Essentially your fantasy football health insurance, handcuffs should always be in the back of your mind when making draft day selections.
The usual thought process is simple: if you pick a player, handcuff him with his immediate backup later on in the draft.
But that’s not always the right way to go. Not all handcuffs are created equal. Instead of simply selecting your top pick’s backup, consider the following:
1. Will this backup see the same number of reps as the starter?
2. Is the backup any good?
3. Are there more-talented handcuffs in a better situation still available?
Steven Jackson and LeSean McCoy are both early-round picks this season. Jackson’s handcuff, Isaiah Pead, is worthy of RB2 consideration when Jackson is out. McCoy, however, doesn’t have a clear handcuff. Dion Lewis isn’t nearly as talented and is feeling pressure from rookie Bryce Brown for the No. 2 job. If you own McCoy, don’t feel like you need to reach on Lewis instead of snagging a lottery ticket like Pead. After all, Lewis wouldn’t be that great a play regardless.
Although I just used running back as an introduction and example, Adam Levitan will provide an in-depth look at the top running back handcuffs in part-two of this series tomorrow.
Today, I’ll be looking at the other three fantasy-relevant offensive positions: quarterback, wide receiver, and tight end. Handcuffs aren’t as prominent at these positions, but there are a few guys you need to keep in the back of your mind on draft day. These players would instantly jump onto the fantasy radar if one of the players above them on the depth chart went down with an injury.
Note: Any player listed under ‘Honorable Mention’ is worth of waiver wire consideration if his team’s starter is out of action.
1. Tim Tebow – Jets
Starter: Mark Sanchez
Outlook: Yes, the camp story everyone is tired of hearing about leads off our list. Tebow is already going to be on the field a ton, handling several roles, including that of part-time goal line back. That role won’t change much (if at all) if Sanchez were to go down with an injury. Additionally, he’d pick up a good 25 or so pass attempts each week. Even if he’s below average as a passer (a safe bet), the strong rushing numbers will, at worst, make him a borderline top-12 fantasy quarterback. He’s the best quarterback handcuff available.
2. Jake Locker – Titans
Starter: Matt Hasselbeck
Outlook: This one is tricky because Locker could easily be the team’s Week 1 starter. That said, if the tables were turned, Hasselbeck would still make this list, making the situation worth a look. With a re-energized Chris Johnson, the Titans figure to try and lean heavily on him, but they were one of 2011’s pass-heaviest teams despite a decent 9-7 record. Additionally, they have a strong group of playmakers to utilize in the passing game. Locker will suffer growing pains, but he would have QB1 upside with Kenny Britt, Nate Washington, Kendall Wright, and Jared Cook catching his passes.
3. Brian Hoyer – Patriots
Starter: Tom Brady
Outlook: See Cassel, Matt, circa 2008. The last time Tom Brady went down with a long-term injury, Cassel stepped up and threw for 3,693 yards and scored 23 total touchdowns. Brian Hoyer is not nearly as good as Brady, but they wouldn’t have tendered him at the second-round level this past offseason if he wasn’t a more-than-competent backup. Hoyer would step into one of the league’s top pass offenses with the likes of Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, and Brandon Lloyd at his disposal. Worried he might not pan out? Deep leaguers can consider Ryan Mallett, who arguably has more upside.
4. Kyle Orton – Cowboys
Starter: Tony Romo
Outlook: Orton might lack upside, but, with 69 career starts to his name, has the experience you want at the No. 2 quarterback position. He’d certainly be a downgrade to Romo, but, still only 30, he figures to have plenty left in the tank. Considering the Cowboys’ strong offensive attack, Orton makes for a strong QB2 in fantasy.
5. Jason Campbell – Bears
Starter: Jay Cutler
Outlook: I could almost just write ‘See No. 4’ here. Very much like the situation in Dallas, the Bears went out and signed a veteran quarterback with plenty of starting experience as their top reserve. Campbell has 70 career starts and will put up a few points with his legs, as well. The Bears would lean a bit more on the run if Cutler went down, but, unlike last season, the offense wouldn’t fall off a cliff. Campbell would make for a decent QB2.
