2019 fantasy football handcuffs: Austin Ekeler among top options

You can count Los Angeles Chargers running back Austin Ekeler amongst the top fantasy football handcuffs this season. Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Fantasy football handcuffing is a tricky animal.

On one hand, you want to protect yourself from injuries by warehousing your star player's backup.

On the other hand, the opportunity cost of expending that roster spot could cost you a valuable waiver pickup.

The fact is handcuffing is a valuable tool if used correctly.

Some backups are very good players, while others are not. In the event of an injury, some would be positioned for a clear path to a large share of touches, while others would see only a slight uptick in work. Most of your opponents will be thinking only about handcuffs at running back, so you can gain an advantage by considering those at other positions as well.

When evaluating handcuffs, the best game plan is to select players with high ceilings should the player ahead of them on the depth chart miss time. For example, should Alvin Kamara get hurt, Latavius Murray would take on a workhorse role in New Orleans and would be in the RB1 discussion. If Saquon Barkley goes down, however, the likes of Wayne Gallman, Paul Perkins and Rod Smith would figure to share touches and none would be a clear fantasy starter. If you selected Barkley and not Kamara, don't cross Murray off your draft board and force a dart throw at Gallman. Pick the guy who can win you a league championship, not a player who would barely be worth flex consideration.

Below is a two-part examination of the 2019 handcuff landscape. Because handcuffing is most relevant to the running back position, the first part is a ranking 1-to-32 of the top RB handcuffs for each team, as well as some thoughts on how the backfield might look if the starter goes down. Part 2 runs through a few notable handcuffs at other positions.

For updated handcuff information and advice throughout the season, be sure to keep up with our fantasy depth charts.

Running back handcuff rankings

1. Latavius Murray, New Orleans Saints -- Upgrade if Alvin Kamara is out.

Even with a healthy Kamara, Murray is going to cost you a mid-round draft pick. It's no secret that should Kamara miss time, Murray would vault to nearly 20 touches per game in a high-scoring, running back-friendly Saints offense. He'd certainly be on the RB1 radar. Keep an eye on Javorius Allen and rookie Devine Ozigbo as well.

2. Kareem Hunt, Cleveland Browns -- Upgrade if Nick Chubb is out.

Hunt is suspended for eight games and figures to be no more than a 1B to Chubb's 1A once he returns. However, should Chubb get hurt at any point, Hunt's value would skyrocket to RB1 territory. For this reason, Hunt is well worth stashing on the end of benches in deeper leagues. Duke Johnson Jr. would be valued as an RB2 if Chubb were to miss time during Weeks 1-9.

3. Austin Ekeler, Los Angeles Chargers -- Upgrade if Melvin Gordon is out.

Ekeler has been one of the league's most efficient backs since entering the league in 2017 and would surely be positioned for a run at RB1 numbers in the event of a Gordon injury. Justin Jackson and Detrez Newsome would pick up the scraps.

4. Darrell Henderson, Los Angeles Rams -- Upgrade if Todd Gurley II is out.

Henderson is one of the most expensive backups in early drafts with Gurley's health status in question. That makes the rookie a bit unappealing on draft day, though there's little doubt he'd see a significant role in one of the league's best offenses if Gurley were to miss time. Malcolm Brown, John Kelly and perhaps Justin Davis could all be factors as well.

5. Rashaad Penny, Seattle Seahawks -- Upgrade if Chris Carson is out

Penny would be ticketed for a substantial share of the backfield touches in this scenario. The 2018 first-round pick would defer some work to the likes of J.D. McKissic and Travis Homer, but he'd still push for RB1 production in Seattle's extremely run-heavy offense.

6. Carlos Hyde, Kansas City Chiefs -- Upgrade if Damien Williams is out.

Hyde's shaky efficiency in recent seasons is a concern, but he'd have minimal competition for lead back duties if Williams were out of the picture. At the very least, he'd be in the RB2 mix. Sixth-round pick Darwin Thompson and second-year Darrel Williams should also be on your radar.

7. Giovani Bernard, Cincinnati Bengals -- Upgrade if Joe Mixon is out.

Bernard is still in his prime at age 27 and was a strong fantasy asset when Mixon missed time last season. We should expect the same in 2019, with sixth-round rookies Trayveon Williams and Rodney Anderson also mixing in. Bernard would be in the RB2 conversation.

