When filling out your bench in the later stages of a fantasy football draft, your primary focus should be on high-upside handcuffs at the running back position.
It’s no secret that the game of football causes a significant number of injuries each year, but the injury rate at running back is higher than at any other offensive skill position. The casual fantasy football owner knows to handcuff the backs he or she drafted in the first few rounds, but many will overlook high-upside backups on other teams. Additionally, if a top pick’s primary backup isn’t very good, the correct move is to pass on him and look elsewhere for a bench stash.
Today, I’ll be ranking each of the 32 primary running back handcuffs. Some of the top players on this list will cost you a mid-round pick on draft day. Others, however, are flying under the radar and are available late in drafts (or going undrafted altogether).
Note that this isn’t necessarily a ranking of the player’s talent or where they’d rank on a weekly basis in-season. The idea here is to determine which handcuffs would have the most fantasy value should the player ahead of him on the depth chart get benched or go down with an injury. Additionally, a back in a situation where the player above him on the depth chart is on a short leash, injury prone, or just not very good will get a bit of a boost.
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1. Giovani Bernard – Bengals – ADP: 80
Bernard gets the top spot because it’s a matter of when (not if) he takes over as Cincinnati’s lead back. The top rookie selected in April’s draft, Bernard will play a situational role behind BenJarvus Green-Ellis early. If the veteran goes down with an injury or is demoted, Bernard will enter the RB2 conversation.
2. Ben Tate – Texans – ADP: 107
If we eliminated each of the league’s 32 starting tailbacks and re-ranked the running back position, Tate would be No. 1 on most lists. The Texans are extremely run-heavy and—minus an injury-plagued 2012 season—Tate has been excellent when called upon. If Arian Foster goes down with an injury, Tate becomes a top-12 fantasy back.
3. Bernard Pierce – Ravens – ADP: 116
Pierce was excellent as Ray Rice’s backup last season which figures to lead to a larger role in 2013. Either way, with Anthony Allen No. 3 on the depth chart, Pierce would have an easy path to a three-down workload if Rice were to miss action.
4. Bryce Brown – Eagles – ADP: 100
The Eagles are going to run the ball a ton with Chip Kelly calling the shots. We saw in 2012 that Brown has big-time ability. If LeSean McCoy misses time, Brown would lead the Eagles’ backfield, with Felix Jones providing only minimal pressure for snaps.
5. Fred Jackson – Bills – ADP: 98
Jackson is 32 and durability is a major question mark, but no longer will he be asked to handle the full workload. If C.J. Spiller misses action, Jackson will handle most of the backfield snaps. Tashard Choice isn’t much of a threat.
6. Kendall Hunter – 49ers – ADP: 174
Hunter is extremely undervalued so far this offseason. Frank Gore just turned 30 after handling 321 carries over 19 games last season. If Gore finally succumbs to the large workloads, Hunter would lead a committee with LaMichael James in a high-scoring, run-heavy offense.
7. Zac Stacy – Rams – ADP: 121
The Rams’ backfield was the trickiest to sort out because there are a lot of uncertainties. The assumption here is that Isaiah Pead will settle in as the starter. If Pead stumbles or misses time, Stacy is the next best player on the roster, and a better fantasy bet than Daryl Richardson.
8. Shonn Greene – Titans – ADP: 133
Greene is far from the flashiest player in the league, but he’s a solid between-the-tackles workhorse. If Chris Johnson goes down, Greene’s primary competition for snaps will be Jalen Parmele and Darius Reynaud. Greene is a fine late-round target.
9. Robert Turbin – Seahawks – ADP: 157
I went with Turbin, the incumbent No. 2 back, but Christine Michael should be valued about the same. If Marshawn Lynch misses action, the two young backs figure to split the workload. The early edge would go to Turbin, but Michael, a second-round pick in April, has a much higher ceiling.
10. Shane Vereen – Patriots – ADP: 88
Vereen is going to see a ton of reps on passing downs, so he’s going to be drafted well before many of the names I already listed. That being said, the reason he’s so “low” here is because his fantasy ceiling isn’t quite as high as the aforementioned players. If Stevan Ridley misses time, Vereen’s role will increase, but not significantly. Brandon Bolden and, to a lesser extent, LeGarrette Blount will be worked in, especially inside-the-five.
