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How to Prepare for Your Fantasy Football Playoffs

As the postseason approaches, fantasy strategy changes. Here are the handcuffs and sleepers to target to stay ahead of your league.

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The fantasy football playoffs are just around the corner. In most leagues, the postseason kicks off in either Week 13 or Week 14, which means if you’re on track for a spot in the big dance, now is a good time to start thinking about how you’ll try to win the whole damn thing.

This late in the season, roster strategies can change dramatically. After Week 12, there are no more byes; the foundational players on your squad will be in your starting lineup for the rest of the year, giving those guys stashed at the bottom of your bench—the low-ceiling, marginal flex players and bye-week replacement types—little to no value. In the fantasy playoffs, a good portion of your bench should be stocked with just the opposite type of players: high-potential handcuffs for one of your top-scoring studs, players who are one injury away from major volume, potential late-season breakout stars, or all three.

With just a few weeks left in the fantasy regular season, here are a few widely available, high-upside players to target with the last few spots on your bench.

Handcuffs

TE Dallas Goedert, Eagles

Zach Ertz is a monster in the Philadelphia passing game. The 28-year-old playmaker laps the tight end position in volume, and through 10 weeks, he has already racked up 100 targets—well ahead of runner-up Travis Kelce (86) and third-place George Kittle (71). Ertz is on pace to break the all-time single-season records for catches and yards at his position. The Eagles lead the NFL in total targets to tight ends (132), and in tight end market share, with 40 percent of the team’s receptions going to that position.

That rate would likely decrease if Ertz were to get injured, but quarterback Carson Wentz relies heavily on his tight ends in the air attack, so Goedert would still be in line for major volume nonetheless. The rookie tight end, who’s caught 18 passes for 188 yards and three touchdowns this year and is rostered in just 5 percent of Yahoo leagues, boasts a similar height-weight profile to Ertz at 6-foot-5, 256 pounds, was a productive college player (he caught 198 passes for 2,988 yards and 21 touchdowns in four seasons at South Dakota State), and has the route-running chops and hands to play Ertz’s role in a pinch. If Ertz is on your team, or if your tight end position is barren and you want to invest in a high-upside lottery ticket for the stretch run, Goedert is your guy.

RB Malcolm Brown, Rams

If you’ve got Todd Gurley (the overall points leader in PPR leagues) on your squad, chances are you’re looking at a playoff spot and a potential run at a championship. But if Gurley has carried you this far, it’s a good idea to have an insurance policy in case the superstar runner gets nicked up. Insert backup Malcolm Brown.

The fourth-year pro is rostered in 6 percent of Yahoo leagues, and while he’s certainly not as dynamic or versatile as Gurley, he’s got more volume upside than just about any other handcuff option in the NFL. The Rams lead the league in rush attempts (295) and yards (1,448), and the guy he’d be replacing, Gurley, is seventh among backs in pass targets (53) and first by a long shot in red zone carries (52), first in carries inside the 5-yard line (18), and tied for first in touchdowns from inside the 5-yard line (8), per Pro Football Focus.

Playing in Sean McVay’s scheme, Brown likely wouldn’t face too many eight-plus-man boxes; Gurley has faced a loaded box on just 9 percent of his rush attempts, seventh fewest, thanks in part to the Rams running out of 11 personnel (three receivers, one tight end, one back) on almost every play (which spreads the defense out and gives the team’s line easier situations against which to run). Losing Gurley late in the year would hurt in any case, but having his backup on your roster would help your fantasy team avoid disaster.

RB/TE Jaylen Samuels, Steelers

With Le’Veon Bell now officially out of the picture, the Steelers’ running back rotation behind bell cow James Conner should come down to some combination of Samuels, fullback Roosevelt Nix, and veteran Stevan Ridley. If Conner misses time down the stretch, I lean toward the younger, more dynamic Samuels picking up the majority of the slack. And he could inherit some prime scoring opportunities: Conner ranks third in the NFL in red zone carries (23), per PFF, is tied for second in carries from inside the 5-yard line (13), and is third in touchdowns from inside the 5 (7).

The 6-foot, 225-pound rookie — who totaled 29 yards on eight touches in relief of Conner during the team’s blowout win over the Panthers last week — is as versatile as they come, with experience playing a little of everything in his college career, from running back to fullback to receiver to tight end. Samuels is owned in just 10 percent of Yahoo leagues, where he’s actually listed as a TE, too. Barring injury, the rookie is not likely to see the field much, but he’s a must-add handcuff if you’re relying on Conner for your playoff run.

RB Spencer Ware, Chiefs

Kareem Hunt has a solid hold on the starting job in the Chiefs’ backfield but Ware makes for an intriguing injury contingency down the stretch. The 26-year-old back isn’t quite as slippery of a runner as Hunt, but he’s got plenty of starting experience (he carried the ball 214 times for 921 yards and three touchdowns and caught 33 passes for 447 yards and two touchdowns in 2016), can factor in the passing game, and is a load to bring down.

Rostered in just 8 percent of Yahoo leagues, Ware is a key handcuff for Hunt, and would inherit a spot in a high-yielding fantasy offense. Hunt has carried the ball 25 times in the red zone this year (fourth most), with 10 carries inside the 5-yard line (tied for fourth), scoring six times (fourth).

