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Campfire Chat: Discussing Handcuffs

Footballguys staff members discuss the concept of handcuffs

In the past, handcuffing was a fairly common strategy, but it seems to have fallen out of favor. What are your general thoughts on handcuffing? Is there a handcuff you like this season?

Andy Hicks: The deeper the league, the more handcuffing comes into play. If your draft is only 16 rounds a handcuff probably isnt necessary unless there is a clear stud, behind another stud. Maybe Derrick Henry, behind Demarco Murray, but spending a 6th round pick to back up a borderline 1st/2nd rounder is not what handcuffing should be about. In deeper leagues or best balls, handcuffing should be a big part of your draft.

The one handcuff I do like this year is Eddie Lacy and Thomas Rawls. This should cost a 5th/6th rounder and a 12th/13th rounder. I know the presence of C.J. Prosise is a concern, but I doubt that Prosise will handle a full workload and is best served as a change of pace/3rd down back. I am in the minority, but I believe that Seattle will commit to the run as if Marshawn Lynch were there. Lacy will be the bellcow. If he has an injury, motivation issues or eats himself out of the role then the heavy workload falls to Rawls. He was very strong when Lynch was injured in 2015, but struggled with multiple injuries last year.

Danny Tuccitto: Whether back in the day or now, my handcuff strategy has been the same: I only draft handcuffs if they're both a) backing up one of my early-round studs, and b) have the talent/skill to take over for said stud seamlessly. In other words, if my handcuff isn't likely to produce anywhere nearly as much as my stud, then I'd rather spend the otherwise-handcuff pick on a high-upside running back on another team. Obviously, when we get into things like "talent/skill" and "seamlessly," we start drifting towards the territory of subjectivity, but I do my best via trusting my "true" stats and -- even more so -- the evaluations of trusted tape-watchers like Matt Waldman (and others).

So, if I define a "stud running back" as one with an ADP less than or equal to 24, then there are only 11 right now for which I'd even consider taking their handcuff. Here's how I'd answer the yes-or-no question, "Would I draft their handcuff?" for each of those 11 running backs:

  1. David Johnson -- No.
  2. Le'Veon Bell -- Yes.
  3. Ezekiel Elliott -- No.
  4. LeSean McCoy -- Yes.
  5. Melvin Gordon III -- No.
  6. Devonta Freeman -- Yes.
  7. Jay Ajayi -- No.
  8. Jordan Howard -- No.
  9. DeMarco Murray -- Yes.
  10. Todd Gurley -- No.
  11. Leonard Fournette -- No.

Among these 11, I've made four "Yes" votes, which correspond to James Conner, Jonathan Williams, Tevin Coleman, and Derrick Henry. Of course, Coleman and Henry aren't really handcuffs within the framework that I've laid out here. Their current ADPs of Rounds 6-7 bear that out. Therefore, the question, "Is there a handcuff you like this season?" boils down to a choice between Conner or Williams (or both or neither).

I see talent-related and team investment-related arguments for both. But the good news is that, right now, there's a snowball's chance in hell of me being able to draft both Bell and McCoy, so I'd almost never have to choose between Conner and Williams. Bottom line: If I take Bell, I'll handcuff him to Conner. If I take McCoy, I'll handcuff him to Williams.

Jason Wood: I've been anti-handcuff for as long as the term handcuff has existed. It's never made sense to me. My goal in drafts is to draft the best player available. Period. Having to reach (as most people do for handcuffs) puts you behind the 8-ball immediately. On top of that, it's suboptimal if your goal is WINNING your league rather than COMPETING. Give me someone ELSE'S handcuff. A player I think is either capable of becoming a starter or who I think would be elite if the starter gets hurt. I would rather have a shot at my guys panning out AND having the backups who ascend. If I "handcuff" I'm guaranteeing that I get value from two draft picks, but I can't (literally) get value from both. It's a fool's errand. The exception are in DEEP leagues where the free agent pool is essentially worthless.

Chad Parsons: The two biggest factors for handcuffing for me are my confidence of who is the handcuff (and level of play if the starter is out) plus the cost of the handcuff.

Derrick Henry may be the premier handcuff as I feel he could produce the same (or more) than starter DeMarco Murray. However, Henry's price is sky-high for a backup (he does offer flex potential even without a Murray injury however) in the Rounds 5-8 range.

My preference is the dirt cheap handcuffs in the final rounds of drafts like:

The conclusion is I consider a handcuff if one of my early running backs has a defined option available late, as long as I like them independently as a talent and investment. I have drafted all of the above options in various leagues because I like their upside regardless of the previously drafted backs. The handcuff aspect is an added bonus to insulating an earlier selection.

