Hidden Value or Damaged Goods: Assessing Injury Risk in Fantasy Drafts

When is it safe to draft Odell Beckham, Andrew Luck, Jordan Reed? How should you assess injury risk before your draft?

How to approach players with a history of injury

I'm not a fan of the term "injury prone." It's overused and incorrectly applied. 

Some players are undoubtedly prone to injury. Some have bone-on-bone conditions in their knee and are at risk of swelling and pain limiting their potential. Some have asymmetry in their biomechanics -- the quad muscles are weaker on one side or an ankle ligament is looser on one side. Some have a herniated disc or other degenerative back condition their medical staff is actively managing. Some aren't in peak physical condition. 

But it's really, really hard to know who those players are.

You can examine past injury histories and try to estimate the risk of injury. But there's no complete data set to generate a player's baseline risk of injury in the NFL. You cannot be certain you've controlled for every variable and arrived at an accurate estimate.

You have no idea whether the medical staff is more concerned than usual about a player's recent meniscus surgery or microdiscectomy or worried about the effects of a player's offseason attempt to lose or gain weight. It's highly unlikely you'll hear a coach or player or trainer discuss those factors.

Even if you could accurately estimate a player's risk of injury, you'd struggle to decide which game presents the highest risk or how to assess cumulative risks. There's good data on aggravation of hamstring strains -- 33% of high-level football players aggravate a previous hamstring injury within the first 7-10 days of returning to sport-related activity. There's good data showing players with a history of ACL tear are more likely to sustain another ACL injury than players who have never had ACL injury.

But those are general data points. They're difficult to apply to specific situations.

Which of the many NFL players with an ACL tear is more likely to sustain another ACL tear this year? When?

Which of the players fighting through a preseason hamstring strain is most likely to suffer an aggravation?

Every NFL team collects GPS data on their players during practice. It helps the medical staff discover subtle biomechanical differences and can suggest which players are fatigued and at higher risk of injury. But multiple teams admit they don't know how to use the data they have. Recent studies in Australian rules football players question whether the GPS data will be predictive.

Don't misunderstand. I think continued efforts to assess injury risk and improve player safety are critical. But it's a highly complex endeavor.

The NFL is more than a contact sport. It's a traumatic sport with multiple dangerous collisions every play.

The bottom line: Every player is injury prone.

Risk assessment in fantasy drafts

Labels aside, it's still correct to consider injury risk when drafting your fantasy roster.

First, understand your own risk tolerance. If you're risk averse, factor all past injury concerns more highly. If you're risk tolerant, examine each situation carefully and adjust your draft board -- if at all -- accordingly.

Second, recognize that some players are already injured or unlikely fully recovered from recent injuries or surgeries. Those players absolutely carry increased risk. 

With that in mind, let’s examine the players being drafted in the first 8-10 rounds of most drafts who are perceived – rightly or wrongly – to have the most worrisome injury risk-reward profile.

I’ll include each player's current overall ADP (using Footballguys consensus ADP list), positional ADP and the range in which they’re most likely to be drafted. After a profile of their injuries, I’ll provide a risk assessment and a recommendation of where I feel each player can be most sensibly drafted. If you’re willing to tolerate more risk, draft the player a little earlier than my recommendation. If you prefer safer bets in the early rounds, you might consider taking a few of these players off your board altogether.

NOTE: I’ll update this feature frequently over the next two weeks. Any additions will be dated and in red typeface. The date at the top will reflect the day of the most recent update, which will include ADP data.

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