Protect your fantasy football investments. Now.
While I've often said on these pages that running back handcuffs -- defined as the backups most likely to step in for starters sidelined because of unforeseen circumstances and who could produce similarly to said starters -- tend to be overrated in the preseason, I'm not of the belief that they are entirely without value. There's a time for a handcuff-driven strategy, and that time is now.
Eight of the 32 teams, or one-quarter, still have their bye weeks ahead of them, but that means we're approaching the end of bye-week season. Outside of your players with Week 11 or 12 byes, you're about to regain your entire fantasy roster, no longer needing to free up bench spots for bye-week rentals. Once those byes pass, your roster -- your bench, in particular -- needs a shift in focus to three types of assets: Final-weeks upside plays, players who block your competition (we'll get to those in a future column) and handcuffs/running back insurance.
The fantasy football playoffs are three weeks away, and there's no more devastating time to lose your starter than in the midst of your playoff matchups (especially true if your league locks add/drops during the fantasy postseason). Unfortunately, recent history shows that running backs are no less susceptible to injury during said playoffs (Weeks 14-17) than they are at any other time of year, and in fact might be more so, considering the wear and tear of the 16-game season.
From 2014 to 2018, 11 of the 50 running backs who comprised the top 10 in PPR scoring at the position during the first 10 weeks of those seasons failed to lead their own teams in scoring during the seven weeks that followed. Those same 50 running backs also combined to miss 65 games during that seven-week span.
So as you begin to free up bench spots exiting the bye weeks, make sure to roster the backup to each of your workhorse running backs. That doesn't mean that every backup warrants a handcuff, nor does every team use "backups" in this fashion. Still, it's wise to have both the starter and his backup rostered.
Listed below are the top handcuffs at this midseason stage. Note that players like Latavius Murray, Kareem Hunt, Jamaal Williams and Jaylen Samuels, all of whom are rostered in too high a percentage of ESPN leagues and/or have already shown their ability as fill-ins to injured starters, are excluded from the list. But if any of them remains available in your league, naturally he'd soar to the front of the list. The players below, however, are all out there in at least three-quarters of ESPN leagues, and most of them are available in greater than 90%.
Alexander Mattison, Vikings (to Dalvin Cook): The most important handcuff to roster, Mattison serves as Cook's clear next-in-line to start for an offense that, under new coordinator Kevin Stefanski and adviser Gary Kubiak, has shifted dramatically to an outside zone-blocking scheme, which puts an emphasis on its running back. The Vikings have averaged a third-best-in-the-league 32.6 rushing attempts per game, and Cook and Mattison have nearly identical 4.9-yards-per-carry averages, as well as 0.77 and 0.54 fantasy-points-per-carry averages, respectively, with much of that difference in fantasy production the product of Cook's 10 goal-line carries (Mattison has one). There's little doubt that Mattison, if pressed into starting duty behind the formerly injury-prone Cook, would take on a similarly sized role and have comparable fantasy production. Best yet: Mattison remains available in nearly 80% of ESPN leagues.
Reggie Bonnafon, Panthers (to Christian McCaffrey): McCaffrey might be a better player than Cook, but his handcuff, Bonnafon, is slightly less essential because he has neither McCaffrey's skills nor role. Bonnafon did show his mettle with a four-carries-for-75-yards-and-a-score performance as a fill-in for McCaffrey in Week 5, but if pressed into regular duty, he might serve in a committee arrangement along with Mike Davis, Jordan Scarlett and perhaps practice-squad rookie Elijah Holyfield, and he wouldn't fit the "centerpiece of the offense" label McCaffrey enjoys in taking pressure off rookie quarterback Kyle Allen. Make no mistake: There'd be a drop-off in production, though that's to be expected when the starter leads the league with 272.5 PPR fantasy points. That the starter does lead the league, though, heightens the need to roster his handcuff.
Malcolm Brown, Rams (to Todd Gurley II): Gurley's injury history heightens the need for a handcuff, as he was surrounded by questions about an arthritic knee throughout the offseason after missing Weeks 16 and 17 of 2018 with the ailment, and he missed Week 6 of this year with a bruised thigh. Brown has struggled with injuries of his own this season, but he's healthy now and has been the Rams' most effective fill-in, particularly in an 11-carries-for-53-yards-and-two-scores performance in Week 1.
Ryquell Armstead, Jaguars (to Leonard Fournette): Fournette has averaged the sixth-most rushing attempts per game (19.3), so there's a clear volume angle here. Armstead, who managed 42 yards on eight carries in relief of Fournette in a brief Week 4 look, is the clear No. 2 on the depth chart who should slide right in as a 15-plus-carry weekly back if needed. Remember: Fournette has an injury history, having missed three games in 2017 and eight last season.
Tony Pollard, Cowboys (to Ezekiel Elliott): Remember when he was shaping up as a Week 1 starter, with Elliott's holdout likely to extend into the 2019 regular season? Elliott's return mere days before the kickoff caused many fantasy managers to shed Pollard from their rosters, but Pollard did dominate (granted, in garbage time) with 13 carries for 103 yards and a score in Week 3 relief, and he has more yards per carry (4.4) and yards after contact per carry (2.5) than Elliott (4.6 and 1.9). Pollard might take on more passing-down duty than Elliott if the starter gets hurt, and he's one of the most talented backups in the game. It helps that the Cowboys' offensive line is one of the best.
Wayne Gallman, Giants (to Saquon Barkley): A concussion sidelined Gallman for Week 6 and limited his playing time in the two games that bookended it, and I'm not convinced he'd be a capable regular NFL starter if pressed into duty. That said, he showed he could be the kind of serviceable dual-threat back who could absorb Barkley's full role when he caught six of seven targets and ran for 63 yards and a touchdown in Week 4.
Justice Hill, Ravens (to Mark Ingram II): Call this one a hunch if you wish, considering Gus Edwards has more rushing attempts (63-24) and Hill has yet to break off a 20-yard run. Still, in the event of an Ingram injury, I think Hill's agility and explosiveness, coupled with his pass-catching ability, would thrust him into the forefront, with Edwards remaining in the change-of-pace role. The Ravens are as run-heavy an offense as there is, averaging 35.8 carries per game as a team (second most), and they sport one of the best offensive lines in the NFL.
Darrel Williams, Chiefs (to Damien Williams/LeSean McCoy): The Chiefs have a bit of a committee look going on in the backfield, but they did just healthy-scratch McCoy in Week 10, making it look like a Damien Williams-McCoy-Darrel Williams one-two-three pecking order. That McCoy scratch should serve as a reminder of his advanced age (31) and need for workload management, and Damien Williams did miss a pair of games earlier this year due to a knee injury. Darrel Williams totaled 75 yards and a score on 17 carries in Damien Williams' absence those weeks, and the healthy return of quarterback Patrick Mahomes restores much of the Chiefs' backfield appeal. All three running backs should remain on your roster.