We’ve been preaching handcuff strategy since I posted this column in the preseason. Owners of LeSean McCoy, Willis McGahee, Darren McFadden, Maurice Jones-Drew and DeMarco Murray among others have found out why.
Running backs get hurt. A lot. And although their backups are usually not as effective, they are often better than what’s available on the waiver wire.
These days, handcuffs are even easier to carry. With the bye weeks behind us, we no longer need depth. We need studs and insurance against injury to those studs.
With that in mind, it’s time to update that aforementioned column. A lot of backup jobs have changed hands and certain injuries have led to a new set of handcuffs. Note that even if you don’t own the starter, there is still value in rostering the backup in certain situations. If Arian Foster goes down for some other poor sap and you have Ben Tate, you’ve struck gold at the most important time of year -- and hurt his team badly.
Also, a few teams could rest studs in Week 16, aka fantasy championship week. These rankings take that possibility into account.
OK, let’s get on to the rankings -- in order from most important to least important:
* Players already owned in most leagues don’t qualify. That means no Fred Jackson/C.J. Spiller, Felix Jones, Marcel Reece, Jonathan Dwyer, Donald Brown, Daryl Richardson, or La’Rod Stephens-Howling.
Also not included are timeshares like the Falcons (Snelling would take Turner’s role, Rodgers already playing half the snaps), Saints, Broncos (Hillman, Ball, Moreno all in the mix), Dolphins, Jets, Steelers and Giants.
1. BEN TATE
Starter: Arian Foster
Outlook: Tate has been hobbled by a hamstring pull since Week 7. It hasn’t mattered since Arian Foster has maintained remarkable health despite leading the league in carries by a wide margin at 24.9 per game. Shout out to vegans everywhere. Anyway, Tate’s hamstring is nearly healed now. He’d be an easy top-12 fantasy play if he gets a start at any point the rest of the way. Also, the 9-1 Texans can clinch a playoff berth this week and might not have much to play for in Weeks 16 and 17. Resting Foster is a possibility.
2. BRYCE BROWN
Starter: LeSean McCoy
Outlook: We covered this in today’s blurb and in Chris Wesseling’s Waiver Wired column. Brown is a talented dude -- former No. 1 overall high school player in the country -- that slipped to the seventh round in this year’s draft due to a disastrous college career at Tennessee and Kansas State. With the Eagles at 3-7, McCoy won’t have much incentive to rush back. And once Weeks 16 and 17 roll around, the franchise may want to get an extended look at Brown. Remember that McCoy was a late scratch in the meaningless season finale last year.
3. EVAN ROYSTER
Starter: Alfred Morris
Outlook: The reason we tracked the Redskins’ convoluted backfield all offseason and through training camp was because we know whoever totes the rock is going to produce. That man turned out to be Morris, who is currently the No. 12 overall non-PPR running back right now. If Alf were to go down, Royster would be in line for three-down duties thanks to Roy Helu’s season-ending foot issues.
4. ROBERT TURBIN
Starter: Marshawn Lynch
Outlook: Turbin continues to play ahead of Leon Washington. He’s seen at least four carries in seven straight games and is an asset in the passing game -- unlike Lynch. Owners of Beast Mode can’t afford not to have Turbin on their roster. It’s just too risky for a guy that runs to contact and has a recent history of back issues.
5. KENDALL HUNTER
Starter: Frank Gore
Outlook: Hunter has predictably and successfully held off the likes of Anthony Dixon and Brandon Jacobs all season long. He’s averaging 5.0 yards per carry on 68 totes and it’s not a fluke. Given Gore’s age and the tread on his tires, it’s certainly possible the 7-2-1 Niners could rest him down the stretch. Hunter would be on the RB1 radar anytime he starts.
6. BERNARD PIERCE
Starter: Ray Rice
Outlook: Pierce is proving to be a player. The third-round pick has seized clear control of the backup job and averaged 4.3 YPC on his 42 totes. Of course, Rice never gets hurt. The bowling ball has missed just three games in his five-year career and none since his rookie campaign. That doesn’t mean he’s immune.
7. DEANGELO WILLIAMS
Starter: Jonathan Stewart
Outlook: Williams has earned his demotion to a backup role by showing no juice while averaging 3.4 yards per carry on his 80 totes this season. That doesn’t mean he can’t come to life if given a chance to be the feature back. He’s certainly fresh after getting just 10.0 carries per game over the last three seasons. In the two seasons before that, DeAngelo was one of the best backs in the league.
8. MICHAEL BUSH
Starter: Matt Forte
Outlook: This one is simple. When Forte missed Week 3, Bush rushed 18 times for 55 yards with a touchdown and added two catches. He’s a workload monster if Forte goes down.
9. TOBY GERHART
Starter: Adrian Peterson
At this point, it doesn’t look like anything can stop Peterson. He may not be human. But just in case, owners have to own Gerhart. In the five games that Peterson missed in 2011 and 2010, Gerhart averaged 21.0 touches.
