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Your Key to Fantasy Football Handcuffs

By Matt Schauf | Updated on Tue, 23 May 2023 . 1:27 PM EDT

What's a handcuff?

Well, there need not be an official definition. (And we don’t even completely agree on the matter.) But here's how we'd break it down. "Handcuff" is a purely fantasy term that describes a player -- usually a RB -- who you attach to a teammate in your fantasy draft because his value is tied pretty securely to that guy.

This doesn't have to be a strict backup in real football terms, but rather a fantasy reserve to start the season whose value would rise with an injury to the team's starting back.

Of course, if you're reading this article, you probably didn't need the term defined in the first place. What you do need is this complete guide to the handcuff (and non-handcuff) situations around the league.


HANDCUFFS YOU NEED (or need to steal)

Terrance West, Browns

The Browns clearly don't love Ben Tate. They like him. They signed him. But then they traded up late in Round 3 to draft this guy ahead of the Ravens. And then they signed highly talented undrafted free agent Isaiah Crowell. West has reportedly looked good so far, and we're expecting him to steal work even if Tate emerges as the starter this summer. West remains a handcuff, though, because he likely won't reach fantasy-starter status unless Tate goes down. It just so happens that Tate has already missed 24 NFL games (including all of his rookie year). You'll need to pay to get West, who's bordering on the top 40 at RB in My Fantasy League's ADP as of this writing. But you might wind up with the starter in a potentially strong fantasy situation.

Knile Davis, Chiefs

Davis remains moderately priced at RB50, considering he's a Jamaal Charles injury away from starting for the Chiefs. The upshot on Davis is the natural talent – a 5'10, 227-pound frame plus 4.3-second 40 time equals Football Outsiders' 2nd highest "speed score" ever -- and the situation that helped Charles lead all RB scorers last season. Davis did, however, enjoy just 1 good season at Arkansas before injury and a crumbling team helped drag him down. He managed just 3.5 yards per carry and 6.8 yards per catch as a rookie, but it's tough to judge much based on that small sample(just 81 total touches). He certainly looks like a probable fantasy starter should Charles go down.

Devonta Freeman, Falcons

Freeman just might push his way out of "handcuff" territory and up the ADP rankings with a strong summer. ESPN Falcons writer Vaughn McClure recently called RB the team's top position battle heading into training camp. Steven Jackson seems to be tiptoeing on the edge of the cliff after turning in a career-worst rushing average (3.5 yards per carry) and losing 4 games to a thigh injury in his age-30 season last year. Freeman sits just 6 spots behind Jackson currently in MFL drafts since June 15. So you'll need to pick them in pretty close succession to apply the true handcuff. Freeman also looks like a quality standalone pick in Round 10, though.

Fred Jackson, Bills

It's fair to say that Jackson's not really a handcuff after he finished 2013 among the top 12 RBs in most fantasy formats. But we expect more work for C.J. Spiller with his ankle back to full health, which would also mean less work for Jackson. The veteran's also coming off the board after young "handcuff" backs such as Freeman, West, Jeremy Hill and Tre Mason. Spiller has never topped 250 touches in a season or started more than 11 games. So snagging this insurance policy -- as well as a guy who could fill in as a bye-week flex -- makes plenty of sense in Round 10.

Chris Ivory, Jets

As we mentioned in our podcast preview of the AFC East, we expect more of a timeshare in the Jets' backfield than the draft-position disparity between Ivory and Chris Johnson might expect. (They sit 30 spots apart on the RB board as of this writing.) But it'll likely take a Johnson injury (ouch!) to make Ivory an attractive option to plug into your fantasy lineup. Should that happen, though, Ivory could deliver sneaky value. He did rush for 4.6 yards a carry in his 1st Jets season despite an injury-marred summer. Ivory also posted 5 weeks of double-digit PPR points in 2013. He's no picture of durability himself, but he doesn't need to be as the backup to 29-year-old Johnson and his questionable knee.

