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Fantasy Friday: Three Playoff Stretch-Run Roster Strategies

Carolina's Christian McCaffrey is one of numerous top running backs to get injured this season.

Our Fantasy Friday column will appear each Friday throughout the NFL season. It will focus primarily on Penn State alums in the NFL, Steelers players and other players of interest to fans in central PA.

By Jason Dambach

It’s Week 9 of the NFL season, which means that we’ve just crossed over the mid-point of the league’s regular season.

But for those in fantasy football leagues, Week 9 is the beginning of the stretch drive toward the playoffs. That’s because most fantasy league regular seasons conclude after Week 13.

If that’s the case in your league, you only have five more weeks left to either strengthen your playoff spot or play your way into one.

With that in mind, here are three playoff stretch-run roster strategies to consider for your teams.

1. Handcuff Your Running Backs

Handcuffing in fantasy football is the practice of rostering your starting lineup players’ clear-cut, NFL backup.

The concept mostly applies to the running back position because of the scarcity of quality waiver wire options at the position.

The merits of whether or not to use draft capital on handcuff running backs is a hotly-contested debate among fantasy industry analysts, but this season is a good example of why handcuffing at the running back position is a must.

By my count, eight running backs selected in the first round of most fantasy drafts are currently or have been injured and missed games. In alphabetical order, that list includes Saquon Barkley, Nick Chubb, Dalvin Cook, Kenyan Drake, Aaron Jones, Christian McCaffrey, Joe Mixon and Miles Sanders.

Giovani Bernard in Cincinnati, Mike Davis in Carolina, Chase Edmonds in Arizona, Kareem Hunt in Cleveland, Boston Scott in Philadelphia and Jamal Williams in Green Bay are or have been solid starting options in place of their injured teammates.

Now, the majority of the above “handcuffs” are likely already rostered in leagues by this point, but my advice is to go all-in and make a trade to ensure that at least your RB1 is protected.

If you own one of the rock-solid RB1 or RB2 options who have mostly avoided injury (think James Conner, Ezekiel Elliott, Todd Gurley, Derrick Henry, Josh Jacobs or Alvin Kamara), now is the time to protect yourself against an injury.

There’s a good chance that back ups like Benny Snell (Conner’s handcuff), Tony Pollard (Elliott), Brian Hill (Gurley), Jeremy McNichols (Henry) and Jalen Richard (Jacobs) are available in your leagues. Latavius Murray (Kamara) is the most likely one of this group to be owned already, but it’s still possible that he is out there.

If those players are relevant to you, stop reading this immediately and go pick them up!

2. Stop Wasting Bench Spots on Kickers and Defenses

If you take my advice on handcuffing running backs, your next dilemma is going to be who to drop from your bench.

On many teams, the answer is actually quite simple: Drop the kickers and defenses on your bench!

Far be it from me to judge other people, especially over something as trivial as fake football, but there’s no surer sign of a fantasy novice than someone who carries a backup kicker and/or defense on their bench all season long.

There isn’t a single kicker in football worth a spot on your bench, not even the game’s best, Justin Tucker of the Ravens. You can easily play the waiver wire each week and find a solid option at kicker.

If you are more of a commitment person and like to stick with one consistent player, my advice would be to find the best available kicker whose bye week has already passed.

Among this season’s top kickers who fit that description are Tucker, Daniel Carlson (Raiders), Will Lutz (Saints), Jason Sanders (Dolphins) and Brandon McManus (Broncos).

The same theory applies to team defenses. There are only four defensive units in the NFL that I would have a hard time cutting this season— Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, Baltimore and Tampa Bay.

The good news is that the first three have already had their bye weeks. If you own the Bucs defense, I would recommend cutting them in Week 12 before they play Kansas City and have their Week 13 bye. You will be able to find a quality option on the waiver wire to fill the void.

3. Replace Upside with Dependability on Your Roster

Early in the season, carrying low-floor, high-upside players is a viable strategy while you evaluate and observe player trends.

The wide receiver position is filled with prime examples, especially among the rookie class.

