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Handcuffs
“Not Just For The Courtroom Anymore!”
8/6/08

When you mention the word “handcuff” in relation to football, a non-fantasy enthusiast will probably think you’re referring to Pacman Jones or Chris Henry. To the hardcore fantasy football manager however, a “handcuff“ is a player who is vital to a serious run at the championship and an insurance policy for early round player investments. With the amount of players getting injured each year and the “win now” mentality of the NFL the line between handcuff backup and starter (and potentially stud) is thinner than ever. In leagues that have medium to large benches, smart managers will take note of these backup players and make arrangements now to save some serious headaches later. In the following article I will take a look at some of the leagues top handcuffs at the three major positions as well as some sleeper backups that savvy owners will want to take note of and possibly grab before it’s too late.

Running Back:

As fantasy football’s premier position for stud players it is only natural that it is also the hot spot for the leagues most valuable handcuffs. Out of the top 30 backs drafted at the beginning of the 07’ season over half of them (19) ended up missing at least one game because of injury. The list of backs that missed significant time (3+ games) included some big names:

 Missing Significant Time In '07...
Player Gms Missed FPts/G 2007 Round
Marshawn Lynch 3 13.2 4th-6th
Steven Jackson 4 13.6 1st
Rudi Johnson 4 7.7 1st
Brandon Jacobs 5 14 2nd-4th
Larry Johnson 8 12.3 1st
Ronnie Brown 9 18.4 1st
Cadillac Williams 12 10.1 2nd-4th

We’re talking about four, first round picks missing between 25%-60% of the fantasy season. When you look at the fantasy points per game these owners missed, it’s a significant loss for a team. Although the games missed by these and other backs obviously hurt their owners it also opened the door for a large number of handcuff and backup players:

 Handcuffs That Benefited...
Player Rush Yds TDs Fpts/G
Kolby Smith 407 2 4.2
Kenny Watson 763 7 9.7
Justin Fargas 1009 4 10.3
Ryan Grant 956 8 10.8
Earnest Graham 898 10 12
Derrick Ward 602 3 12.8

Depending on your knowledge of the back ups, you either ended up with huge hole in your lineup (Larry Johnson/Kolby Smith) or even better production (Cadillac Williams/Earnest Graham). Ryan Grant and Derrick Ward seemingly came out of nowhere to aid fantasy owners. While it is impossible to exactly predict who the “out of nowhere” guy will be this year, the following list should give you some ideas on who to target to protect your investment and/or stash away for possible future rewards.

Top Running Back Handcuff Backups

  1. Chester Taylor (Adrian Peterson): Last year at this time it was not a sure thing which back would get the majority of the carries in the Vikings backfield. With over 1,300 rushing yards Adrian Peterson put any doubts to rest that he will be the main man this year. As backups go though Taylor may be near or at the top. Running behind one of the leagues best o-lines Taylor averaged over 5 yards a carry to go along with almost 10 yards per catch last year.

    Taylor is still in his prime and has only one season with over 200 caries, so he should be plenty fresh if Peterson pulls up lame for any amount of time. Even if Peterson stays healthy Taylor may have some limited value as a bye week replacement or emergency flex player as he should see 7-10 carries and 2-5 catches a game. As a Peterson owner you may want to reach for Taylor in the early middle rounds and if he drops to the late middle rounds all owners should pounce on him for a possible payoff down the road.

  2. Ladell Betts (Clinton Portis): In 2006 Betts showed what he could do, filling in for an injured Clinton Portis by racking up 1,154 yards and 5 total td’s in mostly 8 games of work. Last year Portis played in all 16 games while Betts was not really the factor that many thought he would be pre-season. While Portis is slowly shaking the label of not being durable it is important to note that he has amassed over 1700 carries in his 6 year career and while only missing 12 total games he has been known to get nicked up and miss parts of several others.

