In a game where injuries can derail even the most talented early season rosters, handcuffing the right NFL running backs can have a huge impact on your success in fantasy football leagues. But the strategy isn’t as intuitive as it may seem, so it’s important to think about what you’re really trying to accomplish by drafting a handcuff.
The backups for each of your top runners are not necessarily deserving of a roster spot in any league format. Conversely, just because you missed out on a high end back does not mean you should overlook his handcuff later in drafts.
We can’t project injuries, so the top 6 handcuffs listed below may not get the chance to prove themselves as feature backs this year – but if they do, their systems and current role as the clear number two make them difference makers in your league.
This one is obvious, so I’m not going to spend a lot of time here. Le’Veon Bell is a supreme talent. He’s probably the most gifted back we’ve seen in the NFL in the past decade (aside from a guy named Adrian Peterson). But while his tools and athleticism may be comparable to AP’s, Bell’s track record is anything but. If you’re counting on him to stay heathy when he comes back from his suspension, you’re doing it wrong. Combine that with his proclivity for recreational extracurriculars, and you’re looking at a guy whose far from a given to play even 12 games this regular season.
Despite his age (33), DeAngelo Williams will be the unquestioned lead back in Bell’s absence. He’s played in at least 15 games in six out of his 10 NFL seasons, and in at least 13 in all but two of them. Considering the track record of guys at this position, that’s pretty remarkable.
Williams was arguably the top running back in fantasy football with Bell out last year. He’s the clear cut number one handcuff this year, and he’s worthy of a top 7 or 8 round pick in most every league.
Full disclosure – I am not a Doug Martin guy. Martin got so much hype after his breakout in 2012, but that campaign was propped up by a few monster performances. We play a weekly game, and season-long stats can be terribly misleading. Don’t forget that.
Martin had two mediocre seasons before “breaking out” again last year and convincing the Bucs to open up their check book for him. Ownership in Tampa Bay forgot about his 2013 and 2014 seasons. I didn’t.
But, I digress. Even in Martin’s career year, Charles Sims was able to establish himself has one of the best backup runners in the league. He matched Martin’s 4.9 yards per carry and was among the best in the NFL at 11 yards per reception.
With Sims, you’re looking at a guy with huge talent playing behind an unreliable back who just got paid. Considering his upside, Sims is worthy of a pick in just about every league. Roll the dice in case he takes over for Martin, but there’s a chance you’ll get Flex value from him when bye weeks hit even as a backup.
Tennessee relied heavily on quarterback Marcus Mariota last year. That wasn’t always a good thing for the Titans. Mariota started out rolling the first couple weeks, but basically rolled downhill from there, with a handful of injuries derailing his rookie season.
The Titans went out and got DeMarco Murray over the offseason to lessen the load on Mariota. But they also spent a second round pick on Derick Henry (You remember the image of Henry absolutely dwarfing Mark Ingram last year, right?). Henry’s stellar career at Alabama didn’t make him unique in Tuscaloosa, but he’s got a chance to be a difference maker in the NFL if Murray’s early-career injury problems resurface.
Incoming Coordinator Terry Robiskie’s offense relies on the power run game to spread the field and open up big play opportunities. At 6”3’ and 245 pounds, Henry is built to be the perfect between-the-tackles back for Robiskie’s system. And while I never want to put too much emphasis on preseason results, Henry’s performance in the opener certainly doesn’t hurt his stock.
A bigger focus on the run in Nashville combined with a starter who’s no guarantee to keep his job make Henry a top-flight handcuff option this year. He’s worthy of a late round pick in deeper leagues.
It’s no secret that Tevin Coleman was the preferred back in Atlanta last preseason. Coleman got injured on opening night and the rest is history, with Devonta Freeman running away with the job and all the way to the top of most 2015 RB rankings.
Freeman shouldn’t be dismissed as the lead back in Atlanta right now, and Coleman is knocked down a few spots because you’re not going to get him at a huge discount after last year’s hype, but there is real upside here.
Freeman’s size leaves him susceptible to injury and the Falcons are willing to go with a feature back if the production is there. Plus, Kyle Shanahan offensive scheme can do wonders for running backs. Combine that with the Falcons’ improving offensive line and you have an attractive handcuff option who’s worthy of a late round stash in just about every league.
I’m putting McKinnon near the end of this list because I am still a believer in Adrian Peterson. But if AP misses time this year, you’re looking at a backup who will immediately be slotted in as a workhorse in Norv Turner’s offense. Turner has operated systems that allowed all-time greats like Emmitt Smith and LaDainian Tomlinson to flourish.
I’m not crazy enough to compare McKinnon’s talent to those guys’, but he’s a terrific athlete who can catch the ball and clearly has the favor of Minnesota’s coaching staff. You can bet he’d be given the chance to build on his 5.2 yards per carry average from last year in Peterson’s absence.
Minnesota’s offense was the third most dependent on the run in the league last year. A big reason for that is the aforementioned AP, but McKinnon can hold his own. I’d roll the dice on him in later rounds of deep leagues.
Hightower is never going to be a star in this league, but as the lead back in Sean Payton’s offense he’d immediately jump into the RB1 conversation.
When Mark Ingram went down last year, Hightower showed us why. Over the final month of the season, he averaged over 100 yards and a touchdown per week out of the Saints’ backfield.
Ingram has only played in 16 games once in his five NFL seasons. It’s not hard to envision a scenario where Hightower slots in for a significant amount of time and builds upon his late-season success from 2015, especially behind Pro Football Focus’s eighth-ranked offensive line. It doesn’t hurt that C.J. Spiller would be his only competition for playing time, either.
Hightower is worthy of a late round flier in the deepest leagues, but he’s someone you should pay close attention to whenever Ingram’s name comes up on injury reports.