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To Cuff or Not to Cuff

Among the many unending fantasy football debates, the one I find myself switching sides on more than a politician caucusing is the great handcuff debate. Okay the debate might not be that great, but it is necessary.

Do you grab a player’s backup, otherwise known as his “handcuff,” or do you use the roster space for another player?

The first things to address are league type and roster size. In a league with short benches there is no room for handcuffs. In a best-ball league, especially leagues like MFL10s where there are no waivers, handcuffing makes a ton of sense.

The next question is for whom are you grabbing that handcuff? Except in rare cases, usually in dynasty, the position that you look to handcuff is the running back position. Yes, you might want to grab Ladarius Green if you own Antonio Gates (especially in best-ball leagues) or grab backup quarterbacks in a deep superflex or a two-quarterback league, but other positions generally do not lend themselves to the practice. For this article I will focus on running backs.

For years when I played, the answer was generally yes, you should grab your handcuff. In more recent years, with the addition of running back by committee (RBBC) by NFL teams and fluidity in the league (I am looking at you Mike Shanahan and Bill Belichick), the answer is generally no. In fact, more often than not, you end up grabbing other people’s handcuffs instead of your own or one player from a convoluted backfield based on preference.

I have an extraordinarily high injury rate among my players (I like to call it the Cabot Cove Curse) so I always need to plan for contingencies and inevitably work the wire. One season, I went through nine quarterbacks on one team and ended up starting Joey Harrington by the end of the season … true story. Because of this I have always needed a plan; some have been more successful than others. I handcuff if I can.

What factors should you be weighing?

You need to consider the starters, the backup and the offense they are playing on.

I will let the fantasy doctors debate the term ‘injury prone,’ but when you look at a player do they have character issues or a history of injuries? How many games played do they average per season? Not sure? Hate math? If you do, use MyFantasyLeague.com. Just click on a player’s name, then you can select either of the last two years to see their game-by-game production. You can also see if they missed any games, or whether they played injured, how often, and look at their stats for those games (Keep in mind the Belichick factor).

(Shameless plug) You can also pull the player up on FantasySharks. Not only can you see current news, fantasy analysis and game logs, you can also see their career stats which will show starts per season. Just for fun look up Kenny Britt. Did you do it? I like to call that “why I don’t draft Kenny Britt.” In his defense, he did play a full season last year.

Finding a clear backup worth grabbing is tough in most cases. Benches are often muddled. The clear backup in Week 1 might not be by Week 3 depending on a variety of factors. Buying into a muddled backfield only makes sense if you have the room and need, and should be avoided if possible.

Owning multiple players in chaotic backfields will actually lower your chances for success. If the coaches can’t figure out who is starting, how are you going to? Grabbing an entire backfield is counterproductive. Those are roster spots that could go to a young player in a dynasty league or to a flyer in a redraft. Owning the Atlanta backfield would have resulted in more headaches than points last year. If a backfield is truly a mess or up in the air, grab the guy you like late and hope he hits.

When you handcuff, you are essentially trying to lock up one roster spot for the season, and you don’t want to use more than two spots to do it. Can you determine a true handcuff? Is there a two person fight to start? In those cases, it may make sense.

Every Jamaal Charles owner who drafted Knile Davis as insurance was happy they did it last year (I was, see above paragraph on injuries on my teams). On the other hand, trying to deal with the Minnesota backfield last year was like playing Three Card Monte. Grabbing Davis makes sense – he may not be heir apparent to Charles but he is definitely the starter if Charles goes down and possibly the best handcuff there is.

Another situation where it may make sense to handcuff is in Miami with Lamar Miller and Jay Ajayi. No one else is grabbing attention in the backfield right now. You can fill your RB2 or flex spot with them. The biggest danger would be a timeshare but in this case it is worth the risk.

Jonathan Stewart is a great late-round grab but you need to keep an eye on that backfield. If you look at Stewart’s last three years they have not been a picture of health. I don’t think Fozzy Whittaker and Jordan Todman are worth a roster spot unless you are in an insanely deep league but if Cameron Artis-Payne can make some strides in camp and preseason, he might be worth stashing at the end of your bench. I already have him on a couple of my teams.

An interesting case would be Jeremy Hill and Gio Bernard. In a points per reception league they can both be producers (with Hill clearly the top pick). The price on both of them is really high, but right now they are the only clear tandem where you can start both and get RB1/RB2 from one and flex from the other.

I have grabbed Todd Gurley/Tre Mason in MFL10s a few times. The combination may work but the price is too high in most cases. You are missing out on quality wide receivers and running backs there (and this is coming from someone who is trying to make zero-wide receiver a thing).

The offense and the coaches are an important factor to consider. Ask this question, is the coach Belichick? Yes? Good luck with that. They might be injured … he might just be joshing. Will they play? Will the hot dog guy start? Your guess is as good as mine? Any person who has ever owned a Shanahan running back has at some point found themselves screaming his name dramatically in Captain Kirk-worthy manner.

Is the coach the type that likes a bellcow back? Or, if he uses multiple backs, can he get production out of them? Have they used the term “hot hand?” In the case of the first one you should look to see if there is a potential handcuff, in the case of the latter either avoid the situation or grab one flyer from the backfield you like. In a two-back system it comes down to value.

In a zero-running back world it still makes sense to back up your players if you can. That is one roster spot you don’t have to fret over, and with the exception of Mason and Bernard, many handcuffs are going late enough to make it worthwhile.

About Lisa London

I suffer from an undying obsession with fantasy football. Former Lee Evans owner, I am not proud. Admitting you have a problem is the first step, I would get to the second one but I have lineups to set. Follow me on Twitter @leedoglaw