Should You Handcuff in Fantasy Football?

Jul 7, 2018

Does Todd Gurley have a handcuff worth owning?

Before we dive in, it’s important to define what a handcuff is in fantasy football. Handcuffing is when you draft a player’s direct positional back-up as an insurance policy should the starter get injured. Most commonly, it’s applied to running backs, and more specifically to top-12 backs. But is drafting a handcuff a viable fantasy football strategy?

In short, no. But like so many things in life, it’s complicated. The complete answer is not black or white, rather it exists in the grey area between both ends of the spectrum. That’s principally because drafting and in-season management require different manners of decision making.

Many casual fantasy football players treat handcuffing like it’s simply a part of the game, especially when it comes to running back strategy. This is probably a reaction to the inherent injury-prone nature of being a running back. But have you ever questioned the legitimacy of handcuffing? It’s time you did.

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Who is the backup?

When you draft a handcuff, you’re assuming you already know who the starter’s replacement is going to be in the case of an injury. “Since I picked Jamaal Charles in the first, I’m going to draft Knile Davis in the 13th round as insurance.” (Author’s note: per Fantasy Football Calculator, Knile Davis actually had a 10th round ADP in 2015. That just gave me the chills). This is one of the biggest flaws associated with handcuffing.

While published depth charts certainly exist, these are fluid lists that serve more as a coaching guideline than a strict rule. Even though the fantasy community often assumes it knows who an injured starter’s replacement is going to be, the dynamic nature of coaching and depth charts means we rarely know what will happen in the case of injury.

Last season, promising rookie Dalvin Cook tore his ACL partway through Week 4 against the Detroit Lions. Latavius Murray (who had an 11th-round handcuff ADP, per Fantasy Football Calculator) came in and saw nine touches, two of which came through the air. Jerick McKinnon, who went largely undrafted, had two carries, one of which resulted in a lost fumble. As a result, everyone and their grandmother were rushing to spend a ton of FAAB and use their coveted waiver claim on Latavius Murray.

The fantasy community’s assumption was wrong. The Vikings came out the following week and handed Murray 14 touches;  McKinnon received 21. In PPR leagues, McKinnon was the overall RB9 from Week 5 – Week 16. Murray was the RB18. Clearly, investing in Murray didn’t hurt you, but that’s not the takeaway here. Both backs happened to play in an efficient, run-heavy offense anchored by one of the league’s best defenses. The point is: We were wrong about who the handcuff was.

This happens every year, multiple times per year. Why would you waste a draft pick on a handcuff if we constantly fail to identify if that player is actually a handcuff? The correct answer is that you shouldn’t.

Don’t waste a roster spot

Arguably the most important handcuff situation in fantasy football last year was the Dallas Cowboys backfield. If playing, Ezekiel Elliott was an obvious first-round choice. But due to the murkiness of his legal proceedings, he had slipped to the 1/2 turn, and as a result, Darren McFadden had an ADP in the early sixth round as the 28th running back off the board. If you drafted Zeke early, you felt obligated to use a crucial mid-round selection on McFadden instead of drafting someone with a similar ADP like Stefon Diggs or Russell Wilson.

Not only did drafting McFadden mean you paid the opportunity cost of not picking a Wilson or Diggs, but it meant he wasted a precious roster spot throughout the first two months of the season. By the time you finally cut bait, you’d possibly missed out on picking up a legitimate contributor like Murray or McKinnon. And similar to the discussion above, McFadden wasn’t even the right handcuff. This alone should give us major pause. We already knew that Zeke was going to miss time and yet drafting his alleged handcuff did nothing but actively hurt your roster both in the draft and during the season.

If you’re lucky enough to actually predict the correct handcuff for a star running back that actually gets hurt (take a second to think about how low the probability is of that happening), you’ve probably already cut bait with the handcuff by the time you need to use him. You’re just wasting a roster spot on something with a very low hit rate.

Backup for a reason

This is obvious but still needs to be stated: A handcuff is a backup for a reason. Most of the time, it’s due to a talent gap. Sometimes it’s bad coaching, maybe it’s off the field issues, or it could be something as simple as the inability to pass protect. Volume will always reign supreme in fantasy football, but talent and efficiency still matter.

