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Your 2017 Guide to Fantasy Football Handcuffs

By Matt Schauf 8:07am EDT 7/5/17


The idea that you need to handcuff backups to your starting fantasy football RBs is outdated. You don’t.

But that doesn’t mean that you should ignore the prospect completely. There are plenty of situations that will present big fantasy upside if the starter goes down. And there are other cases where the backups aren’t worth touching even if you selected the starter in Round 2.

This is how we’re sorting the situations heading into training camp, where plenty can certainly change.

The players and situations aren’t necessarily ranked here, though I’ve ordered them loosely based on their current fantasy appeal. Of course, you can check out our 2017 RB rankings to get our full read on every back worth drafting (and plenty that aren’t).


Locks

There’s no such thing as a “must” have in fantasy football, but these handcuff picks come the closest …


Jonathan Williams, Bills (to LeSean McCoy)

Buffalo’s #2 RB racked up 9 total TDs each of the past 2 years. You probably remember Mike Gillislee running for 8 and catching another last year. But it was just 2015 when Karlos Williams ran for 7 and caught 2 others. This Williams can be just as good as either of those players.

If you’re drafting McCoy near the 1-2 turn, then you should try to secure this guy in the double-digit rounds. And there’s enough upside to make Williams attractive even if you didn’t start with McCoy.


James Conner, Steelers (to Le’Veon Bell)

It’s fair to say this situation isn’t clear heading into training camp. But if Connor doesn’t win the backup job, it’ll be a disappointment.

Knile Davis crapped out with the Chiefs and then couldn’t find room for touches in Green Bay. He’ll need to prove he’s more than a kick returner at this point. And Fitz Toussaint just isn’t that good.

The Steelers lauded Connor’s ability as a receiver after drafting him, saying that Ben Roethlisberger tried him out. We all know about Bell’s loaded injury history, and DeAngelo Williams showed us how high the backup’s fantasy ceiling reaches the past 2 years.


Darren McFadden, Cowboys (to Ezekiel Elliott)

This might be the most under-appreciated handcuff spot so far. McFadden’s sitting RB76 in MyFantasyLeague.com public drafting, and neither he nor Alfred Morris even makes the board of drafted players on Fantasy Football Calculator.

It’s somewhat understandable. Both backs remain on the roster as of this writing, which renders the situation unclear. But the Cowboys re-signed McFadden just this spring, amid rumors that they were hoping to trade Morris (*giggle*).

McFadden’s the bet here for the backup spot, and he produced like a low-end PPR RB1 the last time he got into the lineup (2015).


Duke Johnson, Browns (to Isaiah Crowell)

A year ago, we wouldn’t have applied “handcuff” to this situation. But Crowell looks pretty clearly like the lead back in Cleveland heading into 2017. We still project more targets for Johnson, but Crowell even led him in that area over the 2nd half of last season.

Fortunately, Johnson’s not coming off the board until Round 10 — even in PPR drafting. And the situation could be sneaky good. The Browns must be a better team to give their backs more consistent touches this season. But Crowell and Johnson will run behind 1 of the league’s better O-lines.


Joe Williams, 49ers (to Carlos Hyde)

If the Williams-Kyle Shanahan hype builds further this summer – and negative buzz on Hyde continues – then the rookie could see his draft price shoot up. For now, though, he’s an easy way to buy fantasy insurance on Hyde’s moderate early price.

Williams will need to beat out Tim Hightower for the backup job and might have to share touches with the veteran if Hyde goes down. But the rookie is the upside play here. And Hyde’s injury history makes him a worthwhile late target even if you didn’t draft Hyde.



Lesser Cuffs

Not all of these guys are worth drafting at any point. But all could step into starter-level roles with 1 injury.


Jamaal Charles, Broncos (to C.J. Anderson)

This won’t be Charles’ job until and unless he proves in training camp that he’s back close to the old Chiefs version. But that has kept his price in check to this point. And the potential payoff grows because Denver’s new coaching staff isn’t as invested in C.J. Anderson. Of course, even if Anderson remains the lead back when healthy, he has yet to make it through a starting season healthy.

The Broncos sport a weak line and don’t present a situation worth chasing. But there’s workload upside at least.