Ka'Deem Carey, Bears

Carey might have slipped down the NFL draft board because of disappointing timed speed, but he landed in an explosive Bears offense behind a guy who amassed the league's 4th most carries over the past 6 years. Matt Forte has missed just 5 career games -- 4 of those in 2011 -- but hushed knee questions and his advancing age combine for at least some injury risk. We still like the PPR demon near the top of Round 1, but we like it even better if you add the backup who rushed for 3,814 yards and caught 62 passes over his final 2 college campaigns.

Jeremy Hill, Bengals

Hill sits right in the middle of RB4 territory in MFL's ADP rankings and could climb with a strong preseason. But he makes sense in that range if you spend an early pick on Gio Bernard. Perhaps even more than any of the previous situations mentioned here, Hill and Bernard figure to share work. We expect Bernard to take on more primary duties than he claimed as a rookie last year, though, which will make Hill tough to use outside of non-PPR or TD-heavy formats. If Bernard gets hurt, though, Hill combines the power of a big guy with the hands and feet of a back who caught 18 passes at LSU last year and averaged 9.8 yards per reception across the past 2 seasons. He'd be in for a ton of touches under run-favoring OC Hue Jackson in the event of a Bernard injury.

Lance Dunbar, Cowboys

Maybe Dunbar enjoys some Danny Woodhead-style relevance this year under new OC Scott Linehan. He has certainly generated some still-quiet buzz this offseason, and Linehan's Lions offense got 2 RBs beyond 50 receptions last year. But these Cowboys are more loaded with pass-catchers, which will limit Dunbar's immediate upside. His diminutive frame -- 5'8, 188 pounds -- might also keep him from taking on a true future role whenever DeMarco Murray gets hurt next. But Dallas has just Joseph Randle and Ryan Williams behind Murray and Dunbar ... so Dunbar would almost have to take on a significantly larger rushing role. For what it's worth, he did carry 200+ times and catch 28+ passes in each of his final 3 seasons at North Texas. Dunbar's well worth the small investment in your PPR league, whether you drafted Murray or not.

Carlos Hyde, 49ers

The Niners' backfield might not provide us a clear view of who will line up as Frank Gore's primary backup, but Hyde certainly looks like the top candidate. He's coming off a workhorse final season at Ohio State that included 7.3 yards per carry and 9.2 yards per catch. Hyde showed more of his pass-catching ability in pre-draft workouts. In San Francisco, he'll compete with Marcus Lattimore and his questionable knee and Kendall Hunter, who's heading into the final year of his contract and has never gotten consistent work under HC Jim Harbaugh. Hyde -- or whoever emerges as the primary backup -- will run behind a 31-year-old starter who logged 956 carries over the past 3 years when you include the postseason.

Bernard Pierce, Ravens

Will the Ravens go with a committee for however long Ray Rice is suspended? Maybe to some degree. But 2 pieces of that setup would be rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro and journeyman Justin Forsett. New OC Gary Kubiak has compared Pierce to Arian Foster in style, and the RB averaged 4.9 yards per carry in limited rookie year work before an awful 2013. Pierce also rushed for 5.4 yards per carry and 53 total TDs across 3 seasons at Temple. He missed offseason workouts while rehabbing a surgically repaired shoulder, but we should get a good look at him come training camp. Rice's situation could vault Pierce up fantasy draft boards with a good preseason, but he looks solid in rounds 8-10 in the meantime.

Christine Michael, Seahawks

Marshawn Lynch will remain the hoss in Seattle as long as he's healthy, no matter how excited Seattle decision-makers get about Michael. The thing to keep in mind, though, is that Lynch has carried 901 times over his 3 full seasons in Seattle. That's 66 more than any other back in the league over that stretch. Add the postseason and you get another 101 rushing attempts. Last year's Super Bowl run also carried Lynch's season into February. Long playoff runs haven't been friendly to RB value recently in the years-after. Lynch missed time in each of his 1st 3 seasons with Buffalo before moving to Seattle and sitting out just 1 contest over the past 4 years. Even if he doesn't wear down in 2014, sheer luck is bound to claim another game or 2 at some point. Michael brings explosive speed to one of the league's most run-heavy offense and would start ahead of Robert Turbin if Lynch went down. Michael would be an instant fantasy starter in that case.

