Fantasy football's running back handcuffs have graduated.
If there was a theme to the 2013-14 winter transactions period, it was backup running backs moving into starting jobs for new teams. Former Houston Texans and Minnesota Vikings backups Ben Tate and Toby Gerhart scored projected starting gigs with the Cleveland Browns and Jacksonville Jaguars, respectively; fantasy owners can now reap the benefits of these unheralded talents succeeding on bigger stages, though they'll now need to pay more of a premium to acquire them.
It's that familiar quest to unearth the "next Michael Turner."
Turner is one of the most prominent recent historical examples of the fantasy handcuff-turned-star; he spent four seasons as a backup for the San Diego Chargers (2004-07) before signing a six-year, $34.5 million deal ($15 million of which was guaranteed) with the Atlanta Falcons in March 2008. Turner, who totaled only 239 touches and 146 fantasy points in his four seasons in San Diego, exploded for 376 carries -- not touches, merely carries -- and 265 fantasy points, second best among running backs, for Atlanta in 2008. Three times in his first four seasons for the Falcons, he managed 200-plus fantasy points.
Turner isn't alone in this regard. Since 2000, he, Priest Holmes, Ahman Green, Peyton Hillis and LaMont Jordan each managed at least 213 fantasy points (ESPN standard scoring) in his first season with a new team after having served as a mere backup with his previous squad.
Hillis' inclusion in the list is apropos, because he did so for the aforementioned Browns, the very team now trying the same strategy with Tate four years later. Among players who switched teams this offseason, Tate placed highest in our initial top-200 rankings. With that in mind, let's rank and analyze the top-10 impact player moves of the offseason, beginning with Tate.
1. Cleveland Browns sign RB Ben Tate
Arguably the No. 1 handcuff in fantasy football the past three seasons, Tate takes over as the Browns' starting running back and a potential fantasy RB2. He'll do so for a team migrating to a familiar offensive system and one suited to his skill set: New Browns offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who from 2008-09 held the same role for Tate's former team, the Texans, will bring with him to Cleveland the one-cut, zone-blocking scheme that produced multiple outstanding seasons from Arian Foster in Houston. Tate's skills fit it well, and he possesses the size and power necessary to handle a large volume of carries as well as the high-leverage goal-line work. As Turner did six seasons ago, Tate could see his carries vault from 181 last season to nearly 300; there's little doubt that, barring injury, he'll be a 15- or 20-carry back on a weekly basis.
2. Washington Redskins sign WR DeSean Jackson
These rankings are all about the fit, and Jackson, who took a two-hour car ride down I-95 to leave the Philadelphia Eagles for the Redskins this offseason, addresses a key aspect of the offense that was lacking in 2013: vertical passing. Since the beginning of 2011, only Torrey Smith (17.0), Vincent Jackson (15.4) and Malcom Floyd (15.3) had a higher average of air yards per target than DeSean Jackson's 14.6, and nine of Jackson's 15 total touchdowns in those three seasons came on throws of 20 yards or greater downfield; keep in mind that the 2011 and 2012 seasons weren't two of Jackson's better ones.
Meanwhile, Jackson's new quarterback, Robert Griffin III, was one of the most effective deep passers during his rookie season of 2012: He finished second with a 55.7 percent completion rate and amassed eight of his 20 total scores on throws of 15 yards or greater. Now, Griffin's statistics in that department tumbled significantly in 2013 -- it helps explain how the Redskins went from second to 29th (in terms of Total QBR) in vertical passing -- but that could be attributed to his ongoing recovery from ACL surgery; that he's an additional year removed from the injury gives him a good chance to rebound. Jackson helps in that regard, and with Pierre Garcon manning the opposite side of the field, the Redskins might have the fastest set of starting receivers in the league. In fact, should Griffin and Jackson click, it's not unthinkable they could each wind up a top-five finisher in fantasy points at their respective positions.
3. Jacksonville Jaguars sign RB Toby Gerhart
A popular handcuff in his own right the past four seasons -- though perhaps more so because of the ability of the man ahead of him on the depth chart, Adrian Peterson, rather than his own skill -- Gerhart nevertheless steps into a golden opportunity with the Jaguars, who have only Jordan Todman, Denard Robinson and Storm Johnson as viable threats to his job security. It's not Gerhart's first chance to start; he made six starts for the Vikings, totaling 59 fantasy points and averaging 4.5 yards per carry in those games. The Jaguars said they like Gerhart for his ability to gain yards after contact, as his 2.29 yards-after-contact average was sixth most in the NFL the past four seasons combined, something that bodes well for him in a role in which he'll take many more hits. Though he plays on a rebuilding team -- which might limit his touchdown potential -- Gerhart could still get enough carries, and do enough with them, to put forth a season worthy of weekly RB2 status.
