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Fantasy Playbook: The Lottery-Ticket Running Backs Worth Taking a Chance On

With bye weeks ending and the fantasy playoffs on the horizon, it’s time to make the most of every roster spot. Here are the handcuff running backs with sky-high potential to put your team over the top.

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Big fantasy performances from backup running backs like the Ravens’ Gus Edwards and Cowboys’ Tony Pollard on Sunday served as an excellent reminder: Peak handcuff season is upon us. With the NFL’s bye weeks nearly done and the fantasy football playoffs just over the horizon, now’s the time to maximize every spot on your roster for the postseason. One of my favorite strategies for this time of year is to drop the middling, low-ceiling, bye-week fill-ins and grab a handful of lottery-ticket players, whether as insurance for one of my team’s stalwart runners or a guy who represents next-man-up gold. Here’s how I’d rank the six best running back handcuffs (defined as players rostered in fewer than 40 percent of Yahoo leagues) heading into the fantasy homestretch.

6. Reggie Bonnafon, Panthers

Bonnafon (2 percent) looked explosive on his 59-yard jailbreak touchdown run back in Week 5, but we haven’t seen much of him otherwise this year, with overall fantasy points leader Christian McCaffrey completely dominating snaps and touches in Carolina’s backfield. With 302.6 PPR points through 10 games, McCaffrey’s on pace to beat LaDainian Tomlinson’s all-time fantasy scoring record (483.1 PPR points), and for that reason, some might rank Bonnafon higher on this list―but the running back succession plan if McCaffrey goes down is muddied by the fact that Bonnafon would have to vie with the recently acquired Mike Davis and/or fifth-round rookie Jordan Scarlett for touches. Even if Bonnafon does emerge as the bell cow of that group, he’s not likely to come close to matching the efficiency or versatility that McCaffrey brings to the table.

5. Ryquell Armstead, Jaguars

Like McCaffrey in Carolina, Leonard Fournette is the unquestioned bell cow in Jacksonville’s offense, eating up the vast majority of snaps, carries, and passing game targets out of the backfield. But if Fournette were to go out with an injury, rookie backup Armstead (2 percent) would be next in line. Armstead doesn’t pack the same type of power or elusiveness as Fournette, a battering ram who was averaging 3.75 yards after contact per carry coming into this week (third best among qualified runners, per PFF), but he does have some wiggle―and more importantly, could stand to inherit a big chunk of Fournette’s 22.9 touches per game.

4. Rashaad Penny, Seahawks

Penny (20 percent) has been rendered mostly useless as a stand-alone fantasy asset thanks to Chris Carson’s stranglehold on the Seahawks’ lead-back job. But the 2018 first-rounder would be almost certain to jump into that workhorse role if Carson suffers an injury, and he’d inherit a lucrative fantasy role for a team that loves to run the ball. Seattle ranks fourth in the NFL in rush attempts per game (30.7), is sixth in yards per game (133.1), and Carson ranks fourth among all running backs in rushes per game (20.0). While Penny’s clearly inferior to Carson as a tackle-breaker and after-contact creator, he’s got the breakaway speed that Carson lacks and adds value as a pass catcher.

3. Gus Edwards, Ravens

As we saw Sunday, Edwards (7 percent) is capable of putting up big numbers when given the chance in Baltimore’s run-heavy scheme. The bulldozing second-year back turned eight carries into 112 yards and a touchdown in the 41-7 blowout of the Texans, highlighted by a 63-yard score. Edwards may lack high-end speed, and he’s not the most elusive back in the world, but he’s in a damn good situation on a Ravens squad that’s averaging a league-high 203.8 rushing yards per game, a league-high 5.7 yards per carry, and scored a league-high 16 touchdowns on the ground. Of course, a big chunk of that rushing production comes from Lamar Jackson, but Baltimore’s running backs benefit from a strong offensive line (which ranked sixth in Football Outsiders’ adjusted line yards metric coming into this week) and the blocking advantage that Jackson creates as a running quarterback. In Greg Roman’s versatile, option-heavy scheme, Edwards would have a massive opportunity if Mark Ingram went down. The only factor keeping me from putting him higher on this list is that rookie Justice Hill would likely factor into the team’s plans as well, potentially limiting Edwards’s ceiling.

2. Tony Pollard, Cowboys

Ezekiel Elliott and his $90-million contract remain the foundation of the Cowboys ground game, but Pollard (12 percent) showed in the team’s 35-27 win over the Lions that he is a dynamic runner who comes with the versatility to line up in the backfield or as a de facto receiver from the slot and outside. The rookie fourth-rounder finished the day with two carries for 12 yards while adding four receptions for 44 yards and a score through the air, netting 17.6 PPR points―all on just 12 snaps. Behind the Cowboys’ top-tier offensive line (which ranked third in adjusted line yards coming into the game), Pollard—who came into this week ranked first among qualifiers in yards after contact per carry this season—would come with every-week RB1 upside if Elliott went down.

