Should You Draft a Handcuff in Fantasy Football?

By: Nick Zylak



Drafting a handcuff is essentially an insurance policy. For those of you who don’t know what a handcuff is it’s a simple concept.

Let’s say you draft Spencer Ware. You’re hoping that he can be your RB2 week in and week out, and maybe he can have a good year and be your RB 1. The major risk with taking RB’s early is that they get hurt or replaced. Therefore to mitigate this risk you also draft Kareem Hunt in the 10th round. Now if Ware gets hurt you have Hunt to fall back on.  

The concept is no different than buying insurance in real life. When you buy insurance on your car, your home, or even yourself, you are limiting the downside. Your “floor”, as we call it in fantasy sports, is higher.

The problem is that your ceiling also changes.

You can’t have your cake, and eat it too. By that I mean you can’t have it both ways. Either Ware is your starter, or Hunt is. But there is no world where both of them are.

Let’s pretend now that your life is turned into a game. There are 11 other people playing against you in this game and you are all given a million dollars to spend on both expenses and investments. Whoever has the most money after 10 years is the winner.

Would you buy insurance?

Probably not right?

The reasoning is fairly simple. If something goes wrong and you need to you need to use your insurance then you probably aren’t going to win. Someone else didn’t need to use insurance. All of their investments worked out. So why pay a monthly fee when you know that if something goes wrong your chances are massively decreased anyways?

The same thing is true for those of you who play DFS. In order to optimize your team you should NEVER play two players in the same lineup who correlate negatively with each other. You want to build a lineup where all of the players can have a great game. 

What you need to do is set yourself up with the highest ceiling. Setting safety nets is great if you want to get 4th place. But we don’t want to get 4th place correct? No, we want to win.

Let's bring this discussion back to season long. If your stud get hurt, and you need your backup to replace him, then you probably already lost. Sure they may return similar production as your starter. But there is someone else in your league who didn't lose a high pick due to injury or replacement. This event puts you behind.

Look at the case of Ware and Hunt before. There is a major issue that the drafting team has to deal with. It’s that both players can’t be studs. Almost every RB tandem ever has a negative correlation. If one does well, then the other doesn’t do as well (Freeman and Coleman are the one exception. But as I’ll get to why Coleman is not a handcuff).

So if we are trying to build the best possible team then why are we intentionally limiting our upside?

Why, if we are only allowed to draft 6-7 RB’s, would we not set ourselves up for as many opportunities as possible?

When you draft a handcuff you are essentially saying that you are ok with having one unstartable player on your roster each week.

I’m not ok with that. There are too many guys with high ceilings that I can't allow myself to limit my teams upside.

If you want to secure 4th place in your league then go for it. But I’d rather get 8th place knowing that my team had a shot at first. If you start taking out a bunch of insurance policies, the odds of winning get smaller and smaller.

The second issue is understanding how football works. In most scenarios teams don’t have two stud RB’s. Honestly most teams don’t even have one. Many teams deploy a committee approach nowadays.

When we think about injuries from a fantasy perspective we tend to think only in terms of numbers. Yards per carry, yards per catch, fantasy points per opportunity and so on.

We look at players like data points without first thinking about what an injury means. The typical NFL team doesn’t have an overabundance of talent at the RB position. Especially in today’s passing league. Teams really only have one lead back with a bunch of complementary peace’s surrounding that player. Therefore when the stud goes down it’s not always one guy that benefits. It’s more of a committee approach. Not only that, it’s usually the player who wasn’t fantasy relevant who receives the biggest benefit. Scat backs (3rd down backs), who can be great in ppr leagues, seem like perfect handcuffs. They get you some production each week and it seems like they could be studs if they were just given the ball more. The problem is that they are scat backs for a reason. Their bodies typically aren’t suited for a 20 carry between the tackles workload. This again means that if we want to handcuff our back, then we need to be willing to roster players who are unstartable while our stud is healthy and productive. And that severely limits your upside, and really hurts you on bye weeks.

Am I telling you not to draft backups like Hunt?

Of course not!

Hunt is actually a solid late round pick this year. And honestly I think taking these talented backups late is the best strategy there is from an expected value perspective.

But what I am telling you to avoid is taking a backup to your starter. Because then you are ensuring that one of those two picks is a bad one. And that’s just not smart to do.

There is one last thing that I want to talk about. Some backups are not handcuffs. If a player has stand-alone value then I don’t consider them a handcuff. These guys are fine to draft with your starter, although again it does slightly limit upside. I much prefer to draft one or the other, and not both.

This list is not a long one, but includes: Tevin Coleman, Derrick Henry, Theo Riddick, Bilal Powell, and Danny Woodhead. These guys are not handcuffs in my eyes. They can be drafted along with the starters ahead of them because they have stand-alone value, with upside if the starter gets hurt. However, like I stated before, It is a better strategy in terms of upside If you either take the starter, or one of these backups. Not both.

Nick Zylak