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To Handcuff, or Not To Handcuff?


I've been handcuffed more times than I care to admit. Unfortunately, never for "pleasure" (I have only three shades of grey). Before you ask, I'm not some felonious degenerate (though I know a few, and may or may not be related to a few more), there was just a time in my life where I happened to be very good at picking the wrong places to be, and the wrong times to be there. I'm also genetically predisposed to handcuffs (let's not go down that road, though). In a much less literal sense, handcuffing also happens to be one of the more polarizing fantasy football strategies out there. If you're unfamiliar, it's nothing more than rostering your stud player's backup - even if said backup has absolutely no value barring injury. Example: you own Saquon Barkley, so you pick up Wayne Gallman in case Barkley goes down.

Predominantly applied to running backs, I've known unwavering advocates who apply the theory to wide receivers and even quarterbacks, I also know detractors who avoid it like the plague, and there is valid reasoning to support either side of the argument. Now that the bye weeks are almost behind us -- only the Chiefs and Rams remain -- the idea in favoring such a strategy is that bench depth becomes more valuable if applied to a guy who would take the place of your stud should he go down with an injury, e.g. Colt McCoy (kidding, of course), as opposed to a fourth or fifth RB or WR who you'll never play anyway. Some leagues have a waiver deadline, and if that's the case in your league, the idea makes even more sense. However, having Cameron Artis-Payne on your bench instead of an Elijah McGuire type doesn't do you much good if Christian McCaffrey doesn't experience an injury. Essentially, the idea is the same as buying auto, or homeowners insurance for fantasy football purposes - it's dope when you need it, but a waste of your hard-earned money if you go all season without making a claim.

Again, I see both sides, and the theory of handcuffing is like pretty much anything else in life - it can be applied to certain situations. I'd much rather have a Jalen Richard on my bench in a PPR league than Marcus Murphy so the quality of the handcuff comes in play as well - opportunity doesn't necessarily outweigh talent or situation. With that in mind, let's have a look at the top three handcuff-worthy backfields and delve into whether or not you should pick up said handcuff if you own the RB above him on the depth chart. After all, not all handcuffs are created equal. (For the record, yes I've been zip-tied and no, they're not as effective.)

 

Cuff or No Cuff?

RB1: Ezekiel Elliott
Backup: Rod Smith

Dallas has called RB-designed rushing plays on 40.7-percent of their offensive snaps -- equating to 20.9 carries a game for Zeke and company -- making Smith a valuable handcuff in terms of potential volume alone. However, this season marks Elliott's third in the NFL and he's played in 35 of a possible 42 games for the Cowboys - missing six games to suspension a season ago and one as a rookie because his team went into Week 17 with a record of 13-2. In other words, he's yet to miss a game due to injury, so handcuffing him with Smith doesn't really offer much intrigue. Smith has also averaged just 2.7 yards per carry in limited action, and while I know most backs find their groove with volume, this one feels like wishful thinking.

I wouldn't blame a Zeke owner for deciding to go with Smith over, say, a Mike Davis, but for anyone above that Davis tier, no thanks. The Cowboys are likely to be in the mix for the NFC East crown as well, so resting Zeke down the stretch doesn't seem likely at this point. At the same time, no other back has seen a carry for the Boys this season -- suggesting Smith would be the man should Zeke miss time -- and the potential upside makes him well worth picking up over a flex-worthy bench option.

Decision: Cuff it.

 

RB1: Todd Gurley
Backup: Malcolm Brown

Brown has actually seen a decent amount of work this season to spell Gurley - he saw 12 carries in Week 2, another 13 in Week 7, and is averaging 4.6 on the season. That's what happens when you play on a dominant team which has the ability to pulverize opponents to the point where a coach is granted the benefit of resting his starters. Brown has seen a total of 41 carries on the season which has resulted in 204 yards or 4.98 yards per. Among the 63 RBs who've received at least 30 carries to this point, his yards per carry clip is good for the 13th-best (ironically sandwiched between Elliott - 4.99, and Gurley - 4.97), and while he's seen just six targets in the passing game, he's caught five of them -- one resulted in a touchdown -- somewhat proving he's not one-dimensional. And, most importantly, the Rams offensive line has been monstrous and the team is top-five in rushing attempts. Oh, and Goff has targeted his RBs on 16.3-percent of his passes. Not too bad either.

