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Ranking the Running Back Handcuffs (2021 Fantasy Football)

by Mike Tagliere | @MikeTagliereNFL | Featured Writer
Jul 29, 2021

Michael Carter is someone who could steal the Jets starting running back job early in the year

One of the most popular debates among fantasy footballers every year includes the question, “Should I draft my running back’s handcuff?” That’s a difficult question to answer, as there are many variables that come into play, but that’s the reason for this article today.

This chart we’ll see today will have no bearing on which running backs you have as your starters. Why? Well, you shouldn’t be handcuffing a running back on a bottom-10 scoring offense. Even those who are against handcuffing their starters will draft running backs in the later rounds, but they don’t make it a direct point to snag ones that are tied to their starters.

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In the end, it all depends on what you’re looking for on your bench. You may want a running back who’ll have a role even without an injury in front of him, or you could just be aiming for a running back who has RB1 upside should he get the opportunity to start. When you leave this article, you’ll know which one best suits you.

Below, you’ll see all 32 handcuff running backs with a chart that has values on a scale from 1-5. The higher the number, the better for them. Green indicates a great score/opportunity, while red indicates a low score/opportunity. After the chart, we’ll separate the running back tiers for your drafting needs.

Handcuff Team Chance to Take Starting Job Production Without Injury RB1 Potential if Starting Team Scoring Score
Kareem Hunt CLE 2 5 5 4 16
Trey Sermon SF 4 3.5 4 4 15.5
Leonard Fournette TB 3 3.5 4 5 15.5
Zack Moss BUF 4 4 2 5 15
Javonte Williams DEN 4 4 4 2 14
Kenyan Drake LVR 3 4 4 3 14
Gus Edwards BAL 2 3.5 3 5 13.5
A.J. Dillon GB 2 3.5 4 4 13.5
Darrel Williams KC 2 2 4 5 13
Michael Carter NYJ 4 3.5 3 2 12.5
James Robinson JAX 3 3.5 4 2 12.5
James Conner ARI 3 3.5 3 3 12.5
Rashaad Penny SEA 2 2.5 4 4 12.5
Tony Pollard DAL 1 2.5 5 4 12.5
Alexander Mattison MIN 1 3 4 4 12
Latavius Murray NO 1 3 4 3 11
Tarik Cohen/Damien Williams CHI 2 3.5 3 2 10.5
Kerryon Johnson PHI 2 2.5 3 3 10.5
Xavier Jones LAR 1 2 3.5 4 10.5
Marlon Mack IND 2 2 3 3 10
Sony Michel NE 3 2 2 2 9
Jamaal Williams DET 2 3 3 1 9
Phillip Lindsay HOU 2 3 3 1 9
Darrynton Evans TEN 1 1 3 4 9
Salvon Ahmed MIA 2 2.5 3 1 8.5
Joshua Kelley LAC 1 2.5 2 3 8.5
Cordarrelle Patterson ATL 2 2 1 3 8
J.D. McKissic WAS 1 3 2 2 8
Chuba Hubbard CAR 1 1 3.5 2 7.5
Samaje Perine CIN 1 1 2 3 7
Benny Snell PIT 1 1 2 3 7
Devontae Booker NYG 1 1.5 2 2 6.5



The “I want someone who’ll contribute now” Tier

Kareem Hunt
Leonard Fournette
Michael Carter
Zack Moss
Gus Edwards
Kenyan Drake
Javonte Williams

These are the running backs who can be played as flex options most weeks and shouldn’t require an injury to the starter to carry some value. Hunt finished as the RB10 last year, and though he wasn’t the 10th best running back in fantasy, he was able to be played as an RB2/RB3 most weeks, even with Nick Chubb in the lineup. It would appear that Bruce Arians wants to continue with the timeshare between Fournette and Ronald Jones, as they could’ve simply let Fournette walk in free agency and forgotten about him, but instead signed him to a one-year deal. Carter is someone who should have a role regardless, as he’s the best all-around back on the Jets roster. Considering they don’t have a true workhorse, he should be able to contribute right away, especially in PPR formats.