    Betts is a proven commodity at the position and has the skill to be a feature back if called upon due to a Portis injury. Betts will probably not provide much usefulness unless Portis goes down, but because of his past achievements and the injury risk of Portis all owners (even non-Portis owners) may look to Ladell as a player to add to their bench. As a Portis owner I would make a push for Betts somewhere in the early middle rounds after you have your starters in place. For all other owners I would certainly take a look his way in the late middle rounds after you have your starters and key backups in position.

  3. Rashard Mendenhall (Willie Parker): “Fast” Willie Parker was not seen as an every down back in the NFL when he started getting reps with the Steelers 4 years ago, but a funny thing happened when they gave him the chance- he ran with it. Fast forward to the middle and end of last year and it was clear that just like Frodo Baggins with the one ring, the burden was taking its toll on him. He only had 2 rushing touchdowns all year while getting stuffed on several more attempts from close range. The past 3 years Parker has averaged over 300 carries per year and at that pace with his frame he was perhaps on the course to a short career.

    Luckily for Pittsburgh, Mendenhall fell to them in the first round of this years draft after most experts had him ranked as a top three back in the draft. While it is not exactly clear what his role will be yet it is safe to say that the team will not be shy to give their talented first round investment reps wherever they can find them. I believe Rashard has a great chance to steal the full time goal line duties as well as some third downs while being the primary backup to Parker. If Parker would go down Mendenhall might have even more value as a starter than Parker based upon him being an every down back and the strength of Pittsburgh’s offense as a whole.

    Parker owners should certainly handcuff Mendenhall in the middle rounds and non-Parker owners might even want to spend a middle to late round pick on the rookie if he is there based strictly on potential breakout possibilities. Touchdown heavy leagues may even want to reach for him in the early middle rounds because of his potential and Parkers lack of success in that area. In dynasty leagues he should be a top four pick in rookie drafts.

  4. Ricky Williams (Ronnie Brown): When Williams came into the league many had visions of him being one of the all-time greats. Those visions soon went up in smoke as Williams dealt with suspensions, early retirement, erratic behavior, and injuries. Owning Williams in recent years has been more of a headache than a payoff but this just might be the year to take a shot on him. For starters Brown is coming off a major injury with less than 11 months of recovery time. Secondly, Miami will probably have one of the leagues worst pass offenses, which means a hearty workload for Brown and some extra carries for Williams.

    Even if Ronnie stands up to all the pounding Ricky should see plenty of carries in the new power running game. The offensive line has been overhauled, including the drafting of Jake Long and should provide some decent holes for whoever is carrying the rock. The word out of Dolphins camp is Ricky is looking rejuvenated and hungry to show he still has it. If Williams fails to show his skills this year it will probably be his last chance at a major role in the NFL so that alone should be extra motivation to lift his game. As a Brown owner you should be looking to handcuff Williams in the middle rounds and all other owners should take a look at Ricky in the last few rounds if available and wait and see if Brown looks fully recovered from that ACL tear.

  5. Ahmad Bradshaw (Brandon Jacobs): While Derrick Ward may appear second on the NYG depth chart it is Bradshaw who is the more dynamic back and who should have more fantasy relevance this year. Bradshaw burst onto the scene last year with a 17-carry, 151-yard performance in week 16 and followed that up with over 200 yards against 4 very good defenses in the playoffs as a backup.

    As with any handcuff, Bradshaw’s role this year will greatly depend on the starter, Jacobs. Last year Jacobs ran hard to the tune of 1,009 yards in 11 games including a 5.0 ypc average. As the leagues biggest feature back Jacobs hands out a lot of punishment to opposing defenses but of course takes some of that punishment back each game. If the Giants give Jacobs a heavy workload his big body may not stand up to hits and Bradshaw will get his chance to shine.

    It is likely the G-men will employ Bradshaw as more of a change of pace back, which increases his value even to non-Jacobs owners. Bradshaw does have some off the field concerns but we should know about any possible suspension within a few weeks and my guess is he will not miss any games. Due to Jacobs injury history, chance of future injuries, and Bradshaw’s clutch performances last year Ahmad should be drafted in all leagues. For Jacobs owners Bradshaw is a good pick in the middle rounds and in the late rounds for all other owners.

