Back in the cave man years of fantasy football, we often drafted “handcuffs” for our starting running backs. That meant, if you drafted Marshall Faulk, you also grabbed his backup Trung Canidate. Yes, that’s a real person. Maybe Canidate was a good candidate as a bench player for your team (he was), but the logic behind automatically drafting a backup of your starter is shaky at best.
The reason you wanted Trung on your team was because he was in line for a big workload on one of the greatest offenses of all time, not because he was Faulk’s backup. The same holds true today. Running back value is based on multiple factors, but none of them are if you have already drafted the player in front of him.
So, when looking at backup running backs to draft in the later rounds, you want to look at their true value. Darrynton Evans may be a useful PPR back and would see a bump if Derrick Henry went down, but he’s likely not going to come close to Henry’s numbers. Don’t reach for Evans if you draft Henry based on the random fact you drafted Henry!
Earlier this year I gave you my top five running back “handcuffs.” Those continue to hold true, but for this article I’m going to go through each team and evaluate the fantasy worth of the backup running backs across the NFL.
Ranking backup situations is difficult, as sometimes a committee looks like the plan and there isn’t a true backup, but I went with the rankings here based on fantasy upside for the “backup” if the starter is injured. I also try to consider the ADP of the backup as well. It’s not an exact science
Starter: Ezekiel Elliott
Backup: Tony Pollard
Tony Pollard is one of the top handcuffs in the league. We know what Elliott can do and Pollard isn’t going to be Elliott 2.0 if he ends up getting starts, but his skill set is good enough to be outstanding in the Dallas offense if Elliott misses time.
Starter: Dalvin Cook
Backup: Alexander Mattison
Dalvin Cook is a threat to hold out, but is still the lead back on a good run-oriented team. Keep an eye on his status, but he remains a top target in fantasy while Mattison would be in line for similar numbers if Cook were to miss any time.
Starter: Alvin Kamara
Backup: Latavius Murray
Kamara is the lead back while Murray is a strong handcuff if Kamara were to lose time due to injury. Last season when Kamara was out, Murray was a workhorse and put up great fantasy numbers.
Starter: Kenyan Drake
Backup: Chase Edmonds
With David Johnson in Houston, Drake will get the lead role much like he had in the second half of last season. Drake has yet to have 16 games as a starter and there is a chance he can’t hold up to that workload. If he can’t, Edmonds is one of the better backups in the league and would get a huge boost in fantasy value.
Starter: Mark Ingram
Backup: JK Dobbins, Gus Edwards, Justice Hill
The Ravens running back situation isn’t set in stone, as all of Ingram, Edwards, Dobbins and Hill are worth getting touches, but until we see differently, Ingram remains the lead back. But, this situation does lend itself to rookie Dobbins winning work as the season goes on.
If Ingram were to miss time due to an injury, Dobbins would still share some time with Edwards and Hill, but he is extremely talented and could easily break out as a fantasy league winner.
Starter: Cam Akers
Backup: Darrell Henderson, Malcolm Brown
The Rams let Todd Gurley go and replaced him with Cam Akers in the draft. It might not be that easy to slot Akers in as the every down back, but he should get the first shot due to his skill set. Henderson is dynamic while Brown is a solid, yet fairly average back. Nothing is set in stone here, but I do expect Henderson to be the main backup and have big fantasy upside if Akers misses time.
Starter: Miles Sanders
Backup: Boston Scott
With Jordan Howard gone, Sanders is the lead back going into the season. His backup, Boston Scott, played well last year and should be a strong fantasy option if Sanders misses time. I’ll be targeting Scott later in drafts.
Starter: Devin Singletary
Backup: Zack Moss
Singletary is poised to lead this backfield in 2020, but rookie Zack Moss has the ability to overtake him at the goal line and to win touches. Last season Frank Gore saw a big chunk of work and Moss is similar in his ball security and ability to break tackles. Unfortunately, QB Josh Allen is also a force around the goal line and will help disperse touchdown numbers a little too thin for consistent fantasy production from Moss.
But, if Singletary does miss time, Moss would have a good shot at winning every down back duties. In that case, he’d have more value than Singletary does with Moss there to take work away.
Starter: David Johnson
Backup: Duke Johnson
Johnson will need a strong resurgence after a couple of down seasons, but he is the lead back and will get every chance to remain the lead back. If he can’t get back to form or is injured again, Duke Johnson has enough ability to be a worthwhile starting fantasy running back in a strong offense led by DeShaun Watson.
