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To Handcuff or Not to Handcuff at RB?

Handcuffing running backs has been a long-standing practice when it comes to assembling a fantasy team. When you draft a stud running back in a great situation, you're hoping you can keep a hold on that situation all season. We've seen backup running backs carry teams to championships in the past, such as the famous DeAngelo Williams run in Pittsburgh.

With so many teams implementing steady pass-catching backs as well the rise of the running back by committee, handcuffing isn't the sure thing it once was. The question stands: is it even worth handcuffing in today's NFL?

If you haven't already read Real Talk Raph's column on The Handcuff Hedge, check it out after you're done here.

Editor's Note: Get any rest-of-season NFL Premium Pass for 50% off. Our exclusive DFS Tools, Lineup Optimizer and Premium DFS Research through the Super Bowl. Sign Up Now!


The Case for Handcuffing

The obvious case for handcuffing your running back is to assure you keep the starter in that situation. Some backups will only emerge should an injury happen to the starter, such as James Conner in Pittsburgh. Others like Latavius Murray in Minnesota will have value to start the season, and thus will land at a higher ADP.

Drafting a handcuff of a James Conner is essentially wasting a roster spot that could be filled by a high upside player or a usable backup. For owners with a strong starting lineup, this could be worth it. Should players such as Le'Veon Bell, Leonard Fournette, or Todd Gurley suffer an injury, their backups will immediately be in the RB2 conversation. Assuring you have that value on your roster might be more worth it than taking a gamble on another player to fill that spot.


The Case Against Handcuffing

Like I mentioned earlier, you might just be throwing away a roster spot for the entire season if you hold onto your handcuff. Somebody like TJ Yeldon won't take over the starting job unless Fournette goes down with an injury.

We've also seen first-hand just how wrong we can be at predicting the right handcuff. We all thought Darren McFadden would be the running back to own when Ezekiel Elliott served his suspension last season, but it ended up being Alfred Morris. When David Johnson went down in Week 1, the Cardinals shuffled through bad running backs before acquiring an over-the-hill Adrian Peterson. Often times the team rolls with a shared backfield after an injury, like what we saw with the Minnesota Vikings last season. Handcuffs are a lot harder to predict now than they've been in the past.


Guys with Handcuffs

With so many teams going with a split backfield or a full-blown RBBC, there aren't as many true workhorse backs in the league anymore. The list of guys that would garner handcuff consideration would be Le'Veon Bell, Todd Gurley, David Johnson, Leonard Fournette, Melvin Gordon, LeSean McCoy, Alex Collins, Jordan Howard, Ezekiel Elliott, Lamar Miller, Kareem Hunt, Dalvin Cook, and Saquon Barkley.

These are the backs that are the clear favorite to get the large majority of their backfield snaps while they're the starter. Some of these guys just aren't worth handcuffing. For example, the Ravens offense doesn't have the kind of running game that would make their backups appealing. The same goes for the Giants. While Wayne Gallman would have appeal as a FLEX play should Barkley go down, it's hard to imagine he emerges as a player close to what we expect Barkley's value to be. There's also the situation in Chicago. While Tarik Cohen would seem like the handcuff in Chicago, there's a 100% chance we'd see a ton of Benny Cunningham if Howard went down. That would turn into a split situation.

Let's just discuss the guys who have a path to being an RB1 if the starter goes down with an injury. For this reason, I'm not going to list Chris Ivory in Buffalo. If I'm drafting McCoy, I want to make sure I get a backup that either has stability or upside. Ivory doesn't really have either. He wasn't impressive last season and won't be very impressive even if McCoy is out of the way. I don't think he'll have any type of RB1 upside.


Handcuffs with RB1 Upside

To judge whether or not these guys are worth drafting or picking up on the waiver wire, I'm going to add a "cuff value" to each of these guys. The values go as follows.

  • Low: Unless you're in a crazy deep league and have the roster space, they probably aren't worth wasting a roster spot on.
  • Medium: A player worth a late-round flier unless there are guys you really don't want to pass up on. Ideally, this player would have some standalone value.
  • High: This player is in a situation that could change at the drop of a hat and is absolutely worth rostering.


