Telvin Smith, OLB, JAC
Even with high expectations heading into this year, Smith has probably outplayed them so far in 2015. He's well on his way toward establishing himself as one of the league's top defenders. After posting nine tackles (seven solo, one for a loss), two sacks and a forced fumble against Tennessee on Sunday, the 24-year-old second-year linebacker is up to 112 tackles (84 solo, 11 for a loss), 2.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, one interception, and one touchdown in 12 games. If he can maintain his current pace over the final four games, he would project to finish the year with roughly 149 tackles, 3.5 sacks, one interception and three forced fumbles. With elite athleticism and instincts, Smith should be an elite IDP for the foreseeable future.
Gerald Hodges, (3-4) ILB, SF
Michael Wilhoite (ankle) will miss Saturday's game against Cleveland, leaving an opening for Hodges to step into a three-down role for at least one game. Acquired in a trade from Minnesota earlier this year, Hodges was a fine player for Minnesota but was moved to make room for standout rookie Eric Kendricks, yet Wilhoite was entrenched enough as a starter to prevent Hodges from stepping into a starting role. This could be the opening Hodges needed to take the job and run with it. Playing 65 snaps against the Bears last week, Hodges finished the game with six tackles (one for a loss).
Danny Lansanah, MLB, TB
With Kwon Alexander suspended, it appears that the Buccaneers will likely turn to Lansanah to step in as the new nickel linebacker next to Lavonte David. Bruce Carter will start in the base defense alongside Lansanah and David, but Lansanah's 263 defensive snaps to Carter's 93 imply that Lansanah would be the first to receive a nickel promotion. With 82 tackles a year ago while being limited to 632 snaps, Lansanah is a player who can likely provide a nice IDP return in a three-down role.
Dan Skuta, OLB, JAC
Paul Posluszny suffered a broken hand last week and will miss Sunday's game against Indianapolis as a result, which should push Skuta into a three-down role against the Colts. Skuta will return to the starting lineup this week after missing the last two with a groin injury, and prior to his injury he was the clear third linebacker behind Posluszny and Telvin Smith. Jordan Tripp will start in Posluszny's spot in the base package, technically, but with 298 snaps to Tripp's 24, Skuta has to be the favorite to replace Posluszny in nickel packages. Skuta seems like a good bet to hit the six-tackle mark with Posluszny out.
Ezekiel Ansah, DE, DET
Durability troubles had always been the main reason for the delay in Ansah's arrival as a top defensive end, so it's not surprising to see him breaking out in light of his good injury luck in 2015. The 26-year-old former fifth overall pick is up to 12.5 sacks in 12 games, with 34 tackles (29 solo, 13 for a loss) to go with it. His tackle production is a little disappointing, but he's still a top-shelf DL1 going forward.
Robert Quinn, DE, STL
Following a promising start to the season where he totaled 18 tackles, four sacks and three forced fumbles in the first five weeks, a trio of injuries derailed the remainder of Quinn's 2015. He missed one game each for a knee and a hip injury, and now a back issue will end his season after being placed on IR on Wednesday. That the back injury involved a season-ending surgery will be something to double check on in the offseason, but Quinn is an elite talent who has reliably produced at a top level over the last four years, and as long as he has a clean bill of health he should be ready to dominate again in 2016.
Kwon Alexander, OLB, TB
Alexander's four-game suspension for violating the league's PED policy takes effect this week, and as a result ends his rookie season at the 12-game mark. Although his results were mixed in real football terms, Alexander was a top-grade IDP as a three-down middle linebacker in Tampa, posting 93 tackles (59 solo, six for loss), three sacks, two forced fumbles and two interceptions. If his three-down role remains intact in 2016, Alexander will likely be a highly-ranked preseason IDP, but for now it appears Danny Lansanah will step up as the three-down linebacker next to Lavonte David.
Paul Posluszny, MLB, JAC
A broken hand suffered against the Titans last week will force Posluszny to sit out against the Colts on Sunday, which should result in Dan Skuta stepping up into the second linebacker role next to Telvin Smith. Given that Posluszny has 104 tackles in 11 games this year, the promotion could be a profitable one for Skuta as long as Posluszny sits.