The Key to Fantasy Football Running Back Handcuffs

Everyone has had a fantasy football season derailed due to an injury to their top running back and left to pick up scrubs off the waiver wire scrap heap. Don’t let that be you this year. Andrew Jordan guides you to the key fantasy football running back handcuffs to focus on this season so that injury won’t end your season. 

Injuries happen – they are a reality that NFL teams and fantasy players alike must accept. Teams handle injuries differently, and we as fantasy players must adjust as well. Having a handcuff for your bell cow back is nice, but if a team takes a running back by committee (RBBC) approach after their star goes down, there’s no need to waste a draft pick and subsequent roster spot on a farce of a handcuff throughout the season for diminished returns.

The idea of a handcuff is to replace, with only a slight drop-off, the production of the starter you just lost. This means more than just drafting a team’s backup. If drafting Jonathan Stewart this year, there is no rush to grab Cameron Artis-Payne. This is because if Stewart goes down, the workload will be shared by Artis-Payne, Fozzy Whittaker, and Mike Tolbert, and not simply be delegated to Artis-Payne. So which teammates should be paired up on your fantasy squad?

ADP data is from MyFantasyLeague.com redraft leagues as of 7/28

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Eddie Lacy and James Starks

Eddie Lacy is 26, coming off of a down campaign, and entering a contract year. We can stack nearly every motivational platitude on the guy for this season, and it is one of the reasons to nab him in drafts. However, Starks accumulated nearly 1,000 all purpose yards last year on just 191 touches. Starks has never had to set the pace in the Packers backfield, but if Lacy catches the injury bug or is slow out of the gates, he will get pulled for Starks.

One of the bigger selling points for grabbing Starks to back up Lacy is that he is not costing you much in terms of draft capital. Coming off the board as the 59th RB (185th overall), Starks would be worth jumping an additional round or so if you are drafting Lacy. Locking down the backfield of what is consistently one of the most productive offenses in the league is well worth a 14th-round pick in 12 team leagues. Additionally, Starks does not figure to get serious competition for reps from any of the other Green Bay RBs. Back in January Starks said, “Opportunity is all I need.” After meeting with the Patriots and being linked to Miami, Starks figured the best opportunity was still in Green Bay. If Lacy owners pass on Starks, they will regret doing so if and when he gets that opportunity.

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Adrian Peterson and Jerick McKinnon

Peterson may believe he can play at a high level until he is 40, but father time remains undefeated and is unlikely to take his first “L” anytime soon. Peterson has been a workhorse through his entire career, and while his role will not change this year, owners need to be prepared for any possibilites. Jerick McKinnon was thrown into the fire his rookie year, splitting time with Matt Asiata while getting up to speed pass blocking and picking up blitzes at the NFL level. With Peterson back in the lineup last year, McKinnon saw his touches fall by more than 50% (113 attempts in 2014 and 52 attempts in 2015), but flashed every bit of his potential when his number was called.

Looking like an improved runner and an asset in the receiving game, McKinnon’s talent will demand more touches in a Norv Turner attack. McKinnon is another real value as a handcuff to Peterson in the 1st or 2nd round. Currently going as the 47th RB (150th overall) McKinnon would be able to step into the spotlight this year should anything happen to Peterson. More so, the Vikings would not have to change up their offensive game plan with McKinnon taking over. That type of continuity is why things would not just be a reversal of his 40-60 split with Asiata back in 2014: McKinnon would have a stranglehold on the starting position, and with his work in the passing game, might bring a new dimension to the Vikings passing attack.

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Le’Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams

It is entirely possible that “New phone, who dis?” will be the essence of Le’Veon Bell’s defense when he appeals his 4 game suspension to start the NFL season. If he is successful, it will be the first time in history that excuse has worked. If not? Fantasy owners will get the unique opportunity of starting their season with a handcuff in the starting lineup. But even as a player who we know will be used as a main back for almost a third of the fantasy regular season, DeAngelo Williams is coming cheap. Right now Williams is the 44th RB off the board, 134th overall, but that number will certainly jump if Bell does not win his appeal. Owners may jump for Williams at that price, which is why anyone drafting Le’Veon Bell must get Williams first. Bell missed 10 full games last year, and in the 9 complete games DeAngelo Williams played he received 206 touches. The Steelers will use him as a feature back to kick off the regular season this year.

Even at their considerable prices, owners who draft both Bell and Williams will be rewarded by having the starting RB on a team that does not abandon the run game. Bell should still be one of the first 6 RBs off the board and, if you are making that pick, you should grab Williams in the late-20s or early-30s for the position. Drafting Bell without Williams means you could be trying to crawl out of a 1-3 or even an… 0-4 start to your season. Nobody should ever have to do that. Nobody.

