San Francisco defensive end Justin Smith heads into this weekend with an elbow issue that has him questionable, though coach Jim Harbaugh said earlier this week that he expects "The Cowboy" to play against the Seahawks on Sunday. The problem is Smith didn't practice Wednesday or Thursday, so he needs to be active Friday for there to be much hope on that front. Although Smith hasn't been the pass rushing threat this year that he normally has - he has just three sacks in 14 games - his 66 tackles are a impressive. He's on a 75-tackle pace, which would be his highest total since posting 78 tackles when he played with the Bengals in 2007.
If Smith is out, it's unlikely his replacement will yield any fantasy utility. The same can't be said if Minnesota is without defensive end Brian Robison (shoulder) this week, as backup Everson Griffen has made waves at various points this year, and just Sunday made an impressive interception for a touchdown against St. Louis. Robison looks highly questionable for Sunday, as he heads into Friday with no practices this week. Griffen is the leader on the rising list this week as a result, because he has shown solid upside in a part-time role so far.
Tennessee linebacker Colin McCarthy finally appears ready to return from a concussion after missing the last three games. It's not clear whether the expectations should still be high for the once up-and-coming IDP, as injuries have held him to 38 tackles this year, and fellow linebackers Zach Brown and Akeem Ayers look like they have better futures with the Titans. McCarthy is a risky IDP start until he proves himself. The concussion front looks less certain for Dallas, which lost inside linebacker Ernie Sims to a concussion against Pittsburgh last week. It's not clear whether Sims will play against the Saints.
Meanwhile, Detroit defensive tackle Nick Fairley had his season end due to a shoulder issue, which is a shame since he was playing so well. He finishes the year with 34 tackles and 5.5 sacks in 13 appearances, but he was better than those numbers would lead one to believe. He had 23 tackles and four sacks in the last five weeks alone, and Fairley will have DL2 upside in 2013.
Everson Griffen, DE, MIN
With Brian Robison (shoulder) looking unlikely to play for Minnesota for at least Week 16, Griffen is in a position to see his snap count increase considerably as the Vikings take on Houston this week. Although he's far from well known, Griffen is one of the league's elite raw athletic talents on the defensive line - he checks in at 273 pounds but can run about as well as most 4-3 linebackers. Everyone got a glimpse of that Sunday when he dropped into coverage and intercepted Sam Bradford before getting to the end zone despite a chase from burner wideout Chris Givens. Griffen has five sacks this year as it is despite a part-time role, making 21 tackles while he was at it. There is arguably no defender in the league who will be a more intriguing scouting notes project this week, and he's a justifiable DL2 gamble in the meantime.
Greg Hardy, DE, CAR
Hardy continues to ascend for Carolina, and at this point it looks like the former Mississippi star will make himself part of the DL1 equation entering 2013. He looks like a big steal for the Panthers, too, as they selected him in the sixth round of the 2010 draft. After making five solo tackles and two sacks against San Diego on Sunday, Hardy is now up to 59 tackles (41 solo) and 11 sacks in 14 games this year, and he looks like the player most thought he was back in the late 2000s, when he was actually one of the highest-rated NFL prospects before a disappointing, injury-filled 2009 season torpedoed his stock. Some may be tempted to write Hardy off as a fluke since he was only a sixth-round pick and didn't make a lot of noise before this year, but he definitely has the natural talent to sustain this sort of production, which is of at least DL2 quality in most formats.
Anthony Spencer, (3-4) OLB, DAL
Even as a 3-4 outside linebacker, Spencer has been a valuable IDP in all formats this year, posting numbers that were generally only seen from the likes of James Harrison. It seems almost certainly flukish or at least the result of playing in a contract year - on the franchise tag, more specifically - but it nonetheless needs to be noted that Spencer somehow has 80 tackles (47 solo) and 10 sacks in 12 games. Even with the missed time due to injury, it's already a career year for Spencer, by a huge margin. His numbers would project to roughly 107 tackles and 13 sacks in 16 games, which makes him an LB2 at least in most cases. He'll be one of the toughest IDPs to evaluate heading into 2013, even if he's back in Dallas along with Rob Ryan.
Morgan Burnett, S, GB
Burnett may finish this year as the most valuable defensive back IDP in leagues which reward heavily for tackle production. The Georgia Tech product heads into his 15th game this week with 109 tackles (77 solo), which already bests last year's 16-game mark of 107 tackles. With triple-digit tackles in both of the last two years, it appears that this sort of thing can be regularly expected out of Burnett for as long as he sticks around in Green Bay. If he could just show some more well-rounded aspects to his game, he would become a truly dominant IDP in all formats, but unfortunately, in the meantime his upside is a bit limited by his lack of plays in coverage. Burnett has only five interceptions the last two years, and both of his interceptions from 2012 came in one game - against the Vikings in Week 13. Still, he's a clear DB1 since it appears that he'll push for the 120-tackle mark.
