2015 Fantasy Football: Who Are This Year's Top Handcuffs at RB?

Jim McCormick@@_JimmyMcCormickFeatured ColumnistAugust 18, 2015

2015 Fantasy Football: Who Are This Year's Top Handcuffs at RB?

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    Morry Gash/Associated Press

    Handcuffing is a familiar fantasy football strategy. It is essentially the act of acquiring a starting tailback's primary backup, as a measure of insurance—and it's often an overused and mismanaged crutch for investors.

    Say you've picked the Indianapolis Colts to win the Super Bowl with 8-1 odds for a title. Let's assume they make it to that final Sunday of the season and you have the opportunity to reasonably hedge this risk by placing enough on the NFC participant to ensure a net profit regardless of the game's outcome. By hedging, one can minimize the potentially big return, and subsequent risk, of simply riding the Colts, in guaranteeing a margin of victory seldom found in the wagering arena by diluting the risk with bets on both sides of the outcome spectrum.

    In fantasy football, investors would like to think that in netting a top running back and his understudy, they gain some level of uncommon control over a team's tailback depth chart. However, we are offered no assurance in owning Cameron Artis-Payne that he is really a capable hedge for any potential production losses an injury to Jonathan Stewart might incite.

    We all want to feel good about the expensive and fragile sports car we've just purchased, but to what end should we pursue expensive and at times incompatible insurance policies in order to gain what amounts to a false sense of security?

    OK, we're done with complicated comparisons and we'll just go ahead and say it: Handcuffing is in most cases a mismanaged attempt at hedging. Hedging, when done properly, offers a no-lose window. Handcuffing, even when done properly, simply offers a greater share of potential outcomes.

    By nature, handcuffing is a low-risk strategy that doesn't consistently produce low-risk results. Inherent in the idea of handcuffing is an assumption that the backup claims several key elements of the job description: he's truly next in line to assume a worthy percentage (say 80 percent of the feature back's workload) and then is subsequently actually productive with said opportunity. Basically, it's fine to handcuff when the criteria are satisfied, but I only find it useful in increasingly rare scenarios.

    We must also factor in the opportunity cost of rostering a player purely for insurance purposes; Mike Evans went off the board around Pick 109 last season, but such an upside investment can be compromised when Knile Davis is going in a similar pick range. There is also the cost of holding a roster spot all season for a player dependent on another's health and availability.

    Please do consider all of these factors as you head into your drafts. Handcuffing is a strategy bent on "not losing your league"and the cost can remove guys like Evans from your portfolio. 

    This isn't to say that in deeper leagues (12 teams and more) or those with long benches (six or more bench spots) that we shouldn't be interested in acquiring running backs in potentially rewarding situations. We can certainly find value in having inexpensive stakes in backfields on productive offenses.

    The broader takeaway I'm attempting to sell is for investors to take a contextual approach to deploying a handcuff strategy and not to feel beholden to the idea that in order to successfully draft a top tailback, one needs to also net their understudy. In the aim of adding some needed context to the league's more interesting handcuffing scenarios, we discuss some of the more compelling handcuff backfields entering the 2015 season.

Expensive Handcuffs: Ryan Mathews and Gio Bernard

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    Chris Szagola/Associated Press

    While Ryan Mathews and Giovani Bernard will likely serve different and specific roles for their respective offenses this season, they are bound by having fairly lofty price tags for being second on their respective backfield depth charts.

    With Bernard, owning him and lead back Jeremy Hill appears to be an untenable cost given current ADP (average draft position) trends from Fantasy Pros. There are valid arguments for Bernard to claim a worthy flex role alongside a healthy and productive Hill, but with Hill creeping into the first in many formats and Bernard leaving the board 73rd overall on average, it's simply too costly to net the tandem.

    I'd rather have a stake of another backfield for the same cost—taking Hill in the first or second and using a comparable ADP to Bernard's on an independent situationsay Ameer Abdullah, C.J. Spiller, Chris Ivory or Isaiah Crowell. In chasing consolidated backfields, we might appear to gain security, but in fact we often lose out on diversifying shares among our backfield investments.

    I like Bernard more than most, but at his current price, you can do just as well with Hill paired with some of these cheaper, and more immediately viable, ADP peers.

    Mathews, on the other hand, would stand to inherit a true feature workload in place of the Philadelphia Eagles' top tailback, DeMarco Murray, if the opportunity arose. I'm wary of investing in Murray this season in large part because I would feel compelled to pay the price to secure Mathews as well, given the valuable skill and upside overlap we find among the two backs that isn't as identifiable in most NFL backfields.

    According to ESPN Stats & Info, over the past two seasons the Eagles have rushed out of the shotgun 728 times, 54.5 percent more than the next closest team. Mathews and Murray rank first and second, respectively, in yards per rush in shotgun over the past two seasons. There's a valid argument for this being the most valuable backfield in fantasy football if investors can acquire both players (Mathews' ADP of 111.5 makes it a more reasonable pitch).

    Like I prefaced, handcuffing is a contextual approach, and the context of the Philly offense demands consolidation if one plans to maximize the investment. If I do land Murray, I would want to acquire Mathews in the eighth or ninth round, even if it belies investing tenets I've long held. Mathews is an asset I am completely comfortable acquiring without having Murray in tow, as Mathews vaults into the RB1 tier if he were to become the team's lead back.

Deny the Talent, but Knile Davis Is an Undeniably Valued Handcuff

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Knile Davis scored the third-most fantasy points among all tailbacks from Week 2 through Week 4 last season, as Jamaal Charles recovered from a lingering ankle ailment. Davis has proved, albeit in a small sample, capable of consuming a heavy workload in place of Charles.

