Injuries are inevitable in the NFL, and there’s a high probability you’re going to be down a running back or two during the fantasy football season. Of course, we’re hoping bona fide studs like Christian McCaffrey and Nick Chubb stay healthy and play in all 17 regular season contests, but chances are, most RB1s will miss time recovering from various ailments. By fielding a deep RB corps that’s complete with some key backups and handcuffs, your roster has an insurance policy in place to still compete when a starting RB inevitably goes down.
Having a feel for how a team utilizes their RBs, whether it’s by relying on a true bell cow who plays all three downs (Saquon Barkley, Josh Jacobs) or utilizing a committee with no true “RB1” (Bears, Dolphins), needs to be factored into your handcuffing approach. All it takes is one snap, be it in the preseason or in Week 8, to completely alter how a team divvies up their backfield duties.
Take last season’s absences of Jonathan Taylor (played in just 11 games) and Ezekiel Elliott (missed Weeks 8 and 10) as prime examples of the value of handcuffing. When Taylor missed the Colts’ Week 6 tilt with an ankle injury, handcuff Deon Jackson finished as the overall RB1 in PPR leagues, scoring 28.1 points while playing over two-thirds of the Colts’ offensive snaps.
In the two games Elliott missed with a knee injury, Tony Pollard was the overall PPR RB3 in terms of his per-game output, scoring an average of 27.8 points. While Pollard was drafted in virtually every league, Jackson was an unknown commodity who sat on the waiver wire. It’s never a good feeling to lose a bona fide RB1 to injury, but by having his replacement as an insurance policy, the drop-off between the two might not be as significant as you initially think.
It’s always good to back up your top one or two RBs, but you can draft a handcuff even if you don’t own the starter. You could very well select Tyler Allgeier and Samaje Perine even if you didn’t end up selecting Bijan Robinson or Javonte Williams. It makes sense to target high-upside RBs that will see increased snap percentages if their teams’ RB1 gets hurt. Not only do they serve as bench depth or even potential trade bait, but they also could garner standalone flex value, especially once the bye weeks roll around.
We’ll routinely update this handcuff chart throughout the season, doing our best to stay on top of each team’s RB depth chart. It’s worth knowing that some “handcuffs” won’t see a significant fluctuation in their usage if the starter in front of them gets injured. Running backs like Jerick McKinnon could get a few extra carries, but his role as the Chiefs’ primary receiving back might not change much if Isiah Pacheco gets hurt. Conversely, someone like Jaylen Warren immediately becomes a must-have, every-week starter if Najee Harris gets hurt.
Obviously, some handcuffs present more value than others, and understanding how a team might utilize its RBs can help with the handcuffs you target. Monitoring teams’ RB usage during the preseason is key, as you can gauge the pecking order of teams’ RB rooms. Continue to monitor injury situations and snap counts each week, making sure you’re ready to pounce once a depth chart change occurs.
Fantasy RB Handcuff Depth Chart 2023
K. Mitchell/M. Gordon
L. Murray/D. Harris
Pierre Strong Jr.
S. Perine/J. McLaughlin
Z. Knight/C. Reynolds
Green Bay Packers
Travis Etienne Jr.
Kansas City Chiefs
Las Vegas Raiders
A. Abdullah/B. Bolden
Los Angeles Chargers1
Los Angeles Rams
R. Mostert/D. Achane
New England Patriots
New Orleans Saints3
Tony Jones Jr.
New York Giants
New York Jets
D. Cook/B. Hall
Anthony McFarland Jr.
San Francisco 49ers4
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Brian Robinson Jr.
Chris Rodriguez Jr.
1 = Chargers’ starter Austin Ekeler (ankle) is out until at least Week 6. He’ll return to a starting role when healthy.
2 = Dolphins’ committee back Jeff Wilson Jr. (midsection, finger) is out until at least Week 6. He’ll likely return to a backup role when healthy.
3 = Saints’ backup Jamaal Williams (hamstring) is out until at least Week 7. He’ll likely return to the primary backup role when healthy.
4 = 49ers’ backup Elijah Mitchell (knee) will be out until at least Week 6. He will be the primary handcuff when healthy.