4. New York Giants sign RB Rashad Jennings
Jennings has never totaled more than 127 fantasy points in a season, and he has scored double digits in a game only 12 times in his four NFL campaigns, but Jennings' arrival in New York is big news from a fantasy perspective, if only because of how expansive his opportunity is. The Giants, after all, cannot be certain whether David Wilson will ever return to game action -- let alone return this season -- Hillis has averaged just 3.6 yards per carry the past three seasons combined -- second worst in the NFL during that time (minimum 250 carries) -- and rookie Andre Williams has hardly looked polished during organized team activities. Jennings' good hands -- he didn't fumble on a single one of his 199 touches last season -- and strength in terms of pass protection should make him an instant hit with coach Tom Coughlin, and a 15-carry-per-week average alone could vault him into the weekly RB2 class in fantasy.
5. Detroit Lions sign WR Golden Tate
Again, these are all about the fit, and the Lions have attempted the most passes in the league the past three seasons (2,040) and have a new offensive coordinator in Joe Lombardi who previously worked for the team that ranked second (New Orleans Saints, 1,984; he was their quarterbacks coach), while Tate is a superior talent to any of the wide receivers the Lions have used across from Calvin Johnson during that three-year span. Tate himself told the team's official website he envisions himself in a Lance Moore-type role; Moore averaged 7.1 fantasy points (10.8 in PPR formats) the past three seasons combined. But Tate is selling himself short: He's a more skilled player than Moore, and he'll have a more defined role that should result in a greater number of weekly targets.
6. New York Jets sign RB Chris Johnson
Johnson's arrival in New York sets up a debate: Does he deserve to start ahead of Chris Ivory and Bilal Powell? Both Ivory and Powell, after all, averaged more yards per carry (4.6 and 4.0) than Johnson (3.9) last season, and had better third-down conversion rates (61.1 and 47.1 percent, compared to 46.7). Johnson is also the one coming off January knee surgery, albeit a minor one for a torn meniscus. Still, he's also the superior back in space, and the Jets will surely give him every chance to capture the lion's share of carries during the preseason. Someone will need to step up for any of these three to be more than a flex/bench consideration in fantasy leagues, though.
7. Denver Broncos sign WR Emmanuel Sanders
It's silly to expect a repeat of Peyton Manning's 5,477 yards and 55 passing touchdowns -- neither had ever been done before, after all -- but even assuming some statistical regression, that's a lot of volume to go around now that Eric Decker is no longer around. Decker's 136 targets, 87 catches and 1,288 receiving yards won't merely disappear; making that assumption requires you expect Manning's 2014 numbers to actually dip beneath his 2012 (583 attempts, 400 completions, 4,659 yards). Sanders should slide into Decker's vacated "Z" receiver role with his sights on Wes Welker's slot role in a future year, and Manning has long shown a tendency to throw early, throw often and spread the ball around. About the only reason Sanders isn't higher on this list is due to the presence of a rookie named Cody Latimer, who is a legitimate candidate to start, if not by Week 1 then perhaps by season's end.
8. New York Jets sign WR Eric Decker
Speaking of Decker, by departing the Broncos, he traded in an all-time great quarterback for a battle at the position between fantasy's least consistent quarterback (Geno Smith) and one of the game's all-time injury-prone players (Michael Vick). Consider this: Even totaling Smith's and Vick's 2013 statistics, which amounted to 23 total games and 22 starts, they managed 126 fewer completions, 1,126 fewer passing yards, 38 fewer passing touchdowns and 14 more interceptions than Peyton Manning. Soooo ... will Decker's transformation from little-fish-in-big-pond to clear-cut, No. 1 wideout (regardless of whether he's the "X" or "Z" receiver) elevate the play of his quarterbacks, or will the play of his quarterbacks adversely impact his numbers? The latter is the smarter -- and safer -- bet, at least until we see some sort of evidence that Smith is ready to break through or that Vick has something left in the tank.
9. Miami Dolphins sign RB Knowshon Moreno
That Moreno generated limited interest from the Broncos before signing a mere $3 million deal with the Dolphins speaks volumes: It shows that most everyone realizes that his 2013 was a statistical outlier, driven more by his supporting cast than his own ability. Moreno managed 10 touchdowns mostly because of the strength of the Denver offense and his role as the goal-line back; seven of them came on carries within 3 yards of the opponent's end zone. In his defense, though, his career improvement on blitz pickup and in the receiving game makes him a useful NFL starter; he's the kind of player more attractive in points-per-reception leagues because of his 50-catch potential. Don't underestimate the possibility that the Dolphins brought in Moreno partly to motivate Lamar Miller, a 2013 disappointment who is nevertheless a viable threat to capture the starting gig on his own. That this is seemingly a must-handcuff situation is largely the reason Moreno, fantasy's No. 5 running back last season, doesn't rank higher.
10. Philadelphia Eagles trade for RB Darren Sproles
Hey, someone had to place 10th, so why not the pass-catching running back in the Chip Kelly offense? Sproles isn't remotely a threat to LeSean McCoy's job security, or even his weekly carry total, but more of a useful cog as the team looks to fill DeSean Jackson's vacated targets. Still, Sproles could enjoy one more big season in the event of catastrophic injury to McCoy, or he could be a flex consideration in PPR leagues.
Listed below are some of the offseason's other notable transactions, albeit ones that failed to crack the top 10: