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Columns - Magazine

Top Ten Injury Risks

by Jonathan Bales
Updated On: October 4, 2018, 4:09 pm ET

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.


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 see the 10 most likely players to get injured this year, according to Sports Injury Predictor’s model, along with analysis.


1. WR Julio Jones


When I saw some of Sports Injury Predictor’s data on players who have broken a foot, it caused me to move Julio Jones down in my rankings. Take a look at notable players to break a foot in recent years, along with their subsequent health concerns:


o    Ahmad Bradshaw (fractured foot in 2011, aggravated it in 2012)

o    Andre Brown (fractured foot in 2007, re-fractured in 2008)

o    Chris Ivory (fractured foot in 2010, re-fractured in 2011)

o    Hakeem Nicks (fractured foot in 2010, re-fractured in 2012)

o    Michael Crabtree (fractured foot in 2009, re-fractured in 2011)

o    Demaryius Thomas (fractured foot in 2010, aggravated in offseason, ruptured Achilles in 2011)


Players who break a foot are very likely to get injured in the future, and they’re especially likely to have ankle and hamstring problems. At this point, I don’t think we’re getting enough of a discount on Jones in the early-to-mid second round.


2. WR Cecil Shorts


The biggest predictor of injury for every position is opportunities; the more often a player touches the ball, the more likely he is to get injured. That doesn’t mean we want to avoid touches, obviously, which would be akin to bypassing a higher salary because you need to pay more taxes.


However, when we see players who aren’t necessarily projected with the heaviest workloads near the top of a list like this, it’s a big cause for concern. A player like Cecil Shorts might be less likely to get injured than Jones in 2014, but he’s more likely to get injured on a per-touch basis, which is really what we care about.


3. RB Andre Ellington


Andre Ellington’s chances of injury are of course going to increase if he sees more touches, but that’s risk that we want to take on. Running backs like Ellington—compact and shifty—have typically been able to stay healthy because they don’t frequently take on hard contact.


Ellington had two surgeries during college and was unable to compete in the combine because he pulled his hamstring. At this point, though, I don’t think we can say if he’s injury-prone, one way or the other.


4. RB Eddie Lacy


It’s always interesting to see how public perception matches up with reality. Eddie Lacy is higher than Arian Foster on this list, but there’s no definitive “injury-prone” narrative surrounding the Packers’ running back (at least not a strong one anymore). There are a bunch of different things that suggest Lacy could be more likely to get injured than some of us are supposing, though.


First, he played through a bad ankle sprain last year. He also broke his hand, pulled his hamstring and suffered a concussion within a six-month period. And finally, first and second-year backs have a far higher injury risk than veterans. That’s surprising to me because it doesn’t fit with what we think we know about injuries, but it’s certainly actionable information.


There are lots of reasons to be bullish on Lacy, too, but risk-minimization perhaps isn’t one of them.


5. RB Arian Foster


Foster has dealt with a number of nagging injuries of late, including hamstring, back and calf issues. He’s the type of running back who I think will have a really strong impact on fantasy teams this year, one way or the other. You’re getting a small discount on him in the back of the second or early portion of the third—which is relatively cheap given his expected workload—but he’s not an option if you’re risk-averse.


6. RB Ryan Mathews


One of the really interesting factors with Ryan Mathews is that he has not only suffered a lot of injuries, but he’s also been slow to return from them. I think the recovery time is almost more important than the injury frequency because, while injuries are low-frequency and really difficult to separate from randomness, recovery time gives us some insights into how a player’s body is built and how he responds to stressors. I personally won’t own Mathews this year, with his injury risk being one of the main reasons.


7. WR Marqise Lee


Remember, one of the coolest findings from the Sports Injury Predictor algorithm is that veterans are actually less likely to get injured than young players. Typically, NFL players get injured at the highest rate early in their careers, likely as they adjust to the speed of the NFL game and the length of the season.


That’s one contributing factor to Marqise Lee’s injury risk, as is his 2013 MCL sprain and the fact that he wore a walking boot during minicamp. The cost is low enough here that you don’t need to be too risk-averse with Lee, but just know that the recency of his injuries means he might not be at 100 percent in his rookie campaign.


8. WR Percy Harvin


Here’s a look at Percy Harvin’s injury history:


o    2013: Tore his labrum in his hip, requiring surgery and resulting in him missing the first 15 games of the season

o    2012: Tore ligaments in his left ankle, resulting in surgery and IR

o    2012: Needed surgery on his shoulder in the offseason to repair the AC joint

o    2011: Fractured ribs

o    2010: Migraines and ankle injuries caused him to leave a few games early and held him out of two others


There’s a decent chance that Harvin is indeed injury-prone, but that’s also reflected in his ADP, especially since he missed nearly the entire 2013 season. I wouldn’t target Harvin in standard leagues, but there’s definitely PPR upside relative to his cost. If you have some top-flight receiving options who you can rely upon, it makes it easier to absorb the risk of Harvin later in the draft.


9. TE Julius Thomas


After playing just one year of college ball, Julius Thomas missed his entire rookie year with a high-ankle sprain. The Sports Injury Predictor algorithm shows that inexperience is a big predictor of injuries, so Thomas has that working against him.
You could make an argument that Thomas’s injury risk is offset by his high floor playing with Peyton Manning. Throw in the loss of Eric Decker and Thomas is probably one of the safer tight ends on the week-to-week level. Nonetheless, he might be similar to Rob Gronkowski as an early-round tight end for whom you should buy insurance, i.e. draft a quality late-round backup, to offset the risk that’s present on the seasonal level.


10. RB Matt Forte


Here’s a peek at Matt Forte’s injury history:


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.


The fact that he wasn’t injured in 2013 is a big positive, as the algorithm weighs recent injuries more heavily than distant ones. Basically, it’s less about figuring out whether or not a guy is “injury-prone”—whatever definition we use—and more about if there are any current conditions that could affect his play or make him more likely to get injured in the future.


With Forte, his awesome ceiling/floor combination in Marc Trestman’s offense justifies his ADP. Much of his injury risk is also due to a projected heavy workload, so there’s no reason to avoid him.