During drafts, it was easy to get caught up in the upside and future potential of high-round picks like Henry Ruggs (Raiders), Jerry Jeudy (Broncos), CeeDee Lamb (Cowboys), Justin Jefferson (Vikings), Brandon Aiyuk (49ers), Jalen Reagor (Eagles) and Tee Higgins (Bengals).

Some of those guys, notably Jeudy, Lamb, Jefferson and Aiyuk have established themselves very well as potential starting options in fantasy football, but none are every week, “set and forget” options.

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The four players listed above, along with Higgins, shouldn’t be dropped, but I would recommend dangling each in trades for a veteran player or two that can bring more stability for the stretch drive.

Why? Because this is the time of year when you need high-floor players who are dependable week to week. Sure, a guy like Lamb has had some big weeks, but with a shoddy QB situation in Dallas, there’s no way to trust him every week.

The same can even be said for high upside, non-rookie wide receivers with good QB situations such as Mecole Hardman (Chiefs) and Mike Williams (Chargers). Those guys just aren’t worth the aggravation when you get to a winner-take-all playoff match up.

However, someone like Jarvis Landry of Cleveland is going to get 10 targets EVERY week and without Odell Beckham Jr. around will be the top target for Baker Mayfield.

A more expensive, yet somewhat under the radar trade target would be Terry McLaurin of Washington. The second-year wide out is getting an average of 10 targets per week and averages double-digit PPR fantasy points per week on a team with a shaky QB situation.

Whoever you target, make sure the player offers you a solid production floor because you can’t afford a stinker during the playoffs.

Penn State NFL Alumni Fantasy Notes

**Of the “big four” former Penn Staters in fantasy football (Saquon Barkley, Chris Godwin, Allen Robinson and Miles Sanders), only Allen Robinson (Bears) played last week. He was in the NFL’s concussion protocol until Saturday, but managed to turn in another solid performance for fantasy owners. He caught six passes for 87 yards and a touchdown in Chicago’s overtime loss to New Orleans. His 77 targets on the season rank second in the league behind only Arizona’s DeAndre Hopkins. Robinson is a rock-solid weekly starter.

**Godwin, who is dealing with a fractured left index finger, could return to Tampa Bay’s lineup this Sunday against New Orleans. If he does, the Bucs’ wide receiver distribution will be among the most anticipated storylines in fantasy football this week with Antonio Brown set to make his first appearance. Godwin, Brown, Mike Evans, Scotty Miller and Rob Gronkowski are among the fantasy-relevant players who will be vying for Tom Brady’s attention in the Tampa passing game moving forward.

**Sanders and the Eagles are on a bye week this week so we will have to wait one more week to see if he returns to the lineup. When he does, he will immediately return to fantasy lineups without hesitation.

**KJ Hamler caught the game-winning touchdown in Denver’s come-from-behind victory over the Chargers last Sunday. Hamler doesn’t receive enough volume to be owned in fantasy football this season, but he has received enough involvement to put him on the map for the 2021 season.

**Ditto for teammate DaeSean Hamilton, who had his best career game last week, catching four passes for 82 yards, including a touchdown against the Chargers.

Week 9 Fantasy Plays and Fades

(Note: These picks come from the week’s consensus Top 12 rankings at each position)

Top Plays

QB – Deshaun Watson (HOU at JAC)

RB- Dalvin Cook (MIN vs. DET)

WR- Stefon Diggs (BUF vs. SEA)

TE- Noah Fant (DEN at ATL)

DEF- Pittsburgh (at DAL)

Top Fades

QB- Kyler Murray (ARI vs. MIA)

RB- Todd Gurley (ATL vs. DEN)

WR- A.J. Brown (TEN vs. CHI)

TE- Mark Andrews (BAL at IND)

DEF – Indianapolis (vs. BAL)

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Cory Giger is a 15-year veteran of the Penn State beat and a journalist with 28 years of experience. He has won more than 100 state and national journalism awards during his career, plus he's a voter for the Heisman Trophy in football and Wooden Award in basketball.

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