11. Andre Brown – Giants – ADP: 73
Brown does not appear to be a threat to David Wilson for the Giants’ lead back gig, but he’s next in line for the job if the sophomore back stumbles. Brown would enter the RB2 discussion if called upon to start.
12. Johnathan Franklin – Packers – ADP: 124
Assuming Eddie Lacy earns the Packers’ lead back job, Franklin will be the favorite for No. 2 duties. Of course, he won’t be guaranteed a full workload if Lacy were to miss action. DuJuan Harris was strong in a small sample of work last year and Alex Green remains in the mix. Franklin has a ton of talent, but there’s unlikely to be a clear path to 15-plus touches each game.
13. Toby Gerhart – Vikings – ADP: 164
Overlooked because of Adrian Peterson’s freakish healing abilities, Gerhart has very little competition for snaps should Peterson miss action due to injury. The Vikings’ passing game is poor, which means they’d rely heavily on the running game regardless of who is in the backfield. Gerhart would approach 20 touches most weeks as the starter.
14. DeAngelo Williams – Panthers – ADP: 117
We saw in the later stages of the 2012 season that Williams can still be an effective back when called upon to handle a significant workload. If Jonathan Stewart misses time, Williams will handle a bulk of the carries, but Mike Tolbert will be heavily involved on passing downs and inside the five.
15. Michael Bush – Bears – ADP: 145
Utilized in a short-yardage capacity last season, Bush averaged just 3.6 yards-per-carry, but did score five times on 114 carries. He’s now 29 years old, but we’ve seen before that he can be effective when called upon to spot start.
16. Vick Ballard – Colts – ADP: 76
Penciled in as the Colts’ lead back before they pounced on Ahmad Bradshaw, Ballard now falls back into handcuff territory. If Bradshaw’s foot begins to act up again, Donald Brown won’t provide Ballard with much competition for snaps. Ballard’s ADP will continue to drop as Bradshaw’s role as lead back becomes clearer.
17. Ryan Williams – Cardinals – ADP: 126
Williams is one of the league’s most injury-prone players over the last two years, but he’ll get another shot at lead-back duties if Rashard Mendenhall stumbles. Of course, the leash here will be short with rookies Stepfan Taylor and Andre Ellington also in the mix.
18. Ronnie Hillman – Broncos – ADP: 114
Hillman is undersized (5’10/190) and figures to settle in as a change-of-pace back, but he would get a long look as Denver’s lead back if Montee Ball were to miss time. Knowshon Moreno would certainly be involved, but he’s a below average producer.
19. Jacquizz Rodgers – Falcons – ADP: 125
Despite leading the Falcons’ backfield in snaps last season, Rodgers wasn’t much of a fantasy asset because of his struggles between the tackles. If Steven Jackson goes down with an injury, Rodgers will enjoy a sizable boost in snaps, but he’d share the workload with bruiser Jason Snelling. Rodgers’ low ceiling keeps up from a higher ranking.
20. Mikel Leshoure – Lions – ADP: 102
Leshoure is a guy who seems more attractive as a handcuff than he actually is. He’s going to see plenty of work behind Reggie Bush this season, but his role doesn’t figure to increase if Bush goes down with an injury. Instead, Joique Bell—seemingly a better all-around back than Leshoure—would pick up a large chunk of Bush’s snaps, including all passing-down work.
21. Danny Woodhead – Chargers – ADP: 109
Like Vereen, Woodhead will be drafted before a lot of names already listed (and rightfully so), but the issue is that his role won’t be much different in the event of a Ryan Mathews’ injury. Woodhead has never been a workhorse back and coach Mike McCoy is not going to ask him to run between the tackles 15 times-per-week. Instead, Ronnie Brown will take on a chunk of Mathews’ snaps.
