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Faceoff: Discussing RB Handcuffs

The Footballguys staff discusses handcuffs and the general handcuffing strategy

Who is the best handcuff at the running back position? Why?

Chad Parsons: I generally draft the best player available, so handcuffing is not something I ever go into a draft seeking out as insurance with one of my top backs. That said, what I look for in a clear backup running back is the ability to be a clear every week starter if they were to see an uptick in their role. There are a few great options in the second half of a draft this season, but my vote goes to Bernard Pierce. He has already shown the ability to perform well in the run and pass games, he would be a flex option even without an injury to Ray Rice, and without Dennis Pitta the Ravens could lean heavily on the run the entire season. Pierce would be in the RB8-15 range on a weekly basis if Rice were inactive that week, a great upside play as an RB4 or RB5.

Jason Wood: I'm with Chad in that I'm generally anti-handcuff. Unless you're in very deep leagues, drafting handcuffs is equal parts defeatist, unrewarding and tired. It's defeatist because you're spending a pick "just in case" when fantasy is all about being bold. You're HOPING that your pick is a wasted one, and by its very nature that pick is going to be one of the first you look to drop for a hot waiver add in the early weeks. I would much rather draft someone I believe, if things fall right, could be an asset to my team versus a band aid. It's unrewarding because handcuffs usually don't work. If the starter stays healthy, you're obviously not benefiting from the handcuff. But how often to fantasy owners target a handcuff only to have that player either fall short of expectations or end up as part of a committee? Finally it's tired because we're in a world of RBBC, and so what you're really trying to do is target the talented players in a committee who at worst can be an effective flex option for you and, if their RBBC counterpart gets hurt, project as an impact player. THAT is the shark move.

To be clear, that's why I don't consider the likes of Shane Vereen or Giovani Bernard or Mark Ingram handcuffs. They should all have meaningful roles regardless and, could quite conceivably (either by injury or opportunity) become every week starters.

Stephen Holloway: Concur with both Chad and Jason for the most part. The one possible exception that I'll mention is Ben Tate of Houston, the obvious back-up to Arian Foster.

Matt Waldman: Handcuffs are good if you know that team is a dominant running team and has strong running back talent on the depth chart. The Chiefs of the Priest Holmes-Larry Johnson era were a great example. The 49ers would have been a great example if not for the committee of Kendall Hunter and Lamichael James lurking behind Frank Gore. Still, Hunter looks good enough and his value is low enough that you're not going crazy to get him. The Seahawks have a strong line and both Robert Turbin and Christine Michael are fine talents.

And of course, the example that set it off: Holloway mentioning Foster-Tate.

That said, I pick based on my perception of talent and line play more than I do handcuffing.

Jeff Pasquino: True handcuffs with big upside are Bryce Brown, Bernard Pierce, and Ben Tate, for example. They all back up a Top 5-8 running back (LeSean McCoy, Ray Rice, Arian Foster, respectively) and they can be feature backs if one of them goes down. If the league you are in is very deep and the waiver wire will be pathetic, I might plan on handcuffing my RB1 with these three guys, but I would not ultimately plan on it. Odds are that handcuffs will cost you a valuable mid-round pick that you can spend elsewhere, so it is a personal choice as to how much insurance for your RB1 you want to buy.

For me, I like to look at position battles, where the player that wins will likely have great upside. I would rather secure Eddie Lacy and Jonathan Franklin and hope that one of them emerges as my stud RB2.

Adam Harstad: I'm against handcuffing as a rule- in other words, I'm against rating starters with "true handcuffs" higher and then developing a mindset that I have to get the handcuff at all costs. If my starter is Jamaal Charles, I'd much rather draft Bernard Pierce than Knile Davis, just because I think Pierce is a much better player. With that said, I don't think you can write off handcuffing entirely. The advantage of handcuffing is one of timing. Imagine a hypothetical: I own Arian Foster and Ray Rice, and I believe that Ben Tate, Bernard Pierce, Bryce Brown, and Kendall Hunter are all interchangeable. If I roster Hunter and Brown, then I stand to benefit from an injury to Gore or McCoy... but even if either of those backs got hurt, I certainly wouldn't start their backup over Arian Foster or Ray Rice. Meanwhile, if I roster Bernard Pierce and Ben Tate, then if either of my starters get injured, the handcuff will see a massive spike in his value that coincides perfectly with me seeing a hole in my starting lineup at RB. A lot of fantasy football is identifying which players will score the most points, but a very underappreciated aspect of the hobby is managing the TIMING of that scoring. If you get a bunch of guys who'll score huge points early in the season and fizzle late, you'll make the playoffs and get quickly eliminated. If you get a bunch of guys who'll score huge points late in the season after starting slowly, you'll be watching your team go off from the sidelines after you miss the playoffs. Ideally, you want to spread your scoring around pretty evenly. Similarly, having backup RBs that put up huge point totals when you wouldn't consider starting them isn't nearly as helpful as having backup RBs that put up huge point totals exactly when you develop a need at RB.