Latavius Murray, Vikings (to Dalvin Cook)

Murray’s not good enough or in a good enough situation to join the group above this one. But he is going plenty late in drafts to be treated as a handcuff.

The veteran’s likely to share work with Cook more than a true handcuff-type back tends to. But his inactive spring after ankle surgery might have given the rookie enough of a headstart to grab a clear #1 spot on the depth chart.

HC Mike Zimmer indicated back in March that he viewed Murray as a 3-down back, and Cook comes with significant injury history. So there’s some insurance value here in the range where most other backs look like cuffs or committees members.


Jonathan Stewart, Panthers (to Christian McCaffrey)

Stewart’s key role will likely be as TD vulture to McCaffrey (at least the rushing scores that Cam Newton allows him to get). It’s tough to bet on consistent enough touches there to make Stewart a standalone fantasy option, though. And he rarely catches the ball these days.

A healthy McCaffrey should get the ball more than the declining vet. But the team likes to run the ball and would give it to Stewart plenty if McCaffrey goes down.


Kerwynn Williams, Cardinals (to David Johnson)

Should we call him a “poor man’s Darren McFadden”?

Like McFadden, Williams might be 1 of fantasy’s most underrated handcuffs for 2017. He’s obviously not presenting any value when Johnson’s on the field, because the Cardinals don’t want to give the ball to anyone else. But that’s precisely where Johnson’s risk comes in.

Arizona’s horse doesn’t drag any worrisome injury history behind him. But his heavy load increases the likelihood of going down.

Sure, Andre Ellington would absorb some touches, but he has also showed that he’s not lead-back material. The Cards tried to move him to wideout this spring, though they have since shifted him back.

Williams certainly wouldn’t approach Johnson’s workload if the starter went down, but there would be tons of touches available in a high-ceiling offense. He has never logged more than 53 carries in a season, but Williams is averaging 5.6 yards per rush career.


Thomas Rawls, Seahawks (to Eddie Lacy)

Rawls is a solid early insurance policy behind Lacy. The whole Seattle backfield will need to play out once Lacy actually takes the field. Then we can figure out whether this is more handcuff situation or true committee. Either way, the presence of C.J. Prosise lowers the ultimate ceiling. But it’s an attractive situation to buy into at current ADPs for all 3 backs.


Wayne Gallman, Giants (to Paul Perkins)

Perkins figures to cede plenty of receiving work to Shane Vereen. A Vereen injury would likely mean more of a target boost for Perkins than a significant workload increase for Gallman. But we also wouldn’t bet on Vereen taking the lead ball-carrying role if Perkins were to go down. The rookie should at least split the work with Vereen in that case.


Zach Zenner, Lions (to Ameer Abdullah)

Detroit’s backfield might hit the regular season as more committee than hierarchy, but Lions coaches seem to want Abdullah to emerge as the lead rusher. Expect Zenner to steal some short-yardage stuff even from a healthy Abdullah, who has missed more games than he’s scored TDs so far. And if Abdullah goes down again, we’ve already seen Detroit’s willingness to turn to Zenner.

Dwayne Washington and Matt Asiata will provide summer competition, but we’d bet right now on Zenner staying ahead of them.


Branden Oliver, Chargers (to Melvin Gordon)

If (when?) Gordon goes down, the Chargers will likely curse themselves for not preparing better. The top option is coming off a torn Achilles’ tendon. Oliver will need to fend off Kenneth Farrow and Andre Williams to back up Gordon. Perhaps he’ll fail, and Farrow or Williams will occupy this spot come August. But the fact remains that any non-Gordon Chargers back will only be worth rostering because of the situational upside. It’s a sorry bunch of backups.



Going Too Early to be a Cuff


Derrick Henry, Titans (to DeMarco Murray)

Henry should be 1 of this year’s top handcuffs. But to get him means drafting both Titans among at least the top 30 RBs. And if you wait until Henry’s current RB27 ADP in MFL drafting, you’ll definitely risk losing him to a league mate who thinks he’ll displace Murray.

The price is high to own the situation, though Murray showed us that it can pay off. There’s enough depth at the position to buy both backs if you want. However, there’s also enough downside risk to just avoid the potential headache.


