Should You Handcuff in Fantasy Football?

by Derek Lofland
Jul 10, 2019

Austin Ekeler might be an RB1 if Melvin Gordon were to go down with an injury

One of the strategies that fantasy owners utilize in fantasy football is the act of handcuffing a starting running back. The idea is that an NFL team is so good at running the football, that you need their starting running back. It does not matter if is the star running back that is going in the first round or that player’s backup that is going at the end of the fantasy football draft. Owning that running game is worth using two draft picks to ensure that production is in your lineup.

Handcuffing is a very smart strategy that I am a fan of using, but I think it is often used too often and without enough thought as to the pros and cons of the strategy. I am usually in favor of handcuffing only one running back on a fantasy roster. I am also only a fan of handcuffing a player if the ADP for the backup makes him worthy of a draft pick. In normal-sized leagues, the waiver wire is the better strategy for dealing with injuries to star players that do not have a backup with a draft-worthy ADP. Handcuffing provides insurance for a starting player and I am all for having that insurance. I also am a fan of streaming players and utilizing the waiver wire and a handcuff gives me one less position to utilize that important strategy. The player better be worth the roster spot for me to sacrifice that flexibility.

Fantasy Owners must remember that insurance for a starter comes with a heavy price and it is not possible to insure all of the valuable players on your roster. Handcuffing can be a strategy that if poorly used, can hurt the fantasy owner by having him or her carry a dead roster spot in the early weeks of the season. Here are some reasons that you are going to want to draft a handcuff and some reasons why you should stay clear of the handcuff. I will also give you a rundown of the top players to handcuff, the top players not to handcuff, and the players that are questionable when it comes to handcuffing.

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Reasons to Handcuff

1) The Star Starting Running Back is Injury Prone
This would be the situation in Kansas City back in 2005. Everyone knew that RB Priest Holmes was an elite fantasy running back worthy of Top-5 fantasy consideration. Everyone also knew that the unproven RB Larry Johnson could carry an offense if Holmes were to go down with an injury. Owning the Kansas City running back was a must that year. The Chiefs ran for 2,382 yards and 26 rushing touchdowns in 2005, behind one of the best offensive lines in the NFL.

Smart fantasy owners protected their first-round pick that year by taking Holmes in the first round and taking Johnson in the seventh or eighth round. Both players had fantasy value when both were healthy and Johnson had one of the best nine-game stretches in NFL history when Holmes was lost for the season after the seventh game. Johnson finished that season with 1,750 yards rushing and 20 rushing touchdowns, despite starting only nine games. That is probably the best handcuff in the history of the NFL and an illustration of how using it can help you win your league.

2) The Starting Running Back is in Decline
One of the hardest things for a franchise to do is move on from a star player. When a player has given years of service to a franchise, teams will often hope that the player with the large contract that they do not want to move on from carries the day over the younger player that is in his rookie deal and makes mistakes learning on the job. The NFL is a must-win business and head coaches will change their mind in the regular season when they see that the younger player gives them the better chance to win football games.

I would say that this is the Chicago Bears back in 2015. RB Matt Forte was an established player, but he was nearing the end of his Bears career and he was coming off a season where he averaged only 3.9 yards per carry in 2014. The Bears took Michigan State RB Jeremy Langford in the fourth round and it seemed likely that Langford would be given time that year, but it was not going to happen early in the season. Langford had only 15 carries in the first six games, before he had 12 carries in Week 7 against the Minnesota Vikings. He would see at least 10 carries until Week 17, carving out a timeshare with a declining star player. Handcuffing Forte with Langford helped fantasy owners that were worried about Forte continuing to decline and helped save the season. It did come with a heavy price though as Langford was unplayable for the first six games of that season.

3) The NFL Team Utilizes More Than One Running Back
We’ll stay with the Chicago Bears, this was them last year. RB Tarik Cohen was their best fantasy running back with 444 yards rushing, 725 yards receiving, and eight total touchdowns. The problem is that he is only 5′ 6″ and he weighs only 181 pounds. There is no way that he can handle 250 carries in a season, so they also had RB Jordan Howard. He ran 250 times for 950 yards and nine rushing touchdowns.

In that situation, it may make sense to take both players. They are both going to have fantasy value for the season and there was no third running back to worry about. If the team was stout against the run, Cohen was the better option as the receiving threat. If they were weak between the tackles, Howard was the better option as the physical bruising back. Furthermore, if one of them were to have gone down, the other would have seen a significant uptick in playing time. Taking both was a way to maximize the matchup and have an insurance policy on both players.  It also was not a wasted roster spot as both of them had value for the entire fantasy season.

Be sure to bookmark our Running Back Handcuffs chart to use through the season >>

Reasons to Not Handcuff

1) The Star Player is Irreplaceable
There are some players that are just difference makers and they do things that nobody else in the league can achieve. They hit the hole a little faster than the normal player, they make moves in open space that cannot be taught, and they have an extra gear that most defenders in the league do not have the ability to match. The team runs the ball well because of that player and if he leaves the field, that team can no longer run the football consistently.

