Should You Handcuff in Fantasy Football? (2020)
The handcuff running back debate rages every off-season, as managers weigh the opportunity costs of holding roster spots for insurance players they hope never see the field.
On one side of the debate, there’s comfort in knowing if an RB1 such as Dalvin Cook goes down, Alexander Mattison will likely step into the role and produce like a starter. That level of stand-in production isn’t typically found playing waiver wire roulette.
There’s much less comfort, however, if your RB1 is Christian McCaffrey, and your in-house insurance policy is Reggie Bonnafon, who’s never had more than five carries in one game at the NFL level. Would it be better to stash a late-round, high-upside receiver in that roster spot instead?
With innumerable variables to consider, including the fantasy implications of the COVID-19 pandemic, I’m going to avoid identifying a silver-bullet solution to the running back handcuff equation for 2020. Instead, I’ll evaluate the insurance policies of each of the top-10 running backs in FantasyPros’ PPR Expert Consensus Rankings and determine which players are worth handcuffing in 2020.
For a breakdown of handcuff draft value, check out FantasyPros’ Running Back Handcuff Report.
Christian McCaffrey (RB – CAR)
As mentioned in the intro of this piece, McCaffrey’s backup is Reggie Bonnafon, a 2018 undrafted free agent who has the lowest expert consensus ranking of any running back handcuff in the NFL. If you decided to take Bonnafon in a 12-team fantasy draft, you’d likely be selecting him in one of the last three rounds between pick 168 and 192.
Even if you drafted a defense or kicker early and selected Bonnafon as Mr. Irrelevant (assuming McCaffrey went first overall), you’d potentially be picking him over high-upside guys such as Allen Lazard and Corey Davis, both of whom figure to have prominent roles in their offenses next season.
Verdict: Don’t handcuff, there are better draft options available.
Barkley missed three games with a high-ankle sprain last season, and his fantasy managers had a collective conniption. Wayne Gallman initially seemed useful in Barkley’s absence, notching 27.8 PPR points in a Week 4 start. But when Gallman left the Giants’ Week 5 contest early with a concussion, the duo of Elijhaa Penny and Jonathan Hilliman did little to inspire confidence at the position, scoring a combined 6.8 PPR points.
Verdict: Don’t handcuff. Gallman and newcomer Dion Lewis would likely split touches in Barkley’s absence, limiting the position’s upside.
Elliott was expected to miss the early part of last season to a contract holdout, in which case fourth-round rookie Tony Pollard would’ve handled the rushing duties for Dallas. Although that scenario didn’t come to fruition, Pollard still averaged 5.3 yards per carry on the season and flashed enough ability to inspire confidence in his potential as the team’s lead backup. With how much Dallas relies on its running game behind one of the league’s top offensive lines, there’s a good chance Pollard could stand in for Zeke and put up RB2 numbers, making him worth drafting at his 12th round ADP.
Verdict: Handcuff, but note that Elliott has only missed one game over the past two seasons.
Many experts view Latavius Murray as one of the best handcuffs in fantasy, and I tend to agree with them. Beyond his standalone value, scouts view Murray as a true three-down back who could start for several teams in the NFL. With a 10th-round price tag, he’s worth investing in as an insurance policy, especially since he’s a proven commodity.
Dalvin Cook (RB – MIN)
Cook is one of the most talented running backs in the NFL, and if not for an extensive injury history would likely rank as the third- or fourth-best fantasy option on this list. Since entering the NFL in 2017, Cook has averaged about 10 games per season, although he lost a majority of those games to a torn ACL in his rookie year. Still, Cook’s missed seven games over the last two seasons and hasn’t shown he can stay healthy for 16 games in a row. Cook’s backup Alexander Mattison, who averaged 4.6 yards per carry in 2019, is one of the stronger insurance policies available in fantasy next season.
Henry is a wrecking ball, and has such a unique size/speed profile that I’m not confident any running back in the NFL could step into his role and produce the way he does. His backup for 2020 is Darrynton Evans, a rookie speed threat from Appalachian State who profiles more as a slasher than a three-down workhorse. It’s doubtful Evans would be asked to carry the rushing load in Henry’s absence, although he could be a viable PPR streamer should Henry become injured and the Titans choose to rework their offensive game plan.
Verdict: Don’t handcuff, but keep an eye on Evans’ receiving usage throughout the season.
Mixon is an extremely talented running back who ranked second at position in yards created last season. The concern in Cincinnati is the offensive line, which ranked as one of the worst units in the NFL in 2019, according to several metrics from Football Outsiders. In Mixon’s absence, backup Giovani Bernard wouldn’t make up for the line’s deficiencies and would at best be a flex play depending on the week.
Verdict: Don’t handcuff, but monitor Cincinnati’s offensive line performance, which should improve with 2019 first-round guard Jonah Williams returning from injury.
Drake finally escaped running back purgatory in Miami last year, ranking as the PPR RB4 from the time he joined the Cardinals in Week 9 until the end of the season. Kyler Murray figures to improve in year two with Kliff Kingsbury, especially with the addition of DeAndre Hopkins, who with Murray should set Cardinals running backs up for ample scoring opportunities in 2020. Chase Edmonds proved his worth as David Johnson‘s handcuff in Week 7 last season, rushing for three touchdowns and 126 yards on 27 carries. I’m comfortable drafting him at his 13th-round ADP.
We saw just how much value the backup Chargers running back position had last season, as Ekeler ranked as the PPR RB2 through Week 5 before Gordon returned from a contract holdout. Even in a time share, Ekeler finished the season as PPR RB4, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see his lead backup Justin Jackson have some standalone value in 2020.
Verdict: Handcuff, but you’ll have to choose between Jackson and 2020 fourth-round pick Joshua Kelley.
There’s a lot to like about Sanders, who ranked as the PPR RB8 from Week 11 to the end of the season in 2019. A larger workload is coming with Jordan Howard joining the Dolphins in free agency, but there’s no guarantee Sanders will see the amount of touches expected from fantasy managers drafting him in the second round. Boston Scott is a viable receiver, and should have standalone value in addition to being Sanders’ backup next season. He’s available in the 15th round of most drafts.
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