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Unlock the Handcuffs
Joe Levit
August 10, 2006

Fantasy football owners are always trying to attain a balanced portfolio of picks, consisting of some players with upside and some who offer safety. One of the more widespread strategies, designed to acquire players who will serve as a safeguard in case starters are injured, is called handcuffing.

The premise is that star football players, whose production can’t be replaced should they become unable to start, are insured against injury. In practice, owners draft the backups to some of their top running backs and quarterbacks. They are usually able to grab these backups later in a draft or for a cheaper price at an auction.

Many owners use this tactic to backup both of their starting running backs. Some owners choose to grab a team’s second-string quarterback after getting the starter, especially in pass-happy offenses. While these can be solid choices, and certainly are safe, this conservative approach often leaves owners at a disadvantage in terms of value. Don’t you be a slave to this practice, because more often than not you end up handcuffing yourself.

In order to properly understand why this procedure can place you in shackles, it is crucial to first fully understand what handcuffing means. Not all backups are the same. A handcuff is a scenario created only when the backup player selected is definitively a lesser player. He is no immediate threat to the starter.

For an extreme example, take Peyton Manning. There is no way that when healthy the Indianapolis Colts would choose to start another player at the quarterback position. If for some reason you wanted to protect your Manning investment – not recommended since he hasn’t missed a game in eight NFL seasons – you would take Jim Sorgi in one of the last rounds of your draft this year. That would constitute a handcuff.

Handcuffing does not include the drafting of tandems or committees, two similar systems. A tandem is a circumstance created when a team’s coaches have not yet determined a final depth chart. This happens to teams with a few good runners, none of which have pulled ahead of the others in training camp. It also can occur when two quarterbacks are vying for the starting job, but both have mediocre results in preseason games. Since it is difficult for fantasy owners to project who will become the primary ball carrier or passer, they take two players at that position within a few rounds of each other. The hope is that one of them will soon forge past the other, providing solid statistics at a discounted price. For instance, this year the Tennessee Titans present a tandem scenario. Chris Brown will likely be listed as the starter at running back, but a healthy Travis Henry and talented rookie like LenDale White leave the outcome in question. Drafting two of these guys – say Brown and White – gives an owner a good shot at solid production this year out of at least one of them, and won’t require a high draft pick.

A committee is a known or suspected scenario whereby the pro team will purposefully be using two or more tailbacks in games, diminishing the statistics of everyone involved. The Atlanta Falcons feature a known committee in the NFL. Though Warrick Dunn is the starter, T.J. Duckett gets a decent number of carries, and a larger percentage of the scores. A couple teams suspected of planning to institute committees this year are the Indianapolis Colts and Denver Broncos. Indianapolis lost their Edge in free agency, so Dominic Rhodes and rookie Joseph Addai will likely share the carries most of the season. In Denver, undrafted rookie running back Mike Bell has made a recent splash by climbing to the top of the depth chart. It remains to be seen what he does with his now-lofty status, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him platoon with either Tatum Bell (breakaway threat) or Ron Dayne (goal line scorer), or both. Carries will likely be split here this year regardless of who is on the field.

With the ability to distinguish between handcuffs, tandems and committees, we can now focus on the rationale to avoid handcuffing. There are three good arguments that explain why handcuffing should not be a main drafting tool for you.

One is that backups are on the bench for a reason. Usually, these players aren’t good enough to start somewhere. That gives you one or more slots on your roster that represent little tangible value. This also means a drop in production for your fantasy roster if you are forced to start them. What seemed like a failsafe selection instead leads to disappointing returns.

Say you draft Edgerrin James and back him up with Marcel Shipp. If James gets hurt, you are going to be frustrated when Shipp shows you why he hasn’t been able to set sail in Arizona. Using a speculative pick on a possible starter for a different team is a better idea. If that player moves to the top of his depth chart, it probably means you have a player able to score more. That could lead to the few extra points needed to win a key matchup.

Another reason not to backup your best players is that you miss out on taking some exploratory shots in the dark on draft day. After the first half of any draft it is important to select a few sleepers. They could perform for you, or serve as trade bait. Try drafting a player you feel is underrated, or a player in a tandem who you believe will earn a starting gig near the beginning of the season. Finding a dark horse that breaks out big time is what can turn a contender into a championship-caliber unit.

To see this difference in action, let’s say you choose to handcuff your starting running backs. You could get Willis McGahee and Shaud Williams plus Kevin Jones and Shawn Bryson. This gives you two strong players and two guys who won’t do much if the starters are out. Or, you could draft McGahee and Jones, and then ignore their backups. This allows you to try picking up sleepers. Perhaps you would also end up with DeAngelo Williams and Laurence Maroney. Both are behind veterans who have been injured in recent seasons. Either rookie could end up starting and being brilliant. This gives you four opportunities to succeed, instead of two.

A third reason not to handcuff is that if you do, you miss out on denying other owners talent. In the fantasy football race, keeping other owners away from possible production is often just as smart as identifying sleepers in the first place. These players may not be good enough to start on your roster from week to week, but if they could possibly help somebody beat you, you don’t want them on the open market. Why spend a pick backing up somebody like Shaun Alexander? He is never hurt. Taking Maurice Morris for the last few years has been nothing but a wasted pick. Better to take a receiver who could come on, or a running back behind a fragile starter, and keep them from others.

It is true that handcuffs do occasionally work out, and sometimes lead to spectacular results. Owners who drafted Priest Holmes last year and then handcuffed Larry Johnson before another owner could tab him enjoyed a phenomenal run of production in the season’s second half. Johnson gained 100 yards in each of his nine starts last year, and scored 17 touchdowns in just those games. While this occurrence helped carry a lot of fantasy owners to a league title in 2005, it is a rare incident. The percentages are not in favor of it happening because other key criteria must be in place. The backup has to be supremely talented in his own right, and the offensive line must be top-notch. Both of those factors were the case in Kansas City.

So, what teams present a situation where it may be beneficial to handcuff this year? Let’s take a look at some players that qualify:

Quarterback

Arizona:  Kurt Warner/Matt Leinart – This duo represents the only quarterback group that truly makes sense as a handcuff, and then only if Leinart gets into camp soon enough to grasp the offense. Warner gets hurt these days, and Leinart would have two receivers who finished in the top five in receiving yards last year, not to mention James in the backfield.

Running Back

Carolina:  DeShaun Foster/DeAngelo Williams – Foster may be getting his first chance to be a full-time starter, but he has never shown he can avoid the injury bug. The team, using a first-round pick, took Williams as insurance plus upside.

DallasJulius Jones/Marion Barber – Jones is another back who does well in spurts of health. Barber had a few good games in his absence and has a knack for success near the goal line.

Green Bay:  Ahman Green/Samkon Gado/Najeh Davenport – Green is coming back from a serious injury. One of the backups could have a chance to excel.

New EnglandCorey Dillon/Laurence Maroney – Dillon seems to be breaking down with age. He gets in the end zone a lot, but you can’t stiff-arm a leg problem. Maroney has fresh wheels, and talent.

Philly:  Brian Westbrook/Ryan Moats – If Westbrook is asked to carry too much of the load without Terrell Owens around, he’ll be set up for physical pain. Moats could shock some owners.

Ravens:  Jamal Lewis/Mike Anderson – Lewis hasn’t shown much for two years now, and Anderson is all about hard work, so don’t be surprised if he steals carries.

Though popular and well understood, the handcuff technique in fantasy football is not as terrific an option as it is touted to be. Though fantasy football may be your whole life, it isn’t going to kill you, so don’t put so much stock in insurance. Try to go win your league rather than protect against losing.