Stephen Holloway: I fully support Jason in that I will not reach ever to take a handcuff. However, in the later rounds as I judge value potential with the picks, I would gladly draft Jonathan Williams, Jamaal Williams, Joe Williams, or Darren McFadden if the value was right, not as a handcuff, but because the four players I listed are my preferred running backs late as value picks.

Adam Harstad: Yeah, Jason, the reasoning behind handcuffing is that the timing of the production matters as much as the level of the production.

Imagine there are four RBs that score 20 points per game, and all four play in 14 games. In the two games they miss, all four have a backup that will average 15 points per game. Let's say you pick two of these backs.

Now, you could take the handcuffs for the *other* two backs that you don't own, and you'd get your four 15-point games... but odds are good that those 15-point games would come in weeks where your starters were actually still healthy, so they'd be wasted on your bench.

On the other hand, with a handcuff, it's *guaranteed* that his good games will come in exactly the games that your starter is out and you need them. Last year, DeAngelo Williams didn't just produce good numbers, he produced good numbers in exactly the weeks that Le'Veon Bell owners needed an extra RB to produce good numbers. There was, therefore, a positive synergy at play. DeAngelo Williams was literally more valuable to the Le'Veon Bell owner than he would have been to anyone else.

Of course, this is kind of an idealized case for handcuffing. It assumes a starter is just going to be missing a couple games, and that we're able to identify the handcuff, and that the handcuff will step in and produce with the starter out, which is a lot of "if"s. More often the starter will stay healthy, or he'll miss substantial time, or we'll guess wrong on who the backup is, or the backup will be awful when thrust into the starting role. And it's really only a dire need, as others have mentioned, if your league is deep enough that scraping together replacement production elsewhere figures to be a substantial challenge.

And there's something to be said for throwing darts at someone else's backups just to see if something will stick. The later rounds are all dart throws, anyway. But yes, on the rare occasions where the stars align just right, (and Danny did a good job at spelling those out for this year), I can definitely wind up in a situation where my top RB's backup is worth a bit more to me than he is to anyone else.

And handcuffing doesn't have to mean reaching, anyway. I can always enter a draft prepared to handcuff if the backup falls at least to his ADP, but ready to pivot away to a different strategy if he doesn't.

Ryan Hester: I was reading through this thread and formulating an answer in my head, and then Adam beat me to it. The only time I'll handcuff is when I know that backup will get production (or when it's Round 16 or later in a deep bench league). To truly know the former requires the following:

  • starter is suspended/injured at draft time, meaning it's known that he will miss games
  • offense is good enough to move the ball and allow the backup opportunities to succeed
  • backup is talented enough to do so

Last year, I was touting DeAngelo Williams as a nice pick as early as Round 4 or Round 5. This wasn't because I thought he would return RB2/3 type of value (as most players selected in that range will do). It was because I thought Willliams would be projected for three RB1 games (and potentiall more if Bell returned and were injured again).

There aren't many running backs taken after Round 4 who owners can say will be projected as an RB1 in three or more weeks. That's why Williams was worth a selection. And that's why no handcuff this year is worth a pick anywhere but the deepest of drafts.

Jason Wood: To Adam and Stephen's points, I don't think what you're describing is handcuffing. At least in the traditional sense. I think your views and my own overlap in a concentric circle called "running back committees." We're in a time when very few teams use one workhorse runner. Few guys play in all downs and distances. As a result, what is deemed as having "fantasy value" has changed quite a bit.

I don't look at Gio Bernard or Jeremy Hill as Mixon handcuffs.
I don't look at Theo Riddick as an Abdullah handcuff.

Jamaal Williams MAY be a Montgomery handcuff, but I don't consider him that because at a minimum someone (Williams or Jones) is sharing touches with Montgomery (not suited for a full workload). And there's still a chance Williams ends up as the main starter.

For me, a handcuff is someone who -- on draft day -- you EXPECT to have almost no regular role. Someone who, absent an injury or a total flop from the starter, will not help your lineup even as a utility option.

Adam Harstad: I think Jason and Ryan misunderstood me. I'm talking about classical handcuffs, guys who have zero value if the starter is healthy and non-zero value if the starter is hurt.

What makes them occasionally worthwhile is precisely that-- they have non-zero value at the exact moment that you need some extra value at running back because your starter just got hurt. If they are productive, that production is always timely. If they are not productive, that production was unnecessary because it means your starter stayed healthy, anyway.

Because most of the time they have zero value, handcuffs can (and should) be available cheaply. When the rounds reach the teens and you're picking between running backs who are all long shots to produce, it's fine to give a little bonus to guys whose production-- if they have any at all-- will most likely coincide with your time of greatest need.

