Green Bay pass rush monster Clay Matthews is expected to make his way back this week from a four-week absence caused by a hamstring strain. Even if he plays with a little rust, Matthews' owners have to like his chances of a strong return given that he lit up Chicago's weak offensive line for 3.5 sacks in Week 2, making seven tackles and deflecting a pass in the process. Green Bay isn't so fortunate on the injury front when it comes to star defensive back Charles Woodson, however, who will remain out another week as he attempts to return from a broken collarbone.
Rookie and emerging defensive end star Chandler Jones made it back on the field for the Patriots against the Texans on Monday after missing three games with an ankle sprain. He didn't add to his total of six sacks, but he did make two tackles (one solo) while deflecting a pass. Although a veteran, another player in his first year of IDP stardom, Denver linebacker Wesley Woodyard, is expected to make his return this week from a foot injury as the Broncos take on Baltimore. Woodyard missed last week's game against Oakland, but he had 100 tackles (62 solo), four sacks and three interceptions in the 12 games before that.
The news is less pleasant in Baltimore's case, as one of their starting inside linebackers, Jameel McClain, will miss the rest of this year with a neck injury. He had remarkably low tackle totals for most of his career (84 tackles in 2011 and 71 in 2010 despite starting all but one of Baltimore's games over the two years), but the Ravens will actually have to do some scrounging to replace McClain's improved recent production, which featured 65 tackles (47 solo) in the last nine games, which projects to a 115-tackle pace over 16 games.
Greg Hardy, DE, CAR
He (somewhat reasonably) will be better known for his antics before and after Carolina's victory over Atlanta on Sunday than his production on the season, but Hardy deserves some attention for the fact that he's finally starting to realize the considerable potential he's always shown but never capitalized on. Inconsistency and questionable intangibles made Hardy a disappointment given his hyped background at Mississippi, but he's quietly become one of the league's better defensive lineman options this year. In 13 games he has 54 tackles (36 solo), nine sacks and 12 tackles for loss, with all of the sacks coming in the last 10 games. Hardy should get more attention from opposing lines soon, but good as he is, fellow end Charles Johnson is still likely the better player and should continue to see more blockers than Hardy.
Brandon Graham, DE, PHI
Graham continues to show promise as he grows into a starting role, giving the Eagles hope for redemption for both drafting Graham 13th overall in 2010 and for cutting Jason Babin at the end of November. The famously high-motor end has been a menace the last three weeks, even providing some consolation to Eagles fans over the fact that Philadelphia picked him - traded up in order to, in fact - two picks before the division rival giants selected Jason Pierre-Paul. Graham had his best game as a pro yet against Cincinnati on Thursday, totaling six tackles (four solo) and 2.5 sacks while forcing his second fumble of the season. That gives him 14 tackles (eight solo) and four sacks over the last three games. With his microfracture-repaired knee apparently rounding into form, Graham figures to head into 2013 as a DL2 investment with DL1 upside.
Aldon Smith, (3-4) OLB, SF
It's a bit rare for a player with the accomplishments and high expectations of Smith to earn a spot on the riser list, but he's been so incredibly good this year that it needs to be mentioned. He's arguably already one of the league's historically great pass rushers, and it seems like he just keeps getting stronger. After posting 14 sacks in a part-time role as a rookie, it in hindsight isn't terribly surprising that his production exploded upon securing a full-time role in his second season. He's up to 19.5 sacks (21 tackles for a loss) with three games to go, and when you consider the fact that he has 15 sacks in his last seven games alone, the single-season record of 22.5 is very much in reach.
Nick Fairley, DT, DET
Few scenarios in the NFL reflect the "pick your poison" conundrum more accurately than Detroit's defensive tackle situation, where offenses have the privilege of subjecting themselves to single-blocking against either the bull-like Ndamukong Suh, or the hot-and-cold-but-usually-hot explosiveness of Fairley, and both players have conclusively demonstrated their ill-temperament in the presence of quarterbacks and ballcarriers. With Fairley coming on strong lately, the question isn't getting any more pleasant for opponents. The former Auburn star is really making a mess of opposing backfields lately, with 12 tackles for loss, two forces fumbles and 4.5 sacks in the last nine games. That more notably includes 23 tackles (9.5 for loss) and four sacks in the last five weeks, which not coincidentally is the stretch where Fairley has earned a bigger snap count. Fairley is establishing himself as a solid DL2, especially in leagues that reward for tackles for loss.
