Alternative Handcuff Strategy: Wide Receivers

Using handcuff strategies at non-running back positions

By now, most fantasy football players are familiar with the term “handcuff” when it comes to drafting running backs. Quite simply, it is the strategy of taking the direct backup to a stud running back or at least one of your intended starters for your weekly fantasy team lineup.

That is not what this article is about.

As fantasy football evolves, the opportunities to create separation from the other teams in your league gets harder and harder to achieve. More information is available than ever, and it seems that the days of a few of your league members showing up on draft day with an old magazine and nothing else to guide them are a distant memory. Everyone seems to have not only multiple strategies to get the best team possible but at least one (sometimes more) sources of information such as ADP, depth charts, and potential sleepers. So how can you get an edge?

Enter alternative (and – dare I say – higher level) strategies on how to build the best teams with the highest potential for success. Allow me to introduce you to alternative handcuffs.

What is an alternative handcuff? First, it has nothing to do with the running back position at all. It is employing similar handcuff thinking to either the wide receiver or the tight end position to not only get quality depth on your roster but also have a higher potential to secure a player who could become not just a spot starter but also a valuable commodity. Securing a “surprise” fantasy starter either strengthens your team with either a better lineup each week or the potential to trade a player for something else your team needs.

Now let’s take a look at the wide receiver position. The best place to begin is right at the top of the ADP list, with the Top 12 wide receivers that are most likely to be the first 12 at the position selected in nearly every fantasy draft this season:

Wide Receiver
DeAndre Hopkins
Michael Thomas
Odell Beckham
Mike Evans
Keenan Allen
Adam Thielen
Amari Cooper

Table 1 – Top 12 Wide Receivers by ADP

Looking closely at this list, we want to identify the handcuffs to these 12 options, if possible. This requires some definition, as backups for wide receivers may be harder to define than for other positions. In this case, we can use the general definition as the next likely receiver to see a big boost in production, playing time or (most preferably) both. That requires going through all 12 depth charts for the teams of the Top 12 receivers and making some educated estimates for what happens should any of these players miss significant action for the coming year. Some of these teams may use a committee approach if their WR1 goes down, so they can be scratched off the list. Other teams have strong WR2 and even WR3 options that are already considered viable fantasy assets, so not much value can be had in targeting the depth chart of these franchises. The goal is to find players that not only represent valuable backups but also players that are worth owning (and can be spot starters) even with the primary (Top 12) wide receivers remain healthy all year long. This narrows the list to the following options:

Green Bay – Marquez Valdes-Scantling (ADPs of 154 PPR, 180 non-PPR), Equanimeous St. Brown (ADP 240+ PPR and non-PPR), Geronimo Allison (123 PPR, 132 non-PPR)

Aaron Rodgers is one of the top quarterbacks in the NFL, and whoever is on the receiving side of his passes usually has good fantasy value. Davante Adams is pushing for the top wide receiver status this year as a result, but what about Rodgers’ throws that are not targeting Adams this season? The starting wide receiver opposite of Adams should have a lot of fantasy value, as Green Bay’s receivers had 383 targets last year (Adams had 169). That is over 200 targets to go around, and Randall Cobb (61 targets in 2018) is now in Dallas. Valdes-Scantling (72), Equanimeous St. Brown (36) and Geronimo Allison (30) split most of the rest, with upstart Jake Kamerow (11) only seeing very limited action. While many are talking about Allison as the likely WR2, “MVS” was getting snaps at the starter WR2 spot in June minicamps. Taking Valdes-Scantling as your fantasy WR5 could mean getting a strong part of the Green Bay Packer passing game at a huge bargain.

