Drafting Situational RBs vs. Handcuffs (Fantasy Football)
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As requested by one of my long-time Twitter followers @1dafulgemini, this article will be covering the topic of drafting situational running backs versus handcuffs. Of course, the answer to that question will vary from player-to-player, but from a basic standpoint, I tend to lean towards upside rather than playing it safe. For this reason, I will usually go with a situational running back over a handcuff option who won’t make an impact unless there is an injury to a starter.
There are several reasons for this:
- There are zero guarantees that your handcuff will come in and perform as well as the starter.
- In today’s NFL, teams will often turn to a running back by committee approach, which makes it hard to choose a handcuff and also limits their upside.
- Unless your starter gets injured in the first couple of weeks, the likelihood of you having space on your roster to hold a handcuff will diminish every week. This makes your pick a bit of a waste when it could have been used for a sleeper that could have put your team over the top.
Now, I’m not totally against the idea of handcuffing certain starters. However, the determining factor will be where I have to take them in the draft. There is no way I would ever handcuff DeMarco Murray with Derrick Henry. Why? Because using two of your top six picks on running backs from the same team will severely hurt your roster. You will be lacking quality at key positions including running back because let’s face it, how often are you going to start two backs from the same team? That would be tremendously limiting your upside every week.
The next part of this topic is understanding what situational backs are. There are no right or wrong answers, but for me a situational back is one with a clear, defined role but they are not starters and aren’t necessarily built to take on a heavy workload. Let’s take a closer look at my top situational running backs to target, but before we do please note that all ADPs (Average Draft Position) are taken from our data gathered here at FantasyPros and are based on PPR scoring formats.
Top Five Situational Backs to Target
#1) Danny Woodhead (BAL): Current ADP = 29th RB/76th Overall
Much like throughout his career, Woodhead is being undervalued and slept on by many. Part of the reason is that he is 32 years old and let’s face it, 30 is considered old in the NFL. On top of being “old,” he is also coming off a torn ACL that cut his 2016 season short to just three games.
Despite the injury history and age, Woodhead claims to be good to go with no limitations. Just two seasons ago he compiled 80 receptions and finished third in fantasy points at the running back position in PPR formats. Kenneth Dixon will be the starter, but the Ravens will use Woodhead early and often as their receiving and third down back.
#2) Theo Riddick (DET): Current ADP = 34th RB/86th Overall
Despite only playing 10 games last season, Riddick still managed to haul in 50+ receptions for the second season in a row, while adding six total touchdowns and 728 all-purpose yards. Project those numbers over a 16-game season, and he would have finished with 80 receptions, over 1,100 all-purpose yards, and 10 touchdowns. Not too shabby for someone you can grab in the seventh or eighth round of your draft.
If Ameer Abdullah can stay healthy, Riddick will likely see a decline in his total touches and rush attempts per game. However, he is easily one of the top receiving backs in the NFL, and he should be considered a near lock to haul in at least 50 receptions for the third consecutive season.
#3) C.J. Prosise (SEA): Current ADP = 37th RB/96th Overall
The Seahawks added Eddie Lacy in free agency and also have Thomas Rawls in the mix, but neither of those guys is going to exploit matchups versus linebackers like C.J. Prosise will. The second year back out of Notre Dame is a matchup nightmare, and he is sure to be the Seahawks back on passing downs.
He is a great value pick in the eighth or ninth round of PPR drafts, and don’t be surprised if he is a regular flex starter in your league as the season wears on. Prosise’s rookie season was cut short due to injury, but he showed flashes of what he can do with his big-play ability, and it excites me far more than Eddie Lacy and Thomas Rawls.
#4) James White (NE): Current ADP = 41st RB/115th Overall
The Patriots once again have a crowded backfield with the addition of Mike Gillislee to replace LeGarrette Blount and with Dion Lewis still in the mix. Expect Gillislee to see the bulk of the carries, but James White has earned his role as the receiving back in New England, coming off his best season yet.
The 25-year-old recorded 60 receptions for 551 yards and five touchdowns in 2016, and perhaps most importantly played a critical role in the Super Bowl comeback where he caught 14 passes for 110 yards and one touchdown. He is a tremendous steal in the tenth round of PPR formats.
#5) Darren Sproles (PHI): Current ADP = 51st RB/150th Overall
At 34-years-old, this selection is the one I am least confident about out of the five. However, there is also minimal risk as he can be had for a 13th round selection. There is no doubt that the Eagles brought in LeGarrette Blount to be the thumper and the workhorse but that does not affect Darren Sproles’ role.