Jason Wood: If Adam is talking about true "zero value" handcuffs, then I stand by my initial view which is...it's absurd to draft them. Most leagues have precious few bench spots and between injuries and byes, they don't have the luxury to hold onto someone with no discernible value. Much rather draft guys that within a week or two could prove they're worth more than they cost. If they don't pan out (which is likely), they're easy options to drop for the necessary free agents I'm bidding on.

Adam Harstad: Sure. Like I said, it largely depends on how readily you can scrape together a viable backup plan in case of injury. In a 10- or 12-team league with 16- or 18-man rosters, you'll probably have several other running backs on your roster ready to fill in in case of injury to your top-line starter, (because it's rare that a handcuff can step in without some sort of production drop-off, anyway), and there's a pretty decent chance you'll be able to scrape together a few points off of waivers to carry you through in the short term, besides. Plus, with only so many bench slots, the opportunity cost of carrying someone who isn't producing is pretty high.

In a 14- or 16-team league, or a league with 20- or 22-man rosters, the odds of finding much help on waivers shrink dramatically, as do the odds of having decent options on your roster in the event that disaster strikes. In which case having a handcuff that could provide timely production at a steep discount could prove potentially season-saving.

Whether handcuffs are worth it or not is going to depend on a huge constellation of different factors. I'm just saying the basic theory behind handcuffing-- that backup running backs are more valuable to someone who already is rostering the starter in front of them than they are to any other team-- is 100% sound. When a backup produces is as important, if not more important, than how much a backup produces.

Jason Wood: I agree with Adam's statement, in a vacuum. But it doesn't hold because we don't live in a vacuum. We have no idea who will get hurt and when. So as a matter of league strategy, I vehemently stand by the view that you should draft the backup running back YOU think has the BEST chance to dominate if he ever gets the chance. Put ZERO value on whether you happen to have the starter on the same team. Except, as I said initially, in very deep leagues where there are no options on waivers.

Adam Harstad: It's a good thing we don't live in a vacuum because I'm rubbish at fantasy football without a steady influx of oxygen. Plus I'd imagine it would wreak havoc on property values.

I think "put ZERO value on something that can be conceptually proven beyond a shadow of a doubt to have non-zero value", as a rule, is bad policy. I can conceptually prove that the timing of production matters, and I can conceptually prove that any production provided by your own starter's backup will be more timely than any production provided by someone else's starter's backup.

Now, the timeliness of the production is just one factor. Talent is another factor. Path to opportunity is another factor. Maybe both of those factors are more important than the timeliness factor. (I definitely think they are.) But talent and path to opportunity aren't mutually exclusive with handcuff status, and given two backs with equal talent and path to opportunity, handcuff status can easily prove decisive.

So maybe don't put a ton of value on the handcuff factor. Maybe if we compiled a list of the 100 factors that impact a player's value someone might want to argue that the handcuff factor ranks 92nd. In fact, I think in the great discussion about just how much or how little value the handcuff factor merits, (probably much less than it gets), the only answer that is 100% empirically wrong is "zero".

Maurile Tremblay: Jonathan Williams has direct value to my fantasy team when he starts for my fantasy team (rather than when he is on the bench). When is Williams likely to start for my fantasy team? When both of the following simultaneously occur: (a) one of my starting fantasy RBs is injured or is performing poorly, and (b) Williams starts playing a lot for the Bills.

Those two situations are more likely to coincide for me if I own LeSean McCoy than if I do not own him. Drafting McCoy should therefore make me more eager to draft Williams than I otherwise would have been.

Handcuffing is even more worthwhile in best-ball leagues than it is in traditional leagues. In best-ball leagues, I can take advantage of the negative correlation between McCoy's and Williams' fantasy production not only when McCoy is known to be injured, but also in games when Williams unexpectedly vultures multiple touchdowns from McCoy.

Danny Tuccitto: I wonder if the following example might bring this thread to a place of maximal agreement. I posited earlier that Jonathan Williams and James Conner are the only handcuffs -- "zero-value" as we've come to call it -- that I'd consider.

Currently, Williams' ADP is 155ish and Conner's is 190ish. So, to merge Adam's and my views with Jason's view that

you should draft the backup running back YOU think has the BEST chance to dominate if he ever gets the chance. Put ZERO value on whether you happen to have the starter on the same team.

The key is to take a look at the backup running backs that a) I think have a good chance to dominate if they ever get the chance; and b) are available at or below Williams' or Conner's ADPs, depending on which of McCoy or Bell I selected earlier. Regarding Conner, there's no backup below 190 that meets the criteria. Regarding Williams, I count two backups below the 155th pick that meet the criteria: Marlon Mack and ......................... Conner.