8. Miles Sanders, Philadelphia Eagles -- Upgrade if Jordan Howard is out.

Sanders could win the Eagles' lead back job outright, but it's more likely that he'll open his rookie campaign behind Howard. Nonetheless, if Howard goes down, Sanders shouldn't have trouble managing 15-plus touches in a good Eagles offense. The likes of Wendell Smallwood, Corey Clement, Boston Scott and Josh Adams are competing for backup gigs and are names to monitor.

9. Jaylen Samuels, Pittsburgh Steelers -- Upgrade if James Conner is out.

Samuels would no doubt be in the RB2 discussion in this scenario, though unlike last season, he has some competition for touches in the form of rookie Benny Snell Jr. Samuels will already be rostered in most leagues, but Snell would need to be added as well.

10. Royce Freeman, Denver Broncos -- Upgrade if Phillip Lindsay is out.

Freeman may have lost starting duties to Lindsay last season, but he still impressed after initial contact in a limited role. His receiving struggles could limit him to flex production, but Freeman would still be an every-week fantasy starter if Lindsay were out. Devontae Booker would help in passing situations but wouldn't be a good fantasy option.

11. Dion Lewis, Tennessee Titans -- Upgrade if Derrick Henry is out.

Lewis is already ticketed for a significant role in passing situations, so adding on 12-15 carries per game would launch him into the RB2 mix. As the roster stands, his primary competition for touches would be David Fluellen and Alex Barnes.

12. Jamaal Williams, Green Bay Packers -- Upgrade if Aaron Jones is out.

Williams already has experience as Green Bay's lead back, and so we know there's a pretty good chance he would produce top-20 numbers in this situation. Intriguing sixth-round rookie Dexter Williams would also be worth an add in all but shallow leagues.

13. Chase Edmonds, Arizona Cardinals -- Upgrade if David Johnson is out.

With T.J. Logan and D.J. Foster currently his primary competition, Edmonds would be positioned for a substantial backfield role if Johnson were to go down. The 2018 fourth-round pick is a solid end-of-bench stash.

14. D'Onta Foreman, Houston Texans -- Upgrade if Lamar Miller is out.

Now more than a full year recovered from a torn Achilles, Foreman is positioned to make a run at lead back duties in Houston. If Miller is out, Foreman would certainly handle most of the carries, though he doesn't figure to offer much as a receiver, which would limit his fantasy production. Keep an eye on Josh Ferguson and Karan Higdon behind him on the depth chart.

15. Ronald Jones, Tampa Bay Buccaneers -- Upgrade if Peyton Barber is out.

Jones could win the lead back role in one of the league's weakest backfields, but for now, he is clearly behind Barber. If the veteran goes down, Jones would certainly get his chance to emerge with the likes of Andre Ellington and undrafted rookie Bruce Anderson as his primary competition.

16. Alexander Mattison, Minnesota Vikings -- Upgrade if Dalvin Cook is out.

Mattison, who recently turned 21 years old, was a surprise selection by the Vikings in the third round of April's draft. With Murray gone, the rookie would be the clear favorite for lead back if Cook were to miss time. Mike Boone, Roc Thomas and Ameer Abdullah would also push for touches.

17. Damien Harris, New England Patriots -- Upgrade if Sony Michel is out.

Harris would need to be added in all leagues in this scenario, but there's no doubting that he would share the backfield with receiving specialist James White and versatile Rex Burkhead. That would limit the rookie's upside, but RB2 numbers would be attainable.

18. Jerick McKinnon, San Francisco 49ers -- Upgrade if Tevin Coleman is out.

McKinnon and Matt Breida would be the team's primary tailbacks if newcomer Coleman goes down. Breida would presumably hold an edge in the carry department with McKinnon operating as a change-of-pace and pass-catching back. Both would need to be rostered.

19. Kalen Ballage, Miami Dolphins -- Upgrade if Kenyan Drake is out.

Ballage's profile remains a major concern, but volume is king in fantasy football. In this situation, the 2018 fourth-round pick's primary competition for touches would be Mark Walton and Myles Gaskin. All three should be on your radar, with Walton making for an intriguing deep sleeper.

20. Mike Davis, Chicago Bears -- Upgrade if David Montgomery is out.

This backfield would look a lot like the 2018 unit in the event of a Montgomery injury. Tarik Cohen would sustain a major role, with Davis taking over the Jordan Howard between-the-tackles and short-yardage role. Davis' upside would be limited in PPR, but he'd be a decent weekly bet for a touchdown.

