When scanning through some of the age old creeds of the fantasy community I often find myself thinking, "We can do better." I get it. There are certain ideas we've held dear for years, such is true in many walks of life. It's easier to default to the standards of tradition than to accept the winds of change.
However, just as in any field of study, those of us in the fantasy community must be willing to challenge our assumptions when information and data demand it. One such analysis that needs an overhaul is how we think about the long-held concepts of the "handcuff."
For years, fantasy analysts recommended that you take an insurance policy on your top running backs by selecting their backup before you leave your fantasy draft. There's an "it's just what you have to do" tone to it. But should it be such a naturally assumed requirement?
Prior to the 2015 season, I noted that recent examples of handcuffing just didn't support the idea as a useful strategy. After what was an apocalyptic year for the running back position where injuries flew in like locusts, many are wondering if the best policy is to insure their early running back picks by taking the starter's backup. On a surface level, yes, many running backs came in and produced in the wake of an established starter's injury. However, a fine look at some of the situations from last year still invites doubt.
Running back handcuffs in 2015
In last year's study, we referenced JJ Zachariason's work with running backs busts from the 2010 to 2014 season. In Zachariason's findings, nine of the 60 backs from the sample busted at least partially due to injury.
It didn't get much better for the running back position in 2015. Seven running backs went in the first round, according to Fantasy Football Calculator's ADP, and you can argue that Adrian Peterson was the only one of them not to bust last year. Peterson was the only one to finish inside the top-12 running backs by season's end. Jeremy Hill was the next highest at RB14 in standard leagues, but had only five RB1 weeks and eight where he scored outside the top-24.
C.J. Anderson and Eddie Lacy both finished outside the top-14 running backs, but neither missed significant time. Anderson struggled playing through a toe injury early in the season, which caused a split backfield with Ronnie Hillman before he led the charge down the stretch. Lacy was out of shape and just played poorly last season.
The last three all lost major time with injuries, as Jamaal Charles, Marshawn Lynch, and Le'Veon Bell missed a combined 30 games (Bell lost two to suspension). All three not only speak to the fragility of the running back position but also provide us with examples to update our study from last year. Because the running back position was such a nightmare last year, we're going to expand the sample in 2015 beyond just top-10 overall picks to include the first 15 backs drafted last year. That brings three backs and their missed games into the equation, in LeSean McCoy (4), Justin Forsett (6) and Mark Ingram (4).
GMs indicates the number of games the starter missed. AVG FPs are the average 12-team standard fantasy points scored in games the starter did not play. Carry % is the percentage of the team's carries the running back handled in games the starter missed.
At first blush, it appears handcuffs paid off far bigger dividends in 2015 than in the previous five seasons. Five of the six primary backups saw at least 45 percent of the team's rush attempts in the games the starting running back missed. All six of the primary replacements averaged north of 10 fantasy points per game when the starter was out. Thomas Rawls, DeAngelo Williams, and Tim Hightower put up league-winning per game averages once they assumed the starting role.
The RB12 in points per game last season scored 10.9 fantasy points per contest (among backs who played at least 10 games). So, essentially you got RB1 value out of five of these six primary handcuffs when they started.
With that being said, in the majority of cases you still should not handcuff your running backs in your fantasy draft. Don't let the hindsight bias of 2015 cloud your judgment.
The biggest issue with handcuffing running backs is just how little we actually know about who will get playing time. We set up three criteria for assessing handcuff situations last year, those being talent, clarity, and standalone value. Clarity still appears to be the one we lack any real knowledge of.
Even though a ton of backup running backs mattered in fantasy football last year, for the most part, it wasn't any of the ones we expected. Of the six primary and six secondary running backs on the handcuff chart for 2015, only three were among the 61 running backs drafted in 12-team leagues according to Fantasy Football Calculator's ADP. Two of them need major caveats. Christine Michael was a thirteenth-round pick on average last year because he was theoretically in a competition to be Dallas' starting running back. He didn't become handcuff relevant until getting cut by the Cowboys and returning to Seattle after Thomas Rawls went down. C.J. Spiller, the least productive of any back on the chart, was a sixth-round pick on average, so far from a handcuff.