Tre Mason, Rams

We're not buying into murmurs that Mason could steal Zac Stacy's starting job as soon as this year. But it's certainly worth noting that the Rams drafted Mason 2 rounds earlier than Stacy just a year after selecting their leading 2013 rusher. Mason figures to get some work and would certainly stand to gain the starting role following a Stacy injury. He topped 1,000 yards each of the past 2 years at Auburn, including a 317-1,816-23 rushing season last year.


GRAB THEM IF YOU HAVE SPACE

Andre Brown, Texans

Brown reached the middle of RB3 range in fantasy-scoring average across formats last year after a broken leg cost him the 1st 8 games. He ranked 10th in the league in carries per game, securing a starting job in a backfield that cycled through too many runners in 2013. But he also averaged just 3.5 yards per carry and 5.2 yards per catch, and ran for only 3 TDs. A weak Giants O-line was part of the problem, but the other part was Brown's limited talent. Volume should be on his side if he has to take over for an injured Arian Foster this year, but Brown's far from a lock to return starter value in your fantasy lineup.

Charles Sims, Buccaneers

The biggest issue facing Sims might be the crowd in Tampa's backfield. Mike James and Bobby Rainey combined to start 9 games in the Bucs' backfield last year. Both remain on the roster heading into the season, along with speed back Jeff Demps -- and, of course, starter Doug Martin. Sims should certainly pass the incumbent backups on the depth chart quickly, and his draft position (69th overall) says the team expects as much. But new OC Jeff Tedford has said he favors a committee approach and showed that with his Cal teams. He'd only be more likely to spread the work around if the starter went down. And even if Sims gets onto the field, the Bucs' O-line needs to prove it can support a running game this year after helping Martin get off to a horrid start in 2013. We were high on Sims heading into the draft and certainly see big upside in a guy who averaged nearly 5.9 yards per rush and caught 203 passes over 4 college seasons. But his situation keeps him short of "must-handcuff" territory.

Donald Brown, Chargers

Brown's arrival helps to keep Danny Woodhead from gaining handcuff appeal in relation to Ryan Mathews. The former Colt signed for 3 years and $10 million just after free agency opened. He joins an offense that ranked 6th most run heavy in the league last year, running on 45.8% of its snaps. Even that number included a pass-leaning start to the season with Philip Rivers topping 40 pass attempts in 4 of his first 8 games. The addition of Brown and approximately no one for the passing game suggests that the Chargers plan to stick with their run-favoring approach in 2014. Woodhead would still claim the bulk of the backfield receiving work if Mathews got hurt, which keeps Brown from joining the "need" group. (That and Brown's spotty performance history.) But the new guy would see plenty of carries. Mathews ranked 8th in the league in attempts per game last year. It'd be a good idea to shackle this guy to the starter, who missed 10 games over his firstst 3 seasons.

Ahmad Bradshaw, Colts

It'd be nice if we could all wait for Bradshaw to prove that his neck's OK before stashing him anywhere on our 2014 fantasy rosters. It'd also be nice if the Colts clearly define Bradshaw's and Vick Ballard's depth-chart spots early in training camp. Bradshaw returned for some non-contact workouts in June, but we'd like to see him perform when everyone's a full go. We're not forgetting, though, that Bradshaw outplayed Trent Richardson early last year when both were in the Indy backfield. If Bradshaw can stay healthy for any stretch and Richardson disappoints once again, there has to be at least a slight chance that this guy would push even a healthy T-Rich aside. At the least, though, he'd make for an interesting handcuff behind 1 of the league's best young QBs. Bradshaw's checkered injury history and Ballard's presence keep the former Giant in this category, but he's an interesting name to keep an eye on late in deeper drafts.

