Fantasy owners everywhere will be holding their breath until Monday, the day we'll learn more about the status of No. 2 consensus preseason draft pick and No. 7 overall fantasy scorer (entering Week 12) Adrian Peterson.
Peterson injured his ankle on a one-yard run early in the second quarter Sunday, and despite early indications that he'd be able to return to action, including his working out on the sidelines early in the second half in uniform, he was unable to finish the game. He finished with six carries for 36 yards and a touchdown and one catch for 34 yards, totaling 12 fantasy points. Minnesota Vikings coach Leslie Frazier told the Minneapolis Star Tribune afterward that Peterson will be re-evaluated Monday; Peterson also told 1500ESPN.com in Minneapolis that his ankle "started throbbing" after he injured it, preventing his return.
That'll send everyone scrambling to the waiver wire, looking to scoop up Peterson's primary backup, rookie Toby Gerhart. The rookie from Stanford had a workmanlike effort in relief of Peterson, rushing 22 times for 76 yards and a touchdown and adding two catches for five yards, good for a team-leading 13 fantasy points. Considering the obvious risks with ankle injuries -- high ankle sprains are typically multiple-week injuries, though that's only the worst-case scenario here, so don't panic -- Gerhart is well worth the speculative pickup in the 96.8 percent of ESPN leagues in which he remains available.
But it brings up an important topic at this stage of the fantasy season: How mandatory a strategy is handcuffing your stud running backs?
Unfortunately, there isn't a cut-and-dry answer to that, but instances like this elicit an immediate "yes" from practically everyone. Fantasy owners can be a reactionary bunch, constantly justifying (and criticizing) decisions with the benefit of hindsight, and many of us still have memories of that 2004 season, in which Kansas City Chiefs running backs Priest Holmes and Larry Johnson represented one of the most valuable handcuff combinations in fantasy history. Handcuffing is a strategy that appeases the risk-averse; if you're uncomfortable with the thought of losing a critical player on your roster -- as in this example with Peterson -- and have the bench room to do it, by all means, ease your mind.
But I'm of the belief that you populate your bench with the most valuable, most immediately helpful, players in the waning weeks of the season. For instance, you could've handcuffed Gerhart to Peterson two weeks ago and today you'd look brilliant. At the same time, Peterson's injury was fluky, Gerhart might never had been needed, and if you picked him up and ignored, say, a Mike Goodson, I think you'd be looking pretty foolish. So in other words, build depth, though in a few examples there are handcuffs who I'd give serious consideration to right now:
Gerhart (to Peterson): Again, it's easy to say he's a smart handcuff today, but even what little we've seen of him the past several weeks was enough to justify him being owned in more leagues. He's an underrated pass-catcher, he has good secondary speed, the starter ahead of him is one of the most valuable assets in all of fantasy, and his offense cannot survive merely passing the ball. At the same time, Gerhart isn't Peterson. To me, the expectations if he's the Week 13 starter should be similar to Goodson's when the latter started.
Javon Ringer (to Chris Johnson): I'm not a huge Ringer fan, but at the same time, Johnson is about as special a talent in fantasy as Peterson. A point in Ringer's favor: Opponents might be stacking the box against Johnson now, but I bet they wouldn't with Ringer in the backfield. Plus, he's deceptively quick and can catch passes.
Jason Snelling (to Michael Turner): Just turn the page back to 2009 and you'll understand why. Turner is one of the hottest running backs in the league, but his injury history is a tad sketchier than your average back's. Then again, check Snelling's injury, detailed in the "Injury report" section below.
Michael Bush (to Darren McFadden): Given a chance, Bush might very well come close to McFadden's level of production. In his past seven games in which he had double-digit carries, Bush has averaged 4.6 yards per carry with three scores.
Jerome Harrison (to LeSean McCoy): Remember, part of the reason Harrison lost his job to Peyton Hillis in Cleveland was a result of his own injuries; Harrison did look good in relief of McCoy in Week 10, and I still think he'd be a capable enough fantasy option in a starting role.
Willis McGahee (to Ray Rice): Another player of whom I'm not a huge fan, but McGahee has performed respectably well when given chances this season, including four rushing scores, many of them "vultured" from the starter.
And that's it, at least among mandatory handcuffs. Again, no cut-and-dry answer to this question, but in a standard ESPN league, I see better roster-worthy options to just about every other true "handcuff" candidate.
Peyton Hillis managed the sixth-best fantasy point total of any individual player this season with 37 points, trailing only Michael Vick's 49 in Week 10, Darren McFadden's 43 in Week 7, Arian Foster's 41 in Week 1, Jahvid Best's 40 in Week 2 and Kenny Britt's 40 in Week 7, and he did it despite the Cleveland Browns' questionable decision to start Jake Delhomme at quarterback. If you watched the game, you might have noticed how the Browns seemed to do everything in their power to avoid handing the ball to Hillis in the red zone during their first drive. Fortunately they wised up, he broke off a nine-yard touchdown run then polished off two of their next three drives with five- and six-yard touchdown runs.
While Hillis was held out of the end zone after halftime, he remained a beast in the passing game, catching six of his eight targets for 63 yards, and he finished with 20-plus touches for the fourth consecutive week since the bye, averaging 28.5 touches during that span. That's a tad disconcerting workload -- though his season pace of 356 is manageable -- but Hillis should be capable of handling it, and he's effectively matchup-proof despite some challenging late-season assignments.
