Fantasy Football

Fantasy Football Handcuff Strategy: Bewares of Rookies and COVID


The Fantasy Football Running Back handcuff strategy has evolved more than just about any other Fantasy Football aspect over the past 15-20 years. It is directly correlated to the disappearance of a vast amount of three-down, bell-cow backs.

Because so many teams use multiple backs frequently, there really are not that many true “handcuffs” or backup running backs that would automatically become starters due to injury.

Running back platoons, a term I coined a few years back, became prevalent in the last ten years. That basically means that you can start multiple backs in the same backfield on your Fantasy Football team. The spike in passing, especially efficient passing, caused more running backs to be Fantasy relevant in PPR leagues.

2020 is bringing us to a crossroads at the running back position, specifically with handcuff strategy. The 2020 NFL Draft brought a deep class of running backs into the league, many finding landing spots that might have an immediate opportunity.

While I might disagree on how much opportunity and the overall ceiling of these rookie running backs, they are still a wrench in your handcuff strategy. With this article I’m going to group every backfield by the type of handcuff strategy I think fits.

The COVID Impact

The uncertainty of 2020 carries over to the handcuff strategy as well. With the recent news that there will be no preseason games after losing all of the hands-on offseason workouts, it will be tougher than ever to read muddy situations.

With the possibility that your best player can miss up to three weeks because of a positive COVID test, your handcuff strategy is more important than ever. You HAVE to be ready for a last-minute replacement should your starter test positive.

However, you also have to discount rookies this season. Without a full offseason/training camp/preseason, these guys just are not getting the same amount of preparation. So keep these factors in mind for your handcuff strategy

Fantasy Football Handcuff Strategy

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Stay Aways

These backfields are messy as far as touches and I am not wasting draft capital on them.
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San Francisco: Raheem Mostert, Tevin Coleman, Jerick McKinnon, Jeff Wilson

Mostert seemed like a rising star after his dominant playoff run, but now he’s asking for a trade. I think it’s the ultimate “hot-hand” backfield and their draft prices are too high for that.

Washington: Derrius Guice, Adrian Peterson, Antonio Gibson, Peyton Barber, J.D. McKissic, Bryce Love

Guice is coming off multiple major injuries. AP is in season thirteen. Gibson is more of a receiving back. Half of these guys probably won’t make the roster. Oh, and the team is going to suck. Pass.

Pittsburgh: James Conner, Jaylen Samuels, Benny Snell, Anthony McFarland Jr.

I’ve been out on Conner for two years now and I will continue that fade. Samuels has been the backup, but now Mike Tomlin is hyping Snell. They also spent a decently high pick on McFarland.

Miami: Jordan Howard, Matt Breida, Patrick Laird

There is a chance that Howard becomes a league winner. If Tua starts early and turns the offense around with Howard getting the majority of the touches out of the backfield he could come close to RB1 territory. I just don’t see that happening, nor do I see any handcuff potential.

Good Starters, No Clear Backup

All of these situations would lead to a good handcuff option; the problem is the option is unclear.
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Todd Gurley, Atlanta: Brian Hill, Ito Smith

Both Hill and Smith have been waiver-wire pickups the past couple of years when Devonta Freeman was injured. Neither one showed that they can replicate the starter’s production.

Melvin Gordon, Denver: Philip Lindsay, Royce Freeman

Honestly, this one is closer to the previous category. I just have no idea how the touches will be distributed at this point.

Chris Carson, Seattle: Rashaad Penny, Carlos Hyde, Deejay Dallas

Penny will probably start the year on the PUP list then Carlos Hyde and Deejay Dallas will have limited time with the new team. Whoever the starter ends up being will be worth it if Carson is not healthy, however, it could be any one of the three.

Leonard Fournette, Jacksonville: Chris Thompson, Ryquell Armstead

Thompson might provide value on his own, but he can never stay healthy. Armstead had his shot for a game or two and wasn’t able to get it done.
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Josh Jacobs, Las Vegas: Jalen Richard, Lynn Bowden Jr.

Both Bowden and Richard are third-down kind of backs. If Jacobs was to go down, I’m not sure his replacement is on the roster right now.

Austin Ekeler, Los Angeles Chargers: Justin Jackson, Joshua Kelley

Ekeler showed that he can handle the full workload when Melvin Gordon was out last season (26.5 PPR points per game without Gordon). Justin Jackson has shown that he cannot fill in to potential, so who would know whether he or the rookie Kelley would get the starting nod.

Aaron Jones, Green Bay: Jamaal Williams, A.J. Dillon

This was an easy one last year, but the Packers decided they needed another running back. I think Dillon is pretty unremarkable, but the team must like him enough to spend that much draft capital on him.

Clear Platoons

These backfields provide two productive Fantasy Football assets on a normal basis.
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Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, Cleveland

Once Hunt played in Week 9, both of the backs were RB2’s (RB15 and RB23 respectively) through the end of the season. Kevin Stefanski brings one of the most run-heavy mindsets in the whole league to Cleveland this year. Both of these guys are weekly starters for you together, if one were to go down then the other becomes elite.

