Carlos Hyde could bust out in 2015. Or maybe he gets hurt and Reggie Bush goes nuts. Latavius Murray is set to be one of the top breakout running backs in fantasy football, too. But given his injury history, he could last three games and suddenly Roy Helu or Trent Richardson (ha!) are killing in your league.
Last year we saw Jeremy Hill leap frog Giovani Bernard. Joique Bell made the aforementioned Bush expendable and the list goes one. It pays to know running back situations from top to bottom and as over-hyped as some running back handcuffs can be in the fantasy realm, sometimes having the right backup sitting on your bench can make or break an entire season.
That’s why we’re running through the top running back handcuffs that you need to at least familiarize yourself with, so when you’re rounding out your roster late in your fantasy football draft, you pick up the right guys that could end up helping you out late in the year. There’s a lot of them, but the first step is understanding all of their value before you can pick which ones you prefer:
Note: To make the whole “handcuff” thing easier, we’re only picking handcuffs you can find past round eight. This means these guys aren’t yet guaranteed huge roles and aren’t starters. They could still carry immediate value though, and represent the top backup running backs in fantasy football.
Jay Ajayi (Miami Dolphins)
Lamar Miller was pretty rock solid for Miami last year, so all this talk of Ajayi supplanting him suddenly is very premature. In fact, Miller found a way to average 5.1 YPC despite running behind a super shaky o-line in 2014. He might be even better than advertised, while there is absolutely no denying his pass-catching skills and flat-out speed in the open field. Enough Miller love, though. Miller still has had consistency and ball control issues in the past, and it wouldn’t be the craziest thing to see him benched or at least limited (maxed out at 216 carries last year). That’s Ajayi’s window, who is an athletic power back who can also make people miss. He was also a beast in college but slid in the draft due to health woes. He does have some competition in Damien Williams and others, but he figures to be Miller’s top backup. Handcuff or not, he’s a nice sleeper to catch late in drafts.
Lorenzo Taliaferro (Baltimore Ravens)
It’s important to note that 2015 rookie Buck Allen also could factor in here, while the biggest thing is Justin Forsett is the clear starter again. Forsett just got paid, was killer for the Ravens a year ago and now is going to be operating out of Marc Trestman’s system. Forsett is 29 so he could get hurt or slow down suddenly, but the odds are he’s going to just keep rolling with the first opportunity to beast out in his career. That said, Taliaferro is a fine talent in his own right and looked good as a rookie last year. He’ll have a role if he can beat out Allen, while whoever does get the nod should be a nice handcuff to carry at the bottom of your bench.
David Cobb (Tennessee Titans)
Bishop Sankey looks like a bust after averaging 3.7 YPC as a rookie and just looking lost. Cobb was brought in to challenge him and if Sankey hasn’t taken a huge step forward, he could just win the starting gig right away. Cobb is a solid talent who takes what is blocked for him, has great size and also can block. He’s not the most explosive guy in the world, but he’s pretty solid and if he avoids mistakes as a rookie he’ll at least be part of a platoon. It’s not going to take much for him to steal a pretty nice role, so he’s one of the top running back handcuffs to track this summer.
Alfred Blue (Houston Texans)
Arian Foster is going to run the ball in Houston until the wheels fall off. That being said, the wheels have gotten shaky in the past and Foster has a ton of mileage on his legs at this point, so it’s entirely possibly he breaks down in 2015. Even if it’s for a short while, that could mean a big role for Blue, who looked pretty darn good when he dropped 156 yards on the Browns last year. He only averaged 3.1 yards per carry on the year and had some underwhelming showings, but the talent behind him is weak. He should win the top backup job and is a guy to own if Foster goes down.
Montee Ball/Ronnie Hillman (Denver Broncos)
C.J. Anderson looks like the guy in Denver for 2015, and it’s hard to knock that after he went off to end 2014. Of course, the Broncos do usually use a second running back and an Anderson injury would open the door to one of his backups going nuts. Hillman is supposedly on the roster bubble suddenly, but I don’t really buy it because he was sensational at times when forced into big playing time in 2014. Ball has been a total bust and runs slow, so if I’m calling the shots I want Hillman as the next man up. That being said, Ball has the slight lead on the depth chart and is probably the better short-yardage and goal-line option. That makes Ball the next guy in line and the main handcuff, although you can make an argument for both.
Knile Davis (Kansas City Chiefs)
We’ve already seen what Davis can do, as he put up two straight 100+ yard outings in weeks three and four. His YPC (3.5) has been weak to start his career but Davis is a classic north/south runner with a nice burst and good vision. He’s a must-own handcuff for Jamaal Charles owners and while he needs a Charles injury to hold major value in 2015, he’d be a monster if thrust into a massive role.