Tevin Coleman, Falcons (to Devonta Freeman)

Yes, it’s possible for Freeman and Coleman to deliver fantasy-starter value at the same time. They showed us that last year. And even Coleman produced top-24 PPR finishes in 61.5% of his games, 17th among RBs. But he’s unlikely to repeat his high TD and yards-per-catch rates. And drafting both among the top 20 RBs ignores the downside of the whole offense regressing under 1st-time NFL OC Steve Sarkisian.

We’d rather take Freeman and leave Coleman to someone else—unless, of course, the latter falls past ADP (or something changes in August).


Adrian Peterson, Saints (to Mark Ingram)

Peterson’s going about a round and a half behind Ingram in MFL drafting right now. But he’s going about 2 rounds ahead in FF Calculator non-PPR drafts.

You can probably land both in the 5th- to 6th-round range, which makes pairing them up a possibility. It also figures to be frustrating outside of best-ball formats. There’s enough value in the Saints offense to make either player worth snagging at cost.

Of course, there’s also rookie Alvin Kamara and his current Round 11 ADP. He can work as an Ingram handcuff in PPR or a standalone value in any format.



Backfield Pairs

Both of these backfield pairs are going late enough on average that you can pair them up on your fantasy squad — especially if you waited to start drafting RBs.


Bilal Powell and Matt Forte, Jets

If you’ve seen our rankings, then you know that we’re clearly betting on Powell leading the Jets backfield. But predictions from beat writers have varied from agreeing with that to calling Forte the “offensive workhorse.” We can all agree that this situation presents a wide range of possible outcomes.

As of this writing, you can draft Powell in Round 6 on average and Forte 3-4 rounds later. That means you could stash both as fantasy reserves and see what happens. Of course, the Jets offense doesn’t look like a unit you’ll want to invest in too heavily.


Samaje Perine and Robert Kelley, Washington

Like the Jets duo, Perine and Kelley figure to fight their battle for touches into the regular season. Unlike Powell and Forte, though, these 2 big backs will run in a high-ceiling offense. Washington finished 12th and 10th in the league in scoring the past 2 years.

Perine and Kelley are going right next to each other early in Round 8 on FF Calculator. In MFL drafting, you can pair Perine in early Round 8 with Kelley 3 rounds later.



Crowded Backup Situations

There’s potential value to these backups, but there’s also potential frustration in their crowded situations.


Jamaal Williams and Aaron Jones, Packers (to Ty Montgomery)

The Packers drafted Williams a round ahead of Jones this spring. That might give Williams a headstart in their summer competition to backup 1st-time starter Montgomery. But it certainly doesn’t decide the depth chart. This will be a pair to watch through camp and the preseason — and a backup situation worth buying into late in drafts.


D’Onta Foreman and Alfred Blue, Texans (to Lamar Miller)

Houston probably hopes Foreman will beat out Blue (and others) right away. We’d bet that way at the moment, too. But this backfield needs to work itself out yet. Tyler Ervin could be more of a factor as well. Last year’s 4th-round pick garnered just 4 touches as a rookie but could pair with a bigger back to fill in for an injured Miller.

If Ervin just doesn’t have it, then Akeem Hunt could play a similar role. After just 13 receptions over 3 college seasons, Foreman is a weak bet for any receiving production. However the group shakes out, a Miller injury would leave loads of available touches. He finished 2016 fourth in the league in carries per game.


Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard, Bengals (to Joe Mixon)

It’s not hard to envision Mixon immediately taking over this backfield. Should he go down, though, the replacement vision will depend on how well Bernard’s repaired knee is doing. If both of these guys are healthy, they’d likely split the job once again.


DeAndre Washington and Jalen Richard, Raiders (to Marshawn Lynch)

Washington and Richard look like very similar players. They are almost exactly the same size. As rookies, Washington averaged 1.0 more carries per game, while Richard averaged 0.8 more targets per week. Unless they differ significantly in performance this summer, it’s tough to bet on either over the other in fantasy for 2017. The X-factor at this point is rookie Elijah Hood. The 230-pounder could quickly emerge as the short-yardage handcuff to Lynch with a strong summer.


Robert Turbin and Marlon Mack, Colts (to Frank Gore)

Even if Gore remains durable, there’s opportunity in a backfield that shifted some late-season work from the vet to Turbin over the 2nd half of last season. The Colts then re-signed Turbin for more than they paid him in 2016, and then they drafted Mack in Round 4. We’d like to see the rookie prove this summer that he’s ready for a significant role. Because Turbin’s just not that good.