Week 12 observations
• It's easy to condemn Tennessee Titans rookie Rusty Smith for what was a particularly poor outing against a weak Houston Texans secondary (17-for-31 passing, 138 yards, 0 touchdowns, 3 interceptions), but it's the impact on Chris Johnson's numbers (seven carries for five yards) that was most disconcerting. If the Texans flummoxed Smith, imagine what better defensive opponents might do? They'd stack the box to shut down Johnson at every opportunity, leading to more games in which the team finds itself inescapably behind early. But there's hope: Kerry Collins (calf) was active as Smith's backup this week, a sign that he might be ready to take first-team snaps during practice and start in Week 13. That doesn't make Collins himself a fantasy option against the comparably weak Jaguars secondary, but it should give Johnson a fighting chance at returning to his former elite numbers.
• The New York Giants remained true to their word, giving Brandon Jacobs the start, the most carries (14) and the most touches (14) of their running backs, but a closer inspection of the game shows that Ahmad Bradshaw deserves to earn the starting job back come Week 13. A huge plus for Bradshaw: He didn't fumble. Another plus: The Giants gave Bradshaw both of their goal-line carries (counting his fourth-quarter two-point conversion), bucking traditional wisdom that Jacobs is their goal-line back. Jacobs' presence keeps Bradshaw outside the top 10 fantasy running backs, but not that far outside it.
• Keep tabs on the news surrounding Andre Johnson after both he and Titans cornerback Cortland Finnegan were ejected for fighting during the fourth quarter of Sunday's game. Though Johnson should have pleased his owners enough with nine receptions on 11 targets for 56 yards and a touchdown (11 fantasy points) before leaving, there's always the possibility of a one-game suspension for his actions. Remember, Johnson's Texans face the Philadelphia Eagles on Thursday, meaning a short week coming off a game in which star Eagles cornerback Asante Samuel (knee) was inactive. That's a potentially juicy matchup he might miss.
• After beginning the season on a tremendously sour note, Dwayne Bowe has rebounded in a massive way, earning certain top-10 fantasy status with an astonishing seven-game stretch during which he has 13 touchdowns and 148 fantasy points. It's quite the breakthrough for the wideout, who battled off-the-field issues and on-field inconsistency up to that point. What's more, Bowe's performance is actually pulling up the fantasy value of his quarterback, Matt Cassel, who previously wasn't making nearly enough throws to warrant a roster spot, let alone starter status. Cassel has 18 touchdowns compared to one interception in his past seven games, totaling 135 fantasy points during that span.
• Speaking of quarterbacks on the rise, Chad Henne likely will jump a few spots in my Tuesday rankings following an impressive return performance after missing Week 11 because of a knee injury. Despite the absence of Brandon Marshall (hamstring), Henne threw for 307 yards and two scores against the Oakland Raiders, good for 18 fantasy points. I'm still skeptical of his accuracy -- he was just 17-for-30 passing and had an interception, and had been very erratic before getting hurt -- but there are some matchups remaining on his schedule (CLE, BUF and DET in Weeks 13, 15 and 16, respectively) that could make him a high-No. 2 fantasy quarterback.
• I'll stick with the quarterback theme: Sam Bradford completed 22 of 37 throws for 308 yards and three scores, setting a new personal best with 24 fantasy points. While part of it was the favorable matchup against the Denver Broncos, it shouldn't be ignored that he has 11 touchdowns compared to just one interception in his past six games. He's quickly developing into one of the more underrated quarterbacks in the game, a possible weekly two-quarterback-league option the remainder of the season and a prime keeper-league prospect. (Yes, I know, I keep singing his praises.)
• While Steve Johnson's five drops on Sunday shouldn't go ignored, don't get too down on him. He was still the team's most-targeted option (15), and he led the team in receptions (seven), and most notably, he dominated Lee Evans, who was seven and one in both of those categories. Johnson's game-killing drop in overtime might cost him a few looks in coming matchups, but Ryan Fitzpatrick still trusts him like no one else on the roster.
For the latest injury updates, check back for Stephania Bell's analysis throughout the week and keep tabs on the Monday news conferences.
• Zach Miller (foot): It has been a frustrating recent stretch for the Raiders tight end, as Miller aggravated his foot injury, departing early in Week 12 with recurring soreness in the arch of his foot. It's a significant setback, considering he missed a game (Week 9) earlier in the year with the injury, and has been a total non-factor in the past three in which he played (four catches total in Weeks 8, 11 and 12). Should this send Miller back to the sidelines for additional time, Brandon Myers would likely take over his position, though fantasy owners should look to another team for a plug-in at tight end.
• David Garrard (wrist): He sustained a wrist injury when he was sacked by the New York Giants' Antrel Rolle and Justin Tuck late in the fourth quarter, according to the Jacksonville Jaguars' official website. Postgame X-ray results weren't immediately known. "Probably just a sprain. I can't move it much," Garrard said. Should Garrard be unable to suit up for Week 13, Trent Edwards would probably earn the start, though Todd Bouman also lingers as an alternative.
• Jason Snelling (hamstring): As mentioned earlier, Snelling was injured during Week 12, removed early in the fourth quarter because of a hamstring issue. It's unclear how significant the injury is, but keep tabs on it during the week, as handcuff options aren't typically worth keeping stashed during weeks they're expected to be inactive. A healthy Snelling is well worth owning if you're a Michael Turner owner, as outlined above, however.
• Michael Hoomanawanui (ankle): He left in the second quarter because of an ankle sprain, though early indications were that it's not to the ankle he injured earlier in the year. Still, it's a frustrating development for the up-and-comer, as he suffered the injury on his 36-yard touchdown reception. Hoomanawanui might have been an intriguing pickup in deeper leagues this week, but he'd need a clean bill of health before being worth the roster spot.