Fantasy Football 2014: Breaking Down the Best Handcuffs at RB
Running backs are precious commodities in fantasy football nowadays.
The workhorse is a dying breed, making their backups important assets. Should the starter go down, the handcuff is liable to take over and grab the opportunity to score fantasy points. But which ones are the best?
To be considered a handcuff, a running back should be a true backup or close to it. Many backfields are in a committee these days, meaning guys like Lamar Miller in Miami, Donald Brown in San Diego, Shane Vereen in New England and Darren McFadden in Oakland don't really count, because they should see significant playing time.
Jerick McKinnon: Minnesota Vikings
It doesn't matter much who Adrian Peterson's backup is, he is at least a decent handcuff.
With Toby Gerhart gone, Jerick McKinnon should be that man over Matt Asiata, at least once the preseason dust has settled.
We got a preview of what Asiata brings to the table—he gained some notoriety by scoring three touchdowns in the first start of his career, but he averaged just 3.8 yards per carry.
Asiata isn't fooling anyone—he is a lumbering back with little pass-catching ability. He offers little upside if Peterson goes down.
Jerick McKinnon was drafted in the third round, and he will likely see more action in the event of a Peterson catastrophe. How much remains to be seen, given that he was a read-option quarterback in college. McKinnon did dominate the NFL combine, which makes him an intriguing option as the handcuff in Minnesota.
He has a hill to climb to get to the No. 2 job, but McKinnon comes cheap—he is currently being drafted as the 76th running back. In other words, he can be had for a song, a good price if you drafted Adrian Peterson at the top of the draft.
Ronnie Hillman: Denver Broncos
Most running backs who play with Peyton Manning put up healthy fantasy numbers.
That man was Knowshon Moreno last season, and Montee Ball should reap those benefits with Moreno gone this season. Moreno was a revelation in 2013, scoring the fifth-most standard fantasy points in the league while being a multifaceted threat out of that backfield.
Ball did have fumbling issues last season, which is the biggest reason why he didn't get more action as a rookie. If those problems with ball security return, third-year running back Ronnie Hillman could be in for some serious playing time.
Hillman has been a disappointment for the Broncos. The former third-round pick was touted as a Darren Sproles-like pass-catcher, but he has simply been unable to get onto the field. The Broncos may not have a choice if Ball falters, making Hillman a nice handcuff option given where he plays.
Ka'Deem Carey: Chicago Bears
Ka'Deem Carey takes over for Michael Bush, the once-great handcuff and Matt Forte's backup, in Chicago this season.
Carey's game isn't too dissimilar to Bush's—a big, bruising back with little pass-catching prowess. But he is one turned ankle away from a lead role in a powerful offense.
Forte is among the top running backs taken in fantasy drafts, making Carey a valuable handcuff in the later rounds. He is currently being drafted as the 62nd running back off the board, an appropriate value for a guy who might not see the field if Forte stays healthy.
Roy Helu: Washington
Roy Helu is a bit of a forgotten man in Washington.
Alfred Morris stormed into the league with a vengeance as a rookie back in 2012, a sixth-rounder who wound up fifth in standard fantasy scoring. He fell off a bit last season, winding up 14th in fantasy scoring thanks to some stolen touchdown opportunities.
Helu, meanwhile, languished below him on the depth chart for the most part, unable to contribute much due to injury or Morris' stranglehold on the job. The latter might not be the case under new coaching, however.
The fourth-year back caught 49 passes as a rookie, but injuries wiped out his 2012 season and he has been unable to gain traction since. He quietly averaged 4.4 yards per carry last season, however, and he had a couple of big games when he got increased opportunity.
Morris should still be the starter barring unforeseen circumstances, and Helu will be his primary backup. Should Morris falter or get injured, Helu will be in a prime position to put up a ton of fantasy points.
Terrance West: Cleveland Browns
The Cleveland Browns signed Ben Tate in free agency, addressing the position in a big and much-needed way. They didn't stop there, though, nabbing Terrance West in the third round of the draft and signing Isaiah Crowell as an undrafted free agent.