Moss could very well be the starter for the Bills this year, but what does that mean for his fantasy potential? It’s not like Devin Singletary is going away, and it’s not like Josh Allen isn’t their primary goal line back. Still, Moss should get a solid 10-14 touches per game. Edwards is going to get double digit carries most weeks, though his lack of passing game involvement hurts his weekly floor. Drake is surely going to get 10-12 opportunities per week after the Raiders paid him $14.5 million over two years. Some Broncos beat reporters are suggesting Williams may start over Melvin Gordon, but whatever the case, it’s going to be a messy timeshare.

The “Spot Starter if Needed” Tier

James Robinson
Trey Sermon
A.J. Dillon
James Conner
Tarik Cohen

This group of players should be considered matchup-dependent RB3/flex-type options. Robinson is surely going to fall behind Travis Etienne, as you don’t draft a running back in the first round to not use him. Sermon could very well take over as the starter in this backfield at some point, but until then, it’s tough to rely on the 49ers No. 2 running back every week, as the touches have been so sporadic over the years under Kyle Shanahan.

The Packers were giving Jamaal Williams 8-10 touches per week, so why wouldn’t they give Dillon – the guy they drafted in the second round – a similar workload behind Aaron Jones? Dillon would move up the ranks if Aaron Rodgers does play. Conner could very well be in the “I want someone who’ll contribute now” tier, but he’s not going to be heavily utilized in the passing game, limiting his weekly usability. Cohen isn’t going to be a league-winner no matter what, but he can be a flex option when the Bears are underdogs, particularly in PPR formats.

The “I’m Drafting for Pure Upside” Tier

Kareem Hunt
Tony Pollard
Javonte Williams
Trey Sermon
Alexander Mattison

These are the players you are drafting because they play in a high-scoring offense and present tons of upside. Should something happen to the starter, these running backs have a great shot at producing RB1-type numbers. Hunt didn’t live up to those RB1 expectations last year when Nick Chubb went down with his injury, but it was a small sample size, and you’d still expect RB1 numbers if Chubb were to miss time in 2021. Pollard showcased what he could do when given the workload last year, racking up 132 total yards and two touchdowns in Ezekiel Elliott‘s absence.

Williams will have value on a weekly basis, but if Gordon were to miss time, he’d be in line for 18-plus touches per week behind a rock-solid offensive line. Sermon might very well take the starting job at some point, but if we knew he had it, we’d get very excited about the potential. Mattison has been a high-value handcuff, but he has practically no value outside of a Dalvin Cook injury. However, if Cook missed time, Mattison would be an every-week starter.

The “This Guy Could Steal the Job” Tier

Zack Moss
Javonte Williams
Michael Carter
Trey Sermon

These are the running backs that may not need an injury in front of them in order to steal the starting job for their team. It’s no secret that Devin Singletary has been mediocre through his first two years and the Bills don’t want him carrying the workload, but Moss needs to stay healthy in order to steal the majority of work. The Broncos drafted Williams in the second round and released Phillip Lindsay, highlighting that they’re happy to move forward with Williams in a big role. Melvin Gordon is still facing potential discipline from the league for a DUI, which could give Williams a window to steal the job.

The Jets are saying that Tevin Coleman is the starter right now, but it’s only a matter of time before they realize Carter’s the better option. On top of that, Coleman has struggled to stay on the field with bigger workloads. The 49ers have very little draft capital over the next couple years due to their trade for Trey Lance, but despite that, they still traded up to select Sermon. That speaks volumes about their feelings about him. Meanwhile, Raheem Mostert hasn’t been able to stay on the field.

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Mike Tagliere is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from Mike, check out his archive and follow him @MikeTagliereNFL.

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