In fact, you could say the two compliment each other nicely, as Sproles is the clear go-to guy in passing down situations. With eight straight 40-plus reception seasons and seven of those eight being 50-plus reception seasons, how can you not drool at the value here in the later rounds of your draft? Another interesting tidbit is that the seasoned veteran had his best statistical rushing season in the past five years with 438 yards on the ground and a very impressive 4.7 yards per carry.
Top Five Players to Handcuff
As I mentioned earlier, I often tend to shy away from handcuffs, particularly in the earlier rounds of drafting. Having said that, I’m all for handcuffing select starters if you can pull it off later in your draft. Here are five running backs I would consider handcuffing come draft day, along with the recommended handcuff.
#1) Carlos Hyde (SF) –> Joe Williams
Hyde was one of the few bright spots for the 2-14 49ers last season, but there are some key reasons why you should be handcuffing him with rookie running back, Joe Williams. Hyde is on the last year of his contract, and many are questioning if he fits into Kyle Shanahan’s offense. There were reports of him struggling in OTAs and perhaps most shocking were the rumors of him being shopped around or even cut. Enter rookie Joe Williams, who was drafted in the fourth round of the 2017 NFL Draft by the 49ers as he was coveted and hand-picked by offensive guru and head coach Kyle Shanahan.
It’s quite clear that he fits the offensive scheme better than Hyde, and many believe he has a decent shot at stealing the starting job at some point during the season. He may not have to “steal” it, as Hyde has continuously struggled to stay healthy and is yet to play a full 16-game season in his three-year career. It is definitely worth the insurance in the 13th round or so if you do go with Carlos Hyde as your starter.
#2) Ty Montgomery (GB) –> Jamaal Williams
Even though his numbers were quite impressive in limited action, I have my doubts about Montgomery’s transition from a wide receiver to running back. With just 80 carries to his name in the NFL, does he have the experience and frame to withstand a 16-game season as a workhorse? My belief is no, and that is where Green Bay’s 2017 fourth round selection,
Jamaal Williams comes in. Williams broke all sorts of records at BYU, and his physical running style suits the NFL game a little more than Montgomery’s, especially as a starter or every down back. The two could pack (no pun intended) a nice one-two punch for Green Bay, but I see Montgomery as more of a change of pace/receiving back than I do as a starter. Nevertheless, it would be wise to handcuff Montgomery with Jamaal Williams in the 12th round come draft day.
#3) Spencer Ware (KC) –> Kareem Hunt
Around this time last season, Spencer Ware was rapidly climbing up draft boards. This time around it is quite the opposite. Over the course of the last month, Ware’s ADP has dropped nearly one round according to FantasyFootballCalculator.com.
Despite taking over as the lead back last season, Ware failed to seize the opportunity; he let it slip, as Eminem would say. His yards per carry dropped by 1.3 from 2015, and his touchdown production dipped from six to three despite rushing the ball 142 more times.
The 2017 Draft selection of running back Kareem Hunt suggests that Spencer Ware may be on a short leash heading into the season, and reports are already surfacing about Hunt impressing at OTAs. This is a situation to monitor moving forward, but as of right now Hunt would be worth grabbing as insurance to Ware at around the ninth round.
#4) LeSean McCoy (BUF) –> Jonathan Williams
This situation is a bit different than the above. LeSean McCoy is in no danger of losing his starting role in Buffalo, as he has established himself as one of the best backs in the NFL. Even though he has never missed more than four games in a season,
McCoy has also only played three full 16-game seasons in his eight-year career. Williams is an appealing handcuff because he will likely only cost you a fourteenth round selection or so.
#5) Ezekiel Elliott (DAL) -> Darren McFadden
Again, Elliott probably has the most job security of any back in the league, but this is simply a case of handcuffing your best player and top pick with a very cheap option in the last couple of rounds. The Cowboys have the best offensive line unit in the league, and while McFadden wouldn’t produce like Elliott does, he could still slide into your starting lineup if Elliott is forced to miss a couple of games. McFadden will likely be undrafted in most leagues; I would only recommend selecting him as a handcuff in deeper leagues.
Five Running Backs to Avoid Handcuffing
#1) DeMarco Murray (TEN)
The Tennessee Titans boast one of the top running back duos in the NFL with Murray and Derrick Henry. They are nice options to target as they could produce quality numbers if both were starting. However, do not target BOTH on your team. It would be a poor strategy to use two early picks on running backs from the same team.