22. Mike James – Buccaneers – ADP: N/A
James was only a sixth-round pick in April’s draft, but the Buccaneers are badly in need of a competent No. 2 option behind workhorse Doug Martin. It appears James has secured the gig, but it’s likely he’d share duties with Brian Leonard and Michael Smith in the event of a Martin injury. Still, those investing a top-five overall pick in Martin should be considering James in the later rounds, especially in deeper leagues.
23. Pierre Thomas – Saints – ADP: 131
I probably should’ve just grouped Woodhead, Vereen, and now Thomas together. The long-time Saints utility man remains a solid contributor as a runner and pass catcher, but he requires several injuries in order to land a 15-plus touch role. If Mark Ingram or Darren Sproles miss time, Thomas’ snaps will increase, but Travaris Cadet will play a sizable role. The ceiling here is too low to warrant much fantasy intrigue.
24. Mike Goodson – Jets – ADP: 175
Goodson is dealing with some legal issues, but he’s currently slotted in as Chris Ivory’s primary backup. Goodson will handle a lot of the passing down work regardless, but he’d lead a committee with Bilal Powell in the event of an Ivory injury. The Jets’ poor offense limits his fantasy intrigue.
25. Montario Hardesty – Browns – ADP: N/A
The Browns loaded up with replacement-level running back depth this offseason, but Hardesty remains locked in as Trent Richardson’s primary backup. Should the sophomore workhorse go down with an injury, Hardesty would take on a bulk of the snaps. One of Chris Ogbonnaya, Dion Lewis, and Brandon Jackson would take on a situational role.
26. Isaac Redman – Steelers – ADP: N/A
The Steelers drafted Le’Veon Bell in the second round of April’s draft. If the rookie struggles or misses time, it’s Redman that would be the favorite for lead back duties. LaRod Stephens-Howling would certainly help out on passing downs and, assuming he keeps his roster spot, Jonathan Dwyer would be in the mix. The ceiling here is low.
27. Knile Davis – Chiefs – ADP: N/A
Davis is a very polarizing player, with many draft pundits scratching their heads following his selection in the third-round of April’s draft. Regardless, the lead back in an Andy Reid-offense tends to land on the fantasy radar. Should Jamaal Charles miss time, Davis figures to lead a committee that would also include Shaun Draughn and potentially Cyrus Gray.
28. Daniel Thomas – Dolphins – ADP: 168
Thomas has been extremely underwhelming since being selected in the second round of the 2011 draft. It appears, however, that he has a firm grasp on the No. 2 job behind sophomore Lamar Miller in Miami. Should Miller stumble or miss time, Thomas would take over. Rookie Mike Gillislee and potentially Jonas Gray or Marcus Thigpen, would be heavy-involved, however, and Thomas’ leash would be short.
29. Justin Forsett – Jaguars – ADP: N/A
A source inside the Jaguars’ organization informed me that Justin Forsett is the clear handcuff to Maurice Jones-Drew. There’s a lot of chatter/hype surrounding Denard Robinson, but his role—at least in 2013—will be as a part-time situational receiver/back. Forsett has always been underrated, but the Jaguars’ offense isn’t going to score a lot of points.
30. Evan Royster – Redskins – ADP: N/A
Royster is considered to be on the roster bubble, but the run-first Redskins seemingly do not have enough roster depth to warrant cutting him loose. Roy Helu and Chris Thompson are in the mix, but if the season began minus Alfred Morris today, Royster would be the favorite to start.
31. Joseph Randle – Cowboys – ADP: 146
The Cowboys utilize one of the league’s pass-heaviest offenses and the running back situation behind DeMarco Murray is very volatile. Randle, a fifth-round pick in April’s draft, is the favorite for No. 2 duties, but he’s dealing with a thumb injury. Should he get back to full health, and Murray were to miss time, Randle would need to fend off Lance Dunbar and Phillip Tanner for snaps.
32. Latavius Murray – Raiders – ADP: N/A
You could make a case that Rashad Jennings is currently No. 2 on the Raiders depth chart, but let’s be honest, he’s not very good. If Darren McFadden misses time, Murray and Jennings would share the workload, but Murray, a sixth-round pick in April’s draft, offers slightly more intrigue.