David Montgomery and Tarik Cohen, Chicago

While neither Bear lived up to their draft stock last season, they finished respectably in the mid-’20s at the position in PPR. I also think that was the absolute floor for their production with how stagnant Trubisky had the whole Chicago offense. With Foles in town, the entire offense will be on the field more, scoring more, etc., leading to more touches for both backs.

Sony Michel and James White, New England

Both Patriots’ backs were fringe RB2’s last season in half-point per reception leagues. They will probably be in that range again, but provide you decent floors for production. Michel is one of only nine backs with at least 912 yards rushing the past two seasons. White is one of only 14 players (and the ONLY running back) with at least 56 catches in four straight seasons.

Rookie Running Back Roulette

All of these teams had an incumbent, productive running back then drafted a rookie at the position relatively early in the NFL Draft. Could they be platoons? Maybe. I would say you should try to draft them as platoons just to corner the market in the backfield.
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Damien Williams (ADP: 83) and Clyde Edwards-Helaire (ADP: 30), Kansas City

CEH is the most over-hyped of the rookie class. I mean I get it: first-round pick, versatile, great offense, etc. But at the same time, Williams was absolutely amazing at the end of last season. He had nine touchdowns, averaged 107.2 scrimmage yards and 3.6 receptions per game over the last five outings. That’s over 25 PPR points per game. He will not be discarded.

Personally, I’m just snagging Williams at his discounted ADP. If you just have to have CEH, you better take Williams a little early to be sure and get both.

Marlon Mack (ADP: 87), Jonathan Taylor (ADP: 53) and Nyheim Hines (ADP: 174), Indianapolis

This is the trickiest of the Rookie Roulette backfields. Hines has carved a space as the pass-catching back, which neither Mack nor Taylor has shown the capacity to handle. Taylor’s ADP is a little too juiced too, but some people truly believe he will take over and Mack will be left in the dust.

Once again, I am not one of those believers. I could see this as a total hot-hand backfield. If you do want Taylor, just as in the case of CEH, make sure to scoop Mack up a few rounds later.

Mark Ingram (ADP: 45) and J.K. Dobbins (ADP: 107)

I have a feeling this will turn into a Platoon with both backs being productive this year. Lamar Jackson is going to run less. There are 191 carries and 22 targets that went to Gus Edwards and Justice Hill last year. I think almost all of those go-to Dobbins.

Ingram is older but has less tread on the tires due to always being in a timeshare. But still, at 30-years old, an injury is a strong possibility. If it is for an extended time, Dobbins becomes a league-winner.

Devin Singletary (ADP: 47) and Zack Moss (ADP: 152), Buffalo

The early word out of Buffalo is that Moss is sliding right into Frank Gore’s role from last season. That amounts to about ten carries and a target per game. That’s probably not enough to make him relevant with Singletary still pulling thirteen carries and three targets per game. If Singletary goes down though, Moss has the upside to turn into a high-end RB2. He is definitely worth the current price tag, especially if you draft Singletary first.
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Cam Akers (ADP: 74), Darrell Henderson (ADP: 103) and Malcolm Brown (ADP: 237), Los Angeles Rams

Akers is the only rookie back that will probably end up on my rosters. Henderson and Brown do not inspire confidence that they can take a job and run with it. Akers has the clearest path to getting the starting job.

With the current price tags on all three of these guys, they are a Zero-RB’s dream. You can easily pull all three of them and get the starter in what should be a bounce-back prolific offense.

D’Andre Swift (ADP: 71) and Kerryon Johnson (ADP: 92), Detroit

In the current industry mindset of jumping on the flavor of the week rookie to be first, everyone seems to have forgotten how highly rated Kerryon was just a year ago. On a crappy team, with a bad offensive line and time with a backup quarterback, Johnson averaged 13.23 PPR points per game if he got at least 11 carries. That would have been a high-end RB2 over a whole season.

If these ADPs were flipped, I would say that Swift is a great handcuff for Johnson. However, at their current price tags I am letting people reach on Swift while taking the starter, Johnson, almost three rounds later.

Ronald Jones (ADP:  94) and Ke’Shawn Vaughn (ADP: 97), Tampa Bay

I am team RoJo all day in Tampa. I’ve made that known previously, considering he is younger than the rookie Vaughn. This is not really a handcuff situation either, since it would be tough to roster both players, so you really have to just pick your poison.

No One to Cuff

These two elite backs just have no one behind them so no clear handcuff strategy.
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Christian McCaffrey, Carolina and Saquon Barkley, New York Giants

The top two backs in Fantasy Football are special talents. The guys behind them are not. While I get that you want to have the backup to your top-two pick, I’m not sure they would even be starter-worthy.

When Barkley was out last season, the lead back didn’t cross 50 yards rushing in games that weren’t against the terrible Redskins. McCaffrey has never missed a game, but his backups are Reggie Bonnafon, Jordan Scarlett and Mike Davis. None of them can provide the versatility that CMC gives the Panthers. Both situations would turn into RBBC’s that aren’t worth your start. Instead of wasting a spot on one of these useless backups, go grab another elite back’s handcuff that would be worth it.

