2023 Handcuff Rankings: Fantasy Football Running Backs
Now that we have released our NFL backfield rankings (shout out to Scott Spratt for the excellent work), we can start diving into the different backfields in the NFL to determine which handcuffs to target with fantasy football seasons around the corner.
The premise of this article is relatively simple: We are working to identify the best running backs in the NFL to target if the starting running back missed the entire season (or a significant amount of time) due to injury. That means that we aren’t looking at any of these players through the lens of their role as of this moment or value without an injury. As my editor phrased it: What if the Thanos snap erased all starting running backs? Rank who’s left. That means current value doesn’t matter. It also means some situations where there are multiple good backups but no clear No. 2 probably rank lower than other situations where the backup might not be excellent but has a clear role.
And so, check out the 2023 handcuff rankings below.
2023 Fantasy Football Handcuff Rankings for RBs
1. Alexander Mattison, Minnesota Vikings
Alexander Mattison once again tops this list in 2023 (at least until the Dalvin Cook trade/cut rumors prove to be true). According to FTN’s Splits Tool, Mattison rarely makes an impact when Dalvin Cook is healthy on game day, but he sees a massive increase in his workload when Cook misses with an injury.
Over the last two seasons, the Vikings have only added competition to the backfield in the form of Day 3 draft picks (Ty Chandler and DeWayne McBride), meaning Mattison should once again command the backfield touches if Dalvin Cook leaves town, or if he remains in Minnesota and goes down with an injury.
2. Tyler Allgeier, Atlanta Falcons
Tyler Allgeier had a fantastic rookie season, and the Falcons rewarded him by drafting Bijan Robinson in the first round of the 2023 NFL Draft, relegating Allgeier to handcuff status in the process. Allgeier now finds him on this list as one of the top handcuffs to secure in fantasy football.
According to FTN’s advanced stats, Allgeier was top-10 in the NFL in yards after contact (752), missed tackles forced (51), stacked box rushing yards (293) and stacked box yards per carry (5.2). None of this will be enough to unseat Bijan Robinson of course, but it does show that Allgeier is worthy of prioritizing in fantasy drafts in case anything happens to Robinson during the season.
3. AJ Dillon, Green Bay Packers
AJ Dillon didn’t meet lofty expectations in fantasy in 2022, but he remains one of the top handcuffs in the league. Over the last two seasons, Dillon has averaged 11.0 carries, 2.4 targets and 61.6 all-purpose yards per game while playing a 46% snap share. There haven’t been many opportunities for him to secure a full-time load in his three seasons with the team, but if Aaron Jones misses time, it stands to reason that Dillon would see the majority of the touches over a 2020 UDFA (Patrick Taylor) and a 2023 seventh-round pick (Lew Nichols).
4. Devin Singletary, Houston Texans
Devin Singletary moves from the lead back in Buffalo to the presumptive backup to Dameon Pierce in Houston. The veteran running back is a solid all-around player and posted the 16th-best breakaway run rate (31% of his carries went for 15-plus yards) in 2022 according to FTN’s advanced rushing metrics. Houston’s running back depth chart is filled out by journeymen backups like Mike Boone and Dare Ogunbowale, so any injury to Pierce should result in a massive workload spike for Singletary in his new home.
5. Elijah Mitchell, San Francisco 49ers
Injuries have hampered Elijah Mitchell throughout his first two seasons in the NFL, leading the 49ers to trade for Christian McCaffrey during the 2022 season. With McCaffery in tow, Mitchell becomes a premier handcuff going forward. When healthy, Mitchell has shown the ability to maintain a high level of efficiency rushing on the ground. On 252 carries, Mitchell is averaging 4.9 yards per attempt and has scored seven rushing touchdowns. His questionable health, nonexistent receiving profile and depth in the form of Jordan Mason and Tyrion Davis-Price keep him from jumping higher on this list.
