Few issues divide the fantasy football community as much as running back handcuffs — 2020 will surely fall into a similar ilk. Is it a great insurance policy, or is it a waste of a roster spot? Should you only target the backup of a player on your roster, or is their value the same no matter who owns the starter?
Starting running back is one of the most vulnerable positions in sports. 99% of your touches will end with a full-speed collision with multiple men larger in size, and there’s a growing opinion that your production can be replaced easily by somebody younger or cheaper.
In a previous article, I made a case for Anthony McFarland Jr. and AJ Dillon as rookie sleepers, and both could be steals later in your fantasy football draft. Still, there are a handful of veteran players who you need to be targeting to handcuff star running backs.
Running Back Handcuffs 2020
Damien Williams – Kansas City Chiefs
The fact that Damien Williams has been dropping in drafts is understandable. The Chiefs made their intentions clear when they used the 32nd overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft on Clyde Edwards-Helaire. The plan is for CEH to be the future at running back, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that he’ll be the bell cow from the very onset.
Rookies are often the players who benefit the most from preseason, and, with COVID-19 limiting contact time, this preseason has been restricted heavily. If Edwards-Helaire needs time to get up to speed, then Williams could get an opportunity to prove his worth.
Injury and inconsistency were the stories of Williams’ 2019 season. However, he still had over 100 scrimmage yards in three of the 11 regular season games that he played in and was a big part of the Chiefs’ Super Bowl run, with 290 scrimmage yards and six touchdowns in three playoff games.
Andy Reid has historically preferred primary backs, but if this situation develops into more of a timeshare than originally thought, whether injury or specific game script, you’d be wise to use a handcuff spot on the less-heralded member of the potential committee.
Alexander Mattison – Minnesota Vikings
Dalvin Cook is clearly the starter in Minnesota — and he should be. He’s one of the best running backs in football, but he hasn’t exactly been the picture of perfect health since arriving in the NFL. Cook has missed 19 games in the three seasons since he was drafted and, while the number of games he’s played has increased every year, he’s still yet to play a full season. 2020 may be a perfect bill of health for Cook, but in a risk-conscious game of fantasy football, the prospects of a handcuff could be too enticing.
Dalvin Cook’s contract is also a question mark. He’s in the last year of his rookie deal. Now, there have been no indications that he intends to hold out, and the assumption at this point is that they work out an extension. But what if they don’t? What if 2019 is Cook’s last year as a member of the Minnesota Vikings, and what if the team needs somebody else to carry the load?
Well, that’s why Alexander Mattison is the perfect running back handcuff. Mattison performed exceptionally well last year as per PFN Offensive Share Metric (OSM) with his 19.73 grade good enough to see him finish 2019 as the RB6. He looked like a player who deserved more opportunities, and if he’s able to get them, then watch out.
Kareem Hunt – Cleveland Browns
Kareem Hunt is the anomaly on this list. When it comes to running back handcuffs, you’re often looking at unproven, inexperienced, or underwhelming players. Hunt’s proven beyond any doubt that he should be a starting running back in the NFL. Hunt exploded on to the scene as a rookie in 2017, finishing the season as the RB3 in standard scoring. He continued in the same vein the following year and was the RB3 in fantasy points per game. Unfortunately, an ugly incident involving assault against a woman cut his season short and led to the Chiefs releasing him.
The Browns decided that Hunt was worth the public relations backlash and, despite an eight-game suspension to begin the season, brought him in to complement Nick Chubb. Hunt ate into Chubb’s usage upon his return and became a useable fantasy running back, despite not seeing the volume that owners would have ideally liked — that situation alone makes him a strong candidate for a handcuff in 2020. Kevin Stefanski comes from an offensive philosophy that leans run more than his contemporary counterparts.
Hunt is now in the last year of his contract, having signed a tender to remain with the Browns for the 2020 season. Some teams will be scared away by his off-field issues, but the Browns will have lessened the backlash for others. If Chubb is healthy, then Hunt may be a low-upside option this year, but he should be an option if you’re left undermanned in a bye week, and you could find yourself with one of the most valuable RBs in the league in 2021 and beyond.
Tony Pollard – Dallas Cowboys
Few running backs find themselves in better positions than those in Dallas — in these situations, all handcuffs have high potential. With one of the top offensive lines in the league, the RB1 has a huge opportunity in 2020. Unfortunately for Pollard, Ezekiel Elliott stands in between him and the starting job. Elliott has been one of the most consistently good running backs in the league and signed a long-term contract extension a year ago.
That said, if Elliott was out of the lineup for any reason, then Pollard would be in an outstanding situation. He showed as a rookie what he could do when given the ball, rushing for over 100 yards in two of the 14 games that he touched the ball, despite playing a limited role. He also exceeded his expected fantasy points (xFP) by 12% in standard scoring.
Tony Pollard proved beyond a doubt that he’s the next man up and looks capable of handling a heavier load if needed, settling in as the perfect running back handcuff for 2020.