Should You Handcuff Your Running Backs?
Everyone who has played fantasy football has heard, at some point, that you should always handcuff your star running backs. If you subscribe to this theory, and you happen to lose a stud to injury, then the production you lost could be replaced by the backup. So should you follow the handcuff theory?
These are the season-ending RB injuries of “starters” the last three years:
2017 - David Johnson, Dalvin Cook
2016 - Adrian Peterson, CJ Anderson, Eddie Lacy
2015 - Mark Ingram, Chris Johnson, Justin Forsett, Le’Veon Bell, Arian Foster, Jamaal Charles
With the exception of Le’Veon Bell/DeAngelo Williams and Chris Johnson/David Johnson in 2015, and Dalvin Cook/Latavius Murray/Jerick McKinnon in 2017, there have been no significant handcuffs in the last three years. Chris Johnson had very low expectations in 2015, and his ADP was lower than 150, so that doesn’t really count as a handcuff opportunity. The 2017 Minnesota Vikings had two fantasy-relevant players when sensational rookie Dalvin Cook went down in McKinnon and Murray. McKinnon finished 17th in the RB rankings while Murray finished 26th. Both were relevant, but the workload was very inconsistent week-to-week for the tandem. The team usually goes to a RBBC (Running-Back-By-Committee) if a star gets injured, which could lead to no fantasy relevant players. The only true permanent handcuff situation of the last three seasons was Bell and Williams in 2015, where Williams finished 6th overall and, if you had him, likely helped win you a title.
In truth, there are very few situations where handcuffing actually makes sense for your roster. When a RB goes down with a season-ending injury, the backup is usually not good enough to handle the full duties on his own, so when is it worth it? Let's examine this through the lens of dynasty and redraft formats.
Every year as I’m prepping for my redraft leagues, I always come across the conundrum of whether or not I should handcuff my stud RB picks. I tend to go RB-heavy at the start of my drafts every year, and have been burned multiple times by injuries, general disappointments, etc. So, how should you decide whether or not to handcuff your top pick? As discussed earlier, there has been one handcuff instance in the last 3 years that would have paid dividends for you.
Before I go further, I want to clarify what is not considered to be a handcuff. Players that have very different roles, such as an early-down bruiser (ex: Derrick Henry/Jordan Howard) and a third-down scat-back (ex: Dion Lewis/Tarik Cohen). These players have standalone value and very clearly defined roles. If one happened to get injured, the other's value would increase, but they likely can’t expand too far beyond their roles. There is also a difference between a true handcuff, and a backfield that is muddy and still has no clear starter (ex: Colts, Browns, Packers).
In a moment, I'll highlight true handcuffs, but I think Jordan Wilkins, Nick Chubb, D’Onta Foreman, or any of the three Packers RBs are legit sleepers who could help your team. Ty Montgomery, Aaron Jones, and Jamaal Williams are all being drafted around the 9th round or later, are in a timeshare, and have a real chance to take the reins and be a breakout star. The 49ers and Falcons are in unique situations because both RBs should be fantasy viable and neither would be considered a true handcuff. Kyle Shanahan recently left the Falcons and is currently with the 49ers, so his coaching style is rubbing off on both teams. Devonta Freeman/Tevin Coleman and Jerick McKinnon/Matt Breida are very similar players with similar skillsets that can have standalone value, but if any of those RBs go down with an injury, then the other's value does exponentially increase.
In the average league, your roster likely has only 14-16 roster spots. With this small of a roster, handcuffing your RB is almost wasting a roster spot that you could use on a higher-upside guy. If you are in a small league with limited roster spots, then don’t worry about handcuffing. Take the highest upside possible and always shift the end of your bench on the waiver wire. This is the advice you’ll get from most experts, but if your league is 12 teams or larger, and your roster is above average size, then handcuffing can be valuable. These are the 6 fantasy backfields that I think could have breakout potential in the event of injury.
Leonard Fournette has had chronic ankle issues and if he were to go down, then TJ Yeldon would handle all pass catching duties as well as likely splitting carries.
Spencer Ware has proven to be a more than capable back in his time in the NFL. If Kareem Hunt were to ever go down, Ware finished as the RB17 in standard scoring in 2016, and could replicate that again.
Todd Gurley hasn’t been the healthiest player in his career, and no one would expect John Kelly to replicate his numbers. But Kelly was a nice prospect out of Tennessee with a violent running style who could breakout if given the chance in the Rams electric offense.
Latavius Murray finished as the RB25 last year when Cook went down, with McKinnon also stealing some of his touches. Cook is a risky pick in the 2nd round, and Murray is being drafted in the 12th. If Cook were to go down again, Murray is a nice value.
Jay Ajayi has a long injury history, and if he were to get hurt, Corey Clement would likely take the majority of the work. This backfield is hard to predict if all are healthy, but Clement would be valuable if Ajayi were out of the picture.
Le’Veon Bell has had his share of problems with injuries and suspensions, and DeAngelo Williams proved that his handcuff can be fantasy viable with a RB6 finish a few years ago. James Connor has the skillset to do something similar if given the chance.
There are very few situations that using a handcuff can be valuable. Almost every fantasy expert will tell you to never handcuff your backs, and the casual advice is to always handcuff your back, so which is true? The answer could be somewhere in between. If you have a deep roster, or 12+ teams in your league, then I think it would be smart to grab the handcuff to one of the backs listed above. My advice is to take all the shots you can later in the draft on high-upside guys and backs in crowded backfields, but in a smaller league, handcuffing is almost always a waste of a roster spot.
In dynasty leagues, your roster is usually much deeper than in the average redraft league. Those of you who play dynasty are typically a bit more hardcore and utilize a much deeper roster, so this is where handcuffs come into play more often. Handcuffs usually only last a few years in the same situation, so I don’t recommend overpaying to get your guy. If you are in trade negotiations with an owner, trying to acquire your star’s handcuff as a "throw in" can often be a cheap option. All the analysis I went through above in the redraft section still is true for dynasty formats, because handcuffs are almost always going to be the last few spots on your bench.
Having your handcuff can be like an insurance policy on your running back, but don't foolishly hold onto him if there is a higher upside guy on your waiver wire.
Dynasty and Redraft Specialist