It’s common for fantasy football players to “double down” on running backs in whom they’ve made a significant investment by adding the backup late in drafts or auctions. The term for this practice is called “handcuffing” – having two running backs from the same team on your roster.
The key to executing a proper handcuff is in direct relation to the investment made in the first of the two running backs. The player almost certainly needs to be an RB1. There are exceptions to the rule – the first back can be an RB2 in the event there is a belief that two backs will share playing time.
The rationale is pretty simple – if the top guy gets injured, the “handcuff guy” can step in and closely replicate the production.
These are the top seven handcuff players you should consider.
Kansas City Chiefs RBs Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Ronald Jones
This is something of a wild card because Edwards-Helaire is seen as a low-end RB2 and Jones is coming off boards as a RB4, but we have two players at their career crossroads.
Edwards-Helaire was hailed as a future star when taken in the first round of the 2020 draft, but injuries have limited his production, and he has never emerged as a featured back.
The Chiefs hedged their bets on Edwards-Helaire’s health by signing Jones in free agency. A two-time producer of more than 1,000 total yards in four years in Tampa Bay, Jones will push CEH for playing time. If an injury allows Jones to get the opportunity, he could win the job and keep it – making this handcuff one that can be easily enough done and provides two players fighting for their NFL futures. There’s one caveat here: Watch what rookie Isiah Pacheco does throughout the remainder of the offseason, because he has been running with the second-team offense ahead of Jones at times in camp.
Green Bay Packers RBs Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon
Jones is one of the most versatile running backs in the league – he and Derrick Henry are the only RBs in the league top have 1,000 or more scrimmage yards and 10 or more touchdowns in each of the last three seasons, but the Packers offense is undergoing change.
Dillon, a 247-pound behemoth with surprising speed, led Green Bay in rushing last season with 803 rushing yards – four more than Jones, who missed two games. Dillon proved he could live up to being a second-round draft pick and has set the stage for another one-two punch of contrasting styles.
With the Packers entering 2021 without Davante Adams and Marquez Valdes-Scantling and retaining a pedestrian core of receivers, the pressure may be on for Jones and Dillon to carry a larger load in the offense — giving both of them RB2 value — with Jones likely remaining a late-RB1 given his scoring track record.
Dallas Cowboys RBs Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard
There is no questioning that Elliott is the primary runner in the Cowboys backfield, but Pollard more than made his case as Dallas’ RB2. There is the belief among many surrounding the Cowboys that this will be Elliott’s last season in Dallas unless he drastically restructures his contract. With Pollard entering the final season of his rookie deal, there are going to be a lot of difficult questions that will need to be answered at the end of the season.
Unbeknownst to many, Elliott played much of last season with a torn PCL, and it showed in his numbers. He played all 17 games but barely made it past 1,000 yards. Pollard had about half the number of carries as Elliott (130 to 237), but he averaged 1.3 yards a carry more and often looked like the more explosive back.
Elliott is still the man, but this has become a two-back attack.
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Denver Broncos RBs Javonte Williams and Melvin Gordon
The Broncos couldn’t have had a more identical split between the rookie Williams and the veteran Gordon. Despite being a prolific scorer, Gordon is widely viewed as the No. 2 player in the rotation.
Last season, both players had 203 rushing attempts and each topped 900 rushing yards. Williams had more of an impact as a receiver – 43-316-3 for Williams, 28-213-2 for Gordon – but fantasy scoring was in favor of Gordon. Gordon tallied 10 touchdowns (the fifth time in seven years with double-digit TDs) as opposed to seven for Williams, and Gordon had as many or more rushing attempts in all but three of the games they played together.
Williams is viewed as an RB2 or even fringe No. 1, and Gordon is going as a late RB3 with a projected changing of the guard that didn’t materialize last year. The arrival of Russell Wilson means both backs could become more efficient due to added defensive attention placed on the passing game.
Carolina Panthers RBs Christian McCaffrey and D'Onta Foreman
There is no doubting that McCaffrey is one of the most dangerous offensive weapons in the NFL and is capable of huge things both as a runner and a receiver. However, injuries have devastated his last two seasons – forcing him to miss 23 of the 33 games.
Being mindful of McCaffrey’s potential for missing time, the Panthers went into free agency looking for a possible volume back and tabbed Foreman. In 2021, when Tennessee’s Derrick Henry went down with a foot injury Foreman was brought in. In his final six games, he rushed 111 times for 482 yards and three touchdowns – not exactly Henry numbers, but not a huge drop-off. Foreman still has to overtake Chuba Hubbard, who filled in unevenly for CMC a year ago as a rookie.
At a minimum, Foreman has value as a viable goal-line back and a change of pace for McCaffrey, but if McCaffrey goes down again, the Panthers offense will likely lean on Foreman’s bruising style.
Cleveland Browns RBs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt
Since arriving in the middle of the 2019 season, Hunt has been in fantasy lineups even when Chubb has been healthy. Over the last two seasons, Chubb has missed seven games, so his injuries have forced the hand of fantasy owners to try to grab both. In 26 appearances, Chubb has rushed for 2,326 yards and scored 21 touchdowns – clear RB1 numbers.
In that same time frame, Hunt has made his own fantasy impact. In 2020, he had 198 carries for 861 yards, 38 catches for 304 yards and 11 touchdowns – making it impossible to bench him despite being Cleveland’s RB2. In the first six games of 2021 before going down to injury, Hunt had 361 rushing yards, 20 receptions for 161 yards and five touchdowns – again RB1 numbers.
Chubb is a two-down back, so if there is the chance to get them both, this is the Cadillac of handcuffs.
Minnesota Vikings RBs Dalvin Cook and Alexander Mattison
This is more of a classic handcuff tandem. When Cook is healthy, Mattison sees only a series or two of action because of Cook’s special playmaking ability. But the history is that Cook misses time during a season, and Mattison has shined when seeing full-time role.
Cook is an All-Pro running back, but when he has been sidelined, Minnesota hasn’t missed a beat. In the last five games that Cook has missed, Mattison has rushed 107 times for 451 yards, caught 22 passes for 212 yards and scored five touchdowns.
Because of Cook’s unique skill set, when he’s playing Mattison doesn’t get the opportunities to showcase his talent, but nobody has proved to be a more valuable real-life handcuff when his team needs him as Mattison.