Let’s come back to the 2017 Dallas backfield. Because we truly didn’t know who was going to replace Zeke, Alfred Morris was a sensible midseason pickup. Morris ended up winning the job, and as a result, averaged 17.5 touches per game in the games that Zeke was suspended. In standard leagues, he was the RB23 over that span (RB29 in ppg), and in PPR leagues he was the RB32 (RB40 in ppg). It’s very rare that a handcuff will come close to matching the production of the starter in front of him. That’s why he was the backup in the first place. Morris was essentially an RB3 as Zeke’s replacement, nothing more than bench fodder.

It’s true that so far, most of this has been anecdotal evidence. The always great JJ Zachariason from numberFire already dove into the numbers on handcuffs last year. He found that when the starter was injured, handcuffs produced a top-24 performance 34.29% of the time, or basically one-third of the time. They’re backups for a reason.

Sometimes there is no handcuff

This is just as important. Often, there is no true handcuff. We already saw this with the Vikings discussion above. Even though Morris was the Cowboys’ lead back during Zeke’s absence, he only caught seven passes over that six-game span. Instead of giving Morris true bellcow duties, the coaching stuff entrusted Rod Smith as the passing down back, and he subsequently caught 17 passes over that same six-game span.

It’s easy to forget given Kenyan Drake‘s explosion late last year, but there was a similar multi-back situation in Miami. After Jay Ajayi was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles, Drake split time with Damien Williams fairly evenly. Per Evan Silva of Rotoworld, “In post-Ajayi Weeks 9-12, Williams out-touched Drake 46 to 44, even as Drake logged a 56% snap rate to Williams’ 45%.”

While the film and numbers suggest Drake is a far superior back to Williams, it’s possible the coaching staff simply trusted Williams more or preferred a similar passing-versus-running game dichotomy to what Dallas deployed. It’s even possible the staff didn’t truly know which player was better. Either way, we should use these examples to remind ourselves that typically, a coaching staff won’t replace a star running back with just one player. It’s much more common for a committee to emerge, again rendering a handcuff draft pick a waste of important draft capital.

Can I ever handcuff?

By now you probably agree that handcuffing is not a viable fantasy football strategy. But the answer to “Should I handcuff?” is still complicated because of two important factors. The first has to do with our definition of a handcuff. The second has to do with the difference between draft strategy and in-season roster management.

Above I defined handcuffing as “draft(ing) a player’s direct positional back-up as an insurance policy should the starter get injured.” Let’s focus on the second half of that sentence. As long as a player gets touches and isn’t solely an insurance policy, then they aren’t a handcuff. It’s ok to draft a player’s backup as long as they have standalone value.

Drafters understand this intuitively. It’s why Tevin Coleman has an ADP in the sixth round this year. In games Devonta Freeman started and went on to finish last year, Coleman averaged 10.17 touches per game and scored four touchdowns. Coleman was the PPR RB23 through Week 9 last year while Freeman was healthy. That’s standalone value. Then, when Freeman missed Weeks 10-12, Coleman averaged 21 touches per game, scored four touchdowns and ended up as the RB8 over that span. Coleman is not a pure handcuff because he has standalone value, and his upside in the case of a Freeman injury is more than baked into his ADP.

Since that’s not actually handcuffing, there really is only one situation when handcuffing is acceptable. Once you’re past the major bye weeks and you’re gearing up for a playoff run, your bench becomes less important as you try and make the best starting lineup possible. This is the one exception where you can use a spot at the end of your bench on an upside handcuff. But don’t be too strict with what this means. If you want to handcuff an opponent’s star running back, go for it. Just don’t confuse this mid-season end-of-bench handcuff strategy with something that’s viable during your fantasy draft.

Conclusion

Don’t handcuff your running backs, or any position for that matter. Most of the time, the fantasy community is wrong about who is going to replace an injured starter. Most of the time, the starter doesn’t get injured until the latter half of the season; by then an owner has already cut bait with the handcuff after first wasting a bench spot on them. Most of the time, these guys are backups because they lack starter-level talent and subsequently elite fantasy upside. Most of the time, there is no true handcuff in the first place. Fantasy football is a game of probability. If all of these things are true most of the time, then you’re a fool to bet against them. While your league mates are busy handcuffing, be the owner who zigs and scoops a potential contributor with actual opportunity. You’ll be glad you did.


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Eli Weiner is a correspondent at FantasyPros, a writer for numberFire and a contributor and editor for SconnieSportsTalk. For more from Eli, you can view his archive or follow him @eweiner_bball.

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