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Tackling The Handcuff Theory

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Is Ben Tate really the best option at his current ADP? Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images
Is Ben Tate really the best option at his current ADP? Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

It's always interesting to hear the varied stances on the importance of handcuffing running backs. I completely understand the fear of an injury to one of your top picks and the stress relief you get by snagging that star player's backup to ensure your team is covered. For me, this used to be like buying insurance, something necessary and important. As the years passed, the perceived value of these handcuffs is becoming more and more popular making some of these insurance policies nearly undraftable. At many of these players' current average draft positions (ADP), it has transformed from insurance to scam - like buying insurance in black jack, a wasted pick and wasted roster spot.

One of the major issues with handcuffing is that it's impossible to predict injury. Yes, there are some players that are more injury prone, but with most backfields being a big question mark, it's almost impossible to predict which back is 100 percent the backup. Take for instance 2012, when the Broncos running back Willis McGahee went down with a knee injury and everyone rushed to the waiver wire to grab rookie running back Ronnie Hillman, only to be disappointed when Knowshon Moreno was named the starter to go on and be a top fantasy producer for the remainder of the season. Another problem is that the backups are backups for a reason. The majority of these players aren't starting because they are still developing and would most likely not be starting on other teams.

There are rare examples like Ben Tate for the Texans, who showed flashes of greatness in 2011, but you also have situations like in Dallas last year. When DeMarco Murray went down with an injury, most were clinging to hope that Felix Jones would fill the void. Unfortunately, Murray is a fantasy football asset because of his personal talent and ability, and Felix, well he was just unimpressive and was eventually thrown back on the waiver wire by most fantasy owners. The last and most important reason not to handcuff is because in most formats there really aren't enough roster spots to hold them. As long as the starting player is active, these backups hold relatively no value, and when you start to run into the usual issues at the beginning of the season you will start looking to the waiver wire to add talent that can help you now, and usually the handcuff is first to go. Let's look at handcuff production last year and their relative ADPs. You might notice that I left the combination of Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller off this list. That was due to their situation being a special circumstance where a timeshare approach was already expected and therefore doesn't qualify as a handcuff situation. ADPs were taken from FantasyFootballCalculator.com and total fantasy points was calculated in standard or non-PPR format.

ADP  Player Name (Handcuff)  Total Fantasy Points  Player Name  Total Fantasy Points 
6.02 Peyton Hillis (Chiefs) 30 Jamal Charles (Chiefs) 192
7.02 David Wilson (Giants) 67 Ahmad Bradshaw (Giants) 143
7.08 Ben Tate (Texans)  36 Arian Foster (Texans)  248
8.10 Micheal Bush (Bears)  67 Matt Forte (Bears)  167
9.07 Toby Gehart (Vikings)  25 Adrian Peterson (Vikings)  297
11.02 LeGarrette Blount (Buccaneers)  22 Doug Martin (Buccaneers) 248
12.06 Daniel Thomas (Dolphins)  59 Reggie Bush (Dolphins)  159

As you can see from last year's results, there really was no preseason handcuff that really emerged to help their team based of points alone.

Hillis/Charles: The Chiefs struggled on offense, and even with his old offensive coordinator calling the shots, Hillis saw little work on the field in 2012. This was a big bust for drafters considering his high ADP.

Wilson/Bradshaw: Wilson drew a lot of excitement in preseason, and as a rookie, was the proclaimed handcuff for an injury prone Ahmad Bradshaw. Due to his inability to hold onto the ball and lack of pass protection skills, Wilson gave up his backup roll to Andre Brown, who stepped in and emerged as the new handcuff for the Giants, making Wilson owners extremely frustrated. Wilson had a few big games at the end of the year, but by that point, most preseason owners moved on to other options.

Tate/Foster: Tate had an impressive 2011 season and was regarded as a must own for Arian Foster owners, which drove up his ADP. Tate struggled to stay healthy and Foster played all 16 games, so he failed to make any impact in fantasy for 2012.

Bush/Forte: Forte did miss a few games, and Bush was a serviceable flex play in those weeks. The problem is that Bush lacks the explosiveness and upside of Forte and didn't have the ability to match Forte's production.

