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A Guide to RB Handcuffs: Which Backfields Provide the Most Value?

With redraft season officially upon us, it is important to know how to insure your high-value investment at the running back position. With any insurance policy, it is of the utmost importance to know both the cost and the payout should that policy need to be cashed in. At their most basic level, RB handcuffs are just insurance policies, and like any other purchase, it is prudent to take the best value and expected return available.

There is a debate for and against the expected value of handcuffing and whether handcuffs are worth the roster spot, but that is not the purpose of this piece. The purpose here is to identify the proper handcuff for each high value running back and additionally to know the value of those players should they be elevated on the depth chart due to injury or some other event.

We will work our way from the worst to the best type of handcuff options, considering all factors, especially cost.

RBBC

Teams that start as a running back by committee will generally stay that way. An injury on these teams often elevates a player from irrelevance to flex appeal. It may seem like a positive for any team to add a flex option, but that is just not a sound return on holding and hoping. These players are best targeted via waivers after an event that elevates them to relevance. These teams also often have an RB or two that begin as a flex option. Such backs may see their flex output appeal raised by an injury or another event, but won’t quite reach RB2 status. The teams that fall into this category include Baltimore, New England, Buffalo, Detroit, Philadelphia, Washington and San Francisco. These teams do not offer attractive handcuffing options.

Two-Man Committee With Cost

There are four NFL teams that I expect to run a two-man committee at the running back position that would see one of the two players elevated should their backfield counterpart miss significant games. To be clear, this category exclusively holds players that require a draft investment prior to the last handful of rounds. While each player has some level of standalone appeal, any player on this list would almost certainly become a top-20 running back should their backfield mate miss time. Each has some extra value not currently built into their ADP. These examples include teams that are not expected to use a passing-down specialist. You will immediately see from the first example the value spike created by an injury. These teams and players are:

Committee Created Without An Attractive Target

Some teams operate with a clear lead back but would likely become an unattractive committee should they lose their lead back. These teams and lead backs should not be handcuffed and are best treated reactively, should an injury or other event occur, forcing the lead back to miss time. The main distinction here is the new lead back would have an easily identifiable fall off in production from that of the lead back. This list also includes teams where the new lead back already costs more than most handcuffs in drafts. These teams include the Bengals, Chiefs, Chargers, Raiders, Bears, Packers, Titans, Colts, Texans, Falcons and Panthers.

Yes, there is now an elephant in the room, as I’ve listed the Chiefs and Chargers in this category.

Chiefs – The Darwin Thompson hype continues to grow, as there are some still unsold on the bell-cow role of Damien Williams. Without spending too much time on Damien Williams, I do want to drop a reminder that he saw 49 of 53 running back carries and targets in two playoff games. I can’t think of a better gesture of trust than anointing a back their full bell cow when it truly matters most. Now, why are the Chiefs in this category when Williams was elevated from backup to bell-cow last year? Good question. It didn’t begin that way after the Kareem Hunt debacle. Damien Williams had to show he was the best back for the offense and was still initially behind Spencer Ware and in a bit of a dead heat with Darrel Williams. Ware’s inability to stay healthy along with Damien’s performance lead the coaching staff to a no-brainer decision that will carry over into 2019.

Back to the handcuff situation. Darrel Williams quietly remains the incumbent backup with Carlos Hyde and the hyped Darwin Thompson all vying for the second spot on the running back totem. The truth of the matter is we don’t know the correct answer. We almost certainly would see a committee that would create a hierarchy if something were to happen to Damien. This is an unpopular thought but I believe Darrel Williams would get the first shot at the lead role. A roster spot may be better allocated elsewhere rather than investing in a Chiefs backup.

Chargers – This is a bit of a special case given the Melvin Gordon situation. The reality that there’s a real chance he begins the season away from the team. Austin Ekeler and Justin Jackson will form a committee. The touch distribution will be near even with Ekeler getting most of the higher value touches. He is a good bet to be an RB2 in this sense but the special case here is that both players already cost more than a handcuff given the situation, and both will probably be behind Gordon again when the all-important playoffs roll around.

