Fantasy Football 2014: The Smart Owner's Guide to Running Back Handcuffs
To handcuff or not to handcuff? That is the question for fantasy football owners of stud running backs.
We’ve all experienced the panic when our team’s No. 1 RB suffers a serious injury. Owning a high-value backup could save your season; meanwhile, replacing your starter with a depth chart dud may only make things worse.
So, which handcuffs are worth your while and which belong among the waiver wire dregs? And for teams splitting touches in a running back by committee (RBBC), which committee members offer the best value and what situations should be avoided?
With so many teams taking different approaches to the run game in today’s NFL, it can be difficult to sort out which backup running backs possess the greatest potential return on investment.
But, fear not! The following guide is here to look at each team’s running back situation, providing clarity on which handcuffs are vital insurance policies and which are better left filling up space on someone else’s roster.
- They are not expected to be in a RBBC (i.e. will have limited touches as a backup).
- They are the most likely successor to their team’s starter.
- They've shown proven ability to produce at a high level in the NFL, or have tremendous upside based on perceived talent and/or their current team situation.
Let’s begin with the essentials. There are a handful of guys in the league that are must-own backups to stud running backs. Due to a league-wide decrease in workhorse backs and the change to an increasingly pass-friendly league, there is a scarcity of indispensable second-stringers in the NFL—and with great scarcity comes great value.
The following three criteria apply to each player in this group:
Knile Davis, Kansas City Chiefs (handcuff to Jamaal Charles)
Davis sits behind the top fantasy running back from 2013 as the Chiefs’ unquestioned handcuff. His skills are raw and developing, but the former All-SEC burner out of Arkansas possesses serious ability. Stepping in for Charles in Week 17 of last season as well as the Chiefs’ playoff game against the Colts, Davis racked up an impressive 45 rushing attempts, four touchdowns and 186 total yards. Like Charles, Davis is versatile and elusive with elite-level playmaking ability. In an offense where Charles totaled nearly 40 percent of the team’s production last year, Davis’ handcuff role is one of the most valuable in the league.
Donald Brown, San Diego Chargers (handcuff to Ryan Mathews)
Despite beginning the 2013 season way back on the Indianapolis Colts’ depth chart, Brown finished the year as the team’s starter. Yes, his rise to prominence was partly due to injuries suffered by teammates Ahmad Bradshaw and Vick Ballard; however, he ultimately earned the starting gig based on high-level production—his 5.3 yards per rushing attempt ranked second among running backs in 2013. The Chargers signed Brown this offseason to be the understudy to Mathews, the team’s designated bell cow with a lengthy injury history. With a similar running style to Mathews, Brown could easily step into the lead role, if necessary.
LeGarrette Blount, Pittsburgh Steelers (handcuff to Le’Veon Bell)
After a bounce-back year in New England, Blount now finds himself backing up second-year Steeler stud Le’Veon Bell. At 6’0” and 250 pounds, Pittsburgh now boasts two big, bruising downhill runners with breakaway speed. Similarly to Brown and Davis, Blount had the opportunity to lead his team’s backfield at the end of 2013 and made the most of his touches—355 yards and six touchdowns over a two-game stretch that included a postseason game. If Bell, who missed three games due to injury at the start of last year, were to get banged up again, Blount should immediately assume duties as the primary ball carrier.
C.J. Anderson, Denver Broncos (handcuff to Montee Ball)
Denver’s leading rusher from last season, Knowshon Moreno, is now in Miami, leaving Montee Ball as the team’s presumed lead back. And behind Ball is former undrafted free agent C.J. Anderson, currently a “lock” in the backup role, according to Broncos’ insider Cecil Lammey:
With the RBs the #Broncos added as UDFAs there is no "lock" at RB outside of Montee Ball and CJ Anderson in my opinion
— Cecil Lammey (@cecillammey) May 18, 2014
Anderson moves into “must-own” territory following the NFL draft where Denver decided to pass on running backs, limiting competition for the team’s handcuff. Sitting one step away from the lead role in a Peyton Manning-led offense boosts Anderson’s value for 2014.
Roy Helu, Washington (handcuff to Alfred Morris)
Helu excels as a receiver out of the backfield—a skill favorable to Washington’s new head coach Jay Gruden. Formerly the offensive coordinator for the Cincinnati Bengals, Gruden brings to the beltway a pass-heavy West Coast offense. Morris has clearly earned starting duties after totaling nearly 3,000 yards and 20 touchdowns in his first two NFL seasons, however, his receiving ability is limited. Helu could see his role in the offense expand this year, and he would almost certainly step in as the primary back should Morris miss any time.
