Running Back Handcuffs
Handcuffs are always controversial. They seem necessary to some people and a waste of a pick to others. In reality it all depends on the situation. For years Ben Tate was Arian Foster’s backup. Throughout his career Foster has been injury prone, so drafting Tate was a no-brainer to me, even if I had to pay a premium to get him. Tate is talented and could step in (assuming he wasn’t also hurt) and still deliver starter numbers. With other teams, it’s a bit more difficult. There isn’t always a clear-cut backup who can step in and produce. In those situations why risk the pick?
The purpose of this piece is to identify the situations where it’s warranted. Usually either the starter is injury prone or the backup is talented. In some cases it’s both. There are also situations where you have a run first team, they’re going to run it into the ground no matter who they’re handing it to. Finally you could have a situation where the starter is there by default, not because he’s earned it. He could easily fail and then you’re left holding the keys. I’ve also ignored committees for the most part and focused on running backs who are the go-to guy out of the backfield for their team. If C.J. Spiller gets hurt, there’s really nobody on the roster that can replace his role in the offense.
Pierce makes the list for more than one reason. Despite having a down season, he’s still viewed as someone who could step in and start if need be. Ray Rice has a lot of carries to this point in his career and isn’t getting any younger. If he were to go down Pierce would be handed the reins. Rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro could see some action if Rice were to get hurt, but Pierce is the much smarter pick.
Let’s not forget that Ray Rice is almost definitely facing some sort of a suspension to start the season. In this case you simply must handcuff him.
Ben Tate is the guy in Cleveland … for now. He’s talented when healthy, but staying healthy has always been an issue for him. If you’re going to pick Tate you need to be prepared for when (not if) he misses time. West is a rookie but he’s got a clear path to number two duties in Cleveland.
Andre Brown/Dennis Johnson/Alfred Blue
Arian Foster is injury prone, at this point that’s a fact. I said I was looking for situations where the backup is clearly defined, but in this case we just don’t know who it’s going to be yet. Dennis Johnson is the favorite in my mind, but rookie Alfred Blue has generated some buzz this offseason. Andre Brown is a known commodity. He is who he is and we can’t change that. I just don’t see him getting the nod when Foster misses time.
Ahmad Bradshaw/Vick Ballard
Again I can’t single out one of the two as Trent Richardson’s backup, but any TRich owner needs to be prepared. If you’re going to take a gamble on a player coming off of such an atrocious season, you’d be insane not to have a backup plan. Unfortunately it could still go either way. But Bradshaw is old and injury prone, so Ballard would be my choice.
Montee Ball is being handed the reins in Denver. There’s no question about that. It’ also pretty clear to me that C.J. Anderson will be his primary backup. With the statistical goldmine that the Broncos offense promises to be yet again Anderson is a solid pick in the event that Ball misses time.
We’re already hearing that the Chiefs want to get Davis more involved in the offense this season. His current price tag makes it too risky not to hedge your Jamaal Charles bet. Davis is a smart, inexpensive insurance policy.
Ryan Mathews and Danny Woodhead are going to rotate in the backfield again this season. But if Mathews gets injured - as he often does - then the newly acquired Donald Brown will pretty clearly step in to fill the void.
Dunbar is a promising young player with a solidly entrenched starter ahead of him. Since it’s unlikely that DeMarco Murray cedes any carries to Dunbar if he stays healthy, Dunbars price is still way low. You can handcuff Murray without having to break the bank, so why not?
Matt Forte is still one of the top running backs in the league, but you never know when age is going to catch up to a soon-to-be 29-year old running back. Carey is an unproven rookie but has a clear path to backup duties in Chicago.
Joique Bell/Theo Riddick
This is a unique situation. Bell is going to get touches even with Reggie Bush healthy, but if he misses time like he did last season, Bell will step into an even larger role. So does Theo Riddick who has been talked up the last few weeks. I’d want to have Riddick whether I drafted Bush or Bell just in case. But Bell is a handcuff in his own right.
Starks has proven to be an effective ball carrier when he stays healthy. With the Packers switching to a more balanced offense (supposedly), Starks is the clear cut number two in Green Bay. Starks is a good bet to have a nice season if asked to step up.
When Adrian Peterson missed a few games last season Matt Asiata had to step in. That won’t be the case this season. Jerrick McKinnon is more talented than Asiata and would definitely be the go-to if the unthinkable happened.
Freeman is a late-round rookie, but he’s widely viewed as the guy who will eventually replace Steven Jackson in Atlanta. If you’re going to risk picking an already old, already broken down player like SJax, you need to be prepared for the worst. Jacquizz Rodgers is on the roster and ahead of Freeman on the depth chart, but if Jackson gets benched or hurt, Freeman is the better bet to fill the void.
Charles Sims/Mike James
The Bucs have a very talented young running back in Doug Martin and while they say that they’re going to spread the load between multiple guys it doesn’t seem all that likely to actually happen assuming Martin returns to pre-injury form. It’s not clear which of these two would take over if the situation arose but James showed he was capable until an injury derailed his 2013 campaign. Sims is an intriguing potential option as well, either one is worth a stash if you’re a Martin owner.
Andre Ellington is on the smaller side so it won’t be a surprise to anybody if he can’t handle bellcow duties. Taylor is the only real option for the Cardinals if they needed someone to step up.
Michael is being groomed as the heir apparent to Marshawn Lynch. With Lynch’s physical running style he could easily break down sooner rather than later. I have some concerns about Michael not surpassing Robert Turbin on the depth chart last season but it’s pretty clear who they’d rely on if Marshawn Lynch were out of the lineup.
Frank Gore, like Steven Jackson, is old. He’s not getting old, he is old. The 49ers don’t view Kendall Hunter as a three-down back and they proved that by taking Hyde in the second round of the draft. Widely viewed as the top back in the draft class Hyde would be the guy to take over for Gore if his decline continues. Some people may think it could be Marcus Lattimore but coming off of two catastrophic knee injuries it’s not likely that the Niners ever trust him as their starting running back.
This one is a must. Zac Stacy is a starting running back, he’s the go to guy, but he’s just a guy. He averaged less than four yards per carry last season and is heavily dependent on having the ball force fed to him to produce. Benny Cunningham is currently ahead of Mason on the depth chart but he too is just a guy. Mason is the smarter choice, even with concerns about his ability to be a three-down back.
A lot of players and a lot of teams were left off of that list. Take the Jets for example, Chris Johnson is going to be their starter but Chris Ivory is going to see his share of carries also, neither is going to be a handcuff for the other in my opinion. The same can be said about Lamar Miller and Knowshon Moreno in Miami.
Other teams were left off because of their committee approach like the Bills as I mentioned earlier, also the Patriots, the Bengals and the Saints. Finally the rest were left off because if their starter were to go down it gets very murky. I mentioned several situations where I wasn’t quite sure who would step in but I could at least give an educated guess. With the Giants it’s just not possible at this point. If Rashad Jennings gets hurt it could be David Wilson (if he’s cleared), Andre Williams, or even Peyton Hillis who has to fill the void.