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Should you handcuff your running backs in fantasy football?

should you handcuff your running back

Fantasy football championships are won through the running back position. Fine. Most of the time it comes down to who gets hot late in the season with luck sprinkled on top. You may already understand the point I am trying to make. Consistently performing running backs will separate your team from others in your leagues. What happens when your running back misses games due to injury? Should you handcuff your running backs? The handcuff, the running back next up on the depth chart, slides into that RB1 category for those games missed.

Handcuffing is done to ensure you have a team’s backfield solidified. You would not need to go to waivers and hope your claim goes through for the running back in line for the RB1 role if the lead back goes down with an injury. The handcuffs are viewed as bench stashes and in some cases may have standalone fantasy value. For example, Ezekiel Elliott is the consensus RB8 and eighth overall player in fantasy football rankings for the 2021 season. Elliott’s handcuff, Tony Pollard, is ranked at RB42 and 120th overall in single quarterback leagues. This means you are using picks in the first and tenth rounds to ensure you have the team’s backfield rostered.

Do we need to handcuff running backs?

Running Backs and Injuries

Looking at the last three seasons, running backs are not getting injured often. But when they do, the handcuff jumps into a week-to-week RB1 conversation. Here is a chart depicting RB1 and RB2’s games missed.

The backs who have finished as RB1’s have only missed eight percent of their games and RB2’s have missed nine percent of their games over the last three seasons. The most games an RB1 missed is five games – Kareem Hunt played 11 games in 2018 finishing as the RB12 on the season. Here are the RB1’s and their games played:

It’s clear: To finish as an RB1 you will need to play more than 69% of games – that is serious, not a joke – 11/16 = 69%. Shoutout Kareem Hunt for the 11 game RB1 season. You get the point. To be a top-performing running back in fantasy football you will need to be on the field producing. This data set provides an opportunity to learn that 86% of RB1’s have played 14 or more games. The only running back to warrant the discussion on handcuffing was Mike Davis in 2020.

Anomalies

With any data set, anomalies will happen. Mike Davis provides the recency bias finishing as an RB1 in 2020 following Christian McCaffrey missing 13 games. Davis is proof that handcuffing running backs can work out. How many people drafted Davis as a handcuff though? Or did we all scoop him up off waivers following McCaffrey’s first injury? In 2020, Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt both finished as an RB1. But do any of us consider Hunt a handcuff? Running backs like James White and Tarik Cohen aren’t technically viewed as handcuffs but both have RB1 seasons. Passing game involvement will boost a running backs fantasy value, specifically in points per receptions (PPR) formats.

Anomalies happen. Do not bet on anomalies.

Discussion

Top-performing fantasy running backs do not need to be handcuffed. Mike Davis is an anomaly because McCaffrey got injured in the second game of the season. Should Davis count as a handcuff who worked out? I do not subscribe to the belief. Bringing back the Elliott and Pollard analogy – you are spending a tenth-round pick to ensure you have the Cowboys backfield. This does not behoove your fantasy football team when players who have higher odds to be fantasy relevant are around Pollard’s 120th ranking:

  • Antonio Brown (119)
  • Jaylen Waddle (127)
  • Henry Ruggs (131)
  • Jalen Reagor (135)

Instead of handcuffing your running back, you should draft another starting running back’s handcuff

I personally do not view handcuffing in fantasy football as a viable strategy. I view it as a wasted roster space – I would rather roster another starting running backs handcuff. There is a difference to this theory. There is an existing longshot for a handcuff to be fantasy relevant. I would rather place my chips on having another starting running back, compared to only having “one” running back between the backfield. My opinion also derives from the zero wide receiver strategy. I value running backs highly in redraft formats. I believe going three straight running backs appeals more from a position scarcity standpoint. I would much rather snag up a wide receiver like Jaylen Waddle over handcuffing a running back in the later rounds.

Remember, not every back up running back should be viewed as a handcuff. Kareem Hunt is not a handcuff when he is able to produce fantasy relevant numbers weekly. A points per reception (PPR) league will pay dividends for a running back like Nyheim Hines who averaged four receptions per game in 2020. This is fantasy football, a game meant to be played for fun. No strategy is right, no strategy is wrong. If you want to increase your chances at winning, consider not taking a handcuff in the later rounds of your fantasy football drafts.

Here is a mock draft I did without caring about a handcuff for my running backs (1QB, 2RB, 3WR, 1TE, 1 Flex):

  • Three running backs in the first three rounds
    • Two rookie running backs in round 8/9
  • Pitts was there in the sixth and I am taking a home run swing & pairing with Everett late
  • If you could not tell, the wide receiver value later is far superior to the running back value later

I could have taken Pollard in round 9 or 10, but instead, I took Sermon and Beasley. Both of these players have higher chances of being fantasy-relevant compared to Pollard. Sure, injuries will happen, but I am not concerned about injuries happening.

Scared money don’t make money.

My guy, Jakob Sanderson, has reasoning for why rostering a handcuff may behoove you. It’s an article tailored to dynasty and not redraft, but the lesson is cross-referenced. It felt right with the Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard analogy I used.

Each running back situation should be addressed individually. Numbers are only half the battle.

 

 

 

 

 

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