Ben Tate and the Must-Have Handcuff Running Backs
Given the attrition that goes part and parcel with the running back position in the National Football League, nothing can wreck a fantasy football season faster than watching in helpless horror as your first-round ball-carrier goes down with an injury.
Unless, of course, you've hedged your bet and bought some insurance by securing that running back's "handcuff," the reserve tailback that can ride in and save the day.
Sometimes it's easier said than done, and it makes more sense with some backs than others, so here's a handy-dandy guide to the top handcuff running backs in 2012.
Ben Tate, Houston Texans
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After two straight seasons with over 1,800 total yards and top-three finishes at his position, there is arguably no more valuable running back in fantasy football than Arian Foster of the Houston Texans.
However, there's no argument that his teammate Ben Tate is the most valuable handcuff in the game.
The third-year pro gained over 1,000 total yards last season in 15 games (including two starts).
Considering the talent he's displayed when given the opportunity, and the Texans' proclivity for running the ball, it's absolutely essential that fantasy owners who spend a top-three pick on Foster acquire Tate as well.
That said, he's not a cheap insurance policy, so be prepared to spend a seventh-round pick, and reach if you have to.
Toby Gerhart, Minnesota Vikings
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One of the biggest questions facing fantasy owners this season is to what extent Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson has recovered from the torn ACL and MCL the sixth-year pro suffered last December.
That said, there's little question that if you take the purple leap of faith with Peterson you should grab backup Toby Gerhart as well.
Gerhart rushed for nearly five yards a touch on over 100 carries a year ago, and while he may not have nearly the explosiveness that Peterson does, the third-year pro helps mitigate much of the risk involved in drafting Peterson this year.
Rashad Jennings, Jacksonville Jaguars
Maurice Jones-Drew of the Jacksonville Jaguars may have led the NFL with 1,606 yards rushing in 2011, but with the seventh-year veteran embroiled in a contentious contract holdout he already represents one of the riskier first-round picks in fantasy football this year.
That makes securing backup Rashad Jennings absolutely essential for fantasy owners willing to roll the dice on Jones-Drew.
Jennings, a fourth-year pro, missed all of 2011 with a knee injury, but he's averaged over five yards a carry in limited duty to this point in his career, including a pair of 100 yard games in 2010.
Peyton Hillis, Kansas City Chiefs
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Running back Peyton Hillis rumbled for nearly 1,200 yards for the Cleveland Browns in 2010, which was enough for the fifth-year veteran to find himself the cover athlete for "Madden '12."
And enough for him to fall victim to the "curse" often associated with that distinction.
After a nightmare of a 2011 season, Hillis is now in Kansas City, where the 250-pound bruiser will serve as the thunder to complement lightning-quick running back Jamaal Charles with the Chiefs.
Charles missed nearly all of 2011 with a torn ACL, and given that injury and the fact that Hillis has shown the ability to get the job done, he's not only a valuable handcuff back but also could easily see enough touches this season to be a viable "flex" starter or fantasy reserve in his own right.
Mike Goodson, Oakland Raiders
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However, that doesn't make Goodson any less valuable, especially given who's ahead of him on the depth chart for the Raiders.
As many talents as Darren McFadden may have, durability doesn't appear to be one of them, as the 24-year old has missed at least three games in each of his four NFL seasons, including nine a year ago.
That makes Goodson, acquired by Oakland in an offseason trade with the Carolina Panthers, a wise late-round pick by fantasy owners making a first-round investment in McFadden, especially given Goodson's very modest asking price.