RB Handcuffs: What They Are and Who To Draft in 2023

What are RB handcuffs, and who are the main ones for managers to target in fantasy football drafts ahead of the 2023 NFL season?

RB handcuffs can be a controversial topic among fantasy football managers. The tactic of rostering the running backs that are handcuffs to your starters can bail you out in the event of injury but can also be a significant waste of a roster spot, especially in redraft leagues.

The story in dynasty leagues is a little different because of the larger rosters, but in redraft, pinpointing which handcuffs are worth the investments and which are not is crucial. Let’s briefly recap what RB handcuffs are before getting into which ones we should target in 2023.

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What Are RB Handcuffs?

If you’re a veteran of the fantasy game, you can skip this section. For those of you newer to fantasy football, we want to make sure you understand exactly what you’re reading. Here’s a quick primer on what RB handcuffs are.

An RB handcuff is basically an insurance back. He’s the running back most likely to take over as the starter if the lead back gets hurt.

More specifically, an RB handcuff lacks standalone value. He’s not someone you can realistically insert into fantasy lineups while the starter is healthy and active. His value derives exclusively from his potential should he be elevated to the starter role.

Since RB handcuffs have no real fantasy value by themselves, it’s important to correctly identify who those players are. If we’re going to use valuable roster spots on players we can’t start, we need to know the upside is worth it. For 2023 fantasy football leagues, here are the guys I project as the most valuable handcuffs.

Handcuff RBs To Target in 2023 Fantasy Leagues

Even if you’re not the type of guy who drafts RB handcuffs, in preparing for fantasy drafts in redraft leagues, it’s important to know who the presumptive handcuffs are. I use the word “presumptive” because, historically, we’re not nearly as good at projecting handcuff value as we think.

There are two steps to extracting value from RB handcuffs. First, you need to pinpoint the back on each team that you believe stands to benefit the most should the starter go down. This has become increasingly challenging in modern fantasy football due to the prevalence of multi-man committees.

For example, Tony Pollard wasn’t Ezekiel Elliott’s handcuff entering last season. He was the 1B — a player fantasy managers drafted to start even while Zeke was healthy. Given that Pollard already had standalone value, he would not have qualified as a handcuff, even though he stood to benefit most if Zeke got hurt.

The general rule of thumb is if the player has standalone value, he’s not a handcuff — he’s just someone you draft and start.

Second, you need to project what percentage of the starter’s production the handcuff is likely to provide. Sometimes, there just isn’t a clear handcuff. We saw this last year with the Titans. When Derrick Henry missed a game, the team used multiple backs, and none of them were worth starting.

For an example of a clear handcuff, the best one is Alexander Mattison. Over the past three years, Mattison had been a true handcuff to Dalvin Cook. He was the purest form of handcuff in that he had no standalone value but quite literally took over 100% of Cook’s workload when Cook didn’t play. If the back you are considering is not in that position, they’re often not worth the value they assume in drafts.

The tough handcuffs to judge are ones with standalone value — the ones that aren’t true handcuffs as described above. For example, AJ Dillon is Aaron Jones’ handcuff, but his standalone value is so high that drafting both is a significant investment. Dillon would undoubtedly see increased volume if Jones got hurt, but Dillon isn’t a true handcuff because he’s someone you can start even when Jones is healthy.

Now that you have a better understanding of the type of players we’re looking for, let’s take a look at which backs are the clear handcuffs for fantasy managers to consider in redraft leagues in 2023.

Devin Singletary | Houston Texans

Not every handcuff is going to match the criteria laid out above perfectly. Devin Singletary is a prime example of that.

We should feel supremely confident that Singletary is Dameon Pierce’s primary backup. However, there’s certainly a scenario where Singletary sees more work than a pure backup. I believe Pierce to be the better player, but it would be far from a shock if Singletary handled 6-8 carries a game, as well as passing-down duties from the jump.

Last season, Pierce saw a 73.8% opportunity share. While the clear starter, Singletary is a much more formidable backup than anyone on the Texans’ roster in 2022. Singletary could push Pierce’s workload down to the 60% range.

If Pierce were to get hurt, Singletary would be the primary beneficiary. He’s also someone with a proven track record. In Buffalo, Singletary had multiple games with over an 80% snap share.

We can certainly question the value of a backup RB on the Texans, but Singletary is very high on this list because we have a high degree of confidence that he’s the RB to roster behind Pierce and in what his workload would look like if Pierce were to miss time.

Jaylen Warren | Pittsburgh Steelers

The Steelers’ backfield, according to ADP, is as straightforward as it gets. Najee Harris is the starter; Jaylen Warren is the backup.

Last season, Warren did show more standalone value than your typical pure handcuff, but he was still nothing more than an RB4, at best, while Harris is healthy. Last season, Warren averaged just 5.8 PPR fantasy points per game.

rb handcuffs

Given the nature of the Steelers’ depth chart, there is no one credible outside of Harris and Warren. Therefore, if Harris were to go down, we could project Warren to be a three-down back and take around 90% of Harris’ work. The thing is, not only do I think Warren is the clear beneficiary, I think he could be a better fantasy asset than Harris.