Other Top RB Handcuffs To Consider:

6. Kolby Smith (Larry Johnson)
7. Pierre Thomas (Deuce McAllister)
8. Antonio Pittman (Steven Jackson)
9. Felix Jones (Marion Barber)
10. Ray Rice (Willis McGahee)

“Sleeper” Running Back Handcuffs

Here are 3 names that seem to be flying under the radar that could provide owners with a huge boost for a few games during the upcoming season.

  1. Lorenzo Booker (Brian Westbrook): The order of the depth chart behind Westbrook is a little jumbled with Booker, the more proven Buckhalter, and second-year man Tony Hunt all in the mix. While Booker is not a real goal line threat I believe he would be best suited to step right into the Westbrook role, should he be forced to miss time due to injury. Bookers skill set and size is very similar to Westbrook’s and offers more explosive upside over the Eagles other options.

    While Booker does not have Westbrook’s talent, he should excel in pass catching, screen plays and dump-offs, something that the Eagles offense revolves around with Westbrook. While Westbrook has pretty much shaken the injury prone label he has yet to play all 16 games in a season, will be 29 on opening day, and has over 1,300 touches in his career with his heaviest workload coming last year. Westbrook owners should consider Booker in the late middle rounds and other owners with deep benches might take a look at him with one of their last picks.

  2. Jason Wright (Jamal Lewis): The Browns offense came alive last year with a top notch offensive line, above average receiving corps, the emergence of Derek Anderson, and the re-birth of Jamal Lewis. Wright got in a little action a few weeks (277 rushing yards, 233 receiving yards), but Lewis was such a workhorse that the Browns did not need much more out of Jason.

    While Lewis looked great last year and has been pretty durable through his career I predict this may be the year the wheels start to lose their tread. Lewis has a high number of career carries (2120), averaging over 300 per year and before picking his game up in Cleveland last year he really started looking older than his age. Wright should not be mistaken for an elite running back but has decent hands, size, vision and burst. On top of this he has little competition, fresh legs and a great supporting cast around him if given the chance to start. Lewis owners should handcuff Wright in the later middle rounds and all others might take a late round flyer on the fifth-year back.

  3. Jesse Chatman (Thomas Jones): While Leon Washington is second on the official depth chart I believe the Jets would prefer to keep him as a change of pace back while keeping him fresh for kick returns. This leaves the door open for Chatman as the best option if Jones would miss significant time or see a lack of production. Chatman has been around a few years, but did not get much action until last year in Miami where he racked up over 600 total yards as a backup, starter, and as part of a committee.

    Chatman has good size and decent hands and is a reliable blocker in pass protection. With an improved offensive line and some nice receiving threats Chatman could be a nice flex option or fill in if Jones would miss any time. Jones owners may want to grab Chatman in the late rounds and others should keep an eye on him and watch how the soon to be, 30-year-old Jones holds up as the NYJ starter. If Jones falters or gets hurt Chatman could be a waiver wire gem.

Other “Sleeper” Running Back Options To Consider

1. Jacob Hester (LaDainian Tomlinson)
2. Fred Jackson (Marshawn Lynch)

Quarterback:

Unlike running backs that take constant punishment and several big hits per game, quarterbacks are, for the most part pretty durable. There are a couple big injuries each year to Qb’s around the league but often times a lack of production by the starter is just as much of a reason to go to the backup. In recent memory several prominent Qb’s have gone from backup to stud including Tony Romo, Tom Brady, Marc Bulger, and Derek Anderson. The following are a list of guys to watch and possibly handcuff, as their situations may go from clipboard holder to fantasy standout faster than you can get up and get another beer.

Top Quarterback Handcuff Options

  1. Kurt Warner (Matt Leinart): Leinart should start the season as Arizona’s top signal caller but if you draft Leinart as your starter, Warner should be on your draft board as he is possibly the league’s top backup. Despite not starting every game Warner finished as a top-12 QB in most fantasy leagues last year and certainly has the tools to do it again if given the chance. The Cardinals invested a first-round pick on Leinart but his first two years have been erratic and injury plagued.