Tre Mason, St. Louis Rams (handcuff to Zac Stacy)
The newest addition to the list of top-tier handcuffs is Mason, rookie out of Auburn. The Rams’ current starter is Stacy, who burst onto the fantasy scene last year, blowing away his competition while regularly shouldering 25-plus carries per game when healthy. Now considered a consensus top-12 running back for 2014, Stacy finally received some backfield competition in the draft when St. Louis selected Mason in the third round. The 5’9”, 205-pound stomper shares a similar skill set to Stacy and should win the backup role without much trouble.
Christine Michael, Seattle Seahawks (handcuff to Marshawn Lynch)
Michael entered the NFL in 2013 with major upside and major question marks. On one hand, Michael is an athletic freak who flashed enormous pro-level potential in his college years at Texas A&M. On the other hand, the former second-round pick has a track record of injuries and off-field behavioral issues. His “must-own” status as a handcuff to Marshawn “Beast Mode” Lynch is due to a combination of his talent and situation. Head coach Pete Carroll has expressed his faith in Michael as a “breakout” candidate in 2014. His opportunity is truly great as Seattle is top-two in rushing attempts each of the last two seasons.
Smart Handcuff Adds
And that does it for the “must-own” guys.
The three running backs in the next group do not meet all of the aforementioned criteria befitting of a “true” backup handcuff. That being said, the following players would likely see a significant jump in value should their team’s starter go down. All are smart additions for owners of each team’s lead back.
Darren Sproles, Philadelphia Eagles (handcuff to LeSean McCoy)
Head coach Chip Kelly added another toy to his offensive arsenal this offseason when he signed former Saints’ versatile back Darren Sproles. Kelly loves to get his skill players in space, making the shifty Sproles an ideal fit for his scheming. The 10-year back boasts 378 career receptions, so Kelly should have no trouble establishing a Nick Foles-to-Sproles connection. Never totaling more than 100 rushing attempts in a season, Sproles is not a workhorse back like LeSean McCoy; however, he is a dangerous weapon who Kelly would likely rely on if McCoy missed time.
Joique Bell, Detroit Lions (handcuff to Reggie Bush)
Detroit’s offense is shaping up to be a fantasy juggernaut in 2014. First of all, there’s a new coaching staff with a track record of offensive success with the Colts, Saints and Ravens. Secondly, the team added two major passing threats in Golden Tate and first-round draft pick Eric Ebron. And finally, the Lions boast one of the best one-two backfield punches in the league with Bush and Bell. If the offense clicks, each of these weapons should have substantial fantasy value. Bell is especially in a position to succeed. He’s earned a decent workload as a reliable pass-catcher and power runner, and has the potential to explode if Bush is injured.
Fred Jackson and Bryce Brown, Buffalo Bills (handcuffs to C.J. Spiller)
There’s a lot of fantasy value to be found in the Buffalo Bills backfield. The team had the most rushing attempts in the NFL in 2013 by a significant margin and produced a top-10 fantasy running back each of the last two years (Spiller in 2012, Jackson in 2013). When healthy, Spiller is presumed to be more valuable for fantasy, but his health is a legitimate concern. Owning Jackson is a smart move for Spiller owners considering neither back led the team in rushing more than two consecutive weeks last season. The Bills also added Brown in May, likely as insurance for Spiller. Brown’s breakaway ability makes him a value as a late-round handcuff.
Handcuff Battles to Watch
Due to offseason moves in free agency and the draft, a handful of NFL teams currently have depth chart question marks. Each of the following teams has a clear starter—and, in many cases, a workhorse—but the handcuff role is yet to be determined.
Some of these roster spot competitions are particularly important for fantasy purposes, considering several lead backs have significant injury history. Once these depth chart battles play out, there could be a few more premium handcuffs worth drafting in all leagues.
In lieu of a definitive handcuff for each team, I've projected the best value backup option when accounting for each player’s expected draft cost.
San Francisco 49ers (handcuff to Frank Gore)
Candidates: Kendall Hunter, Carlos Hyde, Marcus Lattimore, LaMichael James
Best Cost-Value Projection for 2014: Carlos Hyde
Big names, crowded backfield. As Gore, 31, enters his 10th year in the league, the battle for his successor may be the most intriguing of the remaining handcuff situations in terms of fantasy.
Cleveland Browns (handcuff to Ben Tate)
Candidates: Dion Lewis, Terrance West, Isaiah Crowell
Best Cost-Value Projection for 2014: Terrance West
The Browns signed Tate this offseason to a barren backfield looking for its bell cow. While Tate is presumed to carry the load in Cleveland, rookies West and Crowell could impress in training camp.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (handcuff to Doug Martin)
Candidates: Mike James, Bobby Rainey, Charles Sims
Best Cost-Value Projection for 2014: Charles Sims
Martin received medical clearance back in March and is in line to resume duties as Tampa Bay’s workhorse. James and Rainey flashed solid production last year in Martin’s 10-game absence, but Sims is a talented rookie prospect with great pass-catching ability.
