Fantasy Football 2019: Ranking the Top Handcuff Running Backs
In standard fantasy football leagues, running backs take precedence over every other position, especially in point-per-reception formats. Your search for productive tailbacks shouldn't stop after the few first rounds: Grab a handcuff option.
Handcuff running backs aren't the lead ball-carriers on their team's depth chart, but they will share a portion of the rushing workload, have a pass-catching role out of the backfield and possibly take over for the starter if he goes down with an injury.
Fantasy managers can strongly benefit from an extra running back on the roster. They're useful on bye weeks and can carry great value in the flex spot. Some coaches feed the hot hand in their backfield committees, so be prepared to pull a switcheroo at the position.
We'll rank the top 10 running back handcuffs for the 2019 season, with two notable exceptions: the Los Angeles Chargers' Austin Ekeler and the Dallas Cowboys' Tony Pollard are both currently operating as lead ball-carriers because Melvin Gordon and Ezekiel Elliott are holding out.
The average draft position for each running back, which doesn't necessarily coincide with the rankings, is listed to give readers an idea of what round that player could come off the board.
10. Jaylen Samuels, Pittsburgh Steelers, 9.05
During Le'Veon Bell's holdout in 2018, the Pittsburgh Steelers relied on James Conner to move the ball out of the backfield; he recorded 1,470 yards and 13 touchdowns from scrimmage. Behind him, Jaylen Samuels registered 455 total yards as a ball-carrier and pass-catcher.
Although Conner projects to lead the backfield going forward, we may see more of Samuels in 2019. He's handled a decent workload during practices, per The Athletic's Mark Kaboly:
"This year, he’s been a significant part of their offense, whether it’s been the backup running back or, more importantly, that jack-of-all-trades offensive weapon that can line up just about everywhere. Samuels has been a matchup nightmare for the defense in camp because he’s more than just a running back who can catch."
Samuels has the potential to become a standalone sleeper with enough targets in the passing game. He's not a running back who's just learning to catch the ball, either. The North Carolina State product played the H-back role in college, and in four seasons, he caught 201 balls for 1,851 yards and 19 touchdowns in addition to 1,107 yards and 28 touchdowns on the ground.
The Steelers traded wideout Antonio Brown to the Oakland Raiders, so quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will have extra targets to spread around, which bodes well for Samuels in a pass-catching role. He could become this year's version of the Patriots' James White, who hauled in 87 passes for 751 yards and seven touchdowns in 2018.
9. Nyheim Hines, Indianapolis Colts, 13.08
Nyheim Hines is ahead of Samuels because he's already shown potential in the backup running back/receiver position. Last season, he racked up 739 yards from scrimmage and finished eighth in receptions (63) among all tailbacks.
The Indianapolis Colts signed Devin Funchess and selected Parris Campbell in the second round of this year's draft to bolster the wide receiver group and claimed running back D'Onta Foreman off waivers.
Despite the potential hits to Hines' target share and carries, Joel Erickson of the Indianapolis Star expects him to see ample opportunities in the passing game and handle primary backup duties at running back:
"Nyheim Hines will get the most chances in the passing game. ... There is also precedent for Hines getting the No. 2 carries; although he’s known as a pass-catcher, he also handled the No. 2 ball-carrying job in the second half of last season behind Mack."
The Colts' decision to add wideouts and a running back capable of handling part of the rushing workload shouldn't scare you away from Hines because of his firm standing in the pecking order. With that said, he'll likely provide the most value as a pass-catcher, similar to last year.
Keep in mind, Marlon Mack was inactive for six games in two seasons because of shoulder and hamstring injuries. If he misses time again, Hines' fantasy value would only rise.
8. Alexander Mattison, Minnesota Vikings, 11.09
Rookie third-rounder Alexander Mattison doesn't have a track record in the league, so we're relying on pure projection. But his fantasy outlook seems bright.
Running back Dalvin Cook has missed 17 games over the past two seasons due to a torn ACL and hamstring injuries. Until he's able to handle the majority load for a full year, fantasy managers should grab his primary backup.
Furthermore, the Minnesota Vikings lost running back Latavius Murray to the New Orleans Saints in free agency. He averaged 12.3 touches per game in two terms with his former team.
Because of Cook's injury history, Mattison could easily slip into the No. 1 spot on the depth chart, which would provide a tremendous boost to his fantasy value. Even if the starter remains healthy throughout the year, the rookie should have a role similar to Murray's in 2017 and 2018.
Mattison logged 2,829 rushing yards and 511 receiving yards in three years at Boise State, showing off his versatility. As the No. 2 option, he's capable of logging 10 carries with a few receptions per game, but Cook's absence in recent years elevates the 21-year-old to the No. 8 spot.
