Adam Levitan

Draft Analysis

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Get the handcuffs out

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Back in the days of true workhorse backs, handcuffs were easy to snag. Since backup runners only saw action if the starter went down, fantasy owners had little interest in them.

Nowadays, the emergence of backfield committees all over the league means that multiple running backs from the same team are getting drafted. It's harder to "handcuff" your stud to his backup. That just means we need to prioritize better.

Heading into our drafts, we need to know exactly which running backs are worth handcuffing. This comes down to the talent level of the backup, his projected workload if the starter goes down and the likelihood of that starter getting injured.

Below you'll find the top-15 handcuffs, ranked in order from the must owns to the least valuable. We have left out "backups" such as Jonathan Stewart, Mike Tolbert, Tim Hightower, Brandon Jacobs, Daniel Thomas and Ryan Williams because they project to have varying levels of standalone value.

TIER ONE: Handcuff at all costs

1. Rashad Jennings - ADP 126.9
Starter: Maurice Jones-Drew
Outlook: Jones-Drew is still recovering from offseason meniscus surgery, as he is just getting back in team drills this week. With MJD sidelined for the final two games of last season, Jennings averaged 18.5 carries for 70 yards to go with one touchdown and eight total receptions. It was just a glimpse of what Jennings, who owns a career 5.5 yards-per-carry average, can do. Given the starter's shaky knee and the backup's talent level, owners rolling the dice on MJD would be crazy not to secure Jennings.

2. Michael Bush - ADP 119.3
Starter: Darren McFadden
Outlook: At this time last year, Bush was considered the tentative starter and McFadden the backup. How times have changed. Now McFadden is one of the game's elite backs and Bush is just a change-of-pace runner. However, McFadden has a checkered injury history and Bush has proven that he has starting-level ability. In the three games that DMC missed last year, Bush averaged 23.6 carries for 96.0 yards. Must handcuff.

Editor's Note: The 2011 Draft Guide is now available as an app for your iPhone!

3. Ricky Williams - ADP 165.7
Starter: Ray Rice
Outlook: Even at age 34, Williams is a better player than ex-Ravens backup Willis McGahee. Despite playing without a threatening passing game, Williams averaged 4.48 yards per carry over the last two seasons in Miami. Over that same span, teammate Ronnie Brown managed just 3.98 yards per tote. If Rice were to go down, Williams would shine in the Ravens' run-first scheme.

4. Jason Snelling - ADP 153.5
Starter: Michael Turner
Outlook: Even though the Falcons drafted Jacquizz Rodgers, they brought back Snelling. That's because the writing is on the wall for a Michael Turner decline. As a plus pass-catcher, goal-line runner and early-down chain-mover, Snelling would be an instant RB2 option in the event of a Turner injury.

5. Javon Ringer - ADP 159.0
Starter: Chris Johnson
Outlook: Despite the current contract squabble between Johnson and the Titans, we still expect the starter to be out there come Week 1. And it's worth noting that Johnson has missed just one game in his three-year career. Still, Ringer has shown real talent in limited NFL action. If Johnson's holdout surprisingly goes into the regular season or he gets injured, Ringer would get all the early-down work.

TIER TWO: Solid, but not spectacular handcuffs

6. Ronnie Brown - ADP 129.7
Starter: LeSean McCoy
Outlook: The Eagles didn't sign Brown to take snaps away from McCoy. They signed him as insurance. That's exactly what fantasy owners should be viewing the rapidly declining Brown as. The biggest reason he would have value in the event of a McCoy injury is the Eagles' explosive offense. Brown would find space for the first time in years.

7. Toby Gerhart - ADP 181.2
Starter: Adrian Peterson
Outlook: Already the third-down back, Gerhart would be a lock for 20 touches if Peterson got hurt. In the one game that Peterson missed last year, Gerhart recorded 16 carries for 77 yards plus three catches against a tough Bears defense. While the ceiling here isn't that high, the floor is RB3 value.

