Ladd Biro | Preparing for the stretch run

Week 10 marks a welcome end to the much-reviled NFL bye schedule. Much like the sense of relief Lindsay Lohan experiences each time the authorities remove her ankle bracelet, fantasy owners can relax knowing they no longer must prepare for battle with one or more star players taking mid-season siestas.

Now that the bye weeks are history, this is an excellent time to give your roster a thorough checkup to be certain you are best prepared for the stretch run. The most important strategic move you can make this week is to release any lingering dead weight from excess kickers, defenses and even tight ends. There’s little justification for carrying more than one at each position any longer. You’re much better served by stocking your bench with fresh legs that can be instrumental in a title run.

At the top of your shopping list should be the understudy to your primary running back, if you haven’t already grabbed him. I’m not referring to widely owned sidekicks like Shonn Greene, Ricky Williams, Thomas Jones and Michael Bush, each of whom was typically drafted in August and has been good for an occasional start.

Rather, some of the most important backups in the game are flying well below the radar and are still available in the vast majority of leagues. One or more of these unheralded ball carriers will undoubtedly be thrust into the limelight during the upcoming fantasy playoffs thanks to an untimely, yet inevitable, injury to a star runner.

As sure as the next Lohan relapse, it’s going to happen. Shrewd owners will put their contingency plans in place now. Remember how Jamaal Charles, Jerome Harrison and Arian Foster emerged in late 2009 to lead their owners to playoff glory?

Consider Mewelde Moore, who combined for 93 yards rushing and receiving in Sunday night’s matchup. Moore gets little fantasy love as Rashard Mendenhall’s backup, yet he could be invaluable if the starter suffers an injury. Moore already offers marginal value as Pittsburgh’s third-down specialist thanks to his superior receiving skills. His stock will skyrocket if he suddenly finds himself in the starting role.

Heaven forbid Chris Johnson gets hurt; but CJ2K’s owners should do more than pray for his health. Hedging your bets with Javon Ringer is a much more prudent approach.

Michael Turner’s owners need not speculate what Jason Snelling might do if given a chance to start, as the backup’s 186-combined-yard, three-touchdown effort in Week 2 so vividly illustrated. Why wait for lightning to strike twice? Wouldn’t Snelling offer much more peace-of-mind than a second kicker?

Other must-own handcuffs to elite starters include Toby Gerhart (for Adrian Peterson’s owners), Derrick Ward (for Foster), Rashad Jennings (for Maurice Jones-Drew), Kenneth Darby (for Steven Jackson), Mike Bell (for Peyton Hillis) and Brian Westbrook (for Frank Gore).

Chester Taylor should also be scooped up by all Matt Forte owners, given the backup’s steadily increasing workload. In fact, Taylor could soon emerge as the preferred play even if Forte remains healthy, given the starter’s recent struggles.

Don’t play running back roulette. Take the necessary steps now to avoid the waiver-wire frenzy that will occur should your lead horse pull up lame at the worst possible time.

Free agent picks and pans

To win a fantasy championship, you need to start with a good draft. But filling in your roster throughout the season with the right free agents can also make a big difference. Here’s a look at a few players worth considering, and others who would look better in someone else’s line-up.

Catch ‘em while you can

Mike Goodson, RB, Panthers. It’s hard to believe that the first 100-yard rushing performance for a Panther was posted by the fourth-string back. But anything’s possible when you face one of the worst run defenses in the league. While any starting tailback merits a roster spot, Goodson’s clock is ticking. His value will plummet once DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart or even Tyrell Sutton returns to the field.

Mario Manningham, WR, Giants. Steve Smith’s pectoral injury occurred too late in the week for many to grab Manningham, who excelled as expected against the Cowboys in Smith’s absence. With Smith very likely to miss another game, and Ramses Barden lost for the season with foot and ankle injuries, Manningham – who is available in roughly a third of all leagues – should have another stellar outing in Week 11.

Rob Gronkowski, TE, Patriots. Aaron Hernandez was supposed to be the better receiver of New England’s rookie tight ends, but Gronkowski put that theory to the test with his three-touchdown masterpiece on Sunday night. While this was likely a one-of-a-kind performance, Gronkowski has found pay dirt in three previous games this season. You have to assume he’s earned a few more looks from Tom Brady going forward.

Don’t be fooled

Tyler Thigpen, QB, Dolphins. The last passer standing in Miami, Thigpen is the presumed starter for at least Thursday’s game now that both Chad Henne and Chad Pennington are likely to miss the remainder of the season. Thigpen had some shining moments two years ago as a Chief, but there’s a reason he’s no longer in Kansas City (and was a third-stringer until yesterday). The Dolphins will surely bring in a veteran backup this week, so Thigpen’s leash will be short.

C.J. Spiller, RB, Bills. A hamstring injury will cost the rookie at least one game, and perhaps many more. Given Spiller’s poor regular season performances thus far – following a spectacular, and apparently misleading, preseason – there’s little reason to think he’ll contribute anything more than continued frustration down the stretch run.

Kevin Walter, WR, Texans. It would be nice if the Texans recognized that their passing attack works better with Walter, who found the end zone for the first time since Week 3. But when his big day comes against the woeful Jaguars secondary, and on the heels of three consecutive goose eggs, it’s more likely this was just a one-week aberration.

Mike Nugent, K, Bengals. The latest in an unusually long list of felled kickers, Nugent is out for the season with a severe knee injury. If he’s your man, it’s time to go shopping. No word yet on whom Cincinnati will sign in his stead.