The Cowboys

This is the other special case, given Ezekiel Elliott is holding out. There’s a real chance that Dallas gives rookie Tony Pollard a lead role, with a chance for bell-cow work in the games that Zeke misses. Like the Chargers, the most likely outcome is Elliott is back for the all-important playoffs. With Pollard already costing more than a handcuff in drafts, it is not the inexpensive dart for a potential league winner that is enviable for handcuffs.

Committee With An Attractive Target

There are just two teams that would see a committee form should they lose their lead back and ones that also have a player priced as a handcuff that would take over a meaningful role with room to be a league-winning player. Those teams are the Rams and Steelers.

Rams – While the demise of Todd Gurley has been greatly exaggerated, there is still good reason to grab some security if you draft him. Darrell Henderson remains something of a darling to the community but he carries much more than handcuff cost in drafts. Malcolm Brown might still lead the team in touches should Gurley miss time, and he comes without cost and has shown real competence at the NFL level. He also carries some level of commitment from the team as they matched the RFA tender he signed.

Steelers – The Steelers backs have almost identical cost to the Rams trio. James Conner will begin the year as the bell cow. Jaylen Samuels is overpriced similarly to Henderson, leaving Benny Snell as the free handcuff and arguably the best runner on the team. Samuels is the better pass catcher and will likely remain so, but that’s not to say Snell is useless in the passing game. He will bring a different element to the rushing attack should something happen to Conner.

Handcuffs with Standalone Flex Value

This list is three players deep. Both Latavius Murray and ironically his replacement in Minnesota Alexander Mattison make the list along with suspended Kareem Hunt. Admittedly, I had a difficult time lumping these players together as Mattison and Hunt are just a tick above true handcuff cost while Murray is much more expensive. If nothing else, note the cost difference of Murray compared to the other two. Murray is the player that mostly has his handcuff appeal baked into his price with the standalone value and is less attractive. Mattison is extremely attractive to pair with so-far-injury-prone Dalvin Cook, in a Kubiak-led offense. He has a much better chance of being a league winner at cost than Murray does. Hunt is a dead roster spot for the first eight games, and Dontrelle Hilliard is the Nick Chubb handcuff early in the season. The attractiveness of Hunt comes in his known level of ability and that he would be a playoff RB1 in a great offense for the playoffs should something happen to Chubb. Mattison and Hunt are the two with the greatest potential to be league winners should they be elevated. They aren’t much different than the four top handcuff values below.

True Handcuffs With Bell-Cow Appeal

This last group of four players are all behind bell-cow backs, are the clear next man up, have no cost in drafts and would range from the clear lead back to true bell-cow should they be elevated. These are the lottery tickets that can win leagues should they hit, and are the most attractive handcuffs at price — which again, is free.

Chase Edmonds – He is my top overall handcuff and would seamlessly move into David Johnson‘s role should he be called upon. He is a sound and nearly necessary investment for teams drafting Johnson.

Ty Montgomery – Fantasy football comes at you fast. Most assumed the handcuff role belonged to Eli McGuire with Bilal Powell and even Trenton Cannon being in the mix behind Le’Veon Bell, but Montgomery has seized this role and been the starting RB with Bell sitting out the preseason. He’s a great investment for teams owning Bell.

Make sure you’re sitting for these last two, as they will feel pretty gross to read at first.

Wayne Gallman – No one wants to consider the thought of Saquon Barkley missing any time at all, but insurance remains a sound idea for a top-two pick. Gallman remains the clear next man up and still has a three-down skill set. He wouldn’t get the true volume that Barkley does but he would be at least an RB2, and would make losing Barkley an obstacle as opposed to a lost season.

Alfred Blue – Members of the fantasy community have been ostriches with their heads in the sand when it comes to what is happening behind Leonard Fournette. Early in the offseason rookie Ryquell Armstead got some hype, but despite his lack of health, there’s simply been no talk or buzz about Blue being the clear No. 2 on the team. Nevertheless, he is. While he clearly isn’t a world-beater in terms of ability, he’s been competent for years. Fournette is not the type of player to draft without a security blanket if one is available, and Blue is very much that player.

Image Credit: Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire. Pictured: Chase Edmonds.

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