Two AFC stars are set to return from injury this week in Pittsburgh's Troy Polamalu (calf) and James Harrison (knee) and two more -- the Indianapolis duo of Pat Angerer (foot) and Dwight Freeney (ankle) -- received promising practice reports. Polamalu and Harrison are better starts than usual against a mistake-prone Eagles offense, while Angerer and Freeney figure to be among the league's most productive per-game tackle and sack producers, respectively.
Angerer remains out for Week 5, while Freeney is a game-time decision who could also be out.
The situation is less clear for Miami linebacker Kevin Burnett
, who didn't practice Wednesday due to a foot injury. Burnett has 17 tackles (13 solo) over the last two weeks, so if he can't play against Cincinnati on Sunday it would mean more opportunity for Karlos Dansby
and Koa Misi
Meanwhile, two rookie linebackers are making moves and find themselves on the riser list as a result. Seattle's Bobby Wagner
and the talented but enigmatic Vontaze Burfict
in Cincinnati are both earning nickel snaps, and they've looked quite disruptive to this point.
Pat Angerer, (3-4) ILB, IND
If Angerer was dropped in your league due to the broken foot he suffered in August, he should be your top free agent target due to his potential Week 6 return. Expectations should initially be modest upon his return - Indianapolis is deep at linebacker and has the privilege of easing him back in - but once he's back to his old role Angerer should be among the league's most productive tackle sources. He had 148 stops (78 solo) as a 16-game starter last year, so he has a great chance to finish with triple-digit tackles despite missing the first three games.
Carlos Dunlap, DE, CIN
Dunlap returned from a knee injury two weeks ago, and the immense talent is having a very strong immediate impact. Despite playing just 51.5 percent of Cincinnati's defensive snaps the last two games, Dunlap has five tackles (four solo), one sack, four tackles for loss, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. The highly unimpressive Robert Geathers
saw more snaps than Dunlap despite posting just five tackles and no sacks in four games, but the Bengals have no choice but to phase out Geathers to make more room for Dunlap, who is probably a top-five athlete among 4-3 ends.
Vontaze Burfict, OLB, CIN
As a former blue-chip recruit for Arizona State, expectations used to be very high for Burfict. But toward the end of his college career he demonstrated more bad judgment than good play, which was compounded by concerns over his work ethic and character in general. He added yet another layer of concern by performing miserably in pre-draft workouts, running a 5.09-second 40-yard dash at the Combine. Yet the Bengals gambled on him as an undrafted free agent, and the former top prospect has apparently rediscovered his fire, playing his way into a top-two role at linebacker for Cincinnati in light of Thomas Howard
' season-ending ACL tear. Burfict has 15 tackles (nine solo) over the last two games, as well as a sack. He seemed to grab hold of a nickel role in Sunday's victory over Jacksonville, playing 58 of the team's 60 defensive snaps. If he keeps his head on straight, Burfict could be an IDP factor in most league's before long.
Bobby Wagner, MLB, SEA
is still a threat to block Wagner's path to nickel formation snaps, but when Hill was limited against St. Louis on Sunday due to a calf issue, Wagner excelled as he replaced Hill on snapping downs. The second-round pick from Utah State is already one of the league's most athletic linebackers and best blitzers, and he quickly made the most of his expanded role Sunday, totaling seven solo tackles (three for a loss) in 36 defensive snaps and nine special teams plays. He's primarily a deep-league consideration until he conclusively earns the nickel spot at Hill's expense, but it's only a matter of time before Wagner becomes one of the league's most consistently disruptive linebackers.
Koa Misi, OLB, MIA
Misi is primarily a deep league consideration since he doesn't earn nickel snaps over Karlos Dansby
or Kevin Burnett
, but he has been quite productive on a per-play basis this year and could be a candidate for an eventually expanded role as a result. After proving to be a huge disappointment in his first two seasons, totaling just 75 tackles and 5.5 sacks over that span, but in just four games this year he already has 27 tackles (22 solo), 1.5 sacks, three tackles for a loss and a forced fumble. His background as a former 3-4 outside linebacker means he could stay on the field as an edge rusher in some nickel formations, even if Karlos Dansby
and/or Kevin Burnett
are at the linebacker spots
David Hawthorne, OLB, NO
Hawthorne was a very good starting linebacker for the Seahawks prior to this year, and he was considered a good pickup for the Saints in free agency. Through this point in the year, though, it looks as if he's unlikely to make much of an impact. Curtis Lofton
(44 stops) is hogging all the tackles in New Orleans, and Hawthorne looks like he might miss his second game in a row due to a hamstring injury. Even before he suffered the injury, Hawthorne had only seven tackles (three solo) in the first two games. He doesn't look like much more than a candidate for 80 tackles.
Justin Smith, (3-4) DE, SF
Smith was quite possibly the best defensive player in the league last year and was one of the league's best at any position, but his stats in 2012 are off to a slow start. After terrorizing offenses to the tune of 58 tackles and 7.5 sacks on the interior last year - not to mention dozens of other blown-up plays that didn't show up on the stat sheet - it's possible that teams are making Smith the top priority on the San Francisco defense, because he has only 14 tackles (11 solo) through four games. Considering he had 70 or more tackles and seven or more sacks in four of the last six years, Smith's numbers are looking at a significant drop-off.
Kyle Arrington, CB, NE
It's still early, but after four weeks it appears as if Arrington might struggle to finish this year as a viable IDP option in most leagues. Although he's still a starter for New England, he has just 17 stops (15 solo) through four games, giving reason to suspect that his strong 2011 IDP season was mostly a fluke. He's on pace for 68 tackles, which just about matches his 2010 season total of 71 tackles. His 88 tackles and seven interceptions from last season, on the other hand, don't seem within reach.
Jerrell Freeman, (3-4) ILB, IND
Although he has impressed to this point and has a good chance to remain starter even with the return of Angerer, Freeman stands to lose quite a bit of IDP value when Indianapolis' top inside linebacker makes his return. Freeman deserves all the credit for his 27 tackles (18 solo), sack and interception return for a touchdown in the first three weeks, but it took a huge snap count to post those numbers. To maintain his current value, Freeman would need to lose little or no snaps upon Angerer's return, but that seems unlikely with Kavell Conner
and Moise Fokou
around. Still, Freeman is worth holding on to in most IDP formats - he just might struggle to remain an elite option.
Leroy Hill, OLB, SEA
Prior to Sunday's game, Hill played every defensive snap for the Seahawks. He didn't practice all week due to a calf injury, however, which opened the door for Wagner to play in nickel formations. After Wagner's strong showing, Hill, who's playing on a one-year contract, is in serious danger of losing nickel work to Wagner even when healthy. Coach Pete Carroll publicly acknowledged that Wagner has shown the ability to play in the nickel formation, and considering Wagner had seven solo tackles - three for a loss - Carroll was only stating the obvious. Even with his full snap count in the first three weeks, Hill had just 13 tackles (seven solo).