Green Bay Packers (handcuff to Eddie Lacy)
Candidates: James Starks, Jonathan Franklin, DuJuan Harris
Best Cost-Value Projection for 2014: Jonathan Franklin
It didn’t take long for Lacy to take full reign over Green Bay’s backfield as a rookie. Who sits directly behind him is not quite as clear. Starks has longevity with the team but Franklin could offer greater upside.
Atlanta Falcons (handcuff to Steven Jackson)
Candidates: Jacquizz Rodgers, Devonta Freeman
Best Cost-Value Projection for 2014: Devonta Freeman
Jackson will enter his 11th pro season at age 31 with over 2,500 regular-season carries on his résumé. Rodgers has failed to impress in his backup role, and recent reports suggest Freeman’s stock is quickly rising.
Cincinnati Bengals (handcuff to Giovani Bernard)
Candidates: BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Jeremy Hill
Best Cost-Value Projection for 2014: Jeremy Hill
Gio will undoubtedly receive the most touches in this backfield, but Hill and Green-Ellis are both goal-line threats. Hill’s superior talent should bump him ahead of the “Law Firm” as the season progresses.
Dallas Cowboys (handcuff to DeMarco Murray)
Candidates: Lance Dunbar, Joseph Randle, Ryan Williams
Best Cost-Value Projection for 2014: Lance Dunbar
Murray finally broke out in 2013, but still poses a relatively high injury risk to his owners. Neither Randle nor Joseph has earned the No. 2 role outright, and recent addition Williams has a lot to prove. New offensive coordinator Scott Linehan reportedly prefers Dunbar for now.
Houston Texans (handcuff to Arian Foster)
Candidates: Andre Brown, Dennis Johnson, Deji Karim
Best Cost-Value Projection for 2014: Andre Brown
The Texans swapped one injury-prone backup for another when they signed Brown to replace Tate as the handcuff to Foster. There’s not much of a backup battle here, but Brown’s inability to stay on the field makes Karim and Johnson mildly relevant.
Minnesota Vikings (handcuff to Adrian Peterson)
Candidates: Matt Asiata, Jerick McKinnon, Joe Banyard
Best Cost-Value Projection for 2014: Matt Asiata
With Norv Turner onboard as the Vikings’ new offensive coordinator, Peterson could be poised for another monster season. His handcuff role is a valuable one, but no back stands out at this time. Asiata is most likely to get the job but is not worth a roster spot.
Arizona Cardinals (handcuff to Andre Ellington)
Candidates: Stepfan Taylor, Jonathan Dwyer
Best Cost-Value Projection for 2014: Stepfan Taylor
Ellington is unlikely to receive an extreme workload, which means other backs will get touches. Dwyer is the more likely goal line vulture but Taylor possesses greater upside.
Waiver-Wire Handcuffs and Committees to Beware
The three following backup running backs should offer less upside than the handcuffs profiled in previous groups. Their perceived value is limited, so each player will likely be found on the waiver wire during the season. Due to the aforementioned scarcity of starting running backs, these players still possess some inherent value—assuming their team does not sign a veteran to start ahead of them.
- Ka’Deem Carey, Chicago Bears (handcuff to Matt Forte)
- Jordan Todman, Jacksonville Jaguars (handcuff to Toby Gerhart)
- Bernard Pierce, Baltimore Ravens (handcuff to Ray Rice)
Beware These Running Back by Committees
The remaining teams are poised to employ a running-back-by-committee approach in 2014. Nothing gives owners a fantasy headache quite like the dreaded RBBC.
Predicting week-to-week touches and finding the best value for fantasy can be difficult in these scenarios. In many cases, the starting running back for each team is yet to be determined and a 50-50 (or 40-30-30) split in touches is entirely possible.
In general, fantasy owners are better off avoiding the following committees in favor of rostering players with a clear path to a starting role. That being said, the primary ball-carriers listed below are still draft-worthy in most leagues.
Carolina Panthers RBBC:
DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart, Mike Tolbert, Kenjon Barner
New England Patriots RBBC:
Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, Brandon Bolden, James White
New Orleans Saints RBBC:
Pierre Thomas, Mark Ingram, Khiry Robinson
New York Giants RBBC:
Rashad Jennings, David Wilson, Peyton Hillis, Andre Williams
New York Jets RBBC:
Chris Johnson, Chris Ivory, Bilal Powell, Mike Goodson
Miami Dolphins RBBC:
Knowshon Moreno, Lamar Miller, Daniel Thomas
Oakland Raiders RBBC:
Darren McFadden, Maurice Jones-Drew, Latavius Murray, Marcel Reece
Indianapolis Colts RBBC:
Trent Richardson, Ahmad Bradshaw, Vick Ballard
Tennessee Titans RBBC:
Bishop Sankey, Shonn Greene, Jackie Battle
All statistics courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com unless otherwise indicated.
James Paradis is a fantasy football featured columnist for Bleacher Report. Be sure to check out his entire archive on fantasy strategy and analysis.
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