So, after offering praise for the theory of handcuffing, I'd like to pump the brakes on it a bit. I do agree with Jason that most "handcuffs" are in reality just bad RBs who will disappoint even if they get the job (guys like Knile Davis). Several other "handcuffs" are in reality committee backs who have value independent of their status as a handcuff- guys like Shane Vereen, Mark Ingram, Fred Jackson, Kendall Hunter, and I'd argue even Bernard Pierce and Bryce Brown, especially in PPR leagues. If we're talking about true, classical handcuffs- guys whose value is zero when the starter is healthy and huge when the starter is hurt- I think there are only two names: Ben Tate and Toby Gerhart. Both have proven their value when the starter has missed time in the past. Neither is even worth considering as a flex play if the starter is healthy.

I also like Bernard Pierce and Bryce Brown, whether I own the starter or not. I would give each of them a small bump up if I did own Rice or McCoy, though, just because of the timing issue. They're both good enough talents that I wouldn't worry about them disappointing if the starter in front of them got hurt.

Andy Hicks: If I have a first round pick like Ray Rice, LeSean McCoy, Adrian Peterson or Arian Foster that has a clear back up that will be a RB1, then I will definitely take the handcuff. Jason mentioned that it's defeatist, but experience tells you RBs go down every year and backups become this years new shiny toy. If Rice goes down, instead of having to start my RB3, someone like Andre Brown or Mark Ingram, I get to play Bernard Pierce. As my opponent who would you much rather face? Sure I may miss out on a TE2, QB2, WR3/4 one round earlier, but there is more depth or equality at those positions than trying to scramble a replacement at RB.

If the backup is a player of lesser ability or could have a rival eg those that are in the mix after Doug Martin, Marshawn Lynch or Jamaal Charles, then I do not bother drafting eg Robert Turbin AND Christine Michael. That would be defeatist.

If I draft players with upside, but not current starters such as Giovani Bernard or Shane Vereen then I do so in conjuction with my strategy should I have a back that can be handcuffed. Sometimes these guys outperform your starter or your handcuff, other times they don't. It's possible to have your cake and eat it if you plan your draft accordingly.

Mark Wimer: I agree with Jeff P on Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin as a good tandem to draft this year. It's an open question which guy earns the starting job in Green Bay, and I can see a scenario where both have signficant fantasy value if Franklin works out as a prolific receiver out of the backfield - think back to the heyday of Ron Dayne/Tiki Barber (2000-2001) with the GIants as one example of such a productive two-headed attack.

Another tandem I've drafted this year is DeMarco Murray/Lance Dunbar with the obvious need to have injury insurance for Murray - Dunbar is by all accounts in the lead to be the #2 running back in Dallas and would inherit most of Murray's workload if an injury comes to be for Murray.

Lacy/Franklin would be the top duo to draft this year, in my opinion. Each has a good shot to start, and each provides injury insurance for the other guy. You're likely to get them well into the mid-rounds and the upside of owning a significant piece of an offense as prolific as Green Bay's is well worth expending mid-round picks in my opinion.

Will Grant: I'll join the chorus of people who say that taking the best available player at running back is probably a better choice than taking a handcuff running back - especially in the current NFL where it seems that the line between RB1 and RB2 is much thinner than it has been in previous NFL seasons and continues to become more of a 60-40 split for a lot of teams.

If I had to pick a true handcuff at running back, I'd probably go with LeSean McCoy and Bryce Brown from Philadelphia. Last season, McCoy was a lock as a top tier running back. This season, he has injury concerns and he has fallen a bit to the end of the 1st round in most redraft leagues. Bryce Brown could easily see 600 or even 700 yards from scrimmage this season, and could very easily top the 1000 yard, eight TD mark if McCoy goes down to injury. Felix Jones is another injury-prone back who won't cut into any serious time, and Brown could become a big surprise this season if he has the right opportunity.


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