Just hours before the Vikings' Week 10 game versus the Redskins, in order to make room for an extra offensive lineman in the wake of an injury on the line, linebacker Audie Cole was waived as he prepared to leave the team hotel. As was expected by the front office and Cole given the Thursday timing of the move, one that left little time for other teams to claim him before setting their rosters for that coming weekend, the second-year seventh-rounder went unclaimed, and was back in purple the following week and on the field for a then-career-best six snaps.
Leaving the team hotel that Thursday afternoon in early November, Cole couldn't have imagined he'd become the Vikings' starting middle linebacker this season, and certainly not two weeks after being waived. With incumbent middle man Erin Henderson dealing with personal issues, that's just what happened in Week 12, as Cole played every single defensive snap, all 98 of them, at middle linebacker for the Vikings on his way to recording 13 tackles and a sack. Coach Leslie Frazier says it was never really in the plans for Henderson to be the team's enduring option at the "Mike" spot, leaving Cole firmly entrenched in the valuable every-down middle role in Minnesota for the finishing stretch. Cole was available to 31 NFL teams just a few weeks ago and they all passed, but you can still get him for free in more than 98 percent of ESPN leagues.
While these crucial late weeks in both real and fantasy football are undoubtedly heavily influenced by the play of superstar commodities, there are several NFL rosters using this final quarter of the season as a proving ground at several positions, with Cole's ascension as one key example. We'd all love to have productive and proven Pro Bowlers at each position as we head into these stressful fantasy playoff weekends, but the reality is that many of us will be relying on guys we never imagined back in September would be key playoff starters for us -- names like Harry Douglas and Ladarius Green, Cole, Andrew Sendejo and Olivier Vernon. Just as NFL front offices find, late-season fantasy rosters often rely on these "glue" guys as the erosive effects of the season mount.
Front Four: The weekly word on the world of defenders
Nearly Burfict: He's not perfect, and he certainly wasn't viewed as such in late April of 2012, as even the Bengals didn't draft Vontaze Burfict. In all of football, only Carolina's Luke Kuechly, taken ninth overall in that same draft, has more tackles (266) than Burfict (258) since the start of last season. No one has more tackles than the 131 Burfict has recorded this season, and as he trends toward 175 tackles for the season given his weekly pace, only Jerod Mayo's 174 tackles in 2010, Patrick Willis' 174 in 2007 and Jonathan Vilma's 173 in 2005 have recorded as many as 170 tackles in a season since 2004 according to ESPN Stats & Info.
There's always next season: Giants end Jason Pierre-Paul recently told reporters he is going to be unstoppable on the field in 2014. Just so that it's clear, not this year, but next year is going to be awesome. Most prideful boasts don't merit much discussion, but with Pierre-Paul, it's entirely possible that he once again becomes elite. The fear is that the durability concerns continue into the future and interrupt his career in a somewhat similar fashion to what we've seen from his teammate Justin Tuck over the years, but we'll likely be right back in next summer at a relatively high draft price on "JPP" if for the rare upside he brings to a fairly fickle position. The real reason behind discussing Pierre-Paul's bold claim for 2014 is that it's dually an admission that this 2013 season is over for him, as he was inactive this past week and might not suit up again given a significant shoulder ailment. Feel free to let Pierre-Paul go if you haven't, as there's a good possibility we won't see him again this season. A key riser at the position to consider in Pierre-Paul's place would be his teammate Tuck, who is finally putting it all together again -- crazy face mask and all -- with five sacks over the past two games after compiling just 1.5 on the season heading into Week 12.
Roach Raider: Nick Roach posted a really unique box score earlier this season, and not in a good way, as his Week 2 line saw him blanked in the tackle category despite playing on every snap. But recently, Roach's results have been uniquely valuable, as his uptick in usage on blitzes has led to some awesome sack production, as the Northwestern product has 2.5 sacks over the past two games and is now trending toward 119 tackles and eight sacks on the season all of the sudden. Per Pro Football Focus, Roach has rushed the passer on 13.3 plays per game over the past three games after averaging just over eight such plays per game over the first nine games of the season. With a savory setup on deck versus the Jets this weekend, Roach, available in more than 80 percent of ESPN leagues, is an ideal addition to consider for those seeking some upside at the position.
Bargain bin -- Defenders available in more than half of ESPN leagues
Pittsburgh's Jason Worilds has recorded six sacks and 16 QB hits this season, but five of those sacks and 15 of the hits have come in the past five games. If there's ever a time to roll the dice on this boom-or-bust 'backer, this week versus the Dolphins' generous line offensive line would be it. … Olivier Vernon reminds me of Aaron McKie. Yes, the bearded guard for the Philadelphia 76ers from a decade ago. You see, McKie grew up in Philly, played ball at Temple and then made his name in the pros in his hometown. Meanwhile, Vernon was born in Miami, played for the University of Miami and was drafted by the Dolphins. Vernon has the quietest 10.5 sacks in the league, but the chatter is growing louder as he's amassed six sacks in the past three games and now faces a Steelers line that has surrendered the seventh-most sacks this season. … Speaking of guys named Cole who are thriving, Trent Cole for the Eagles is suddenly showing up in the sack department with five in his past five games and multiple sacks in straight games. Cole can be deployed as a defensive end in our game, adding to his growing value. … Giants middle man Jon Beason is heating up with 17 tackles in his most recent outing, and the former fantasy superstar is available in well over 90 percent of ESPN leagues.
Week 14: The Top 25 linebackers, linemen and defensive backs
So that we're working from agreed parameters, we'll use what many consider traditional scoring modifiers for an IDP league: Solo tackle (0.5), Assisted tackle (0.25), Sack (3), Interception (3), Forced fumble (3), Fumble recovery (3), Touchdown (6), Safety (4), Pass defended (0.5), Blocked kick (3).