    Warner, 37, is certainly not the long-term answer in Arizona but for at least the coming year he may be the present. Warner has good size, a decent arm, great touch and a ton of experience and knowledge at the position. Unlike many backups who come in and are told to be game managers, Warner can take control of a game and win it. On top of this he has two of the leagues best receivers in Boldin and Fitzgerald. Any Leinart owner should scoop up Warner without hesitation, maybe as soon as the following round. Other owners with room might also grab Warner and see how the first few weeks go with Leinart under center.

  2. Kellen Clemens (Chad Pennington): While the Jets have not named a starter yet many believe Pennington will be given the first shot (and maybe his last) to lead an above average Jets offense. While neither of these Qb’s will be top 10, the one who lands the job should be a good backup and bye week fill in guy. The Jets should have one of the better offensive lines led by newly acquired Alan Faneca and anchored by some young former 1st round draft picks (Ferguson and Mangold). They also have two solid receivers in Cotchery and Coles to go along with Dustin Keller, a rookie tight end who should contribute right away.

    Both quarterbacks bring something different to the table, Clemens with his stronger arm and Pennington with his pinpoint accuracy, and so both may be given the chance at some point during the season. The Jets may have a hard time choosing a starter so if you are going to draft one of these guys make sure to play it safe and draft both. Pennington should probably be drafted first but make sure you get Clemens with one of your next subsequent picks.

  3. Matt Moore (Jake Delhomme): After putting up good numbers the first three games last year Jake Delhomme went down with an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery. This kind of surgery for a starting quarterback is mostly untested and so all eyes will be on Jake this pre-season to see if he can hold up while making all the necessary throws. As a rookie last year Moore started three games and played fairly well, completing 62 percent of his passes while throwing for three touchdowns and two interceptions. That game experience will be valuable if Delhomme is not able to make it through an entire season.

    If he does get the call Moore will be throwing to a revamped receiving corps led by all world wideout Steve Smith and supported by newly acquired DJ Hackett and veteran Mushin Muhammad. Add that to what should be a strong run game and Moore may have the ingredients for success, at least as a nice fantasy backup or fill in player. If you take Delhomme, especially as your starter you’ll want to grab Moore as one of your last picks as insurance against Jake’s elbow falling off.

  4. Kevin Kolb (Donovan McNabb): The past four years McNabb has missed a season’s worth of games and the “injury prone” label has begun to stuck to him so much that the Eagles went out last year and drafted Kolb as their first pick in the draft (2nd round). While McNabb has been effective when healthy his playing style may contribute to more hits, and in turn, greater chance for injury. Kolb has a solid combination of arm strength, mobility, and size and has had a year to pick up and practice in the system. Chances are the Eagles will want to see if Kolb is their future and so will give him every opportunity to win the backup role and come in for McNabb if, or more likely when, he misses some time. Mcnabb is still being drafted as a top 12 Qb and so handcuffing Kolb should be a priority in the later rounds for all Mcnabb owners.

  5. Brady Quinn (Derek Anderson) When the Browns traded back into the first round to get Brady Quinn the Cleveland fans thought he would be seeing plenty of action his first season. Obviously nobody notified Derek Anderson of this, as he led the Browns to a 10-6 record and fantasy teams to glory as a top-10 quarterback. Despite putting up good fantasy numbers last year there are some things going against Anderson, and therefore in favor of Quinn.

    For starters Anderson started to fade the last five games of the season, even against sub-par defenses, throwing for more interceptions than touchdowns. Secondly, while putting up good yardage and touchdown totals, his completion percentage (56.5) was one of the lowest for the top 20 fantasy Qb’s. Finally, Anderson’s leash may be pretty short considering the expectations to make the playoffs now and also to see what they have in their former first round pick Quinn.

    If Quinn does see action he will be behind one of the leagues best o-lines and have some pretty nice targets to throw to in Braylon Edwards, Donte Stallworth and Kellen Winslow Jr. Quinn has above average size and arm strength and the “smarts” and intangibles to be a NFL starter. Since Anderson will most likely be drafted as a top-10 Qb, it is important to handcuff Quinn in the later rounds so you are not stuck later in the year without a decent starter.