Pittsburgh – James Washington (101 PPR, 129 non-PPR), Donte Moncrief (194 PPR, 162 non-PPR)

Washington’s value proposition could begin and end by stating Antonio Brown’s departure to Oakland and the Steelers’ leading the NFL last year in passing attempts at nearly 700 on the season. Should Washington land the WR2 role opposite of JuJu Smith-Schuster, Washington is poised for 100+ targets in the Pittburgh offense, placing his projections squarely in the 65-800-7 range. The passing game for the Steelers has supported two Top 25 wide receivers the past two seasons, peaking last year with two Top 10 WR1s in Brown and Smith-Schuster. Now the Steelers are looking for that new WR2 to step up and perform, which leaves the door wide open for Washington to step through in his second year with the team. As for Moncrief, this is another chance for him to return to a productive level. Back in 2015, Moncrief had a respectable WR3-type season (64-733-6) with the Colts, but two years of injuries marred 2016 and 2017 campaigns. Moncrief gave it a go in Jacksonville last year, and that was another letdown year. Now he has an opportunity to contribute as either the second or third wide receiver option for a Steelers team that led the league in pass attempts last season. The downside risk is low for both players, and there is plenty of headroom for one or both to have productive campaigns.

Atlanta – Mohamed Sanu (181 PPR, 190 non-PPR)

The perception of Atlanta’s offense is one of a balanced formation and attack, with typically two wide receivers, one tight end and at least one running back on the field at all times. While the Falcons were below the NFL norm for “11 personnel” (three wide receivers, one tight end and one back) at just 60% of their plays (league average is 66%), the play counts for each wide receiver are where the details really explain how each player is used by Atlanta. The Falcons have three top options – Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley and Mohamed Sanu. While the casual assessment is that Jones is on the field nearly all the time and Ridley is close to that number, the actual stats show otherwise. Matt Ryan sets the bar with 1,048 snaps last season, while Julio Jones only played 818 snaps, with Ridley on the field for just 645 plays. The leader of the group was actually Sanu with 829 snaps, just a hair more than Jones. All of this points to how Atlanta keeps all three receivers involved in the offense, as shown by Atlanta’s Top 3 ranking of team targets to their WR3 (Sanu, 15.2%) along with 22 of the 35 passing touchdowns from Matt Ryan all landing in the capable hands of these three top options. Sanu is much more than an afterthought and injury replacement for Jones or Ridley, plus Sanu is sometimes used as the gimmick quarterback in some formations. Sanu represents tremendous value and upside in the late rounds of fantasy drafts this year.

Indianapolis – Devin Funchess (135 PPR, 143 non-PPR), Parris Campbell (141 PPR, 152 non-PPR)

Andrew Luck bounced back from a horrible 2017 (shoulder, did not play) to a tremendous performance last season that was only overshadowed by the amazing numbers Patrick Mahomes II put up in 2018. Luck

Last year the WR2 spot was a big disappointment for the Colts, as no receiver topped 500 yards and just Chester Rogers had over 50 receptions (just barely, 53 catches). The touchdowns were also lackluster, as one might expect with limited catches and yards – only Rogers (two), Zach Pascal (two) and Dontrelle Inman (three) joined T.Y. Hilton (six) in visiting the end zone more than once as an Indianapolis receiver. Going back before Luck’s injury, both 2016 and 2015 also had limited contributors after Hilton, with Donte Moncrief defaulting to the WR2 role both seasons. Only once over that span (2015) did Moncrief reach a realistic fantasy relevance level, posting a 64-733-6 season and finishing as a borderline fantasy WR3 option. All that said, the expectations are high for the Colts’ offense this year with Luck projected as a consensus Top 4 quarterback across the board. The opportunity is here for a Colts receiver to establish themselves opposite of Hilton to round out a balanced passing game. Should Funchess step up as the clear WR2 or if Campbell can clearly pass Funchess on the depth chart, the upside is here for one of them to become a strong WR3 option with upside.

