To Handcuff, or Not To Handcuff in 2017?

This article first appeared on RotoBaller.com

By Taylor Maxston (@TMaxston) 

In fantasy football, everyone needs a backup plan. It’s typically tough to predict how and when an injury will cause a player to miss time, making it essential to have some form of insurance policy to keep your lineup afloat. For the running back position, that can entail drafting your starter’s backup and ensuring that there is at least a form of safety net to reduce the falloff in production. However, not all backups are valued alike.

In this article, I’ll be explaining a useful draft philosophy to have when assessing how important it is to draft a backup and applying it to several cases.

Keep in mind that this list doesn’t discuss drafting breakout candidates at the running back position, a subject that should deserve its own article to talk about. Rather, I’ll be zeroing in on what you should consider when deciding whether to take a handcuff as an insurance policy, not a stash for betting on future production.



How to Decide Which Handcuffs to Draft

The first piece of advice that must precede everything I am about to say is this: don’t go into your fantasy draft with the idea that a handcuff guarantees an adequate replacement for the starting player you would lose. Very rarely do we see a backup step into the first-string spot and perform at a similar level or greater than the starter except in exceptional cases (i.e.: Jordan Howard usurping Jeremy Langford in 2016). Drafting a handcuff for every single starting back on your roster will inevitably set you behind compared to everyone else who opted to select better replacement-level players. You are not in a fantasy league to get second or third, so it doesn’t make much sense to limit your upside with several insurance policies taking up bench space.

History has made clear that not all handcuffs are created equal, so how do you assess the value of a backup and whether you should be drafting them?

To be a handcuff worth drafting, said running back must have standalone value. Standalone value is quite straightforward; ask yourself if you would be able to put the backup in your starting lineup Week 1 and get a decent level of production even if the starter was still playing. That point alone should already demolish most of the No. 2 running backs on the acceptable handcuff list, as it’s uncommon that you get two starting-calibre running backs in fantasy football from the same backfield. The reasoning behind this way of thinking is that even though I may need to pay a steeper cost on draft day, my range of outcomes for the backup involves a solid flex play at worst and an above average replacement due to injury. In PPR, there are many spell-backs that can occupy such a role.

Perhaps the most important takeaway from this philosophy is that the decision to draft a valuable handcuff is one that comes with a significant cost. It’s never worthwhile to take a handcuff that would likely not perform generate fantasy points over a starter on another team, while it also makes little sense to overinvest in getting handcuffs for all your starters.

Good Examples of Valuable Handcuffs

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Tevin Coleman (ATL, RB)

The combination of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman combined to produce 2,502 yards from scrimmage last season, rushing for 1,599 yards and 19 touchdowns along with catching 85 passes for 833 yards and five touchdowns. The shifty Coleman was a nightmare mismatch for linebackers and incredibly productive as a receiver. In fact, he led all running backs with an average of 2.44 yards per route run.

Coleman is ultimately a perfect example of a valuable handcuff under the above definition, especially in PPR. He is guaranteed to get work alongside Freeman and offers a relatively high floor due to his reception upside and ability to generate yardage. He carries an eighth round price, but Freeman has been dealing with a nagging concussion since before the team’s second preseason game. Even if he isn’t your handcuff, he’s worth that price.

Derrick Henry (TEN, RB)

DeMarco Murray is entrenched as the lead runner, but that doesn’t mean former-Alabama stud Derrick Henry is a useless fantasy asset. He managed 110 carries for 490 yards and five touchdowns in 2016, equating to a healthy 4.5 yards per carry with 1.8 after initial contact. He also showed some impressive receiving skills after catching all but one of his 14 targets for 137 yards.

The 6-2, 242 lb back is in-line for a larger share of the carry distribution heading into next season, meaning he will carry his own value as a running back who should get at least five carries per game. He is in the RB1 mix if Murray goes down, though he warned that he carries a seventh to eighth round price tag.

Theo Riddick (DET, RB)

Although Theo Riddick had surgery on both of his wrists this last offseason, he looks to be returning back to full health after making his preseason debut last Friday. Riddick’s value primarily comes in PPR scoring formats, as he averaged 7 yards per reception in 2016.

However, the best part about Riddick as that he carries a fairly cheap price for a safe reception floor. Falling as low as the thirteenth round, it’s very conceivable that you could nab him as an asset to play by the matchups and get a consistent amount of fantasy points. Even still, he is a great handcuff to whoever is listed as the Detroit Lions’ starter come Week 1.

Bad Examples of Valuable Handcuffs

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Branden Oliver (LAC, RB)

Melvin Gordon’s knee has been a significant issue for him since entering the league in 2015, causing him to miss three games last season. There is a better chance than not that he will miss at least some portion of time in 2017, but you would be remiss to take Branden Oliver as a handcuff for him.

This year’s Chargers offense looks lethal, but it’s fair to say that Branden Oliver offers very little in terms of upside as a runner even if he starts two or three games. He is himself coming off of an ACL injury and is simply not a great insurance policy for a Gordon injury. Take a shot on a more valuable handcuff or breakout runner instead.

Damien Williams/Kenyan Drake (MIA, RBs)

Jay Ajayi is the bell-cow in Miami. Simply put, an injury to him would likely mean a committee approach for Damien Williams and Kenyan Drake, both of which have little value as fantasy assets on their own. Timeshare backfields should undoubtedly be avoided when it comes to taking an acceptable handcuff, making the Dolphin’s running-back-by-committee backup approach a must-avoid.

Chris Johnson (ARI, RB) and the Other Arizona Backups

Having a safety net for your stud in David Johnson makes logical sense. After all, you likely had to spend a high draft pick on him and may be lacking in your RB2 spot after making your next pick at the back of the second round.

However, Chris Johnson and the other Arizona backups are never going to be your answer in that scenario. The range of outcomes in the case of a David Johnson injury becomes a running-back-by-committee approach at worst (the more likely scenario) or a 31-year old starter with a low ceiling being in your starting lineup. Neither is helpful in any sense.

Conclusions: Making an Effective Draft Strategy

At the end of the day, it becomes clear that drafting a valuable handcuff requires a steep cost on draft day. The conclusion to draw from my previous analysis is that it most often isn’t worthwhile to draft a handcuff to your starter. If you are willing to pay the price for a Tevin Coleman or Derrick Henry, both of which offer standalone value, you might have to make sacrifices at other spots in your lineup. That being said, if a valuable handcuff does slip in the draft, it’s an easy decision to go out and get him over other less capable starting running backs.

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