West is a record-breaking running back out of Towson, having run for an eye-popping 2,509 yards at a 6.1 yards-per-carry clip. It was against Division II competition, but that kind of production raises an eyebrow or two regardless.
The veteran should garner the majority of the playing time, even if the rookies have a nice preseason.
Considering Tate's injury history, it's a good bet West will get some playing time as a rookie. It wouldn't be surprising to see him sharing time with Crowell or Dion Lewis, but West would be the best option in the event of injuries or subpar play.
Tre Mason: St. Louis Rams
Zac Stacy did a nice job last season for the St. Louis Rams after taking over as the starter in Week 5. He ran for 973 yards and seven touchdowns, making anyone who picked him up or took a shot on him on waivers a happy camper.
He heads into the 2014 season as the presumptive starter and lead back in the Rams backfield. But he does have rookie Tre Mason in his rearview mirror.
Mason was arguably the best running back in the draft, and the Rams were able to snag him in the third round thanks to a general lack of enthusiasm for the position. He hails from Auburn, where he scored 24 total touchdowns last season.
There is a chance Mason actually plays his way into a timeshare with Stacy by the time the preseason is over, but that remains to be seen.
Knile Davis: Kansas City Chiefs
Jamaal Charles is the man in Kansas City.
Last season he altogether accounted for 74 percent of the backfield's carries and the most targets in the passing game. No wonder he was the top fantasy back in the land.
He will reprise his role as do-it-all lead back for the Chiefs this season, leaving little room for other backs like backup Knile Davis to get on the field. But taking Charles will require a top-three pick in your draft, and a little insurance might be in order.
Davis will take over for Charles in case of roster emergency, making him a rather valuable handcuff, even if his 3.5 yards-per-carry average as a rookie isn't particularly enticing.
Andre Brown: Houston Texans
There isn't anything particularly palatable about Andre Brown's game. But he is Arian Foster's primary backup, and that gives him some value as a handcuff.
Brown did have a nice 2012 season, scoring eight touchdowns with the New York Giants and averaging 5.3 yards per attempt. That was on a relatively limited sample size, though—just 85 touches.
Of course, that may have been because Brown broke his leg for the second time in as many years. He never really got going and wound up averaging just 3.5 yards per carry.
Brown might actually find himself on the field a decent amount if the Houston Texans run the ball a ton, a distinct possibility with Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback.
Jeremy Hill: Cincinnati Bengals
It will be interesting to see who the No. 2 running back in Cincinnati will be once the preseason winds down.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis was the starter last season, despite the early emergence of rookie Giovani Bernard. The latter was far more efficient and productive than the former, but the Cincinnati staff wanted to keep their rookie fresh.
In other words, the Law Firm got plenty of run last year despite averaging just 3.4 yards per carry to Bernard's 4.1 and catching 52 fewer passes. That shouldn't happen this season—if Bernard repeats or exceeds the quality of play he had as a rookie, he should take over as the starter.
But there is the little matter of second-round running back Jeremy Hill.
Hill was the second running back taken in the 2014 draft despite some off-field issues that threatened to sink his draft stock. The selection put Green-Ellis on notice, and Hill could very well overtake the veteran on the depth chart sooner than later.
The likelihood is that Green-Ellis and Hill will split time behind Bernard, who will be the main man. In fact, this will likely be pretty close to a timeshare that should have disqualified Hill from this list.
This is certainly a situation to watch in Cincinnati over the next month.
Carlos Hyde: San Francisco 49ers
The San Francisco 49ers have been trying to find Frank Gore's heir for years. They may have finally found him in rookie Carlos Hyde, whom they took in the second round of this year's draft.
Hyde comes over from Ohio State having averaged 6.1 yards per carry for his career and 7.3 last season. He won't be putting up those kinds of numbers in the NFL, but Hyde was touted by some as the best running back prospect in the 2014 draft.
Despite his advanced age for a NFL running back, Gore should be the starter and main man in 2014. He hasn't missed a game in three years.