There is one other player to truly consider for a wide receiver handcuff – Josh Reynolds of the Los Angeles Rams. Right now Reynolds’ ADP is greater than 240 and he is expected to go undrafted in even the deepest of fantasy leagues. The proposal here is that this is a mistake. No team in the NFL uses 11-personnel (3 wide receivers, one tight end and one running back) more than the Rams. In 2018, three wideouts were on the field for Los Angeles over 90% of the offensive plays – more than 10% more than any other team. The result of this personnel grouping and a high-octane offense made Brandin Cooks, Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp fantasy starters every week for the first half of 2018. When Kupp went down, Reynolds stepped right in as the fourth wideout, playing over 60 snaps in five of the last six regular-season games and seeing five or more targets in five of those same six contests. Quite simply, no other NFL player is the understudy for not one, not two but three Top 50 players on the ADP list. Reynolds will be a hot waiver wire player if anything happens to a starting Rams’ wide receiver, so he makes for a low risk, high upside late round pick.

Applying Alternative Handcuff Strategy for Wide Receivers

There are a few ways to take advantage of alternative handcuffs at the wide receiver position this year. Here are three approaches, along with a preferred path to success:

Strategy #1:

  1. Handcuff Davante Adams with Marquez Valdes-Scantling (ADPs of 154 PPR, 180 non-PPR)
  2. Handcuff Julio Jones with Mohamed Sanu (181 / 190)
  3. Handcuff JuJu Smith-Schuster with James Washington (101 PPR, 129 non-PPR)
  4. Handcuff T.Y. Hilton with Devin Funchess (135/143)

Drafting Adams, Jones, Smith-Schuster or T.Y. Hilton means that you are investing in a Top 12 wide receiver, which is great if you can get them at a value, but also understand that there is a huge opportunity cost if your WR1 gets injured and that you do not own his direct backup. Unfortunately, none of the above handcuffs are direct, drop-in replacements in their offenses, nor would they be expected to get anywhere close to the level of the production of the primary option (hence their respective roles on the depth charts). This strategy looks dead in the water.

Strategy #2 (Preferred) – Unless Adams, Julio Jones, Smith-Schuster or Hilton fall into your lap, the better plan is to draft from the rest of the Top 12 wide receiver list and then target these handcuff groups to round out the depth of your fantasy team. Targeting the WR2 or WR3 on these four teams with the players listed above affords you to not miss out on Top 12 wide receiver talent but to also take very high upside options in the back half of your draft. After you have 3-4 established wideouts on your roster, taking a secondary option on a high-octane offense gives you exposure to strong passing games on the cheap.

The recommended approach for a pair of receivers (such as Indianapolis’ Funchess and Campbell or Pittsburgh’s Washington and Moncrief) is to skip the WR1 (Hilton and Smith-Schuster, respectively) and pick up both candidates for the WR2 role. Not only does this strategy give you exposure to that same offense, but offers up great upside on the cheap. While it does give you two players that will have the same weekly matchup and bye week, this affirms the combined strategy of skipping over the WR1 for those same reasons. Lastly, if either of the two receivers emerges as a top-notch WR2, the loser of the starting role battle can be one of your first players cut during the season to pick up other values or to cover a kicker or defense for a bye week.

Strategy #3 (Also Preferred) – Two players here are not only clear backups but also strong depth options. Mohamed Sanu should be on the radar for both teams that drafted Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley, so keep that in mind as the draft unfolds. Similar logic applies to Josh Reynolds and the starting three wide receivers for the Rams. The difference with Reynolds is that he is projected to go undrafted, so the recommendations for both Sanu and Reynolds are as follows:

Mohamed Sanu strategy – Take him at least one round early (Rounds 13-14), and be mindful of the Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley owners who may want Sanu as insurance.

Josh Reynolds – If you plan on having seven or more wide receivers, Reynolds is a great player to stash on your team. If you also have any of Brandin Cooks, Robert Woods, or Cooper Kupp as one of your first six receivers, absolutely take Reynolds. Waiting until the final round of your draft (assuming your draft is 20 rounds or fewer) is a viable option, but what if someone else has the same idea? Take Reynolds a round or two before then if you want some insurance against injuries to your Rams receiver and then just take your kicker in the final round.

Best of luck this season!

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