7. C.J. Anderson, Detroit Lions, N/A
Back in March, Detroit Lions head coach Matt Patricia may have tipped his hand on how he plans to use his running backs, per the Detroit Free Press' Dave Birkett:
"I think it's a position-specific thing where those guys, they take a lot of hits. They're in those situations a lot where their bodies are taking some pounding so you want to be conscious of how many plays they're getting, especially early on in the year … you do have to look at big picture and say, 'OK, great, we could win a couple now, but if we wear this guy out and he doesn't help us in the long run then what's the trade off?'"
When Patricia talks about wear and tear on running backs, he could refer to his projected starter's inability to finish 2018 healthy. Kerryon Johnson dealt with a knee ailment and landed on injured reserve in December after appearing in just 10 contests and logging 854 yards from scrimmage.
According to Tim Twentyman of the Lions' official website, C.J. Anderson has held the primary backup role behind Johnson in offseason practices. Last season, he provided a solid punch to the Los Angeles Rams ground attack in the second half after running back Todd Gurley experienced issues with his knee.
Anderson recorded 89 carries for 488 yards and four touchdowns in five outings with the Rams, which included three postseason games. Now he's primed to handle a decent number of rush attempts if Patricia plans to keep his ball-carriers fresh for the entire year.
Since entering the league in 2013, Anderson has 108 receptions for 900 yards and five touchdowns, so he could also catch passes out of the backfield to tack on extra fantasy points.
6. Carlos Hyde, Kansas City Chiefs, 10.12
The Kansas City Chiefs backfield will feature Damien Williams as the primary starter, the first time in his career he's been assigned the lead job before the season begins. But he suffered a hamstring injury at training camp, and Carlos Hyde made the most of his opportunities, per head coach Andy Reid (h/t NFL.com's Jeremy Bergman).
"Carlos has done a nice job," Reid said. "He's getting a lot of reps and he's taking advantage of them."
Although offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy called Williams the starter and Hyde has bounced around the league—landing on his fourth team in March—we could see a workload shift at running back.
During the preseason, Hyde could make a case for a bigger share of the touches behind an unproven starter. Secondly, he's a solid pass-catcher, with 119 receptions for 667 yards and three touchdowns in 64 games.
Williams may start the year as the featured tailback, but his track record in a backup role (seven career starts) gives some reason for skepticism concerning his ability to hold on to the No. 1 spot with a lion's share of the touches. He hasn't recorded more than 50 carries in a season since entering the league in 2014.
Hyde's chance to see an expanded role puts him over Anderson, who's No. 2 behind a 2018 second-rounder expected to start for the long term.
5. Ito Smith, Atlanta Falcons, 12.01
Fantasy managers should view Ito Smith as the new Tevin Coleman in the Atlanta Falcons backfield. The latter has registered 3,350 yards from scrimmage through four seasons, primarily in a reserve role with 20 career starts, 14 of which came last year while Devonta Freeman was on injured reserve.
The Falcons allowed Coleman to walk in free agency, which gives Smith a clear path to the No. 2 spot.
Freeman will attempt to bounce back from his injury-derailed 2018 campaign in which he appeared in just two games. In five seasons, he's averaged more than 15 carries per game just once, back in 2015. At 27 years old, the two-time Pro Bowler isn't likely to see an uptick in rush attempts after his recovery.
If Freeman continues to log around 14 carries per game like he did in 2016 and 2017, Smith should carve out a decent role similar to what Coleman did.
We don't know the split between Williams and Hyde in Kansas City, but Freeman's recent consistency in number of carries indicates Smith will have a solid role behind him. Based on that trend, the Falcons backfield isn't as unpredictable in comparison to the Chiefs' group.
Smith should also see more opportunities in the passing game after hauling in 27 receptions for 152 yards while playing just 29.3 percent of offensive snaps in 2018.
4. Royce Freeman, Denver Broncos, 8.10
The Denver Broncos selected Royce Freeman in the third round of last year's draft and signed Phillip Lindsay as an undrafted free agent, but the latter literally ran away with the starting job, finishing ninth leaguewide in rushing yards (1,037).
Although Freeman fell behind his teammate last year, don't dismiss his potential impact in 2019. According to Yahoo Sports' Charles Robinson, the Broncos plan to split carries between their top two ball-carriers:
"Broncos are feeling really good about RB Royce Freeman right now. To the point that they are hoping to finally establish the true split-touch situation that they envisioned between Freeman and Phillip Lindsay last season. They feel like that plan is fully on track for 2019."
Last year, Lindsay logged 227 touches compared to 144 for Freeman; expect that gap to shrink in the upcoming term with new Broncos quarterback Joe Flacco. The ground attack could become the engine of Denver's offense early in the year, or at least until the passing game develops some chemistry.
If running back Theo Riddick sticks to the roster, he may take some pass-catching opportunities from Freeman, but the former Lion has only 288 carries in six seasons. The 2018 third-rounder should still see a fair share of rush attempts.
The Broncos' clear intention to give Freeman more opportunities to produce elevates him to the No. 4 spot.
