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Running Back Handcuffs Worth Drafting as Standalone Players


I've never been a handcuff enthusiast. I don't think it's an effective strategy. If I draft Kareem Hunt this year, I don't want Spencer Ware. He would just sit on my bench and have no chance at being a useful asset...unless Hunt goes down. I don't want Hunt to go down and I certainly would never root for an injury to any player, but especially not my first-round RB.

When drafting "handcuffs," I prefer to take someone else's handcuff. I'll take Ware when you take Hunt so that if Hunt does go down, now I have another RB2 in addition to the players I already have.

But the best type of "handcuffs" to draft are the ones with standalone value; the backups that are already usable fantasy assets with the upside for even more if they were able to seize control of the starter's job for whatever reason. Now just to be clear, guys like Tevin Coleman, Dion Lewis, and Mark Ingram, suspension notwithstanding, do not qualify for this list. They are not handcuffs. They are part of shared backfields where both RBs have standalone fantasy value. This list will focus on RBs that are clearly backups to the starter that also may have standalone value.

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More Than a Handcuff

Tarik Cohen, Chicago Bears

This is the most obvious name on the list. Jordan Howard is entrenched, for now, as the starter and is going significantly earlier in drafts than Tarik Cohen. If Howard were to get hurt, Cohen would not assume a three-down role, but his usage would certainly increase. Regardless, his usage should increase anyway.

New head coach Matt Nagy understands how to utilize his offensive weapons, something John Fox did not. Nagy envisions Cohen like a mini Tyreek Hill, which is exactly how he should be used. Cohen has excellent hands and is extremely fast as evidenced by his 4.42 40 time. Cohen burst onto the scene last year as an immediate fantasy weapon, primarily as a pass catcher. Then, inexplicably, John Fox stopped using him despite the Bears possessing one of the least talented pass-catching corps the league has ever seen. Although the Bears upgraded their pass catchers considerably with Allen Robinson, Trey Burton, and Taylor Gabriel, Cohen still stands to be an integral part of the offense.

Most promising is the clear move towards a more pass-oriented game plan. As is well-documented, Howard doesn't just have bad hands, he appears completely incapable of catching a football. Last season, Cohen saw a 35.9% snap share. I expect that number to be closer to 50% this season. Cohen is an immediate RB3/Flex play in PPR leagues with RB2 upside, depending on how the season goes for the Bears and how often they find themselves needing to throw.

LeGarrette Blount, Detroit Lions

I cannot believe I am advocating for LeGarrette Blount aa a worthy draft pick. I certainly would not take him anywhere near the single-digit rounds, but despite the crowded backfield in Detroit, Blount's path to value is not all that muddied.

Here are things we know: The Lions coaching staff has zero interest in pushing Dwayne Washington or Zach Zenner, despite both always having been way more talented than Ameer Abdullah. So we don't have to worry about Washington and Zenner. As for Abdullah, the Lions are done with him. If he is even still on the team, he may very well be a healthy scratch weekly as it is unlikely the Lions will activate four RBs on a weekly basis. Abdullah is also irrelevant.

That leaves us with Blount, Theo Riddick, and rookie Kerryon Johnson. Riddick's role will remain what it has been his entire career. He will be the primary passing-down back, but will likely see a decrease in his 45.8% snap share from last season. The Lions are going to push Johnson as their primary between the 20s early-down grinder. The good news for Blount's prospects is that Johnson could be terrible at professional football. R.C. Fischer from fantasyfootballmetrics.net described Johnson as "one of the worst 'top' RB prospect tapes I've ever watched" and said "I’m hard-pressed to find a worse RB prospect that I’ve ever scouted who was drafted in the first two rounds of an NFL Draft." Johnson is small for his size, weak as evidenced by his measly 11 reps on the bench press and has a tendency to try and leap defenders rather than truck them, is slow with poor burst and has awful hands. He really doesn't have a single redeeming quality as a runner. All he has going for him is the fact he was an SEC RB that compiled yards in college in a pro style offense.

That brings us back to the 31-year-old retread that I absolutely blasted as one of the worst picks at any point in a 2017 fantasy draft. Blount wasn't great last year, but still not one of my finer moments. Here I stand (okay, you got me, I'm sitting), telling you that LeGarrette Blount is going to be the most valuable member of the Lions run game. That is not to necessarily say he will be a weekly RB2 - he won't - but typically, the most valuable member of any run game is worth owning at least as a Flex play or a bye week filler. As Blount famously said back in 2014, "you don't sign me to sit me." That should certainly ring true this year as the Lions didn't go out of their way to bring in Blount to not use him. Blount is going to be the primary goal-line back and could find himself handling a few more early-down carries after Johnson proves to be incapable of playing football at the professional level.

C.J. Anderson, Carolina Panthers

Here is another guy I've described as merely replacement level that is actually worth something in the later rounds of your draft. My opinion of C.J. Anderson has not changed. There are dozens of running backs that can do what he does. But he is the other guy in Carolina - he's the one they signed. So that means something. Obviously, if Christian McCaffrey were to get hurt, Anderson would become an immediate RB2. Regardless of my opinion on Anderson's talent, he's the clear #2 guy in Carolina and has handled full workloads before during his time in Denver.

In the meantime, Anderson will essentially be a better version of what Jonathan Stewart was last year. JStew carried the ball 198 times for 680 yards and six rushing touchdowns last season. Anderson likely will touch the ball a bit less, but should still see about 10-12 touches per game as well as the majority of goal-line touches. He will never be an every-week starter while McCaffrey is around, but Anderson can be situationally started based upon projected game script in weeks where Carolina is favored. McCaffrey is never going to be a 300-touch player or even 250 touches, which makes the other guy in his backfield always relevant. That guy happens to be CJA this year.

Peyton Barber, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

I remember when Peyton Barber was getting pushed by the Bucs last season and thinking, "really? This guy stinks." Turns out, Barber isn't nearly as bad as I thought. More importantly, I'm not entirely sure he's even the backup.

After the Bucs spent way too much draft capital on the overrated Ronald Jones, the natural assumption was that he would be the starter. Jones is not a 250-300 touch type back. He was always going to be part of a committee. With Doug Martin gone and Charles Sims proven to be ineffective, it's Jones and Barber as the likely tandem in Tampa. Not only was Barber relatively useful when he saw increased usage, he was also quite competent catching passes out of the backfield. Over his final five games last season, Barber caught 16 passes. That extrapolates to about 50 receptions over a full season. Jones is neither a power back nor a satellite back, despite his size, as he only caught 32 passes over his entire 40-game college career.

Barber is going to be selected significantly later than Jones in 2018 fantasy drafts even though this has the making of a legitimately 50-50 backfield with Barber the guy in near the goal line. I would not pay any premium to draft Barber, but as long as his price remains suppressed, he is the type of player that could have sneaky fantasy value and also be one injury away from an every week RB2. By no means should you reach for the guy, but when you're looking at taking a fifth RB in the 13th round and none of the options look appealing, take a guy with at least a realistic path to some value.

 

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