Okay, so the title may not make too much sense, but I figure Houdini was always trying to escape handcuffs, so he must have owned at least a couple pairs right? And you can’t deny how catchy the alliteration is.

Anyway, For those of you not familiar with the term, handcuff is the term in fantasy when you draft both an elite running back, as well as his back up. The idea is that it protects you from completely losing your #1 backs production numbers by having his replacement ready to go on your team. (as opposed to having to fight for him off the wavier wire when the rest of your league is gunning for the new lead back as well.) The handcuff will be especially important this year with many high profile runners making their way back from injury with back-up who have already proven they have value.

Must Handcuff:

If you want to draft Adrian Peterson, you will need to grab Toby Gerhart as well. Peterson is targeting a week 1 return, which is great if he can do it, but his injury was serious and the Vikes won’t let him go until they’re sure he’s recovered and if he does rush back it increases the likelihood of re-injury. Gerhart has also proven himself reliable on limited snaps and will get drafted by someone else if you don’t grab him. Oh, and while Peterson’s recent arrest shouldn’t scare you off, he could face a one game suspension. Goodell tends to draw a hardline when it comes to any sort of physical altercation that ends in an arrest, even though it seems Peterson really hasn’t done any wrong. Suspension or not I think Peterson misses the first two games, and Gerhart should be solid for 80 yards and a TD.

Jamaal Charles faces a similar predicament, but because his injury happened in week 1 last year he should be ready to go for week 1 this year. Still, you’ll want to grab Peyton Hillis. Hillis is coming of an incredibly disappointing season, but he’s stepping into a good spot in Kansas City filling the role that Thomas Jones played so well helping launch Jamaal Charles to stardom. Hillis will likely be among the first back up’s off the board, so it’s a pricy handcuff, but he carries value as a flex play and will be in for a feature role if Charles goes down again.

Yes, even, and perhaps especially the favorite for #1 overall pick, Arian Foster needs his handcuff. While Foster’s talent is undeniable, so is his injury history. And Ben Tate‘s production last year was solid (with and without Foster in the game.) Like Hillis, Tate will come with a higher cost, but as a viable flex option against weaker run defenses and the promise of a feature role in any game Foster misses, he’ll be well worth the investment.

Darren McFadden is an interesting case, because while he is sure to go in the first two rounds, his handcuff barring an outstanding offseason, or a fantasy league full of Raiders fans, may not even get drafted. However, the likelihood of McFadden getting injured requires that you take his primary back up, which at this point looks to be Mike Goodson. Goodson has showed sparks in the few snaps he actually got to play in Carolina (hard to find carries with DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart ahead of you) what hurts Goodson’s value even as a handcuff is the presence of Taiwan Jones who at the very least will be used as a change of pace back. Still I’m a believer in Goodson’s talent, and unless Jones passes him on the depth chart in training camp he’s worth the late round grab.

Normally, you don’t really need to draft Maurice Jone-Drew’s back up, but in light of his holdout and the Jags firm stance you must snag Rashad Jennings if the two sides still haven’t come to terms by the time your league drafts. Jennings missed last season due to injury, but before that he shone on limited touches, making him worthy of consideration, even if/when Jones-Drew does get his contract. Jennings is not the same kind of player as MJD he’s a bigger, more bruising type of runner at 6’1 and 228lbs, but he can catch out of the backfield and will be the workhorse if Drew misses anytime Jags may have added weapons and be looking to pass more, but they’ll still look to establish the run whether it’s with MJD or Jennings.

Should Handcuff:

Matt Forte was not too pleased when the Bears signed Michael Bush this offseason considering teh Bears have yet to restructure his deal, but like it or not, if you’re taking Forte, you’ll want to grab Bush as well. Forte has been durable, but Bush is simply too good of a #2 to pass on. He rushed for nearly 1000 yards in Darren McFaddens place last year, and will likely put up similar number given a similar opportunity. Truth be told though, Bush is going to be a hit or miss with Forte saying he will play this year, even though he has been holding out so far this offseason. Bush and Forte could end up  splitting carries each getting a chance to put up numbers, but neither really dominating. Bush is a much more physical inside runner who could operate as a short yard/goal line back, while Forte is a finesse guy who can use his speed and his hands to create separation. It’s hard to say for sure who you can trust, I recommend grabbing both simply because an injury to either means a featured role for the surviver in what looks to be a high powered offense.