Duke has never gotten the chance to see a consistent workload, but his efficiency stats have always been strong. At this point, there are no backs behind Duke that scare me away from grabbing him as a later round flier.
10. Cleveland Browns
Starter: Nick Chubb
Backup: Kareem Hunt
Chubb is the lead back and a strong one at that, but Hunt should continue to see enough work as a runner and receiver to have standalone fantasy value. Hunt is a useful fantasy player in his own right, but if Chubb were to lose time due to injury, he would have Top 5 running back upside. Unfortunately, Hunt isn’t cheap and you are drafting him for his value without a Chubb injury.
11. Seattle Seahawks
Starter: Chris Carson
Backup: Carlos Hyde, Rashaad Penny
Carson and Penny were the 1-2 attack last season but both were injured near the end of the season. Carson appears to be poised to be ready for Week 1, but Penny could start the season on PUP. Seattle grabbed Carlos Hyde as insurance for Penny and Carson and he would have fantasy value in Seattle’s offense if Carson were to have any kind of set back.
Starter: Leonard Fournette
Backup: Ryquell Armstead, Chris Thompson
Fournette will remain the starter, but could lose some of the receiving work he saw in 2019 to Chris Thompson. Armstead is the clear backup and would receive the bulk of the work, making him a good fantasy player to roster.
Starter: Aaron Jones
Backup: A.J. Dillon, Jamaal Williams
Jones is the lead back coming off a big 2019, but the addition of A.J. Dillon in the draft is a bad sign if you wanted to see his usage increase in 2020. Jamaal Williams could still be a problem, but if Jones misses time, Dillon is the best back to replace him. Matt LeFleur could easily put those two in a strict committee, so it’s hard to be too high on Dillon.
Starter: Austin Ekeler
Backup: Justin Jackson, Joshua Kelly
With Melvin Gordon out of town, Austin Ekeler gets the lead back duties. Either Jackson or Kelly should carve out a decent amount of touches alongside Ekeler, but it remains to be seen who wins the backup job. This is a tough spot, because I like both running backs and could see taking late round fliers on both.
15. Denver Broncos
Starter: Melvin Gordon
Backup: Phillip Lindsay, Royce Freeman
Gordon has three-down ability and will be the lead back. Lindsay should still be a part of the offense, but he’ll need Gordon to miss time to truly have value again. And if Gordon does miss time, Freeman would again become a factor, likely hurting Lindsay’s upside once again.
16. New York Giants
Starter: Saquon Barkley
Backup: Dion Lewis
Barkley is the lead back with three-down duties. If he were to get injured, we would likely see a committee of sorts, but Lewis would be in line for a lead back role and useful fantasy value.
Starter: Raheem Mostert or Tevin Coleman
Backup: Jerick McKinnon
As usual, the 49ers backfield isn’t set in stone. Matt Breida was shipped off to Miami but Jerick McKinnon could be back to take his place this season. Mostert was the best of the group last year, so should get a shot to lead the group, but Coleman isn’t going away. Kyle Shanahan will probably play the hot hand between Mostert and Coleman while using McKinnon as the receiving back. This offense is great for running backs, so whoever is projected to get the most touches that week has good value.
Starters: Marlon Mack, Jonathan Taylor
Backup: Nyheim Hines
The Colts have three running backs who could see significant work, as Mack knows the offense and the rookie Taylor won’t have as much time as most rookies to prepare with his team. But, Taylor is likely the superior back and who I want on my fantasy teams.
This is a good offense for running backs and both possible starters has good upside if their teammate misses time, but neither can be had for cheap like players with distinct backup roles.
Starter: Christian McCaffrey
Backup: Reggie Bonnafon
The Panthers might want to scale back McCaffrey’s touches, but they have little depth at the position. As long as he’s healthy, McCaffrey should remain a ball hog. Bonnafon isn’t nearly the back that McCaffrey is, but he does have a similar skill set and would be able to move into his role. His upside isn’t McCaffrey’s but he would have a lot of opportunities.
20. Miami Dolphins
Starter: Jordan Howard, Matt Breida
At first blush, this looks like a situation where Howard will get work between the tackles while Breida is used more in space as a receiver on third downs. In what will be a timeshare, both backs could have value, but will need their teammate to miss time for a chance to reach their upside.
