D.J. Swearinger, S, HOU
Swearinger usurped Ed Reed as one of Houston’s starting safeties back on Oct. 20, giving the rookie a chance to show why the Texans picked him in the second round of the most recent draft. As a player with both very good downhill skills and impressive man coverage abilities, Swearinger always had the look on paper of a player who ought to find himself around the ball often. If the last month is any indication, Swearinger will indeed find himself around the ball on a regular basis. Although he started slow with just 14 tackles in his first four starts, Swearinger has 28 tackles in the four starts since then. He’s a solid dynasty league target at the very least. As long as Swearinger avoids stupid penalties – he’s definitely a bit of a hothead – he should remain in the starting lineup going forward.
Lance Briggs, OLB, CHI
Briggs appears set to return from the absence caused by the fractured shoulder he suffered Oct. 20. The Chicago run defense struggled without Briggs in the last seven games, so he should return to a three-down rule as soon as he’s physically able. It wouldn’t be at all surprising if that moment arrives when the Bears take on Philadelphia on Sunday. With 64 tackles and two sacks in his first seven games of this year, Briggs will provide legitimate LB1 upside once he reclaims his role.
Earl Wolff, S, PHI
Patrick Chung has been a failure as a stopgap starting safety for Philadelphia, which allowed Wolff to force his way into the starting lineup despite his status as a rookie fifth-round pick. Wolff suffered a knee injury against the Packers on Nov. 10, though, which forced him to miss the next four games. That injury appears to be a non-issue for Wolff at this point, so he should step into the starting lineup again as the Eagles take on the Bears on Sunday. Wolff posted 25 tackles and an interception in his five full starts, and he was an extremely productive tackler back when he played for North Carolina State.
Zaviar Gooden, OLB, TEN
Despite his incredible athleticism and his ability to make big plays in the turnover and sack categories, Titans coaches are displeased with incumbent starter and 2012 second-round pick Zach Brown’s effectiveness in run defense and coverage. Tennessee put Brown and his 79 tackles and four sacks on the bench against Arizona on Sunday, allowing Gooden to get a look in a starting role. A rookie third-round pick out of Missouri, Gooden possesses exceptional speed just like Brown, so the upside appeal as an IDP is similar, as well. Gooden finished Sunday's game with 43 defensive snaps, making seven tackles in the process. If he can continue to hold off Brown, Gooden would become a very interesting breakout candidate.
DeVonte Holloman, OLB, DAL
Holloman was behind all of Bruce Carter, Ernie Sims and Justin Durant on the Dallas depth chart, so there’s no reason to get overly excited about his potential, but the rookie out of South Carolina could get an audition as starter with Durant (hamstring) and Sean Lee (neck) potentially out the rest of the year. With those two out and Bruce Carter (hamstring) sitting against Green Bay on Sunday, Holloman ended up with more defensive snaps than any other Dallas linebacker. Carter looks likely to return to a starting role this week, but Holloman might get a look ahead of Sims and Kyle Wilber after playing 65 snaps Sunday compared to 30 for Sims and 26 for Wilber. Holloman runs like a safety and has legitimate three-down upside down the road.
Sean Lee, MLB, DAL
Lee’s return from a hamstring injury two weeks ago was hardly a return at all. He followed up his three-game absence by suffering ligament damage in his neck against Chicago in Week 14, forcing him to miss Sunday’s game against Green Bay and perhaps the rest of the 2013 season. Lee’s proneness to injury has towered over and cast a shadow upon his productivity in his first four NFL seasons. That’s saying a lot, because Lee is absolutely brilliant when he does play. Thanks to his psychic-like instincts and superb tackling, Lee makes as many plays as any 4-3 linebacker on a per-snap basis. It appears that snap count is doomed to fall well below that of his peers for the duration of Lee's career, however, as he's played just 17 regular season games in the last two years, leaving several of those early while he was at it.
Pat Angerer, MLB, IND
Angerer is nowhere near as talented or effective as Lee, but he’s somewhat similar in that his once promising career trajectory has been derailed by injury. A broken foot suffered in August of 2012 lingered with Angerer even leading up to the 2013 season, and a persistent knee injury from this year ended Angerer’s season Tuesday. It's been an exceedingly disappointing two-year span for Angerer, as he posted 148 tackles in 2011. He has just 92 in 22 games since then, and he was made nearly irrelevant in the Indianapolis defense thanks to the emergence of Jerrell Freeman.
Osi Umenyiora, DE, ATL
It’s not yet clear whether it’s a permanent arrangement going forward, but the Falcons removed Umenyiora from the starting lineup when they played the Redskins on Sunday, starting second-year Troy prospect Jonathan Massaquoi instead. Massaquoi headed into last week's game with 15 tackles and two sacks while playing off the bench in the previous two contests, so the Falcons gave him a shot to outplay Umenyiora, who’s only on a two-year contract in Atlanta. With Corey Peters locked in at the other end spot, Umenyiora might not hold off Massaquoi well enough to make a reliable IDP impact from now on.
LaMarr Woodley, (3-4) OLB, PIT
Woodley has long been one of the NFL’s most productive pass rushers, so it’s a shame that he hasn’t been able to stay healthy in recent years. Woodley landed on IR on Tuesday due to a lingering calf injury, ending his season after suiting up for 11 games. After posting 35 sacks from 2008 to 2010, Woodley totaled just 18 while suiting up for just 34 games in the last three years. Clearly overpriced on a six-year, $61.5 million deal signed before the 2011 season, Woodley's days in Pittsburgh might be over. Jason Worilds and first-round pick Jarvis Jones are safely ahead by now.
Jon Bostic, MLB, CHI
While Lance Briggs’ return is great news for the Chicago defense, it will be bad news for the IDP prospects of either Bostic or James Anderson. Bostic and Anderson were left with the nickel formation snaps while Briggs sat, but one of the two will land in a part-time role upon Briggs’ return. Given that Anderson started out ahead of Bostic in the linebacker rotation prior to Briggs’ injury, the safe bet is that Bostic will be the loser again. Bostic’s IDP production was only average in a three-down role, posting 45 tackles in eight starts, so he’ll likely be a non-factor if he gets removed from the nickel formation.