As someone that has spent long time in the insurance industry, I've always thought it was a little bit like gambling. The insurance companies know the odds, and they set the premiums based on the odds that you have a claim. Of course this isn't a perfect system on a case by case basis. You may pay premiums for 20 years without ever having a loss. In that case, the insurance company won the bet. Or your house may burn down two years after you build it. Yes, you lost a house, but in the wager with the insurance company, you won big time. Like insurance, having a blanket theory that you should always (or never) buy (draft) a handcuff isn't near as accurate as looking at them on a case-by-case basis.
When determining how much insurance to buy there are a multitude of factors to consider but the three biggest are the cost, the payout, and the likelihood you'll use the coverage. In this way, insurance is also a lot like running backs' handcuffs. The cost involves a draft picks, the potential payout is the backup's talent, and the likelihood you'll use him depends on the talent and the reliability of the starting back. With that in mind I'm going to take a look at handcuffs in the AFC from this point of view.
Insurance companies demand all of the facts before offering insurance, and you should before you buy it. There are some situations that are just far too fuzzy to warrant even considering insurance. Sometimes it's because we don't know for sure who the backup running back is (Raiders, Steelers) and sometimes it's because we really don't know who the starting running back is (Broncos, Jets). It makes virtually no sense to buy insurance in a committee situation where the backs that will share the load have wildly different skill sets (Bengals, Patriots). Finally, there are some situations where buying the insurance doesn't make any sense because it will be available for free after the draft (Justin Forsett, Montario Hardesty, Brandon Bolden).
That leaves us with eight situations left to consider in the AFC. They range from extremely costly to almost free. I've ranked them below with an evaluation of their cost, likelihood of being productive, and the potential payout to come up with a rating. Here's the way I broke down the backs (the higher the number the better), with a short breakdown of each to follow.
Bernard Pierce (ADP: 10.1, Projected PPR Fantasy Points: 129) Assuming Ray Rice plays another 16 games this season; Pierce is still a value at his current ADP. The Ravens are going to need all they can get from Rice in the passing game and that should open up even more carries for Pierce. Pierce averaged 11 carries a game over the final six games of 2012; if he keeps that pace up in 2013 he'll top 175 carries. In other words, Pierce may be good enough to fill in as a bye-week replacement for your flex or RB2 even if Rice doesn't miss time. If Rice does, Pierce could be an absolute beast. The only reason Pierce wasn't head and shoulders above the competition is that Rice hasn't missed a game in four seasons. Suggestion: Buy in the 9th round.
Ben Tate (ADP: 8.7, Projected PPR Fantasy Points: 126) Tate is the second most expensive insurance in the AFC, but there's a good reason for that. The main reason is Tate's 2011 season when he topped 1000 total yards and scored 4 touchdowns. He finished as the 28th best running back that season despite being a backup for all but three games. It only helps Tate's value that Arian Foster is (very slowly) recovering from a calf injury. If the team starts to get concerned about Foster's reliability and this turns into a committee, Tate's value would explode. Suggestion: Buy in the 8th round.
Danny Woodhead (ADP: 11.9, Projected PPR Fantasy Points: 144) Woodhead is the first back on this list that I felt a little bit uncomfortable listing as a handcuff. He will likely have a lot of value in PPR leagues whether Ryan Mathews is injured or not, but I do expect his value would increase even more if (when?) Mathews suffers another injury. Ronnie Brown muddies the situation a little bit, and if the team brings in another runner that is more talented between the tackles then Woodhead may have no place on this list at all. That being said, I expect the Chargers to throw a ton of passes to their running backs, and some of those are going to go to Mathews for as long as he's the starter. Suggestion: Buy in the 10th round.
Knile Davis (ADP: 20.3, Projected PPR Fantasy Points: 55) If you're in a league with less than 12 teams, or one that drafts less than 18 rounds, you can disregard Davis because he shouldn't be on your radar. I still have my questions as to whether Davis will beat out Shaun Draughn as the team's primary backup but for now the Chiefs staff seems all too willing to overlook his hands because of his elite speed. That speed could turn into some huge production in Andy Reid's system if Jamal Charles were to go down. Charles has been pretty durable other than his lost season to an ACL, but he's a smaller back that will see a huge workload. Suggestion: Pass, except for in the deepest of leagues.
Fred Jackson (ADP: 8.11, Projected PPR Fantasy Points: 125) No one really knows what to expect in Bufalo, except that C.J. Spiller will be the centerpiece of a fast-paced offense. Spiller has never carried a load like he figures to in 2013, and that has many concerned over whether his small frame will hold up. That's why we see a 32 year-old running back that's missed 12 games in the past two seasons being drafted in the eighth or ninth round. Whether Spiller gets hurt or not I have a hard time seeing Jackson as anything more than a part-time back. With his cost as high as it is and his ceiling equally low, I see very little value. Suggestion: Pass.
Vick Ballard (ADP: 8.2, Projected PPR Fantasy Points: 133) It's really too bad that one of the more talented backs on this list isn't backing up Bradshaw. Ballard's lack of elite talent is what led the Colts to pursue Bradshaw in the first place, so it's difficult to see him as a star back when Bradshaw inevitably breaks down. If you've drafted Bradshaw as a starting back, you need to look for a better RB3 than this. Of course, this is all relative, we may see Ballard's ADP drop dramtically if Bradshaw ever actually suits up this preseason. Suggestion: Pass.
Daniel Thomas (ADP: 16.9, Projected PPR Fantasy Points: 110) Thomas has been a handcuff for the past three seasons, but he's yet to show the kind of promise the Dolphins hoped for when they drafted him. An even bigger problem is the fact that Thomas as a backup has a longer injury history than the starter Lamar Miller. I'm not totally sold on the Dolphins running game no matter who is back there; they have big problems along the offensive line. Thomas' ADP is at least low enough that the cost isn't prohibitive, but it cheap insurance only sounds good until you have to file a claim. Suggestion: Pass.
Shonn Greene (ADP: 13.8, Projected PPR Fantasy Points: 108) Greene has a lot of factors working against him. For one, Chris Johnson hasn't missed a game in over four years. Maybe more importantly, Greene is a 28 year-old back who's only talent is running into a pile and picking up three or four yards and falling down. He offers virtually no upside and his presence in the passing game is limited at best. The best case scenario for Greene is that he vultures Johnson's touchdowns. In that scenario, you're just going to be angry that those points are showing up on your bench. Suggestion: Pass.