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Your Key to Fantasy Football Handcuffs

By Matt Schauf 9:21am EDT 7/8/15

Just a few months ago, DeAngelo Williams looked like a washed-up NFL vet. He hobbled to a career-worst 3.5 yards per carry while dealing with 4 injuries and missing 10 full games.

Then he signed with the Steelers, whose O-line ranked 9th in Pro Football Focus' run-blocking grades last year and 6th in Football Outsiders' adjusted line yards. (Carolina checked in 22nd and 27th, respectively.) And then came Le'Veon Bell's 3-game suspension.

Suddenly, Williams looks like a no-brainer handcuff to the consensus top per-game PPR RB in 2015 fantasy football rankings. Yet he's still lingering on the board more than halfway through Round 11, on average, in MyFantasyLeague.com public drafts -- even just in July drafts.

Williams makes for a nice-looking RB5 on any fantasy roster, especially when you throw in the injury risk on Bell that we revealed this week. And the longtime Panther easily tops our rankings for fantasy football handcuffs.

Here's the full group, separated into tiers:


Locks

1. DeAngelo Williams, Steelers

2. Tre Mason, Rams

Mason doesn't step into as good a situation as Williams, mostly because St. Louis doesn't approach Pittsburgh in offensive firepower. But the Rams love to run the ball, and rookie Todd Gurley remains a big question mark thanks to the ACL tear that ended his final college season prematurely. HC Jeff Fisher warned that he'd be cautious after drafting Gurley 10th overall, though he more recently said that a healthy Gurley could "play sooner than you think."

At worst, Mason should be in for a decent share of the early-season workload, and he'd likely grab a workhorse role if Gurley misses any games this season. The Rams' leading rusher from last season might yet open 2015 as the team's starter, too. Unfortunately, he's no special value in the middle of Round 7 in MFL10 drafting right now.


Who needs to cuff?

These guys would see big workload boosts if the back in front of them went down. But they also just might garner enough work to help your fantasy team in their current roles.

3. Roy Helu, Raiders

We love Latavius Murray's talent and expect him to win the starting job. But the guy has 82 pro carries through 2 seasons and missed all of his rookie year with an ankle fracture. And even if Murray's ready to be the main man in Oakland's backfield, ESPN's Matt Williamson said he could see a Shane Vereen-type role for Helu with his new team. Helu caught 31+ passes in 3 of his 4 Washington years, reaching 42 twice.

4. Knile Davis, Chiefs

Davis scored in 5 games last season and 4 of the final 5 contests in 2013, including the Wild Card loss at Indy. He did so despite Jamaal Charles missing just 1 game each of the past 2 years. It's tough to look at Davis as a potential starter when Charles is in the lineup, but he might fit a flex spot in a particularly rosy matchup that could find Charles leaving early. Plus, Charles will turn 29 in December and landed on 14 injury reports over the past 2 years with quad, toe, knee, ankle, back, shoulder and hamstring issues.

5. David Johnson, Cardinals

Johnson stands less proven than any of the guys ahead of him on this list, as well as the 2 directly behind him. But he'll also share a backfield with Andre Ellington, who Sports Injury Predictor projects as the league's 2nd biggest injury risk. Johnson arrives with elite pass-catching skills for a RB, which should give him some PPR pop even when Ellington's healthy. Johnson's size -- 6'1, 224 pounds -- might also mean some goal-line work, though he failed to show impressive inside running on his college film.

6. Ryan Mathews, Eagles

"When you have a physical, downhill runner, you better have two of them because they’re gonna carry the ball, but they’re also gonna take a lot of physical shots, so we want to be able to spread out the carries," Chip Kelly told reporters back in April. It's tough to predict that spread, given that LeSean McCoy worked as the horse the past 2 years. Darren Sproles' pass-catching presence doesn't help the numbers either. But a DeMarco Murray injury could turn Mathews into a fantasy RB1. He already delivered such production just 2 years ago.

7. Reggie Bush, 49ers

Niners coaches have already touted Bush's rapport with QB Colin Kaepernick, and HC Jim Tomsula even thinks Bush could still play a lead role. We'd probably dispute that notion, but the fact that his new coaches are excited can only help Bush. Touches should at least come in the passing game, which could see a significant volume boost thanks to depletions on defense and the O-line (potentially hurting the run game). And whether you like Carlos Hyde or not, he's no proven starter yet. If he falters, Bush finds more opportunity.