The backfield in San Francisco is crowded, so Hyde won't likely have the job to himself if he does wind up taking over for Gore at some point. Second-year back Marcus Lattimore will be a particular thorn in Hyde's side if he is fully healthy and performing to expectations.
In fact, Lattimore might be the handcuff by the time the preseason ends, so it would behoove fantasy owners to keep an eye on the backfield situation in San Francisco throughout the preseason.
Christine Michael: Seattle Seahawks
Christine Michael was a preseason darling in 2013, setting second-string defenses aflame and fantasy owners aflutter.
Last year's second-round pick by the Seahawks averaged 5.0 yards per carry on 40 attempts, including a scintillating 43-yard touchdown scamper against the Green Bay Packers. His performance launched a thousand tweets and put him on many a fantasy radar.
Unfortunately, Michael was destined for fantasy irrelevance behind lead back Marshawn Lynch and his backup, Robert Turbin.
The situation hasn't changed much this season, at least as far as the depth chart is concerned. A year of seasoning might have helped nudge him closer to overtaking Turbin, but it will still likely be the Marshawn Lynch Show with a side of Turbin and a dash of Michael.
If Michael impresses this preseason again, it might be difficult to keep him off the field. If Lynch misses time, though, it is easy to see Michael becoming a force in the fantasy realm.
LeGarrette Blount: Pittsburgh Steelers
LeGarrette Blount's career was left for dead in Tampa Bay. A trade to the New England Patriots and an improbable renaissance breathed new life into it, however, and the Steelers signed him to back up Le'Veon Bell in Pittsburgh this season.
Blount had a fantastic season in New England, averaging 5.2 yards per carry and 2.7 yards after contact per carry, both among the league leaders. He got stronger as the year wore on, exploding for 461 yards and eight touchdowns over the final two regular season and first postseason games before the Patriots gave him five carries against the Denver Broncos.
Le'Veon Bell should be the starter in Pittsburgh, and he should build on a nice rookie season. He did average an alarmingly low 3.5 yards per carry, however, and Mike Tomlin has been known for juggling running backs in recent years.
If Bell starts out slow and Blount gets hot, you might have the waiver wire pickup of the season on your roster before everyone else is scrambling to get him.
Lance Dunbar: Dallas Cowboys
The Dallas Cowboys drafted Joseph Randle—a draftnik favorite—in the fifth round of the 2013 draft. He was underwhelming, however, averaging an awful 3.0 yards per carry behind starter DeMarco Murray and ranking among the worst running backs in the league, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Lance Dunbar, on the other hand, averaged a healthy 5.0 yards per carry. Not only that, Dunbar tied for the league lead with 3.8 yards after contact per carry last season among backs with more than 20 carries. He did have just 30, however.
Of course, Randle's rookie performance doesn't mean he will continue to plod into his sophomore season. Dunbar averaged 3.6 yards per carry as a rookie himself, after all. But right now the latter is the horse to bet on as the No. 2 in that backfield.
Why does this matter? Well, DeMarco Murray hasn't exactly been the picture of health since the Cowboys drafted him. Last season was his healthiest one, and he still missed two games.
James Starks: Green Bay Packers
Once upon a time, James Starks was a hot name in the fantasy football realm. He had just come off a nice postseason run after his rookie season in 2010. He was a disappointment in 2011 and injuries plagued him in 2012.
The Green Bay Packers took Eddie Lacy in the second round of the 2013 draft, and he proceeded to give them an award-worthy rookie year. The reigning Rookie of the Year is primed for a big sophomore campaign if his inaugural season was any indication.
Starks is next in line should something happen to Lacy, however, and he is in the best situation as a handcuff for the 2014 season.
The five-year veteran was quietly fantastic last season, averaging 5.5 yards per carry and 3.0 yards after contact per carry on 89 rushing attempts. That's a healthy sample size for a guy who played double-digit offensive snaps just seven times last season.
Both averages were far better than Lacy's, incidentally.
Second-year back Johnathan Franklin was the unfortunate victim of a neck injury that ended his career. That means Starks has the backfield to himself if Lacy gets knocked out of action, making him incredibly valuable in that high-powered offense.