Handcuffs essentially have three key purposes in modern society:

  1. Law enforcement reasons
  2. Kinky bedroom desires
  3. Fantasy football targets

As you can probably guess: We’re focusing on the latter scenario today.

Handcuff RBs are just about the biggest boom-or-bust archetypes in fantasy football because their floor consists of only a few touches per game.

But their ceiling is of the league-winning caliber, thanks to the reality that some are just *one* injury away from taking over their backfield and assuming a workhorse role.

Of course, not all handcuff RBs are created equal. Some backup RBs inherit a full-fledged three-down role when the starter goes down, while others don’t exactly see their job change all that much. Teams could also feel bad enough about their existing depth to add a more qualified option in free agency.

Backfield injuries throw a wrench into fantasy and real-life plans alike – so today’s goal is to determine just how involved every team’s No. 2 RB would be if their starter were to theoretically miss time.

Aaron Jones

Green Bay Packers running back Aaron Jones (33) leaves the field injured in the third quarter against the Seattle Seahawks during their football game Sunday, November 14, 2021, at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis. Dan Powers/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin Apc Packvsseattle 1114211318djp

Every backfield will fall into one of the following five tiers:

  1. Decent standalone value coupled with a legit chance for a workhorse role in the absence of their team’s starter. These are “FLEX with benefits” types.
  2. Theoretical potential to provide an occasional boom as a backup while also possessing enough three-down ability to see a really big role if the team’s No. 1 RB goes down.
  3. Limited enough weekly skill set to the point that a workhorse role probably wouldn’t emerge with an injury to the starter but would still be the clear-cut top fantasy option.
  4. True backup with very little weekly action, but theoretically, the next man-up should disaster strike.
  5. Minimal investment and proven ability from the backups make it more likely than not that the team would sign a free agent to help cushion an injury to their starter.

There are still a handful of big-name free agents out there who will inevitably ruin some of these backfields; this piece will accordingly be updated throughout August and early September to reflect those moves.

Note: Slashes denote backfields that don’t have a clear-cut starter at this point in time, but I feel like either party would receive the tier-based handcuff boost with an injury to the other.

Finally, RBs are listed in no particular order inside each tier.

As always: It’s a great day to be great.

Tier 1: FLEX with benefits (6)

  • Commanders RB Antonio Gibson
  • Steelers RB Jaylen Warren
  • Packers RB A.J. Dillon
  • Broncos RB Samaje Perine
  • Lions RB Jahmyr Gibbs/David Montgomery
  • Seahawks RB Zach Charbonnet

Antonio Gibson

Set to assume the J.D. McKissic role, which produced more targets per game than anyone not named Austin EkelerAlvin Kamara and Christian McCaffrey over the past three seasons. Speaking of CMC, Gibson has a full-fledged three-down role in his range of outcomes should starter Brian Robinson go down – this has even been hinted at over the years by head coach Ron Rivera himself.

Jaylen Warren

He out-performed Najee Harris in every meaningful efficiency metric as a rookie despite both backs facing eight-plus defenders in the box on a nearly identical rate of carries. The Steelers join the Rams as arguably the league’s two most-willing offenses to feed a single workhorse RB a heavy majority of the offense’s snaps.

A.J. Dillon

Posted 11-53-0 rushing and 6-44-0 receiving lines on a robust 75% snap rate in his only non-Week 18 game without Aaron Jones over the past two seasons. Jones boasts relatively modest advantages in targets (137 vs. 80) and especially rush attempts (384 vs. 373) compared to Dillon over the past two seasons; the Packers might be comfortable giving Dillon the sort of three-down workhorse role that was briefly on former No. 2 RB Jamaal Williams’ plate back in 2020 when Jones missed time (89%, 85% snap rates).

Samaje Perine

Might not have the ridiculous zero-to-100 playmaking that starting RB Javonte Williams possesses when healthy. But Perine proved more than capable of producing with an every-down role with Joe Mixon sidelined for most of three games last season:

  • Week 11: 11-30-0 rushing, 4-52-3 receiving, 70% snaps
  • Week 12: 17-58-1, 4-35-0, 80% 
  • Week 13: 21-106-0, 6-49-0, 83%

While Head Coach Sean Payton has historically preferred to feature multiple RBs, he has occasionally zeroed in on one featured RB when forced to do so (Alvin Kamara during Mark Ingram’s suspension in 2018).

Jahmyr Gibbs and David Montgomery

Both offer the sort of three-down chops to absolutely thrive with a workhorse role should the other be forced to miss time. Perhaps guys like Justin Jackson and Craig Reynolds would be involved to some extent; just realize either Gibbs or Montgomery would be awfully difficult to keep out of the position’s top-12 options as the clear-cut lead back inside of an offense that ranked second in expected backfield PPR points per game last season.