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DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry

I was almost tempted to leave this pair off the list as their relative ADPs and potential to both remain fantasy-relevant regardless of the RBBC put them closer to Giovani Bernard or Jeremy Hill territory. However, they remain because they are not going early, are just far enough apart, and, when talking handcuffs, there may be no more intriguing pair in the league right now. Murray is coming off a wildly disappointing season in Philadelphia and Henry might have a pic of himself holding the Heisman trophy as his lock screen. Murray was part of an underwhelming swap of 4th round picks, while Henry was a surprise selection at 45th overall by the Titans. Murray was… well, you get the idea: There are currently very different career trajectories for these two.

If Murray and Henry can keep their current prices, with Murray the 21st back off the board to Henry’s 34th (with two to three rounds separating them) there is significant upside to stacking them on the same team. If one of them begins getting the lion’s share of the touches out of the backfield, you have a fantasy force. Terry Robiskie, the Titans offensive coordinator, said they plan to ride the hot hand at RB, and although there is little value in June coach-speak, if it shakes out to be even moderately true, that RB becomes a weekly projected RB2 with some serious TD / RB1 potential. We all know how great Murray can be when things are clicking, but should the window on his productivity begin to close, you can bet Derrick Henry will be there to slam it shut. Henry showed what an explosive athlete he was at the combine, comes into the NFL with pass blocking as a strength – a rarity for rookies – and is working on his receiving game. If one goes down or is unable to keep up for whatever reason, you’ll be glad you drafted both.

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David Johnson and Chris Johnson

When Andre Ellington went down in Week 1 of the 2015 season, many fantasy players wondered if Chris Johnson had anything left in the tank. Looking like CJ1.5K, Johnson put owners who took a chance on him at ease turning in 70+ yards on the ground in six out of the 10 contests he started; four of those performances went for 100+ yards. David Johnson turned in some remarkable performances as a special teamer and provided an explosive element to the running game when he finally started in place of Chris Johnson.

While he may not have a sophomore slump, ask Jeremy Hill owners last year if they will be drafting David Johnson this year. What we can learn from Hill is that it would be foolish to draft David without Chris. Chances are small he disappoints, but insurance is cheap in case defenses come prepared or if he succumbs to an injury. The Cardinals clearly still see the value of Chris Johnson, whom they re-signed this offseason after he had a brief flirtation with the Dolphins. When you consider the price of drafting CJ?K (61st RB, 191th overall), this argument all but makes itself.

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Ezekiel Elliott and Alfred Morris

Many of you probably double-checked to see if I meant to write Darren McFadden. After putting up arguably the quietest 1,000 yard rushing season, I just have little confidence that McFadden beats out Morris for starting duties should anything happen to the most-hyped rookie RB in a long time. Morris was brought in by Dallas well before the NFL draft and it is extremely unlikely Jerry Jones and company knew then they would be selecting Ezekiel Elliot with the fourth overall pick. This means that, at some point, the front office and coaching staff accepted the reality of Morris taking over the starting RB spot. Yes, bringing in Elliot was the correct move, but keeping those personnel moves in mind shows how close Morris was to being a 1st or 2nd-round fantasy pick.

The run game in Dallas lacked intimidation with McFadden at the helm, which is exactly why Elliot and Morris were added this offseason. With an aging Tony Romo, Dez Bryant in the prime of his career, and an offensive line that somehow gets even better with a 2nd-year La’El Collins, having McFadden as the main ball carrier just wasn’t an option for the Cowboys. Morris carries an ADP of 221st overall as the 73rd RB selected so there is little chance of missing out on a 3rd receiver anyway. His hard running style will still keep opposing defenses honest – and fantasy owners relieved – should Zeke miss any time, which should especially be a consideration with Elliot’s minor hamstring injury in training camp.

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Todd Gurley and Benny Cunningham

I almost don’t even want to write this because Todd Gurley getting injured might actually make me cry; the thought alone has me choked up. However, as the Boy Scouts say: “Be prepared.”  With Tre Mason suffering a litany of personal issues this offseason, including checking into a hospital yesterday, combined with the disappointing first three games he had last year, Benny Cunningham is the Los Angeles Rams back to choose if worst comes to worst. Cunningham is best used in the passing game, and any injury to Gurley opens the door for us to get a definitive word on his ground game.

An obscene ADP of 273rd overall (AND 90TH RB) means Cunningham is being ignored by most drafters, including Gurley owners. With my last pick, I’d rather have Gurley and Cunningham than chance my season on the waiver order or bid amount I have. Safe, not sorry, is not how you should select at the top of the draft, but it would not be unwise to do so in the later rounds. A speedy, quick-twitch runner who does not shy away from contact, Cunningham would not face much competition from the rest of the Rams stable of backs either. With the reduced number of fantasy first round running backs do you really want your entire season spoiled because you didn’t pick up Cunningham as well?

Follow Andrew on Twitter @The_ATJ

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