Fantasy Football: 5 Must-Own Running Back Handcuffs in 2014
Ah, the running back handcuff. Few players in fantasy football have more inherent value than a high-upside backup to a stud RB. They typically come dirt cheap in drafts, yet their return on investment can be enormous and possibly save your season.
The fantasy football landscape continues to evolve with league trends. In the ever-growing running-back-by-committee era, fewer teams employ a true workhorse running back. As a result, the scarcity of non-committee backups heightens the value of a true handcuff.
Sure, there’s a chance they will sit on your bench for an entire season. However, if they replace a starter for even one game, it can instantly provide a full return on investment and then some.
To illustrate this point, I offer the following tale of caution.
The year is 2012. Your fantasy team is doing pretty well, and you’re fighting for a playoff spot. To make it, you desperately need your first-round draft pick, Philadelphia Eagles running back LeSean McCoy, to put up some big numbers and finish out the regular season strong.
In Week 11, he goes down with a scary head injury. He could miss several weeks. Your running back situation is suddenly in shambles. The trade deadline has passed. The waiver wire is seemingly picked clean.
With a win-or-go-home Week 12 matchup standing between you and the fantasy postseason, you pray that the rest of your roster will carry your team in the absence of its stud running back.
“Who in the world is Bryce Brown?” You ask this question over and over, while you watch your fantasy season go up in flames. Your opponent started the Eagles’ third-string rookie running back who goes on to torch your squad to the tune of 178 rushing yards and two touchdowns.
If only you had the foresight to roster McCoy’s high-upside backup. But he wasn’t even on your radar until it was too late.
Don’t let it happen again in 2014.
The following list profiles five must-own running back handcuffs. Every player sits behind a top fantasy back on his team’s depth chart. Therefore, no one listed here is expected to start the coming year in a running back by committee. As a result, for the purposes of this list, guys like Fred Jackson and Joique Bell do not qualify as handcuffs.
If your starting running back goes down next year, these are the guys you want to be ready to jump in.
The following backup running backs are smart adds as handcuffs for the 2014 fantasy season. Their upside is limited compared to the five players featured on the following slides, due to crowded depth charts and less likely opportunities to thrive.
Roy Helu Jr., Washington (handcuff to Alfred Morris)
The arrival of new head coach Jay Gruden should bolster Roy Helu’s fantasy value in 2014. Known for implementing a traditional West Coast offense, Gruden’s pass-heavy scheming should impact just about every Washington skill player. As the team’s primary pass-catching back, Helu could see an expanded role.
He sits behind Alfred Morris on Washington’s depth chart, as he should. In his first two seasons, Morris enjoyed the fantasy fruits of former head coach Mike Shanahan’s zone-scheme run game, totaling nearly 3,000 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns.
The one area where Morris struggles, however, is the pass game. According to NFL.com’s Alex Gelhar, this “could be the perfect place for speedy Roy Helu to swoop in.” Both Morris and Helu have played two healthy seasons in the NFL (Helu missed nearly all of the 2012 season), and during that time Helu has garnered 80 receptions compared to just 20 for Morris.
Of course, Gruden is aware of his running backs’ skill sets. Speaking about Morris’ limited receiving ability, Gruden recently expressed, “It’s something that, obviously, you want to have him be an all-around back. His hands aren’t the most natural but it’s something you can work on.”
On the topic of using Helu, as well as second-year running back Chris Thompson, as the team’s pass-catchers out of the backfield, the coach said, “We have some guys in-house we feel like can do it.”
As expected, he indicated in April that he plans to limit the use of the read-option for Robert Griffin III. Adapting Griffin into more of a pocket passer could also negatively impact Morris’ fantasy value.
Given the phenomenal start to his young career, it’s hard to imagine supplanting Morris as the primary ball-carrier in Washington. He’s earned that role. Helu should see his fair share of third-down work and be the go-to back in late-game passing situations. And if Morris misses any time, Helu will likely be in line to assume starting duties.
LeGarrette Blount, Pittsburgh Steelers (handcuff to Le’Veon Bell)
The Steelers acquired LeGarrette Blount this offseason, signing the bruising, 6’0”, 250-pound running back to a two-year deal. He revived his career last season with the New England Patriots following three years with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers that nearly saw his stat line flat-line in 2012 (151 yards and two touchdowns in 13 games played).