8. David Cobb, Titans

There's plenty of room for Bishop Sankey to grow from his severely disappointing rookie season. But if he continues to disappoint, this impressive inside runner could push him for the starting job. Cobb could also steal early-down and short-yardage work from Sankey with his 5'11, 229-pound frame, even if the 2 wind up splitting backfield touches fairly evenly.


Could win bigger jobs

These guys look like backups heading into training camp but could carve out bigger roles with strong summers.

9. Darren McFadden, Cowboys

Joseph Randle is the obvious buzz guy in Dallas and probably the bigger rushing talent and this stage in both players' careers. We're not betting on McFadden rebounding big from 3 straight seasons of 3.4 yards per carry or less. But Randle's certainly no lock himself. Team president Stephen Jones said in May the team could go with a committee. Randle could also be 1 more off-field incident from losing his job after a burglary arrest, a drug arrest and a domestic-violence investigation (which didn't produce charges).

10. Charles Sims, Buccaneers

Doug Martin entered and exited spring as the starting back, but there should still be summer competition. Sims hasn't shown enough to excite as a runner but caught 203 passes over 4 college seasons and averaged 10.0 yards across his 19 receptions last year after losing half the season to a broken leg.

11. Jay Ajayi, Dolphins

Ajayi could have been a 2nd-round pick in May if not for long-term concerns about his knee. Those concerns shouldn't affect his 2015 performance, and Miami has shown reluctance in the past to work Lamar Miller as a true lead back. Even last season saw Miller reach 15 carries in just 6 games, 3 of which came over the final 3 weeks.

12. James White, Patriots

Last year's summer darling remains on the roster, with backfield receiver extraordinaire Shane Vereen gone to the Giants. White figures to compete primarily with Travaris Cadet for significant targets, and there's little proven rushing value behind LeGarrette Blount -- who is suspended for Week 1.


Ready if called

These guys are the true cuffs: not worth much without an injury to the starter but potentially valuable if pressed into duty.

13. Chris Polk, Texans

Polk must beat out Alfred Blue -- and perhaps Jonathan Grimes and rookie Kenny Hilliard -- to back up Arian Foster, but we're betting on him doing so. Blue looks like the far more pedestrian athlete. Whoever runs behind Foster backs up a guy who has lost 14 games to injury over the past 4 seasons.

14. Jerick McKinnon, Vikings

There's no room for other backs to produce when Adrian Peterson's around, and Peterson showed up low on the injury-risk projections we got from Sports Injury Predictor. But he is 30 and figures to be worked hard. McKinnon flashed enough of his speed -- and overall talent -- to be an intriguing option if he finds the lineup.

15. Khiry Robinson, Saints

Robinson can say what he wants about his role, but the Saints handed 4-year contracts to Mark Ingram and C.J. Spiller in free agency this spring. That makes him a handcuff. At least Robinson looks solid in that role, behind a runner (Ingram) who has missed 3+ games in 3 of his 4 seasons and in an offense that seems poised to lean run at least a bit more. Robinson averaged 4.8 yards per carry last year and ranked 5th in Pro Football Focus' elusive rating among all RBs who carried 20+ times. (According to PFF, "Elusive Rating" boils down a runner's success beyond the point of being helped by his blockers.)

16. Fred Jackson, Bills

LeSean McCoy is the new leading man in the Bills' backfield, leaving little room for Jackson to reprise the role he often did while sharing space with C.J. Spiller. But Buffalo's "ground and pound" plan under HC Rex Ryan and OC Greg Roman would make Jackson at least a fantasy RB2 if McCoy went down.

17. James Starks, Packers

Eddie Lacy has missed just 1 game over 2 seasons, but Starks has still scored in 5 separate contests and reached 70 rushing yards 3 times over that span. He'd step into 1 of the league's perennial top offenses should Lacy go down.

18. Montee Ball, Broncos

Ball and some wary fantasy drafters might believe that he has a shot at winning the Denver starting job, but we look at him and see handcuff. Ronnie Hillman would likely command a share of the work -- particularly receiving -- as well if C.J. Anderson went down.

19. Matt Jones, Washington

Many draftniks shrugged -- or laughed -- at Washington's selection of Jones in Round 3. But the rookie has already drawn a Marshawn Lynch comparison from his new GM and praise from HC Jay Gruden for his passing work. Jones could quickly turn into a 3-down back with an injury to Alfred Morris, who will hit free agency after this season.