1. Alexander Mattison, Vikings

Vikings starter Dalvin Cook has been one of the most dynamic backs in the NFL this year and is playing in the perfect system: A high-volume, wide-zone scheme under Kevin Stefanski and Gary Kubiak that’s given the third-year back the chance to run all over just about every single opponent the team has faced. If Cook goes out with an injury, though, that honor would fall to Mattison (29 percent), a third-round rookie who’s shown his own affinity in the Vikings’ scheme. Mattison, who’s carried the ball 82 times for 394 yards and one touchdown this year (4.8 yards per carry), would be in line for the lead-back role in an offense that ranks third in rush attempts per game (31.3), third in rushing yards per game (142.5), and is tied for second in rushing touchdowns. Behind an offensive line that ranks fifth in adjusted line yards this year, Mattison would quickly become one of the most valuable fantasy assets in football.

OK, on to the rest of the happenings around the league.

Risers and Sliders

Riser: QB Josh Allen, Bills

Allen put together a complete performance in the Bills’ 37-20 win over the Dolphins, throwing for 256 yards and three touchdowns while adding 56 yards and a score on the ground. The second-year pro notched 33.8 fantasy points in the blowout, putting him on track to be the top scorer at quarterback this week, pending Monday Night Football. Allen has always provided a nice fantasy floor because of his elusiveness as a scrambler, but he’s really come along as a decision-maker in the passing game over the past month-plus too; Sunday marked Allen’s fifth straight game with two-plus touchdowns and no interceptions―the first quarterback to achieve that since 2015―and his active 163-pass streak without a pick ranks second behind Kirk Cousins (177). Allen’s favorite target in this one, receiver John Brown, was another riser on Sunday, notching an NFL-best 34.7 PPR points with nine catches for 137 yards and two touchdowns.

Slider: QB Deshaun Watson, Texans

Watson came into Sunday as the overall QB3 on the year, but should drop down the ranks with an absolute dud in the Texans’ 41-7 loss to the Ravens. The third-year pro completed just 18 of 29 passes for 169 yards and one pick to finish with just 4.0 fantasy points—his worst game this season. Watson’s off-day likely isn’t the signal of a bigger trend, but Houston will face a tough slate of defenses in the next few weeks, with games against the Colts, Patriots, and Broncos on the horizon.

Riser: WR Courtland Sutton, Broncos

Sutton’s quickly turning into a bona fide star. The second-year pro overcame less-than-ideal quarterbacking from Brandon Allen on Sunday to notch five catches for 113 yards on nine targets, including one 50–50 ball that he ripped away from a defender at its highest point. Sutton, who quietly came into the week as the WR14 (a high-end WR2), has now posted double-digit PPR points in all but one game this season.

Slider: RB Kalen Ballage, Dolphins

Ballage grabbed a second-quarter touchdown to salvage an otherwise miserable game (12.7 PPR points), but his hold on the starting running back job in Miami looks tenuous at best. The second-year pro turned 14 touches into just 17 yards in the loss to Buffalo, and combined with last week, has now gained just 62 yards on 38 touches since Mark Walton was sidelined to a suspension prior to Week 10. With that kind of inefficiency, the Dolphins may have to give rookies Patrick Laird (one rush for 7 yards, six catches for 51 yards) or Myles Gaskin (zero yards on two touches) more opportunities down the stretch.

Riser: WR DJ Chark, Jaguars

The Jags offense wasn’t particularly impressive in the team’s 33-13 loss to the Colts, but Chark was the clear focal point of the passing game in Nick Foles’s return, collecting team and career highs with 15 targets in the loss. Chark caught eight of those looks for 102 yards and two touchdowns to net 30.4 fantasy points, and the 23-year-old’s incredible second-year jump doesn’t appear to be in any danger of fizzling down the stretch.

Slider: RB Adrian Peterson, Redskins

Peterson had been trending up over the past month under interim head coach Bill Callahan, and the veteren had notched double-digit PPR outings in three of his last four games prior to Sunday. That mini hot streak came to an abrupt end, though, in the team’s 34-17 loss to the Jets on Sunday, with Peterson netting 30 yards on 11 touches to post a meager 5.0 PPR points. It was always going to be tough sledding against New York’s stout run defense, but Peterson ceded touches to Derrius Guice, too, with the former LSU star returning from an MCL injury to notch 69 yards on eight touches. Guice should continue to eat into Peterson’s bottom line.

Riser: TE Kyle Rudolph, Vikings

Rudolph has really stepped up for the Vikings over the past month-plus with Adam Thielen sidelined to a hamstring injury. From Week 7 through Week 10, the veteran tight end ranked as the overall TE4 in PPR formats, averaging 13.1 points per game―and he grabbed another 17.7 PPR points on Sunday (five catches for 67 yards and a touchdown) in the team’s 27-23 win over the Broncos. Rudolph is likely to revert to touchdown-or-bust status if Thielen returns to the field after the Vikings’ Week 12 bye, but at a barren tight end position, you could do worse. He’s shown good chemistry with quarterback Kirk Cousins.