In 2013, he emerged as one of New England’s more trusted backs by season’s end. He exploded for an absurd 355 yards and six touchdowns over a two-game stretch that bridged Week 17 of the regular season and the Patriots’ Divisional Round game against the Colts. He ran like a freight train, shouldering 24 carries per game (7.4 yards per rush attempt)—a fine audition considering his soon-to-be free-agent status.
In Pittsburgh, Blount will back up second-year stud Le’Veon Bell. Unlike the dissimilar tandem of Helu and Morris, the two Steelers backs mirror each other quite well. In fact, before the 2013 draft, NFL.com chose Blount as Bell’s “NFL Comparison” player. Both backs are big, downhill runners with surprising breakaway speed.
Blount seems to be a fan of the new fit as well, telling the Steelers’ website, “I like that they have a tough, hard-nosed running style.”
The Steelers “are committed to Le’Veon Bell as their feature back,” according to ESPN.com's Scott Brown. For now, there’s no timeshare in Pittsburgh. Per Brown, “Blount does provide the Steelers much-needed insurance behind Bell,” considering no other running back on the team’s depth chart has recorded a single NFL rushing attempt.
Therefore, if Bell, who missed several games in 2013 due to a foot injury, were to go down, Pittsburgh would have to turn to Blount as its workhorse.
Donald Brown, San Diego Chargers (handcuff to Ryan Mathews)
Donald Brown began last season third on the Colts’ running back depth chart behind Ahmad Bradshaw and Vick Ballard. He finished the year as the team’s primary ball-carrier ahead of former Cleveland Browns' first-round pick Trent Richardson.
It was a wild year for running backs in Indianapolis.
The sixth-year back out of Connecticut had his best year as a pro in 2013. His 5.3 yards per carry ranked second among all NFL running backs with at least 100 carries. He showed an ability to break tackles and occasionally gash defenses for nice gains.
His stock soared when juxtaposed with teammate Richardson, who often looked like he was running in quicksand compared to the elusive Brown.
A free agent this offseason, he agreed to a three-year deal with the San Diego Chargers in March. The major question for fantasy owners is how this suddenly crowded backfield will play out with Ryan Mathews and Danny Woodhead in the fold.
Following the Brown signing, Chargers general manager Tom Telesco attempted to clear the air regarding the team’s running back situation. Via ESPN.com's Eric Williams, he said, “We know Ryan [Mathews] is our bell cow…he’s our No. 1 back.” The GM indicated that Brown provides depth at the position and is not a co-starter in a committee.
Chargers head coach Mike McCoy muddied the waters a bit following Telesco’s seemingly proclamation, indicating in March that the team may favor whichever back seems to have the “hot-hand” on a given week. According to a report from CBS Sports, McCoy said:
You get in there, you get on a little bit of a roll and you’re going to stay in there...Donald is a perfect fit for our system, and that’s why we went after him and got him. He understands what we want to do offensively, not only in the passing game but in the running game and pass protection...We'll let Donald come in there and show us what he can do, and we'll try to take advantage of what he does best and go with the flow of the game.
Such an unpredictable strategy could be headache-inducing for fantasy owners. Mathews starts one week, Brown the next—this could be a situation to avoid. However, Brown should come at a value in fantasy drafts, and the door may be open for him to expand his role as the season progresses.
Meanwhile, Woodhead should continue to be productive as the Chargers’ primary pass-catcher out of the backfield and change-of-pace running back. If the injury-prone Mathews were to miss time, Woodhead’s role should not change, and Brown should take over Mathews’ workload.
Even though he did not miss a single game in the 2013 regular season or postseason (for the first time in his four-year career), Mathews did suffer a high-ankle sprain in Week 16 that limited his touches and production in the postseason. He totaled just 18 carries in those games, rushing for 78 yards and no touchdowns.
His ability to play through his injury showed toughness that he had not displayed in years past. However, his fortitude did not pay off in production. Now with Brown at the ready, the Chargers would likely rest Mathews if such a situation were to arise in 2014.
