Mike Clay

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Running Back Handcuff Rankings

Saturday, August 02, 2014


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 will 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 flier

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 (and thus the assumption made in each capsule) 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. Carlos Hyde – 49ers

Kendall Hunter is out for the season, LaMichael James will miss a month, and Marcus Lattimore’s 2014 prospects remain up in the air. That leaves Hyde, a second-round pick in May, as 31-year-old Frank Gore’s primary handcuff. Hyde would be looking at 20-plus touches per game. With little competition for snaps, he’d immediately join the RB1 conversation.

2. Christine Michael – Seahawks

A second-round pick last year, Michael is the favorite for lead back duties in the event that Marshawn Lynch is unavailable. Robert Turbin will certainly be involved, but Michael is the better talent. Looking at a healthy workload in one of the league’s run-heaviest offense, Michael would be a strong RB2 option.

3. Knile Davis – Chiefs

Last season, Jamaal Charles handled just under 22 touches per game. He was easily the most-utilized tailback in the league. With Alex Smith at the controls and little depth at the position, not much would change if Davis were called on to start. He’d surely cede some targets and a few carries to De’Anthony Thomas and Anthony Sherman, but Davis would have a pretty clear path to a massive role in a decent offense. He has the talent to produce borderline RB1 numbers.

4. Bernard Pierce – Ravens

Pierce struggled badly last season, but he gets a boost here because starter Ray Rice is already suspended for the first two weeks of the season. That puts Pierce, who is still only 23 years old, in position to lead the Baltimore backfield early in the season. Not only would Pierce make for a competent RB2 option when asked to start, he actually has a real opportunity to take control of his team’s No. 1 job, which isn’t something most backs on this list can say.

5. Ka'Deem Carey – Bears

Some draft pundits argued in favor of Carey as the best back in the 2014 rookie class. He’s being overlooked now, however, despite landing in an excellent position. Matt Forte was a workhorse for Chicago last season and is closing in on age-29. Carey is a bit raw at 21, but is one injury away from a feature back role in a good offense. Carey’s competition for snaps will come from Michael Ford and Shaun Draughn. Carey would be a borderline RB1.

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6. Terrance West – Browns

West may win Cleveland’s lead back gig outright, but, at least for now, he’s considered Tate’s primary backup. Of course, if Tate goes down, West would be expected to handle of bulk of the tailback snaps in an offense that will try to run the ball. A combination of Isaiah Crowell, Dion Lewis, and Edwin Baker would steal touches, but that wouldn’t limit West’s fantasy appeal much.

7. James Starks – Packers

Starks’ 5.5 yards per carry mark was one of the best in the league last year. He enters 2014 as Eddie Lacy’s primary handcuff. DuJuan Harris and John Kuhn would be involved, as well, but Starks is clearly the best back behind Lacy. The Packers’ high-scoring offense would put Starks in the RB2 conversation.

8. Jeremy Hill – Bengals

I wanted to rank Hill higher on this list, but BenJarvus Green-Ellis remains on the roster and, although it seems to make sense that he’d be cut loose, it’s not a sure thing. If Gio Bernard were to go down, Green-Ellis would form a committee that would limit Hill to RB2 production. Of course, if Green-Ellis were to be cut loose, Hill’s competition would be Cedric Peerman and Rex Burkhead. The lead back in a run-heavy offense, the latter scenario would put Hill in the RB1 mix.

9. Ahmad Bradshaw – Colts

With Vick Ballard done for the year with a torn Achilles, Bradshaw slots in as Trent Richardson’s primary handcuff. Bradshaw is now 28, but is a great blocker and competent runner. Richardson has been dreadful running the ball during his first two seasons, and figures to get a quick hook if he continues to hold back the emerging Indianapolis offense. Bradshaw wouldn’t be a RB1, but, as the lead back, he’d play enough to put up Top 20 numbers. Dan Herron won’t offer much competition.

10. Devonta Freeman – Falcons

Steven Jackson just turned 31, but he’s still a pretty competent three-down back and is in position to lead the Atlanta backfield this season. If he fades or misses time, Freeman, a fourth-round pick in May, is the favorite to take over. Of course, it’s unlikely Freeman would take on a workhorse role with Jacquizz Rodgers in the picture. Rodgers isn’t a very good runner, but is one of the best as a receiver. He’d surely steal snaps on passing downs. Antone Smith showed flashes in 2013 and would be sprinkled in, as well.

