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10 Running Back Handcuffs

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Is there a better running back handcuff than Ben Tate in 2013? Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images
Is there a better running back handcuff than Ben Tate in 2013? Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

One of the biggest issues that faces every fantasy football owner each season is to handcuff or not to handcuff. Is it worth spending a valuable mid-round pick on a handcuff to your early-round running back pick, or is it better to throw caution to the wind and target a high-upside receiver or quarterback instead? Or do you try to target one of your opponent’s handcuffs?

Like any question in fantasy football, there is, of course, no correct answer. For every 2012 C.J. Spiller (good pick up), there is a 2012 Toby Gerhart (waste of a seventh round pick). For every 2012 Michael Bush (so-so) selected, there is a missed opportunity to draft Robert Griffin III. I could go on and on with good, bad, and meh examples, but to me, there are a few questions you need to ask yourself before you target a running back’s handcuff:

  1. Is the first-string running back injury-prone? (hello, Ryan Mathews)
  2. Is the second-string running back actually talented? (I’m not looking at you, Toby Gerhart)
  3. Do you want to play it safe and grab two running backs from the same team (thus, limiting your ability to select other mid-to-late round players)
  4. Do you want to swing for the fences and hope you hit on your picks AND snag one of your opponent’s handcuffs in the hopes of stumbling into two starters?

If your answer to question number one is yes, then you’ll probably want to proceed to number three. If your answer to number two is yes (and you like to roll the dice), then you might want to target upside and proceed directly to number four.

There is no hard-fast rule or correct answer to any of the above questions (if there was, fantasy football would be boring), but there are 10 running back handcuffs that you should be targeting in your 2013 drafts, in no particular order:

Bernard Pierce

Ray Rice isn’t known as an injury-prone running back, but he does have one of the more talented backups in the league in Bernard Pierce. After averaging almost five yards per carry during his rookie season, Pierce got the opportunity to carry the rock a bit more during the Ravens’ last two games, as the team elected to give Rice a bit of rest before the playoffs. All Pierce did was respond with 212 rushing yards over those two games to go along with 13 rushes for 103 yards in the Ravens opening round playoff game against Indianapolis. Again, the odds of Rice getting injured aren’t at Darren McFadden levels, but this is the NFL, and players do tend to get hurt. If that happens, Pierce is a player you’ll wish you had drafted – especially if you spent a first-round pick on Ray Rice.

Ben Tate

There is a rising fervor in certain fantasy football circles to downgrade Arian Foster to the second round due to his workman-like amount of carries over the past several years. With Foster already nursing a calf strain, those calls have only gotten stronger – and so has the movement to draft Tate as a handcuff. A likely starter for a good amount of teams in the NFL, Tate owns a career 5.1 yards per carry average over the course of his two-year NFL career and would be a great weekly option if Foster were to go down. If you’re a Foster owner, he’s a must-own. If your opponent owns Foster, he’s a great player to own as trade bait (or as an injury lottery ticket).

Michael Bush

Bush may not be the flashiest back in the NFL, but he’s a solid goal line-type running back and is a must-own for Matt Forte owners. Forte’s injury risk is a little overblown (he’s only missed five games in five seasons), but Bush did fill in (relatively) admirably, when Forte when down with an ankle injury last season. He’s frankly more of a pain-in-the-butt to Forte owners in terms of stealing goal line carries, but you can certainly do a lot worse as far as handcuffs are concerned. I’d quantify him as more of a Matt Forte owner handcuff rather than one of those handcuffs you’d want to steal from a fellow owner.

Fred Jackson

With C.J. Spiller going in the first round this season, it’s easy to forget that Fred Jackson was a Top 35 pick in 2012 drafts. He’s one the wrong side of 30 at this point (and has had too many knee surgeries for my liking), but C.J. Spiller hasn’t always been the most durable player either, and there may be an opportunity for Jackson in Buffalo if anything happens to Spiller. The owner of a 4.5 yards per carry career average, Jackson in an accomplished receiver out of the backfield and would be a decent flex option in PPR leagues if Spiller were to go down. I probably wouldn’t grab him if you’re not a Spiller owner, but he’s great insurance if you are.