3. Latavius Murray, New Orleans Saints, 7.09
Murray made a lateral move during the offseason, leaving Minnesota for New Orleans. He handled a healthy number of touches (12.3) with the Vikings because of Cook's injuries, but the 29-year-old won't need running back Alvin Kamara to nurse an injury for a similar usage rate.
Although Kamara has become a fantasy football darling with 1,500-plus yards from scrimmage in back-to-back seasons, he's split his workload with the No. 2 running back in New Orleans. Over the last two years, Mark Ingram handled a solid number of touches with the Saints (15.9 per contest).
In 2018, Ingram served a four-game suspension for violating the performance-enhancing drug policy, but Kamara still averaged 12.9 carries per game. He's an extraordinary pass-catcher out of the backfield, recording 81 receptions in consecutive terms, but Murray will fill in the gaps on the ground.
According to head coach Sean Payton, the team seems comfortable with Kamara's workload, per ESPN's Mike Triplett. "It will be similar to what we've been seeing," he said about the running back's touches. "We've been pleased with the balance we've had with him. We think it's been a good count."
In addition to Kamara's light rushing usage, quarterback Drew Brees' pass attempts have taken a sharp decline over the last two seasons. For the first time since 2004, he threw fewer than 500 times; New Orleans ranked fifth in total carries last year.
Assuming the Saints continue to take pressure off Brees' arm going into his age-40 campaign, Murray should have a sizable role alongside Kamara as the new one-two punch in New Orleans.
Unlike Freeman in Denver, Murray has multiple years of experience in a shared backfield. He's also a touchdown vulture with 32 rushing scores since 2015.
2. Rashaad Penny, Seattle Seahawks, 7.03
In 2018, the Seattle Seahawks established a physical identity on offense, running the ball through the teeth of opposing defenses.
Seattle ranked second in rushing attempts and led the league in yards on the ground. Head coach Pete Carroll seems set on carrying that play style into the 2019 season, per John Boyle of the team's official website:
"Earlier in the offseason while talking to the media at the NFL scouting combine, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll talked about how he expects Chris Carson and Rashaad Penny to give Seattle's running game a 'one-two punch,' and with each passing day, it becomes more evident that those two both appear to be poised for big things in 2019."
Former Seahawks running back Mike Davis signed with the Chicago Bears as a free agent; he logged 728 yards and five touchdowns from scrimmage in a backup position behind Carson. Now, Seattle will close ranks in the backfield, allowing Penny to see more touches.
More importantly, Carson said that offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer plans to design more plays for the running backs in the passing game, per the Seattle Times' Bob Condotta.
"Doing a lot with the running backs," Carson said. "Splitting them out wide, putting them in different spots on the field. He's using us more in pass catching than what he did in the previous year."
If Schottenheimer's intent translates to opportunities, Penny should catch more than nine passes for 75 yards in the upcoming season. His projected production arrow points up as a ball-carrier and pass-catcher, which gives him the edge over Murray in New Orleans. Fantasy owners would bank on potential here, but that's a good gamble based on reports from the Seahawks' training camp.
1. Darrell Henderson, Los Angeles Rams, 7.10
In the top spot, fantasy managers will have to roll the dice on ambiguity, but Darrell Henderson's ceiling seems appealing to those looking for a home run in the middle of the draft. He could finish games as the lead running back early on and into midseason.
Running back Todd Gurley's 2018 ended with a question mark concerning his knee, leading to an uncertain workload for the upcoming campaign. Through Week 13 last season, he averaged 19.4 carries per game. In his last five appearances, which included three playoff outings, that dropped to 10.6 per contest.
During the offseason, the Rams made a couple of moves that indicate we could see Gurley handle a lesser role this year. The front office selected Henderson in the third round of April's draft and matched an offer from Detroit to keep Malcolm Brown.
"While head coach Sean McVay downplayed the notion of running back Darrell Henderson getting first-team snaps — the Rams are rotating in a lot of players, McVay said — Henderson looks the part. During one-on-one drills, Henderson caught a slant going from left to right and it’s easy to see why the Rams like him."
NFL Network's Maurice Jones-Drew gave an estimate on Gurley's prospective usage after a conversation with him.
"He may be on the field for 60 or 50 snaps instead of having to be on the field for 16 games playing 80 snaps to 90 snaps a game," Jones-Drew said. "That's not gonna happen anymore."
Assuming the Rams dial back Gurley's carries, Henderson has an opportunity to shine in the backfield. Although McVay downplayed his reps with the first unit, the rookie fared well with the starters. Fantasy managers shouldn't be surprised to see him match Gurley in touches during some games.
Henderson caught 63 passes for 758 yards and eight touchdowns at Memphis. He can mimic Gurley's impact in the passing game, allowing him to stay on the field for all three downs.
All stats, unless otherwise indicated, are courtesy of Pro Football Reference.
Average draft positions are courtesy of Fantasy Football Calculator.