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Fantasy Football Handcuffs: Backup Running Backs Breakdown

To handcuff, or not to handcuff? Kyle Wood breaks down the backup running backs available in the final rounds that might be worth a roster  spot
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Handcuffing running backs can be hugely rewarding or ridiculously frustrating from week to week. It would have been so rewarding to have Mike Davis on your bench last season when Christian McCaffrey went down, or you could be asking yourself every week why you're wasting a roster spot on Alexander Mattison when Dalvin Cook continues to produce.

That's why handcuffing should be situational rather than a catch-all strategy. Certain running back situations didn't qualify as handcuffs for this exercise because of how close they are going by ADP or that both players are going in the early rounds of drafts. That's why you won't see Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt; Chase Edmonds and James Conner; James Robinson and Travis Etienne; Josh Jacobs and Kenyan Drake; Zack Moss and Devin Singletary; Ronald Jones II and Leonard Fournette; or Raheem Mostert and Trey Sermon listed.

In past drafts, I’ve often opted against using a late-round pick on a handcuff if the backup doesn’t have any standalone value or hasn’t proven to be able to stand-in for the starter. That’s the logic employed in assessing the value of drafting the possible handcuffs listed.

AJ Dillon, Green Bay Packers

aj dillon
  • ADP: 108, 9th round
  • Starter: Aaron Jones
  • Should You Handcuff?: No

The Packers didn’t ask much of Dillon as a rookie, but he looked good when given a chance, averaging 5.3 yards per carry. Still, Dillon was third on the team in rushes behind Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams. The latter left in the offseason, but the former is consistently among the league's leaders in touches and touchdowns. Playing backup to Jones, a three-down back, was not especially lucrative for Williams, a pass-catching threat. Dillon is a zero in the receiving game. He will get the 100+ carries Williams saw annually in Green Bay, but not enough goal-line looks or receptions to be dependable.

Tony Pollard, Dallas Cowboys

  • ADP: 118, 10th round
  • Starter: Ezekiel Elliot
  • Should You Handcuff?: Yes

Pollard shined in the one game Ezekiel Elliot missed in 2020; he scored 31.2 fantasy points, more than Elliot had in any game. Pollard's workload increased in his sophomore season, but he's still the backup to Dallas' $15 million man. There's potential for Pollard to have some standalone value (he finished with 10+ points three times in games played with Elliot). However, drafting Pollard is an investment in Elliot going down. It's not a bad bet with Elliot's monster workload the past five years and Pollard's potential in the Cowboys' offense.

Gus Edwards, Baltimore Ravens

  • ADP: 122, 11th round
  • Starter: J.K. Dobbins
  • Should You Handcuff?: Yes

Edwards is the backup in Baltimore, but he finished last season with more carries than rookie J.K. Dobbins. Of course, they both finished behind Lamar Jackson in that regard, but there’s plenty of carries to go around in the Ravens’ offense. Edwards just topped 130 carries and 700 yards for the third year in a row. If Dobbins were injured, Edwards would be the lead back in the run-heaviest offense in the NFL, and an injury isn't required for his fantasy relevance. Edwards has value while splitting carries; he needs a few touchdowns to break his way because he's not a receiving threat whatsoever.

Jamaal Williams, Detroit Lions

  • ADP: 129, 11th round
  • Starter: D’Andre Swift
  • Should You Handcuff?: No

Williams was not a reliable fantasy threat while playing for the Packers, the best offense in football, in 2020. This season, the Lions project to be a bottom-five offense in the NFL, and Williams will still be backing up a three-down back, this time D'Andre Swift. Detroit lost its first and third leading rushers in the offseason in Adrian Peterson and Kerryon Johnson, so there are touches to be had, but they're likely empty calories in this offense. No Lions players other than Swift and T.J. Hockensen will be fantasy-relevant this coming season.

