By Tzali Nislick
The running back position in fantasy football can be confusing, volatile and at times, downright frustrating. The position is top heavy, so it’s difficult to find depth. So if you spend a first round pick on a running back (which is the best way to go) and god forbid he goes down with an injury, it can derail the rest of your season. But not if you have their backup, also known as their handcuff. This is why I’m a huge advocate for using your last bench spot on your RB1’s handcuff, especially if your RB1 is oft injured, as their backup can sometimes save your season. So today, we look at the five most valuable handcuffs in fantasy football and fingers crossed that they never have to see your starting lineup in the first place.
Note: we’re not including players who already have a role or could eventually take over the backfield, only players who are strictly backups. That includes players like Jonathan Taylor, Kareem Hunt, Damien Williams, etc.
5. Rashaad Penny
This is what I call a wasted talent. Rashaad Penny was a first round pick back in 2018 for a reason after balling out at San Diego State. But unfortunately for him, Chris Carson has cemented himself as the clear cut number one option in Seattle’s run-heavy offense. Penny has shown flashes of brilliance in the past, averaging 4.9 and 5.7 YPC in each of his first two seasons respectively. Last year in the three games he saw 10+ carries, he ran for 265 yards with four total touchdowns. He only had 65 carries last season, but his 2.8 rushing yards after contact per attempt would’ve been tied for 5th in the NFL. Aside from Carson, his biggest roadblock is staying healthy. Penny missed three games in 2019 with a hamstring injury before later tearing his ACL in Week 14. This could land him on the PUP list to begin the season, which is the only reason he ranks as low as 5th on this list for me. If he can manage to stay healthy and fend off fourth round rookie DeeJay Dallas, Penny is just a Carson injury away from potential RB1 status.
4. Nyheim Hines
Nyheim Hines had some sleeper appeal coming into last season until Andrew Luck shocked the world by retiring during the preseason. The Colts were forced to run an extremely conservative and limited offense under Jacoby Brissett and Hines wasn’t as productive as a result. But now with Philip Rivers at the helm, there is more potential for Hines to carve out a role in Indianapolis’ offense in 2020. It’s definitely a crowded backfield with Marlon Mack and Jonathan Taylor, but Nyheim Hines is the clear cut receiving option out of the three, after recording 107 receptions through his first two seasons. Last season Austin Ekeler caught 92 passes out of the backfield despite Melvin Gordon’s presence, so Hines could find himself in a similar role with Rivers in 2020. He has significantly more upside in PPR leagues, but should Mack or Taylor go down, Hines could find himself in the flex conversation.
3. Chase Edmonds
After David Johnson tweaked a previously existing ankle injury against the Giants in Week 7 last year, Chase Edmonds appeared destined to take over the starting job. He filled in for Johnson and exploded by carrying the ball 27 times for 126 yards and three touchdowns. He earned the start the following week against the Saints, but game script caused him to be ineffective before a hamstring injury forced him out of the game entirely. He missed the next three games but by then it was already the Kenyan Drake show in Arizona after they picked him up at the trade deadline. After the Cardinals traded Johnson this offseason, that leaves Edmonds as the number two back behind Drake for 2020. If Drake regresses or sustains an injury in his first full season with the Cardinals we could see Edmonds step in and make an immediate impact. We already saw it last year.
2. Tony Pollard
Everything was aligned for Tony Pollard to take over the Cowboys’ backfield last season until Dallas gave Ezekiel Elliot a long term extension, ending his prolonged holdout. And although Elliot dominated touches, Pollard still got his share and was effective at times in 2019. The Memphis product went over 100 yards twice, and in three of the four games that he saw 12+ carries, he averaged over 7.5 YPC with two touchdowns. Elliot has been extremely durable so far in his career, but he’s gone over 300 attempts in three of his four seasons and led the league in that category twice. If it weren’t for his suspension in 2017, he would’ve led in rushes three times and eclipsed 300 carries in all four years. If I’m drafting Elliot with a premium pick then I’m most certainly taking Pollard in one of the last few rounds with top-10 upside should anything happen to Elliot.
1. Alexander Mattison
I don’t even have to own Dalvin Cook to be interested in Alexander Mattison this season. As a rookie, the Vikings showed strong commitment to him despite Cook having his best year yet as a pro. Mattison averaged an impressive 4.6 YPC and saw at least seven carries in eight of the 13 games he played last season. Dalvin Cook has struggled to stay on the field, missing 19 games in his first three seasons due to a variety of injuries. That alone makes Mattison an appealing handcuff target. But now with Cook threatening to holdout with the hopes of a new contract, Mattison could step in as the day one starter if Minnesota opts not to pay Cook. Mike Zimmer already said last season that there’s not much of a drop off from Cook to Mattison, so that shows how highly the Vikings think of the former Boise State standout. If Dalvin Cook misses time again in 2020 whether it’s due to injury or him holding out, Mattison has top-12 potential.