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When to Handcuff…and When it Just Handcuffs You!

I’ve heard this type of statement made on draft day dozens of times: “If you get Warrick Dunn, you’d better be sure you get T.J Duckett too”.  When I hear this, three words immediately come to mind…no, No, NO!!!


It’s not that either of these players are bad.  On the contrary, I feel both of them could be effective starters in the right situation.  And don’t think I’m discouraging one from drafting either of them if they happen to be the best value on the board at the time of your pick.  But as a handcuff…contrary to the belief of many, picking up this tandem with the thought that you’re ‘handcuffing’ them is a poor proposition.


To many of you Sharks out there, the term “handcuff” is a familiar term.  But for new players who may wrongly assume that it’s somehow related to a scene from COPS or an R. Kelly video, let me do my best Daniel Webster imitation and define it here:



A strategy in which a key player’s backup is drafted, with the belief that the backup will be a significant fantasy point producer in the event the key player is injured.


Simple, huh?  A handcuff is a sort of an insurance policy.  And in many cases it makes sense.  But only if one can obtain this policy at the right price.


For the purposes of this article, as well as in most fantasy leagues, handcuffing WRs and TEs is largely pointless.  Trying to guess how the replacements will do is tougher than guessing the identity of J-Lo’s next husband.  And never even consider handcuffing kickers or defensive players!  I’m sure you weren’t anyhow.


Handcuffing QBs is usually also pointless…but with a few exceptions.  In large leagues (12+ teams), leagues that require more than one starting QB every week, or in dynasty leagues ,where QBs are often held for several years before they are productive, handcuffing may make sense in some instances.  Also, in cases where a transition of the starter during the year is expected and both QBs can be obtained cheaply, a handcuff may make sense.  The Giants tandem of Kurt Warner and Eli Manning come to mind…if you can pick  them both up cheaply, it may be a good idea to get both.  The assumption behind this whole theory is that the starter each week will be clearly defined, and that only one of them is likely to play in a single game.  This is a close cousin but somewhat different than the “Quarterback by Committee” (QBBC) approach taken by many, in that an injury / suspension needs to occur to make the handcuff viable, while QBBC typically consists of several lower-level starters from which the one with the most favorable matchup is chosen as the starter.


But for the most part, the key position where handcuffing is attempted is at the RB position, and for several reasons.  RBs are pure gold, especially in dynasty and large leagues, and many go hog-wild drafting as many as possible, often passing over players at other positions that are far more likely to be stronger fantasy producers.  What one must remember when handcuffing RBs is that unlike QBs, it is not unusual, and in many situations quite commonplace, for two or more RBs from a single team to get a significant number of touches during any single game.  And thus lies the secret to handcuffing.


So if you want to be the master of the handcuff in this dojo, read the next paragraph, young grasshopper!!


When handcuffing RBs, it’s almost never appropriate to attempt it unless you have a stud RB that’s likely to get almost all of the backfield touches, and when you can get the backup EXTREMELY cheaply…usually in the last round or two of the draft.


Stated in other words: Avoid real-life ‘Running Back By Committee’ situations as a handcuff candiate at all costs!  You’ll overpay for both players, and will almost always get subpar performance from the one of the pair you start.


Rule #1 – Avoid the ‘Reverse Handcuff’

Going back to our Dunn – Duckett example.  Both are good players…like I said, potentially VERY good players under the right circumstances.  But given that both are healthy, neither is a great starting choice, and are both almost guaranteed terrible values for the positions you’ll draft them.  Which of the two do you start on any given week?  Once can guess that Dunn will catch a lot of balls when the Falcons are likely to fall behind, or that Duckett will get a lot of carries when the Falcons are ahead, playing a team with poor interior linemen, or in bad weather.  But with the parity and unpredictability in the NFL today, you’re almost as likely to guess wrong as to guess right.  Pick up either, or both of these guys only if they’re a screamingly good value at their draft position.  Otherwise, save yourself a bottle of Excedrin and stay away…especially if you’re thinking of them as a classic ‘handcuff’ proposition. 


I call a situation like this a ‘reverse handcuff’…in my definition of a handcuff, the primary player has great value when healthy, and the secondary player only obtains value in event of injury to the primary, and is usually worth LESS than the healthy starter.  In a ‘reverse handcuff’ neither player is more than a fringe starter UNLESS one of the two is injured, in which case the healthy player obtains MORE value than the healthy starter had.  Following that?  So if you draft both players in an RBBC situation, you’re reverse-handcuffing.  Reverse handcuffs seem cheap since both players aren’t drafted as highly as a true stud, but are a usually poor deal since both burn a precious roster spot and don’t have much upside unless the other gets hurt.  Don’t do it!


Rule #2 – When buying handcuffs, go cheap!

An example of a handcuff situation that I like to play is in Seattle with Shawn Alexander and Maurice Morris.  Alexander gets the vast majority of touches out of the backfield for the Seahawks every week, and you’ll never have to guess if Morris will ‘vulture’ his numbers.  And if Alexander gets hurt and has to miss a few games, Morris will likely produce good enough Fantasy numbers that you can start him.  And best of all, you can likely get Morris VERY late in the draft…perhaps in the very last round.  Unless the roster size in your league is very large, who else would want him?  He represents a huge upside in the event of an injury to Alexander, which is our true definition of a handcuff, while costing you almost nothing.


Rule #3 – Consider a ‘flexible’ handcuff

The beauty of owning a handcuff that only has value to you is that he can often be dropped for a week or two to fill other needs, with a very good chance that he’ll still be available on the waiver wire when want him again.

For example, say you think you’ve spotted the next Anquan Boldin or Dom Davis on the waiver wire, or you just need an emergency bye-week or injury fill-in.  Don’t be afraid to drop Maurice Morris for a week or two…he’ll probably still be around when things calm down on your squad.  Of course, you can get burned if the guy he’s the handcuff for goes down.  But a successful fantasy season usually involves chances, so if you think the gamble you take is better than the one you don’t…go for it!  In contrast, if you get roped into a ‘reverse handcuff’, don’t expect to pull a stunt like this with T. J. Duckett…the week you drop him, expect to see him in someone elses lineup sooner than later.  In this case…the handcuff handcuffs you!!


Things may change significantly during training camp, but as of this instant, here are some handcuff winners and losers:

Examples of good RB handcuffs:

San Diego: LaDainian Tomlinson – Michael Turner

Cincinnati: Rudi Johnson – Chris Perry

Detroit: Kevin Jones – Artrose Pinner

Indy: Edge James – Dominick Rhodes

Kansas City – Priest Holmes – Larry Johnson

Seattle – Shawn Alexander – Maurice Morris


Examples of poor RB handcuffs:

Buffalo : Travis Henry – Willis McGahee

Chicago: Thomas Jones – Anthony Thomas

Philly:    Brian Westbrook – Correll Buckhalter

Any RB in Denver

Any RB in Tampa Bay


So in summary:

#1 Avoid the reverse handcuff.  Or “If it’s RBBC, no handcuff for me”.

#2 Get the cheapest ‘cuffs you can.  A small investment can pay off BIG if you’re a shrewd drafter.

#3  A cheap ‘cuff gives you roster flexibility…don’t be afraid to use it to crush your competition!!


Happy Drafting!!


Glenn Anderson


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