Editor's Note: For constantly updating rankings, projections, exclusive columns, ADP reports, mock drafts, sleepers, busts and much more, get the 2011 Rotoworld Draft Guide!

8. Jerome Harrison - ADP 156.9
Starter: Jahvid Best
Outlook: Mikel Leshoure's season-ending Achilles injury changed the landscape here. The Lions were forced to bring in the best available back in Harrison, even though he possesses a similar skill-set to Best. Harrison's pass-blocking skills always seem to hold him back despite explosive talent, but the Lions wouldn't have a choice if they lose Best. Harrison's shifty style and pass-catching skills are a nice fit for Scott Linehan's potentially dominant offense.

9. Pierre Thomas - ADP 100.5
Starter: Mark Ingram
Outlook: With punishing inside runner Chris Ivory (sports hernia) quite possibly heading for the PUP list, Thomas is the clear No. 2. He brings starting experience in the scheme and upside as an explosive runner in space and after catches. But after landing in Sean Payton's doghouse last year, he'll need an injury to Ingram to be startable in fantasy.

10. James Starks - ADP 82.9
Starter: Ryan Grant
Outlook: Don't put too much stock in the "battle" between Grant and Starks. The veteran is a heavy favorite to see the majority of early-down work, with John Kuhn coming in on passing downs. That leaves last year's playoff hero, Starks, as a mere handcuff play. Grant has been at 100 percent for months now and those that draft him may not be able to afford Starks at his current ADP.

TIER THREE: Worth a late-round pick

11. Thomas Jones - ADP 143.7
Starter*: Jamaal Charles
Outlook: The asterisk here is because Jones is technically the "starter" in Kansas City right now. But everyone knows that Charles is the man and the Jones is just the nominal starter in his age-33 season. In fact, Jones isn't even all that exciting as a feature back at this point. He would rack up a ton of carries, but last year's 3.7 yards-per-carry average is a major red flag.

12. Bernard Scott - ADP 164.3
Starter: Cedric Benson
Outlook: The Bengals don't want to give Scott a chance. Yes, he is nicked up a lot and doesn't fit their power running scheme well, but he is by far the best playmaker in their backfield. If Benson gets injured, they will be forced to realize that. Or maybe they will realize it when Benson is plowing into the line for three yards and a cloud of incompetence.

13. Derrick Ward - ADP 181.2
Starter: Arian Foster
Outlook: Ben Tate should be the primary backup here, but he has spent his first two seasons in the trainer's room. That leaves Ward as the handcuff as he enters his age-31 season. The Texans' elite offensive line and zone-blocking scheme make this look like an appetizing situation, but Ward is unlikely to have the job all to himself. Steve Slaton (if he sticks on the roster) along with Tate would also be in the mix.

14. Isaac Redman - ADP N/A
Starter: Rashard Mendenhall
Outlook: Sometimes referred to as Isaac "Red Zone" Redman, the former undrafted free agent is known for his goal-line skills. He has also flashed starter's potential in preseason action for three years running now. Redman won't see much action behind Mendenhall as the Steelers run their starter into the ground, but he would have RB3 status if Mendy was out of the picture.

15. Willis McGahee - ADP 147.0
Starter: Knowshon Moreno
Outlook: We know new coach John Fox loves to emphasize the run and isn't afraid to use both his backs. However, he will quickly find that McGahee is reaching the end of line and will thus make him a mere role player. Only in the event of a Moreno injury would McGahee give fantasy owners something to think about.

It's rare that a backup quarterback is considered a must-handcuff. But this year, Vince Young fits the bill. The high price tag that Michael Vick comes with combined with his injury history is scary. But Vick owners that take Young with their final pick will be protected. While Young wouldn't be the dominator Vick is, he would still hold QB1 value as a starter in the Eagles' explosive offense.

Find Adam Levitan on Twitter.

Adam Levitan is in his seventh season covering football and basketball for Rotoworld. He won the Fantasy Sports Writers Association award for Best Series in 2011 and 2009, and ESPN's overall fantasy football title in 2000. Find him on Twitter.
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