Honorable Mention: Matt Moore (MIA), Shaun Hill (DET), Graham Harrell (GB), Chris Redman (ATL), Chase Daniel (NO), Russell Wilson (SEA), David Carr (NYG), Ryan Tannehill (MIA)
Wide Receivers are a bit trickier because several from each team will be on fantasy rosters and the handcuff’s value really depends on which of those owned players is out of action. For example, Bears’ receivers Brandon Marshall and Earl Bennett both figure to be owned in most leagues. If Marshall goes down with an injury, there’s more opportunity for a handcuff than there would be if Bennett went down. I was sure to keep this concept in mind when choosing my top-five wide receiver handcuffs. Note that the handcuff has more value if the first ‘starter’ listed goes down than if it’s the second or third starter.
1. Vincent Brown – Chargers
Starters: Robert Meachem, Malcom Floyd
Outlook: Brown enters his sophomore year fourth on the Chargers’ wide receiver depth chart. He put up a few strong games in 2011, but they came when injuries forced him into the regular rotation. When Floyd and Vincent Jackson were both healthy, however, he was relegated to No. 4 duties, behind slot man Patrick Crayton. Jackson and Crayton are out, but Meachem and Eddie Royal are in. Brown would be in for a good six or seven targets each week and would have exceptional scoring potential if one of the top-two went down with an injury. He’s worthy of a late-round pick as the top wide receiver handcuff available.
2. Jabar Gaffney - Patriots
Starters: Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, Aaron Hernandez
Outlook: You’d think the wide receiver sitting third on the Patriots’ depth chart would be owned in every format, but the team’s heavy usage of the tight end position really puts Gaffney fifth in line for targets. If one of Welker, Lloyd, or Hernandez (more of a wide receiver than a tight end) misses action, however, Gaffney would step into a good 40-plus snaps every week. Considering the team’s high-powered offensive attack, Gaffney would be worth WR3 consideration. He’s worth a flier in deeper leagues, especially if you invested an early pick on Wes Welker.
3. Emmanuel Sanders - Steelers
Starters: Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown
Outlook: Of all the depth chart situations we analyze today, this one might be the most relevant. Mike Wallace is currently in holdout mode and looking for a long-term commitment from the team. That should already have those of you picking Wallace early in drafts considering Sanders in the later rounds. Should Wallace sit out or Brown, at some point, suffer an injury, Sanders would immediately jump onto the WR3 radar. He’s certain to be pushed for reps by Jerricho Cotchery, but the younger Sanders offers plenty more upside and playmaking ability. Six targets would be his floor most weeks and he’d be in line for plenty of scoring opportunities with Ben Roethlisberger leading the offense.
4. Kendall Wright - Titans
Starters: Kenny Britt, Nate Washington
Outlook: If the Steelers wideout situation is the most relevant analysis we do today, the Titans are a close second. Britt is currently facing a potential suspension, which has overshadowed his recovery from knee surgery that could cost him the first few weeks of the season regardless. Britt has the upside to put up top-five wide receiver numbers, but, when taking ADP into account, you could make a case that he’s the riskiest pick in fantasy this year. If he or Washington misses action, Wright, a first-round pick in April, would step into a prominent offensive role. As mentioned earlier when discussing Jake Locker, the Titans were among the pass-heaviest teams of 2011 and the play-calling doesn’t figure to be significantly different going forward. If called upon to start, Wright is a borderline WR3 option.
5. Rueben Randle – Giants
Starters: Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz
Outlook: Another early-round pick in April, Randle is being groomed to take on Mario Manningham’s old role; one that allowed him to average near six targets-per-game one season ago. The rookie figures to get off to a slow start as he works past Domenik Hixon, Jerrel Jernigan, and Ramses Barden on the depth chart. Easily the most-talented of the four, it shouldn’t be long until Randle is in the game in three-wide sets, kicking Cruz to his comfort zone, the slot. Once he’s settled in as the No. 3, an injury to a starter immediately puts Randle in the WR3 discussion. Consider that, with Steve Smith missing a big chunk of the 2010 season, Manningham caught 60 balls for 944 yards and nine touchdowns. Randle is an excellent late-round pick and would be higher on this list if his No. 3 job was safer.