Nyheim Hines, Indianapolis Colts

  • ADP: 130, 11th round
  • Starter: Jonathan Taylor
  • Should You Handcuff?: No

It could be argued Hines isn't the handcuff here. After all, he is a the pass-catching option or third-down back in this offense. So even if Taylor is injured, the Colts are more likely to significantly increase the workload of Marlon Mack or another early-down back who could emerge. Hines would be on the field more if something happened to Taylor, but Hines is too slight between the tackles to carry the heavy load for a significant time.

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JD McKissic, Washington Football Team

  • ADP: 135, 12th round
  • Starter: Antonio Gibson
  • Should You Handcuff?: No

McKissic finally broke out in his fifth year in the league and led all running backs in targets. Washington's offense will be much improved this season with the addition of quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, but he's also the reason McKissic won't be able to match his volume from a season ago. Fitzpatrick is a gunslinger allergic to checking the ball down the way that Alex Smith did so often. Antonio Gibson is expected to see an even larger workload in 2021. Volume is what made McKissic dependable, and it just won't be there in this iteration of the WFT.

Alexander Mattison, Minnesota Vikings

Minnesota Vikings Alexander Mattison
  • ADP: 143, 12th round
  • Starter: Dalvin Cook
  • Should You Handcuff?: No

Dalvin Cook has yet to play a 16-game season four years into his career. And still, his backup, Mattison, is less desirable than other handcuff options. Mattison had just as many games over 10 points as he had games below one last season. He has virtually no standalone value when Cook, who has one of the largest workloads in the league, is healthy. And when Cook is out, there’s been mixed results. Mattison finished with 4.0 and 29.5 points in the two games the Vikings played without Cook in 2020. The variance is too high between Mattison’s floor and ceiling, with and without Cook, to make him worth it.

Latavius Murray, New Orleans Saints

  • ADP: 147, 13th round
  • Starter: Alvin Kamara
  • Should You Handcuff?: Yes

Murray had more total yards and a higher fantasy finish last season than any handcuff on this list. He's a great value going late in drafts and could have a higher upside if the Saints run even more in 2021. Murray is perhaps the most capable and proven true backup in the league, with a 1,000-yard season to his name. Alvin Kamara has proven to be extremely durable, but Murray is an RB1-level fill-in if Kamara were to miss time. And Murray has value alongside Kamara — there were six games where they both had 10 or more carries last season.

Late-Round & Undrafted Handcuffs

All of the handcuffs listed above require draft capital, but these below are going virtually undrafted and are worth considering on waivers or at the tail end of your drafts.

Chuba Hubbard, Carolina Panthers

Christian McCaffrey was indestructible up until last season. When he missed time, Mike Davis stepped in and was a low-end RB1. With McCaffrey healthy and taking his usual workload of better than 90% of offensive snaps, Hubbard will be learning from the sideline this year. But if McCaffrey misses any time, Hubbard could mirror Davis’ success. And he’s no slouch — Hubbard ran for 2,000 yards at Oklahoma State as a sophomore.

Devontae Booker, New York Giants

Like Hubbard, Booker doesn’t hold much standalone value in his offense. His path to relevancy also relies on an injury to the starter but right now, Booker could be starting Week 1 as Saquon Barkley works his way back from a torn ACL. Barkley and the Giants have been noncommittal regarding his return for the Sep. 12 season opener. Even if he’s ready a month from now, it may take time for his workload to ramp up. Booker could have value for a few weeks with Barkley sidelined or less than 100%, and there’s always the possibility that Barkley is reinjured.

Ranking the Rest

  • Rashaad Penny, Seahawks
  • Phillip Lindsay, Texans
  • Darrynton Evans, Titans
  • Darrel Williams, Chiefs
  • Anthony McFarland Jr., Steelers
  • Justin Jackson, Chargers
  • Kenneth Gainwell, Eagles
  • Salvon Ahmed, Dolphins
  • Tevin Coleman, Jets
  • Sony Michel, Patriots
  • Trayveon Williams, Bengals
  • Xavier Jones, Rams

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