Injury Discounts: Running Backs

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Injury Discounts: Running Backs

The “post-hype sleeper” discount. The “regression to the mean” discount. The “recency bias” discount. The “Freddie Kitchens is no longer my head coach” discount. Of all the potential fantasy discounts, none is more powerful than the injury discount.

The problem is, most fantasy players don’t really know what that word means, when to apply it, or how. Luckily, Scott Barrett is here to help. But, his problem is, well, he’s not a trained medical expert. Luckily Edwin Porras, a Doctor of Physical Therapy, is. He’s here too!

In this article, Scott (through the dark art of dank stats) will explain why he thinks a given player is an injury discount. Edwin will then make his own argument, relying on his own expertise and any relevant medical literature. Finally, The Honourable (that “u” makes it look so much more important) Joe Dolan will provide his ruling: “Yes, this player is an injury discount” or “No, this player should not be targeted in drafts” or at least “no, an injury is not pushing this player down the board.”

Let’s talk some RBs.

Note: This is Part II of a IV part series. You can read our articles on quarterbacks, wide receivers (coming soon), and tight ends (coming soon).

Alvin Kamara, New Orleans Saints

ADP: Round 1, RB4

Scott:

In March, Alvin Kamara told us that he played much of last season “on only one leg and at only 75%effectiveness,” but “he’s now fully 100% healthy.”

In June, Saints RB coach Joel Thomas said:

“No one really knows how much Kamara went through to play with knee, ankle, and back injuries… Kamara was playing through a lot. Injuries just piled up, but Kamara’s 75% is a lot of people’s 100%. That’s why he was playing through the injuries.”

Kamara spent only three weeks on the injury report (Weeks 6-8), but it was clear that doesn’t tell the full story. Through the first five weeks of the season (before his injury), Kamara led all 38 qualifying running backs in Elusive Rating (per PFF). Throughout the remainder of the season, he ranked just 34th of 40 running backs.

Without exaggeration, Kamara is arguably the most efficient fantasy running back of all-time. Since the NFL merger (in 1970), there have been 2,255 instances of a running back drawing at least 100 carries in a single season. Of those, Kamara’s 2017 season ranks first in fantasy points per touch (1.59). His 2018 season ranks 13th (1.29) – making him the only running back with multiple seasons in the top-25. His 2019 season, however, ranked just 218th (0.99).

So, Kamara’s diminished efficiency certainly hurt him – he finished eighth in fantasy points per game (17.8) after finishing fourth in 2018 (23.6) and fourth in 2017 (20.0) – but keep in mind, he also saw the best volume of his career in 2019. He averaged 18.4 weighted opportunity points per game along with a 66% snap share, compared to just 15.9 and 54% when Mark Ingram was active in 2018.

Is Kamara a true injury discount? He’s still expensive, ranking #4 overall by ADP, so probably not. But he's also at-worst perfectly priced. And maybe especially because he looks like this now:

Edwin:

Yes. All the Kamara. If you need any more convincing, read here.

Joe:

Yeah, what Scott said. There’s no discount here because of the ADP, but I’m all in on Kamara. Edwin just reinforces that.

VERDICT: NO INJURY DISCOUNT

Saquon Barkley, New York Giants

ADP: Round 1, RB2

Scott:

Saquon Barkley was off to a hot start before suffering a high-ankle sprain in Week 3. That injury was supposed to keep him sidelined for 4-8 weeks. Instead, he missed only three, coming back in Week 7 and playing out the remainder of the year (on an 88% snap share). However, he clearly wasn’t 100% until sometime after that. From Week 3 to Week 14, Barkley averaged just 3.06 YPC and 13.6 fantasy points per game. Across Barkley’s other five games he averaged a whopping 27.1 fantasy points per game along with a ridiculous 6.74 YPC.

Edwin:

Just like with Kamara (and for entirely similar reasons), Barkley has a really good chance to lap his 2019 numbers in 2020. This study, which included a survey of all 32 NFL team physicians, found it was consensus that four to six weeks to return after a high ankle sprain is an overshoot. The actual average time frame is 15 days while the four to six-week mark is how long pain and swelling linger. This matches Barkley’s statistical trajectory and connecting the dots means he’s got (maybe) just as much upside as the guy in Carolina.

