Anyone that brushes off the concept of “handcuffing” should talk to a 2011 Darren McFadden owner.
If you drafted McFadden and passed on Michael Bush, your season was crippled. On the flip side, owners that practiced proper handcuffing technique yawned at the starter’s injury and had a nice belly laugh as Bush piled up 1,047 total yards and five touchdowns in nine starts.
However, the art of handcuffing is not as simple as it sounds. Bush was an example of a perfect storm, embodying the three main things we look for in a quality running back handcuff:
A) He’ll be a true feature back in the event of a starter’s injury.
B) He has enough talent to actually do something with that feature back role.
C) His offense is good enough to support a dropoff in talent at the running back position.
With that criteria in mind, you’ll find the most important handcuffs for the 2012 season below. Note that all committees (Buffalo, New England, Washington, New Orleans, Minnesota, Carolina, New Orleans, Cincinnati) are excluded.
Also, bang it here for Part 1 of this series -- Mike Clay’s thorough look at the top-five handcuffs at quarterback, wideout and tight end.
RB TIER ONE: HANDCUFF AT ALL COSTS
1. BEN TATE - ADP 85.8
Starter: Arian Foster
Outlook: Tate would be a starter on at least a third of the NFL’s teams. In the three games that Foster missed last season, Tate averaged 19.6 carries for 98.3 yards with two touchdowns. On the season, he compiled a gaudy 5.4 YPC on 175 totes. And when you factor in the Texans’ road-grating offensive line, no backup fits our handcuff criteria better. The ability to back up Foster with Tate is a big reason the former is appealing as the No. 1 overall pick in fantasy.
Editor’s Note: For constantly updating rankings, projections, exclusive columns, chats and much more, check out the 2012 Draft Guide!
2. MICHAEL BUSH - ADP 93.4
Starter: Matt Forte
Outlook: Bush has a new home this season, but his situation isn’t all that different. He’ll hold some standalone value as a goal-line vulture and would be counted on for a monster role if Forte were to go down. Bush obviously isn’t the receiver that Forte is out of the backfield, but he is no slouch in that department either (28 catches in nine 2011 starts). The Bears wouldn’t have to alter their scheme drastically.
3. RASHAD JENNINGS - ADP 145.2
Starter: Maurice Jones-Drew
Outlook: I delved into the history of holdouts last week. The bottom line is that even if/when Jones-Drew reports, there’s reason for concern. Chris Johnson (ineffectiveness), Larry Johnson (ineffectiveness and then injury) and Jamal Anderson (injury) are all examples of running back holdouts that buried owners. MJD has also racked up an absurd 1,084 touches over the last three years.
As for Jennings, the kid can play. Last year’s knee injury that landed him on IR before the season even started was only a sprain rather than a tear. He was cleared to play football midway through last season. Jennings has been the star of Jaguars camp so far and holds a career 5.4 YPC average. The Jags will lean on Jennings if MJD misses games for holdout or injury.
4. PEYTON HILLIS - ADP 82.4
Starter: Jamaal Charles
Outlook: I was hesitant to put Hillis on a “handcuff list" because I think he’s going to be part of a pretty heavy timeshare with Charles. I know Charles is having a strong camp, but as I outlined here, running backs one year removed from ACL tears don’t do too well. However, Hillis’ ADP is in the range of some other strong handcuffs, so here he sits.
Anyway, the Chiefs are going to be an extremely run-heavy team no matter what. And given the above note about backs off ACL tears, Charles owners should go out of their way to protect themselves. Hillis is just one year removed from a 1,117-yard, 11-touchdowns season and is now playing with one of the game’s premier run-blocking lines.
TIER TWO: HANDCUFFING WOULD BE WISE
5. ISAIAH PEAD - ADP 138.6
Starter: Steven Jackson
Outlook: Pead has been extremely impressive since the Rams drafted him 50th overall in April. Drawing comparisons to the likes of Chris Johnson, Darren Sproles and LeSean McCoy, the Cincy product posted 4.4 speed at the Combine. It’s clear that the Rams don’t just view the 197-pounder as a change-of-pace back though, as they’ve hinted at a feature back future. With Jackson at age 29, Pead is a no-brainer handcuff.
6. DAVID WILSON - ADP 99.5
Starter: Ahmad Bradshaw
Outlook: Don’t be scared of the unknown here. Simply put, the Giants didn’t use a first-round pick on Wilson for the fun of it. They know that he’s a supreme talent and that Bradshaw has had lingering foot/ankle issues for years. Wilson has a ways to go in pass protection, but he’d be explosive if given a chance to start games.
Additionally, there’s some standalone value here. Over the last two years, Brandon Jacobs has averaged 10.7 touches per game. That’s enough for deep-leaguers to take notice of Wilson at the ultra-thin running back spot.