6. Gus Edwards, Baltimore Ravens
Gus Edwards missed all of the 2021 season with an ACL tear and struggled to work his way back to start the 2022 season. Edwards played in just nine games last season, finishing with 87 carries for 433 yards and three touchdowns on the ground. Baltimore will be the J.K. Dobbins show in 2023, but if he maintains his injury struggles, then Edwards will be the lead back behind one of the best run-blocking offensive lines in the NFL today. The veteran running back has averaged 5.0 yards per carry on 501 career rushes and would see the lion's share of the backfield touches competing with Justice Hill and UDFA’s Keaton Mitchell and Owen Wright.
7. Jerome Ford, Cleveland Browns
2022 fifth-round pick Jerome Ford saw most of his usage on special teams during his first season with the Cleveland Browns with Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt dominating the backfield. Hunt has moved on to free agency, which logically means Ford will see an expanded role in Cleveland’s offense in 2023. Outside of Chubb and Ford, the Browns have Demetric Felton, John Kelly and Nate McCrary on their running back depth chart. If anything were to happen to Chubb, Ford would become the primary running back behind one of the best offensive lines in the NFL.
8. Zach Charbonnet, Seattle Seahawks
Fantasy managers were devastated when Seattle drafted Zach Charbonnet in the second round of the 2023 NFL Draft after an exceptional season from Kenneth Walker in his 2022 rookie season. Walker should comfortably lead this backfield in carries, making Charbonnet a high-upside handcuff in his first season. The UCLA product averaged 7.0 yards per carry and 4.15 yards after contact during his final season with the Bruins. If Walker is injured in 2022, Charbonnet would be the primary beneficiary of the workload surrounded by receiving backs like DeeJay Dallas and Kenny McIntosh.
9. Antonio Gibson, Washington Commanders
Antonio Gibson is coming off the worst rushing season of his career with the Washington Commanders, setting career lows in carries (149), rushing yards (546) and rushing touchdowns (3). On the flip side, he had his best season as a receiver, posting career-highs in targets (58), receptions (46) and receiving yards (353). Washington will likely use Brian Robinson as the team’s early-down grinder, but Gibson is reportedly a favorite of new offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy and could see his role grow. If anything were to happen to Robinson but has considerably more talent than fellow running backs Chris Rodriguez, Jonathan Williams and Jaret Patterson.
10. Chuba Hubbard, Carolina Panthers
The Carolina Panthers traded away Christian McCaffery during last year and then let his replacement D'Onta Foreman walk in free agency after the season. They opted to replace Foreman with free agent Miles Sanders. Sanders was paid to lead the backfield, but Hubbard would be poised to see a large share of the workload if anything were to happen to him. The veteran running back boasts 4.0 yards per carry in his career and had two starts in 2022, racking up 21 carries for 188 yards and a touchdown in those contests. Hubbard had a 24% breakaway run rate in 2022 and would be a big play threat with little competition behind him.
11. Jaylen Warren, Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers will once again ride with Najee Harris behind an improved offensive line. However, backup running back Jaylen Warren showed his value as a potential handcuff during the 2022 season. According to FTN’s advanced stats, Warren had a higher breakaway run rate (24%) than Harris (13%) last season. He also was far superior against stacked boxes, averaging 7.3 yards per attempt on 15 carries. Sample size plays a role in those figures, but at the very least Warren proved that he’s an NFL-caliber running back on an offense that wants to run the ball whether Harris is healthy or not.
12. Samaje Perine, Denver Broncos
Time will tell how impacted Javonte Williams is by the multi-ligament knee injury he suffered during the 2022 season. If his recovery takes more time than expected, Samaje Perine will be poised to take command of the Denver backfield. The Broncos used a hodgepodge of running backs toward the end of last season, eventually settling into a Chase Edmonds and Latavius Murray pairing to lead the backfield. Both of those players are gone, leaving Perine to soak up all the work left behind. In his last three seasons with the Bengals, the veteran running back averaged 4.4 yards per carry and 31.3 targets per season in a limited role. Perine’s only competition for touches would be Tony Jones, Damarea Crockett and Tyler Badie.
13. Keaontay Ingram, Arizona Cardinals
James Conner, Eno Benjamin, Kyler Murray and Darrel Williams handled 78% of Arizona’s 434 rushing attempts during the 2022 season. Benjamin and Williams are no longer part of the backfield, Murray is coming off a torn ACL and will miss time and run less, and Conner has never been a vision of health throughout his career. If anything were to happen to him next season, Keaontay Ingram would just have to beat out Corey Clement and Ty'Son Williams to dominate the touches in this backfield.