Andre Williams, Giants

It's pretty clear that the Giants expect Rashad Jennings to be the horse as long as he's healthy this year. It's pretty clear that no one can count on Williams catching many passes anytime soon. He caught 0 as a Boston College senior last year and just 10 over his 4-year career. If Jennings gets hurt, the Giants figure to fill his role with multiple guys -- especially if David Wilson's healthy and ready to actually do something. Williams led the nation in carries and rushing yards in 2013, averaging 6.1 per attempt. He could certainly be in for serious rushing work and potentially decent value if Jennings goes down. But just 3 of last year's top 24 backs in non-PPR caught fewer than 20 passes. Just 1 player among that group caught fewer than 16. If you don't tally receptions, you have to run extra hard to reach fantasy relevance.

Chris Polk, Eagles

Similar to Andre Williams, Polk likely wouldn't get much receiving work if LeSean McCoy got hurt. That's not because Polk can't do it. He caught 78 balls an averaged a nice 8.6 yards per reception over his final 3 seasons at Washington. But Darren Sproles will rule the receiving roles out of the Philly backfield. We expect Sproles to steal some receptions from McCoy, and that theft would likely only expand if the backup were pressed into duty. That said, we'd try to find a spot for this handcuff in an offense that ranked 2nd in the league in yards and 4th in scoring last season. Polk would undoubtedly see plenty of opportunities in McCoy's stead, even if he wouldn't necessarily transform into a fantasy must-start.

James Starks, Packers

Better durability might push Starks into the "need" category here. He averaged 5.5 yards per carry last season, including a 20-132-1 rushing line after Eddie Lacy went down in Week 2. Unfortunately, it was the 1st career 100-yard game for a guy who has played in just 35 of a possible 64 games over the past 4 years. Still, if Lacy were to go down again in 2014, Starks would step into one of the league's most explosive offenses -- a unit that should improve over last year with Aaron Rodgers back. The Packers' renewed focus on running the ball would also likely mean more consistent carries than Starks might have seen as the primary guy in the past. He'd also be fine with the receiving work, having posted a 29-catch season in 2011 (to go with just 133 carries).

LeGarrette Blount, Steelers

It's tough to say exactly why the Steelers opted for Blount over Maurice Jones-Drew after looking at both in free agency. But in doing so, they opted for the better runner and much-worse receiver. Blount has caught just 23 passes through 4 pro seasons, 15 of which came in his 2nd year with the Bucs. Blount caught just 2 balls with the Patriots last year despite passing Stevan Ridley on a depth chart that lost Shane Vereen for 8 games. Blount would step in for the majority of the rushing work in the event of a Le'Veon Bell injury. And that should get him drafted in most leagues. But his lack of receiving would hurt his week-to-week value.

Latavius Murray, Raiders

Maurice Jones-Drew and Darren McFadden might not qualify as handcuffs, as we assume there's a good chance the 2 aging, broken runners will split the job. But this 2nd-year back makes sense as a late stash in case the Raiders decide to chase his upside. Murray stands 6'3, 230 pounds and ran a 4.38-second 40 at the 2013 Scouting Combine. Oakland OC Greg Olsen said in June that Murray carries the highest upside of anyone in the backfield. That's not saying a whole lot when the guys ahead of him are both shuffling along the edge of career cliffs, but it does say the coaching staff hopes Murray will start to help. Unless he climbs the depth chart in camp or the preseason, Murray figures to start the year on the waiver wire in most leagues. But don't forget about him.

