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Running Back Handcuff Power Rankings

In a world with no RB1s, who has the most value?

There is a lot of talk about the "handcuff" strategy in fantasy football. Some fully believe in it, while others don't subscribe to it at all. The reality in a league with so many specialty running backs and so few three-down running backs is that there aren't many situations where a backup rusher is even capable of producing 75% of what the starter can produce. But who are those backup backs? Let's identify the most fertile soil for backup running backs, using tiers to rank them.

The Methodology

I examined every team's running back depth chart and separated them into the following categories:

  • RB1
  • Handcuff
  • RB3
  • Third-Down RB
  • Goal Line RB

The "Handcuff" and "RB3" classifications assume an early-down player.

In terms of scoring, I'm assuming PPR. Because injuries are so difficult to predict, this exercise was done in a hypothetical universe where every team's RB1 was injured or otherwise unable to play. Some backup rushers have standalone value, but we can simply look at an ADP list to determine where that situation applies. The true purpose of this exercise is to determine which backups have the highest ceilings, based on their skill, their situation, their team's coaching philosophy, and the other remaining backs on their team. Remember, in this hypothetical world, only the RB1s are unable to play. So in Cleveland, for example, Isaiah Crowell is out of the equation, but Duke Johnson and Terrance West would still have to share a backfield. 

So while ADP will be included in the graphics just as a point of reference, it's not being factored in at all. In fact, I added the ADP column after ranking the players. The idea here is to filter out the following: handcuffs who just aren't talented enough players to matter even if they get the volume (think Lorenzo Taliaferro); handcuffs whose offenses aren't good enough to sustain their value even if they get increased volume (think Roy Helu); and handcuffs who would still split a backfield if the RB1 was hurt (think Johnson/West from the example above). This methodology should become more clear as we proceed through the rankings.

The "You're Under Arrest" Tier

In case the not-so-clever header didn't give it away, these are the guys who are true handcuffs. I define that as players who, if the RB1 missed time, would take on the same volume as the RB1 (if not more due to the sudden lack of depth) and could safely be projected as putting up at least 75% of the RB1's production.

Under Arrest Tier

  1. Ryan Mathews: Chip Kelly's scheme and volume + Mathews' talent = league-winning RB if Murray resumes his pre-2014 injury-laden ways
  2. Knile Davis: we've seen what he can do without Charles
  3. Ameer Abdullah: hype train already full steam; imagine it without Bell looming
  4. James Starks: Green Bay offense so productive and volume would be significant without Lacy

 

The Independent Value Tier

These players have value right now as we speak, primarily due to their pass-catching prowess. Should the early-down players ahead of them go down, their roles would likely be expanded, but they still wouldn't be every-down players. Abdullah also fits this category but was deserving of his place in the tier above.

Independent Value Tier

  1. Giovani Bernard: with only Burkhead behind him, Bernard would be closer to the feature back that he was in the latter half of 2013
  2. C.J. Spiller: Robinson still lingers, but his carries would likely rise from six or so to nine per game; the team might pass more as well without Ingram

 

Enough Food for Multiple Mouths Tier

These players would still share the backfield if the starters ahead of them went down, but their offensive units are potent enough to still provide enough opportunities. You'll notice that we have our second New Orleans handcuff here. That's a backfield with enough talent and an offense potent enough to support multiple fantasy producers.

Enough Food for Multiple Mouths Tiers

  1. Dan Herron: despite typical rookie hype, not sure Robinson is ready to understand a complex offense and pass block for one of the most valuable quarterbacks in the league
  2. Khiry Robinson: early-down and goal line work in New Orleans without Ingram, not quite 90% of Ingram with more pass-heavy offense and Spiller eating into carries
  3. Montee Ball: would have to share with the shifty Hillman but still ahead on depth chart and in run-first offense where Head Coach prefers a "bell cow"

 

Oldies But Goodies Tier

These veterans would probably be solid RB2 plays in spot starts, but their value would wane if called upon for more than a month consecutively.

Oldies But Goodies Tier

  1. Darren McFadden: more injury-prone than old; great offensive line; still has great speed
  2. DeAngelo Williams: wouldn't even need quantity with level of quality of the offense around him

 

The Enigma Tier

If the RB1s on these teams were hurt, the roles of these players would be completely unknown. But all are very talented and/or play on good offenses.

