Commentary

Free-agent finds: Week 14

Barber, Gerhart, Brown among running backs worth picking up for playoffs

Updated: December 6, 2011, 2:15 PM ET
By Christopher Harris | ESPN.com

It's fantasy playoff time.

If your team is alive, it's time not to get clever. Dance with what brung ya. All that. If you're scouring the waiver wire, it better be because one of your regulars got injured, or you're looking for a handcuff. Except in deeper leagues, nutty flyers need not apply.

As they say, you need to shorten up your bench. That's why the list below (and the lists for the rest of the season) will have fewer lottery tickets and more strategy plays. Good luck.

Standard ESPN league finds

[+] EnlargeMarion Barber
AP Photo/Julio CortezMarion Barber was already a decent play because of his TDs, but now he'll be carrying the bulk of the load for the Bears.

Marion Barber, RB, Chicago Bears (owned in 17.3 percent of ESPN.com leagues). Matt Forte's knee issue is the most significant new RB injury; Forte will miss at least two games, and probably more than that. Fantasy owners shouldn't count on him returning in time for their playoff run. Barber is the best candidate to add (though I really wish you'd been handcuffing him to Forte all along). He has five TDs as Chicago's short-yardage rusher since he returned from injury back in Week 4, and whatever ground scores the Bears muster the next few weeks figure to belong to Barber. But Caleb Hanie has been a disaster throwing the ball, and you know defenses will stack the line as a result. Don't expect miracles from Barber, but add him.

Antonio Brown, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers (57.1 percent). Just a quick note to indicate how incredibly stubborn some fantasy leaguers are. How can Brown, who's scored between eight and 12 fantasy points for six consecutive weeks and is a top-30 fantasy WR for the season despite being buried on Pittsburgh's depth chart in September, still be available in nearly half of ESPN.com leagues? Folks, this gent is a fantasy starter, period. Even if your receiving depth chart is set with studs, add Brown as insurance in case someone gets hurt.

Malcom Floyd, WR, San Diego Chargers (57.6 percent). Floyd returned from his hip injury Monday night and produced four catches for 108 yards and a beautiful long TD. Skill-set-wise, Floyd is strikingly similar to the more heralded Vincent Jackson; Floyd's issue is simply durability. You can't count on a healthy Malcom Floyd for the next four weeks, but for as long as he's active, he'll be a No. 3 fantasy WR.

Donald Brown, RB, Indianapolis Colts (25.0 percent). No, I don't like the idea of using an Indy running back any more than you do, but there's been significant backfield carnage around the league over the past month, so Brown should probably find his way onto more fantasy rosters. For the second straight week, Joseph Addai started for the Colts, but Brown finished with more touches and looked like the more effective player. If Indy is paying attention, they'll use Brown more throughout December, though this week's matchup against the Baltimore Ravens doesn't figure to be a great one.

Toby Gerhart, RB, Minnesota Vikings (32.3 percent). Anyone who owns Adrian Peterson should own Gerhart. Period. There's no excuse not to handcuff the best rusher in the NFL. The Vikings have a good O-line and a shaky QB, meaning they're going to utilize their backfield early and often. Gerhart produced 133 total yards on 29 touches from scrimmage in a tough matchup against the Denver Broncos last week; things should get easier for the Vikings' running game versus the Detroit Lions on Sunday. Of course, Peterson might be back from his high ankle sprain, in which case Gerhart would be unusable. But he should be owned in all leagues anyway. The past two weeks have taught us that being the Vikings' starting RB makes you startable in fantasy leagues, which means Gerhart might be the most important lightly-owned handcuff in the NFL.

[+] EnlargeMaurice Morris
Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesOnce again, Maurice Morris picked up the slack for the Lions after Kevin Smith got hurt.

Maurice Morris, RB, Detroit Lions (51.8 percent). Kevin Smith played Sunday night versus the New Orleans Saints but probably shouldn't have, as he re-injured his ankle and had to leave. Morris produced some numbers in the passing game (mostly underneath stuff as New Orleans sat back, though he did score a TD), but overall this guy is what he is: A pedestrian rushing talent who's mostly a seat-filler for a better player. Still, he could be a starter in Week 14 against the Vikings, though you'd have to be pretty desperate to use him.

Jermaine Gresham, TE, Cincinnati Bengals (24.3 percent). If you've been starting Fred Davis, you're almost certainly out of luck. Davis is reportedly about to be suspended four games for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy, which will knock him out for the rest of the regular season. Those casting around for a tight end could do worse than Gresham, who would've had his third TD in four games last week, but his 5-yard end zone catch was called back by a shaky false-start penalty on a Bengals wideout. Gresham is the second-most-reliable pass-catcher Cincy has after A.J. Green.

Seattle Seahawks Defense (16.0 percent). The last time the Seahawks played the Rams, the game took place in St. Louis and Sam Bradford was playing. Seattle racked up 17 fantasy points, creating three turnovers, five sacks and allowing only seven scoreboard points. This week, the Rams visit the Pacific Northwest, Bradford and his backup A.J. Feeley are both questionable, and Steven Jackson is coming off a day where managed 19 yards on 10 carries. Sold.