Dan Connor, (3-4) ILB, DAL
With Ernie Sims highly questionable this week due to a concussion he suffered against Pittsburgh on Sunday, Connor is left as the top inside linebacker option for Dallas, to the point that he might not have any competition for nickel snaps. If Connor plays nickel snaps for the Cowboys, then that makes him a decent IDP gamble by default. He has only 36 tackles in 12 games this year, but that's primarily the result of having Sean Lee, Bruce Carter and Sims ahead of him on the depth chart. But even the heavy-footed Connor should be able to produce at a triple-digit tackle pace as the top man among the Cowboys linebackers, so those in deeper formats who need to gamble this week may want to take a look at Connor.
James Anderson, LB, CAR
Anderson is one of the biggest linebacker IDP disappointments this year. He made 275 tackles, five sacks and three interceptions between 2010 and 2011, making him an elite IDP over that span, but at this point he's probably no more than an LB4. The reason is that he's fallen to third on the linebacker depth chart in Carolina, with Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis taking his snaps. Anderson has just 73 tackles through 13 games as a result, and it's doubtful that anything will change anytime soon. Kuechly and Davis are both signed up for a long time, and it will take an injury before Anderson will regain relevance in most formats.
DeAndre Levy, LB, DET
He's still a pretty good linebacker for the Lions, but those in IDP leagues have less use for Levy since he's fallen behind Stephen Tulloch and Justin Durant in the battle for snaps in Detroit. Tulloch and Durant, respectively, are the owners of 100 and 89 tackles on the year, while Levy is stuck with 65 total in 12 games, leaving him off the IDP radar. It's not clear what dynasty league owners of Levy can expect, but both he and Durant are free agents after this year. It's anyone's guess who the Lions would prefer and/or have the resources to retain between the two, if not both, but it would obviously be best for the IDP prospects of both players if only one stuck around in Detroit.
Jared Allen, DE, MIN
He's playing through a shoulder injury that can probably be blamed for the troubles, but it nonetheless needs to be said that Allen has been a major IDP disappointment this year. Both his tackle and sack totals have been low compared to his past standards, and he's set to finish the year looking like no more than a DL2 in most cases. He has just 42 tackles and nine sacks in 14 games, which leaves him on pace to fall short of 50 tackles for the first time since his rookie season in 2004. His nine sacks aren't drastically out of the norm - he had only 11 sacks in 2010 - but it's a huge disappointment given that he had 22 sacks last year alone, not to mention 29 sacks combined from 2008 and 2009. That said, Allen should generally expected to be better in 2013, so he could be a good buy low target in multi-year formats.
Mason Foster, LB, TB
Foster was a ridiculous tackling machine in college, finishing his senior year with 162 tackles (14 for a loss) and 6.5 sacks in 13 games, so it's been quite disappointing to see him fall so short of that standard in the NFL. He's received a big snap count in Tampa Bay's oppressive run defense, so he presumably gets a solid grade from an effectiveness perspective, but in the IDP realm Foster has fallen short of expectations. He heads into Week 16 with just 89 tackles and two sacks, and only six times has he surpassed the five-tackle mark. There's some solace for Foster's owners in leagues that reward for tackles for loss, at least, as he has 11 of those, which is an entirely decent total. But in general, it appears as if Foster just can't get to ballcarriers before Lavonte David does.
Chris Long, DE, STL
Low tackle totals were always a well-known part of the product description with Long, who mostly thrives when lined up wide, so the infrequency with which he reaches ballcarriers is not terribly surprising. It's difficult to stomach 27 tackles as an IDP owner, however, when the lineman in question has just 7.5 sacks to go along with it in 14 games - especially when you're probably paying a DL3 price to get that player, which was likely the general case with Long after a 13-sack 2011 season. He could still get hot and get over the double-digit sack mark in these last two weeks, but the general appearance for now is that Long looks ideally more like a DL4 investment outside of deep IDP leagues. We know he has double-digit sack potential after his breakout season last year, but in two of the last three years he has been less impressive, totaling 16 sacks in 30 games. If he could get to even 40 tackles that would make him a viable DL3 in most cases, but but Long isn't even averaging two tackles per game in 2012, and he had only 66 tackles between 2010 and 2011 combined.