This was the Dallas Cowboys back in 2017. They had one special running back on their roster, Ezekiel Elliott. Even with that great offensive line, they did not have the depth at the position to survive his six-game suspension. Other than a Week 13 blowout of the Washington Redskins, RB Alfred Morris was not able to approach Elliott’s production. It just was not worth owning Elliott’s backup for an entire season for that one game and rostering Morris for the entire season was just a wasted roster spot for fantasy owners that could have been better used for streaming and waiver wire pickup.

2) The Team Cannot Run the Ball
This would be the Arizona Cardinals last year. RB David Johnson is an elite running back, but he just was unable to do anything last year on a horrible offense. As a team, the Cardinals ran 355 times for 1,342 yards, and nine rushing touchdowns. Johnson was responsible for 258 of those rushing attempts for 940 yards, and seven rushing touchdowns.

The rest of the roster was not playable most games. Star players sometimes struggle on bad teams and that is what Johnson had last year. When you see a star player in his prime struggling in that situation, the last thing you want is his backup. Arizona was a lost cause in fantasy football for the most part last year. It does no good to hold onto insurance for players like that, it just makes a bad situation worse by creating a dead roster spot.

3) The Team Has Too Many Running Backs
This is your classic New England Patriots situation. Some years, they have a running back for short yardage, a different one for medium yardage, and another one for long yardage. They have a goal-line back, a receiving back, and a change of pace running back. They also have a change of pace back for the change of pace back. You cannot effectively handcuff for a team that uses that many running backs.

New England was ranked second among NFL teams in fantasy points scored by running backs in half-point PPR leagues in 2017. Their highest ranked running back was RB Rex Burkhead at 37th. Nobody on that team ran for more than 900 yards rushing, no running back had more than 60 receptions, and no running back had more than 10 touchdowns. Burkhead, RB James White, RB Mike Gillislee, and RB Dion Lewis all combined to have a productive fantasy year, but not in a way that a fantasy owner could easily guess the right player or utilize a handcuff when one fell out of favor.

Top Handcuff Options This Year

Los Angeles Chargers RB, Austin Ekeler
RB Melvin Gordon was the seventh-ranked fantasy running back last year, but Ekeler was 24th, tallying 149.3 fantasy points last year. He is the perfect handcuff, he could have flex value this year if Gordon stays healthy, but he could also be an RB1 if Gordon were to go down with injury. There could be some competition for the backup spot from RB Justin Jackson, but Ekeler is in the driver’s seat for that position and he is the fantasy handcuff to own for the Chargers in 2019.

Los Angeles Rams RB, Darrell Henderson
RB Todd Gurley was not right in the second half of the season last year and the Rams made sure they brought some depth back this year by keeping RB Malcolm Brown and drafting Henderson in the third round. If something were to happen to Gurley’s knee, Henderson would be in the RB1 discussion. Even if Gurley stays healthy, Henderson will likely carve out a role to help keep Gurley fresh at the end of the season. Henderson is a must-own in all formats and he is an essential pickup in fantasy drafts for Gurley owners.

Pittsburgh Steelers RB, Jaylen Samuels
RB James Conner was a star last year with 1,470 yards from scrimmage and 13 touchdowns last year. The back that emerged as his top backup was RB Jaylen Samuels. Samuels will probably carve out a role for himself this year as a receiving option and if something were to happen to Connor, Samuels would have RB1 upside running behind that terrific offensive line. People that draft Conner must protect that investment with Samuels. The Steelers offense should have fantasy value at the running back position, no matter who is starting this year.

Cincinnati Bengals RB, Giovani Bernard
RB Joe Mixon is the undisputed starter in Cincinnati, but the Bengals have a new head coach in Zac Taylor and he comes from the Sean McVay coaching tree. That means lots of opportunities for running backs in both the running and passing game. The importance of running backs in that offense will probably not be enough to make Bernard viable if Mixon stays healthy. However, if anything were to happen to Mixon, Bernard is a player that has had RB2 value as a starter in past seasons. In an offense that would allow Bernard to use his talents as both a runner and receiver, he could be a fantasy star if something happened to Mixon.

New Orleans Saints RB, Latavius Murray
RB Alvin Kamara is the undisputed starter, but Murray was brought in to fill the RB Mark Ingram role in the offense. There should be plenty of short-yardage and goal-line opportunities for Murray and Ingram was able to maintain fantasy relevance playing with Kamara. If something were to happen to Kamara, Murray would instantly be in the RB2 or RB1 discussion. If not he could have flex value in the easier matchups where the Saints run the ball a ton in the second half with a big lead. Owning Murray is a necessity for Kamara owners looking to protect their investment and own a player that could have fantasy value as the backup.

Players to Not Handcuff

New York Giants RB, Saquon Barkley
Barkley is a once in a generation type of talent that has strength, speed, and acceleration that cannot be taught. The reason the Giants have a good running game is because of his talents, not the special talent of the offensive line and not a strong passing game that takes defenders out of the box. If Barkley goes down, the Giants running game plummets into mediocrity without him. Owning one of their backups is just a wasted roster spot that could be better used for waiver claims or streaming. RB Wayne Gallman is the top backup in New York and his ADP is currently 348, one of the lowest numbers for a backup running back. He is not even guaranteed to make the roster, which is a big reason the Giants running game is Barkley or bust.

