Handcuffs not just for cops

Tony Pollard did not receive a carry and caught his only target for a five-yard loss in Sunday’s game. So, should you drop him? If you’re an Ezekiel Elliott owner, don’t do it. Although he only scored 89.2 fantasy points as a rookie, Pollard truly separated himself among backup running backs last year with his efficiency and playmaking ability. Pollard’s total output only resulted in an RB53 ranking, but he also ranked 17th in points per snap among all backs.

As the efficiency suggests, Pollard was superb on the field. He ranked fourth in missed tackles forced per attempt (0.27) and first in yards after contact per attempt (4.5) among all running backs with 50-plus rushing attempts. In addition to his work as a runner, Pollard proved to be a back worthy of pass-game usage, too — he ranked 11th in yards after catch (YAC) per reception (9.3) and 23rd in yards per route run (1.32) among all running backs with 20-plus targets.

If Elliott goes down with an injury, Pollard, the Cowboys’ No. 2 running back, becomes an RB1 overnight. And yet, I observed this week that he’s only 31.5 percent owned in ESPN leagues and 27 percent in Yahoo leagues. This fact amazes me because he’s the No. 1 handcuff in the game. The Cowboys have one of the top offenses in the NFL, and they still use the bell-cow approach behind center. But 70 percent, or more of the Elliott owners don’t own Pollard.   

Now consider the case of Alexander Mattison, the No. 2 handcuff in the game. Like Pollard his current workload is minimal. But his potential volume as a starter would be astronomical with the run-first Vikings offense that does not utilize a committee approach. In 2019, Mattison totaled 110 touches for 70.4 total points, which placed him at RB60. He ranked first on the Vikings’ roster in missed tackles forced per rushing attempt (0.18) and second in yards after contact per attempt (3.2).

While Mattison is as good a runner as Pollard, he wasn’t used as much in the passing game. He totaled only 10 receptions on 11 targets in 2019. Even with his lack of pass-game usage, Mattison is a must-own back if you’re a Dalvin Cook owner because the Vikings offense still grinds out production on the ground. Interestingly, Mattison has larger ownership percentage than Pollard, being owned in 40 percent of ESPN leagues and 47.5 Yahoo leagues. But that’s still less than half in both.

This leads me to my point. The majority of people who play fantasy football don’t understand the importance of handcuffs. For those of you are ignorant, handcuffs are not just for cops. In fantasy football, the word handcuff is used to describe the act of drafting (or adding) a player in order to provide insurance for another player already on the roster. For example, if you drafted Elliott or Cook in the first round, he should have drafted Pollard or Mattison respectively as a handcuff.

You need to understand that handcuffing RBs is not an exact science. The importance of a handcuff depends on several factors, including the value of the starter in question, the price and quality of the handcuff and the overall clarity of the backfield situation. The rule of the thumb is that it’s a good idea to handcuff your top back – assuming he was drafted in the first or second round and there is a clear handcuff. If there is no clear-cut handcuff to your stud running back, you can pass.  

Let’s break this down a little bit more with a few examples. If you drafted Le’Veon Bell in the fourth round of your draft, you didn’t need to worry about drafting his handcuff, Frank Gore. The first reason is that if Bell is your RB1, your team was in trouble before Bell was injured. The second reason is that the Jets are so bad that Gore isn’t even fantasy relevant as the lead back. Consider that Gore ran the carried the ball 21 times the week after Bell went down and racked up only 6.3 fantasy points.

A second above-mentioned criterion is the price and quality of the handcuff. I drafted Nick Chubb in one of my leagues but did not get Kareem Hunt. If Chubb is injured, Hunt would easily become an RB1. But the problem is that Hunt goes in the fifth or sixth round of most drafts. In this case, Hunt clearly checks the box as a quality handcuff, but the price was too high for me. I was focused on adding fantasy relevant wide receivers in these rounds after loading up on running backs early on.

I had Elliott on this team, but Pollard was a no-brainer because I was able to get him in the 13th round. The opportunity cost was much less. A handcuff that falls in between Hunt and Pollard is Latavius Murry, who is usually drafted in the 10th or 11th round of many drafts. When Alvin Kamara was injured last year, Murray stepped up and finished ranked 28th in running back scoring last season (157.2). Murray, who also has stand-alone value, had 637 rushing yards and five touchdowns.

A handcuff that emerged from obscurity to notoriety was Mike Davis. Before the injury to Christian McCaffrey in Week 2, his name was Mike Who? No one knew if Davis was a handcuff because McCaffrey hadn’t missed a game in his three seasons with the Carolina Panthers. Analysts could only speculate that Davis would be a bell-cow back instead of sharing time with Trenton Cannon. Clarity came quickly on Sunday as Davis scored 23.1 fantasy points on Sunday.   


A shout-out to all of you Joe Mixon owners. I don’t want to say I told you so, but “I told you so.”  If you ignored my advice and drafted Mixon in the first or second round, you may be freaking out right now. Volume isn’t the problem. Mixon had 19 touches on Sunday after having 20 in each of the first two games. He was held scoreless again for the third straight week. I realize a similar situation unfolded last year in Cincinnati, but if you own Mixon, you’re gripping

The facts about the Bengals’ situation will keep you up at night. Cincinnati has the worst offensive line in football, as Mixon is averaging under 1.5 yards before contact through the first three weeks of the season. To add insult to injury, the Bengals continue to play Giovani Bernard over him in the two-minute drills and in many passing situations. I hate to sell low, but there is a time to cut your losses and move on. If you can get anything for Mixon, trade him now.  

Follow Thomas L. Seltzer, AKA Doubting Thomas, on Twitter @ThomasLSeltzer1.

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