The Hidden Impact of Handcuffs

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When evaluating players for fantasy football rankings and projections, nothing irritates me more than accounting for injuries. The process would be so much easier if guys were made out of rubber.

But they’re not.

And so “handcuff” is a household word for anyone with the first clue about fantasy football.

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Of course, the savvy fantasy owner will take advantage of the handcuffing process, loading their bench with high-upside backups in the mid-to-late rounds.

The extremely savvy fantasy owner will take a step further, adjusting the value of early-round picks (specifically at the running back position) based on the price and replacement value of said player’s handcuff.

Take Alfred Morris, for example. Morris is currently coming off the board with the No. 11 overall pick. His primary handcuff, Roy Helu, has struggled with injuries, but is an effective player when healthy and would handle a bulk of Washington’s backfield snaps in the event of a Morris injury. Helu is currently going undrafted in most formats.

Helu’s talent and ease of acquisition actually adds to Morris’ attractiveness on draft day.

Think about it.

There’s more demand than supply at the running back position. You’re almost forced to take one early and maybe even a pair in the first two rounds. Like your house, car, and health, because you’re making such a huge investment, it’s important to pay up for insurance. And, if you’ve ever shopped for insurance, you know that sometimes you can get the exact same, if not better, coverage elsewhere, and at a cheaper rate.

The same concept can be applied to fantasy football handcuffs.

Today, I’ll run through each team and pick out the handcuffs that make the biggest impact, for better or worse, on the team’s starting, fantasy-relevant tailback. Again the two characteristics I’ll be focusing on are as follows: (1) The handcuff’s fantasy value if the starter is out of action and (2) ADP.

Note that a 12-team, 16-round, non-PPR format is assumed when referring to ADP.

Group 1 - Clear handcuffs at a good price

Big Boost

MIN – Adrian PetersonToby Gerhart (ADP: UD)
WAS – Alfred Morris – Roy Helu (ADP: UD)
SF – Frank Gore – Kendall Hunter (ADP: 152.2)

These backs benefit the most from the situation behind them on the depth chart. You can upgrade these players knowing that you can land a capable handcuff late in your draft. This way, if your starter suffers a long-term injury, you’re still in relatively good shape.

Gerhart’s production was down in 2013, but it would’ve been hard for anyone to find touches behind Peterson last season. One of the better No. 2 backs in the league, capable of handling a 20-plus touch load, and available in the last round of your draft, Gerhart makes Peterson even more deserving of the No. 1 overall pick.

We discussed Helu in the introduction, which leaves us with Hunter. Gore’s primary handcuff is coming off a torn Achilles but is expected to be healthy in time for the season. If he has a setback, LaMichael James is available in Round 13 (ADP: 148.0), which is still a strong value.

Moderate Boost

SEA – Marshawn Lynch – Robert Turbin (ADP: UD)
ATL – Steven Jackson – Jacquizz Rodgers (ADP: 132.7)
CHI – Matt Forte – Michael Bush (ADP: 135.6)
JAX – Maurice Jones-Drew – Justin Forsett (ADP: UD)
TEN – Chris Johnson – Shonn Greene (ADP: 156.4)

The backs listed here have handcuffs who would be in for a big increase in role, but aren’t quite as talented as those receiving a big boost and/or would have additional competition for touches.

Had the 2013 draft not happened, Turbin would’ve boosted Lynch to the top of this list. Unfortunately for Lynch owners, the Seahawks clouded the team’s handcuff situation by selecting Christine Michael in the second round back in April. If Lynch goes down, Turbin figures to get first shot, but Michael will be involved. Amazingly, both players are currently going undrafted despite backing up a workhorse in 2012’s run-heaviest offense.

Rodgers would share the load with Jason Snelling, but he’d see more of the carries and plenty of targets. His Round-12 ADP is only moderately expensive. Bush would have very little competition for a massive workload should Forte miss action.

Denard Robinson would certainly play more, but Forsett is the clear No. 2 back in Jacksonville. He’s underrated, but not going to win you a championship on his own. Jones-Drew owners won’t need a draft pick in order to order to land their handcuff. Greene isn’t as bad as his reputation suggests, which makes him a value in Round 13. He’s not going to get much pressure for snaps from Jalen Parmele or Darius Reynaud if asked to start.