Michael Turneris going to be 30, and while I don’t necessarily believe a running backs wheels fall of at 30 and they become useless, the Falcons have already said they are looking to move more towards a committee approach when it comes to running the football. They also want to pass more. I can’t help thinking this new game plan is pointing in the direction of Jaquizz Rodgers. Rodgers is a small, speedy back, who’s also got solid pass catching skills. Having a guy who can catch a screen or swing pass could help create isolation on the outside receivers (or just give Matt Ryan a wide open target underneath) Not to mention tiring out receivers, out running them to the edge on toss plays. I like Rodgers upside as a guy who’s role slowly expands through the season, and could take a big spike upwards if turner gets hurt.

Ryan Matthews is a little borderline for me, but I think his injury history makes him a guy you need to strongly consider handcuffing. My problem is, I just don’t know if you can trust Ronnie Brown. After a successful career in Miami, Brown looked lost last year in Philly. Granted, that can be said for a lot of Eagles players last year, but most analysts seem content to give the Eagles a mulligan for their 2011 showing, so why not Brown? In truth I do expect him to be much closer to the guy he was in Miami, I just don’t know how much closer. Bottom line is, you’ll need a back-up plan if you draft Matthews and you could do worse than Brown.

Drafter’s Choice:

With everyone projecting the resurrection of Chris Johnson’s CJ2K persona I can’t really recommend drafting Javon Ringer. Even when Johnson was doing poorly last year, Ringer didn’t see a significant increase in his touches, which likely means the only way he gets in is with a Johnson injury, and even then I don’t know how much the coaching staff would trust him to carry the load…or how he would handle the work increase. It is worth noting that this is a new staff, and Mike Munchak is coming from a Falcons team that used Micahel Turner as it’s centerpiece, so there is some potential should CJ falter. Personally, I’d love to see this guy come in and tear it up, but you should have plenty of warning before he gets his chance.

Steven Jackson is actually not as injury prone as he seems. Jackson has played in at least 12 of 16 games all 9 years of his career and only missed 2 full games the past 3 years. So really it’s up to you whether or not to handcuff him. If you do, the guy you want is rookie runner, Isaiah Pead. I will note that Pead is, smaller and speedier than Jackson so he’ll have some value as a change of pace, even when Jackson is healthy, but ultimately you should feel safe with Jackson as your starter, especially in a Jeff Fisher offense.

I’m going to toss in Ray Rice and LeSean McCoy, just to round out the elite runners. Both guys are rare feature backs, who contribute through the air and on the ground, with limited history of injury. Just in case you’re in a really deep 14-team league and want to play it safe, Rice’s handcuff would be Anthony Allen. Allen is a second year runner who I like to beat out incumbent back up Bernard Scott in training camp for the #2 spot behind Rice. It’s worth noting that according to Allen’s Rotoworld profile, Raven’s OC Cam Cameron considers allen a 3-down back, which means should anything happen to Rice, Allen could be in line for a heavy work load. For those of you wondering about Mr. McCoy, I like rookie Chris Polk as a handcuff. Technically, Polk will still need to win the job, but like Allen I like him to beat out last year’s back up (in this case it’s Dion Lewis) and take control of the #2 spot. I don’t know much about Polk except that, there’s a lot of rumblings about his potential and how he’s impressed coaches after going undrafted out of Washington. Polk and Allen could both be worth a flier, just keep an eye on their camps to make sure they win the jobs as I expect they will.