7. JASON SNELLING - ADP 194.7
Starter: Michael Turner
Outlook: The wear on 30-year-old Turner’s tires (1,189 carries over last four seasons) has been well-documented by everyone this offseason, including the Falcons. It’s part of the reason they are shifting to an up-tempo, space-oriented, passing attack. That style fits much better with Snelling’s game than Turner’s anyway. So if the starter went down, Jacquizz Rodgers’ hybrid, change-of-pace role projects to stay the same while Snelling picks up the bulk of the workload.
8. FELIX JONES - ADP 122.9
Starter: DeMarco Murray
Outlook: Jones flubbed his chance to seize feature-back glory last season, getting held under 3.0 YPC in three of his first five starts. A subsequent high-ankle sprain allowed Murray to seize the gig. However, Felix may be more comfortable in a backup role anyway.
When Murray got hurt late in the year, Jones ripped off two straight 100-yard games and caught 16 passes over the final four weeks. He still has explosive home run ability and the Cowboys brought in no real competition for the backup job this offseason.
9. DION LEWIS - ADP N/A
Starter: LeSean McCoy
Outlook: It wasn’t a good offseason for Lewis. The Eagles drafted Bryce Brown in the seventh round and added undrafted free agent Chris Polk. Lewis also lost his kick returner job and got in trouble for pulling a fire alarm at a Hampton Inn in upstate New York. All that led to speculation that he was on the roster bubble and wouldn’t even have the backfield to himself if McCoy went down.
Still, I’m not totally buying Lewis as an inept talent. He has bounced back with a strong start to training camp, even earning praise as the standout star of the first week. He’s reportedly looked faster, more decisive and more confident in his second season. When McCoy sat out Week 17 last year, Lewis rushed 12 times for 58 yards with a touchdown. He’s worth a ‘cuff.
TIER THREE: HANDCUFF, BUT KEEP THE KEY
10. KENDALL HUNTER - ADP 161.8
Starter: Frank Gore
Outlook: Hunter was in a much better handcuff situation last year. It’s not that his talent has declined or Gore has found the fountain of youth -- it’s that the Niners added both Brandon Jacobs and LaMichael James this offseason. Jacobs has been impressing in camp and appears poised to make the team. So if Gore were to go down, Hunter would be leading a committee instead of pushing for 20-plus touches.
11. LEGARRETTE BLOUNT - ADP 112.6
Starter: Doug Martin
Outlook: Martin has predictably been one of training camp’s most buzz-worthy players, assuming every-down work as the starter. That leaves Blount in a battle with seventh-round rookie Michael Smith for backup duties. Blount should be the clear handcuff here, but talent is the question. He got benched last year due to fumbles, a lack of ability in the passing game and being late to meetings.
12. ROBERT TURBIN - ADP 154.7
Starter: Marshawn Lynch
Outlook: I’m as confused as anyone about Lynch’s legal situation. In some instances, commissioner Roger Goodell can hand out suspensions whenever he wants. In others, he waits for the legal process to run its course. All I know is that there’s enough of a suspension risk here for Lynch drafters to roster Turbin.
A 5’10, 222-pound power back out of Utah State, Turbin would handle the bulk of the early-down work if Lynch misses time. Leon Washington would be in the mix as the change-of-pace and third-down back.
TIER FOUR: HANDCUFFING OPTIONAL
13. JAVON RINGER - ADP 172.3
Starter: Chris Johnson
Outlook: There’s no doubt that Ringer is Johnson’s direct backup and would push for a three-down role if called upon. The question here is talent. Ringer averaged a meager 3.1 YPC on 59 totes last year, a sign that he’d just be a weak flex play in a best-case scenario.
14. JOE MCKNIGHT - ADP 172.8
Starter: Shonn Greene
Outlook: McKnight’s struggles in pass protection are an issue. He’s supposed to be the third-down and change-of-pace back, but Bilal Powell is nipping at his heels. Therefore, a Greene injury wouldn’t yield a ton of upside for McKnight. He’d be sharing the load with Powell after averaging a brutal 3.1 YPC last season.
15. RONNIE BROWN - ADP N/A
Starter: Ryan Mathews
Outlook: It’s fair to question how much Brown has left in the tank. He’ll be 31 in December, hasn’t topped 3.7 YPC in either of the last two seasons and showed zero burst while with the Eagles last season. The only good news for him is that Jackie Battle and Curtis Brinkley can’t play either.
16. BERNARD PIERCE - ADP 191.7
Starter: Ray Rice
Outlook: Rice hasn’t missed a game since 2008, racking up 1,069 touches over the last three seasons. Is he due for an injury? Maybe. Does he keep himself in better shape than 99 percent of the league? Certainly.
Therefore, it’s hard to get too excited about Pierce. Even if Rice did break the trend and get injured, Anthony Allen would be in the mix for carries as a power back.