Ryan Mathews (Philadelphia Eagles)
Mathews doesn’t need much of a sell. DeMarco Murray is the only thing standing in his way from being a potential top-1o threat, as Philly’s offense can make anyone a stud. Mathews himself is pretty fragile, but Murray has a very sketchy injury history, too. If Murray goes down, Mathews will be a nice guy to have at the end of your bench.
Matt Jones (Washington Redskins)
I’m a huge fan of Jones from a talent perspective. He’s a natural runner who has good vision and cutting ability, while he has the strength to work inside and the athleticism to bounce runs around the tackle. His situation is not ideal behind the steady Alfred Morris, but Jay Gruden drafted him and loves him. He’s in line for a third down role as a rookie and if Morris ever falters or goes down, he’s going to be a must-own player.
James Starks (Green Bay Packers)
Eddie Lacy wasn’t very good to start the 2014 season and he’s had a few injury problems, so there is a slight chance he could miss some time in 2014. That’s what Starks would need to be truly relevant in fantasy football, but it’s not a pipe dream. Starks’ overall production dipped in 2014 but he still hits the hole hard and has a solid burst and some elusiveness to his game. He’s really bought into his backup role, so it’s tough to gauge just how good he’d be if he suddenly had a huge role. It’s the Packers offense, though, so chances are he’d be pretty good. Starks isn’t a must-own player in general but you should probably snatch him up if you spend an early pick on Lacy.
Jerick McKinnon (Minnesota Vikings)
Adrian Peterson is returning to football in 2015. He’s either going to dominate or he’ll be ineffective or get hurt early. I doubt there is any in between. Either way, the explosive and versatile McKinnon is going to have some type of a role in his second season and if Peterson ever misses time, he’s going to be in for a heavy workload. Few will forget McKinnon’s 135-yard outburst in week four, while his upside is clear to see. He doesn’t have much stand alone value to start the year, but if you take Peterson in round one you better grab him as a handcuff.
Cameron Artis-Payne (Carolina Panthers)
I am a fan of Artis-Payne for three huge reasons. For one, there just isn’t much good talent in his way of being Jonathan Stewart’s top backup. Something called a Fozzy Whittaker is probably the only thing in his way. He’s also really good, as he’s got a great compact frame and excellent drive in his legs. I liken him to Ahmad Bradshaw and as a healthy version, that’s something to get excited about. There is also Stewart’s health, which aside from 2014 has largely been abysmal. He’s sure to miss some time and could be a gigantic bust, making Artis-Payne one of my favorite sleepers of 2015.
Charles Sims (Tampa Bay Buccaneers)
Tampa Bay’s coaching staff seems intent on giving Doug Martin one last chance to prove the past two year’s didn’t show who he really is. I still think it’s possible he turns things around, but if the ship has sailed, Sims is going to be a guy you wish you’d drafted. The Bucs love Sims and are waiting for a reason to feed him the rock. I personally have never seen what amazes people about Sims, but he does have a good frame, is pretty versatile and could be in line for a big role.
Robert Turbin/Cristine Michael (Seattle Seahawks)
I don’t love many Seahawks that aren’t named Marshawn Lynch, but as he ages, it’s entirely possible he eventually regresses or even gets hurt. If that happens, given how much Seattle loves to run, his backups are obviously going to benefit a great deal. Picking the right one, though, is a tough call. It still seems to be Turbin, who is plenty talented, but has been slowed down by hip surgery. That should help the immensely talented Michael (supposedly on the roster bubble) make the roster and for now sticks out as my favorite Seattle handcuff. We do need to pay notice to Thomas Rawls, however, who Seattle apparently loves. I don’t feel the need to spend a pick for a Lynch handcuff yet, but their backfield is definitely one to keep tabs on.
David Johnson (Arizona Cardinals)
Andre Ellington is a small guy with a light build. We saw that in a big way last year, as he struggled overall (3.2 YPC) and couldn’t stay healthy. Arizona still likes him as their lead back, but they’re not betting the farm on him this time, as they brought in rookie rusher David Johnson. Johnson has a nice skill-set (great receiver) and has a far better build than Ellington, but is just as bad (if not worse) running up the middle. Even so, if Ellington is ineffective again or gets hurt, Johnson could have a shot at producing big numbers. He’s probably a must-have handcuff if you take Ellington and is a pretty solid stash, regardless.
Reggie Bush (San Francisco 49ers)
Bush has to be one of the best handcuffs, given the fact that you only have to spend a late 10th round pick on him, yet Carlos Hyde costs a fourth round pick. Hyde is the likely starter, but he’s missed summer time with an injury and the 49ers have talked up Bush quite a bit. I still think Bush has some juice left and what he does all depends on his own health, as well as Hyde’s. I doubt he’s ever the feature back, but he could carry serious Flex value and if Hyde does miss some time, he’d be in for a big role.