There isn't a position in sports that puts its players in more dangerous positions than running back. Pitchers in baseball might suffer more career-threatening injuries, but football's running backs are always a funny twist or misplaced hit from missing time. There isn't a running back in fantasy that isn't an injury risk.
So, that makes this slide one of the most important to us. You have to assess and manage the running back injury risk, because it is everywhere here.
Age-Related Injury Risks
Adrian Peterson, Marshawn Lynch, Chris Johnson, Frank Gore, Steven Jackson, Maurice Jones-Drew, Darren Sproles, DeAngelo Williams, Pierre Thomas, Fred Jackson, Danny Woodhead, Shonn Greene, Ahmad Bradshaw, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, James Starks, Peyton Hillis
We will go in-depth on the breakdowns of older backs in the busts slide, but all of these guys are already age 28 or older. That might not seem old, and 30 notoriously is the fantasy age of breakdown, but running backs peak at age 27 and decline from there (again, more on that in the bust slide).
Drafting any of these guys puts you at risk of picking someone who is susceptible to injury. Age means wear and the combination of both can lead to injury and longer recovery time. You need to burn premium picks on running backs, so you cannot afford to lose them. Drafting backs 27 years old or younger reduces your risk significantly.
Bleacher Report's injury expert Will Carroll chimed in on the first guy on that list, who is a No. 1 overall candidate on some boards (including ESPN.com's), as referenced by FantasyPros.com's average draft position consensus report.
He's aging, he has a new offense, and he's had significant injuries each of the past three seasons. He's also among the best running backs in the game. The two appear to be in opposition, but they're really not. Given the lack of rock solid top-end backs, the risk adjustment for Peterson is small. The groin issues seem to be behind him, and he still has burst.
Arian Foster, Houston Texans
We have to admit, we liked Foster coming into training camp for a rebound year. We probably need to downgrade him out of the first round before late August now.
Foster has admitted to ESPN.com's Tania Ganguli that his back injury made him contemplate retirement after last season, and various other leg issues have kept him inactive early in camp. Things are not looking up for Foster, which means consider Andre Brown (another injury-prone guy) and unheralded rookie Alfred Blue important late-round pickups.
Jake Davidow, who uses advanced analytic tools at SportsInjuryPredictor.com, says Foster is "one of the most likely players across all positions to get injured this year."
B/R's Carroll said don't touch Foster at all, at any round:
Arian Foster remains as risky a back as there is. When he's healthy, he's productive, but he's had one healthy season going back to high school. As he ages and wears, that's not likely to get better. Add in a new system, a new quarterback and a confusing backup situation, and I'm staying away from him completely. Not only 'Well, if he falls to me in the second round,' but completely away.
Ryan Mathews, San Diego Chargers
Here is one who has more varied opinions on his risk. After his first 16-game season a year ago, there are believers he has put his problems in the past. B/R's Carroll is entirely in that camp:
Mathews has flipped completely. While he's definitely an injury risk, it was largely based on workload and a bit overstated. He's played 12 games a year at least and it's easy to price that in. Now with Danny Woodhead and Donald Brown, the risk is more on assessing his role properly. If a projection has properly valued his role, there's only a slight risk adjustment needed beyond that.
Davidow is less convinced, citing the nicks he sustained while playing that seemingly full season a year ago.
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 2 games. So while he did not miss any games, he continued his record of being injured in every season he has played in.
Davidow's file on Mathews lists:
- Fractured collarbone (2007 and 2012)
- Fractured foot (2008)
- Torn ligaments in ankle (2010)
- Three concussions
The concussions are the most concerning to Davidow, who said "those tend to become cumulative over time, occurring more frequently and with less contact."
Doug Martin, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Coming off shoulder surgery, Martin has fallen from being a top-three pick a year ago to potentially no better than a mid-second-round guy. We still rank him among the top 10 running backs, though, because a shoulder injury is more disconcerting for another position. Running backs rely on their legs and those appear strong for the Muscle Hamster. (He hates that nickname, by the way, as reported by Deadspin.)
Carroll is watching Martin but fully expects him to rebound with a big season. Yours truly agrees whole heartily. Carroll
Martin is coming off a major shoulder injury, but this type of injury doesn't tend to recur. I'm watching to see if he's running a bit more upright to protect that early, but I doubt we'll see it. He's low to begin with and runs like a bag of angry hyenas. I'm not sure I can ignore the injury enough to put him in the Charles-McCoy-Peterson tier, but I fully expect him to be the comeback player of the year.
Martin wasn't one of Davidow's top three injury risks, by the way.
Andre Ellington, Arizona Cardinals
This is one to watch, particularly since we have already seen a similar undersized back, David Wilson (neck), forced into retirement and have spent years seemingly wasting premium picks on the Buffalo Bills' C.J. Spiller. Ellington, who is also from Clemson, is the next Spiller...in more ways than just game-breaking ability.
Like No. 1 overall candidate Jamaal Charles, Ellington is as dynamic as he is risky because of his smaller, 200-, 210-pound frames. Davidow asks whether Ellington can prove to be the outlier like Charles has done for an undersized burner and provided this injury history:
- Two surgeries in college (foot and ankle).
- In 2013, he missed two games (Week 1 concussion and Week 13 with an MCL sprain)
- He was unable to fully take part in the combine due to a pulled hamstring.
- Bruce Arians is talking up Ellington as a true workhorse back for 2014—this only increases his likelihood of injury during the season.