21. Adrian Peterson, Washington Redskins -- Upgrade if Derrius Guice is out.

Peterson is back as Guice's handcuff. The veteran filled in admirably last season, finishing as fantasy's No. 19 scoring running back. Peterson would share work with receiving specialist Chris Thompson and perhaps Bryce Love, which would limit Peterson to flex production.

22. Ito Smith, Atlanta Falcons -- Upgrade if Devonta Freeman is out.

Smith struggled with efficiency as a rookie and is a bit undersized at 195 pounds. Though he'd likely lead this backfield in touches in the event of a Freeman injury, oversized rookie back Qadree OIlison would figure to handle a substantial role as a ball carrier, especially in short yardage and at the goal line.

23. Gus Edwards, Baltimore Ravens -- Upgrade if Mark Ingram II is out.

Edwards was in this position one year ago but struggled for fantasy value due to a lack of work at the goal line and zero work as a receiver. He would be on the fantasy radar in this scenario, but rookie Justice Hill and perhaps Kenneth Dixon would also be factors. Edwards is more appealing in non-PPR leagues.

24. Devin Singletary, Buffalo Bills -- Upgrade if LeSean McCoy is out.

This may seem low, but Singletary is a tricky one, as Frank Gore and T.J. Yeldon are also currently on the roster. This already has the makings of a committee and that wouldn't change if McCoy went down. Nonetheless, Singletary has more upside than any of his counterparts and would thus be the most intriguing add to your bench.

25. Doug Martin, Oakland Raiders -- Upgrade if Josh Jacobs is out.

Martin is in the same situation he was one year ago. When Marshawn Lynch went down last season, Martin handled a bulk of the team's carries, with Jalen Richard handling receiving duties. We should expect a similar dynamic if the rookie Jacobs misses time in 2019. Martin would max out as a flex.

26. C.J. Anderson, Detroit Lions -- Upgrade if Kerryon Johnson is out.

Anderson was terrific while replacing Gurley last season, but his role would be limited if Johnson were to go down in Detroit. Anderson would defer passing-down work to Theo Riddick and would also need to fend off the likes of rookie Ty Johnson and veteran Zach Zenner for snaps. Anderson has more appeal in deeper non-PPR leagues.

27. Tony Pollard, Dallas Cowboys -- Upgrade if Ezekiel Elliott is out.

Pollard is expected to be utilized as more of an offensive weapon than a pure tailback, but there's no doubt he would see a substantial increase in touches in this scenario. Fellow rookie Mike Weber would also benefit and certainly could be the better fantasy asset. Both would need to be on rosters.

28. Ryquell Armstead, Jacksonville Jaguars -- Upgrade if Leonard Fournette is out.

Similar to the situation in Buffalo, Armstead would need to deal with the presence of journeymen Alfred Blue and Benny Cunningham as he competes to replace an injured Fournette. The fifth-round rookie has the most upside, compared to the two career backups, so he'd be the most intriguing addition to your roster.

29. Wayne Gallman, New York Giants -- Upgrade if Saquon Barkley is out.

Gallman handled backup duties behind Barkley most of last season, but he'll face more competition for the gig from Paul Perkins and newcomer Rod Smith in 2019. This would have the makings of a committee in a low-scoring offense, so it's a situation best avoided.

30. Cameron Artis-Payne, Carolina Panthers -- Upgrade if Christian McCaffrey is out.

Artis-Payne returns as a depth back for Carolina, though rookies Jordan Scarlett and Elijah Holyfield offer competition for No. 2 duties behind workhorse McCaffrey. A committee would be likely here, though Artis-Payne would figure to get first shot at 1A duties.

31. Jordan Wilkins, Indianapolis Colts -- Upgrade if Marlon Mack is out.

Wilkins, a 2018 fifth-round pick, had a solid rookie campaign following a slow start, and would have the most upside in the event of a Mack injury. Nyheim Hines and Spencer Ware would also factor in, however, which would limit Wilkins' fantasy appeal.