Small Boost

TB – Doug Martin – Peyton Hillis (ADP: UD)
KC – Jamaal Charles – Knile Davis (ADP: UD)
MIA – Lamar Miller – Daniel Thomas (ADP: UD)
DET – Reggie BushJoique Bell (ADP: UD)
PIT – Le'Veon Bell – Isaac Redman (ADP: UD)
ARZ – Rashard MendenhallRyan Williams (ADP: 154.0)

The backs enjoying only a small boost have handcuffs who are being picked in the later rounds, but are either not overly effective or wouldn’t see much of a role increase.

The Buccaneers recently added Hillis to the mix, but he should easily beat out Michael Smith and Mike James for short-term No. 2 duties. He’s the man to stash if you own Martin. Davis will face some competition from replacement-level Shaun Draughn, but the rookie is the man Charles owners should be taking a chance on.

Thomas isn’t very good, but he has the edge on rookie Mike Gillislee for No. 2 duties in Miami. As the starter, he’d be looking at a good 15 or so touches each week. Mikel Leshoure is coming off the board in Round 11, but undrafted Bell would be the primary benefactor of a Bush injury. Leshoure’s snaps and carries would rise, but Bell would slide into passing-down duties, which is more relevant in one of the leagues’ pass-heaviest offenses.

Jonathan Dwyer is coming off the board in Round 14 of recent drafts, but undrafted Redman is Bell’s primary handcuff. Dwyer and LaRod Stephens-Howling would be involved, however, which, along with his underwhelming ability, limits Redman’s upside. Williams continues to struggle with durability, which makes the situation behind Mendenhall tough to sort through. Williams still has a tiny bit of breakout potential, but rookies Stepfan Taylor and Andre Ellington are already pushing for a promotion.
Group 2 - Clear handcuffs, but a bit expensive

Small Blow

BUF – C.J. Spiller – Fred Jackson (ADP: 99.9)
BAL – Ray Rice – Bernard Pierce (ADP: 107.7)
GB – Eddie Lacy – Johnathan Franklin (ADP: 105.5)
SD – Ryan MathewsDanny Woodhead (ADP: 109.3)

These backs have a clear backup, but you’re going to have to spend a mid-round pick in order to get them on your roster.

Spiller has an injury-prone reputation, but he has played in all 32 of Buffalo’s games over the last two seasons. Jackson is one of the league’s better backups and has a solid resume as a starter. Spiller’s value takes a hit because his handcuff is a Top-100 pick. Pierce was outstanding as a rookie and is arguably the league’s best No. 2 back. Unfortunately, the word is out that he’ll be in for an increased role in 2013. Drafting Rice means you’ll need to consider using your ninth-round pick on his handcuff.

Franklin will have to deal with pressure from DuJuan Harris, Alex Green, and James Starks, but the rookie is the clear standout talent of the group. Franklin’s ninth-round ADP makes Lacy—another rookie—a bit riskier of a pick. Woodhead will cost you your pick in Round 10, but he’s only a minor blow to Mathews’ value because he’s going to be worth flex consideration regardless of Mathews’ status. Woodhead is a fine Round 10 target regardless of whether or not you took a shot on Mathews four or five rounds earlier.

Moderate Blow

HOU – Arian Foster – Ben Tate (ADP: 90.7)
PHI – LeSean McCoy – Bryce Brown (ADP: 96.6)
NO – Darren SprolesPierre Thomas (ADP: 122.9)
IND – Ahmad BradshawVick Ballard (ADP: 103.9)
STL – Daryl Richardson – Isaiah Pead (ADP: 120.3)
CAR – DeAngelo Williams – Jonathan Stewart (ADP: 115.3)

Our next group of backs takes a bit of a hit in value because their backups do not have a clear path to a large workload and/or are expensive on draft day.

Tate struggled with injuries during the 2012 season, but he’s an elite No. 2 tailback. Additionally, Houston runs the ball a ton, which would put him in the RB1 conversation in the event that he’s asked to start. Most people know this, which is why he usually comes off the board in Round 8. That’s rich for a player you won’t want to start most weeks. The jury remains out on Brown, but he showed major flashes as a rookie in 2012. Additionally, the Eagles are going to run a lot of plays, many of which will be handoffs to McCoy and Brown. His ninth-round ADP makes McCoy less attractive on draft day.

