Four AFC stars are set to return from injury this week, with Pittsburgh's Troy Polamalu (calf) and James Harrison (knee) and the Indianapolis duo of Pat Angerer (foot) and Dwight Freeney (ankle) receiving promising practice reports. Polamalu and Harrison are better starts than usual against a mistake-prone Eagles offense, while Angerer and Freeney figure to be among the league's most productive per-game tackle and sack producers, respectively.
The situation is less clear for Miami linebacker Kevin Burnett, who didn't practice Wednesday due to a foot injury. Burnett has 17 tackles (13 solo) over the last two weeks, so if he can't play against Cincinnati on Sunday it would mean more opportunity for Karlos Dansby and Koa Misi.
Meanwhile, two rookie linebackers are making moves and find themselves on the riser list as a result. Seattle's Bobby Wagner and the talented but enigmatic Vontaze Burfict in Cincinnati are both earning nickel snaps, and they've looked quite disruptive to this point.
Pat Angerer, (3-4) ILB, IND
If Angerer was dropped in your league due to the broken foot he suffered in August, he should be your top free agent target. Expectations should initially be modest upon his return - Indianapolis is deep at linebacker and has the privilege of easing him back in - but once he's back to his old role Angerer should be among the league's most productive tackle sources. He had 148 stops (78 solo) as a 16-game starter last year, so he has a great chance to finish with triple-digit tackles despite missing the first three weeks.
Carlos Dunlap, DE, CIN
Dunlap returned from a knee injury two weeks ago, and the immense talent is having a very strong immediate impact. Despite playing just 51.5 percent of Cincinnati's defensive snaps the last two games, Dunlap has five tackles (four solo), one sack, four tackles for loss, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. The highly unimpressive Robert Geathers saw more snaps than Dunlap despite posting just five tackles and no sacks in four games, but the Bengals have no choice but to phase out Geathers to make more room for Dunlap, who is probably a top-five athlete among 4-3 ends.
Vontaze Burfict, OLB, CIN
As a former blue-chip recruit for Arizona State, expectations used to be very high for Burfict. But toward the end of his college career he demonstrated more bad judgment than good play, which was compounded by concerns over his work ethic and character in general. He added yet another layer of concern by performing miserably in pre-draft workouts, running a 5.09-second 40-yard dash at the Combine. Yet the Bengals gambled on him as an undrafted free agent, and the former top prospect has apparently rediscovered his fire, playing his way into a top-two role at linebacker for Cincinnati in light of Thomas Howard' season-ending ACL tear. Burfict has 15 tackles (nine solo) over the last two games, as well as a sack. He seemed to grab hold of a nickel role in Sunday's victory over Jacksonville, playing 58 of the team's 60 defensive snaps. If he keeps his head on straight, Burfict could be an IDP factor in most league's before long.
Bobby Wagner, MLB, SEA
Leroy Hill is still a threat to block Wagner's path to nickel formation snaps, but when Hill was limited against St. Louis on Sunday due to a calf issue, Wagner excelled as he replaced Hill on snapping downs. The second-round pick from Utah State is already one of the league's most athletic linebackers and best blitzers, and he quickly made the most of his expanded role Sunday, totaling seven solo tackles (three for a loss) in 36 defensive snaps and nine special teams plays. He's primarily a deep-league consideration until he conclusively earns the nickel spot at Hill's expense, but it's only a matter of time before Wagner becomes one of the league's most consistently disruptive linebackers.
Koa Misi, OLB, MIA
Misi is primarily a deep league consideration since he doesn't earn nickel snaps over Karlos Dansby or Kevin Burnett, but he has been quite productive on a per-play basis this year and could be a candidate for an eventually expanded role as a result. After proving to be a huge disappointment in his first two seasons, totaling just 75 tackles and 5.5 sacks over that span, but in just four games this year he already has 27 tackles (22 solo), 1.5 sacks, three tackles for a loss and a forced fumble. His background as a former 3-4 outside linebacker means he could stay on the field as an edge rusher in some nickel formations, even if Karlos Dansby and/or Kevin Burnett are at the linebacker spotss playing on a one-year contract, is in serious danger of losing nickel work to Wagner even when healthy. Coach Pete Carroll publicly acknowledged that Wagner has shown the ability to play in the nickel formation, and considering Wagner had seven solo tackles - three for a loss - Carroll was only stating the obvious. Even with his full snap count in the first three weeks, Hill had just 13 tackles (seven solo).
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