14. Jahmyr Gibbs, Detroit Lions
As it stands, Jahmyr Gibbs will have an established role as the pass-catching back (with limited rushing work) in Detroit. What we can’t necessarily predict is how much that role would expand if projected lead running back David Montgomery were to go down with an injury. Gibbs was explosive and efficient during his time in college, averaging 5.6 yards per carry during his seasons at Georgia Tech and Alabama. However, he averaged just 127.6 attempts per season in his career. There isn’t much depth behind Gibbs in this backfield, but it’s hard to envision the team utilizing Gibbs in that fashion given his limited workload in college and their history of using a split backfield.
15. Damien Harris, Buffalo Bills
Injuries plagued Damien Harris throughout his career with the Patriots, forcing the team to move off the veteran this offseason. Harris landed with the Buffalo Bills and is expected to serve as a complement to James Cook. Harris has averaged 12 games played since 2020 and has averaged 694 rushing yards and 6.7 touchdowns per season. He’s also caught 40 of 51 targets in those three seasons but never featured as the team’s pass-catching back. That will be the case in Buffalo as well, but any injury to James Cook would give Harris to expand his role in a high-volume passing attack.
16. Joshua Kelley, Los Angeles Chargers
Joshua Kelley’s first two seasons were wildly disappointing with the Chargers, with the UCLA product averaging 3.2 yards per attempt on 144 carries. However, Kelley showed a much more efficient side last season, jumping up to 4.2 yards per carry on 69 attempts. More impressively, the third-year running back has caught 28 of 29 career targets. If anything were to happen to Austin Ekeler, Kelley showed enough in 2022 to get the first crack at shouldering Ekeler’s workload over Isaiah Spiller and Larry Rountree.
17. Tank Bigsby, Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jaguars rushing attack runs through Travis Etienne, but that didn’t stop Jacksonville from investing a 2023 third-round pick in Tank Bigsby out of Auburn. In three years with the Tigers, Bigsby averaged 5.4 yards per carry behind some truly terrible offensive lines. The rookie running back also averaged 20.3 receptions per season in his career. Bigsby would be the primary beneficiary if Etienne were to miss time but would have competition for touches with JaMycal Hasty and D'Ernest Johnson, which keeps him from ranking higher on this list.
18. Roschon Johnson, Chicago Bears
There is also a chance rookie Roschon Johnson could take the lead role in the offense. But as it stands now, Johnson will be backing up Khalil Herbert to start the season. Johnson sat behind Bijan Robinson during the majority of his Texas tenure but still found ways to stand out during his collegiate career. The rookie running back averaged 5.6 yards per carry throughout his career. Johnson had only 108 touches in his senior season, but he still forced 46 missed tackles despite the limited touches. Any injury to Herbert could be huge for Johnson, but he does still have decent competition in the form of free-agent acquisition D’Onta Foreman (203 carries for 914 yards and five rushing touchdowns in 2022).
19. Tyjae Spears, Tennessee Titans
The Titans' offense will run through Derrick Henry again in 2023, but the backfield behind him is difficult to discern heading into the season. 2023 third-round pick Tyjae Spears figures to get the first shot at the bulk of the rushing work after a highly productive career with Tulane. Spears had an exceptional final season with the Green Wave, carrying the ball 231 times for 1,586 yards and 19 touchdowns while finishing sixth in the nation in yards after contact (1,052). The rookie has significant red flags when it comes to health, but still averaged 7.0 yards per carry in his last three seasons of college. The Titans do have 2022 fourth-round pick Hassan Haskins to compete for touches, but the second-year player was wildly inefficient when he was put on the field last season (just 81 yards on 24 carries).