“Sleeper” Quarterback Handcuff Options

  1. Shaun Hill (Alex Smith): After watching the 49ers offense last year most fantasy owners would want nothing to do with any San Fran Qb but two words changed all that this off-season: Mike Martz. For the most part wherever Martz goes Qb’s on the fringe of fantasy relevance become starters and in some cases studs. As a former #1 pick, Smith has failed so far to live up to his draft position and Hill has been nothing more than a decent NFL Europe player and NFL backup.

    While we shouldn’t expect miracles here, Martz calling the plays could at least mean that one of these two guys will make an above average backup or emergency starter as early as day one. Martz has been known to make a lot out of a little (see Shaun McDonald) and the 49ers are stacked with untapped potential (Bryant Johnson, Vernon Davis, Frank Gore) to go along with a veteran, Isaac Bruce, who is already familiar with the Martz playbook. Be sure that if you take the plunge in drafting a San Fran Qb you wear your life preserver by grabbing the other one a round or two later.

  2. Brian Brohm (Aaron Rodgers) If this whole Brett Favre thing blows over and things stay the way they are now on the depth chart Brohm may just be one of the few rookie Qb’s in recent memory to come into a decent situation. First of all, the pressure is on Rodgers, not Brohm, to follow in the footsteps of a legend. Second, one of Brohms biggest strengths coming out of college was that he was deemed “NFL ready” with good accuracy and decision making. Finally, the Packers receiving corps is one of the league’s deepest and the emergence of Ryan Grant and a good young o-line should take some pressure off the rookie Qb, if given the chance. Rodgers is still not a proven commodity under center and has seemed to get hurt frequently compared to the amount of playing time he’s been given. It all adds up to this: if you are going to draft Rodgers, make sure you get Brohm in the later rounds or he just might become somebody else’s waiver wire gem later in the year.

  3. Troy Smith (Kyle Boller, Joe Flacco) If you are really digging deep and looking for a possible one-year wonder type backup player, Smith may fit the bill. His competition is a rookie who didn’t even play at the division one level and, well, Kyle Boller (enough said?). As a rookie last year, Smith got a little playing time to get some experience and besides not having the ideal NFL Qb size, Smith generally has everything else you’d want in an average (not star) quarterback. Then again, Drew Brees and Jeff Garcia lack ideal size. No Ravens quarterback is going to light up the scoreboard this year, but if you are in a deep league or looking for a sleeper, make sure you consider Smith depending on the outcome of training camp. Editor’s Note: Smith is considered by many to have a strong chance to win the starting job heading into training camp.

Wide Receiver:

When talking about handcuff options Wr’s are not usually in the discussion, and for good reason. Receivers do not take the pounding that other positions do and usually there is no clear, reliable option if a star Wr goes down anyway. On top of that, most teams already have two Wr’s that are fantasy relevant and some even have three. The following Wr’s are probably not handcuff players by the standard definition, but currently as third or fourth on their teams depth charts and just below fantasy relevance they are potential break out players to keep on your radar during the season and grab if the guys above them get hurt or under perform.

Top Receiver Handcuff (sort of) Options

  1. Steve Smith (Plaxico Burress, Amani Toomer): The “other” Steve Smith saw limited action in his rookie regular season, showed up in the playoffs with 14 grabs for 152 yards in 4 games. With the growth of Eli Manning, a decent run game, and other complimentary receivers, Smith could flourish if given the chance in this offense. He is a smart and reliable possession type threat who is quick and tough for his size. With Toomer being 34 at the start of the season the Giants may look to their former 2nd round pick more often to see what he can offer them for the future. If one of the guys in front of him go down or Toomer starts to show his age, expect Smith to step in and contribute right away with the upside of a high end #3 fantasy receiver. In yearly leagues take a late round flier on Smith if you have the room, or at least watch the how the Giants use him early on and grab him up quick if it looks like he is getting 5+ targets a game.