Enigma Tier

  1. Duke Johnson: would play all third downs get a chunk of the early down work too; could out-play West for the entire role
  2. Robert Turbin: Lynch handcuff has never been needed, but Turbin seemed to be ahead last year; did well in passing situations when called upon
  3. Damien Williams: emerging offense that will play fast and run frequently; scheme makes runners valuable

 

The Potentially Super-Frustrating Committee Tier

If the starters on these teams went down, good luck figuring out how many pieces of the pie these guys would get.

Frustrating Committee Tier

  1. Jerick McKinnon: last year's owners that watched Asiata score easy touchdowns have felt this frustration 
  2. Branden Oliver: Woodhead will cut into Gordon's role now, so he'd cut into Oliver's role if Gordon were out
  3. Fred Jackson: Williams emerging; not enough offensive firepower to support consistent backfield play
  4. Tre Mason: frustrating more because of the offense than the committee
  5. Shane Vereen: the un-talented Williams would work early downs and take goal line work without Jennings
  6. Matt Asiata: sure he'll score touchdowns, but McKinnon would rack up the carries and yards

 

Low Upside Committee Tier

Are there two more frustrating terms in fantasy football than "low upside" and "running back by committee?" This tier combines those things to provide some pretty ugly options.

Low Upside Committee Tier

  1. Alfred Blue: Polk lingers and a bad offense that will limit scoring chances won't be remedied
  2. Lorenzo Taliaferro: no passing-down skills and not very talented; Allen would likely get all third downs and some chances on first and second
  3. David Cobb: despite no obvious non-Sankey early-down competition, a poor offense and McCluster's pass-catching ability limits Cobb's upside
  4. Andre Williams: as hinted with Vereen above, Williams would be the lesser half of the sans-Jennings committee

 

Crystal Ball Tier

Good luck guessing how these backfields will shake out if the starters miss time. In some cases, this could change by the week depending on game plan and opponent.

Crystal Ball Tier

  1. Jonas Gray: team's backfield is historically hard to predict; with Vereen gone, no clear favorite on any down
  2. Tevin Coleman: Smith isn't going away even if Freeman is available; he certainly won't if Freeman isn't 
  3. Terrance West: not worth figuring out the touches that would be available for the lesser talent in this committee
  4. Matt Jones: nice comments from Washington, but Jones is a big unknown -- particularly as a featured back
  5. Roy Helu: Richardson and Michael Dyer still linger; and Helu has never really been a featured back
  6. Denard Robinson: low upside offense and could be pulled for Gerhart in short-yardage situations
  7. David Johnson: could be too far behind due to camp injuries; featured back size but not skill set
  8. Javorius Allen: pass-catching upside in Marc Trestman's offense but being behind Taliaferro at this juncture isn't a good look for him

 

Not Even Waiver-Worthy Tier

With one obvious exception, these players aren't even being drafted in anything but the deepest of leagues. Should their RB1s go down, they wouldn't even be worth a waiver pickup. Note a theme among the teams presented here -- mediocre-at-best, putrid-at-worst offensive units.

Not Even Waivers Tier

  1. Charles Sims: coaching staff probably considers him more a "space" player than an every-down grinder
  2. Cameron Artis-Payne: unproven player without special talent on a potentially bad offense with a quarterback who will rush for most of the touchdowns
  3. Chris Johnson: second Arizona backup; neither are desirable, but easily the lesser of the Arizona Johnsons
  4. Jeremy Langford: probably "just a guy" and unlikely to get all downs a la Forte with Rodgers looming
  5. Zac Stacy: 2013 was nice, but 2014 was more indicative of what Stacy is; no pass-catching upside here either
  6. ???: it speaks to San Francisco's potentially epic ineptitude (say that five times fast) that they don't even really have an early-downs backup developed enough to play yet; fourth-rounder Mike Davis played behind a rugby player and an undrafted free agent in the team's first preseason game, and Kendall Hunter is probably too small to be a featured back

 

Conclusion

Handcuffing can be a viable strategy, but it's very important to know that not every team has a true handcuff back. And not every offense is worthy of consideration even if the team has a clear backup who will dominate the market share of running back touches. Don't waste valuable roster spots on players who lack a clear line of sight to touches and production. Even if these rankings don't help with your draft, keep them in mind early in the season when injuries start to happen. They can help guide you in waiver wire decisions.

Questions, comments, suggestions, and other feedback on this piece are always welcome via e-mail hester@footballguys.com