Handcuffing RBs in Fantasy Football
You've probably seen the term used in fantasy football articles in the past. When we call a player a handcuff, we're referring to a team's No. 2 running back. When used as a verb, handcuffing is the practice of drafting a team's top two running backs, thereby protecting your fantasy investment against injury and ineffectiveness.
Some owners are likely to use late-round picks on running backs that they perceive to have a shot at returning great fantasy value. Others handcuff their top backs, drafting largely irrelevant fantasy names just because they already own that team's No. 1 running back.
Which option is the best? While the first choice (home-run swings) are the most fun, handcuffing running backs is a great strategy for the smart owner looking to win a league.
Consider last season: you may have spent an early-to-mid-round pick on Larry Johnson, expecting a decent season in Kansas City as the team's primary rushing threat. Johnson was so bad once the season started that he quickly found himself waived by the club.
Enter Jamaal Charles, a smallish back with upside that was largely off fantasy radars in 2009. Charles would go on to have one of the best second halves ever, rushing for nearly 1,000 yards in eight games, adding eight TDs (seven rushing, one receiving). Charles entered the year with a little bit of sleeper status, but no one could have forseen that huge performance in the last two months of the year. The home-run swinger may have selected Charles at the end of his draft. The handcuffer would have been sure to draft Charles on a team that already had Larry Johnson.
Now let's turn to the handcuffs of 2010. You notice not all teams are present; certain backs are taken too high to earn handcuff status, while others play in offenses that mix things up between multiple backs. While I advocate the strategy of drafting both Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams, spending two high picks on the pair may be too much for you to stomach. Below we'll examine the players that would earn fantasy relevance in an injury replacement scenario while not costing much on draft day.
Javon Ringer, Titans. Chris Johnson is irreplacable as a fantasy back, but if he should suffer a serious injury, Ringer would be the man and an every-week starter. Johnson owners should cover the bases and pick Ringer near the end of the draft.
Bernard Scott, Bengals. Cedric Benson led a powerhouse rushing attack for the Bengals in 2009, rushing for over 1,200 yards in just over 300 carries. He's been a bit injury prone in the past, so his owners must draft Scott,
LaDainian Tomlinson, Jets. LT moves from a largely-disappointing season in San Diego to the best rushing attack in football. Shonn Greene is being drafted too high for my liking and has an Average Draft Position of 15. If you take that plunge, you'll have to secure Tomlinson in the eight or ninth round of your draft as well.
Toby Gerhart, Vikings. The Vikings will run even more than in 2009, even with Brett Favre's return. Adrian Peterson is easily a top-two back, while Gerhart is likely to establish himself as the clear-cut No. 2. Albert Young may be mixed in, but Gerhart would likely earn the lion's share of playing time if Peterson went down.
Jason Snelling, Falcons. Jerious Norwood may be higher on the depth chart, but Snelling proved last year that he is the back to own if Michael Turner gets hurt, as he did in 2009. If you pick Turner in the first round, you should be taking Snelling in the last round.
Brian Westbrook, 49ers. Yeah, I mean it. Gore is great when healthy, but Westbrook has been just as good over his career. With the pieces in place for San Francisco to have a good running game this season, Gore owners will want to pick up Westbrook, who should earn more time than rookie Anthony Dixon this year.
Chester Taylor, Bears. After a tumultuous 2009 season, Matt Forte earned his way into many fantasy doghouses across the nation. Taylor was handed a four-year contract and may be a better fit for Mike Martz's offense. If you're gambling on Forte returning to form, make sure you draft Taylor in the ninth or tenth round.
Brandon Jackson, Packers. Green Bay likes to lean on one back almost exclusively, making them one of the few teams still around that should produce a startable fantasy running back regardless of the player in the huddle. It'll take a high pick to secure Ryan Grant, so insure him late with Jackson.
Correll Buckhalter, Broncos. With tons of inexperience at the running back position, the Broncos should be focusing on running the ball in 2010. If you land Moreno early in your draft, you should spend a late-rounder on Buckhalter, who was effective with limited carries in 2009.
Montario Hardesty, Browns. The Browns were surprisingly effective on the ground last year, something that can be attributed in large part to an extreme focus on running the ball late last season. You'll need to spend two mid-rounders to secure the backfield, but it may wind up being worth it.
Willis McGahee, Ravens. McGahee had plenty of fantasy worth last year as a TD vulture for Ray Rice, and if he stays with the team in 2010 -- and his name has come up in trade buzz as of late -- he'd earn most of the playing time in the event of a Rice injury.
Tim Hightower, Cardinals. Arizona is likely to shift more to a rushing philosophy in 2010, leaving Beanie Wells and Hightower as solid options when paired together in fantasy. Wells will cost a third-round or fourth-round pick, while Hightower is available in the ninth and tenth rounds.
Rashad Jennings, Jaguars. If Maurice Jones-Drew went down, Jennings would likely split carries with Deji Karim, but with an extra year of playing time in the offense, Jennings should be the lead running back of the potential committee. As a last-round pick, he makes sense for MJD owners.
Mewelde Moore, Steelers. If Mendenhall suffers an injury like the one he had in 2008, Moore will likely be called upon to shoulder most of the load. However, Isaac Redman is a great red-zone weapon for the Steelers and would likely split some carries with Moore.
Tashard Choice, Cowboys. Sure, Marion Barber and Felix Jones are going to get most of the carries in Dallas, but neither has been able to stay healthy and effective in recent years. If you have one or the other, you could spend a late-rounder on Choice as insurance.
Why should you take to the process of handcuffing backs? Look at how it sets up your draft. Say you draft Johnson, Peterson, Jones-Drew or Turner at the top of your draft. Then, you select Cedric Benson or Ryan Grant in the second or third round.
Considering you'll be taking handcuff RBs at the end of the draft, you're now open to select four WRs, a QB, a third RB, and a tight end in Round 2 or 3 and Rounds 4 through 9. Throw in a top-five defense in Round 10, a backup QB in Round 11 and a fifth upside WR like Mike Williams or Jacoby Jones in Round 12, and you have a formidable core of talent with the most important fantasy position backed up by real-life backups that should perform quite well should something happen to your starters.
Your final roster would something like the group below (draft round in parenthesis):
QB Matt Schaub (4), Chad Henne (11)
RB Maurice Jones-Drew (1), Cedric Benson (2), Arian Foster (7), Bernard Scott (12), Rashad Jennings (14)
WR Greg Jennings (3), Dwayne Bowe (5), Terrell Owens (8), Johnny Knox (9), Mike Williams (13)
TE Tony Gonzalez (6)
PK Generic Kicker (15)
TM Minnesota Vikings (10)
Think you could win with that group? I bet you'd have a really good shot at it.