Handcuffs – Are They Really Necessary?

Fantasy handcuffs are primarily back-up running backs who are identified as players that would likely take over for the starting running back in the event of an injury. Implicit in this definition is that starting running backs serve as the “feature running back” for their offense and are not involved in a backfield timeshare situation also known as “running back by committee.”

Let’s start our discussion of fantasy handcuffs by first identifying those running backs in the NFL that could be considered feature running backs. For our purposes, a feature running back is one who has at least two-thirds of the total rushing attempts and passing targets of all running backs on a team.

Featured Running Backs - 2012

Running Back
Percentage of
Attempts & Targets
of all Team's RBs
Adrian PetersonVikings163485182
Doug MartinBuccaneers163194982
Alfred MorrisRedskins163351682
LeSean MccoyEagles122006780
BenJarvus Green-EllisBengals152783077
Cedric BensonPackers5711577
Trent RichardsonBrowns152677077
DeMarco MurrayCowboys101614274
Darren McFaddenRaiders122166373
Chris JohnsonTitans162764972
Arian FosterTexans163515868
Marshawn LynchSeahawks163153068
Steven JacksonRams162575367
Ray RiceRavens162578367
Matt ForteBears152486066
Willis McGaheeBroncos101673366

NOTE: For those running backs who played in less than 16 games in 2012, the percentage of rushing attempts and pass targets of all team’s running backs was calculated as the player’s number of rushing attempts and pass targets divided by the total rushing attempts and pass targets by a team’s running backs for only those games in which he played.

The small number of running backs that could be categorized as a feature running back should make team owners sit up and take notice. This is because standard 10-team fantasy football leagues start two running backs every week. Simple math tells us that there were less feature running backs (16) in the league than starting positions (20) in 2012. This explains why running backs typically are drafted in large numbers in the first two rounds of most fantasy drafts. It’s the basic law of supply and demand. It is also important to note that we are not discussing the quality of any running back – just their level of participation in the offense as compared to other running backs on that player’s NFL team.

Based on the table above, there were 16 NFL teams whose #1 running back could be categorized as a feature running back in 2012. However, the trend in the NFL has been for teams to shift to multi-personnel backfields where no one player shoulders the responsibility for the entire rushing game. For those fantasy football team owners who believe that running back handcuffs are necessary as an “insurance policy” against injury to a featured running back, three large assumptions or leaps of faith must be made:

  1. Handcuffs identified during the preseason (when most fantasy football drafts are held) will actually be the players teams use to replace their injured starters should the need arise sometime during the season.
  2. Handcuffs actually step into a feature running back role similar to the one the starting running back held.
  3. Handcuffs perform at or near the same level as the injured feature back (or at least as well as the next best alternative running back at the time handcuffs are drafted.)

Those are very big assumptions. Let’s take a look at each of these a little more closely.

Handcuffs Identified During the Preseason

Anything can happen during a long football season. Situations change week to week. Players thought to be the answer to a team’s woes can easily find themselves on the bench or even on the street if they aren’t performing at expected or needed levels. That is why drafting handcuffs is so risky. Team depth charts change continually based on player development, team needs, evaluation of game performance, injury and attitude. Putting your faith in supposed handcuffs is very risky because it is impossible to foresee whether such players will still be a team’s choice as a replacement should a starting running back be unavailable to play.

As a case in point, one of the biggest surprises in the 2012 season was the situation surrounding the replacement of Willis McGahee when he suffered a season-ending compression fracture in his right leg and a torn right MCL during game 10. Ronnie Hillman replaced McGahee in that game and was the presumed starter going forward.

However, Knowshon Moreno, who hadn’t played since the 2nd game of the season (and poorly at that), was called upon to be the feature back. The reason for this was reported to be that Denver didn’t trust Ronnie Hillman’s ability to protect Peyton Manning in passing situations as much as they trusted Knowshon Moreno.

Moreno made the most of his opportunity and finished the season with 75 fantasy points in eight games. That’s an average of 9.4 fantasy points per game. Even more impressive is that Knowshon Moreno averaged 11.6 fantasy points per game after replacing Willis McGahee. McGahee’s season total, in comparison,  was 89 fantasy points in 10 games for an average of 8.9 points per game. Ronnie Hillman served as back-up to Moreno – the same capacity he had when Willis McGahee was the starter.

Handcuffs Stepping Into a Feature Role

Fantasy football team owners, who believe in drafting handcuffs, also believe that such a player will step right into the roll previously held by the feature running back. This is not always the case. Many times the featured running back is replaced by a committee. Not all handcuffs can take the full-time pounding of a feature back. That’s what happened with the Dallas Cowboys in 2012.

DeMarco Murray was the team’s feature running back until he sprained his left ankle in game 5 . Through the first four games, Murray had 82% of the rushing attempts and pass targets among the team’s running backs. Felix Jones replaced Murray after the injury in game 5 and was presumed to be the feature back going forward. Although he did assume the position of starting running back, he didn’t quite get the same quantity of work that Murray did. DeMarco Murray was out of action for six full games. During that span, Felix Jones had only 63% of the carries and targets among the team’s running backs. Lance Dunbar and Lawrence Vickers took on a larger role to help keep Felix Jones fresh. When DeMarco Murray returned to the line-up, he picked up right where he left off. Over the last five games of the season, Murray had 81% of the rushing attempts and pass targets among the team’s running backs.

Handcuffs Perform As Well As the Featured Running Back

Assuming handcuffs get the same amount of carries as the injured feature back, do handcuffs produce at the same level as primary running backs? The Green Bay Packers would say “no”. They were not very enamoured with the performance of their back-up Alex Green when Cedric Benson suffered a season-ending Lisfranc sprain in his left foot in game 5.

Cedric Benson had carried the rock 71 times and was targeted 15 times in the passing game during the first five games of the season . This accounted for 77% of all Green Bay running back participation. Benson scored 40.5 fantasy points for an average of 8.1 points per game during those five games.

Alex Green replaced Benson during game 5 and then was the feature back in games 6 – 8 until, due to poor performance, he lost his starting job. During these four games, Green had 74 rushing attempts and was targeted 12 times in the passing game. This accounted for 77% of all Green Bay running back participation – the same percentage Cedric Benson experienced. Alex Green scored 28.2 fantasy points for an average of 7.1 points per game.

Although Green scored on average only 1 less point per game than Cedric Benson, the Green Bay coaching staff was not impressed with his performance. Head Coach Mike McCarthy was quoted to say regarding Green after game 7, “I thought we left too many hard yards on the field. There were too many 1-, 2-yard runs that should have been hardball 3-, 4-, 5-yard runs.” Alex Green’s game 7 performance consisted of 20 carries for a unacceptable 35 yards (1.75 yards per carry). Beginning with the next game, the Packers employed various timeshare formats for the remainder of the season with Green, James Starks, DuJuan Harris and Ryan Grant.

Every pick in a fantasy football draft must be used to add scoring consistency to the team. Choosing a player that may never see the field is risky. If a handcuff does not get the starting nod when the need arises, then that owner is stuck with a dead roster spot and is forced to wade into the free agency pool. Identifying the season’s productive handcuffs in August is a difficult task, if not impossible. Team owners would be wise to select known commodities which, at that point in time, are more likely to produce fantasy points for their team.

One final piece of advice:  This may seem obvious, but never draft handcuffs before drafting both starting running backs. Handcuffs don’t see much playing time until the featured back is injured. Make sure the first two running backs drafted are starting running backs on their respective NFL team. Thanks for reading.

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Handcuffs - Are They Really Necessary?

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