Dallas Cowboys RB, Ezekiel Elliott
We saw this back in 2017 when he was suspended for six games and we can see the problem on the depth chart again this year. If Elliott goes down, the Cowboys do not have a running back ready to take his place. It would be far better to put in a waiver wire claim for RB Tony Pollard if Elliott is injured than to carry a dead roster spot for Elliott the entire season.

Carolina Panthers RB, Christian McCaffrey
Nobody on the Carolina has the combination of running ability and receiving ability that McCaffrey brings to the table. If he were to go down, it would probably take four or five running backs to replace him given the talent of the backups. It is not worth owning Jordan Scarlett or Cameron Artis-Payne if the unthinkable happens. It is better to use the roster spot for waiver wire additions and streaming options.

New York Jets RB, Le’Veon Bell
This is another reason I am not high on Bell this year. Not only is there uncertainty with him being away from football for a year due to a contract holdout with the Steelers, but there is nobody on the Jets roster to handcuff if he does not work out due to a weaker supporting cast or a year away from football. RB Ty Montgomery and RB Bilal Powell do not offer enough upside to have a dead roster spot in case Bell has durability issues this year.

Arizona Cardinals RB, David Johnson
Arizona has a fantastic quarterback prospect this year in QB Kyler Murray, but they are still unlikely to be one of the stronger running teams in the NFL. RB Chase Edmonds is not a good enough player to warrant a dead roster spot. Johnson is definitely playable as an RB1 in this offense that should be wide open. If he goes down with an injury, Arizona is probably not going to have a viable fantasy running back with Johnson out of the lineup.

Questionable Handcuffs

Cleveland Browns RB, Kareem Hunt
There is no denying that he is going to have a role when he comes back from suspension and if something were to happen to RB Nick Chubb, Hunt would be a slam-dunk RB1 in fantasy football. The downside is an eight-game suspension that necessitates a truly dead roster spot for the first eight games. Unlike these other backups, who you can roll the dice on them in a favorable matchup, Hunt is a player that will give you absolutely no value in the first half of the season. Fantasy owners will have to debate if they want the dead roster spot or they want to roll the dice and hope Hunt is available on the waiver wire before he comes back from suspension. A fantasy owner that goes winless in the first four games is not going to be able to keep Hunt during the bye weeks, which means that Hunt may very likely become available on the waiver wire in October, even if he is drafted in fantasy drafts in August.

Baltimore Ravens RB, Gus Edwards
RB Mark Ingram looks like the starter heading into training camp, but he is turning 30-years old in December and he does have an injury history. RB Gus Edwards would appear to be the top backup, but do they go with him or rookie RB Justice Hill or does RB Kenneth Dixon sneak into the mix. Baltimore was a great running team last year, but there are probably too many options at this point to effectively handcuff Ingram. Edwards would be the lead candidate, but that is a fluid situation. There may be more clarity after training camp, but for now, the backups are more question mark than draft worthy.

San Francisco 49ers RB, Matt Breida
The 49ers are looking like they will be that classic RBBC that involves four or five players. RB Tevin Coleman appears to be the starter, but Breida could overtake him or see time, and RB Jerick McKinnon will likely see time in passing situations. Both RB Jeffery Wilson and Raheem Mostert looked good at times last year and they will be battling for a roster spot and playing time in the regular season. I think the 49ers will have a solid running back situation, they were 14th as a team last year and they have better players this year. It just seems impossible to identify a clear starter and backup at this point, which makes it tough to handcuff their starter.

Detroit Lions RB, C.J. Anderson
He was great filling in for Gurley at the end of the 2018 season, but he is no longer in the running back friendly situation he was with the Los Angeles Rams. He is now on a Detroit team that was 13th among fantasy running backs, but had nobody in the Top-30 among fantasy running backs last year. I would struggle to carry Anderson on my roster hoping he sees an opportunity, but it is also hard to ignore how well he ran at the end of last season. In my mind, he is worth a flyer as a streaming option more than as a handcuff for owners of RB Kerryon Johnson, but I think reasonable fantasy football minds can disagree on that point.

Green Bay Packers RB, Jamaal Williams
He had a chance to start in the first two games last year and he was awful before losing his job to RB Aaron Jones later in the season. He reminded people why he was a breakout candidate filling in for Jones against the New York Jets, when he had 15 carries for 95 yards, and a touchdown. He followed that up with eight carries for four yards to close the season.  The Packers have a new coaching staff and they should utilize running backs more this year. The question is whether Williams is still that young improving player that can carry the load or a young stagnant player that is never going to be a consistent option if called upon to be the starter. I do not think I want two Green Bay running backs on my fantasy roster, but Jones is a big gamble given that he has never been the bell cow back for an entire season.

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Derek Lofland is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from Derek, check out his archive and follow him @DerekLofland.

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