One of the most important aspects of fantasy football—and one of the most challenging to forecast—is injuries. There’s so much variance with injuries that it becomes really difficult to 1) understand when a player is likely to get injured and 2) use that information in any sort of predictive, quantifiable manner.
One of the issues is that we don’t really have great data on injuries to help make predictions. Well, we didn’t, until SportsInjuryPredictor.com came along. Using extensive injury data and a variety of variables, the site uses an algorithm to help predict when players are likely to get injured. Click here for a breakdown of the injury model graphic.
Is it perfect? Of course not, but neither are any of our 2014 fantasy football forecasts. We’re simply trying to tilt the odds in our favor, even if slightly, and that’s what this data can help us do.
Below, you’ll find Sports Injury Predictor’s analysis on 10 high-risk running backs heading into the 2014 season, along with Rotoworld’s fantasy spin.
1. Arian Foster
The Injury Predictor has highlighted Foster as one of the most likely players across all positions to get injured this year.
o He picked up several injuries last year before the back injury took him out for the season. The hamstring and the calf issues that sidelined him for training camp all speak to a body that is in decline.
o His current workload is not helping his health outlook. The Texans passed on drafting a running back with a high pick and let go of Ben Tate in free agency. The Texans are going to ride Foster until he breaks for good.
That last sentence is key, because even though the chance of an injury of course increases with more and more touches, that’s a good thing for fantasy owners. Avoiding a player who is likely to get injured because he will have a heavy workload is akin to forgoing making more money because you need to pay more taxes.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that Foster offers value this year, though. There’s a lot of risk here, so it’s a matter of his ADP and your personal risk tolerance. It’s tough to replicate his expected workload in the late-second or early-third round, which is where he’s getting drafted, but there’s also a decent chance of Foster tanking in 2014.
2. Eddie Lacy
Lacy came into the NFL with injury/conditioning concerns (turf toe issues and a pulled hamstring). He has enough upside to offset the injury risk that he carries, but buyer beware.
o In a six-month span, Lacy fractured his hand, pulled his hamstring, suffered a concussion, and severely sprained his ankle. Bad luck, or a sign of things to come in 2014? Our algorithm has identified these injuries as playing a large factor in Lacy’s outlook for 2014.
o He is a sophomore-year running back. Statistically, rookies and sophomores have a far higher risk of getting injured than veterans.
o Lacy played on an injured ankle for most of last season, which could very well have caused more damage.
This is a great example of where analytics can help us make smarter decisions. Based on anecdotal evidence alone, I would have assumed that older players are more likely to get injured than the youngsters, but that’s apparently not the case.
Despite his past injuries, it seems like for whatever reason people just aren’t labeling Lacy as “injury-prone.” I think Lacy is getting drafted around where he should, but note that you aren’t getting much of a discount on a running back who might carry greater risk than assumed.
3. Ryan Mathews
Mathews appeared to be healthy in 2013 for the first time since he was drafted in 2010. However, this “healthy” 2013 season is misleading because if you look beyond the “games started” statistic, you will see that he suffered a hamstring pull and a concussion that had him removed from two games. So while he did not miss any games, he continued his track record of being injured in every season he has played.
o Mathews’ injury history contains several really severe injuries to his upper and lower body, including a fractured collarbone (2007 and 2012), a fractured foot (2008), torn ankle ligaments (2010) and three concussions.
o The concussions are a cause for concern, as those tend to become cumulative over time, occurring more frequently and with less contact.
o Even though the algorithm does not predict how players respond to injuries, one can observe that Mathews does not play through injury well due to the length of time he takes to get back on the field when reporting an injury.
It’s always been a challenge to use injury information in any meaningful way simply because injuries are really difficult to forecast. I think examining a player’s recovery time potentially has more uses for us because that gives us an idea of how his body deals with stressors. The fact that Mathews hasn’t healed quickly, to me, is more important than his injury frequency.
You can get a discount on Mathews this year, but not enough of one, in my opinion, to offset both the risk and potential workload issues he might run into in San Diego.
Ellington is interesting, as he has very similar physical measurables to Jamaal Charles (small, elusive and fast) and has a similar injury history to what Charles had at this stage of his career. The question is whether or not Ellington has the bounce-back ability like Charles that makes him such an outlier for a player of his size at this position.
o Ellington had two surgeries in college (foot and ankle).
o In 2013, he missed two games (Week 1 concussion and Week 13 MCL sprain).
o He was unable to fully take part in the combine due to a pulled hamstring.
o Bruce Arians is talking up Ellington as a true workhorse back for 2014, which only increases his likelihood of injury during the season.
The Charles comp for Ellington is an interesting one. It seems like the players who best avoid hard contact, such as Charles, Chris Johnson, LeSean McCoy and perhaps Ellington are also the least likely backs to get injured. I don’t think we have a good reason to believe that Ellington’s injuries are due to either him being injury-prone or the result of variance; there’s not enough evidence one way or the other.
The bigger issue for me is Ellington’s workload. If you believe he’s going to see 15-plus carries per game, then he’s going to offer value in the third round.
5. Shane Vereen
After never missing one game in college due to injury, Vereen has racked up injuries since his first NFL season in 2011. No one doubts his play-making ability when he is on the field, but he has missed 11 games since 2012. While the bulk of that occurred last year when he fractured his wrist and had to sit out for eight games, he has been plagued in each season with some form of injury.
Owners drafting Vereen with the hope that he assumes lead back duties with Stevan Ridley being one fumble away from being benched should know that Vereen comes with a high risk of injury in a support role and that this risk gets amplified as he receives more touches.
o A hamstring injury kept him out the preseason and then the first part of the 2011 regular season.
o A sprained foot had him miss three games in 2012.
o A fractured wrist in Week 1 had Vereen end up on short term IR. According to reports in May, Vereen claimed his wrist had still not healed completely.
Vereen is someone whose value is completely dependent on your scoring system. Even in a PPR league, though, it’s going to be a matter of cost because you could argue that Vereen doesn’t have a huge ceiling from week to week. His floor is probably pretty high due to his usage in the passing game, but the fact that he’s unlikely to score many touchdowns—due to both size concerns and competition for looks—means that we’re dealing with a player who might need to be low-risk to justify a selection.
6. Matt Forte
Again, looking at a player’s “games started” statistic is misleading, as you don’t get an idea of what injuries a player might be carrying going into a season. If you look at Forte’s games started, it appears as though Forte has finished a full complement of games four out of six times.
However, knowing what injuries Forte has suffered helps understand what injuries could be on his horizon in 2014. It’s worth noting that 2013 was the first time since Forte’s 2010 campaign that he has not been limited by any injury. Here’s a look at his injury past:
o 2008 – A big toe injury slowed Forte down over the last few games.
o 2009 – A hamstring injury, along with sprained MCL that occurred in Week 3 that needed offseason surgery, resulted in Forte going over 100 yards only twice.
o 2011 – Forte sprained his MCL and was placed on injured reserve.
o 2012 – Forte suffered a high-ankle sprain in Week 2, missed one game, and was pulled out of another two.
Forte’s huge workload as Chicago’s lead back also increases the likelihood of him getting injured this year. Injuries tend to accumulate, and Forte’s ankle and knee issues will only get worse and not better over time.
One of the things we’re seeing with the Sports Injury Predictor algorithm is that it weighs recent injuries more heavily than those a few years ago. That’s probably good news for Forte, who has everything else going for him in Marc Trestman’s offense. This is a situation in which you’re probably willing to overlook any injury concerns that aren’t monumental in nature due to Forte’s elite ceiling/floor combination.