Daniel Thomas

I’m about to commit fantasy industry blasphemy here, but what if Lamar Miller can’t handle being the main back in Miami? Or worse, what if he gets hurt? I understand that a career 3.5 yards per carry average are nothing to write home about, but Thomas did score four touchdowns last season and would most likely be next in line if Miller gets hurt or can’t hold down his job. Again, I wouldn’t go draft him if you aren’t a Miller owner, but if you’re gambling (yes, gambling) with a Top 30 pick on Miller, you better make sure you grab Thomas later on.

Danny Woodhead

Remember earlier when I said that Ryan Mathews was injury-prone? I know a lot of people don’t believe in that term, but does the fact that Mathews has never played more than 14 games in any of his three NFL seasons change your mind? Well, believe me or not, Mathews is injury-prone and I’m not here to argue that. What I am here to argue is that if (when?) Mathews goes down, Danny Woodhead will find himself in a primo position to succeed. San Diego gave him a sizable contract to migrate across the country from New England and they didn’t sign him to collect dust on the bench. An even more valuable asset in PPR leagues, Woodhead finished as the 23rd-ranked running back in standard leagues last season in a very crowded Patriots backfield. Whether or not you own Mathews, Woodhead is worth a look towards the end of your draft this season.

Marcel Reese

Speaking of injury-prone, Darren McFadden has never played more than 13 games in any of his five NFL seasons. Any unlike some of these other handcuffs, we have some history to go on for Marcel Reese – since McFadden missed four games last season. What’d Reese do in those four games? Reece averaged 113 combined rushing and receiving yards per game. He didn’t score any touchdowns in those games, but Reece was an asset as a flex starter for fantasy owners during that time span – especially in PPR leagues. Like Mathews, it’s probably owner a matter of time until McFadden gets hurt this season, which makes Reese a must-own if you decide to risk an early-round pick on DMC.

Bryce Brown

Like Reece, we’ve seen a little bit of what Brown can do (for you?) when his team’s starter is injured. When LeSean McCoy went down with a concussion last season, Brown stepped in and exploded in Weeks 12 and 13 to the tune of 347 yards and four touchdowns over those two games. Opposing defenses figured him out a bit in the next two games that he started (guard against the outside run), but if Shady McCoy goes down this year, you can bet that Chip Kelly will find a way to utilize Brown’s unique speed/power combo. I’m not sure I’d spend anything besides a late-round pick on him if you’re not a McCoy owner, but if you are…Brown is a must-handcuff.

Andre Brown

Like Lamar Miller, David Wilson has scene his stock explode in offseason drafts. There is a reason for that, of course, (he’s a talented player) but he’s also a player who has struggled in pass protection. But what if he can’t pass protect as well as Tom Coughlin hopes? What if he gets hurt? Well, all we need to do is look back to last season when Ahmad Bradshaw was banged up/being supplemented by Andre Brown. Over the course of two weeks (Week 2 and 3) when Bradshaw was hurt last season, Brown rushed 33 times for 184 yards and three touchdowns. Brown will probably end up being more of a pain to Wilson owners this season as a goal-line vulture, but I wouldn’t think twice about selecting him in the mid-to-late rounds of your draft even if you don’t own Wilson.

Shonn Greene

I know, I know. Shonn Greene?!? I don’t like him any more than you do, but he actually finished as the 15th-best running back last season (only two spots below Chris Johnson). Greene is a plodding running back (the anti-Chris Johnson), but he does own a career 4.2 yards per carry average and has scored 14 touchdowns over the past two seasons (that’s four more than Chris Johnson over that time span). If you’re a Johnson owner, he’s a must-own as an insurance policy. If you’re not a Johnson owner, he’s still a good mid-to-late round grab as a touchdown vulture.

So what do you think? Will you be taking any of those handcuffs? Are there any I missed? Let us know what you think in the comments section below and happy handcuffing!