Harris is entering this third season and wasn’t particularly effective last year. There’s certainly a chance Warren can take on more work regardless of Harris’ health.

Warren averaged 4.9 yards per carry last season and 3.82 yards created per touch, fifth in the league. He could produce in Harris’ stead or simply command more volume because he’s just good at football, making him one of the top handcuffs for 2023.

Tyler Allgeier | Atlanta Falcons

There’s an argument to be made that Tyler Allgeier is the most valuable handcuff this season. Allgeier played well enough to be a starter last season, running for over 1,000 yards as a Day 3 rookie. Averaging 4.9 yards per carry, Allgeier’s 5.2 yards per touch were inside the top 20, and his 28.8% evaded tackles per touch rate was top 15. He did not deserve to get Chester Taylor’d by Bijan Robinson.

Of course, the Falcons spent the eighth overall pick on Robinson, a true three-down back. Atlanta runs enough where Allgeier may still see 6-8 touches a game, but make no mistake about it, this is Robinson’s backfield. Allgeier is just the backup.

The good thing about Allgeier’s handcuff status is we don’t really need to project how he might do. We have proof of concept. He did last year. We know he can be a lead back and a fantasy RB2.

If Robinson were to go down, Allgeier undoubtedly wouldn’t be as valuable as him. But he would certainly be a weekly fantasy starter, making him very much worth drafting as your fantasy team’s RB4.

Elijah Mitchell | San Francisco 49ers

Allow me to preface this by saying the 49ers’ backup RB often changes, usually due to injury. However, for as long as Elijah Mitchell is healthy, he’s the handcuff to Christian McCaffrey.

In fact, Mitchell is even more interesting because there’s a pretty good chance he will have some standalone value. He’ll certainly have weeks where McCaffrey fantasy managers are frustrated he was the one to bust off a big run or steal a touchdown (or both). Yet, surprisingly, he’s not really being drafted as a guy who is anything more than a pure backup.

The thing is, Mitchell actually averaged 9.75 carries per game — 9.9 points per game — in his four games with McCaffrey. Those are RB3 numbers. In my leagues, I would sign up for 9.9 ppg from my final offensive starter right now.

And if McCaffrey were to get hurt, well, we’ve already seen what that looks like. In 2021, as the starter, Mitchell averaged 15 ppg and finished as the RB14. He’s someone I’m very interested in drafting in 2023.

Maybe RB Handcuffs, But Also Maybe Not

Let’s quickly rattle through some other backup running backs who would benefit from the starter going down but are unlikely to avoid a timeshare.

Gus Edwards | Baltimore Ravens

Gus Edwards is more of a 1B to J.K. Dobbins’ 1A, but he would stand to benefit the most if Dobbins went down.

Joshua Kelley | Los Angeles Chargers

If Austin Ekeler got hurt, someone would benefit. Right now, it appears as if the guy is Joshua Kelley, but this is a very uncertain handcuff situation.

Malik Davis | Dallas Cowboys

I would be surprised if the Cowboys went into the season with Malik Davis as their clear RB2 and only viable option behind Pollard.

But as things stand, Davis would project to see over a 50% snap share if Pollard got hurt. Deuce Vaughn might be involved as well, but he’s just so small. I cannot envision him ever handling more than a couple of touches a game.

Zach Charbonnet | Seattle Seahawks

To be fair, there’s a non-zero chance Zach Charbonnet is just a better fantasy asset than Kenneth Walker III. But he’s not being valued that way.

Walker remains the preferred option amongst fantasy gamers, but if he were to get hurt, Charbonnet is confidently the guy who would benefit. The reason he’s not a pure handcuff, though, is because he likely has standalone value.

Tank Bigsby | Jacksonville Jaguars

The Jaguars selected Tank Bigsby in the third round of this year’s draft. That’s not insignificant draft capital. With a 15.3% college target share, Bigsby could open the season as the Jaguars’ passing-down back, especially in light of Travis Etienne Jr. not being a great receiver (Urban Meyer fooled us all). If Etienne were to get hurt, Bigsby is the most likely to benefit.

How To Value RB Handcuffs in Dynasty Leagues

In redraft leagues, not every running back handcuff is rostered, nor should they be. The key difference in dynasty leagues is every RB handcuff is on a roster, and in most cases, so is the third-string back. Given the depth of rosters in most dynasty leagues, managers cannot rely on the waiver wire to fix in-season RB issues.

In dynasty leagues, it’s far more worth it to handcuff your own running backs, especially in situations where you feel good about who the backup is and how well he would produce in the starting role.

In redraft formats, you might not want to burn two roster spots on what is essentially one player, but dynasty leagues have 25+ roster spots. The opportunity cost of using multiple roster spots on one player is greatly reduced.

Every season, there are anywhere from 3-7 RB handcuffs that we know will be immensely valuable if they end up with the starter’s job. We know if the starter goes down, they’re the beneficiaries. If you roster any of the starters for those teams, it’s worth it to also take the handcuff.

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