Although he left during the fourth quarter of San Francisco's Week 3 game against Minnesota with an ankle injury, it appears as if star 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis won't be missing any time. He's practicing fully this week and should continue his strong season against the Jets. He has 25 tackles through three games.
There's some not-so-good news from last week, too, of course. The NFL's best cornerback was lost when Darrelle Revis suffered a torn ACL against the Dolphins. Also, one of the league's more promising young defensive linemen suffered a season-ending injury, as Tampa Bay end and 2011 first-round pick Adrian Clayborn was dealt an unspecified knee ligament tear, leaving Daniel Te'o-Nesheim as the replacement. The league also lost one of its sleepers at safety in Dallas' Barry Church, whose season is over due to an Achilles' tendon tear.
There are some injury-forced lineup changes to watch in Tennessee, Minnesota and Jacksonville. Akeem Ayers is poised to post nice numbers for at least another week in Tennessee, as Colin McCarthy (ankle) is expected to miss another week. Mistral Raymond's ankle injury in Minnesota should keep him out 3-to-5 weeks, allowing Jamarca Sanford to start opposite Harrison Smith. In Jacksonville, Daryl Smith (groin) is still out, meaning another big snap count for Russell Allen.
Meanwhile, there's some good and bad news for the Pittsburgh defense during the Steelers' bye week. The good news is that Troy Polamalu (calf) is expected to play against Philadelphia in Week 5, but James Harrison (knee) suffered a setback during practice and is no longer a safe bet to make his season debut against the Eagles.
J.J. Watt, (3-4) DE, HOU
Three weeks into this year, Watt is conclusively the top IDP at all positions so far. His 5.5 sacks lead all linemen and are outpaced only by Clay Matthews' 6.0, and his 15 tackles are tied for fifth-most among defensive linemen. Despite playing largely on the interior as a 3-4 end, it appears as if there's nothing offensive lines can do to stop Watt. He's too strong to stop on the inside, and too quick to contain on the edge. Even if he does get blocked, his big wingspan and high vertical make him a major threat to deflect passes, something he's done five times this year. The odds of Watt sustaining these ridiculous numbers might not be good, but he's a must-start in most cases until he cools off.
Akeem Ayers, OLB, TEN
Ayers had a bit of an underachiever label going back to his days at UCLA, but his great athletic talent gave Tennessee the courage to take him in the second round of the 2011 draft. After a vaguely promising rookie year, Ayers came into this season apparently much improved, as he is second in the league with 37 tackles (24 solo) and posted a sack for good measure. The absence of Colin McCarthy (ankle) probably has inflated Ayers' numbers a bit due to the decrease in competition for tackles, but even before McCarthy's injury Ayers played nearly every snap for Tennessee. It looks like he's here to stay as a strong linebacker IDP.
K.J. Wright, OLB, SEA
Leroy Hill has played the most snaps among Seattle linebackers, but it's Wright who's finding ballcarriers the most often. Through three games he has 25 tackles (17 solo), and he's playing a significant role in a defense that has allowed just 3.1 yards per carry so far. His value should remain stable throughout the year because he plays in a run-heavy division and doesn't have any real competition for snaps. Given Wright's youth as a second-year player and Hill's history of off-the-field trouble, it would seem like Hill is the better on-paper bet to lose snaps if second-round pick Bobby Wagner, who's played about 80 fewer snaps than either of the other two linebackers, sees his role expand in Seattle.
DeMarcus Ware, (3-4) OLB, DAL
It's not as if his value was suffering in the first place, but Ware has been especially dominant through three weeks this year. Four sacks are far from unusual for Ware, but his 18 (nine solo) tackles significantly exceeds his pace from the last three years. Ware's golden age as an IDP appeared to end in 2008, the last time he exceeded 80 tackles in a season, but with 18 stops through three games Ware is already almost a third of the way to his 2011 total of 58 tackles.
Zach Brown, OLB, TEN
Brown is primarily a week-to-week option in the short-term until Colin McCarthy returns from his ankle issue, but if he shows Tennessee's coaches enough during his audition as starter with McCarthy out, Brown could force his way into the starting lineup toward the end of the year. He has 14 tackles (nine solo), a sack and a forced fumble in the two games McCarthy has missed, and, considering he's a second-round pick, Tennessee obviously expects him to start sooner than later. Veteran Will Witherspoon is vulnerable and could eventually be sent to the bench in Brown's favor even once McCarthy is back.
Kavell Conner, (3-4) ILB, IND
Conner has done a fairly good job for the Colts the past couple years, but it appears as if he's in danger of being phased out of the starting lineup in Indianapolis once Pat Angerer (foot) is ready to play. Although that might not happen until mid-to-late October, even in the meantime Conner is seeing his playing time suffer. He has only played 62 percent of Indianapolis' snaps so far, whereas Jerrell Freeman has played 98 percent. Considering Conner has already lost work to the previously unimpressive Moise Fokou, who was in on roughly a third of Indianapolis' snaps, it could be Conner who's the odd man out when Angerer returns, and not Freeman as previously expected.
Robert Johnson, S, TEN
To upgrade strong safety, the Titans installed Johnson as starter opposite Michael Griffin at the beginning of this year. As it turned out, however, Johnson apparently wasn't an upgrade at all. He had nine tackles in two starts but apparently didn't show well in coverage, as the Titans switched back to Jordan Babineaux at the starting strong safety spot. Now that he's starting in Johnson's place, Babineaux could make a decent IDP pickup - he had 93 tackles as a 14-game starter last year.
Daryl Smith, OLB, JAC
It's anyone's guess just what sort of groin injury Smith is dealing with, but he has yet to make his 2012 debut through three weeks, and he was already ruled out for Week 4 on Tuesday. That early ruling out seems to imply that Smith isn't especially close to returning. He originally suffered the injury Aug. 3 and wasn't expected to miss more than a week or two, yet nearly two months later he still has no timetable for return. Russell Allen figures to play alongside Paul Posluszny in the nickel formation for the foreseeable future.
Morgan Burnett, S, GB
It's a small sample size and so there's no need to make any permanent conclusions, but through three weeks Burnett has shown a somewhat alarming inability to post solo tackles. He has just 15 total tackles to this point, and just seven of those were solo stops. That makes him a non-factor in leagues that don't count assists so far, and even in leagues that do count assists he hasn't been anything more than a low-end backup. What might be even more disappointing is that after showing a lot of ability to produce sacks and interceptions in college, Burnett has just one sack and four interceptions in 23 starts. On the bright side, Burnett has played every snap for Green Bay so far.
Jared Allen, DE, MIN
His owners obviously can't consider cutting Allen, and it probably doesn't make sense to sell him with his value so low, either, but there's no doubt that he's been an IDP disappointment so far this year. His sack and forced fumble against the 49ers on Sunday were both firsts for him this year, and even in that game he only had one tackle. Allen has just four stops, including a blank box score entirely in Week 1. The good news for Allen's owners is that he'll probably catch fire any minute now - he had just one sack in the first seven games of 2010, but he finished with 10 sacks in the final nine weeks.