Thomas is a very good player and his Round 11 ADP is attractive, but the issue here is the perpetual committee attack in New Orleans. If Sproles or Mark Ingram (ADP: 93.5) go down, the remaining healthy back will compete for snaps with Thomas and Travaris Cadet. This lowers Thomas’ ceiling and makes it very tough to handcuff Sproles. Ballard was in position to lead the Colts’ backfield this season before the team snatched up Bradshaw in June. Ballard remains an expensive ninth-round pick because of Bradshaw’s struggles to return from a foot injury.

The Rams’ backfield competition is one of the most-intriguing battles in camp. Pead, a second-round pick in 2012, is a solid target in Round 10, but it’s very likely he’d have to share the backfield with Zac Stacy in the event of a Richardson injury. Stewart was actually being picked before Williams a few weeks ago, but the former’s injury troubles have his early-season status in doubt. Drafting this duo would cost you your picks in Rounds 7 and 10, which is quite expensive. The only silver lining is the fact that both are top-notch talents when healthy.

Big Blow

NE – Stevan Ridley – Shane Vereen (ADP: 65.0)
NYG – David WilsonAndre Brown (ADP: 77.7)
DEN – Montee Ball – Ronnie Hillman (ADP: 85.0)
CIN – Giovani Bernard – BenJarvus Green-Ellis (ADP: 80.2)

This group of players takes a big hit in value due to the situation behind them on their respective depth chart. The handcuffs are extremely expensive in terms of ADP and/or do not have a clear path to a large workload.

Following the near-complete overhaul of the Patriots’ backfield, Vereen will be asked to take on a larger role than was initially anticipated. Expected to see a high target volume in a high-scoring offense, Vereen is coming off the board in Round 6. He’s a decent Flex option for all owners, including those with Ridley, but a sixth-round pick is very pricy.

Wilson is the starter and the more explosive back of the two, but with Brown expected to be heavily-involved on passing downs and inside-the-five, his ADP has reached the seventh round. Wilson is already a risky pick considering his short resume, but it gets worse when you consider his sizable insurance expense.

Hillman is actually currently listed as Denver’s starter, but Ball is rightfully coming off the board four rounds earlier. The latter figures to settle in as early-down and short-yardage back, with the former working in a change-of-pace capacity. In addition, the presence of Knowshon Moreno (ADP: 154.4) will make it tough for an expensive Hillman to see a large workload.

Green-Ellis remains the favorite to start the season as the Bengals’ lead back, but it’s only a matter of time until Bernard takes over. Still, Green-Ellis would be all but guaranteed a workhorse role similar to the one he enjoyed in 2012 in the event of a Bernard injury. He’s very expensive in Round 7.

Group 3 - Murky waters

CLE – Trent Richardson – Dion Lewis (ADP: UD)
DAL – DeMarco Murray – Lance Dunbar (ADP: UD)
NYJ – Chris Ivory – Bilal Powell (ADP: UD)
OAK – Darren McFadden – Latavius Murray (ADP: UD)

These “starters” are all in scary situations when it comes to determining a handcuff. These backs will generally lose the most value simply because you won’t have a competent replacement for them if they miss extensive action. The only good news here is that none of the primary handcuffs are currently being drafted.

Lewis is competing with Montario Hardesty, Chris Ogbonnaya, and Brandon Jackson for the No. 2 job in Cleveland. Dunbar is going at it with Phillip Tanner and rookie Joseph Randle for the primary backup gig in Dallas. None of the backups I mentioned are particularly good and would leave you with a major hole at the position if Richardson or Murray were to miss time.

I included Powell as the backup to Ivory, but this situation is very fluid because of Mike Goodson’s off-the-field issues. If Goodson returns, he’ll slide in as a solid No. 2 back behind Ivory. If he’s suspended long-term or cut loose, Powell is a less-intriguing, but still solid backup. In either case, you can move Ivory to ‘small boost’ as Goodson or Powell would likely be available near Round 11.

Last and certainly least, we have the Raiders. Murray is competing with underwhelming Rashad Jennings for backup duties in Oakland. Additionally, Marcel Reece’s primary focus is fullback, but he’s going to be involved as a receiver, and would get some carries in the event of a McFadden injury. There are no solid handcuff options in Oakland.

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