Paul Kruger, (3-4) OLB, BAL
Especially in leagues where Kruger slips through the defensive line-eligibility loophole, his value is way up these days in IDP formats. After failing to impress in his first three seasons and even the first eight games of this year, Kruger has come to life in the last five weeks. In that span he has 20 tackles - seven for a loss - and 6.5 sacks. He could just be a flash in the pan, but he's an advised add in leagues for which he's eligible on the defensive line, and he might pay off in leagues that reward heavily for sack production, too. Just don't look for Kruger to make much noise this week against Peyton Manning and his incredibly fast release.
George Wilson, S, BUF
If there was any doubt before, it has since been erased - Wilson is not going to regain his DB1 status in Buffalo, and he'll more than likely struggle to maintain even DB3 relevance. Although he posts great numbers on a per-play basis - he totaled 209 tackles and eight interceptions despite starting just 25 games between 2009 and 2011 - the Bills clearly don't see Wilson as a legitimate starter. He played just 72 percent of Buffalo's defensive snaps against St. Louis last week, and against the Jaguars the week prior he played a mere 57 percent of the snaps. Those are numbers that defensive linemen can get away with, but most useful IDPs in the secondary need to play nearly all the snaps.
Marcell Dareus, DT, BUF
It might be a bit too early to call him a bust, but it's not too early to suggest the possibility that Dareus isn't the player the Bills hoped they were drafting when they picked him third overall in last year's draft. Dareus has just 32 tackles on the year, with just four of those being for a loss. Considering he has 3.5 sacks, that means that Dareus has just a half-tackle on running backs behind the line of scrimmage. He also struggles to earn more than about 70 percent of the team's defensive snaps each week, meaning his unimpressive production is unlikely to get covered up by a big snap count. Dareus probably isn't even on the DL4 radar in most cases.
Kenny Phillips, S, NYG
It appears more and more likely that Phillips' days as a starter with the Giants are over. His arguably superior replacement, Stevie Brown, will be a restricted free agent in the offseason, so the Giants should be able to bring him back if they wish. With Phillips' knee still giving him trouble and Brown's production among the best in the league, it's difficult to see why they wouldn't want Brown back as a starter. Although he's started just nine of the Giants' 13 games, Brown is up to 61 tackles (51 solo), seven interceptions and two forced fumbles on the year. Phillips, meanwhile, will be an unrestricted free agent after this year, and he has just an 82-tackle, four-interception season from 2011 to point to as his best NFL season.
Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, NYG
It seems as if injuries almost have to have something to do with it, but there's no disputing that JPP hasn't provided the return his owners need after making him the first defensive lineman, if not IDP in general, in almost all IDP leagues this year. He hasn't posted a sack in four games, and he has just one tackle for loss over that same span. His tackle pace from 2012, too, has been a disappointment - though good when compared to most other players, his 55 tackles (30 solo) in 13 games fall well short of the standard he established last year, when he finished with 88 tackles (67 solo). He's still a borderline DL1 in most formats, though, so anyone who senses the JPP owner in their dynasty league getting antsy should try to buy low before he reminds people what he's capable of.
Eric Berry, S, KC
Like Pierre-Paul, this is a case where the player in question, although struggling, simply seems too talented to not bounce back in a big way, and perhaps in the near future. In the meantime, though, Berry has earned the distinction of being one of the league's most disappointing IDPs, and probably one of the most disappointing players in general this year. Even for a player returning from an ACL tear, Berry's 65 tackles (53 solo) and single interception in 13 games are confusingly weak. He's at least showing some vague signs of life with 33 tackles, six passes defended and his only interception in his last six games, but Berry is still doomed to end this year as not even a DB4 in most formats.