11. SHANE VEREEN
Starter: Stevan Ridley
It’s funny to think that at one time, Ridley and Vereen appeared to be battling for the starting job. How times have changed. Ridley is averaging 18.5 carries per game on the season as the unquestioned starter and feature back in a normally convoluted Patriots backfield. Vereen wouldn’t be the clear-cut handcuff here, but he’s benefited from Brandon Bolden’s suspension.
12. PEYTON HILLIS
Starter: Jamaal Charles
Outlook: Hillis has been downright bad this season. He’s missed three games, averaged 3.8 yards per carry, scored no touchdowns and lost two fumbles. If Charles went down, he’d be the lead back and get spelled by Shaun Draughn. But unless I’m in a deep league or a Charles owner, there’s not too much to get excited about.
13. LEGARRETTE BLOUNT
Starter: Doug Martin
Outlook: Blount is ranked so low because the Bucs have identified him as a liability. He’s getting just 3.4 yards per carry on the season, can’t play in the passing game and bungled an exchange with Josh Freeman in Week 9. If Martin goes down, Blount would share the load with D.J. Ware.
DEPTH CHART QUICK SLANTS
Early signs point toward Colin Kaepernick starting in place of Alex Smith once again. Monstrous fantasy upside. … Sixth-round rookie Ryan Lindley is tentatively expected to start for the Cards in Week 12. … The Jets are now intent on a relatively even timeshare between Shonn Greene and Bilal Powell. Avoid both if possible. … Jeff Fisher expressed regret over not using Steven Jackson more last week. … The Colts are riding Vick Ballard. He played 46 snaps last week compared to just 19 for Donald Brown. … Mike Thomas is expected to start in place of Titus Young (suspension) this week. Ryan Broyles will stay in the slot. … The Packers didn’t like what they saw out of James Starks last week. Look for Alex Green to get back in the mix.
INJURY QUICK SLANTS: QUARTERBACKS AND WIDE RECEIVERS
Jay Cutler (concussion) appears likely to return for Week 12, but he can’t say for sure yet. He still has tests to pass. … Pierre Garcon (foot) is headed for a game-time call Thursday. We can’t trust him. .. Danny Amendola (heel/foot) was spotted limping following Sunday’s loss. Keep an eye on it. … Alshon Jeffery (knee) is expected to miss 2-4 weeks after a scope. .. Byron Leftwich and Ben Roethlisberger are out with rib injuries. Charlie Batch is going to start Sunday and he’ll be backed up by newly signed Brian Hoyer. … Antonio Brown (ankle) is headed for a game-time call. The Steelers signed Plaxico Burress as insurance with Jerricho Cotchery also banged up. He’s not a fantasy option, though.
INJURY QUICK SLANTS: RUNNING BACKS AND TIGHT ENDS
Ben Tate (hamstring) looks like he’ll sit out Thursday, but he’s close to a return. … Fred Jackson was expected to complete his concussion protocols by Tuesday. … Willis McGahee is going to be on crutches for a month. We can safely drop him. Ronnie Hillman is expected to get the first crack at starter’s duties. … Felix Jones (knees) appears headed for a game-time call on Thanksgiving. Phillip Tanner and Lance Dunbar would share the load if he sits. … Aaron Hernandez (ankle) is expected to be active Thursday night. He’s hard to sit even if he’ll be limited. … Isaac Redman (concussion) hasn’t been ruled out for Week 12. But with Rashard Mendenhall and Jonathan Dwyer healthy, we’re looking at an ugly three-man committee.
DEFENSIVE SPOTS STARTS
Adding a different D/ST each week based on matchups is a fine strategy. Here are three units that might be on waivers to consider for streaming purposes:
* For more waiver thoughts at all positions, check out Chris Wesseling’s latest here.
1. BROWNS vs. Steelers - Charlie Batch, now 37, has started three games since the 2007 season ended. All have come as a member of the Steelers. In those games, he averaged just 178.3 yards passing and threw three touchdowns against four interceptions. Don’t sleep on a Browns’ defense that ranks eighth in sacks and hasn’t given up more than 25 points in any of its last five games. Playing at home is huge here.
2. BENGALS vs. Raiders - We saw how the Bengals went on the road last week and completely shut down the Chiefs to the tune of 284 total yards. Now they will be out for blood at home in the Carson Palmer bowl. Palmer has regressed to a turnover machine without Darren McFadden, throwing six picks and losing a fumble in the last three weeks.
3. RAMS at Cardinals - John Skelton was so inept last week that he got benched for sixth-round rookie Ryan Lindley in the second quarter. Lindley was just as bad, completing 9-of-20 passes for 64 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions. Of course, he was sacked three times and lost a fumble playing behind the league’s worst offensive line this side of Philadelphia.