By Matt Citak
With Week 13 of the NFL season finally here, we are only one week away from the start of the playoffs for most fantasy football leagues. If you made it this far, you’re likely going to ride your starters that got you into the postseason from here on out. But as we have seen throughout NFL history, injuries happen. Depending on who your starting running back is, it may be wise to grab his backup before the start of the playoffs. Don’t be the person that loses a starting running back and has no one on the bench to replace him with. While you hope the backup never comes close to entering your starting lineup, it doesn’t hurt to be prepared in case the worst scenario occurs.
In this piece, only backup running backs that do not hold much (or any) standalone value will be discussed. Teams that have two running backs with fantasy relevance, such as the Saints with Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara or the Falcons with Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, will not be mentioned, as those players are already rostered in essentially all fantasy leagues.
Here are some of the most valuable RB handcuffs to own.
Los Angeles Chargers
Starter: Melvin Gordon
Handcuff: Austin Ekeler
Of all the RB handcuffs mentioned in this article, Ekeler is the one that is most likely already on someone’s team. The rookie running back had strong performances in Weeks 10 and 11, where he totaled 82 rushing yards and a touchdown on the ground while adding 95 receiving yards and two receiving touchdowns. Those consecutive strong outings led to many fantasy owners quickly snatching Ekeler off the waiver wire. If you have Gordon on your team, I hope you were one of them.
The Chargers are one of the hottest teams in the league right now, and with their remaining schedule, they have a good chance at turning this momentum into a postseason berth. LA faces a Browns team this week that just got torched by rookie Joe Mixon for a career-high 114 yards and a touchdown. During the fantasy playoffs (Weeks 14-16), the Chargers take on three of the league’s worst rushing defenses in the Washington Redskins, Kansas City Chiefs, and New York Jets. Ekeler is a must-own for anyone with Gordon on their roster, and could be a smart speculative add for anyone with a roster spot to spare.
Starter: Leonard Fournette
Handcuff: T.J. Yeldon
When the Jaguars used the fourth overall pick in this year’s draft to select Fournette, it was clear they planned on making him a true bell cow back. So far that has been the case, as the rookie is currently seventh in the league in rush attempts despite missing two games with an ankle injury. With Blake Bortles under center, Jacksonville runs an offense that revolves around pounding the ball on the ground, which is what makes Yeldon such a valuable handcuff.
Yeldon has played rather well in his limited action this season. The third-year back out of Alabama has carried the ball 31 times for 199 yards (6.4 yards per carry) and a touchdown, and has caught 16 passes for 112 yards. It seems as if Yeldon has recently carved out a role as the Jaguars’ change-of-pace back on third downs, as he has caught five or more passes in two of the last three games. While you would have to be incredibly desperate to start him with Fournette playing, Yeldon’s value would skyrocket if something were to happen to the rookie back. Chris Ivory was unable to find any running room when given the opportunity to replace Fournette in Weeks 7 and 9, and while he would certainly receive some carries if the starter got hurt, Yeldon would get the first chance to take over as Jacksonville’s lead back. Yeldon is an intriguing insurance policy to have for Fournette’s fantasy owners.
Starter: Le’Veon Bell
Handcuff: James Conner
While it has seemingly flown under the radar, Bell has touched the ball an insane number of times thus far this season. Through 11 games, Pittsburgh’s star back has carried the rock 252 times and caught an additional 61 receptions. That puts Bell on pace for 367 carries and 89 receptions, which would give the running back the second-most touches in a season in NFL history. He has also played 116 more snaps than any other running back this year, an interesting note considering Bell has played just one 16-game season in his four-year career.
There is no doubt that Bell is arguably the best offensive player in the league. If he were to go down with an injury, it would obviously be a big blow to the Pittsburgh offense. However with Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster and the offensive line still intact, the Steelers offense would not fall apart completely (as we have seen in Dallas with Ezekiel Elliott out). James Conner would step in as the starting running back, and he would find himself in a great position to succeed. Conner has rushed just 24 times in his rookie campaign, but has gained 113 yards, good for 4.7 yards per carry. He isn’t the receiving threat that Bell is, but the rookie could easily handle the load as Pittsburgh’s early-down back. Similar to Yeldon, Conner offers a good backup plan in case something were to happen to Bell, which is feasible considering his workload.