Austin Ekeler (LAC) - Ekeler showed flashes last season of being a capable back both on the ground and through the air. Should Melvin Gordon go down, Ekeler could step in without the Chargers missing much of a beat at all. It's unlikely that he would be taken out on passing downs if he took over the starting role, which is an incredibly valuable thing for a handcuff.

Cuff Value: Medium. 

Ekeler does present a small amount of standalone value, so Gordon owners with a roster spot should consider drafting him.


T.J. Yeldon (JAX) - Already a candidate for some passing-down work in Jacksonville, Yeldon would likely become a three-down back in a backfield without Leonard Fournette. Since Fournette already has a history of injuries, Yeldon might be the handcuff most worth taking.

Cuff Value: Medium. 

Yeldon will snag some targets in Jacksonville and when you consider Fournette's health, he should earn some consideration should a roster spot be available.


James Conner (PIT) - Even though we have no indication that Conner is even a good NFL player, the upside of any back carrying the rock in Pittsburgh is that of an RB1.

Cuff Value: Low. 

Conner only has value if a player without a major injury history in a contract year has to miss time. Not a gamble worth taking.


Spencer Ware (KC) - Ware was expected to be a valuable fantasy asset before going down with an injury last preseason. The Chiefs have no reason to let Ware steal enough snaps from Hunt to make him fantasy relevant, but he'd be in the RB1 conversation immediately if Hunt missed time.

Cuff Value: Low. 

I'm not buying Ware taking meaningful snaps away from Hunt. That being said, he's a guy to keep an eye on if a fluke happens.


D'Onta Foreman (HOU) - Out of all our handcuffs here, Foreman is the one with the clearest path to becoming an RB1 without an injury happening. Lamar Miller hasn't worked out as well as Houston has hoped he would, and Foreman was a high-upside third-round pick in last year's NFL Draft. Foreman could steal the job if he gets an opportunity, but he may never get that opportunity. He's been dealing with an injury all preseason and has an outside chance of starting the year on the PUP list.

Cuff Value: High Medium

Owners banking on Miller as a starting back should absolutely try and snag Foreman later in the draft. I'm not ready to say Foreman will end the year as the starter, but Miller will be looking over his shoulder all season. He's the starter who most needs a handcuff.

Update: Welp, looks like Forman will spend the first six weeks of the season on the PUP list. He's still a valuable handcuff and, to the benefit of Miller owners, will probably be dropped by non Miller owners. He's worth holding onto. If Miller stumbles out of the gate, the Texans will be highly anticipating the return of Foreman


Rod Smith (DAL) - Smith showed some flashes last year while Elliott was suspended and ultimately played well enough to run Darren McFadden out of town. With Alfred Morris now in San Francisco, Smith is the clear handcuff to own in Dallas.

Cuff Value: Low. 

Elliott is a candidate for 400 carries in Dallas. If he's healthy, Smith has no value whatsoever. There's no reason to believe he won't be healthy.


John Kelly (LAR) - The preseason MVP for the Rams has been John Kelly. Granted, the Rams haven't played any of their starting skill players on offense this preseason, but the late round rookie has earned a spot on the roster and is in prime position to dethrone Malcolm Brown as the Rams backup running back. Should something happen to Gurley, Kelly has proven he has the potential to produce at a high level.

Cuff Value: Low. 

Gurley has earned the right to be a three-down back, and Kelly might not even be the backup to start the season. But rest assured, Kelly would be third-string in name only. He's the back to own should Gurley go down. He doesn't have any standalone value if Gurley is on the field though, so he is not worth burning a draft pick.


Latavius Murray (MIN) - Murray has the most day one value out of anyone on this list. Should Dalvin Cook not produce like he did last year from the jump, Murray will most likely step in and get some work in the Minnesota backfield. There's a chance he becomes the team's goal line back. He played well last year and proved his worth for the Vikings. It's Cook's job to lose, but Murray will be right there waiting for his time.

Cuff Value: High. 

Murray is the most valuable of the handcuffs on this list and has to be given a high value, but I wouldn't say he's a must draft for Cook owners. If you draft Cook high, you're betting on his skill and his health. If you fully believe he'll be healthy and perform like 2017 Cook, why waste a pick on Murray? You're betting on Cook to be the every down back. That being said, anyone with doubts on Cook's health or talent should make sure they get Murray as insurance. But if you don't believe in Cook's health or talent, maybe you shouldn't be drafting him at his second round ADP.

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