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Opportunity Knocks: Linebackers Primed to Benefit from Injuries and Suspensions

It’s June, and that can only mean that organized team activities (OTAs) are in full swing around the NFL. Teams are getting their first real look at the new additions they have made over the past few months and seeing just where they may fit in various alignments.

It is a time for rejoicing because we get a full dose of reports from around the league as to where certain players are being used.

Unfortunately, it is also a time when injuries and suspensions can quickly alter rosters, causing IDP owners to shuffle their dynasty rosters and early draft boards. Staying true to form, there have been significant injuries and/or suspensions to major defensive players that need to be addressed.

Some of these are newly suffered injuries (or suspensions) and others are lingering maladies suffered late in the 2013 season. Either way, they create ripples in the IDP realm that will leave IDP owners searching for replacement options.

Here is a quick hitting look at three IDP scenarios that are in my opinion the most pressing. We’ll look at which player is injured/suspended and what players look to benefit most heading into training camps.

Sean Lee, MLB, Dallas:
Despite some reports that Lee may be able to return from his torn ACL by season’s end, IDP owners must proceed on the assumption that he is out for the season. The likelihood that he could return and offer any viable fantasy production within the final weeks (usually Weeks 13-16) of the fantasy season is remote and not something to be relied upon. That leaves Devonte Holloman,
Justin Durant
and rookie
Anthony Hitchens

as in-house candidates to step in and all three have taken reps in the middle during OTAs.

Hitchens has received some initial publicity and many owners are moving him up their rookie/dynasty draft rankings. Hitchens led Iowa in tackles the past two seasons while lining up at weakside linebacker and is a technically sound hard-hitting player. He is not very good in coverage and likely would have to come off the field on passing downs. It may be too much to ask the rookie to step in on a defense that struggled mightily last season and man the middle.

Holloman has the edge in experience after playing 196 of 213 possible snaps in the middle last season during Weeks 15-17. He was a serviceable option, amassing 20 total tackles and a pair of sacks in the three games. Holloman’s best performance came in Week 17 when he reached double-digit tackles (11) and recorded two sacks. Of these two linebackers currently on the roster, Holloman is the better coverage linebacker and most likely to have a shot at a three down role.

The recent reports that Dallas was also looking at such veterans as
Jonathan Vilma
and the retired
Brian Urlacher
as possible options was initially overblown as the Cowboys will likely find their replacement from the current roster. As mentioned earlier, former Jacksonville and Detroit linebacker
Justin Durant
has also been taking snaps at middle linebacker during OTAs, showing just how fluid this situation is.

HOW TO PROCEED:
IDP owners should look to grab
Devonte Holloman late in their drafts and possibly get a three down middle linebacker on the cheap that could post solid fantasy numbers. Should Dallas actually sign a veteran to come in on a two-down basis and relegate
Holloman to a reserve or sub package player, he becomes an early season waiver wire drop.

Dynasty owners can draft
Anthony Hitchens as a stash player that could see elevated snaps in his rookie season while being groomed to possibly take over the middle linebacker spot. Neither
Urlacher nor
Vilma would be worth drafting as they will be two-down players only and better options will definitely be available.
Durant was a serviceable fantasy option in 2012 for Detroit and likely will settle into a reserve role for Dallas again this season.

Navorro Bowman, ILB, San Francisco:
This situation is a bit unique as Bowman is expected back this season after suffering ACL and MCL injuries in the NFC Championship game. The wise IDP owner is looking to see who the 49ers use in Bowman’s absence as there are fantasy points to be had in this linebacker-friendly scheme.

For an example of this, just look back to 2011 when journeyman
Larry Grant
played extensively in Weeks 13-16 and racked up 34 total stops with a sack and forced fumble in place of an injured
Patrick Willis
.

If you don’t feel like such a long trip down memory lane for proof that there is fantasy goodness to be had by reserves stepping in on the 49ers defense, just take a gander at last season. Willis missed Weeks 4 and 5 with a groin injury, and San Francisco inserted
Michael Wilhoite

at right inside linebacker (moving Bowman to the left). All he did was put up 20 total tackles (with an impressive 19 being solos) and a pass defended while playing 131 snaps.

