Fantasy football handcuffs, for the uninitiated, are essentially backup players who are poised to take over for a team’s starter in the event of an injury. This approach, considered an insurance policy, helps you mitigate the risk of losing valuable points due to unexpected injuries. This strategy has been a popular move on draft day, where fantasy managers stash the backups of the prominent running backs they’ve drafted.
The focus on running back handcuffs has gained more significance in recent years. The NFL has gradually shifted away from bellcow running backs while leaning more on running back committees, making these handcuffs even more valuable because they might end up being more than a backup. They might be a 1B starter with a semi-prominent role already.
Here is a look at our updated Fantasy Football Handcuff Report, with some recent player notes breaking down some of the developing situations.
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Fantasy Football Running Back Handcuffs
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Starter: James Cook (RB – BUF)
James Cook was used in a limited fashion during his rookie season, topping out at just a 56% snap share in Week 18 versus the Patriots. However, it should be noted that Cook forced a 60-40 split from Week 13 onward with veteran Devin Singletary. The first-year rusher averaged a 40% snap share over the team’s final seven games, matching Singletary point-for-point (RB25 in points per game). Cook was also the superior rusher in the season’s totality capping off his year by averaging 5.3 yards per carry (5th).
He earned PFF’s No. 1 ranking in breakaway run rate (44%). The spurts of explosiveness and receiving ability will work in Cook’s favor as he enters Year 2 with the potential to emerge as Buffalo’s Day 1 starter, with Damien Harris as his main competition. The Harris signing signifies that the second-year pro is locked-in to the elite pass-catching role vacated in the backfield. In 2022, Singletary finished third among all running backs in route participation (57%).
Considering Cook’s 27% target rate per route run – equal or better than Christian McCaffrey and Alvin Kamara in 2022, 5th among all RBs with at least 30 targets – I fully expect him to take on a much larger role as a receiver in a Bills passing attack that is shrouded with question marks behind Stefon Diggs. Nyheim Hines‘ season-ending injury further solidifies Cook as the No. 1 pass-catcher out of the backfield.
Starter: Saquon Barkley (RB – NYG)
Saquon Barkley was finally healthy in 2022 and reaped the rewards of playing in a much better offensive environment. The Giants RB finished as the RB5 overall and in points per game, as he was able to recapture his explosive upside as both a rusher and receiver. Barkley finished second in overall touches (352) and backfield opportunity share (80%) behind only Josh Jacobs through 17 weeks. He also scored 10 rushing TDs with 23 carries inside the 10-yard line.
In 2021, Barkley totaled just 13 red-zone touches all season. Let Barkley’s return to glory show that you want to target young impending FA RBs in improved offensive situations that project to earn high volume with proven records of production. Without a long-term contract in place – even after agreeing to a new one-year incentive-based deal worth up to $11 million – expect the Giants to run Barkley hard in 2023. They have no long commitment to him, and Barkley likely will want to maximize his financial gains from his on-field play.
Per Spotrac, If Barkley earns all the incentives and earns the $11 million, his franchise tag value will increase to up to $13.2 million in 2024 or a $24.2 million payout over two years. His incentives are each $303,000 (1,350 yards rushing, 65 catches, 11 total touchdowns) and are also tied to the Giants making the playoffs based on a report from the NY Post.
Handcuff: Eric Gray (RB – NYG)
Eric Gray first burst onto the college football scene at Tennessee in 2020, rushing for 758 yards and four TDs with 31 catches for 262 yards en route to a 26% dominator rating as a sophomore. After the season, Gray transferred to Oklahoma for his last two years of college ball. His numbers fell after he lost his starting job in 2021, but he regained RB1 duties the following year. And he made his final year count, posting a 26% dominator rating with Kennedy Brooks off to the NFL.Gray finished the 2022 season third in the class in PFF receiving grade and fifth in PFF rushing grade.
