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Fantasy Football: Who are 2021's premier handcuff running backs?

Dec 8, 2020; Baltimore, Maryland, USA; Dallas Cowboys running back Tony Pollard (20) runs with the ball while being tackled by Baltimore Ravens cornerback Marcus Peters (24) in the second quarter at M&T Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

We’re in the thick of the NFL offseason and it’s officially time to start fantasy football prep. I’ll be answering the biggest questions heading into the 2021 season. Click here to read the series of questions answered so far.

The idea that running backs don’t matter never seems more true than when a team’s starter goes down, only for the backup to step in and put together a big performance. There isn’t another position in the game more reliant on teammates; even the best running backs in the world won’t be worth much of a damn without the benefit of at least competent quarterback and offensive line play.

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That latter point phrased differently: Even some of the league’s more mediocre running backs are capable of putting up big numbers when the right amount of opportunity meets solid enough teammate performance. This is essentially the idea behind a fantasy football handcuff running back: someone with the chance to ball the hell out if their team’s starter goes down.

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Of course, not every backfield is created equal. Some No. 2 running backs are more or less starters already, others might be one injury away from a featured role and even more are fairly one-dimensional talents who shouldn’t ever be expected to function as a true every-down back.

The goal of today’s article is to identify the best handcuffs to target in 2021 fantasy football drafts of all shapes and sizes. I’ve broken down every NFL backfield into six tiers in terms of the potential of the primary backup to gain a featured role. 

Tier 1: The truly elite top-four handcuffs (Browns, Cowboys, Saints, Vikings)

Unfortunately, Kareem Hunt didn’t take over fantasy football quite like most imagined during Nick Chubb’s four-game absence in 2020. Still, the role handed to him was borderline erotic from a snap standpoint. Overall, Hunt posted 70%, 53%, 90% and 86% snap rates in his four starts in Weeks 5-8 last season, averaging a robust 18.8 touches per game along the way. Note that the 53% snap performance came in a 38-7 loss. Hunt will be a legit weekly top-five fantasy option at the position if Chubb is forced to miss any time in 2021.

The Dallas Cowboys have 90 million reasons to continue to feed Ezekiel Elliott an every-down role. Still, Tony Pollard ripped off 12-69-2 rushing and 6-63-0 receiving lines on a robust 90% snap rate in his only career game with Zeke sidelined. Pollard is tied with Chubb for the most missed tackles forced per rush over the past two seasons and Derrick Henry for yards after contact per rush. The man is objectively a stud.

Latavius Murray supplied true top-three value in the only two non-Week 17 games Alvin Kamara has missed since 2019; he remains firmly inside of the top-three handcuffs most worthy of targeting in fantasy drafts of all shapes and sizes. There could even be more of a consistent weekly role this season if Taysom Hill winds up winning the job: Kamara (50 carries), Murray (40) and Hill (39) essentially formed a three-way rushing committee during the latter’s four starts. Murray turns 32 in January and won’t be more than a low-end flex whenever Kamara is healthy; just realize his best-case scenario ceiling remains awfully high.

The Minnesota Vikings generally make a habit of feeding Dalvin Cook to his heart’s desire. However, backup RB Alexander Mattison has consistently stepped up as the offense’s featured back in his absence. Last season, Mattison handled 23, 11 and 24 touches in three games with Cook either sidelined or limited to fewer than half of the team’s snaps. The middle performance featured an extreme negative game script that led to Ameer Abdullah seeing plenty of work on pass downs. Mattison doesn’t have the same 90% snap upside as the rest of this group in the event of disaster, but the Vikings’ run-first philosophy and proven willingness to feed him the rock still lands him safely inside the big-four handcuffs.

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