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Early RBs Are In Trouble

One of the data points I’ve been keeping year after year is how many games top Running Backs miss due to injury. To be clear I don’t add suspension or holdouts since it skews the data that is the most important: how many unplanned games do top RBs miss?

For this exercise I use RBs drafted in the top 24 of MFL ADP. Drafters place high value on RBs that are expected to see much more opportunities to catch and run the ball. The more a RB takes a hit the higher his chances are for injury.

The game of football has changed drastically. 13 running backs received more than 300 carries in 2003. In 2018? One (Ezekiel Elliott with 304 carries). It was a slow decline but the positive to go with it is simple in logic: the less touches a running back has, the less chance he has for injury.

NFL teams have gotten smarter about limiting the workloads of their running backs as well as modern training techniques to have the players in shape year-round. However, if you look at the history you’ll see the trendline would be much flatter if only looking at 2008 and forward.

Over the last two years top RBs haven’t seen the injury rate we’ve seen in the past. Before 2017 top RBs averaged 4 games missed due to injury. Drafters then switched to top WRs as the notion of Zero RB took hold due to stud RBs missing games.

This graph shows the total number of RBs drafted in the top 24 overall versus the number of injured games per RB. A look at recent seasons gives us a clear picture of the fantasy community and the reaction that followed.

In 2015 Le’Veon Bell missed 10 games, Jamaal Charles missed 11, Marshawn Lynch missed 9, LeSean McCoy missed 4, and Justin Forsett missed 6. Drafters then shied away from RBs early in favor of elite WRs, which might have gone along with a Zero RB approach. For those of you that don’t know, Zero RB is a strategy popularized by Shawn Siegele. The basis for it is RBs get injured more often than WRs so you can gain an edge by loading up on WRs over the first 5-6 rounds of your draft then switch to RBs as necessary. The strategy has come under fire the last two years, but that’s due to the abnormally low injury rate over the last 2 years.

Handcuffs became extremely important during that 2015 season. DeAngelo Williams, Charcandrick West, Thomas Rawls, and Javorius Allen all played pivotal roles on fantasy teams in 2015.

The dynasty community took notice. See how the DLF ADP shifts in-season for every single one of these players? Then slowly their values slid lower and lower except for DeAngelo Williams, but that was due to Le’Veon Bell’s pending suspension.

In 2016 Jamaal Charles and Adrian Peterson both missed 13 games. Le’Veon Bell missed 4. Five RBs escaped serious injury time and drafters kind of forgot about 2015.

In 2018 the injuries were really only to Leonard Fournette (7), Dalvin Cook (5), and Melvin Gordon (4). Ezekiel Elliott, Saquon Barkley, Christian McCaffrey, Alvin Kamara, and David Johnson were plugged into lineups every week. Owners remember that reliability and consistency of fantasy points.

Another way to look at the recent seasons is to compare the number of missed games as a percentage to the overall numbers. Far too many RBs escaped injury (escaped because it’s mostly luck). Using this season-wide data over 16 seasons tells us that regression is coming. And it will be bad.

It’s no surprise that the fantasy football consciousness only extends a year back since the human brain tends to over-simplify as much as possible. However, you can use this, along with the flawed ADP, to gain an advantage over your leaguemates.

What Do I Expect?

Using trends over the last 16 years we can predict the injury levels that could occur in 2019. I say “could” because predicting the future is a tough endeavor. It could be more, it could be less. But eventually it will even out.

I chose the arbitrary milestones of 4+ and 8+ games missed since they are 25% and 50% of the season, respectively. If you look in the previous graph you’ll notice a spike in 4 games missed versus 3 or 5. Right now there is no evidence why that blip is there.

This season 2-3 RBs will miss at least half of the season.
-Melvin Gordon could get injured due to a holdout over his contract. Rushing back after missing practice time can contribute to an injury.
-Le’Veon Bell is no stranger to injury but he is a stranger to the Jets. After sitting out 2018 he might not be in game shape.
-Todd Gurley’s knee might indeed be as bad as some beat reporters are claiming. Either way the Rams went out of their way to keep Malcolm Brown and move up to draft Darrell Henderson.
-Joe Mixon missed 2 games in 2018 due to a minor knee injury. Giovani Bernard, himself a top 24 pick at one time, averaged 22.6 PPR points over those 2 weeks.
-James Conner missed 3 games last year to pave the way for Jaylen Samuels to average 16.9 PPR points in his absence.

And Who Do I Target?

Currently there are 12 RBs going in the top 24 overall according to MFL ADP. The backups have varying levels of NFL experience and there are many different factors that go into choosing the best backup for your team.

In this table are the backups you should target, the ones worth a bench spot (if your league is deep enough) and those you should pass on.

Latavius Murray, Austin Ekeler, and Duke Johnson have stand-alone value since they will be seen on the field even if their expensive counterpart is healthy and active. I’m holding out hope Johnson gets traded to the Buccaneers, the Texans, the Jaguars, or the Chiefs. But with Kareem Hunt being a tool already suspended for the first 8 games, I doubt that happens.

Chase Edmonds would slot into a RB1 role if David Johnson misses any more time, as does Darrel Henderson.

The seven players I have listed as a ‘bench’ player are players you don’t necessarily have to target, but are coming off the board at the very end of drafts. I’m sold more on Jackson and Samuels, but it’s tough to roster too many RBs from the same team. Plus, I have no idea what to make of Benny Snell.

Of course you should monitor each backup’s usage during training camp. It could become evident that Darius Jackson is the proper handcuff in Dallas instead of Tony Pollard. The players listed under “target” are fairly cemented in their roles though. If Duke Johnson gets traded to another team Dontrell Hillard is an interesting deep stash until Kareem Hunt returns from suspension.

The Bottom Line

No matter which (if any) top RBs you take, you must take the appropriate handcuff. Injuries are sure to be plentiful this year and the last thing you want is to watch your handcuff producing for another team. 

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