Jahmyr Gibbs; David Montgomery

(From left) Lions running backs Jahmyr Gibbs, Jermar Jefferson , David Montgomery and Mohamed Ibrahim go through drills during training camp on Wednesday, July 26, 2023, in Allen Park.

Zach Charbonnet

Possesses the size (6'0, 215 pounds) and pass-catching ability (61-518-0 receiving line in two years at UCLA) to feasibly work across all three downs if something were to happen to Kenneth Walker. It’s possible the Seahawks would still keep Kenny McIntosh and/or DeeJay Dallas involved, but Charbonnet would be the lead dog expected to handle the heavy majority of touches inside of an offense that has proved willing to RIDE the hot hand over the years.

Tier 2: Theoretical three-down ability (8)

  • Eagles RB D’Andre Swift/Rashaad Penny
  • Saints RB Jamaal Williams/Kendre Miller
  • Panthers RB Chuba Hubbard
  • Falcons RB Tyler Allgeier
  • 49ers RB Elijah Mitchell
  • Browns RB Jerome Ford
  • Texans RB Devin Singletary
  • Jaguars RB Tank Bigsby

D’Andre Swift and Rashaad Penny

Either would undoubtedly receive a nice boost up the ranks with an injury to the other, but it’s tough to see Swift fully taking over early-down work from backups Boston Scott and Trey Sermon, and the same is true for Penny on passing downs due to the presence of Kenneth Gainwell. There’s also not a ton of meat on the bone inside of an offense with so many playmakers that its RBs collectively averaged the NFL’s seventh-fewest expected PPR points per game last season.

Jamaal Williams and Kendre Miller

The former Detroit back proved capable of handling an every-down role briefly during his time in Green Bay but wasn’t afforded the same opportunity when D’Andre Swift missed time in Detroit. The presence of the latter-day-two rookie makes it unlikely the Twerk God gets a true workhorse role in the absence of Alvin Kamara. Regardless, both backs would undoubtedly receive a nice boost up the ranks and vie for 15-plus combined carries and targets on a weekly basis if/when Kamara (suspension) misses any time.

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Chuba Hubbard

New head coach Frank Reich was willing to feature Jonathan Taylor and (to a slightly lesser extent) Marlon Mack during his time in Indy. Hubbard handled 15-plus touches in four of his final six games of 2022. If we are to believe the offseason sentiment that Miles Sanders is in line for a true three-down role, it’d make sense if Hubbard gets something similar in the absence of the Panthers’ starting RB.

Tyler Allgeier

Put up some truly awesome numbers as a pure rusher last season:

  • PFF rushing grade: 88.0 (No. 6 among 44 qualified RB)
  • Yards per carry: 4.9 (tied for No. 7)
  • Yards after contact per carry: 3.6 (No. 5)
  • Missed tackles forced per carry: 0.24 (No. 6)

Only problem: pass-down work. The rookie caught just 16 passes in 16 games last season and would face plenty of competition from kick return GOAT Cordarrelle Patterson in pass-first situations should Bijan Robinson be forced to miss any time. Still a great handcuff option, but Allgeier would be more of an upside RB2 as opposed to a must-start RB1.

Tyler Allgeier

May 14, 2022; Flowery Branch, GA, USA; Atlanta Falcons running back Tyler Allgeier (25) runs with the ball during Falcons Rookie Minicamp at the Falcons Training Complex. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Elijah Mitchell

Racked up at least nine touches in all five of his healthy-ish games alongside Christian McCaffrey. He doesn’t have enough pass-game involvement inside of this loaded offense to warrant much standalone value, but there’s plenty of handcuff upside, as evidenced by his six top-15 PPR finishes in 11 regular season performances back in 2021. Kyle Shanahan’s No. 1 RB has usually been pretty, pretty, pretty good for the fantasy football business.

Jerome Ford

The Browns only gave Ford eight offensive touches last season, but their offseason decisions to not re-sign Kareem Hunt or D’Ernest Johnson while also refraining from drafting a single RB speaks volumes to how they feel about the rising second-year back. Seemingly cemented as the offense’s clear-cut No. 2 RB, Ford is my favorite Round 14 pick and generally one of the best late-round bets out there thanks to his potential to 1.) Siphon away some of Hunt’s leftover fantasy-friendly pass-down work, and 2.) Provide some pretty damn good handcuff upside should Nick Chubb be forced to miss any time.