The 5-foot-9 and 207-pound rusher finished the year third in positive rushing EPA and fourth in boom rate (rushes generating an EPA of one-plus). And per Sports Info Solutions, Gray posted the highest missed tackle rate per 100 touches in the class.It’s also entirely possible that Gray could have been selected earlier by the Giants if they had more picks available to them. Big Blue didn’t have any other picks after 73rd overall until they selected Gray with the 172nd pick. Considering New York’s RB depth chart is barren behind Barkley, Gray is a player worth monitoring. Could easily see this Giants coaching staff falling in love with Gray. He totaled 549 carries in college and never fumbled.
Starter: Josh Jacobs (RB – LV)
Josh Jacobs was arguably the most valuable fantasy asset during the fantasy football regular season based on his finish as the RB2 overall in relation to his super cheap draft-day ADP. The market was convinced that Jacobs would become part of a dreaded RB-by-committee under new head coach Josh McDaniels, but that was hardly the case. He was a full-blown bellcow for the Raiders leading the NFL in touches through 17 weeks.
The 24-year-old will have to play on the franchise tag after leading the NFL with 1,653 rushing yards. With a similar cast of characters returning as depth behind him, it’s hard to envision the Raiders not heavily leaning on him again as a true featured back. But there’s a lot of risk involved considering Jacobs is threatening to hold out into the regular season. He is not going to report to training camp. Furthermore, only 2 RBs finished as RB1s the following year after leading the NFL in touches since 2013.
Handcuff: Zamir White (RB – LV)
Zamir White could see a larger role after a redshirt rookie season with Josh Jacobs‘ touches having nowhere to go but down and him threatening to hold out by missing training camp. Josh McDaniels is notorious for never featuring rookie RBs, so White’s lack of playing time in Year 1 is not shocking. White was a polarizing prospect in last year’s draft process before he was selected in the 4th round by the Raiders. He runs with strong intent and decisiveness at the line of scrimmage. Knows where to go and how to hit the hole. Solid explosiveness and burst; constantly gets yardage after first contact. Elusive in space as a receiver.
The former Georgia Bulldog is built like a three-down back and posted Great testing measurables from the NFL Combine: 4.40 40-yard dash (93rd percentile) and 128 in the broad jump (94th percentile). White’s overall counting stats are not particularly great, but that’s because he split work with James Cook and Kenny McIntosh, like most Georgia backs often do.What matters more is White’s career three yards per snap – a mark that stacks up with the likes of Michael Carter, Rachaad White, James Cook, and Tyler Allgeier.
Handcuff: Ke’Shawn Vaughn (RB – TB)
Starter: Tony Pollard (RB – DAL)
Tony Pollard will play for the Cowboys on the franchise tag in 2023. Dallas has all the incentives in the world to run him into the ground, in what should be a solid rushing attack in 2023. Ezekiel Elliott has been released after showing a major lack of juice as a rusher in 2022, averaging a career-low 3.7 yards per carry. Meanwhile, Pollard finished the season as the fantasy RB7 – despite ranking outside the top 25 in touches per game – as PFF’s 3rd-highest graded running back.
Pollard scored more fantasy points than any other running back (19.3 per game) from Weeks 7-16 when he was consistently playing 53% or more of the snaps as the team’s featured back. The team added Ronald Jones in free agency and drafted Deuce Vaughn late on Day 3, but neither are threats to a healthy Pollard’s touch volume. He’s slated to be a locked-and-loaded fantasy RB1 pending any FA addition to the backfield.
Handcuff: Malik Davis (RB – DAL)
As PFF’s 4th-highest graded rookie running back last season (80.6), Malik Davis could see an expanded role as the No. 2 RB behind Tony Pollard. His main competition for backup duties includes NFL journeymen Ronald Jones and Rico Dowdle plus rookie Deuce Vaughn.
What is a fantasy football handcuff?
A fantasy handcuff is a backup that will likely take over for a team’s starter in the event of an injury. A common strategy on draft day is to stash the backups of the prominent RBs you’ve drafted. Below is a chart of each team’s handcuff along with their Expert Consensus Ranking (ECR) and current ADP.