Starter: Sony Michel, James White
Backup: Damien Harris, Rex Burkhead
James White is a staple in this offense and a consistent PPR value, but Michel has been the lead and goal line back over the last two seasons. The backup to watch out for is Harris, as he should get a chance to take over for Michel, who continues to deal with injuries. That doesn’t mean Harris will take over, but he should be given a chance. And if Michel misses time, Harris is the most likely to get a shot at lead back.
Starter: Joe Mixon
Backup: Giovani Bernard, Trayveon Williams
Mixon is the lead back with Bernard spelling him and seeing some receiving work, but if Mixon were to go down, we’d likely see Williams and Bernard sharing work. With no clear backup to take over a big chunk of touches, their fantasy value stays low.
23. Tennessee Titans
Starter: Derrick Henry
Backup: Darrynton Evans
Henry has the lead job locked up but will continue to be lacking in receptions, which should go toward rookie Evans. If Henry goes down with an injury, don’t expect the rookie Evans to take over a true lead back role. The team would likely form a committee of sorts, which could include a player they add after the fact.
24. Detroit Lions
Starter: Kerryon Johnson, D’Andre Swift
The addition of De’Andre Swift in the second round of the draft puts pressure on Johnson and his usage. Johnson will likely remain the lead back to start the season, but we could easily see Swift take over at some point. The rookie should start off as the lead receiving back and gain rushing attempts as the season progresses. Johnson, as the backup in terms of ADP, would of course see a significant bump in value if Swift misses time.
Starter: Clyde Edwards-Helaire
Backup: Darwin Thompson, Darrel Williams, DeAndre Washington
Damien Williams opted out, which gives us a little more clarity, as the first-round rookie Edwards Helaire will be in line for the starting reps. But there is a chance veteran Washington sees a healthy amount of work early on if CEH isn’t quite in synch with the playbook and his blocking assignments. In the end, the rookie is the stud back in this great offense while his backup isn’t fully known and could become a committee.
If Edwards-Helaire is hurt, we’d probably see a fairly scattershot approach at the position with Washington getting work as a stable back who is proficient across the board.
Starter: Ronald Jones
Backup: Ke’Shawn Vaughn, LeSean McCoy
Last season we saw a split in touches between Ronald Jones and Peyton Barber. There’s a chance we see a similar split this season between Jones and Vaughn, but Jones will go into the the season as the starter. If Jones goes down with an injury, tVaughn gets a boost, but would likely share work with LeSean McCoy.
Starter: James Conner
Backup: Jaylen Samuels, Benny Snell, Anthony McFarland
The Steelers drafted Anthony McFarland, but he shouldn’t cut too much into Conner’s lead back work as long as he can stay healthy. But, if Conner were to go down again, McFarland has more upside than Snell and would be my choice to have the most fantasy value. Unfortunately, Snel and Samuels both have a legitimate shot at touches in that scenario, making McFarland’s upside a little sketchier than some backups.
Starter: Derrius Guice,
Backup: Adrian Peterson, Antonio Gibson, Bryce Love
Washington’s backfield is a mess to predict. Guice, if he can stay healthy, is the lead back but if he misses time once again, Peterson would likely get the lead role while Gibson and Love get their chances in the passing game. Peterson still would have some fantasy value, but gone are his upside days.
29. Atlanta Falcons
Starter: Todd Gurley
Backup: Brian Hill, Ito Smith
Gurley is slated to be the lead back and we know what his upside looks like, but we also must take into account his knee issues. If he loses time this season, we’ll likely see a committee between Hill and Smith, with no clear fantasy standout.
Starter: Josh Jacobs
Backup: Lynn Bowden Jr., Jalen Richard, Jeremy Hill
Jacobs is one of the safest backs when it comes to rushing attempts, but could still lose receiving work to Richard and Bowden Jr. If he were to go down, we would likely see a committee of backs replace him. That committee could produce a useful fantasy player, but nobody is set to be a true every down back behind Jacobs.
31. Chicago Bears
Starter: David Montgomery
Backup: Tarik Cohen
Montgomery is the lead back while Cohen will be involved more in the passing game, much like last season. If Montgomery were to miss time, we’d see Cohen get a boost in touches, but someone would step in as the between the tackles runner. That someone probably isn’t on the team at the moment.
32. New York Jets
Starter: Le’Veon Bell
Backup: Frank Gore, La’Mical Perine
Adam Gase could play Gore more than we would like for fantasy purposes, but this is Bell’s job. If Bell is injured, Gore would likely take on a bigger role, but at his age and ability, we would likely see a shared backfield between Gore and rookie Perine.