- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
Simply put, you won't see me spending much time worrying about the novel fantasy football practice of "handcuffing" backup running backs to my starters. I've just seen too many times in which the oh so popular next guy in line cannot handle the job and quickly disappoints. This is not the case with Houston Texans running back Ben Tate, because we saw during the 2011 season how electric he can be should something again befall top overall pick Arian Foster, but past Tate, it's a largely unexciting crew of backup running backs.
It's worth noting that because so many NFL teams have shared duties at running back to begin with, the mere notion of handcuffs is lessened more than in previous seasons. Just two running backs had more than 300 carries last season; seven did the year prior, and as recently as 2006, there were 10 players with this high a workload. Things are different now. Injuries run rampant, and ESPN Fantasy projects only 11 running backs to top 250 attempts. It seems more vital to me to draft a running back that doesn't need an injury or poor performance by someone else in order to get his own opportunity.
Tate's different because Houston runs so much, and figures to again, and he's really good. Tate flirted with 1,000 rushing yards last season and averaged 5.4 yards per carry, so he really fits the definition of handcuff in that top-10 status possibly awaits him if opportunity knocks. If Maurice Jones-Drew foolishly opts to sit out the season, I seriously doubt backup Rashad Jennings will become a fantasy superstar. That doesn't mean I'll ignore Jennings late in drafts, but the fact is I'm interested in him and Tate regardless of my starting running backs. I'm certainly more inclined to reach on Tate in the sixth round if I own Foster, which I've shown in recent mock drafts, but in general I'm drafting best available running backs by then.
If you've been blessed with the first overall pick and wisely chose Foster, there's no obligation to later secure Tate to the roster, though I'd recommend it. Foster is a large investment. But if you have Jones-Drew, Ray Rice, LeSean McCoy or Chris Johnson in tow, I don't feel the same about their fill-ins. Perhaps Dion Lewis could be an immediate star in Philly, but I'm largely skeptical.
In many other NFL places, true handcuff situations do not exist. For example, I think both Jamaal Charles and Peyton Hillis are suitable top-25 running back picks. I wouldn't call the logjam in Carolina a natural handcuff either, with Jonathan Stewart, DeAngelo Williams, fullback Mike Tolbert and, of course, their starting quarterback all pining for attention. The New Orleans Saints likely won't give anyone enough carries in a traditional running back role. And there are time-shares but not handcuff situations pending in Tampa Bay, Washington and perhaps Detroit and Arizona.
Anyway, here are five interesting handcuff situations, and how I view them. You might argue I should be discussing the Chiefs or 20 other teams here, but again, I'm looking for backups who could really succeed if given the chance for significant touches. I expect to see many "what about this team?" posts in Conversation. Go for it!
Five notable handcuff situations
Houston Texans: If Foster blew out his knee this preseason, and of course nobody wants that, I really would move Tate into the first round. Not first overall, but right after Chris Johnson, who I currently rank No. 6. Not only do I trust Tate, but running back is a mess this season. I mean, I don't trust DeMarco Murray, yet he's in my top 10 running backs by default.
Minnesota Vikings: If Adrian Peterson were to have a major setback, I don't see why Toby Gerhart couldn't be a borderline top-10 running back. After all, Gerhart finally got his chance to run in Week 12 of the 2011 season and rattled off five consecutive double-digit fantasy performances, and Peterson missed only three of those contests.
Buffalo Bills: As with Gerhart, the final month-plus in which C.J. Spiller was the main man in Buffalo proved quite impressive, especially his 28-point fantasy effort in Week 15. Fred Jackson should be healed from a broken leg and Spiller should take on a larger role as a receiver out of the backfield, but if the 31-year-old Jackson breaks down, Spiller will be in major demand.
St. Louis Rams: One reason I have little interest in Philly's Lewis or whatever the Ravens do after Rice is that those starters have proven durable. But Steven Jackson is an older fellow now, and the Rams likely will give rookie Isaiah Pead plenty of third-down chances at the least.
Atlanta Falcons: Well, perhaps this is the year Michael Turner falls off the cliff. I don't buy it, which is why last season's No. 5 running back shows up in my third round. Still, expect Jacquizz Rodgers to be more of a factor this season. I didn't say I'd draft him, but if Turner gets hurt, he'll matter.
Who else: Banking on rookies is always dangerous, but Ahmad Bradshaw has foot issues and backup David Wilson is a track star. ... I kind of like Willis McGahee in Denver, but rookie Ronnie Hillman did score quite a few touchdowns in college. ... Talk to me in two weeks if Jones-Drew remains away from the Jaguars, but Rashad Jennings missed all of 2011, and it seems to me Jones-Drew doesn't share many touches. ... Matt Forte was really good last season. So was Michael Bush at times. The former Raider should see goal-line work in Chicago, but I don't think Forte is too risky. ... DeMarco Murray has started seven games, but we've seen enough of Felix Jones to know he's not special. ... I blogged about Mike Goodson and Taiwan Jones in Oakland recently, and Darren McFadden can't stay healthy, but I also half expect Carson Palmer to simply throw 45 times per game if Run-DMC is out. ... Ryan Mathews is already hurt in San Diego, but good luck with Ronnie Brown. He's no longer anything special.
Have a great weekend!
Eric Karabell explains why the common fantasy football practice of "handcuffing" a backup running back to his starter can be greatly overrated, he does discuss a few options who deserve the handcuff distinction.