The only true example of a handcuff we saw coming was DeAngelo Williams with the Steelers, who went off the board in the 11th round on average, right in handcuff territory. We did have the extra benefit of knowing he would play the first two weeks with Le'Veon Bell suspended, which may have boosted his ADP up just a tad. However, Williams is the perfect example of a handcuff situation working out for fantasy owners, reminding us that it can happen. He was a skilled back with a pedigree and was the clear No. 2 in a high-powered offense.
Short-sighted fantasy managers might cite the Chiefs backfield as a situation where handcuffs worked out. However, neither Charcandrick West or Spencer Ware was on the radar at draft time last season. Knile Davis, on the other hand, was a 10th-round pick. That's a perfect example of the kind of whiff that often comes out of chasing potential handcuffs.
Additionally, even though West finished with a strong points-per-game average, he slumped down the stretch. He finished as a weekly RB1 just once from Week 11 on, and finished as a weekly RB3 or worse in every other game he played. West was eventually outplayed by and lost his high-value role to Spencer Ware. All reports out of Kansas City this offseason hold that Ware took that job for good and is now the primary backup to Jamaal Charles. That's quietly another reminder of why burning two draft picks into one backfield isn't a great idea; you're now exposing more openings for the fragility of the running back position. Not only can a player lose their role for no reason of their own performance like West, they could suffer an injury like Thomas Rawls did during his absolute tear through the league. Being left holding the bag after one RB1 goes down is bad enough, exposing yourself to blowing two picks on essentially one player is a nightmare.
When can you handcuff a running back?
When the three critical factors of talent, clarity, and standalone value come together in harmony, taking on your RB1's backup is suggested. Spencer Ware in Kansas City might be the best example of that. We know after watching him barrel through defenders with tremendous power that he's a good player. He's entrenched as the No. 2 behind Charles, and he might even have some standalone value as a potential red zone power back. If you're getting back into bed with Charles as an RB1, Ware might be the NFL's best handcuff right now.
Other than that, it's hard to find many other instances of all three factors coming together for RB1 handcuffs this year. Alfred Morris is a good player behind Ezekiel Elliott, but Darren McFadden is still there (for now) sapping away any clarity and neither projects for standalone value when Elliott is healthy. DeAngelo Williams was the NFL's premier handcuff, but his ADP ballooned to the fifth round after Bell's suspension made its way into the media. If you're taking a running back in the single-digit rounds he is not a handcuff. Period. Karlos Williams ate his way out of handcuff consideration behind LeSean McCoy leaving an unclear jumble behind the veteran back in Buffalo. There's a chance Christine Michael, James Starks, and Jerrick McKinnon cannibalize some value as standalone assets behind their starters. If you're drafting any backups that actually qualify as handcuffs, it's one of those three.
In addition to not liking the idea of using a pick on what amounts to a hedge on an early-round selection, the most objectionable aspect of handcuffing is that you are unlikely to be able to hold a roster spot for them through the bye weeks. In addition to injuries, the bye week gauntlet opens up the need for roster spots to take on depth to fill in during the weeks your starters are out. That's not to mention how unreasonable it is to hold on to a useless backup running back burning a spot on your bench during the first few waiver runs of the season. More often than not, those once-coveted handcuffs get dropped by antsy fantasy owners who need either depth or want to chase this year's Dion Lewis, Tyrod Taylor or Allen Hurns off waivers.
Rather than draft a backup running back in a potentially ambiguous situation, wait until the stretch run to start insuring your starting running backs. Owners who read the No. 2 situations in Baltimore and New Orleans correctly benefitted from league-winning weeks by Allen and Hightower in the fantasy playoffs. They had to spend exactly zero draft capital to secure those beefy performances.
Create an insurance policy for your fantasy starters at the most volatile position when it matters most. Even in the most apocalyptic season for running backs imaginable, we were reminded the optimal "it matters most" time is late in the season through the waiver wire, not in August during your fantasy drafts. Handcuffs are an antiquated concept in fantasy football that exist in the community on borrowed time.