    If Andy Reid trusts Davis to assume a similar workload, even with a lesser skill set, when Charles is unavailable to perform, then Davis assumes a greater market value than the majority of perceived handcuff commodities. How many other backup tailbacks in this league are in a comparable situation? 

    Similarly to the Eagles' depth chart, I would want to acquire Davis if I spent the premium on Charles, if only because we're similarly led to believe the backup asset can capably fulfill a high percentage of the fantasy output we expect from the starter.

    Fantasy Pros' ADP model has Davis going off the board with the 156th pick on average, although I imagine, again like Mathews in Philly, the actual draft-day price might be steeper (say around the 10th round, as opposed to the 14th). Davis isn't as talented or capable as he would like to tell you, but his undeniable value as an insurance policy has been established by previous usage precedents.

Insuring Eddie Lacy: The James Starks Policy

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Sports Injury Predictor is an interesting new fantasy endeavor that employs a logarithm that weights previous (injury) and impending (expected workload) factors in order to estimate a player's given injury risk. For the 2015 campaign, the site deems Green Bay's Eddie Lacy as the third-highest risk veteran tailback (behind only Andre Ellington and, surprisingly, Le'Veon Bell): 

    Eddie Lacy's style of play does lend itself to injury but he showed he could grind through it by playing hard through an injured ankle for most of his rookie year and dealing with various nicks and lumps last year. He has a high injury risk due to his workload and previous injury history and may end up missing a few games in 2015

    While Lacy has only missed one NFL game in his two seasons for Green Bay, multiple confirmed concussions and an ever-violent running style loom large over a player with a top-five ADP in nearly any format. The good news here is that in comparison to insuring DeMarco Murray, Jeremy Hill or even Jamaal Charles, the reasonable deductible cost—James Starks' ADP is into the 200s—allows for Lacy investors to pursue this low-risk path at a low price.

    For many of the reasons Sports Injury Predictor factors in, I'm not landing many Lacy shares this summer, but I will be inclined to net Starks when I do. Starks isn't a transcendent talent and arguably would only assume a percentage (let's guess 65 percent) of the expected usage a healthy Lacy might, but keeping a share of Green Bay's prolific offense remains a priority when paying the premium on Lacy. 

Robert Turbin Is Marshawn Lynch's Real Handcuff

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    Forget about Christine Michael—the indemnity asset behind Marshawn Lynch is Robert Turbin. While Michael has sold fantasy nerds (myself included) in previous years with the hype of the unknown, Turbin turned in a wildly efficient 2014 effort that saw him post the third-highest rate of fantasy points per route run (FPPRR) among all backs with at least 100 routes run last season.

    Behind only Theo Riddick and Ahmad Bradshaw last year in points produced per route (.294), Turbin's elite passing game performance and role in complementing Lynch on the ground serve to produce some clarity in the Seattle depth chart. While Lynch claims one of the better durability histories among feature backs in recent history (as evidenced by just a 5 percent injury risk on Sports Injury Predictor), the cheap cost Turbin claims as RB81 for a run-committed scheme suggests Lynch investors can net him at a kicker's cost. 

Honorable Handcuffs: Identifying Potentially Valuable Backup Backs

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    Jonas Gray

    Even while 49 percent of his 2014 rushing yardage came in one epic outing versus the Colts last season, the New England Patriots' Jonas Gray makes for an intriguing arbitrage play to LeGarrette Blount. If you can predict how this backfield might play out, please do share. While I wouldn't suggest Gray as a must-own asset for Blount buyers, it's certainly a cheap and compelling concept to attempt given that Gray is going off the board at RB51

    Khiry Robinson

    He averaged over 16 touches per game in place of Mark Ingram last season and would stand to assume the majority of valuable early-down work if Ingram were to miss time in 2015. Given that Ingram led the NFL in rushes inside the 5-yard line last season by a good measure, having cheap shares of Robinson (RB85) is an easy cost to manage. 

    Andre Williams

    Jokes about Andre Williams' hands are quite common and can be funny—like the one about him having 10 thumbs. But lost in his utter lack of receiving skills is Williams' role as next up for early-down and goal-line work if Rashad Jennings (who has never played a full 16-game season) were to miss time.

    Lorenzo Taliaferro or Buck Allen

    I can't pretend to predict usage past Justin Forsett in Baltimore; it remains unclear whether Lorenzo Taliaferro or Buck Allen would consolidate valuable roles. My money in the long run would be on Allen given his receiving pedigree, but as in most fractured backfields past the feature back, it's more likely that this would become a committee scenario. 

    DeAngelo Williams 

    On 13.9 touches per game for Carolina over the past two seasons Williams averaged just 7.2 ESPN standard fantasy points per game (36th among backs since 2013). It seems Williams' ADP (RB43) has inflated due to Le'Veon Bell's two-game suspension. I would assume most fantasy managers net at least two backs better than Williams even if they also have drafted Bell in the top few picks. Getting Williams might prove to be a sound move for Bell's buyers, but I don't view it as a necessity.  

    Jerick McKinnon 

    Current ADP data suggests Peterson's investors, or just those chasing lottery shares of run-heavy schemes, can land McKinnon (a SPARQ freak in the 100th percentile) into the 13th round and later. I haven't felt the need to chase shares of McKinnon when I've landed AP early this summer, I'm of the belief Matt Asiata would consume valuable goal-line work and a defeating target share if Peterson were out. Instead I'd rather have secured worthy third and fourth RB options previous to the twilight rounds. That said, there really is no prohibitive cost to getting this specimen on fake rosters. 

    Please share in the comments some backfields you feel should be or could be insured heading into the new season.