Christine Michael, Seattle Seahawks (handcuff to Marshawn Lynch)
A 2013 second-round pick out of Texas A&M, Christine Michael sits on the Seahawks’ depth chart behind “Beast Mode," Marshawn Lynch. Lynch co-led the league in rushing touchdowns in 2013 and was second in rushing attempts behind LeSean McCoy. It goes without saying that Michael’s handcuff role is one of enormous upside.
Before the 2013 draft, NFL Network’s Mike Mayock described Michael as “the most gifted tailback in this class,” explaining that he fell out of the first round due to his off-field issues and injury history.
In college, he recovered from a broken leg and torn ACL in back-to-back seasons. Spanning his sophomore and junior years, he showed promise on the field, totaling 1,530 yards and 12 touchdowns in 13 games. Then, during his senior year, he feuded with Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin, resulting in decreased touches and a one-game suspension.
At the NFL Scouting Combine, the 5’10”, 221-pound back showed off his freakish athleticism, including the highest vertical leap ever recorded by a running back (43 inches), per NFL.com. His talent was enough to convince Seattle head coach Pete Carroll that Michael was worthy of the team’s first pick in 2013.
At this year’s combine in February, the coach praised Michael’s abilities and suggested that the second-year back could compete for more work in 2013. According to Mike Wilkening of NBC Sports, Carroll commented:
“[Michael is] really talented and he’s a really exciting guy in our program. Probably has the most breakout potential out of anybody because you haven’t seen much of him yet. We’ve seen him, we know that he can do really special stuff…He played in a very competitive position. It was hard to get in there with Marshawn [Lynch] and Robert Turbin there. But he’ll give those guys a real run when we come back to work. He’ll grow a lot from Year One to Year Two…We all know in our program that he’s going to be very explosive and a really exciting guy. He showed that in his chances that he had.”
Seattle fans apparently agree with Carroll, voting Michael as the Seahawks player most likely to break out next season in an ESPN.com survey.
With more than 400 touches in Seattle’s Super Bowl-winning season, Lynch’s extreme workload could spell trouble for the eighth-year rusher in 2014. More often than not, backs coming off such a high volume season experience a “staggering” decline in production or succumb to injury the following year, per Jamey Eisenberg of CBS Sports.
Lynch, 28, has two years left on his contract with Seattle. Retaining him for the 2015 season will cost Seattle a $9 million cap hit, per Spotrac.com. With several Seahawks starters in line for major contract extensions—quarterback Russell Wilson and cornerback Richard Sherman, to name a couple—Seattle may want to see what it has in Michael this year before offering Lynch another big-money deal.
Knile Davis, Kansas City Chiefs (handcuff to Jamaal Charles)
The Chiefs selected Davis in the third round of the 2013 NFL draft. The 22-year-old hails from Arkansas, where he earned first-team All-SEC honors as a sophomore.
Still a very raw, young talent, he is a threat to break off a big play any time he touches the ball. Though his skills in pass protection may leave something to be desired, his all-around game seemed to improve significantly throughout his rookie campaign.
The team made it clear at the end of 2013 that he is the unquestioned backup. After receiving minimal work for most of the year, he totaled 45 carries in a meaningless Week 17 game and a postseason game against the Colts where Jamaal Charles left with a head injury. His production was solid in those two contests, as he racked up four touchdowns and 186 total yards.
Davis also left with an injury in the playoff loss to the Colts, suffering a broken leg. Fortunately, he did not require surgery to repair the injured leg. The Kansas City Star's Terez Paylor reported that head coach Andy Reid declared Davis as “healed” and “doing everything” during the team’s offseason conditioning program.
With former Kansas City running back Dexter McCluster now a Tennessee Titan, the Chiefs backfield is essentially barren behind Charles and Davis.
Charles accrued more than 300 touches each of the past two seasons since missing nearly all of 2011 with a knee injury. Kansas City may opt to decrease this number in 2014, attempting to preserve the team’s centerpiece whenever possible. This could open the door for Davis to see more work, likely as a change-of-pace back when the team chooses to rest Charles.
Davis also exhibited his elusiveness as a kick returner in 2013, including a 108-yard kickoff return touchdown—the longest play in Chiefs history.
Like Charles, Davis' versatile skill set allows the Chiefs to utilize him in various game situations. Considering that Kansas City relies on Charles for nearly 40 percent of its total offense, handcuffing him with the team’s only viable backup is a wise investment.
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