Identifying the Best Handcuffs for Top Injured NFL Stars
Injuries are a fact of life in the National Football League—and an infuriating part of fantasy football.
The games haven't even started yet, and already a top-five pick has clouds of doubt swirling around him. The top rookie running back in fantasy this year may see his season ended before it begins. Two top-10 wideouts may not be ready for the start of the year. A top-three tight end may begin the year on the PUP list.
Other than that, everything's fine!
These injuries only underscore the importance of having a viable plan B in place, and many times that involves handcuffing.
No, not that kind of handcuffs. Get your mind out of the gutter and pay attention.
Handcuffs are simply the backups for high draft picks or oft-injured players. Usually that means running backs, but the strategy can also be employed with other positions.
With that in mind, here's a look at some of the biggest injuries from around the NFL and the player who can best fill the breach if these stars aren't ready for Week 1.
Note: This article was modified from its original form to reflect the Patriots-Lions preseason game and the Steelers trading for Felix Jones.
Arian Foster, RB, Houston Texans
Handcuff: Ben Tate
There's finally been some good news about Houston Texans running back Arian Foster.
The 26-year-old running back, who hasn't practiced since May, was activated from the physically unable to perform List on Wednesday. But as Tania Ganguli of ESPN reports, head coach Gary Kubiak indicated that it's unlikely Foster will see any game action before the season opener.
"I would love to but we're going to be smart," Kubiak said. "Is it a must [that he carry the ball in the preseason in order] to be ready for San Diego? I don't think so."
This news may help slow Foster's fantasy free fall, a slide that began several days ago when Ganguli reported that Foster had received painkilling injections in his balky back.
However, even if Foster is ready for Week 1, the past few weeks have only underscored how vitally important it is for fantasy owners who invest a first-round pick in Foster to also secure the services of backup Ben Tate.
No running back in the NFL carried the ball more last year than Foster, and his heavy workload over the past few years, coupled with his injury-marred summer, raise legitimate concerns about his durability.
Tate, on the other hand, showed with nearly 1,000 yards in 2011 that he's capable of performing if called upon, and the fourth-year pro would get a ton of work if Foster misses time.
It's simple. If you draft Foster, draft Tate as well, even if you have to reach a bit to get him.
Le'Veon Bell, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers
Handcuff: Jonathan Dwyer
The news isn't nearly as promising for Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell as it was for Foster.
The rookie second-round pick, who was slated to start in the Steel City in 2013, pulled up lame in Pittsburgh's second preseason game.
As Jay Glazer of Fox Sports reports, the injury has been diagnosed as the dreaded Lisfranc sprain, and a second opinion will reveal whether Bell will require season-ending surgery.
This news is a blow both to the Pittsburgh ground game and fantasy owners who drafted Bell as their RB2. It has sent the latter group scrambling in search of an alternative.
The Steelers will likely turn to a committee approach, with Jonathan Dwyer, Isaac Redman, LaRod Stephens-Howling and recently acquired Felix Jones (via NFL.com's Gregg Rosenthal) all seeing time in the backfield.
Redman was named "co-starter" with Bell, but Dwyer, who gained 623 yards and scored two touchdowns last year for the Steelers, will most likely be the lead dog.
We'll know more after Saturday's preseason tilt with the Kansas City Chiefs, and whoever leads the committee won't have fantasy value anywhere close to what Bell's was perceived to be, but it beats a blank.
Rob Gronkowski, TE, New England Patriots
Handcuff: Zach Sudfeld
There isn't a bigger risk/reward pick in fantasy football this year than New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski.
When he's on the field, there isn't a more dominant player (or fantasy option) at the position than the third-year pro. That's borne out by the fact that "Gronk" finished 2012 as a top-five fantasy tight end despite only playing in 11 games.
However, Gronkowski had multiple surgeries on his forearm in the offseason and then followed that up with back surgery in June.
In fact, ESPN's Adam Schefter reported that sources close to the situation stated it's "unrealistic" to think that Gronkowski will be ready for Week 1, and the possibility still exists that Gronkowski will open the season on the PUP list.
Thus, the risk.
Some of that risk can be mitigated by selecting rookie Zach Sudfeld late in fantasy drafts.
The undrafted free agent has been one of the stars of training camp for the Patriots. After reeling in a touchdown pass and catching a two-point conversion in New England's second preseason game, Erik Frenz wrote for The Boston Globe, "There just aren't enough positive adjectives to describe Sudfeld's performance."
Not only could Sudfeld have significant fantasy value while Gronkowski is out, but with the youngster sliding into Aaron Hernandez's old role, there's a real chance that Sudfeld's fantasy relevance could continue even after Gronkowski returns.
Victor Cruz/Hakeem Nicks, WR, New York Giants
Handcuff: Rueben Randle
The problem has become keeping them on the field at the same time.
Nicks was hampered by foot and knee injuries last year and has been slowed by a groin pull in 2013, admitting to Dan Hanzus of NFL.com that he's functioning at less than 100 percent.
Cruz, meanwhile, bruised his heel in last week's matchup with the Indianapolis Colts. Kimberly Jones of NFL Network reports that Cruz plans to play in the season opener, but his presence at a press conference in a walking boot and on crutches doesn't inspire the warm and fuzzies.
If either of these players misses regular-season time, that would mean an increased role for second-year pro Rueben Randle.
There's reason to believe Randle could come up big if called upon.
Offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride told Ralph Vacchiano of the New York Daily News that Randle is "light years from where he was last year,” while Cruz stated that Randle has "taken huge steps."
It may seem a bit odd to consider handcuffing a wideout, but Randle has the potential to be a great insurance policy for fantasy owners who make Cruz or Nicks the centerpiece of their receiving corps.
Danny Amendola, WR, New England Patriots
Handcuff: Julian Edelman
New England Patriots wide receiver Danny Amendola is a tease.
Amendola's six catches for 71 yards and a touchdown in just over a quarter last week against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers gave a glimpse as to how ridiculously productive Amendola could be catching passes from Tom Brady.
However, Amendola missed New England's third preseason game against the Detroit Lions with an undisclosed injury.
We may not know what's wrong with Amendola, but the fact that he's hurt again only reinforces what we already knew about the fifth-year pro.
Talented though he may be, Amendola has been injury-prone, with 22 missed games in four seasons.
As of right now we have no idea as to the severity of Amendola's injury, but fantasy owners ready to make Amendola their second receiver should give serious consideration to taking a late flier on Julian Edelman.
Edelman has had his own durability issues, but the fifth-year pro is a favorite of offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and has shown that he can produce when afforded the opportunity.
Kenbrell Thompkins broke out for 116 receiving yards against the Lions and figures to have a major role, but the Patriots offense is prolific enough to produce multiple fantasy starters at wide receiver.
If Amendola misses time during the season, which isn't exactly a stretch, Edelman could go from marginally rosterable to startable in the blink of an eye.