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Running Back Handcuffs Worth Drafting as Standalone Players


This article gets more and more challenging every season. In order to write it, I have no choice but to expand the definition of a handcuff. As the number of teams using multiple running backs increases, fewer and fewer RBs are handcuffs by the purest meaning of the term.

Some of the guys mentioned here may not be true handcuffs as you remember them from years past. DeAngelo Williams backing up Le'Veon Bell is probably the single best example of a pure handcuff. He was an RB1 when Bell was out but had literally zero value when Bell was active. The players on this list are clearly behind the starter on the depth chart and projected opportunity share, but have the upside that doesn't necessitate an injury to the primary back.

Let's take a look at some of the lesser options in 2019 who could add value to your fantasy team.

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Latavius Murray, New Orleans Saints

You see! I'm already questioning my definition of handcuffs. Is Latavius Murray really a handcuff? Was Mark Ingram considered a handcuff? Let's not get caught up on terminology and focus on the player. Murray is clearly behind Alvin Kamara on the depth chart, but it's hard to say a guy projected for 180-200 touches is a handcuff. On the other hand, if Kamara were to get hurt (please no), Murray would be in line for primary back duties and a bigger workload.

The reason I think Murray belongs here is that fantasy owners are treating him like a handcuff. He currently has a seventh-round ADP, which is fine, except when you compare it to Ingram's late fourth-round ADP from 2018 when he was facing a four-game suspension. Murray is a more athletic version of Ingram. Kamara's usage is never going to change. So, why is Murray going three rounds later than Ingram when Murray is a better athlete in the same role?

Murray should be an immediate flex option out of the gate, and the type of guy you can plug into your lineup in a bind knowing he won't get you zero. If the unthinkable happens to Kamara, it is not hyperbole to suggest Murray could be a league winner. We all remember the legend of Tim Hightower, right?

 

Jaylen Samuels, Pittsburgh Steelers

This is probably the most obvious name on the list. Like Kamara, James Conner is a top pick in fantasy leagues. Unlike Murray, Jaylen Samuels' role isn't clearly defined just yet. The preseason will likely give us some greater insight into how the Steelers plan to use Samuels, but right now, we have a lot of coachspeak about how they have packages for Samuels and he will be on the field with Conner.

I love Samuels because he has the talent, athletic profile, and size to be a three-down back in the event of a Conner injury. We also know this because we saw it last season. Samuels played RB, WR, and TE in college. He is an excellent receiver and can run legitimate routes. He is a far better pass catcher than Conner, which is not to say Conner is a bad receiver - he's just your typical solid pass-catching RB whereas Samuels is an actual receiver. He had a 20.2% college target share (97th percentile) and posted an 89.7% catch rate as a rookie. I think he is better at football than Conner.

There are multiple paths to a Samuels RB1 season. The easiest path is a Conner injury. But the reason Samuels is so valuable is that he doesn't need a Conner injury to succeed. Samuels can be a viable RB3 in tandem with Conner. Samuels also has the talent to work himself into a pure timeshare with Conner and potentially even take the job without Conner getting hurt. And when we're talking about a Conner injury, it doesn't have to be a season-ender. Conner can tweak something minor, miss one or two games, and not come back to his job because Samuels is that good.

Now, please don't mistake any of this for me suggesting it is easily going to happen. Conner could stay healthy, play well, and be the RB1 he is being drafted as. Even if that happens, Samuels should still be a useful asset. He is the exact type of player you want - a useful asset that has multiple paths to being a very good or even great asset.

 

Ito Smith, Atlanta Falcons

I like Ito Smith a lot less than the first two names on this list. He's a good athlete, but he profiles like a pure satellite back. If Devonta Freeman were to get hurt, I'm not sure how much Smith's role would change. The Falcons would likely stick him in a committee with Brian Hill, or sign someone else. But nevertheless, Smith is playing behind an older RB that has been run into the ground by his team in Devonta Freeman. Freeman hasn't been healthy for the better part of two years. If the Falcons try and push Freeman 300+ touches, he is going to break down.

While Smith's upside is probably just low-end RB2, he currently costs a 10th round pick. Smith is going to have a role because Freeman is never going to be the guy we saw in 2015 and 2016 again. Smith should touch the ball around 7-9 times a game and that number could get to 10-12 if Freeman were to get hurt. I don't love Smith (which is why there is much less to say about him), but he's a name to consider in the double-digit rounds.

 

D'Onta Foreman, Houston Texans

It is no secret that I am not a fan of Lamar Miller. He is entering the final year of his contract and is certain to be on a different team in 2020. That could mean the Texans will run Miller into the ground. I have a different belief. I think that what started to happen in 2017 will happen in 2019 - D'Onta Foreman will usurp Miller. I think we're getting somewhat of a committee right out of the gate. Foreman could open the year as a 6-8 touch guy, which could be enough to give him RB3 value.

There is certainly the fear regarding his recovery from a torn Achilles as it is exceedingly rare that a running back can return from that injury and be anything but a shell of his former self. The reason I'm willing to gamble on Foreman is two-fold.

First, Foreman has now had almost two full years to recover and he sustained the injury at a very young age. It is no surprise that the older you are, the harder it is to recover. Second, Foreman currently costs a ninth-round pick. That is an inexpensive price to pay for a potential starting running back in one of the league's better offenses.

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