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Best Running Back Handcuffs (2021 Fantasy Football)

by Bonnie Robinson | @FantasyQueenB | Featured Writer
May 15, 2021

AJ Dillon should now be Green Bay’s primary backup running back.

The merit of running back handcuffs is a perennial topic among the fantasy community. Are they crucial insurance policies or a waste of roster spots? Is it more advantageous to draft the backups to players on your roster, or does it matter who has the starter?

The answers depend on your situation, starting with league and roster size. The larger the league, the slimmer the odds the backup for an injured star running back will be available. Some of the most desirable backups have stand-alone value based on their heavy usage. Others could be in a position to overtake the starter during the season. Then some backups would be “league winners” if the lead runner succumbed to a severe injury.

Last year, Mike Davis was the epitome of a league winner. In most instances, managers acquired him off the waiver wire when injuries sidelined Christian McCaffrey. Davis finished as the RB12 and helped propel fantasy teams to championships.

With these factors in mind, here are the best running back handcuffs to target in 2021.

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Kenyan Drake (LV)
Ex-Cardinal Kenyan Drake had a career year last season as the starter in Arizona, finishing 15th among fantasy running backs. He is a dual-threat who could see time both as a running back and receiver in Las Vegas. The Raiders gave Drake a substantial two-year deal with $11 million guaranteed, signaling he could eat into Josh Jacobs‘ workload.

Drake echoed that sentiment. Per’s Paul Gutierrez, Drake said head coach John Gruden told the new signee that he plans to use his versatility as a weapon “on the field in a multitude of ways – playing receiver, playing running back.” While we can’t expect another 239 rushing attempts from Drake, his usage in the passing game could make him a borderline RB2.

AJ Dillon (GB)
With Jamaal Williams in Detroit, AJ Dillion should finally get the top backup spot behind Aaron Jones in Green Bay. The massive power back does his best work between the tackles. When he finally saw an expanded role in Week 16 against the Titans, Dillon piled up 124 yards and two touchdowns on 21 carries. If he assumes Williams’ workload, Dillon should receive around 10 touches a game. Since he is a load to take down, additional goal-line opportunities are not out of the equation.

Gus Edwards (BAL)
With Mark Ingram gone, we could see more of the “Gus Bus” this season. Even though J.K. Dobbins is taking over the reins, Edwards led the Ravens with 144 carries for 723 yards and six rushing touchdowns in 2020. Edwards should remain fairly involved in this run-heavy offense, even with the Ravens wanting more emphasis on the passing game this season.

Leonard Fournette (TB)
Regardless of who gets the nod for the top spot, chances are this will be a running back-by-committee once again. While Ronald Jones is the more productive player, Leonard Fournette is the more trustworthy receiver out of the backfield. “Playoff Lenny” helped the Buccaneers win a Super Bowl in his first stint with the club. He posted 225 yards and four touchdowns from Week 15 through the Wild Card game while Jones was injured and out with COVID-19. During the Super Bowl, Fournette compiled 135 scrimmage yards and added a score on the ground. His late-season heroics could reward him with more touches this year. At the minimum, he should return RB3 value.

Latavius Murray (NO)
With two candidates for the starting quarterback position, it’s hard to predict how significant Latavius Murray’s role will be. While Jameis Winston is the presumptive starter, the Saints will likely incorporate both him and Taysom Hill. Murray is effective with his opportunities, but his and Alvin Kamara’s stock both took hits last season when Hill vultured run plays and touchdowns as the starter. In 2019, Jones and Peyton Barber combined for 326 rushing attempts in Tampa Bay with Winston at the helm. For fantasy’s sake, let’s cross our collective fingers New Orleans names Winston the top signal-caller this year.

Tony Pollard (DAL)
One of the most talented non-starters in the NFL, Tony Pollard sets the standard for potential fantasy difference-makers. He has even looked more explosive than Ezekiel Elliott at times. With Elliott inactive due to injury, Pollard started in Week 15 against San Francisco. He put on a clinic, racking up 69 yards and two scores on only 12 carries while adding 63 yards on six receptions. It’s no secret Pollard is a league-winner if Elliott gets hurt. However, Week 15 was the first time he could fully showcase his talents since Elliott had never missed a game before. Hopefully, that display earned Pollard additional playing time.

Nyheim Hines (IND)
Despite Jonathan Taylor taking over lead duties in the second half of the season, Nyheim Hines finished as the RB18. The Colts re-signed Marlon Mack, but with just 55 career receptions, he isn’t much of a threat in the passing game. That’s where Hines, who received the third-most targets among running backs in 2020, earns his bread. Taylor will take a little more work from him this year, but Hines has upside in this offense.

Alexander Mattison (MIN)
Dalvin Cook is the Vikings’ starter, but he hasn’t exactly been the picture of good health. He’s yet to play an entire season since arriving in the NFL in 2018. Although Mattison doesn’t have much stand-alone value, he is a must-have handcuff for Cook investors considering his injury history. When given the opportunity, Mattison has compiled numbers. He could be a top fantasy back if thrust into the featured role.

Javian Hawkins (ATL)
Minus a starter injury, Javian Hawkins has the best chance to be this year’s version of James Robinson. Aside from both being undrafted rookie running backs, they are completely different stylistically. Hawkins is a more slender jitterbug who can slip through defenders and take it to the house. Nicknamed “PlayStation” for his video game-like moves, Hawkins averaged 117 rushing yards per game at Louisville.

The Falcons said there would be an open competition at the position, and Hawkins and Mike Davis are the top two contenders. Davis is a 29-year-old perennial backup. He is coming off a career year with the Panthers but appeared to wear down as the season came to a close. Meanwhile, some analysts believe Hawkins is the most talented back on the roster. Hawkins is going under the radar in drafts as a UDFA. He’s a late-round sleeper pick who should be highly involved in this offense, even if he doesn’t get the starting gig.

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Bonnie Robinson is a featured writer for FantasyPros. For more from Bonnie, check out her profile and follow her @FantasyQueenB.