Right now Murray’s ADP is around the early second round, and Derrick Henry is somewhere in the sixth-seventh round. I find myself passing on Murray in the second round and instead targeting Henry in the middle rounds as I envision him receiving more work this season. If Murray misses any time, Henry instantly becomes a top-10 fantasy back with top-five upside.
#2) Devonta Freeman (ATL)
This is a very, very similar situation to Murray and Henry in Tennessee. Freeman would likely cost a late first round selection or early second, while Tevin Coleman is typically flying off the board in the fifth or sixth rounds of most drafts. That is way too steep of a price to have both on your roster. Last season, Freeman had a 65% share of the touches between the two.
#3) Joe Mixon (CIN)
All aboard the Joe Mixon hype train! The Cincinnati rookie was one of my key targets until I realized he was everyone else’s too. His ADP has crept up into the third round, which is a little rich for my liking.
But should you select him in your draft, it may be wise to avoid handcuffing him because Jeremy Hill and Gio Bernard would likely go back to a timeshare, limiting their fantasy value if Mixon is forced to miss some time. I don’t hate the idea of choosing one of them as insurance to Mixon because they are relatively cheap, but I would much rather go with a situational back like Darren Sproles, so at least you are maximizing your depth and potential starters.
#4) Ameer Abdullah (DET)
Theo Riddick is a great situational, pass-catching back, but he is not someone to target as a handcuff. When Abdullah missed action last season, Riddick saw more work rushing the football, but he was also mixed into a committee with Dwayne Washington and Zach Zenner. With the addition of Matt Asiata in Detroit, it would be a similar situation if Abdullah got injured again. In PPR formats, Riddick may be the best option to target out of the Detroit backfield but avoid investing too heavily by handcuffing someone like Abdullah who will only cost you a fifth or sixth round selection anyway.
#5) Frank Gore (IND)
At 34 years old and with a lot of mileage on those legs, it is very plausible to think that Frank Gore could be replaced as the starter at some point during the season. Another alternative is that the Colts limit his touches and use the dreaded running back by committee approach.
Either way, at this point it is difficult to gauge who the next man up would be. Is it rookie, Marlon Mack? Or is it Robert Turbin? Would either guy be effective as a starter? There are a lot of question marks that make it less appealing to handcuff Gore, and I don’t think it is worth handcuffing a player you are going to select in the middle rounds because he likely won’t make or break your team.
Just Pick One
These are running back duos with an ADP somewhere in the middle rounds. They will likely share touches in some capacity, so just pick one and go with it. No need to handcuff them with each other.
Between the two I prefer the value of Mark Ingram. He is a better receiver out of the backfield, knows the system, and is coming off a career year in which he surpassed 1,000 yards rushing for the first time. In comparison, Adrian Peterson is coming off a season in which he averaged just 1.9 yards per carry and missed 13 games due to injury. At 32 years old and considering his injury history, it is fair to wonder how much AP has left in the tank.
Powell averaged 103 yards rushing per game, along with three touchdowns and 21 receptions over the final four games of the 2016 regular season. Meanwhile, Matt Forte produced the worst numbers of his career in a single season. Out with the old, and in with the new.
Both players have had difficulty staying healthy but at 26 years old, C.J. Anderson clearly has more in the tank. Neither player appeals to me, but with just eight games played in the last two seasons, it would be a good decision to pass on Jamaal Charles at his current ADP.
The Vikings traded up in the second round to select Dalvin Cook in the 2017 Draft, that is enough to tell me that he is their guy. Expect both to share touches early on but don’t be surprised if the rookie runs away with the starting job by mid-season. Latavius Murray had a solid, yet unspectacular season with the Raiders in 2016. His 12 touchdowns were impressive but that number will almost certainly decline behind a lesser offensive line and conservative offense.
According to the Washington Times, Perine looks to be the favorite to start over Rob Kelley in Washington. The fourth round selection in the 2017 Draft has impressed Head Coach Jay Gruden in his short time with the team, but this competition will heat up and will be one to watch during training camp and the pre-season. As of right now, Perine would be my pick as he has more upside between the two.
That’s all I have for you folks, thanks for reading! Please feel free to comment, share, and like this article. Any and all feedback is appreciated. You can catch me on Twitter. I’m happy to take any requests for article topics.