Chris Ivory and T.J. Yeldon, Jaguars (to Leonard Fournette)

Fournette’s talent makes him attractive for fantasy despite a situation that hasn’t been good for fantasy value for a while. If he misses time, you’re not gonna want to count on Ivory or Yeldon unless you’re desperate.


Kenyan Drake and Damien Williams, Dolphins (to Jay Ajayi)

Like Jacksonville’s, this backfield gets a lot uglier if the starter goes down. Drake’s the upside athlete behind Ajayi but doesn’t appear built for feature duty in the NFL. Williams hasn’t accomplished much in the league so far, but Miami also can’t seem to quit him. There’d be work for both if Ajayi went down.


Ka'Deem Carey, Jeremy Langford, Benny Cunningham and Tarik Cohen, Bears (to Jordan Howard)

Jordan Howard’s obviously the horse. But behind him sits a jumble. Ka’Deem Carey and Jeremy Langford might be battling for a roster spot this summer. Free-agent signee Benny Cunningham got just $80,000 guaranteed on his 1-year deal, which doesn’t make him a lock to reach September with the Bears. Rookie Tarik Cohen is probably the safest bet among Bears backups to make the regular-season roster. We’ll see how big a role he’s ready for. If he impresses, Cohen should at least garner some passing-game work even when Howard’s healthy.



Committees

These situations carry some fantasy appeal, but they don’t lend themselves to handcuff treatment in your draft.


Patriots

First came Rex Burkhead in free agency. Then they sniped restricted free-agent Mike Gillislee from division-rival Buffalo. Then they gave James White a healthy extension. And Dion Lewis figures to be healthier after returning from his 2015 ACL tear midseason last year.

You could cuff Lewis to White late in your draft as the pass-catching favorites. In general, though, we’d just recommend treating all New England backs as individual fantasy pieces this summer.


Eagles

Ryan Mathews is either about to be cut or he isn’t. We’ll see. Whether he stays or goes, though, Philly sports a bunch of backs.

LeGarrette Blount looks like the obvious bet to lead the way in rushing attempts. Darren Sproles figures to lead the group in targets once again. But exactly how Wendell Smallwood and Donnel Pumphrey will eventually fit will likely remain anyone’s guess well into late summer — especially if Mathews sticks around. Feel free to grab your preferred piece(s) late in fantasy drafts.



Unique Situations


Buccaneers

All signs this offseason point to Doug Martin taking this backfield over again once he takes the field. But he’ll sit out the first 3 games on the drug suspension that closed out last year.

So Jacquizz Rodgers has a shot to reprise his midseason fill-in role. But a healthy Charles Sims would likely absorb a lot of that work and might even emerge ahead of Rodgers on the depth chart. And there’s 5th-round rookie Jeremy McNichols — whom we apparently liked a lot more than the NFL did around draft time.

Perhaps a clear Martin handcuff will emerge during the preseason, but it’s impossible to point to one right now.


Ravens

We obviously prefer Kenneth Dixon in this backfield. But like Martin, he’ll start the season sidelined by a drug suspension. So will Terrance West reclaim lead duties in his place?

The biggest difference this time around is that Danny Woodhead has arrived, ostensibly to at least play a big receiving role. He’s a standalone fantasy value in early drafting and should remain a PPR starting option even after Dixon returns. But will he take too much work for West to be an option as well over the 1st month?

And once Dixon returns, will we see some backfield hierarchy or a straight committee? We’re betting on Dixon at cost. But there’s no denying this is a unique situation.



We'll See


Rams: Who backs up Todd Gurley?

The idea of drafting Gurley makes us queasy, even at the discount vs. his 2016 price. If you choose to take him, though, get ready for the handcuff scenario to generate some nausea.

Behind Gurley sit Malcolm Brown (22 career carries through 2 seasons), Lance Dunbar (94 carries and just 54 games played through 5 seasons) and Aaron Green (0 touches as a 2016 undrafted free agent).

As the title of this section says, we’ll see how the depth chart shakes out. But there’s not much to like in this backfield.


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