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.