Every year, just a week or two before the NFL season begins, millions of people sit in front of computers or meet up with their buddies in order to do something that will dictate the next four months of their lives: Draft their fantasy football team. There are tons of different strategies, whether it’s the new Zero RB approach, no QBs until round 8, or the tried and true best player available strategy. But oftentimes, your approach really doesn’t mean anything if your fantasy team comes down with the sickness of all sicknesses: the Injury Bug.
Many people may read an article or two about big players coming back from injury or sleepers who could take advantage of an injury-prone player ahead of them on the depth chart. But one injury-related strategy gets overlooked all the time and it could make or break your season. What strategy is that?
Injury Pattern Recognition
As a physical therapist (PT), I spend my days helping clients recover from injuries/surgeries, manage pain, optimize movement, and, ultimately, return to doing the things they love. However, one major part of a PT’s job that often gets forgotten is injury prevention. We spend years honing our skills in order to identify risk factors and impairments that could predispose people to injury.
One way of doing so is by recognizing patterns. This pattern recognition is crucial to effectively and efficiently correct these risk factors before they lead to injury. And I believe this skill can translate into finding value in your drafts while also avoiding taking risks that just aren’t worth the ROI.
So, without further adieu, here are the top 3 things skilled drafters should do in order to help prevent coming down with the injury bug.
#1 : Target players two seasons removed from surgery
This one comes with a bit of a caveat, as not all surgeries are created equal. Injuries like patellar and achilles tendon tears fall into a category of their own due to their history of severely limiting football players even after their first incident. However, with many other surgeries, a player’s fantasy stats tend to decline slightly the year after surgery, only to spike again to more “normal for that player” levels in the seasons that follow. I bring this up because we have guys such as Jordy Nelson and Le’Veon Bell who are returning from serious knee injuries that required surgical reconstruction, both of whom are going the first two rounds of most drafts.
Now, by no means am I saying you should completely avoid taking these guys. Guys like Adrian Peterson have shown us that anything is possible with these remarkable athletes. However, I do think we have to temper expectations a bit, especially early in the season, as it takes time for guys to get comfortable with their movement patterns and build confidence in their legs. Remember, these players are spending month after month re-learning how to walk and run and regaining strength and motion they had in abundance just last year. This takes time and we’d be kidding ourselves if we didn’t take that into consideration.
One other consideration with players coming back from ACL surgery is how far removed they are post surgery. A lot of research has come out that has shown that waiting at least 9 months post ACL reconstruction can significantly reduce the risk of re-injury. So a guy like Nelson, who tore his ACL almost 11 months ago will, statistically, have a lower likelihood of re-tearing his ACL vs some one who suffered their injury during Week 5 of the season like Jamaal Charles. Just another thing to keep in mind.
So, who are some guys that fall into this category that we should keep an eye on heading into draft season?
- Dez Bryant: Obviously, he’s not a sleeper, but since he played last season following injury, I’m counting this as season two post injury. He’s poised for a huge bounce back year.
- LeSean McCoy: I know, he’s been an injury risk in the past. However, he suffered a hamstring strain before last season even started, tried to play through it, and was never the same as the injury lingered all season. He’s reportedly healthy heading into this season and should be good to go in an improving Buffalo offense.
- Dennis Pitta: This is a deep reach, but he did miss all of last season following two hip dislocations and appears to be showing glimpses of the potential he had prior to injury. He’s currently not even being chosen in most drafts, so this wreaks of a super low risk, high reward pick
- Michael Floyd: He suffered three dislocated fingers that needed surgical repair prior to last season. He didn’t seem to hit his stride until much later in the season, but consistency was a bit of an issue. However, in this potent Cardinals offense with plenty of passes to go around and an ADP making him the 26th WR off the board (according to Fantasy Pros), there could be some value to be had.
#2: Avoid Overpaying for the Dreaded Re-Injury
We’ve seen guys suffer the same type of injury over and over again, year after year. Sam Bradford and his oh-so-fragile knees. Jordan Cameron and his concussions. Arian Foster and his…..everything. We know better, but keep getting burned by convincing ourselves that this year will be different.
What’s worse is when we reach for guys who are not only prone to injury, but who are coming back from the SAME INJURY that they dealt with in the past. Re-injury rates will increase more often than not in two very clear cut scenarios: Coming back from injury too soon AND recurrence of pathology to the same structures. There’s just no way around this. How else do you explain Tony Romo injuring the same clavicle (collar bone) on three separate occasions? Or Jamaal Charles tearing his ACL in both his right and left knees in a 5 year span? Are they just the unluckiest guys in the world?
The involved structure (regardless of tissue type) weakens with injury. On some occasions, if the injury is minor in nature and enough time is allowed for proper healing, nothing lingers and that player never thinks about it again. However, with the pressure to return to sport on these million dollar athletes, proper healing time is not always achieved, leaving the player susceptible for re-injury or compensation (more to come on this).
This comes down to a risk/reward analysis. Would I take Charles in the mid to late 1st round with his injury history, being 30 years old, and two capable backs (Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware) behind him? Not a chance. But if he slips to the late 2nd round because everyone is spooked off? I just may take that chance because the value provided in a best case scenario is off the charts.
Take your time and keep this in mind when considering drafting guys in the first couple rounds. It’s just not worth it to take unnecessary risks early in the draft when there are guys with very similar value and no significant injury risks to worry about available. Also, don’t forget about the value that can be had by drafting the backups of these injury prone players later in drafts, as this could be a sneaky way to take advantage of a star with injury issues.
#3: Watch for Compensatory Injuries Following Surgery
Many people were burned last year thinking that Victor Cruz wouldn’t skip a beat upon his return from a patellar tendon repair. However, during camp, he began to have issues with a calf strain that lingered for weeks. Although all the focus was on how his knee was healing post surgery and whether he’d be ready from a timeline standpoint, the calf strain was not talked about enough. Why did the strain develop? How serious was the strain?
These are the questions you should be asking yourself when you consider drafting someone coming off major surgery. It’s very common for players to compensate as they go through their rehabilitation, which makes the presence of a skilled physical therapist during the process that much more important. Being that PTs are the “movement experts”, our job is to make sure that a player restores their optimal movement patterns and these inefficiencies are identified and corrected early on during their rehab.
In Cruz’s case, players coming back from patellar tendon repairs already have a tough time without the presence of a compensation, so developing this calf strain on top of it was the nail in the coffin for his 2015 season as it required surgical intervention. This is obviously a worst case scenario, but you see how the initial surgery wasn’t even the primary issue anymore, showing how important avoiding compensatory injuries can be.
As you head into your drafts as week 1 nears, do a google search about each player coming off some type of major injury and see if there are any mentions of missing time due to “soreness”, “tightness”, or “discomfort” in a region of the body other than what was originally injured (Obviously, if they mention any of those terms about the original injury, take caution). This will give you insight into how the player has been recovering and will allow you to make a much more informed decision about that player’s prospects for the upcoming season.
If you can follow this advice and avoid making a critical mistake in your drafts, you’ll give yourself a leg up on all of the other teams in your league because I can assure you 99% of your league isn’t taking these things into consideration. So do yourself a favor and be the 1%. You’ll thank me later.
Find all of Dr. Ziad Dahdul’s work at fflockerroom.com where he serves as Injury Analyst
Find Dr. Dahdul on Twitter at z_dahdul, where he provides injury analysis in real time and will answer all of your fantasy injury questions!