- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
In most of the obvious situations in which a fantasy owner would handcuff a backup running back, the starter is a proven veteran coming off a successful 2012 season. There’s Arian Foster and Ben Tate with the run-heavy Houston Texans, and Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce with the champion Baltimore Ravens. Plus, there’s at least some reason to believe that if top overall pick Adrian Peterson went down again with a serious injury, Minnesota Vikings reserve Toby Gerhart could at least be a reasonable fantasy flex option while filling in.
Then there are the New York Giants, with electric second-year option David Wilson being chosen as a top-20 option among running backs despite producing fewer fantasy points, rushing and receiving yards, and touchdowns in 2012 than his handcuff choice, larger veteran Andre Brown. It’s an odd situation, to some degree, but certainly a relevant one. Yes, Wilson has the top-10 upside, but there are certainly red flags with him, whether it’s about him holding onto the football, being a factor on third downs or getting touches near the goal line. With Brown, it’s about the health. Regardless, Brown is the Wilson handcuff at this point, and a pretty attractive one at that, but don’t be shocked if these guys switch roles, making Wilson the handcuff.
This situation and many others bear monitoring this season, so let’s take a look at the top 10 handcuff situations from a fantasy aspect.
1. Ben Tate, Houston Texans: This situation remains fluid, as Foster hasn’t been healthy this offseason and his availability for early September seems suspect. Tate did not have a successful 2012 season, but he approached 1,000 rushing yards the year before despite clear backup status, averaging 5.4 yards per carry. If we knew today that Foster was out for the season, Tate would just miss cracking my top 10 running backs. I’m drafting him before the 10th round whether I own Foster or not.
2. Andre Brown, New York Giants: Well-traveled Brown hasn’t been able to stay healthy in his career, but, as he showed in 2012, he’s an enticing size-speed combination and a beast near the goal line. At worst, Brown figures to handle the carries inside the 5-yard line. At most, he could be a 1,000-yard back, as well. I’m drafting him ahead of Tate, for, even in a time share, he’s a flex possibility.
3. Giovani Bernard, Cincinnati Bengals: In ESPN ADP, it’s actually Bernard, the first running back chosen in the recent NFL draft, as the more attractive option rather than likely starter BenJarvus Green-Ellis, making him seem like an odd handcuff. Perhaps the Law Firm is the handcuff? Well, Bernard doesn’t have the starting role yet. The diminutive North Carolina product looks a bit like Darren Sproles, and he has the pass-catching chops to prove it. Green-Ellis is larger, and, although he's ineffective at the goal line, that won’t stop the Bengals from running him into the line repeatedly anyway. Certainly the rookie is the upside option, but before the seventh or eighth round seems premature.
4. Bernard Pierce, Baltimore Ravens: Pierce is probably being overrated just a tad. There’s no questioning his talent, and the fact he averaged nearly 5 yards per tote as a rookie is impressive, but there’s nothing wrong with Rice. He’s not hurt, like Foster, or raw and unproven, like Bernard and Wilson. Rice is in my top five overall. I’m drafting Pierce if I own Rice, but even then, given that Rice never misses a game, I don’t see scenarios in which I’d use Pierce.
5. Bryce Brown, Philadelphia Eagles: Starter LeSean McCoy is healthy and ready to handle a heavy workload in Chip Kelly’s new offensive system, but Brown certainly made his mark -- ever so briefly -- a year ago. In Weeks 12 and 13, Brown exploded for 26 and 27 standard fantasy points, although he did little before that and after. I think Brown is strictly the team’s backup, and it’s no time share, and it’s even possible that Chris Polk will usurp the No. 2 spot on the depth chart, but Brown has proved his upside if given major touches.
In most of the obvious situations in which a fantasy owner would handcuff a backup running back, the starter is a proven veteran coming off a successful 2012 season.