True Handcuffs: RB2 Division

These guys are the clear handcuffs to own, but their ceiling is a little lower.
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Kenyan Drake (ADP: 22) and Chase Edmonds (ADP: 173), Arizona

Edmonds showed us last year what he can do when given the full workload: 35 PPR points in his one start. Obviously that wouldn’t be a weekly output, but Edmonds would definitely be in the RB2 range if Drake goes down. He is a must-own for Drake drafters.

Miles Sanders (ADP: 21) and Boston Scott (ADP: 166), Philadelphia

Scott is very similar to Edmonds: under-sized speedster that has shown his ability when given the opportunity. In two games with at least ten carries, Scott scored 18.8 and 35.8 PPR points. Sanders has yet to show  that he can handle a full workload, so make sure you grab Scott later in the draft.

David Johnson (ADP: 49) and Duke Johnson (ADP: 151), Houston

No one is really sure how the Texans will utilize David Johnson. You would think as a full-workhorse, three-down back if you are going to trade one of the best five receivers in the league for him. If that’s the case, then Duke Johnson is a valuable handcuff to own. David Johnson has also shown a penchant for injuries in recent history. Even if he doesn’t go down, there’s a chance that Duke provides value in PPR leagues.

Le’Veon Bell (ADP: 39) and Frank Gore (ADP: 294), N.Y. Jets

The ageless Frank Gore is still kicking, although I think he will get his lowest workload every behind Bell. Bell had an enormous workload last season and should get it again this year with the money they are paying him. Gore is worth the roster spot in deeper leagues though for those Bell drafters.

True Handcuffs: RB1 Division

These handcuffs are so valuable that you should draft them at their ADP if you don’t own the starter, and maybe reach a round if you do have the starter.
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Joe Mixon (ADP: 10) and Giovani Bernard (ADP: 244), Cincinnati

Bernard is on the older end of the running back spectrum, turning 29 years old this season. However, he also has had a light workload like Ingram, always playing in a timeshare. His workload has gradually decreased with Mixon becoming a bell-cow back, so his standalone appeal is lowered.

However, he has shown throughout his career that his versatility makes him dangerous if he gets a high touch game script. I think this Bengals’ offense will be explosive and whoever is getting reps at RB is worth starting. I’ll be snagging Bernard in my deep bench leagues.

Derrick Henry (ADP: 6) and Darrynton Evans (ADP: 233), Tennessee

Evans gets bumped up from the rookie roulette for a couple of reasons. First, Henry has had such a heavy workload over the last year and a half that odds are in favor that he misses some time this season. The other reason is that the Titans have given Henry such a high workload the past couple of seasons.

So if there is a high possibility that the starter misses time and the coaching staff loves giving one back the heavy workload then that is the makeup of a great handcuff.

Ezekiel Elliott (ADP: 3) and Tony Pollard (ADP: 134), Dallas

Pollard is explosive and has averaged almost 15 PPR points per game that he gets at least 14 touches. While the touches won’t be there weekly with Zeke around, he might have the highest ceiling of any handcuff because of his skill level and situation.

With that said, Zeke has already had COVID once and has somehow remained completely healthy through four seasons. Pollard is a must-own for Zeke drafters and should be targeted by everyone else as well.

Alvin Kamara (ADP: 4) and Latavius Murray (ADP: 114), New Orleans

In the two games that Kamara missed last season, Murray put up 32 and 36.7 PPR Fantasy Points, rushing for over 100 yards, catching at least five passes and scoring multiple touchdowns in both games. “Is that something you might be interested in?”

Sean Payton has always gone with two running backs. However, whenever one of the backs is down, he loads up on the other. We saw it with Kamara when Ingram was suspended and definitely with Murray last season. Kamara struggled with nagging injuries all season, and if that happens again then Latavius has high-end RB1 all over him.

Dalvin Cook (ADP: 7) and Alexander Mattison (ADP: 112), Minnesota

This is the trickiest handcuff strategy to decipher. Cook is already threatening to hold out, so you HAVE to draft Mattison if you go with Cook. The ADP is even misleading, so you have to really reach on him.

The situation seems great for the handcuff. However, Mattison had several games with at least twelve carries. He failed to score evem twelve PPR Fantasy Points in any of them. Mike Boone is also still there, who could end up splitting time should Cook hold out.

My suggestion: stay away in redraft. If Cook really falls out of the first round or something then reassess. To me, at their current price tags there are just too many unknowns at too high of a cost.

Visit the F6P Fantasy Football page for more advice, including all 32 Fantasy Football Team Previews to get you prepared for the 2020 season

About Michael Tomlin

Michael Tomlin is an ESPY-nominated, former college football player who stays associated with the game through Fantasy Sports. He has been writing his personal blog,, for three years and it focuses on Fantasy Sports, as well as handicapping. He was born and raised in the DFW Metroplex, and he follows all of the Dallas teams, along with Texas Tech athletics and Manchester City F.C.

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