20. Jamaal Williams, New Orleans Saints
Jamaal Williams is coming off a stellar season with the Detroit Lions, carrying the ball 262 times for 1,066 yards and a league-leading 17 rushing touchdowns in the 2022 season. Now, he finds himself as a part of the New Orleans Saints backfield. Williams will be the thunder to Alvin Kamara’s lightning (assuming his suspension isn’t too lengthy) and has great standalone value, but it is hard to envision a path to him taking over Kamara’s receiving role and developing into a true three-down back. New Orleans invested a third-round pick on TCU’s Kendre Miller, a back who averaged 6.2 yards per carry on 224 attempts in 2022. Miller also caught 16 of 22 targets in his final season and should eat into Williams’ upside without Kamara.
21. Zamir White, Las Vegas Raiders
Fantasy managers hyped themselves into believing in Zamir White’s role in 2022 considering Josh Jacobs was in the final year of his deal with a new coaching staff. Instead, Jacobs delivered 340 rushing attempts for a league-leading 1,653 yards and 12 rushing touchdowns, earning the franchise tag in the process. White delivered 17 carries for 70 yards on the season. In 2023, White would likely take on the majority of the rushing production should anything happen to Jacobs, but would likely be headlining a split backfield, competing for the valuable pass-catching role with veterans Ameer Abdullah and Brandon Bolden.
22. Rashaad Penny, Philadelphia Eagles
Health once again robbed Rashaad Penny of the ability to command a backfield in 2022. The veteran running back played in just five games, carrying the ball 57 times for 346 yards and two rushing touchdowns. This marked his second consecutive season with at least a 6.1 yards per carry mark (albeit in a limited sample size). According to FTN’s advanced rushing stats, Penny had a 50% breakaway run rate, which was the highest among any running back with at least 50 carries (again, sample size). Penny will likely find himself in a timeshare in Philadelphia with new backfield mate D'Andre Swift. There is some uncertainty to this backfield, but even if Swift missed time, Penny would be battling Kenneth Gainwell, Boston Scott and the general concept of health to command the majority of the touches in the backfield.
23. Malik Davis, Dallas Cowboys
Dallas’ backfield will have a new look in 2023, with Tony Pollard taking on a bigger workload in the wake of Ezekiel Elliott’s release. The Cowboys have not prioritized adding to the running back room, instead adding Ronald Jones on a cheap free-agent deal and Deuce Vaughn in the sixth round of the 2023 NFL Draft. That means Malik Davis would be poised to see a massive workload should anything happen to Pollard. Davis had just 38 carries in 2022, but he put together a 39% breakaway run rate out of the backfield. Davis also caught six of his seven targets for 63 yards on the season, but it remains to be seen if Dallas would deploy Vaughn as the primary pass catcher should anything happen to Pollard.
24. Devon Achane, Miami Dolphins
Devon Achane enters the NFL as one of the most explosive players in the league without ever taking a snap. The Texas A&M product not only averaged 6.9 yards per carry in the SEC, but he also was a four-time All-American sprinter with the track team (two-second teams, one first team and one honorable mention). The main reason Achane isn’t higher? The Dolphins have no problem deploying an array of running backs, so it seems unlikely that Achane would command the kind of work we want out of a handcuff running back unless both Jeff Wilson and Raheem Mostert were out for a significant amount of time.
25. Matt Breida, New York Giants
Saquon Barkley put together a fully healthy 2022 season, relegating the rest of the backfield to breather-back roles throughout the season. Veteran running back Matt Breida was the primary complement to Barkley, finishing with 54 carries for 220 yards and one touchdown. According to FTN’s advanced stats, Breida averaged a team-best 4.6 yards per carry against stacked boxes (albeit in a seven-snap sample size). Should Barkley miss a significant period, Breida would likely be splitting work with 2023 fifth-round pick Eric Gray and veteran Gary Brightwell, which caps his upside in the handcuff ranks.
26. Zack Moss, Indianapolis Colts
A lingering ankle injury limited Jonathan Taylor to just 11 games and 192 carries in 2022. In his absence, the Colts rolled out numerous running backs to try to replace his production with little success. The most successful of those backs was Zack Moss, whom the team acquired in a trade with the Buffalo Bills. Moss finished with the second most carries on the team (90) despite a midseason acquisition. FTN’s advanced rushing stats show the veteran running back was second on the team in breakaway run rate (24%) and yards after contact (283). His ranking on this list is hurt by the depth around him; the Colts like Deon Jackson and drafted a freak athlete (Evan Hull) in the fifth round of the 2023 NFL Draft to take on some of the pass-catching work.
