Loading scores...
Bump and Run

Studs Approaching Free Agency in 2021

by Kate Magdziuk
Updated On: April 15, 2020, 10:38 am ET

Christian McCaffrey is officially the highest-paid running back in NFL history and for a good reason. Managing 2,392 yards from scrimmage and 19 touchdowns in a single season will do that for you. 

A four-year/$64 million deal will keep McCaffrey with the Panthers through the 2025 NFL season. The downside of a deal this big? Carolina has just set a precedent for the rest of the elite running backs set to hit free agency in 2021 - and there's a lot of them.

In a time that mainstream media has frequently debated the futility of paying out a second contract to a workhorse back, McCaffrey has set the bar high. That bar is concerning, however, particularly for fantasy owners, who may have to worry about potential holdouts for these stud backs heading into the 2020 season as they await their big payday.

The best defense against a potential running back holdout in your fantasy football leagues is owning your stud's "handcuff." A "handcuff" is a player that we assume will take over the bulk of the work, should your RB be injured, traded, or hold out. They're your insurance policy - likely a pick taken in the last rounds of your fantasy drafts as a backup to that early-round stud.

Let's dive into some potential holdouts heading into the 2020 NFL Season and who to take in your fantasy drafts to prevent the fallout. Own these studs in dynasty? They might be worth one of those late-round rookies to help secure that backfield - just in case.

The stud: Alvin Kamara, New Orleans Saints

Out of all of the running backs bound to hit free agency, Alvin Kamara is perhaps the back we should be most concerned has the potential for a holdout. He's proven himself a worthy assent in the run game and the receiving game, posting no less than 1,300 yards from scrimmage in each of his NFL seasons. 

Kamara happened to be on a Twitch live stream when the news broke for McCaffrey, and his reaction said it all; he wants his deal. 

The guy to handcuff: Latavius Murray

Latavius Murray isn't the sexiest pick in your fantasy leagues, nor is there any guarantee that he'll even be drafted, but that's the point, right? He's an inexpensive fantasy asset that's a shoo-in for a heavy workload if called upon. 

At his peak, in 2015, Murray finished as the RB11. In his two games without Kamara in 2019, he averaged 34 fantasy points per game. Unsustainable? Of course, but the point remains that anyone rushing behind that offensive line and being coached by Sean Payton should find steady production.

Murray is tied to the Saints through the 2022 NFL season and remains an inexpensive option for them at the position. He should be the guy to own as your Kamara handcuff.

The Stud: Leonard Fournette, Jacksonville Jaguars

Leonard Fournette is an interesting prospect heading into the fourth year of his rookie deal. Fournette's been a mixed bag in terms of availability and production since being drafted in 2017.

When he's fully healthy, Fournette has been a force to reckon with. Unfortunately, his health is certainly a more significant "if" than we'd prefer. He has yet to finish a full season through his first three years in the NFL. 

Among all running backs bound for free agency, Fournette arguably has the least leverage heading into the final year of his rookie deal. He's had some bumps with the organization too, including an arrest for driving with a suspended license and a grievance 

The guy to handcuff: Many had thought it would be 2019 rookie Ryquell Armstead, but that doesn't seem likely to remain the case. The former fifth-round pick didn't exactly pack a punch, managing just 3.1 yards per carry on 35 attempts. Though he managed to do some damage through the air, his performance was muddled by a subpar catch rate of 58%.

In a couple of weeks, Fournette's handcuff is more likely going to be whichever back they're bound to take in the 2020 NFL Draft. The Jaguars haven't had a clear-cut handcuff since T.J. Yeldon, but it's possible that with the depth of talent in this incoming class, we could be seeing his heir-apparent. Keep an eye on the Jags to make a potential move at running back in next week's draft. Should they take a running back and you're the Fournette owner, you're going to want to draft him too.

The Stud: Joe Mixon, Cincinnati Bengals

Joe Mixon has had the disadvantage of playing behind a weak o-line and poor offensive scheme since being drafted in 2017. Now, presumably, he'll play his 2020 season with an upgrade at quarterback and run blockers. It's a good combo for success, but for a young back bound to see 300+ touches in the season, you're going to want an insurance policy.

The guy to handcuff: Giovani Bernard

Again, not the sexiest name in fantasy, but Giovani Bernard is no stranger to second contracts; he received a 2-year/$9.7 million deal before the 2019 season. It's not significant money, but it's good money for a complementary back. 

We've only seen a small sample of games without Mixon since he was drafted, but in that sample, it was Bernard who shined. In these four games, he averaged nearly 17.5 touches, 89 yards and one score per game - 19.38 points per game in PPR leagues. It may be an unsustainable pace, but his acquisition cost makes him well-worth a flier.

Dalvin Cook, Minnesota Vikings

Since suffering a torn ACL in his rookie season, Dalvin Cook bounced back in a major way in his third season. He averaged a stellar 5.5 yards per touch and 1,654 scrimmage yards - not too shabby. Though it's clear he's got his burst back, it does appear that the Vikings found a decent insurance policy in his backup, Alexander Mattison.

Performance hasn't been a question for Cook. However, it's worth wondering if the Vikings are inclined to share a chunk of the pie after allowing paydays for other key offensive assets in Kirk Cousins and Adam Thielen. Minnesota currently projects to have $47 million in available cap space for the 2021 season - the sixth-lowest projection among all NFL teams. 

The guy to handcuff: Alexander Mattison

Among all candidates for a potential holdout, Cook is undoubtedly the back with the safest handcuff. The Vikings drafted Alexander Mattison out of Boise State in the third round of the 2019 draft, and for a backup, he fared pretty well. He played with burst and showcased his ability as a pass-catcher after Cook exited the game with a shoulder injury in Week 13.

He finished his rookie season with 110 total touches and 544 yards from scrimmage. Given his recent draft capital and solid first-year performance, Mattison is a must-own asset for every Cook owner.

Aaron Jones, Green Bay Packers

Aaron Rodgers was campaigning for Aaron Jones as an MVP award at some point in 2019, but unfortunately, it never came to fruition. Jones did, however, tie with Derrick Henry to lead the league in rushing touchdowns and finish as the RB2 in PPR leagues. He ranked 10th among running backs in total touches and looked the part of a true workhorse. The only minor annoyance was the carries and targets ceded to fellow running back, Jamaal Williams.

The guy to handcuff: Jamaal Williams

Fantasy owners know Williams all too well: the biggest roadblock in the #FreeAaronJones movement. He averaged ten touches per game in 2019, which was just enough to make 

Williams is on the final year of his rookie deal but was the only running back to see more than 26 carries aside from Jones in the last two seasons. He may not have much value outside of this situation in Green Bay, but his favor with the coaching staff and ability as a receiver make him a low-cost handcuff that could pay dividends as the Packers have gravitated towards the run.

Kate Magdziuk

Kate Magdziuk is a contributor for Rotoworld, RotoViz, and host of BallBlast: A Fantasy Football Podcast. You can find her on Twitter @FFBallBlast.