RB handcuffs who could win your fantasy football league in 2021


While injuries can be one of the most dreaded aspects of fantasy football when analyzing a running back, it comes as a necessary evil to evaluate who the best handcuffs will be this season.

What is a running back handcuff? The best way to describe a handcuff would be the next man up. Should one of the elite running backs, or simply a team’s RB1 go down with an injury, this running back would assume the lead-back role. 

A key distinction that needs to be made ahead of this article is that handcuffs are not necessarily the same as backfield committees. Teams like San Francisco, who are expected to deploy a multi-back approach with Trey Sermon and Raheem Mostert, already have individual backs that hold enough standalone value where they shed the title of “handcuff.”

So, who are the most valuable handcuffs in 2021?

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Tony Pollard has RB1 upside

While there is a large amount of hype around this Dallas Cowboys offense now that Dak Prescott is back under center, there have been enough injury concerns throughout the entire offense to warrant looking deeper into that potential.

Ezekiel Elliott has been as close to an iron man over the past three seasons as you can get, playing at least 15 games in all three while recording at least 300 carries in two of those three seasons. Should the unfortunate happen and Elliott is forced to miss time, the Cowboys can rest easy knowing they have a capable backup on their hands.

Through his first 31 games in the NFL, Tony Pollard has averaged 4.8 yards per carry, 7.0 yards per reception and flashed his upside in Week 15 with Elliott out last season. In that game against the Niners, Pollard posted 18 touches (12 rushes, 6 receptions), 132 total yards, and two touchdowns. At his current consensus ADP of 119.31 (RB41), Elliott owners can draft Pollard knowing they have RB1 upside as a backup in case their star running back goes down.

Alexander Mattison can take advantage of more snaps

Similar to Pollard, Alexander Mattison doesn’t provide an immense amount of standalone value, but he’s proven to have a respectable amount of upside in a scenario where Dalvin Cook is out.

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While Mattison only has 28 career games under his belt and only two without Cook, the above split (from the FTN Fantasy splits tool) shows how reliable he’s been in those two games. Averaging 15.5 carries for 60.5 yards and adding two catches for 27 yards per game in addition to averaging a touchdown per game is some phenomenal production that you could stumble into from a player at the back end of your draft.

Can Derrick Henry repeat 2020?

The answer to this question has historically been no, as Derrick Henry became only the eighth player in NFL history to amass at least 2,000 rushing yards in a single season (2,027). None of the previous seven repeated this.

One angle to take on his historic season, however, is the toll that it could have taken on his body. None of the previous seven players was able to top 1,500 yards in the previous season, and given the workload that Henry has received (300-plus carries in back-to-back seasons), there’s a chance his body wears down. If this becomes the case, Darrynton Evans becomes an elite handcuff in an offensive system that ran the ball (50.28% of plays) more than all but two teams in 2020.

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How healthy is Christian McCaffrey?

The answer seems to be “completely,” but after 13 missed games with an assortment of injuries, it feels wise to take conservative measures and invest in Christian McCaffrey’s backup, Chuba Hubbard.

While Hubbard comes into the 2021 season as a rookie without an NFL track record, but he flashed his game-breaking upside when he ripped off a 59-yard run in the first preseason game, finishing with 80 yards and a reception. While not the same player that Mike Davis is, he could be in line for a massive workload should McCaffrey miss time if last season is any indication. In 12 games without McCaffrey last season, Davis averaged over 18 touches, 75 yards and 0.67 touchdowns per game.

A.J. Dillon is an elite handcuff

The departure of Jamaal Williams has opened up a path for Aaron Jones to assume a larger role on third downs, but it’s also opened the door for A.J. Dillon to establish himself as a standalone value and an elite handcuff. Aside from the barreling 240-pound frame, Dillion is running behind Brett Whitefield’s fourth-ranked offensive line, producing the fourth-most yards before contact per carry (1.92) in 2020.

The confirmation that Aaron Rodgers is returning also bodes well for the stock of Dillon, as the Packers should operate with a lot of positive game script in 2020 while continuing to be a presence in the red zone.

Latavius Murray has RB2 upside, even with Alvin Kamara healthy

We’ve seen this before and it doesn’t change ahead of 2021. In fact, Latavius Murray’s value may be even higher in 2021, as the Saints are going to be desperate for any type of offensive production they can get with Michael Thomas out and Murray can provide that on the ground.

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While we’ve only seen two games over the last two seasons sans Alvin Kamara, Murray has averaged 110.5 rushing yards and 43 receiving yards on over 25 touches per game while averaging two touchdowns per game over that span.

The other noteworthy part of this split is the fact that he’s still averaged over 45 yards per game and a touchdown every five games with Kamara active. He has standalone RB3 value with RB2 upside, but that upside quickly translates to RB1 upside if Kamara is forced to miss time.

Gus Edwards has standalone value

The standalone value is clear, as Hus Edwards finished as an RB3 or better in nine of the last 11 games in 2020 and has proven to have the ability to run through a wall, trailing Derrick Henry by only 0.6 yards per carry against eight-man boxes:

In addition to success against eight-man boxes, Edwards had more goal-line carries (10) than J.K. Dobbins (9) and his 26 red-zone carries trailed Dobbins by only two.

Given these trends, he clearly has enough going for him to maintain standalone RB3 value with RB2 weeks sprinkled in. If Dobbins goes down, however, we could see Edwards rise to RB1 status despite the presence of Lamar Jackson.

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