When Is It Logical to Handcuff Running Backs?

Handcuffing is a familiar term to veteran fantasy owners. But when is it beneficial to actual put the theory into practice?

One of the oldest fantasy football strategies in existence is the practice of “handcuffing” running backs.

In essence, the theory behind this idea is to draft backup running backs in the later rounds of fantasy drafts in order to obtain a usable running back if a top one goes down to injury. This can be done in order to extract value yourself, or to possibly force the owner of the injured player to trade for your backup to recoup value from their draft day selection.

The benefits of this theory are clear:

- Secure a possible RB1 for a next-to-nothing cost on draft day
- Block other owners from securing such possible value
- Hedge your bets against oft-injured running backs

And while all of these factors can be extremely advantageous when carried out properly, a few assumptions need to be made when taking this approach:

- The necessity of injury
- Assuming that the game plan will not change dramatically if the starting running back is injured
- Knowing for certain who will take the place of the starter if an injury occurs.

I'm a firm believer in the relative randomness of injuries in the NFL. Sure, some players seem to be more likely to get hurt than others – Ben Tate, Jonathan Stewart, Chris Ivory, for example. But looking at the bigger picture, football is an extremely violent sport in which running backs are the most likely offensive skill position players to sustain injury.

When to Handcuff

When looking for viable handcuff candidates, it’s crucial to identify offenses that feature their main running back prominently. Offenses that use their running backs in multiple ways, including catching passes, provides an added bonus.

The table below shows the top five running backs from 2013 in terms of total touches.

PlayerTotal Touches
LeSean McCoy366
Matt Forte363
Marshawn Lynch337
Jamaal Charles329
Chris Johnson321

With the exception of Chris Johnson who is now a member of the New York Jets, all the running backs featured on this list are entering the 2014 season on the same team, with the same coaching staff that facilitated their high-volume numbers last season.

Understanding that the respective coaching staffs in Philadelphia, Chicago, Seattle, and Kansas City are willing to operate their offenses around these players is a huge indicator of potential handcuff territory.

Even though the Eagles added Darren Sproles in the offseason, it seems that Chris Polk would be the main benefactor if LeSean McCoy were to succumb to injury. Polk only saw 11 carries in 2013, but ranked first in terms of Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP) among 17 running backs with 10-20 carries last season. The small sample size aside, Polk stands to inherent massive volume if disaster would strike in Philly.

Entering the preseason, it seemed likely that Ka’Deem Carey would be Matt Forte’s direct backup in Chicago. If the first two preseason games are any indicator, however, Shaun Draughn may have taken that title away. Draughn only has 63 career carries, but has shown the ability to catch the ball so far this preseason, a necessity in Marc Trestman’s offensive scheme. Draghan is going undrafted in 14-team leagues, while Carey is the RB72, reflecting the uncertainty of the situation.

Marshawn Lynch’s offseason has been tumultuous, but he remains the main option in a run-heavy offense. The Christine Michael hype-train has rightfully slowed down since rumors of a time-share have been all but dismissed, evidenced by his drop in average draft position in 12-team leagues over the past month (10.06 to 11.05). That should be music to the ears of fantasy owners wishing to secure the most talented running back not named Lynch in Seattle.

Jamaal Charles proved worthy of the nickname “JC Superstar” last season, winning a lot of money for his fantasy football owners. Although Knile Davis ranked 19th in Rushing NEP among 20 running backs with 50-100 carries last season, he stands to gain a huge workload should anything happen to Charles in 2014. In the last two games of 2013, including the playoffs, Davis totaled 185 yards and three touchdowns showing potential given a heavy workload.

Other Targets to Consider

Any running back attached to an Aaron Rodgers-led offense should be considered as a potential handcuff. Eddie Lacy is a legitimate fantasy stud, which makes his backup, James Starks, a star in waiting. Starks was wildly efficient last season, finishing first in Rushing NEP among 16 running backs with 75-125 carries. If Lacy goes down, Starks becomes an every-week starter.

Even hearing the name Ronnie Hillman probably makes your stomach turn. Don’t worry; dry heaves are the expected response. But it was Hillman who got the start in Denver’s second preseason game with Montee Ball recovering from appendectomy surgery, making him the de-facto backup running back at the moment. If reports out of camp regarding Hillman are true, he looks to be second in line to be the man standing next to Peyton Manning, a highly profitable place to be for fantasy purposes.

The Bottom Line

As we have discussed, there are plenty of viable options who fall into the handcuff category. And in truth, some of the guys above won’t even be drafted in your leagues. And this is where the bottom line emerges.

Remember that injuries, although nearly impossible to predict, strike running backs more frequently than any other offensive position. Aim for running backs that are set to take on a large workload in the event of an injury, and you’ll be ready to reap the rewards of a necessary evil of our beloved game.

In the later rounds of your drafts, finding upside should be the stated mission. Taking a stab at a potential RB1 workhorse like Chris Polk or Knile Davis could be the lottery ticket that propels you to a fantasy title in 2014.