Devin Singletary

Gained 969, 956, 1,098 and 1,099 total yards during his four years with the Bills, regularly providing enough three-down ability to keep guys like Zack Moss and James Cook from getting too big of a role. Immediate pass-down work is likely: Dameon Pierce graded out as PFF’s sixth-worst pass-blocking RB among 60 qualified backs, while Singletary ranked 12th. And if anything happens to Pierce? Don’t be surprised if Singletary seldom leaves the field with journeymen Mike Boone and Dare Ogunbowale the next men up.

Tank Bigsby

A favorite later-round target of mine thanks to his ability to either 1.) Provide some level of TD-dependent standalone value thanks to his potential to steal short-yardage touches, and/or 2.) Boom as a handcuff should ETN be forced to miss any time. Early camp reports praised Bigsby as a receiver. He sure looks like the clear-cut No. 2 RB in Jacksonville and is going in a great spot of the draft when the top-18 QBs, top-61 WRs and top-12 TEs are already off the board.

Tier 3: Limited, but would still be on the cover of waiver wire articles (6)

  • Bears RB D’Onta Foreman
  • Ravens RB Gus Edwards
  • Chiefs RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire
  • Raiders RB Zamir White
  • Bills RB Damien Harris
  • Titans RB Tyjae Spears

The likes of Foreman, Edwards, Harris and White have never been asked to handle much – if any – pass-down work. This isn’t to suggest they wouldn’t each be viable RB2 types should their team’s respective No. 1 RB go down; just realize in full-PPR scoring it’s tough to rationalize too high of a ceiling for backs who don’t catch passes.

Meanwhile, CEH can catch passes, although the Chiefs preferred to use Jerick McKinnon as their lead pass-down option in 2023. The former first-round pick would certainly project as the lead back if Isiah Pacheco were forced to miss any time; just realize the general returns on Andy Reid’s lead RBs haven’t quite been what they used to be.

Spears could arguably be a tier-two option if Hassan Haskins’ ongoing legal situation really takes a turn south. Still, his less-than-ideal size (5'10, 201 pounds) could pigeonhole the rookie as more of a pass-down only option should disaster strike this Derrick Henry-led offense. Targeting the receiving-friendly option in a committee is advised; just realize it’s probably a bit of wishful thinking to expect the Titans to hand Spears a true every-down role in the absence of King Henry.

Tier 4: We’re saying there’s a chance (2)

  • Bengals RB Trayveon Williams
  • Chargers RB Joshua Kelley

Both Williams (assuming his ankle injury is mild as reported) and Kelley are tentatively the No. 2 RBs on their respective depth charts, although neither has the sort of proven production to make a featured handcuff role more than wishful thinking.

Trayveon Williams

Cincinnati Bengals running back Trayveon Williams (32) is carted off the field with an injury during a training camp practice at the Paycor Stadium practice facility in downtown Cincinnati on Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2023. Tuesday marked the team s first preseason practice in pads.

The Chargers (Sony Michel) and Bengals (Samaje Perine) didn’t make any serious high-end additions to replace their 2022 backups – this is good news for both Williams and Kelley, but that also doesn’t mean an injury to Austin Ekeler or Joe Mixon would lead to a featured role for either projected No. 2 RB.

The most likely scenario if disaster struck either backfield: Multi-back committee approach that would render all parties involved as iffy-RB3 types. This projection will change if Williams or Kelley dominates first-team preseason usage, but I wouldn’t count on it.

Tier 5: Free agent addition incoming (10)

  • Dolphins
  • Cowboys
  • Giants
  • Buccaneers
  • Vikings
  • Rams
  • Cardinals
  • Patriots
  • Jets
  • Colts

The Dolphins, Patriots and Jets have already been actively hosting free agent RBs, while Cowboys owner Jerry Jones refuses to shut the door on bringing back Ezekiel Elliott.

Meanwhile, the Giants, Bucs, Vikings, Cardinals and Colts are SO thin behind their No. 1 RB that it’s really difficult to imagine a world where any squad could realistically lose their starter and think that everything will just keep on keeping on.

Finally, the Rams have already been making small moves with Sony Michel (retired) and, more recently, Royce Freeman to address their depth behind Cam Akers. As we saw down the stretch in 2018 with C.J. Anderson: Sean McVay isn’t afraid to turn the backfield over to a new party in a hurry if he needs to.

Handcuff Tiers
Ian Hartitz
Ian Hartitz
Ian is a senior fantasy analyst at Fantasy Life and he truly believes every day is a great day to be great. He's spent time with Action Network, NBC Sports and Pro Football Focus over the years, writing and podcasting about all things fantasy football along the way. Ian's process relies on a mix of film analysis and data study; whatever is needed to get the job done (job done). There's no reason fun can't be had along the way — we do live on a rock floating around a ball of fire after all. Outside of football, Ian enjoys MMA, his dachshund Lilly and candles.