The Obsolescence of Handcuffing

Adam Eastman shows you how the peace of mind sought through handcuffing can negatively affect a team’s ability to maintain an effective lineup.

| 2 years ago

The Obsolescence of Handcuffing

Washington Redskins v San Francisco 49ersHandcuffing is considered an essential tactic in preserving a team’s early round investment in a top running back.

The logic parallels that taken by a hedge fund manager looking to protect against unforeseen market volatility, which in our case is long-term injury. But the peace of mind sought through handcuffing can negatively affect a team’s ability to maintain an effective lineup.

Lets start by examining handcuffs from the 2014 PFF fantasy staff PPR mock draft.

Starter Handcuff Owner
Frank Gore 5.08 (56) Carlos Hyde 8.05 (89) Vincent Frank
Zac Stacy 2.08 (20) Tre Mason 10.08 (116) Ross Miles
Ryan Mathews 4.04 (40) Donald Brown 11.09 (129) Shawn Siegele
LeSean McCoy 1.02 (2)* Darren Sproles 15.02 (170)* Jeff Ratcliffe*
Jamaal Charles 1.01 (1) Knile Davis 16.12 (192) Akshay Anand

*Note: Although technically a handcuff, Jeff Ratcliffe’s selection of Darren Sproles in the fifteenth round was unique. Throughout his career, Sproles has assumed a more complimentary role rather than an every down back. Ratcliffe could start both Sproles and McCoy on a weekly basis due to their mutually independent relationship. This is not a true handcuff and is an entirely different strategy called “stacking”.

The ultimate goal is securing the exclusive rights to a team’s RB1 production. But the cost of acquiring a consensus handcuff is significant. Take for example the 2014 San Diego Chargers.

Playing in all 16 games for the first time in his four-year career, Ryan Mathews finished 2013 7th in rushing yards and the RB12. San Diego responded by signing Donald Brown to a hefty three year, $10.5 million deal including $4 million guaranteed, signaling they didn’t think Mathews had all of a sudden shed his durability concern.

PFF lead writer Shawn Siegele selected Mathews 4.04 (40) and Brown 11.09 (129), giving him the perceived monopoly on Chargers RB1 production. Mathews was carted off the field in Week 2 with what turned out to be an eight-week knee injury, forcing Siegele to deploy his handcuff earlier than preferred. Although Brown got the start the following week, he struggled mightily, logging a dreadful 31-62-0 (5-27-0) performance. In the following weeks as the starter his production continued to regress, until an injury of his own forced him to the sideline during Week 5, leading to Brandon Oliver usurping him as the starter. Oliver went undrafted in virtually all leagues and was a pleasant boost for whoever had priority on the waiver wire.

For Siegele, It wasn’t the Mathews injury that hurt his team’s value as much as it was Brown’s failure as a starter (-6.4 overall PFF rating). In fact, Mathews posted a respectable 11.1PPG (PPR) in his 6 games.

Vincent Frank had the most expensive (8.05) handcuff in Carlos Hyde. While enjoying modest value from Gore (RB17), the investment in Hyde yielded a negative return when you take into account the opportunity cost. Even though Hyde assumed some of Gore’s goal line work, scoring four times, he laid dormant on Frank’s bench as Gore continued to maintain the lion’s share of the 49er’s backfield duties.

The lone handcuff to pay any meaningful dividend was Tre Mason. When Zac Stacy’s fumbling and ineffectiveness led to his demotion during the Rams Week 6 game against the 49ers, it was Mason that took over as the starter. But Mason’s inconsistency deemed him a frustrating play. Apart from his 14-117-2 (3-47-1) Week 13 explosion against the Raiders , he failed to score more than nine points in seven of his 10 remaining starts. Keep in mind; Mason was a handcuff success story.

Perhaps these examples are a bit dramatic. Could handcuffing offer some value if one reduces the investment to a last round pick, or adding the handcuff via waiver wire?

That’s the angle Akshay Anand used when he handcuffed Jamaal Charles (1.01) with Knile Davis (16.12). Similar to Siegele’s situation, Charles went down early in Week 2 and Davis stepped in, but unlike San Diego’s Brown, Davis excelled. He tallied a 22-79-2 (6-26-0) line coming off the bench Week 2 and when replacing Charles as the starter in Week 3, posted 32-132-1. Luckily, Charles only missed that one start and Anand was able to utilize his handcuff, albeit for one week.

A residual effect from Davis’ performance in Charles’ absence was a moderate increase in his involvement in Kansas City’s offense. Even with Charles being fully active, there were four games where Davis produced start-able value as a RB.

Week 4 16-107-0 (1-12-0)

Week 8 16-49-1 1retTD

Week 11 5-10-1 (1-8-0)

Week 15 9-11-1 (1-70-1)

But Anand had no chance of realizing that value in his lineup because Charles was starting.

An owner stands to gain very little by playing both starter and handcuff concurrently. Thus, owners that choose to handcuff reduce the size of their roster by one. Handcuffing lowers the elasticity of a roster relative to the competitors that do not handcuff, allowing them more freedom to make (or not make) roster moves. So while on the surface Anand’s handcuff paid off, his decreased roster size reduced his ability to add (or keep) speculative prospects off the waiver wire.

To demonstrate the aforementioned opportunity cost of investing in a handcuff, I return to the 2014 PFF fantasy staff PPR mock draft and identified some key players drafted around handcuffs Hyde 8.05 (89), Mason 10.08 (116), and Brown 11.09 (129).

Player 2014 RANK
Russell Wilson 12.08 (140) Miles QB3
Tom Brady 8.11 (95) Ratcliffe QB8
Lamar Miller 8.02 (86) Schneier RB9
Jeremy Hill 8.04 (88) Siegele RB10
Mark Ingram 10.12 (120) Anand RB15
Chris Ivory 11.02 (122) Ratcliffe RB19
Jonathan Stewart 10.09 (117) Thorman RB22
Odell Beckham Jr 10.11 (119) Ratcliffe WR5
Emmanuel Sanders 8.01 (85) Clay WR6
Golden Tate 8.10 (94) Jahnke WR13
Kelvin Benjamin 11.12 (132) Clay WR16
Steve Smith 14.02 (158) Schneier WR20
Jordan Mathews 13.08 (152) Frank WR24
Antonio Gates 14.03 (159) Davis TE2
Greg Olsen 8.12 (96) Anand TE4
Martellus Bennett 10.01 (109) Clay TE5
Travis Kelce 15.12 (180) Clay TE8
Delainie Walker 14.07 (163) Soppe TE9


Undrafted players that could have been rostered with a space occupied by a handcuff:

Player 2014 RANK
Justin Forsett RB8
C.J Anderson RB11
Matt Asiata RB16
Brandon Oliver RB31
Denard Robinson RB34
Brandon LaFell WR23
Martavis Bryant WR41
Dwayne Allen TE13


Adding depth during the late rounds and via the waiver wire is paramount to making the playoffs and extending your season. Opportunity cost and the inherent uncertainty that a consensus backup will realize their role should deter owners from investing draft picks or roster spots to handcuffing. Instead, owners that aim to maximize roster diversification and elasticity increase their probability of obtaining starter-level, or even elite-level production for pennies on the dollar.


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