Before reading, feel free to check out my top five handcuffs before free agency and preseason games.
With the looming extinction of the feature back, so goes the fantasy handcuff. As more and more teams going to a multiple-back timeshare, the fantasy handcuff is being replaced with bona fide fantasy starters. The delineation must be made: there is a distinct difference between a handcuff and a timeshare. Guys like Jonathan Stewart, Daniel Thomas, Danny Woodhead, Michael Bush, and Mike Tolbert will be more than backups or third down backs, hence they were left off the ballot.
Who are the best handcuffs right now? Here are my top 5:
5. Bernard Scott, Cincinnati
Scott was in line to take over as the lead back in Cincinnati before Cedric Benson re-signed with the team. Scott is a great fantasy handcuff for several reasons: he is the only viable backup running back on his team, Benson is getting on in age, and there exists a strong possibility that Benson will be suspended for some time this year due to another legal issue. Scott did rate better than Benson +1.7 to +0.9 despite being on the field for just 26% of the snaps that Benson took.
The reasons Scott is not higher on this list? Well, the Cincinnati offense is in for a down season with rookie Andy Dalton at the helm. Scott himself is going on 28 years old, a surprising fact for someone who came into the league only three years ago. Scott’s upside has been well documented among sleeper enthusiasts, but there may be good reason why he has not seen the field more other than Benson being the lead back.
Note: La’Rod Stephens-Howling was very close to winning this spot in the rankings. He is now an excellent handcuff to Beanie Wells, who continues to be unimpressive as the lead back in Arizona.
4. Rashad Jennings, Jacksonville
Maurice Jones-Drew himself realizes that folks are worried about his knee, but he is looking to prove that his surgery will not slow him down. The Jaguars have used Jones-Drew as a workhorse for years – sometimes stubbornly when he was nicked up or worse – but rumors they will try to lessen his workload persist, and where there is smoke there is usually fire. Whether they go against recent history or not, Jennings’ value as a handcuff has a lot of fantasy owners snapping him up relatively early for a handcuff at RB46.
Jennings was on the field for 325 snaps last season, a little less than half of MJD’s 692. His +3.1 rating is not as sparkly as Jones-Drew’s +15.0, but Jennings did average 5.5 YPC, well over MJD’s 4.4 and even Deji Karim’s 4.6 in limited snaps. DaJuan Harris has also impressed this preseason as a rookie. I wrestled with putting Jennings higher up this list – I feel he will put up some big numbers if Jones-Drew goes down – but Karim’s and Harris’ presence on the depth chart is what held Jennings back from a higher handcuff ranking.
3. Toby Gerhart, Minnesota
The man behind the Golden Goose in Minnesota, Toby Gerhart stands alone as Adrian Peterson’s backup. As I pointed out in Kuhn & Friends, Peterson was on the field for 2,130 snaps and carried the ball 961 times over the past three seasons. In today’s NFL, that kind of a pounding takes a major toll on a running back’s body. Could his body break down this year? Possibly. It is likely the Vikings will want to get Gerhart in the game more often to spell AP.
Gerhart improved as the season wore on and he got more touches, and with zero competition as the RB2 on his team, Gerhart sits pretty toward the top of the fantasy handcuff heap. He is a bruiser who only averaged 4.0 YPC last season, though, so take that with a grain of salt. Curiously, he is being drafted at RB67, well after Rashad Jennings (RB46) despite having sole possession of the spot behind Peterson — Lorenzo Booker is also in town, but he is not a serious threat to Gerhart. MJD’s worrisome knee may have something to do with that, but Gerhart can be had cheaply.
2. Kendall Hunter, San Francisco
Indeed Anthony Dixon is already in the fold, but there are reports that Hunter has reportedly leapfrogged the sophomore on the depth chart this preseason. Dixon played very few snaps last season when Gore was healthy, and then Rip Van Brian Westbrook took over as the starter – not exactly an endorsement for Dixon, albeit with the old regime. There have been rumblings that Dixon would play fullback this season as well, which would have made Hunter the de facto RB2 on the team anyway.
As Frank Gore’s backup, Hunter is now a highly valuable handcuff. Contract dispute aside, Gore is returning from another major injury after another season in which the 49ers ran him into the ground – Gore accounted for an absurd 90% of San Francisco’s carries before his injury last season. It is possible they will try to reduce Gore’s workload which means a few more touches for his backup, and there is always the possibility that Gore shows the effects of being overworked and chronically injured – if his production becomes limited, how long before he loses carries? Of course there is the very real possibility that Gore will just get injured again.
1. Javon Ringer, Tennessee
If you drafted Chris Johnson as your top running back, Ringer is a must-have fantasy handcuff. His potential to be the opening day starter alone makes him valuable, and the longer Johnson holds out that scenario becomes more and more of a possibility. Even without the holdout, Ringer is one hit away from being the new CJ2K, though perhaps not as effective with that atrocious offensive line. Rookie Jamie Harper is breathing down Ringer’s neck, having a great preseason while Ringer is sidelined with an injury, but the rookie is unlikely to unseat Ringer as the No. 2 back on the Titans. Incidentally, Harper himself becomes a decent handcuff/sleeper if Johnson does not sign with the team to start the season, though the hype surrounding the rookie might preclude you from drafting him in a properly low spot because another owner may overpay.
Last year, Ringer averaged 4.8 YPC to Johnson’s 4.3, and although his -2.1 rating in less snaps is not great, Johnson’s -1.6 rating was nothing spectacular itself. Even though the ratings are for individual performance, I believe the Titans’ horrific offensive line (-58.2 rush block rating, worst in the league) had something to do with their running backs’. Tennessee needs to sign a good offensive lineman or two if the running game is going to be effective again, but Chris Johnson’s holdout has caused Ringer’s value to skyrocket in recent weeks.
Honorable Mention: Derrick Ward/Ben Tate, La’Rod Stephens-Howling, Jason Snelling, Maurice Morris, and Ricky Williams
Questions and comments are always welcome via Twitter – @PFF_Alex.