Honorable Mention: Alshon Jeffery (CHI), Leonard Hankerson (WAS), Jacoby Ford (OAK), Brandon LaFell (CAR), Andre Caldwell (DEN), Mohamed Sanu (CIN), Nate Burleson (DET), Steve Breaston (KC), Kevin Walter (HOU), David Nelson (BUF)
1. Dennis Pitta – Ravens
Starter: Ed Dickson
Outlook: The same year the Patriots spent second and fourth round picks on Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, respectively, the Ravens snagged Ed Dickson in the third and Dennis Pitta in the fourth. The Baltimore duo hasn’t been near as fantasy-relevant, but both have played a significant number of snaps, often capping each other’s fantasy upside. If one of the two were to go down, however, the sky is the limit. The two figure to share a good nine or 10 targets each week this season and a good chunk of those throws would go to one player if the other were to miss action. With Pitta suffering a hand injury earlier this offseason, Dickson is in line to start again this season, but either of these two would make for a back-end TE1 if the other is out.
2. Tony Scheffler – Lions
Starter: Brandon Pettigrew
Outlook: Because he’s been stuck as a part-timer behind Pettigrew the last two seasons, it’s easy to forget that Scheffler is still only 29-years-old and was a starter for Denver only two seasons ago. He’s a skilled pass-catching tight end and could easily take on a relatively full workload should Pettigrew miss time with an injury. Pettigrew generally works near the line of scrimmage, but Scheffler is used more like a wide receiver, often running deeper routes. Will Heller would certainly help out as a blocker, but Scheffler would be in the game in passing situations (a common situation in Detroit) and would take on most of Pettigrew’s target load. If Pettigrew goes down, put your claim in for Scheffler.
3. Chris Cooley – Redskins
Starter: Fred Davis
Outlook: Now 30, due $3.8 million this season, and having missed 20 games over the past three years, it’s fair to say that Cooley’s roster spot is far from safe. For now, though, he’s the Redskins No. 2 tight end and in position for a massive workload should Davis go down with an injury. With Davis stealing the show in 2011, it’s easy to forget that Cooley scored 27 touchdowns during the four seasons spanning 2004-to-2007. He went on to catch 83 balls in 2008 and 77 in 2010. Cooley recently declared his knee 100-percent healthy and he’s one of the game’s better receiving tight ends. He’d be a must-add if Davis were to miss action.
4. Delanie Walker – 49ers
Starter: Vernon Davis
Outlook: Many draft pundits were locked in on the thought process that 49ers and ex-Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh would not pass on Coby Fleener when San Francisco was on the board late in the first round of April’s draft. Those pundits were forgetting about the team’s current No. 2 tight end, Delanie Walker, who, while not quite at Fleener’s level of upside, is a competent backup and strong pass-catcher. Harbaugh, of course, passed on Fleener, instead grabbing wide receiver A.J. Jenkins. Meanwhile, Walker, who scored three times on 19 receptions last season, sticks as Davis’ primary backup. The run-heavy 49ers like to run two-tight end sets and that doesn’t figure to change in 2012, meaning Walker will already be seeing quite a few snaps each week. If Davis were to go down with an injury, Walker is a slam dunk to work as the team’s every down tight end. He wouldn’t see Davis’ target numbers, but would see enough, especially in the red zone, to make him a borderline TE2.
5. Dwayne Allen – Colts
Starter: Coby Fleener
Outlook: The Colts’ rebuilt offense figures to struggle a bit in 2012, but they’re sure to be throwing the ball quite a bit. That is certain to help the fantasy production of rookie tight ends Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener, both of whom will be playing significant snaps right off the bat. Although both can catch the ball, Allen is a better blocker and figures to see more in-line duties than his counterpart. Fleener will be used in the slot quite often and will rack up a half dozen or so targets each week. If he were to go down, however, Allen would be asked to run more routes, opening the door for him to be one of Andrew Luck’s top pass-catchers. That would put him on the radar as a strong TE2.
Honorable Mention: Rob Housler (ARZ), Jordan Cameron (CLE), Orson Charles (CIN), Joel Dreessen (DEN), David Thomas (NO), John Carlson (MIN), Clay Harbor (PHI), D.J. Williams (GB), Dante Rosario (SD), Kellen Winslow (SEA), Julius Thomas (DEN), Gary Barnidge (CAR), Charles Clay (MIA), James Casey (HOU), Adrien Robinson (NYG), Visanthe Shiancoe (NE)