27. Chase Brown, Cincinnati Bengals
Chase Brown saw a massive workload during his last season with Illinois, dominating the backfield with 329 carries for 1,632 yards and 10 rushing touchdowns while adding 27 receptions (on 30 targets) for 240 yards. Brown was also top five in the nation in forced missed tackles (83) and top-11 in yards after contact (935) and carries of 15-plus yards (23) according to PFF. What remains to be seen is what Brown’s role would look like should Joe Mixon miss a significant period. The Bengals still have veterans Trayveon Williams and Chris Evans on the roster to compete for touches in any “handcuff” scenario, capping Brown’s upside.
28. Jerick McKinnon, Kansas City Chiefs
The Kansas City Chiefs opted to not target running back during the NFL draft, instead opting to bring Jerick McKinnon back on a one-year deal to backup Isiah Pacheco in 2023. McKinnon’s primary role in this offense is pass-catching, and that seems unlikely to change should anything happen to projected starter Pacheco. Kansas City would likely slot Clyde Edwards-Helaire in as their early round back to eat the tough yards while deploying McKinnon as the change of pace back.
29. Zonovan Knight, New York Jets
Zonovan Knight went from an undrafted free agent in 2022 to a significant part of the Jets backfield after Breece Hall’s ACL injury. In Weeks 12-14, Knight had 46 carries for 230 yards and a touchdown while catching all 10 of his targets for 68 yards. He trailed off down the stretch, but it was still impressive. However, he finds himself with significant competition for touches in 2023 as Hall recovers from his knee injury. The team still has Michael Carter (30% breakaway run rate) to handle the bulk of the pass-catching work and drafted explosive Pittsburgh running back Israel Abanikanda in the fifth round of the 2023 NFL Draft. Abanikanda is a pure vertical runner and struggles to break tackles, but still racked up 1,426 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns on 241 carries in his final season.
30. Chase Edmonds, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Rachaad White will lead the Buccaneers' backfield in 2023, and he is flanked by some questionable talent behind him on the depth chart. The most likely handcuff is 2022 fantasy disappointment Chase Edmonds. The veteran running back flamed out after signing a significant contract with the Miami Dolphins but carved out a decent and productive role with the Broncos after the team acquired him via trade. Edmonds produced 245 yards and two touchdowns on 68 carries in Denver and finished second on the team (behind Mike Boone) in explosive run rate (31%). Edmonds still has competition in the backfield in the form of 2020 third-round pick Ke'Shawn Vaughn and fantasy folk hero Patrick Laird, but Edmonds figures to get the first crack should anything happen to White next season.
31. James Robinson, New England Patriots
James Robinson struggled to come off an end-of-2021 torn Achilles last season, logging just 110 carries for 425 yards and three touchdowns with the Jaguars and Jets in 2022. Robinson played in just 11 games and logged a career-low 3.9 yards per carry. Now he finds himself in New England serving as the primary backup to Rhamondre Stevenson. Robinson may not make the team, but if he does, and if something were to happen to Stevenson, Robinson would likely find himself splitting work with Pierre Strong (64% breakaway run rate on nine carries) and Kevin Harris (44 yards after contact on 18 carries) after the Patriots invested in both players in the 2022 NFL Draft.
32. Kyren Williams, Los Angeles Rams
The Rams better be hoping that Cam Akers is fully healed from his 2021 Achilles injury, because the situation behind him is far from stable. Should anything happen to Akers, the most likely player to absorb his workload would be Kyren Williams. Williams is a unique combination of small (5-foot-9, 194 pounds) and slow (4.65 40-yard dash) for an NFL running back and posted just 35 carries for 139 yards in his first NFL season. The team also has 2023 sixth-round pick Zach Evans and UDFAs Ronnie Rivers and Tiyon Evans on the roster, so it seems likely that Williams would take on the bulk of the backfield work should anything happen to Akers. That just isn’t something to get particularly excited about.