Now, obviously, one can quibble with my assessment of each below-155 backup's chance to dominate if he gets the chance, but to me it turns out that, for all the disagreement here in theory, there's actually hardly any difference in practice:

  • If I draft Bell, I'll consider Conner around Pick 190. If I draft McCoy, I'll consider Williams around Pick 155.
  • When Pick 155ish comes around and I drafted McCoy earlier, I'll decide then and there whether I'd rather take him or wait for Mack/Conner later.
  • When Pick 190ish comes around and I drafted Bell earlier, I'll take Conner because there aren't any potentially dominant backups later.

Ryan Hester: I'm just catching up now, but this one got pretty fun after my response. For the record, Adam, I was agreeing with the following passage from your initial response:

Last year, DeAngelo Williams didn't just produce good numbers, he produced good numbers in exactly the weeks that Le'Veon Bell owners needed an extra RB to produce good numbers.

This was going to be the entire basis of my answer; I just began my response by saying that you had already said it.

One thing I'm opposite on is Maurile's point about handcuffing your own players being optimal for Best Ball leagues. I'm sure since it's MT that said it, there's some math or something behind it, but in my non-brilliant mind, handcuffing your own guys in Best Ball doesn't raise your ceiling - it limits it.

"Buffalo RB" is only going to score a finite number of points. Why tie up two roster spots just to get those points? Instead, I'd rather draft Jonathan Williams if I don't own LeSean McCoy. Let's say I own Le'Veon Bell. I'd rather draft Williams in that scenario. With Bell, I'm obviously banking on his elite production. But in a scenario where McCoy is injured and Williams becomes a potential high-end RB2, I now have two studs on my team (plus the other guys I've drafted as well).

A McCoy injury not only makes my team better via the Williams production; it greatly hinders one of my opponent's (the McCoy owner) chances at winning the league as well.

Adam Harstad: Maurile's point about best ball is this: if you have two RBs with a given level of production, the more negatively correlated that production is, the more points your team will score overall.

So if you have two RBs who each have eight 20-point games and eight 0-point games, if all the 20-point games are on the same weeks, their production has a perfect correlation of 1.0, and your team scores 160 points. If all the 20-point games are on opposite weeks, their production has a perfect negative correlation of -1.0, and your team scores 320 points.

Obviously you'd prefer a back who scores 300 points to one of those 160-point backs, but if production is constant, a negative correlation is good. And theoretically, if ADP is working the way it should, the backs drafted around a handcuff should have similar production expectations to the handcuff. But you'd expect the handcuff's performance to be much more strongly negatively correlated with your starter's.

(This is really the same thing as the "timeliness" factor I was talking about in redraft, it's just that the perfect decision-making of best ball exacerbates the advantage.)

Will Grant: Coming to the party late but Jason basically has my exact approach. In redraft leagues, you have very few roster spots and most leagues have plenty of waiver wire options due to limited roster spots. Your best approach is to draft the best RBs available to fill your spots than to have handcuff backs and hope that you can start the right one during the right week.

The 'back in the day' theory was that RBs on the same team would produce the same type of numbers if the lead back went down. With RBBC for a large majority of the NFL teams these days, it becomes much easier to find a running back who will produce the same or better numbers than to burn a roster spot on a player.

One of the most frustrating positions to be in as a fantasy owner is trying to decide - do I start RB A or RB B, picking the wrong one and losing because of it. Handcuffing almost locks you into a yes or now decision each week that could mean the difference between a win and a loss.

Ari Ingel: Haven't updated this for this year ... but put this out last year.

Chris Feery: Jason nailed it. I’m not reaching for a handcuff under any circumstances. If my draft works out swimmingly and I have the luxury of not filling holes in the later rounds, then I’ll consider it. I’ll also echo Jason’s point about targeting other folks handcuffs, but only if that player will also be seeing some regular touches outside of injury situations. Jonathan Williams is a perfect example of that for this year. The cupboard in Buffalo is barren behind LeSean McCoy, and Williams will see touches each week. If McCoy goes down, he’s in line to be a monster. By extension, he could prove to be a steal at his current ADP.

Dan Hindery: I agree with Adam and Danny on this. It makes sense to handcuff your top running back in some scenarios.

If my roster is deep enough, I would love to roster James Conner late to protect against a Le'Veon Bell injury. Pittsburgh has shown that the backup will have massive value whenever Bell is out. And Bell hasn't made it through an entire season fully healthy yet in his career.

But it does only make sense in those rare instances where there's a clear backup and the backup would have a lot of value if the starter was out. Situations like Jacksonville, Chicago, Miami and San Diego are much murkier and could end up in committees if the starter goes down. So even if I use an early pick on Leonard Fournette, Jordan Howard, Jay Ajayi or Melvin Gordon III, I have no interest in trying to handcuff them late in the draft.