Gehart/Peterson: With Adrian Peterson coming off a season ending ACL injury, Gehart was considered a must own as Peterson would take a few weeks to be eased back into the offense. This turned out to be completely incorrect, and Peterson emerged as the top fantasy running back and Gehart quickly became irrelevant.

Blount/Martin: For a few games it looked as though Blount was starting to take the lead role from Martin. This quickly changed, as Martin exploded as one of the best players in fantasy. Blount was a non-factor in the second half of the season.

Thomas/Bush: Bush was an excellent option for the majority of the season, but injuries and fumbling issues sidelined him towards the end of the season. Even with the door opened for him, Daniel Thomas failed to be fantasy relevant with Bush on the sidelines.

So who could you have drafted instead of these handcuffs? Lets take a look               

ADP  Player Name (Handcuff) Total Fantasy Points  ADP  Player Name (Alternate At Similar ADP) Total Fantasy Points 
6.02 Peyton Hillis (Chiefs) 30 6.02 Torrey Smith (Ravens)  127
7.02 David Wilson (Giants) 67 6.1 Vincent Jackson(Buccaneers)  181
7.08 Ben Tate (Texans)  36 7.01 Reggie Wayne (Colts)  158
8.1 Micheal Bush (Bears)  67 8.11 Robert Griffin III (Redskins)  304
9.07 Toby Gehart (Vikings)  25 10.03 Kendall Wright (Titans)  77
11.02 LeGarrette Blount (Buccaneers)  22 10.09 Michael Crabtree (49ers)  159
12.06 Daniel Thomas (Dolphins)  59 12.08 Kyle Rudolf (Vikings)  99

As you can see, the replacement players that weren't handcuffs could have greatly improved your team overall, or at the worst, become a trade chip for help elsewhere. Now that we have seen how players with similar ADPs to handcuffs held more value in 2012, let's take a look at some of those players that you could target instead of taking the leap on one of the coveted handcuffs in 2013.

ADP  Player Name (Handcuff) ADP  Player Name (Alternate At Similar ADP)
8.08 Ben Tate (Texans) 8.11 Josh Gordon (Browns) 
9.02 Bryce Brown (Eagles)  9.03 Lance Moore (Saints) 
9.06  Bernard Pierce (Ravens)  9.1 Vincent Brown (Chargers)
9.1 Vic Ballard (Colts)  10.03 Chis Givens (Rams) 

Josh Gordon: Many forget that Gordon was being drafted three rounds earlier than this a few months ago. With a two-game suspension, the missed time is minor, as many significant players missed 1-2 games in the regular season for various reasons. This is still a talented receiver in a new Norv Turner offense that has looked spectacular so far in preseason.  

Lance Moore: Moore is always undervalued, and with the return of Sean Payton, the Saints offense should be as effective as ever. Moore lacks the yard after the catch ability you want to see from a receiver, but he has an extremely high floor and is a great asset to have on your bench for week-to-week emergency use.

Vincent Brown: The Chargers new offensive strategy appears to be centered around the short passing games which works to Brown's strengths, as he is a great route runner that is physical off the line. With Denario Alexander out for the season, a banged up Malcom Floyd, and rookie Keenan Allen as his only competition, Brown could be in for a big year.

Chris Givens: As the top fantasy wide receiver for the Rams in 2012, Givens continues to show us why he is such a threat when he gets vertical. He lacks the versatility and route running ability of an elite wide receiver, but he has struck up a relationship with quarterback Sam Bradford and is always a contender to explode for a big game.

I'm not writing this to guarantee that none of the handcuffs listed will be fantasy relevant, or help your team. I also can't say with certainty that any of the wide receivers listed will be better options. However, I will say is that in terms of history, taking another position over a backup running back usually proves to be a much better option and is more rewarding. The best advice I can give going into the draft is to attack the running back position in the early rounds and avoid drafting anyone that you have a big enough concern about - the ones that you feel are absolutely necessary to handcuff. As always, every player has value at a particular ADP, but the objective of this article is to persuade you not to overvalue these handcuffs, whether it's in the draft or in a trade. Simply do your best to create the best roster with the best players available and don't feel obligated to match assumed handcuffs with fantasy stars.