32. Ty Montgomery, New York Jets -- Upgrade if Le'Veon Bell is out.

Montgomery is expected to work as a change-of-pace back behind Bell, but it's a long shot that he would handle feature-back duties in the event of a Bell injury. The likes of Elijah McGuire, Bilal Powell and/or Trenton Cannon would also be in the mix. Montgomery is unlikely to be a strong hold for those with Bell on their roster.

Handcuffs to know at other positions

Chiefs WR Mecole Hardman -- With Tyreek Hill facing a possible suspension, the talented second-round rookie could be vaulted into a major offensive role to begin his pro career. That'd immediately put him in the flex discussion.

Rams WR Josh Reynolds -- Reynolds averaged 7.0 targets per game and was a top-40 fantasy wideout while filling in for Cooper Kupp from Week 11 on last season. He's the primary handcuff for all three starting Rams wide receivers.

Eagles WR JJ Arcega-Whiteside -- The second-round rookie's short-term fantasy outlook isn't pretty, but he's an injury to Alshon Jeffery, DeSean Jackson or Nelson Agholor away from a big promotion in Philadelphia's highly productive offense.

Steelers WR James Washington -- Washington is expected to begin his second NFL season behind JuJu Smith-Schuster and newcomer Donte Moncrief, but one injury above him on the depth chart would all but lock the 2018 second-round pick into a massive role in one of the league's pass-heaviest and highest-scoring offenses.

Saints WR Tre'Quan Smith -- Similar to Washington, Smith is a 2018 Day 2 draft pick who appears likely to open his second season third on the depth chart. Should Michael Thomas or 33-year-old Ted Ginn Jr. go down, Smith would be a must-add in fantasy.

Titans WR A.J. Brown -- Tennessee's conservative, run-heavy offense will limit all of its receivers, but it won't be a surprise if Brown -- perhaps the best prospect in the 2019 rookie wide receiver class -- emerges into a force if called upon to replace Corey Davis or Adam Humphries.

Redskins WR Terry McLaurin -- The third-rounder out of Ohio State is a good bet for major playing time as a rookie when you consider the durability concerns surrounding Josh Doctson, Paul Richardson and, to some extent, Trey Quinn.

Eagles TE Dallas Goedert -- Reports from those covering the Eagles suggest Goedert is on the verge of a breakout, but the 2018 second-round pick's fantasy impact will be severely limited as long as Zach Ertz is in the picture. Of course, if Ertz were to miss time, Goedert would skyrocket into the top 10.

Colts TE Mo Alie-Cox -- If goal-line force Eric Ebron goes down, it will likely be Alie-Cox -- not Jack Doyle -- who takes on a bulk of his touches (Doyle will already be busy, and his role wouldn't figure to change much). Alie-Cox might struggle for consistent targets, but the third-year big man's touchdown upside would put him on the fantasy radar, especially in non-PPR.

Browns TE Demetrius Harris -- The long-time Travis Kelce backup heads to Cleveland, where he'll work behind David Njoku. If you're buying into Baker Mayfield and the Browns' offense, Harris is a player you might like as a fringe TE1 in the event of an Njoku injury.

49ers QB Nick Mullens -- Mullens was QB17 while filling in for Jimmy Garoppolo during the second half of the 2018 season. Undrafted in 2017, Mullens looked the part in his first extended work in the pros and would be in the QB2 mix if oft-injured Garoppolo goes down again.

Chargers QB Tyrod Taylor -- Taylor's passing efficiency has been inconsistent, but he's been a sneaky fantasy asset in the past thanks to terrific rushing volume and minimal interceptions. Injecting the veteran into a good Chargers offense would put him back on the fantasy radar.

Ravens QB Robert Griffin III -- The combination of Lamar Jackson's relatively small frame (6-foot-2, 216 pounds) and rushing volume (he set the single-season QB record for carries as a rookie) raises serious concerns about his ability to hold up for an entire season. If he goes down, "RGIII" will be back in the starting lineup.

Saints QB Teddy Bridgewater -- Bridgewater re-signed with New Orleans and could be the team's plan at the position once Drew Brees retires. Should 40-year-old Brees miss time, Bridgewater would be an intriguing speculative add in the Saints' high-scoring offense.

Rams QB Blake Bortles -- Say what you want about Bortles, but the former Jaguar posted fantasy finishes of fourth, eighth and 13th during the 2015-17 seasons in Jacksonville. It will be intriguing to see what Sean McVay can get out of Bortles if the quarterback is called on to replace Jared Goff.