20. Denard Robinson, Jaguars

T.J. Yeldon's gonna be the guy, but a still-shaky O-line puts everyone behind it in peril. Yeldon, in particular, checked in 14th among all offensive skill players in Sports Injury Predictor's injury-risk projections. He dealt with hamstring and ankle injuries last year at Alabama. Robinson proved to be a revelation for a few games after Toby Gerhart failed miserably as the Jacksonville lead back.

21. Cameron Artis-Payne, Panthers

The immediate opportunity looks great considering Jonathan Stewart's well-known -- and lengthy -- injury history. But we'd bet on Artis-Payne sharing work with Mike Tolbert whenever Stewart goes down next. The rookie's impressive receiving skills despite limited opportunities to flash them in college could help his workload in that case.

22. Branden Oliver, Chargers

Danny Woodhead will claim a big share of the backfield receiving work whether Melvin Gordon's in the lineup or not. But we wouldn't bet on his rushing attempts getting a big boost in the event of a Gordon injury. That work would primarily go to Oliver, whom HC Mike McCoy touted as a potential feature back before the Chargers drafted Gordon.


How's your knee?

23. Stevan Ridley, Jets

Ridley gets his own tier because we'll have to see how his repaired ACL looks this summer. At best, he seems like a lesser version of Chris Ivory and the likely backup to the Jets' incumbent. Bilal Powell should claim the bulk of the receiving work, leaving Ridley owners hoping for an Ivory injury -- and a better camp/preseason showing than Zac Stacy can muster.


In battle

Lorenzo Taliaferro and Buck Allen, Ravens

Taliaferro seems likely to have trouble with a rookie who posted 276-1,489-11 rushing and 41-458-1 receiving at USC last year. Whoever wins could prove to be a valuable PPR handcuff under pass-happy OC Marc Trestman. 30-year-old starter Justin Forsett had never topped 118 carries in a pro season before last year.

Jeremy Langford and Ka'Deem Carey, Bears

Langford has taken over the "handcuff" role in early drafting this year because the new coaching staff actually drafted him. But he'll need to beat out Carey for the gig in real life. Carey posted a pair of 1,800+ yard rushing seasons over his final 2 college years.

Christine Michael and Robert Turbin and Thomas Rawls, Seahawks

Michael should be the leader here, based on sheer talent and the 2-year experience edge over rookie Rawls. But ESPN.com Seahawks writer Terry Blount said this week that he thinks Michael might be on the roster bubble as camp approaches. HC Pete Carroll previously indicated that this summer's the time for Michael to show what he can do. If Michael delivers this summer, he could emerge as Marshawn Lynch's primary backup. Turbin's no lock to even see the field in training camp. The uncertainty makes the former 2nd-round pick a risky fantasy option. Of course, the fact that Lynch hasn't missed a game since 2011 doesn't help any backup's outlook in Seattle.

Dan Herron and Josh Robinson, Colts

Herron flashed fairly well late last season but also lost some key fumbles. Robinson will need to prove himself as a receiver and pass protector but looks really good as an inside runner on his college tape. His style could easily make him a favorite of coaches this summer and earn goal-line duties in a timeshare if Frank Gore were to go down.


Committees

We don't see true handcuff options emerging in these crowded backfield situations.

Browns

Isaiah Crowell, Duke Johnson and Terrance West all figure to get a piece of the action to some degree. HC Mike Pettine also told us all last year that he's willing to go with the guy who enjoys the best practice week.

Bengals

Perhaps Rex Burkhead is the "handcuff" here, given that Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard both figure to factor heavily into the weekly game plan. But Burkhead will need to prove this summer that he deserves a look in fantasy football drafts before we're willing to consider him.

Falcons

If Tevin Coleman or Devonta Freeman emerges as the clear lead back this summer, then the other becomes a handcuff. We're expecting some sort of work share, though, where both present draft value and lead the backfield at points during the season.

Giants

There's room for Shane Vereen, Rashad Jennings and Andre Williams to each have a role. That could frustrate fantasy owners.

Lions

The key thing to watch here will be whether Ameer Abdullah can take over the top job before the regular season begins. That could turn Joique Bell into a handcuff.

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