Slider: RB David Johnson, Cardinals

The recently acquired Kenyan Drake has officially leapfrogged (an ostensibly healthy) Johnson as the Cardinals’ starter at running back. After being outcarried 10-to-5 by Drake last week, Johnson was a complete nonfactor in Arizona’s 36-26 loss to the 49ers on Sunday, notching exactly zero touches on just seven snaps in the loss. Johnson is unstartable in fantasy at this point.

Cutting Up the Pie

Bo Scarbrough Takes Over for Lions

The game of musical chairs in the Lions’ backfield continued on Sunday, with recent practice squad promotion Bo Scarbrough grabbing the bulk of the workload in the team’s loss to the Cowboys. Scarbrough looked quick and physical carrying the ball, finishing with 14 rushes for 55 yards (somehow the second most from a Detroit back this year) and a touchdown to net 11.5 PPR points. With Kerryon Johnson on the shelf, Scarbrough may have played himself into a bigger role down the stretch. Ty Johnson added two rushes for 6 yards while J.D. McKissic chipped in three carries for 13 yards.

Brian Hill Underwhelms for Falcons

With Devonta Freeman on the sidelines with a foot injury, the Falcons turned to Hill to carry the load. The 24-year-old backup failed to gain much traction in Atlanta’s 29-3 win over the Panthers though, notching just 30 yards on 15 carries while while getting a short-yardage touchdown vultured by rookie Qadree Ollison. The Falcons’ ground game was mostly nonexistent: Ollison tacked on 11 yards on four carries, Kenjon Barner added 15 yards on two carries, and Atlanta came out of the blowout win with just 54 rushing yards on 26 carries. With an upcoming matchup against the Buccaneers’ tough run defense, Hill’s prospects for a bounce back next week don’t look great.

The Injury Report

Here are a few injuries to monitor for this week.

RB Marlon Mack, Colts: Mack fractured his right hand in the Colts’ win over the Jaguars, and he’s not expected to play on Thursday when Indy takes on the Texans. With Mack out, look for backups Jordan Wilkins and Jonathan Williams to get expanded early-down roles this week. Nyheim Hines should remain the passing-down back.

WR Auden Tate, Bengals: Tate was carted off after suffering a neck injury in the fourth quarter of the Bengals’ loss to the Raiders. He tweeted after the game that he’s “good” and all signs indicate he escaped major injury. If Tate misses time, it could provide small fantasy boosts for Tyler Boyd, Tyler Eifert, and Alex Erickson.

WR Phillip Dorsett, Patriots: Dorsett left the Patriots’ 17-10 win over the Eagles with a concussion, suffered on a touchdown catch from receiver Julian Edelman. He didn’t return to the game, and if he misses time, rookies N’Keal Harry and Jakobi Meyers could see more snaps.

Smash the Add Button

Here’s a few must-add players to target on this week’s waiver wire.

WR Deebo Samuel, 49ers (rostered in 53 percent of Yahoo leagues): Samuel posted his second straight big game, notching 21.4 PPR points thanks to an eight-catch, 134-yard line on 10 targets. The rookie receiver has emerged as one of the 49ers’ only reliable pass-catching targets with George Kittle and Emmanuel Sanders both banged up (Sanders played Sunday but looked limited). He made an incredible catch, going through the defender to reel in a 23-yard pass, and became the first 49ers rookie to notch eight-plus receptions for 100-plus yards in back-to-back games.

RB Jonathan Williams (2 percent) and Jordan Wilkins (1 percent), Colts: With Mack sidelined for at least one week, the run-heavy Colts will turn to some combination of Wilkins and Williams to fill the void. Wilkins, who missed this week with an ankle injury, has logged more carries for the Colts over the past two seasons, but Williams may have made an impression with a 13-carry, 116-yard line on Sunday. It’s anyone’s guess who will get the lion’s share of the early-down workload for Indy this week, but I’d probably bet on the healthier of the two in Williams.

RB Bo Scarbrough, Lions (1 percent): Scarbrough did enough on Sunday to warrant another chance to lead the Lions backfield in Week 12, and a juicy matchup with the porous Redskins defense bodes well for his outlook. McKissic’s still the passing-down back for Detroit, but Scarbrough could remain the team’s early-down guy down the stretch.

WR Tim Patrick, Broncos (zero percent): Patrick was a big part of the Broncos’ passing attack in his first game off the injured reserve, notching four catches for 77 yards on eight targets. Quarterback Brandon Allen even trusted Patrick enough to target him on one of the team’s failed end zone shots late in the game. Patrick should have a role going forward opposite Sutton.

The Watch List

Add this guy to your waiver-wire watch list and be ready to pounce.

WR Kelvin Harmon, Redskins (zero percent): Harmon’s seen his playing time tick up over the past few weeks and had a team-high six targets in the Redskins’ 34-17 loss to the Jets, catching five passes for 53 yards. With Washington in the midst of a lost season, it may get Harmon more involved down the stretch to evaluate what it’s got in the sixth-round rookie.