Joe:

There’s no discount. He’s the #2 overall player. You gotta challenge me here, guys!

VERDICT: NO INJURY DISCOUNT

James Conner, Pittsburgh Steelers

ADP: Round 4, RB19

Scott:

In 2018, James Conner|RB|PIT}} spent the final four weeks of the season on the injury report with an ankle sprain, sitting out for the entirety of your fantasy postseason. Prior to that, Conner was averaging 19.0 weighted opportunity points- and 22.3 fantasy points per game. For perspective, both numbers would have ranked top-six among running backs.

In 2019, Conner suffered a knee injury in Week 2, a quadricep injury in Week 6, and then a shoulder injury in Week 8. He would then spend seven of the team’s final nine games on the injury report, missing six of those games. However, prior to that, Conner was averaging 15.9 weighted opportunity points- and 17.8 fantasy points per game. For perspective, both numbers would have ranked top-eight among running backs.

By all accounts, Conner’s 2018 and 2019 role should remain intact in 2020. Per Mike Tomlin in May:

“I’m a featured-runner type guy by mentality… Usually when it’s going well, it’s because you have a lead dog out front, and that guy is the featured runner. James is a featured guy and proven runner when healthy. We’re excited about him getting back to health and displaying that in 2020."

Add it all up and Conner looks like a massive ADP-value (ADP: RB19) – maybe the best injury discount in this series – so long as he stays healthy in 2020.

Edwin:

At RB19, there’s enough to cushion the risk in drafting Conner. But, make no mistake, the injury risk is massive. Here’s why: 1) Due to injuries, he’s never played a complete season. 2) He’s missed more and more time in each subsequent season since entering the league. 3) All of the injuries he’s faced are connective tissue-related and severe, which point to a potential underlying dysfunction in how his body creates it. For example, he required MCL surgery as a rookie which is only required 5% of the time. It truly sucks to be so negative about a player with such a moving story, but the facts are the facts, and the best predictor of injury is previous injury. Buyer beware.

Joe:

This is what I was looking for, guys. Edwin has been adamant that Conner features a higher injury risk than just about any fantasy-relevant player. But when he’s been on the field, he’s been a hammer RB1. We wrote up Conner in our Fantasy Points Targets article, but in that piece, we mentioned that he’s for a specific type of drafter and roster build. Here’s the way I look at it — if Conner wasn’t constantly hurt, he’d be a first-round pick. Use that information however you’d like — I tend to think the injury is priced pretty well into his ADP. I’m fine taking him where he’s going, which is the third/fourth-round range, though I typically like the WRs there better.

VERDICT: YES, INJURY DISCOUNT

Chris Carson, Seattle Seahawks

ADP: Round 4, RB20

Scott:

Chris Carson totaled 60 yards on nine touches before suffering a season-ending hip fracture in Week 16. (Carson also missed two games in 2018 – Week 4 and Week 10 – with a hip injury.) Prior to that Week 16 game, Carson was averaging 50.6 snaps per game (seventh-most), 16.8 weighted opportunity points per game (eighth-most), and 16.1 fantasy points per game (11th-most). Keep in mind, he ranks just 20th in ADP this year.

With Rashaad Penny likely to start the season on the PUP list, the Seahawks added insurance in Carlos Hyde, though both he and the team made it clear Carson’s role will remain unchanged. So, is Carson an injury discount, or should we be worried about the hip?

Edwin:

Injury analysis is all about dissecting a player’s true physical volatility using data and clinical judgment. Unfortunately, there is very minimal data or information on Carson’s hip fracture. To further the point, from 1980-2019 hip / pelvis injuries made up just 7% of all NFL injuries and of that sample, 36% were muscular strains. In other words, the extent of damage, recovery, clinical decisions, and subsequent recovery for Carson are a major question mark. That’s not to say he can’t be successful — it just means we don’t know that he’s a slam dunk. Lastly, it would be a disservice not to mention that although not quantifiable, there is a chance he refractures the hip and ends up being forced to have surgery this year.

Joe:

I’ve always had a blind spot for Carson, and this year is no exception. But it’s certainly funny that a guy who constantly looks like he’s set to be replaced takes on all comers, including injuries, and wins out. I expected the Seahawks to make a bigger move at the position than just signing Hyde and drafting DeeJay Dallas. Like I do with Conner, I’m typically taking the WRs in this range, but if I need a RB pretty badly, I’ll be glad to put Carson in my back pocket at this price. He has more “floor,” but Conner has the upside.