The first three years in a running back’s career are usually the riskiest. Murray is entering his fourth year in the NFL, which is usually the time at which many running backs are able to start stringing healthy seasons together (just like Ryan Mathews did). Murray’s NFL experience, along with the fact that this is a contract year for him, is working in his favor. What is not in his favor is the fact that he has missed 11 games in three years in the NFL.
o 2007 – Dislocated his patella requiring surgery
o 2011 – Hamstring issues caused him to be pulled from two games
o 2011 – Fractured ankle, ended up on IR
o 2012 – Sprained his foot and missed several games
o 2013 – Sprained his MCL and missed two games
Murray is a classic case of “injury-prone until he’s not.” All we heard about Murray before last year’s drafts was that he can’t stay healthy. In 2013, he still missed action, but now those concerns have seemed to retreat. Why? I’m not saying Murray is indeed injury-prone, but if you believed he was before and knocked him for it, you should probably be doing that again.
The one thing that worries me most about Murray is his height, as I’ve found tall running backs have a higher injury rate than compact ones.
8. C.J. Spiller
Spiller was injured a lot in college and came into the NFL with an “injury-prone” name tag. Playing in a backup capacity in the NFL for the last four years has saved him from major injury, but last year’s sprained ankle was severe enough to keep him hobbled for most of the season. While Spiller has demonstrated he is a grinder in playing through injury, the negative effects of continuing to play on an injured ankle (and somehow hobbling to 1,000-plus yards from scrimmage) could come back to bite him this year.
o 2009 – Turf toe in his final year of college
o 2010 – A hamstring injury kept him out of two games
o 2012 – Suffered a shoulder sprain, but played through the injury
o 2013 – Sprained his ankle early in the season, missed one game but was able to grind through the season
As Fred Jackson gets closer to retirement, Spiller’s role is expected to increase, exposing him to a greater risk of injury.
Spiller is a player whose value is completely dependent on how his own coaches view and utilize him. If he can even approach workhorse status, Spiller probably has top-five potential. Are there injury concerns? Maybe, but you’re getting a decent discount on him in the third round considering his workload upside.
9. Lance Dunbar
Dunbar looked electric in the 2013 Thanksgiving game, only to tear his PCL with five minutes left to go in the fourth quarter. Prior to that, he had suffered a few injuries that placed a question mark over his durability for a larger role.
o 2008 – Tore his ACL in college and required reparative surgery to fix
o In 2013, Dunbar sprained his foot, pulled his hamstring and hyperextended his knee, in addition to the torn PCL.
One of the most important traits of elite fantasy owners is understanding when to emphasize safety and when to be more risk-tolerant. When you’re in the late rounds and considering a player like Dunbar, you should be in full upside-seeking mode. The question you need to ask yourself is “Are there scenarios in which this player can be a viable starter for me if things go right?” It’s less about what could go wrong since the cost is so minimal, so I actually wouldn’t be too concerned over Dunbar’s durability.
10. Chris Ivory
Ivory held himself together for his 2013 campaign and was able to stay healthy for the majority of the season. This is no small feat for a player who missed more games than he started in since 2010.
o College –Plagued by ankle and hamstring injuries throughout college; missed a chunk of his final season with a torn meniscus
o 2010: Sprained MCL, concussion, pulled hamstring, fractured foot
o 2011: Sports hernia, fractured foot, pulled hamstring
o 2012: Pulled hamstring
o 2013: Pulled hamstring
It’s worth noting that Ivory has already missed a chunk of time from training camp due to sore hamstrings.
What concerns me most about Ivory isn’t the amount of injuries, but the nature of them. As the guys at Sports Injury Predictor have pointed out, hamstring pulls and foot fractures are injuries that tend to linger.
Actually, those players who break their foot have a 59 percent chance of later tearing a hamstring. Fifty-nine percent! Knowing that, it isn’t surprising that we saw Ivory come down with hamstring issues in recent seasons.
I’m typically pretty bullish on players others perceive as injury-prone, but this is one situation I’ll be avoiding.