11. Chris Polk – Eagles

LeSean McCoy is one of the league’s busiest backs, so it’s no surprise that his void would be filled by a committee. Polk is technically third on the Eagles depth chart, but he’d easily lead the team in carries, with Darren Sproles (also worth RB2 consideration), doing additional damage on passing downs. Matthew Tucker is the only other competition here.

12. LeGarrette Blount – Steelers

For a guy that stands at 6’0/250, Blount is a pretty explosive back. If asked to start in Pittsburgh, he’d see a massive chunk of the carries, including all goal line work. Blount doesn’t offer much as a receiver, however, and would turn those duties over to explosive rookie Dri Archer. With only Alvester Alexander and Miguel Maysonet on his heels, Blount will be in position to produce RB2 numbers.

13. David Wilson – Giants

Wilson’s recent injury scares have made it easy to forget that he was a highly-regarded prospect when he entered the league via the first round of the 2012 draft. Only 23, he’s expected to start the year behind Rashad Jennings, but Wilson has RB1 upside. If called on to start, he’d be a Top 20 option with a very high ceiling.

14. Knowshon Moreno – Dolphins

Moreno was busy (and a fantasy stud) as Denver’s primary back last season, but now needs an injury to Lamar Miller in order to warrant consideration for fantasy starting lineups. Of course, we know he can handle three downs and goal line work. There’d be some sharing with one or two of Daniel Thomas, Mike Gillislee, and Damien Williams, but Moreno would be the lead back.

15. Tre Mason – Rams

No one seems to have a firm grasp on Mason’s 2014 role, but those with a clue are aware that he’s not even a lock for No. 2 duties behind Zac Stacy. Incumbent No. 2 back Benny Cunningham remains in the picture. Should Stacy go down, Mason, a third-round pick in May, would be the correct add, but it’s important to remember that he’s not even 21 yet and needs work as a blocker. Cunningham would be busy, limiting Mason’s ceiling a bit. Isaiah Pead is also in the picture.

16. Donald Brown – Chargers

Brown was exceptional on 129 touches last season, averaging 5.3 yards per carry while dominating when called upon at the goal line. A capable three-down back, he heads to San Diego where he’ll back up both Ryan Mathews and Danny Woodhead. Brown figures to lead the backfield in touches should Mathews miss time, but Woodhead would be busy as a receiver. If it’s Woodhead who goes down, Brown would enter the RB3/Flex conversation in PPR leagues. This is both a quality and run-first offense, but Brown is this low because he’d need two injuries in order to take on a workhorse role.

The Rest –

17. Khiry Robinson – Saints – The team’s affection for a committee attack limits all backs involved in the offense.

18. Shonn Greene – Titans – Greene’s ceiling is limited by a near-complete lack of involvement as a receiver.

19. Charles Sims – Buccaneers – Mike James and Bobby Rainey would be plenty involved.

20. Bryce Brown – Bills – Intriguing because the Bills are so run-heavy, but needs 2 injuries in order to approach 18-20 touches.

21. Roy Helu – Redskins – Lache Seastrunk would eat up early-down carries, but Helu is an underrated talent and plenty involved on passing downs.

22. Lance Dunbar – Cowboys – Wouldn’t be a feature back, but targets would be massive. Ryan Williams and Joe Randle aren’t very threatening.

23. James White – Patriots – See #17

24. Jonathan Stewart – Panthers – Oodles of talent, but would share with Mike Tolbert, Kenjon Barner, and Cam Newton. Goal line carries would be extremely low.

25. Chris Ivory – Jets – Like 2013, we’d see a full-on committee with Bilal Powell. Ivory is a very good runner, but does close to nothing as a receiver.

26. C.J. Anderson – Broncos – Monitor his camp progress. Would be a lot higher if he had a firm grasp on the gig, or, better yet, a roster spot.

27. Theo Riddick – Lions – Not a feature back, but would see plenty of passing-down work.

28. Jerick McKinnon – Vikings – Matt Asiata would steal a lot of carries, but McKinnon has the big-play ability. He’s the add.

29. Andre Brown – Texans – Alfred Blue and Dennis Johnson would force a committee.

30. Latavius Murray – Raiders – Needs both Maurice Jones-Drew and Darren McFadden to go down.

31. Jordan Todman – Jaguars – Denard Robinson and intriguing rookie Storm Johnson would be in the mix. Tiny frame will cost him goal line work.

32. Stepfan Taylor – Cardinals – Jonathan Dwyer would join in to form an underwhelming committee. Taylor gets a slight edge.



Mike Clay is a football writer for Rotoworld.com and the Founder/Managing Editor of Pro Football Focus Fantasy. He can be found on Twitter @MikeClayNFL.
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