  2. Early Doucet (Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin) Although not considered an elite receiving prospect, Doucet certainly landed in one of the better situations for a rookie wideout. Doucet has above average size, speed, and hands and does a nice job of getting open which is crucial for him to get playing time. As you know, the Cardinals starting receivers are among the best in the league however, neither are the perfect pictures of durability. Boldin has missed 12 games over the last four seasons and Fitzgerald has missed four over the past two. Even if both guys play a full season Doucet should see plenty of action in three- and four-receiver sets and has the skill set to put up modest numbers in those situations. In yearly leagues you might take Doucett with one of your last picks as a potential sleeper or at least be prepared to grab him off waivers if he sees a lot of action as a 3rd receiver or one of the Cardinals studs goes down due to injury.

  3. Limas Sweed (Hines Ward, Santonio Holmes): Staying on the subject of rookie receivers landing in good spots Limas Sweed may be just what the fantasy doctor ordered. With great size, strength, and leaping ability Sweed fits the bill of a prototypical NFL receiver. Although most rookie wideouts do not breakout their first year, some factors are certainly in place for Sweed to succeed. First, he will be learning from one of the better veteran guys in Hines Ward. Second, he won’t have the pressure to be the go to guy right away with a solid run game and at least 2 other good receivers in front of him. And third, he is the type of receiver that Roethlisberger, an already good quarterback, has been missing in this offense.

    Unless there is an injury Sweed will probably be the teams 4th option behind Ward, Holmes, and tight end Heath Miller. Until recently Ward had been the picture of durability but perhaps his age (32) and taking hits in over 160 games has started to catch up to him. He’s missed six games the past three seasons and had another off-season knee surgery this past year to go along with recent hamstring issues. Ward may be an above average injury risk this year, and so Sweed should become the next in line to see more balls thrown his way. If you have the bench depth take a late flier on Sweed in yearly drafts and if not be sure to pay close attention to Ward’s status this year as Sweed should be ready enough to at least be a good red zone threat.

  4. Antonio Bryant (Joey Galloway, Ike Hilliard): Before being out of the league last year Bryant showed flashes of his potential with the Browns in 2005 when he caught 69 balls for over 1,000 yards. While he does have close to ideal skills as a receiver, Bryant has made more noise off the field where he has had altercations with coaches and the law. As with any player that has a bad reputation you are taking a risk that he may be limited in playing time, however if Bryant can clean up his act his situation could warrant success. The only real threat in front of Bryant, from a talent perspective, is 36-year-old Joey Galloway who is mostly durable but more of an all or nothing type fantasy player.

    The word out of Bucs camp is Bryant looks like one the best receivers on the team, which may not be saying a lot considering his competition, but noteworthy because if he earns starting type play time he should be a decent possession type player. With an accurate Qb (Favre?), a decent run game, and an improving o-line Bryant just might be worthy of a solid #3 fantasy wr if given the chance. If you have the room, draft Bryant as a sleeper and see how much playing time he gets the first few weeks. If he makes his way into the starting lineup he just may be worth the late round gamble.

  5. Robert Meachem (Marques Colston, Lance Moore): After spending a first round pick on Meachem last year the Saints rookie wideout disappointed many by showing up out of shape and eventually getting hurt and missing the season. With long arms, above average size, and good speed, Meachem fits the mold of a solid #2 NFL receiver. Besides Colston, the talent in front of Meachem on the depth chart is unspectacular. If motivated and healthy, Meachem could break his way into the starting lineup by mid-season.

    Watch Meachem’s progress in training camp and pre-season as it should be a good indicator of how much playing time the Saints will initially give him. He probably will start the season as their number-four guy, but if he wins the third spot he could pay immediate dividends. If you are drafting soon, he is probably not worth taking unless you have a deep bench. But if he works his way up the depth chart, make sure you grab him before your opponents because with a close to elite Qb and a star wideout to take the pressure off, Meachem might just put up good fill-in type fantasy Wr numbers.