Starter: Lamar Miller
Handcuff: Alfred Blue
The value of all Houston running backs took a significant hit when quarterback Deshaun Watson was lost for the season. Tom Savage isn’t nearly as big of a threat to opposing defenses as Watson, which has led to teams stacking the box against the Texans, expecting the run. This has caused Miller’s production to decrease over the last month, as he has failed to top 61 rushing yards in any of Houston’s last four games (although part of the blame for that goes to game script, as the Texans were playing from behind in several of those contests).
Although Miller, along with the whole Houston offense, has struggled since losing Watson, the running back’s usage is impossible to ignore. In the four games since Watson went down, the back has averaged 15 rush attempts and 2 receptions per game. That sort of volume is not something you’re going to find on the waiver wire this late in the season, which is why Alfred Blue is now on the fantasy radar. This spot used to belong to D’Onta Foreman, who was showing a lot of promise during his rookie season, but suffered a torn Achilles in Week 11. Blue hasn’t done anything this year, taking 21 carries for a mere 58 yards (2.8 yards per carry), but has had at least 100 rush attempts in each of the last three years, proving he can handle a bigger workload. Should something happen to Miller, Blue’s usage would immediately make him a top waiver wire add.
Los Angeles Rams
Starter: Todd Gurley
Handcuff: Lance Dunbar
After struggling mightily last season, Gurley has had a renaissance campaign in 2017. The third-year back has run for 865 yards and eight touchdowns with an average of 4.2 yards per carry, while catching 42 receptions (just one shy of his career-high) for a career-best 479 yards and three touchdowns. Gurley is second among the league’s running backs in touches behind Bell, and has served as the featured back in Los Angeles’ top ranked offense, averaging 18.5 carries and 3.8 receptions per game this season.
Sean McVay has the Rams offense completely in sync, with Los Angeles ranking second in the NFL in points per game (29.9) and fourth in total yards per game (379.0). An injury to Gurley would be devastating to both the Rams and fantasy owners, especially with the inexperience behind him on the LA roster. Gurley’s handcuff is Lance Dunbar, who has carried the ball in just one game this season and has not recorded more than 30 rush attempts in any of his first five years in the league. His five carries for 31 yards in 2017 looks okay on paper, but is far from trustworthy when it comes time for the fantasy playoffs. If Gurley were to go down with an injury, Dunbar would likely receive at least 15 touches per game, which would firmly cement him on the fantasy map. We haven’t seen enough of Dunbar to know what to expect should he become the team’s featured running back, but we do know it would be a huge step down from Gurley, who remains one of the league’s elite backs.
Kansas City Chiefs
Starter: Kareem Hunt
Handcuff: Charcandrick West
What happened to Kareem Hunt? That is the question fantasy owners are asking themselves as the rookie running back hasn’t found the end zone since Week 3. The last time Hunt topped 100 yards rushing was Houston’s Week 5 win over the Texans. That was also the final game before Kansas City’s meltdown that saw them lose five of six contests. That is hardly a coincidence. The Chiefs need a stable running game in order for the offense to truly succeed, making Hunt’s struggles a focal point of the team’s losing streak. But even with this disappointing stretch, Hunt is still averaging 4.8 yards per carry on 184 rush attempts, totaling 890 yards and four touchdowns on the ground. He’s also proven to play a role in the passing game, as he has caught 36 passes for 344 yards and two additional touchdowns.
Despite Alex Smith’s career-year, Andy Reid is still committed to running the ball in Kansas City. Hunt is averaging 20 touches per game. Given Reid’s offensive philosophy, that is unlikely to change much, even if Hunt were to get hurt. Unlike with the other teams on this list, the Chiefs have a proven veteran ready to take over should something happen to Hunt. Charcandrick West has just 10 carries for 41 yards and a touchdown this season, but has served as the team’s pass-catching back, recording 24 receptions for 122 yards and two receiving touchdowns. During his first NFL season back in 2015, West filled in for an injured Jamaal Charles, starting nine games while taking 160 carries for 634 yards (4.0 yards per carry) and four touchdowns. He has experience as a lead back, something that cannot be said for the other handcuffs on this list. Given Hunt’s recent play, it might be wise for the rookie’s fantasy owners to add his handcuff for the playoffs.
Matt Citak is a producer for CBS Local Sports and a proud Vanderbilt alum. Follow him on Twitter or send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.