RB Giovani Bernard, Bengals

Bernard started two games in place of Bengals bell cow Joe Mixon this year, and proved to be effective in both, racking up 130 yards and three touchdowns on 27 carries while adding nine catches for 52 yards through the air. Rostered in 24 percent of Yahoo leagues, Bernard won’t be a fantasy factor down the stretch unless Mixon misses games, but he’s not a big step down for Cincy’s offense if he’s pressed into a bigger role. He’s explosive as a runner and productive in the passing game.

RB Rod Smith, Cowboys

The trade for Amari Cooper seems to have the Cowboys passing game trending in the right direction, a shift that could provide a major boost to the team’s rushing attack during the second half of the year. Ezekiel Elliott posted his best game of the year against the Eagles on Sunday, rushing 19 times for 152 yards and a touchdown while adding six catches for 36 yards and another score, and offered a glimpse of the type of production that fantasy owners can hope for down the stretch.

If Elliott were to miss time, though, Smith is the next man up. The 6-foot-3, 235-pound back played reasonably well in spot duty for the Cowboys last year, scoring four touchdowns, averaging 4.2 yards per carry on 55 totes, and adding 19 catches for 202 yards and a score in the passing game. He’s a step down from Elliott, but the fourth-year back is big and physical, and can catch the ball.

Breakout Sleepers

RB Josh Adams, Eagles

With Jay Ajayi on the shelf with an ACL tear, the Eagles have alternated between Wendell Smallwood, Corey Clement, and Adams in their running back rotation. That timeshare might be about to change: Neither Smallwood nor Clement have impressed, and Adams provides a physicality that no other back on the team can. With head coach Doug Peterson noting this week that Adams has earned more touches, it wouldn’t be a surprise if the rookie out of Notre Dame is dominating snaps — including those lucrative red zone looks — before too long.

RB Rashaad Penny, Seahawks

The Seahawks’ running backs group is a fantasy headache, as head coach Pete Carroll seems content on rolling with a three-back committee starring Chris Carson, Mike Davis, and Penny. But with Penny impressing in the team’s loss to the Rams last week (12 carries for 108 yards and a score), the team may find it tough to not give their first-rounder a bigger role down the stretch. If Penny can leapfrog Davis on the depth chart, the rookie out of San Diego State could have major value going forward—even if he’s forced to play a complementary role behind Carson. No team averages more rushing attempts (32.0) or yards per game (152.2) than the Seahawks this year, so there’s plenty of opportunity, even in a timeshare. Obviously, Penny could also be a notable handcuff option, too. He could be in line for a huge role if Carson’s nagging hip injury worsens.

RB D’Onta Foreman, Texans

Foreman has been slow to recover from an Achilles injury he suffered last season, and after coming back to practice this week, the clock is now ticking for Houston to decide whether to activate him for the final seven weeks or place him on injured reserve. Worst-case scenario, he’s not ready to get back on the field. Best case, though, he’s got potential to earn major snaps and potential production. Neither starter Lamar Miller nor backup Alfred Blue have been particularly exceptional in the Houston run game this year, and Foreman can bring a power element that the team’s been missing on the ground. That could make him the favorite for goal-line duty.

WR James Washington, Steelers

This is a dart throw, but the Steelers’ passing attack provides fertile ground for an explosive deep threat like Washington. The rookie pass catcher has earned the team’s no. 3 receiver role over the past two games, playing 116 snaps for Pittsburgh in that stretch—far outpacing Ryan Switzer (21), Darrius Heyward-Bey (14), and Justin Hunter (0). Production hasn’t yet followed—he caught just two passes for 17 yards in those games—but the former Oklahoma State star has through-the-roof upside and can take the top off of just about any defense. It’s worth noting, too, that the Steelers have a favorable lineup of pass defenses during the fantasy playoffs. In Week 14, Pittsburgh will play the Raiders, who’ve given up 12 touchdowns to opposing receivers (eighth most); in Week 15, they get the Patriots, who’ve given up 11 touchdowns to receivers (tied for ninth); and in Week 16, they play the Saints, who’ve surrendered a league-worst 16 touchdowns to receivers and given up the most fantasy points to that position this year.

QB Lamar Jackson, Ravens

At the time of publication, it’s still unclear whether who among Joe Flacco, Robert Griffin III, and Jackson will be starting for the Ravens, either this week or for the rest of the season. If Flacco’s hip injury is serious enough to keep him out multiple weeks, though, I’m betting on Jackson becoming the starter over RGIII. If that’s the case, Jackson could become an intriguing late-season waiver-wire add, particularly in two-QB and super-flex leagues. Jackson is a dynamic, dual-threat quarterback, and with the added potential to pick up yards and touchdowns with his legs, could provide some upside for quarterback-needy teams. The Ravens’ late-season slate only strengthens Jackson’s case: Baltimore faces four of the worst pass defenses in the NFL in a one-month stretch, drawing the Raiders (ninth in points allowed to opposing quarterbacks) in Week 12, Falcons (second) in Week 13, Chiefs (eighth) in Week 14, and Buccaneers (fourth) in Week 15.