Running backs are as important in fantasy football as ever before, even with the NFL passing the ball as often as the CFL or Texas Tech nowadays.
And because running backs are so susceptible to both injuries and losing their jobs after a couple bad games, fantasy football owners know that they have to be more prudent in drafting second-string running backs than they do kickers and defenses in many cases.
There are so many handcuff running backs that fantasy owners should be looking at in the later rounds that there are too many for just one column, so let’s focus on a conference at a time.
Here are the top AFC handcuff running backs for fantasy owners to consider when they draft this week:
Knowshon Moreno, Miami Dolphins
The NFL is unfair. Moreno goes from being Peyton Manning’s righthand man and racking up a career-high 1,587 combined yards as Denver’s top tailback to probably being Lamar Miller’s understudy. Long snappers are treated better than running backs these days.
Moreno may end up winning the job outright because Miller has not been running like Gale Sayers in preseason contests (14 carries for 48 yards), although the oft-injured Moreno suffered a knee injury during camp that stunted his chances of overtaking Miller on the depth chart early on.
Moreno is the better all-around back. He can catch passes and pick up blitzes better than Miller, he is more experienced and he might even be the better runner, too, although we will really see how talented Moreno is running behind Miami’s porous offensive line without the benefit of Manning forcing front sevens to back off.
Moreno might technically be a handcuff back for now, but he has an excellent chance of reversing roles with Miller in Miami.
Chris Ivory, New York Jets
Ivory set career highs last year with 182 carries for 833 rushing yards, as he finally got the opportunity to split time as a semi-starter after three years as a third-string and fourth-string tailback in New Orleans.
Too bad he is back to being a backup.
Chris Johnson signed with New York in the offseason and has rushed for over 1,000 yards in each of his six NFL seasons. He was not signed to touch the ball 10 times per game. He was brought in to be the home run threat the Jets have lacked for several seasons.
That being said, Johnson has not had the explosiveness he has had in recent seasons, and Ivory is the perfect power complement to Johnson’s speedy, break-no-tackles running style. If Johnson gets 15-17 touches each week, Ivory should get 10-12.
Look for Ivory’s yardage numbers to go down but for his touchdown total to go up, as he will likely become the goal-line runner since Johnson is not one for lowering his head and getting tough yards.
James White, New England Patriots
Stevan Ridley might be one fumble away from being locked in Bill Belichick’s doghouse permanently, so get the Pupperonis ready for him.
White is an unknown commodity. His small sample size of preseason carries makes him as mysterious as Jay-Z and Beyonce’s relationship. He has as good a chance at becoming a touchdown machine as he does at being a fourth-stringer with as much fantasy value this year as Josh Gordon.
Shane Vereen will likely see the field more than any other Patriots running back, but that does not mean White would not have value if he blows past Ridley on the depth chart. In that scenario, White could average 12-15 carries per game and score several touchdowns. He is worth a late-round flier.
Bernard Pierce, Baltimore Ravens
How many handcuff running backs get to start the first two weeks of the season? Pierce is probably the only one, so that gives him some extra value.
Pierce is a straightforward runner who can barrel ahead for four to six yards per carry, provided his offensive line can create holes and push defenders back. That was the case in 2012, when Pierce was a rookie sensation who averaged 4.9 yards per carry. That was not the case in 2013, and Pierce was tackled more often in the backfield than past the line of scrimmage and averaged just 2.9 yards per carry.
Baltimore has revamped its offensive line, so look for Pierce to run more like he did as a rookie. If Rice falters when he returns, the top tailback spot is Pierce’s. His only problem getting out of the gate is that Baltimore’s first two games are against Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, two teams that stop the run and could shut down Pierce’s audition for the starting job.
Terrance West, Cleveland Browns
Ben Tate seems to have a stranglehold on the No. 1 RB spot in Cleveland, and because of their lack of receivers the Browns will probably keep things conservative offensively. No Gordon plus Miles Austin as the No. 1 receiver equals hand the ball off as often as a college team that runs the wishbone.
Here is what we know about West: He is a rookie out of Towson who is second on the depth chart behind Tate. That is about it. What is more important is everything fantasy owners know about Tate.
Tate is an injury-prone runner who could never stay on the field in Houston despite being a backup who was not asked to carry too heavy of a workload during his tenure. And now the jury is definitely out on if he can keep himself healthy as a full-time starter with Cleveland.
Picking West in the last few rounds as a Tate insurance policy is intelligent. He could be a bust like Willis McGahee was after he hand a chance for more carries in Cleveland last year, or maybe West runs like Bryce Brown did in 2012 for the Philadelphia Eagles after LeSean McCoy went down (347 yards and four touchdowns in two games). But the one thing fantasy owners are sure of is that he will see some playing time since Tate is the starter.
Ahmad Bradshaw, Indianapolis Colts
Trent Richardson is one of the shakiest starting running backs in the NFL. The guy ran like a slower Jason Snelling last season, and I have not seen any reports that he has been running like Usain Bolt in the preseason.
Bradshaw was re-signed by Indianapolis to add some depth, but as soon as Vick Ballard suffered a season-ending injury about a minute into training camp, Bradshaw hopped up the depth chart right behind Richardson.
The problem is Bradshaw is to backup running backs what Michael Vick is to backup quarterbacks: He is one shoestring tackle away from forcing the third-stringer to come in. But Bradshaw has a better chance than most backup tailbacks at becoming a starter, so he has to be recognized on fantasy draft day.
Donald Brown, San Diego Chargers
Brown went from fantasy flop to fantasy find in 2013 when he finally played to his potential, setting new career highs with 5.3 yards per carry and eight total touchdowns. Brown turned his successful season into a halfway decent contract to play for San Diego.
Ryan Mathews stayed hamstring-pull-free and fumble-free for most of the 2013 campaign, but odds are that he will not be so lucky two years in a row. With Danny Woodhead stuck as the situational back, Brown would be the beneficiary of a Mathews meltdown.
Humans might have a better chance at moving to Pluto than Brown has of averaging 5.3 yards per carry again this year, but a Mathews malfunction could mean Brown rushes for 700-900 yards and eight touchdowns, so he has to be a handcuff if you take Mathews in your drafts.