Lightly-owned must-handcuff RBs: Kendall Hunter, RB, San Francisco 49ers (24.3 percent); Ricky Williams, RB, Baltimore Ravens (38.7 percent); Isaac Redman, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers (5.3 percent).

Deeper league finds

Kahlil Bell, RB, Chicago Bears (0.2 percent). Marion Barber won't carry Chicago's backfield load alone. Bell will reportedly be involved as a change-of-pace, third-down and receiving back, perhaps earning one-third of the Bears' backfield touches. Barber figures to be the close-in TD maker (as he was even before Forte got hurt), but Bell could be worth a look in deeper PPR leagues for desperate folks who lost Forte and can't get a waiver claim on Barber.

Matt Moore, QB, Miami Dolphins (5.4 percent). You wouldn't exactly say Moore passes the eye test, because he's asked to do almost nothing in the arch-conservative Dolphins attack. But it's unfair to proclaim that results haven't been there lately for Moore: He has at least 18 fantasy points in three of his past five starts (and 13 in one of the others). For those in two-QB leagues, that's not bad. Of course, Moore hasn't even eclipsed 200 yards passing in five of his nine starts this season, and the main reason his fantasy output looked slightly above average in Week 13 was that he ran for a TD. But the Dolphins get the Eagles, Bills, Patriots and Jets to round out the season; only that final game versus New York looks like a negative matchup for a QB.

[+] EnlargeDemaryius Thomas
Hannah Foslien/Getty ImagesDemaryius Thomas had a career-high 144 yards receiving in the Broncos' comeback win.

Demaryius Thomas, WR, Denver Broncos (1.8 percent). Thomas made a couple of huge plays featuring Brandon Marshall-like runs after the catch in Denver's win in Minnesota last week, and wound up with four grabs for 144 yards and two TDs. This breakout performance was likely made possible by Eddie Royal suffering a concussion on a punt return, but one imagines that after seeing Thomas rumble, the Denver brass will think hard about perhaps getting the second-year WR in the starting lineup on a regular basis. Unfortunately, standard-leaguers can't rely on Tim Tebow's arm enough to use Thomas in their playoffs, to say nothing of Eric Decker also being around. But if you're in a deep league, you might use a bench spot to see if Thomas can repeat this week against the Bears.

Damian Williams, WR, Tennessee Titans (10.2 percent). Nate Washington suffered an ankle injury against the Buffalo Bills in Week 13, but even before he left, it seemed clear who the Titans' No. 1 wideout was. Williams led Tennessee in targets (with seven) and caught four for 62 yards. He's not a burner, but he's quick off the line and seems like he's open on every play. Chris Johnson's resurgence is the big story in Tennessee, and I don't trust Matt Hasselbeck enough to roll Williams out there as a fantasy starter unless circumstances are desperate. But I do think the kid has a bright, bright future.

Golden Tate, WR, Seattle Seahawks (0.2 percent). Tate started the first game of his pro career last Thursday against the Philadelphia Eagles because of Sidney Rice's concussion troubles, and he played well: Four catches for 47 yards and a nice TD grab in the end zone on which he tapped his toes with aplomb. Listen, it's Seattle. It's Tarvaris Jackson. But Tate is finally following through on the promise he showed coming into the league in '10. One hopes this is the start of something good.

T.J. Yates, QB, Houston Texans (0.8 percent). Yates' first start wasn't a disaster. He played OK. The Texans took a few deep shots against the Atlanta Falcons, and Yates showed he's definitely got a major league wing. He also had moments of rookie-ness in the pocket and lost a fumble, and didn't even complete half his throws, but there's no question he was given more to do this week than last. Still, losing Andre Johnson to another hamstring injury hurts; anyone who watched the Texans during AJ's prior six-week absence knows that no pass-catcher really stepped up and played well in Johnson's absence. Yates is a two-QB-league option, but only barely.

Logan Paulsen, TE, Washington Redskins (0.1 percent). I mentioned Fred Davis likely missing the rest of the season because of a substance-abuse violation; Paulsen probably inherits the Skins' starting gig at TE as a result. He's 6-foot-5 and 268 pounds, and as such is a glorified offensive lineman, though he did grab a couple of passes in back-to-back games versus the Dallas Cowboys and Seattle Seahawks late last month. I strongly doubt he's about to become a big part of Mike Shanahan's offensive scheme, but I figured I'd at least note his presence.

Lightly-owned deeper-league handcuff RBs: Bernard Scott, RB, Cincinnati Bengals (7.9 percent); Javon Ringer, RB, Tennessee Titans (4.1 percent); Jason Snelling, RB, Atlanta Falcons (1.8 percent); Lance Ball, RB, Denver Broncos (3.9 percent); Jerious Norwood, RB, St. Louis Rams (0.3 percent).

Christopher Harris is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner. You can ask him questions at www.facebook.com/writerboy. He is also the author of the newly published football novel "Slotback Rhapsody." Get information about this book at www.slotbackrhapsody.com.

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