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Is Handcuffing a Sound RB Draft Strategy? (Fantasy Football)

by Zachary Hanshew | @ZaktheMonster | Featured Writer
Apr 27, 2019

Those who selected James Conner as a handcuff for Le’Veon Bell were rewarded with an RB1 season

Running backs are often the most productive fantasy assets on a team. Selecting a top-tier talent at the position then is a virtual no-brainer. What about selecting that top-tier back’s backup? The method of “handcuffing” is a universally recognized and employed practice, but the effectiveness of it does carry some debate. Today, I’m going to discuss the strategy of handcuffing and whether or not is a sound fantasy football practice.

The Method
Handcuffing involves using a draft pick or waiver wire claim to select the backup of one of your starting RBs. This is done almost entirely for insurance purposes as handcuffs rarely carry standalone value in their limited roles. If a star running back misses time due to injury or suspension, having the backup on your roster means that you can move seamlessly to another starting RB who will take his place. This is definitely done on a player-by-player basis. Consider these criteria when deciding if a running back should be handcuffed:

  • Injury history of incumbent – Does the starter have an injury history that makes you think he will reasonably miss time during the season? If so, handcuffing is a smart move.
  • Looming suspension – Does the back you want to handcuff have any pending legal issues? If so, grabbing the handcuff makes sense.
  • Opportunity – Some teams don’t have a clear contingency plan behind their starting back. Instead, those teams may choose to employ an RBBC if the star goes down or just not have a clear-cut number two option. Those situations should be avoided. You should target backs with a clear path to the starting gig should the starter miss time.
  • Skill set – Opportunity is important, but it’s not everything. Talent is valuable when deciding which players to draft, especially when selecting backups. Don’t handcuff a stud with a mediocre backup regardless of how much work he’ll get if made the starter. You’ll never feel comfortable playing him anyway.
  • Shaky role of starter – Some starters have a very short leash and in those situations, it’s a great idea to roster the backup in case the leash is yanked.

Citing Precedent
We’ve been over the method, but is it an effective one? There are numerous examples of handcuffs who became league-winners. Handcuffing Le’Veon Bell with his backup James Conner in 2018 proved to be a lucrative move, as Conner totaled 1,470 total yards and 13 total TDs on the way to an RB1 finish. Alvin Kamara finished as an RB1 in 2017 behind 1,554 scrimmage yards and 13 total TDs. Those were draft or early-season moves, but adding a handcuff for the playoffs can be highly rewarding too.

Elijah McGuire was the RB10 in half-PPR scoring in Weeks 14-16 of 2018, and Jaylen Samuels was the RB12. Both were elevated to handcuff status in-season, and both were highly useful for fantasy owners. The same is true in the fantasy playoffs for Giovani Bernard (RB7) in 2017 and Bilal Powell (RB4) in 2016. There are countless examples of handcuffs who have helped to lead fantasy managers to a championship.

Draft and In-Season
Handcuffs are often available in the later rounds of fantasy drafts. Instead of using those picks for unnecessary bench depth and players you may not ever play, why not select a handcuff? The best handcuffs could be potential lottery tickets, and the final few picks of a draft should be spent on players with the highest upside. Most players you select at the end of drafts will sit on your bench for a few weeks before getting dropped, so why not snag a strong handcuff who could win your league if given the chance?

Handcuffing isn’t just limited to fantasy drafts, nor should it be. Handcuffing is a fluid process that should be considered each and every week. The value of a handcuff is much less in Week 1 than it is in Week 13. In Week 1, the football season is just beginning and no true rankings or values have shaken out. By Week 13, fantasy managers should have a clear perspective on the value and expected production from most players.

Handcuffs are far more valuable here because of the proximity to the fantasy playoffs. The fantasy playoffs typically run from Weeks 14-16 and are do-or-die. The best handcuffs grow in value as the season goes on because the chance of the starter getting injured grows and the production of those handcuffs matters far more in the fantasy playoffs than it does in the regular season.

Handcuffs themselves can change as the season progresses. Consider Adrian Peterson’s departure from the Saints early into the 2017 season. Alvin Kamara was third on the depth chart before AP left, but he became Mark Ingram’s handcuff when the Saints’ backfield was whittled down to just two after Week 3. He then went on to win the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year, and fantasy managers smart enough to roster him likely won their leagues. Kamara achieved an extreme amount of success as a rookie, but he was an afterthought in 12-team leagues until he became a primary handcuff. Pay attention to teams’ in-season moves, including trades, cuts, and injuries down the depth chart, so that you can stay up-to-date on the most valuable handcuffs and the next potential league-winner.

Handcuffing is a sound strategy to use if there is concern about a starter missing time or losing the starting job, and fantasy managers would be wise to invest a late-round pick when the situation calls for it. Don’t spin your wheels on a backup who will never be a fantasy starter for your team, even if he ends up as the starter for his real-life team. Handcuffing, like any other aspect of fantasy football, doesn’t end at the draft. Fantasy managers should be diligent in their preparation and keep track of handcuffs’ values all season long, picking them up as needed and gaining an advantage over fellow managers. Rostering an RB handcuff is a sound strategy that can lead to elite production and be the tipping point between a good season and a championship season.

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Zachary Hanshew is a correspondent at FantasyPros. For more from Zachary, check out his archive and follow him @zakthemonster. 

Correspondent, Draft Prep, NFL, Vault