Roy Helu, Washington

Don't let last year's Bengals convince you that HC Jay Gruden wants to split the backfield work between 2 guys. He did that because then-rookie Giovani Bernard was the much better player, though probably not ready (and maybe not built) for a workhorse role. Gruden had no trouble making horses out of Cedric Benson and BenJarvus Green-Ellis in his first 2 years as Cincinnati's OC, though. We expect more of that kind of approach with Alfred Morris in Washington. But there's still room for Helu to claim some receiving work even when Morris is available. And should the starter go down, Helu would likely stand ahead of rookie Lache Seastrunk for the starting role by virtue of more proven hands and better pass-blocking. That said, he'll need to prove himself to the new coaching staff this summer to stay ahead of Seastrunk and Chris Thompson on the depth chart. Gruden's crew drafted Seastrunk this spring, and the new HC has talked up Thompson's talent this offseason.


HANDCUFFS TO IGNORE

Stepfan Taylor and Jonathan Dwyer, Cardinals

Rashard Mendenhall might have snuck into the bottom of RB2 territory last year, but that's only because he garnered 101 more carries than Andre Ellington. There's a reason reports keep popping up about Ellington getting 20+ touches per game in 2014, though. Actually, there are 2 reasons: first, his talent; second, the other options stink. Taylor's a solid guy but a plodder who will get only what's blocked. Dwyer's a bigger talent but has yet to deliver on it after eliciting concerns in just that area heading into the 2010 draft. Dwyer's still just 25 (as of July 26) and carries more upside if you simply must take 1 of these guys. But neither's likely to deliver fantasy value, especially behind a line that must prove it's better than last year.

All Jaguars

When there's offseason buzz about Denard Robinson, you have to wonder about your backfield. The converted Michigan QB just might head into camp as the leading candidate to back up Toby Gerhart. Joining him in the competition will be Jordan Todman and 7th-round rookie Storm Johnson. We could come up with small glimmers of optimism for each player, but the fact is that none has proved he can hack it in the pros. And if Gerhart gets hurt, the next guy up will need to prove himself behind a line that Pro Football Focus rated worst in the league in run-blocking last year.

Matt Asiata and Jerrick McKinnon, Vikings

We should not have learned Asiata's name as fantasy owners last year. The guy ranked 2nd among RB scorers in Week 15, but only because his 30 carries included 3 TD runs. Asiata did that on just 51 yards. (That's 1.7 per carry.) Even in college -- 4 years at Utah -- Asiata averaged a just OK 4.6 yards per rush and never topped 155 carries in a season. We're certainly more intrigued by the long-term outlook on McKinnon, who emerged as a physical freak at the 2014 Scouting Combine. But the former college QB arrives in the pros as a raw prospect, not the kind of guy you want to stash even late in your redraft league.

Shonn Greene, Titans

Opportunity clearly helps Greene in Tennessee, where he'll back up rookie Bishop Sankey. The 2nd-round pick carried 616 times over the past 2 seasons at Washington and now steps behind a Tennessee line that needed rebuilding. Greene's body needed some of that, too, this offseason. A right knee scope in May was his 2nd in 9 months, and Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean wonders if Greene might not even make the regular-season roster. Assuming he does, we'd still be talking about a guy who averaged less than 4 yards per carry each of the past 2 years and who would have to share any work with Dexter McCluster should Sankey go down. We'll pass.


DON'T CALL ME A HANDCUFF

We expect these players -- or pairs of players -- to share the backfield work, often even in the case of an injury to 1 of the team's RBs. Thus, they don't fit our "handcuff" definition.

Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley, Patriots
Reggie Bush and Joique Bell, Lions
Pierre Thomas, Mark Ingram and Khiry Robinson, Saints
David Wilson, Giants
Darren Sproles, Eagles
Danny Woodhead, Chargers
Maurice Jones-Drew and Darren McFadden, Raiders
Knowshon Moreno, Dolphins
Jonathan Stewart, Panthers

Matt Schauf Author Image
Matt Schauf, Editor
Matt has earned two Fantasy Pros accuracy awards for IDP rankings and won thousands of dollars as a player across best ball, dynasty, and high-stakes fantasy formats. He has been creating fantasy football content for more than 20 years, with work featured by Sporting News, Rotoworld, Athlon, Sirius XM, and others. He's been with Draft Sharks since 2011.
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