The Reverse Handcuff:

Issac Redman is an incredibly interesting case. Not only is Redman technically the handcuff to Rashard Mendenhall, he is also inexplicably slipping into the 9th-11th rounds of mock drafts. With Rashard rumored to start the season on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list, he’ll likely miss the first half of the season, so drafting him’s a waste. Trust me though, you’ll want Redman on your team. He ran well when he took over last year, and the Steelers did just use a first round draft pick on Gaurd David DeCastro, so expect to see plenty of runs. Also, the people seem to like Redman more, so if he runs well enough long enough, he could steal the job full-time. Expect Redman to be a low-end #2 back or flex with a lot of upside.

So Obviously not all of your backs need their handcuffs, but if you get a guy who’s got a long history of injury, you’re going to want to prevent yourself against the headache of trying to replace a star runner.

Brett’s Bonus:

So, in thinking about handcuff’s it occurred to me that there are actually a few non-running backs who have guys I would consider “handcuffs.” These guys would fall under the, “don’t really need to draft them” category, but are definitely the names to put on your watch list should anything happen to the guy starting in front of them.

Let’s start with Jay Cutler. Since, once again the Chicago Bears inexplicably ignored their biggest weakness (the offensive line) in favor of bolstering skill positions, you have to assume there’s a decent chance Jay Cutler could end up missing a few weeks after taking a few too many big hits. Now, Cutler himself is probably a borderline fantasy starter as it stands right now, but I’m expecting big things from his reunion with Brandon Marshall and I think he develops into a top 10 guy (at least for a few weeks of the season.) Anyway, should Cutler prove himself worthy of your starting line-up, but his line proves unworthy of keeping him healthy look for back up Jason Campbell to have no trouble putting up equivalent numbers. Campbell was playing well in Oakland before an injury and the Carson Palmer deal forced him out of town, and he’s actually got a good set up in chicago for his skills. He’s played behind bad lines, and he’s pretty much always had a pass catching back, and he’s got the arm to exploit defenses deep. Bottom Line, if you’re already rolling with Cutler, Campbell will probably be one of your best fill in options.

Sticking with QB’s who have talented back-ups let’s talk Tony Romo who now has Kyle Orton behind him. I can only assume the primary reason for bringing in Orton was to protect Tony Romo from a repeat of last year, when he started a game with a fractured rib, wearing a kevlar vest for protection. Orton is in a rare position of being good enough to start, but not quite good enough for teams to forsake a financial commitment to another player. (otherwise he would likely be starting for the Bills this year.) He got run out of Denver by Tebowmania last year (his personal numbers were solid, the team just wasn’t winning) he continued to throw well with the Chiefs, but ultimately the team had a commitment to Matt Cassel they were unwilling to break.

Finally, I’m going to offer up a receiver “handcuff” for Kenny Britt as some one who drafted Britt last year, and was impressed by his first few showings, only to see him go down for the year. Thankfully, despite tearing his MCL and ACL in week 3 last year, Britt seems to have fully recovered. We’ll see in training camp if there are any ill effects from the surgery. Should Britt struggle or aggravate his injury, I suggest following the Titans back up plan and giving Kendall Wright a shot. Wright currently projects to start in the slot, and actually could end up getting decent production there even with Britt, so maybe you want to spend a late round pick on him if your league is deep. It is possible the Titans go with Damian Williams on the outside if Britt does miss any time just to keep Wright in the slot, but my feeling is he’ll see a mix of outside and slot work, while also becoming a primary target. The disclaimer I want to put here is watch who wins the QB battle. If it’s Hasselbeck, he should pick up on his chemistry with Britt. If Locker is the starter however make sure you grab TE Jared Cooke, as he was a favorite target of Locker in the few games he started at the end of last year. Britt would lose some value with Locker under center, how much will depend on chemistry between the two, but Britt should be a guy the young QB would lean on.

Just the final disclaimer; this last bit was just for fun. They aren’t true handcuff guys, just guys who I think can step in and replicate production should the starter get injured.

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