle floor. Wolfe is averaging 3 solos and an assist in 11 games so far this year along with 5 sacks. Jared Crick is similar in production of tackles to Wolfe with less sack upside (1.5 sacks this year). Both defensive ends play over 80% of the snaps and each scored well against the Jaguars in week 13. Wolfe scored 6 solo tackles and Crick scored 4 solo tackles and a PD with all scoring play against running backs. With the Broncos visiting ground game heavy Tennessee in week 14, odds are that either defensive end is a decent play for tackles with a bit of sack upside.
Defensive Back Plays
I mentioned Eric Berry briefly in last week’s article as a guy that would be a great play last week but was likely already owned in your league. Well, if you read that article and found a play to get him into your lineup, you saw him put up a pick six and a game winning pick two in the same game. Although it hurt because he did it against my Falcons, it couldn’t happen to a nicer guy in his hometown to boot. Too bad his running mate at safety Ron Parker failed to get in on the act as two solo tackles was disappointing. Tyvon Branch was decent in his return from the injured reserve list with 4 total tackles and a PD. Given his snap count (51/59), it doesn’t seem like Arizona have him on a pitch count either so he should be a reliable start down the stretch. James Ihedigbo was a solid pickup with 6 total tackles and a PD despite a low usage at 53%. With that kind of snap count, it’s hard to recommend him further. My aforementioned failure to see the Lions becoming a defense capable of completely shutting down Drew Brees and the Saints caused the sneaky option of the Lions CBs to be much less attractive than I’d planned. Slay’s day of 3 solo tackles and a PD was passable whereas Diggs’ day of a single solo tackle was not good whatsoever.
Michael Griffin CAR S – SS 3-4
Kurt Coleman’s entry into concussion protocol after week 12 against the Raiders wasn’t announced until Wednesday, leading many to wonder about his availability in week 13 against the Seahawks. Coleman didn’t practice and has ruled out, severely weakening Carolina up the middle, already missing MLB Luke Kuechly. Former Titan Michael Griffin drew the start in Coleman’s place, playing every snap. Coleman ended up leading the team with 14 total tackles (7 solo) in a game where it seemed like Seattle was getting through to the secondary on every other play. The Chargers are a decent matchup for Griffin with 4 opposing safeties scoring double digit fantasy points against San Diego over the last three weeks. If Coleman fails to get back into the lineup in week 15 and 16, the Redskins and Falcons represent good to great matchups as well.
Roster Recommendation: High-end DB2 to Mid DB3
Steve Terrell SEA S – FS 4-3
Earl Thomas left the Seahawks week 13 game against the Panthers with a cracked tibia in a weird looking play. Tweets about his potential impending retirement aside, Thomas’ 2016 season is over for sure leaving the Seahawks free safety job left to former recommendation Steve Terrell. With Seattle visiting Green Bay in week 14 in a critical game for both teams, I expect Aaron Rodgers to hold nothing back in terms of the offense to give his team a chance to win. Those throws might be just what the doctor ordered in terms of tackles for Terrell and the rest of Seattle’s secondary.
Roster Recommendation: High-end DB3 to Low-end DB3
Keith Tandy/Bradley McDougald TBB S – SS/FS 4-3
With every week starter Chris Conte, out with a chest injury, reserve safety Keith Tandy drew the start and played every down for the Buccaneers. Tandy played admirably in the absence of the Bucs third leading tackler, scoring 5 total tackles and an interception. Bradley McDougald is the Bucs second leading tackler and while he is much more likely to be owned, he is also much more consistent in tackle production. The Saints in weeks 14 at home and week 16 on the road are stellar matchups for both Bucs safeties. Give either one a look with Tandy being the option for deeper leagues where McDougald is owned. Make sure to watch the injury report is Conte figures to regain his job as soon as he is healthy.
Roster Recommendation: High-end DB2 to Low-end DB3
Sneaky Defensive Back Play
Ladarius Webb BAL S – Averaging only 4 total tackles for the year, LaDarius Webb isn’t getting as much fantasy press is his running mate Eric Weddle. That said, over the last three weeks, Webb has averaged almost 15 fantasy points per game against above average offenses in the Cowboys and Bengals as well as the Dolphins although the production came from an interception rather than tackles. With the Ravens visiting the Patriots, Webb could be considered a decent play against the Patriot passing attack currently ranking 6th in the league.