VERDICT: YES, INJURY DISCOUNT

David Johnson, Houston Texans

ADP: Round 4, RB18

Scott:

David Johnson exceeded 100 yards from scrimmage in four of Arizona’s first six games, averaging 20.2 fantasy points per game over this span (fifth-best). And then, the wheels fell off. After picking up a back injury in Week 5, Johnson was barely available for Week 6, but he played, and added an ankle injury which continued to plague him for some time afterward. Throughout the remainder of the season, he touched the ball just 24 times, and in spite of that fact he told reporters he was 100% heading into Week 10.

Johnson ranked sixth in ADP last year, and now ranks 18th (albeit in a less sexy landing spot). He’s also turning 29-years-old this season, has an extensive injury history, looked frighteningly sluggish at times last year, and didn’t look good in 2018 either.

Injury discount or injury trap?

Edwin:

I’m of the opinion that Johnson is athletically toast as it relates to being a productive fantasy football player. This study found running backs of Johnson’s pitch count and injury history to rarely prove fantasy relevant in an age 29 season. The knock-out blow as it relates to age is that in 2019 the average age of a top 24 running back was between the ages of 22 and 26—a trend that more than likely reflects a larger historical dataset. This makes sense because biologically, many factors that contribute to an ultra-athlete’s success begin to deteriorate ever so slightly around this age, such as testosterone and muscle mass. The law of averages just isn’t in Johnson’s favor. To make matters worse, work by Adam Harstad has shown that even though running backs can last in the league longer than conventionally believed, their falloff is sharp and sudden. Did we witness Johnson’s free-fall in 2019? We draft for upside around here. I don’t see much in DJ.

Joe:

I want nothing to do with a guy who looked like a forklift out there in 2019. I see so little in DJ’s athleticism on tape that I’m quite willing to fall into the Duke Johnson trap again this year. Sometimes, injury history provides a discount. Sometimes, injuries are correctly factored into the cost of a player. Sometimes, it doesn’t go far enough. To be quite frank, DJ has had one truly good fantasy season — 2016. That’s an entire presidential term ago.

VERDICT: NO INJURY DISCOUNT

Jordan Howard, Miami Dolphins

ADP: Round 8, RB40

Scott:

Jordan Howard picked up a shoulder injury in Week 9 that left him without a single touch from Week 10 until the end of the season. However, across the seven weeks leading up to that point, Howard ranked fourth in rushing fantasy points despite ranking just 12th in rushing attempts. He’s now, reportedly, back to 100% (though this wasn’t the first shoulder injury of his career), and exceedingly cheap (ADP: RB40). Though an unsexy name on an unsexy team, he is the easy favorite to lead the team in touches, following a contract that will make him the league’s 11th-highest-paid running back in 2020. He lacks league-winning upside, but is way too cheap to avoid.

Edwin:

Acknowledging that Howard is certainly no world-beater, sure, taking him at RB40 is acceptable. But his risk is higher than most in the fantasy world are aware of, as he’s had at least one significant “stinger.” A stinger is essentially compression of a peripheral nerve that’s painful and affects the ability to use muscles and even sensation. Nerves regenerate at an excruciating rate of one inch per month. Anyway, it’s all semantics and he’s worth the risk.

Joe:

I don’t think Howard is an injury discount. I think he’s a “boring” discount. And while no one will ever be excited to actually draft him, he’s a rock-solid depth option at RB as an RB3 or 4 who has a good shot to lead his team in rushing. I’ll take him if I need a back, but this isn’t an injury discount kind of situation.

VERDICT: NO INJURY DISCOUNT

Josh Jacobs, Las Vegas Raiders

ADP: Round 2, RB13

Scott:

Last season, as a rookie, Josh Jacobs led all running backs in missed tackles forced per touch (0.30) and Elusive Rating (103.6). And, not only did he lead the league, these were historically great marks – ranking, respectively, third- and second-best by any running back this past decade.

Somehow, he put together one of the most-efficient seasons in recent memory (by two of PFF’s stickiest and most-predictive metrics) while playing through a fractured shoulder for over half of his season. How much could that have affected his performance? He was more productive before the Week 7 injury (16.1 FPG vs. 13.9 FPG), but it also might have affected him in a less obvious way.