The problem with Brown, like Smith, is that Gurley has been one of the more durable backs since entering the league in 2015. He missed the first two games of his rookie campaign while recovering from an ACL tear he suffered at the University of Georgia, and he missed the Rams final game of that same season with a foot injury. The Rams were at 7-8 at that point in the season and weren't a playoff team -- likely precautionary -- and he hasn't missed a game since (due to injury, he rested Week 17 last season with the Rams having clinched a playoff berth).

Again, I wouldn't blame a Gurley owner for favoring to go the handcuff route instead of carrying flex-range depth, but the odds of it paying off, in this case, aren't very high; if history is any indication. It's practically guaranteed that Gurley won't play in Week 17, though, so if your league goes into the final week of the season, Brown would be worthy of consideration against an average 49ers run D. If you're holding a second defense, or tight end, maybe you've got Corey Clement or someone like that, and you own TGII, then I'd advise you drop them in favor of Brown. He's been productive when on the field, and will probably see a decent amount of action in three of the Rams final five after the bye -- Detroit, Arizona, and San Francisco -- so he at least offers some value in case of emergency; even with Gurley in the fold.

Decision: Cuff it.

 

RB1: James Conner
Handcuff: Jaylen Samuels

Conner was the handcuff a season ago, so we don't have any NFL injury history to refer to due to limited action, but the man beat cancer - what's a sprained ankle? Injuries aside, I actually think Samuels sees an increase in value now that we know the deal with Le'Veon Bell. He didn't see a carry in Week 11 -- which completely contradicts that point -- but the Steelers trailed the entire afternoon and Conner saw only nine carries himself. That game was an outlier.

I have no sources, no inside information, nothing other than a slightly educated opinion and a MacBook. However, I kinda think that the Steelers were more willing to utilize Conner, almost exclusively, under the presumption they'd have Bell back at some point. They thought they had a damn good handcuff, but now know they no longer have that luxury. Armed with a two-game lead in the division -- and no legitimate contender in sight -- it doesn't seem crazy to think that Samuels will see a few additional looks down the stretch to ensure Conner is good to go for the postseason.

Plot twist, Pittsburgh still has home field to play for, and their upcoming schedule includes some tough opposition -- at Denver, vs. Los Angeles Chargers, vs. New England, at New Orleans -- so while Samuels could see around five carries a game, he's averaged just 2.6 yards per tote over his three appearances. A Week 17 date with the Bengals is lovely, but there's a good chance the Steelers will have something to play for at that point. Plus, outside of a Superman dive into the end zone in Week 10, he really hasn't done much to suggest he'd step in and ball out should Conner miss time - it'd likely be some form of a split with Stevan Ridley anyway.

Decision: Don't cuff it.

 

Conclusion

Several teams have backups that would instantly become fantasy-relevant should the starter go down but didn't make the list -- e.g. Vikings, Jaguars, and Chiefs -- and in each case, discretion is advised. Minnesota utilizes their RBs at the lowest rate (29.5-percent of their plays have been RB-designed runs), so Latavius Murray isn't necessarily a must-own guy (though we did see him perform well at points this season).

Thing is, should you own Dalvin Cook, either A) you're not doing well enough to care, B) you've already made other arrangements at running back, or C) you pulled off a trade a few weeks before he returned as a flier, got him for cents on the dollar, and he's likely your third or fourth option. No matter the scenario, the value in opting to handcuff Cook is virtually zero (if Murray is even available). Likewise, with Leonard Fournette and Carlos Hyde. Spencer Ware would be a valuable handcuff to own if you're a Kareem Hunt owner, and you can pretty much apply the same thought process behind Gurley/Brown verbatim...

At the end of the day, I won't make a blanket yay or nay in either direction. I feel that it's a matter of roster construction, and will vary on a case-by-case basis. No one can predict injuries, however, and I do believe it's better to be safe than sorry if you're in playoff contention. That said, should you have an empty roster spot, or an expendable player, the insurance doesn't hurt. In the same breath, if you have viable options on your bench, I wouldn't advise doing anything drastic in order to acquire a handcuff unless you just need the peace of mind. There's a reason we shop around for the lowest insurance rates, nobody wants to overpay for something they might not ever use.

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