That brings us to this season and the most likely candidates to fill in for Bowman, which currently look to be the aforementioned Wilhoite, and 2014 third-round draft pick
Chris Borland
out of Wisconsin.

Borland is a sure tackling linebacker that may lack ideal size but plays deceptively fast to the ball and has above-average football instincts. What he lacks in size and athleticism he more than makes up for with tenacity and plain old ‘football smarts.’ There are some concerns about an oft-injured left shoulder and how that could affect his career longevity. The 49ers obviously felt secure enough to draft him with the 77th overall pick and will give him the chance to compete for a substantial role while Bowman is out.

That being said, Wilhoite played with the first team during early OTAs and could have the inside track to start opposite
Patrick Willis
as the season opens. Experience in the scheme and more of a chance to stay on the field in nickel-packages may push Wilhoite ahead of his rookie counterpart and second-year special teamer
Nick Moody
.

HOW TO PROCEED:
Much like the situation in Dallas, redraft IDP owners should look to get the player that has the best opportunity to be a three-down option. In this case I am leaning towards
Michael Wilhoite for some of the reasons mentioned earlier. He has the experience of having played 179 snaps of live action in the defense and produced nice fantasy totals.


Borland


is a smart dynasty draft selection as he will likely ascend to a starting job down the line and could see some extra playing time this season as well. He and
Wilhoite could also find themselves in a rotational situation. If that ends up the case, both can be avoided in redraft formats as there won’t be the production to sustain either consistently.

Daryl Washington, ILB, Arizona:
Washington has been suspended for the entire 2014 season for violating the league’s substance abuse policy (again). Couple this blow with the departure of Karlos Dansby, the Cards’ 2013 team leader in tackles, 
via free agency and you have a troubling linebacker situation in the desert.

Second-year inside linebacker
Kevin Minter
was already slated to try and take on Dansby’s old position on the defense after playing sparingly (OK … one snap) last year and will need to adapt to the pro game quickly. The Cardinals had already signed former Pittsburgh and Detroit linebacker
Larry Foote

this offseason, as this was not an unexpected suspension to the team.

During OTAs this duo has manned the inside for the defense and looks to be the starting tandem come opening week. The Cardinals may look at the waiver wire for additional help (they recently signed journeyman
Ernie Sims
), as behind Foote and Minter the ranks are pretty thin. They have moved former Washington linebacker
Lorenzo Alexander
to the inside but he is mainly a special teams asset that will be utilized in a backup role.

HOW TO PROCEED:
As things stand right now this looks to be as cut-and-dry situation as any out there.
Kevin Minter is in line for a big fantasy season as the youngest and most athletic inside linebacker for Arizona. He has already been elevated to calling the defensive plays during OTAs. Dynasty owners with the patience to have drafted him last season and held tight should be justly rewarded. He is also a must draft in redraft formats that should easily produce LB3 numbers with the upside to hit high-end LB2 production.


Larry Foote

is far from the player he once was but did put up 113 total tackles and four sacks only two seasons ago for Pittsburgh. He won’t offer the big play potential that
Washington did but he is a heady player that will likely play all three downs.
Foote offers LB4 potential if he’s able to hold up for the entire season, which is not a given considering he missed all but one game last year with a torn biceps.

There you have it, folks. My personal opinion of what IDP fantasy owners can do to deal with these current injury and suspension concerns. One thing that I feel needs to be made crystal clear is that it is still only early June and each situation is still in a state of flux.

There are still free agent options available (and more will be available as teams cut more players) to also be brought on board and tilt the scales. The start of training camp and who is lining up where will also help to bring a sharper focus to each scenario.

As things stand now these are the moves I would make if dynasty cut down day loomed or your league drafts exceptionally early. Keep it tuned here to Fantasy Sharks, as any and all developments will be addressed as soon as they transpire.

The dedicated IDP staff of myself Gary Davenport and Mike Woellert will continue to bring you all the information and advice to dominate your league!

Wally Spurlin is a Fantasy Football Staff Writer at Fantasy Sharks and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writer Association. Follow Wally Spurlin on Twitter @Walton Spurlin

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