According to GM Mike Mayock, the injury also obstructed his development in the passing game, though the team hopes to remedy that this season. If they do, Jacobs would be a screaming value, ranking 13th in ADP after finishing 15th in FPG (14.7), despite playing with a serious injury and despite recording just 20 receptions all year. Keep in mind, the average reception is worth 3.4X as much as a rushing attempt for running backs in PPR leagues.

What do you think?

Edwin:

It’s certainly possible that Jacobs’ shoulder fracture impacted his performance and led to a diminished role in the passing game. For instance, Jacobs totaled just three receptions over his final three games, but he caught three passes in a single game in four of his prior six games. The good news is, that shoulder shouldn’t be an issue at all in 2020.

Joe:

I think we’re debating semantics at this point. Jacobs is a second-round pick because he wasn’t involved in the passing game last year the way we thought he would be. But was he not involved because of the injury? That’s hard to say right now. I think fantasy players are more worried because the Raiders re-signed Jalen Richard and drafted Lynn Bowden than they are the shoulder injury for Jacobs.

VERDICT: NO INJURY DISCOUNT

Other Situations to Watch

Scott:

So far, I’ve only highlighted players who might be strong ADP values so long as they stay healthy in 2020. But what about running backs we should be especially worried about? For instance, if you think Todd Gurley is in steep decline, or likely to miss time this season (for whatever reason), that could make one of his backups a hidden gem in 2020 drafts. Or, what if Dalvin Cook’s poor injury luck continues? Is he someone to worry about? Should we be bumping Alexander Mattison up our rankings?

Edwin:

Ito Smith (Atl) — Due to a chronic knee condition, Gurley is a prime example of a player whose “mileage” really matters. He’s now one year older with another year of an NFL pounding behind him. To put it lightly, he looked extremely pedestrian last year, and everything else considered, it’s clear his upside is capped. Gurley’s condition is literally day-to-day starting Day 1 of the NFL season. Keep an eye on Smith or Brian Hill behind him given this condition. Alexander Mattison (Min) — I concede to Cook’s incredible talent, but his four shoulder dislocations since high school, the most recent in 2019, has scared me away in several leagues this season. Why? This study of 93 NFL players found that 55% who have a shoulder dislocation but forego surgery inevitably re-dislocated that shoulder within their next three regular season weeks. Another study supports this high rate of re-dislocation and found that NCAA football players who dislocate but forego surgery re-dislocate within 9 months of turning pro. The problem with recurrent dislocation is that each episode causes further damage to the labrum which can eventually lead to it coming out of place by completing a simple task such as rolling over in bed. Surgery is all but required at that point. For these reasons, I love Mattison as a mid-to-late round pick who might actually deliver some stand-alone value in deeper leagues. I took Mattison in the 10th round of the FantasyPoints dynasty draft and it felt like a steal.

Some more honorable mentions in terms of injury discounts:

JK Dobbins (Bal) — Mark Ingram is 30 years old and coming off of a mid-calf strain — which is dangerously close to the achilles tendon. This injury is directly related to his age and since we’ve already touched on the sharp drop off for older running backs.

JaMycal Hasty (SF) — San Francisco has one of the oldest RB rooms in the NFL with Tevin Coleman (27), Raheem Mostert (28), and Jerick McKinnon (28). In addition to age, Coleman has a 40%-55% chance of shoulder redislocation (like I mentioned with Dalvin Cook). McKinnon hasn’t played a snap in the NFL since 2017 and has required unproven medical procedures to bolster his previous ACL surgery. And Mostert is a 28-year-old undrafted free agent on his seventh team. Maybe Hasty is a deep, deep sleeper, but he’s on my radar.

Damien Harris (NE) — Sony Michel (foot) will start the season the PUP and wasn’t exactly a superstar last season (3.69 YPC). Rex Burkhead is 30 years old with a history of herniated discs in his neck. Newly signed Lamar Miller has his own litany of concerns.

Phillip Lindsay (Den) — Melvin Gordon is 27 years old with an extensive history of injuries which includes a procedure on the inside of his knee which, similar to Gurley, can cause a sharp and sudden drop off in performance.

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