Week 14 was a rough one – particularly for several NFC contenders. The Seattle Seahawks lost a running back, the San Francisco 49ers lost their deep threat plus their nose tackle and their starting center, the Philadelphia Eagles lost a receiver and a tackle, and the New Orleans Saints lost a pair of players on a defensive line that isn’t exactly brimming with depth. But one team’s misfortune is typically another’s lucky break. And thus we begin with another NFC contender who has seen its leading receiver’s name on this list since late October, but may not see it on here come next week.
10. Vikings WR Adam Thielen
Status: Off injury report (hamstring)
Level of Concern: Relieved
Next Man Up: Finally, after nearly two months, Thielen IS the next man up. Originally injured on Oct. 20, Thielen has played in only game since, and he didn’t even make it through the first quarter. On Friday’s final injury report, Thielen was not even listed, so barring an unforeseen setback, he will be in uniform for the first time since Nov. 3. When Thielen was injured, the Vikings were 4-2. Now they are 9-4 and get him back just in time to try to hold off the Los Angeles Rams and Chicago Bears in the race for the NFC’s final playoff spot.
9. Jaguars WR D.J. Chark
Status: Out (ankle)
Level of Concern: High
Next Man Up: Keelan Cole, once a darling of the Jacksonville receiving corps, could be back in the starting lineup for Chark. With the Jaguars simply finishing out a disappointing regular season, this injury isn’t big on the NFL radar. But Chark – one of the bigger surprises of this season – is only 44 yards away from 1,000. And with quarterback Gardner Minshew getting the rest of the season to show the Jags brass what he can do on the field, he could certainly use Chark on the perimeter. Instead, it’ll be more of the same for a team that has spent all season dealing with injuries and players not on the field.
8. Titans RB Derrick Henry
Status: Questionable (hamstring)
Level of Concern: Moderate
Next Man Up: Henry is the hottest running back in the NFL, and Tennessee is about to play its biggest game of the season. Safe to say the Titans are hoping they won’t have to look for a next man up. For his part, Henry told reporters Thursday that he’ll be ready Sunday, but the concern is real. This is the first week all season during which Henry failed to practice even once. He has eclipsed 100 yards rushing in each of the past four games, rushing for 599 yards and seven scores over that time. He has the Titans tied for first in the AFC South with the Houston Texans — Tennessee’s opponent on Sunday.
7. Buccaneers WR Mike Evans, QB Jameis Winston
Status: Out (Evans, hamstring); Questionable (Winston, thumb/knee)
Level of Concern: Moderate
Next Man Up: Tampa Bay isn’t going anywhere as it pertains to the postseason, and some Bucs fans probably would prefer the team lose out and enhance its draft position. But don’t tell fantasy owners the loss of Evans isn’t a big deal. On the field, Winston — and the Bucs’ front office — could use every snap they can get with Evans. The erratic QB is scheduled to become a free agent, and the chances for him to convince the club to sign him to a long-term deal (and for the team to decide if he’s worth the risk) are running out. He is expected to play despite his injuries.
6. Colts WR T.Y. Hilton
Status: Questionable (calf)
Level of Concern: Hopeful
Next Man Up: If things go Indianapolis’ way, there’ll be no next man up. Another receiver who has struggled to get back on the field in the past month, Hilton appears to be somewhere between Adam Thielen (see above) and JuJu Smith-Schuster (see below). Hilton has practiced on a limited basis all week and is hopeful about playing Monday night in New Orleans. For his part, coach Frank Reich told reporters Hilton would only play if “we think he is 100 percent.” The Colts sure hope he plays, as they are 1-5 since he originally sustained his injury and are on the verge of playoff elimination.
5. Steelers WR JuJu Smith-Schuster
Status: Out (knee)
Level of Concern: High (along with the frustration level)
Next Man Up: Finding the next man up hasn’t been difficult for the Steelers in Smith-Schuster’s absence. Diontae Johnson and James Washington (10 catches, 93 yards, 1 TD combined last week) have filled in admirably as Pittsburgh has gone 3-0 since Smith-Schuster went down. But this week’s waiting game was particularly cruel. Smith-Schuster practiced in full Wednesday and appeared on track to play until he aggravated the injury during practice Thursday. His availability immediately thrown into doubt, the receiver was unable to practice on Friday and was officially ruled out later in the day.
4. Seahawks RB Rashaad Penny, DE Jadeveon Clowney, LB Mychal Kendricks
Status: Out (Penny, knee – injured reserve; Clowney, core/illness; Kendricks, hamstring)
Level of Concern: HIGH
Next Man Up: At running back, it will be C.J. Prosise. At defensive end Ziggy Ansah should return to help offset the loss of Clowney. And at linebacker, the Seahawks are still looking for answers after giving up 162 yards on the ground to the Rams without Kendricks last weekend. The bigger concern may be timing. Penny was coming off his two best games as a pro before the injury, while Clowney is sitting for the second time in a month. And with the 49ers a game up in the NFC West, now is not the time for Seattle’s run defense to take a dive.
3. 49ers WR Marquise Goodwin, C Weston Richburg, 49ers CB Richard Sherman, NT D.J. Jones
Status: Out (Goodwin, knee/foot – injured reserve; Richburg, knee – injured reserve; Sherman, hamstring; Jones, ankle)
Level of Concern: Extreme
Next Man Up: The 49ers are this week’s example of how quickly things can go from good to bad in the NFL. On Sunday, they got starting tackle Joe Staley back in the lineup and beat the Saints in New Orleans to retake the NFC’s top spot. Then they placed their starting center (injured during the game) and their fastest player (did not play vs. Saints) on IR, and their starting nose tackle (re-injured during the game) will join them on IR, according to coach Kyle Shanahan. And Sherman, though he is not out for the season, will miss at least this week’s game. The 49ers host lowly Atlanta on Sunday, but then it’s the resurgent Rams and a potentially massive season finale vs. the Seahawks.
2. Eagles WR Alshon Jeffery, OL Lane Johnson
Status: Out (Jeffery, foot – injured reserve; Johnson, ankle)
Level of Concern: High
Next Man Up: At tackle, Halapoulivaati Vaitai is expected to make his first start of the season in Johnson’s place, with rookie Andre Dillard ready off the bench. Replacing Jeffery could be a much taller order. With fellow receiver Nelson Agholor (knee) having sat out Friday’s practice and listed as questionable, the only Eagles receivers on the active roster without an injury designation are J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, Robert Davis and Greg Ward. The three of them have 20 combined receptions…for their careers. Expect QB Carson Wentz to go to TEs Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert often on Sunday.
1. Saints DE Marcus Davenport, DT Sheldon Rankins
Status: Out (Davenport, foot – injured reserve; Rankins, ankle – injured reserve)
Level of Concern: High
Next Man Up: The Saints immediately signed DE Noah Spence and DT T.Y. McGill this week after learning of the double dose of bad news, but on first look, it appears a team built around its offense may just need to score more points. Look no further than last week (the game in which both Davenport and Rankins were injured), when New Orleans scored 46 points — at home — and still lost to San Francisco. The loss could be particularly devastating as the Saints entered Week 14 with the No. 1 seed in the NFC and now sit what amounts to two games behind the 49ers.