Hidden Value or Damaged Goods: When to Draft or Avoid Key Injured Players

How to value injured players with a top 100 ADP on draft day

“You might not win your fantasy league with your first draft picks, but you can definitely lose it.”

I’m not going to debate the accuracy of that bit of fantasy football wisdom. It’s enough to say I’m not a big fan of absolutism. No doubt many of you have come storming back to win your league after seeing injuries and unexpectedly poor production wipe out three of your first four draft picks. But I think it’s worth trying to mitigate as much risk as possible in the early rounds. At minimum, if you take a high risk player, you want the upside to be worth it.

Injuries, whether it’s a player who suffered a muscle strain during the preseason weeks or a player whose recovery from offseason surgery remains an unknown, are a vital part of that risk equation. Although we’re often working with incomplete information, it’s still possible to make an educated guess on how to value injured players on your fantasy draft board.

Let’s examine the players being drafted in the first few rounds who are perceived – rightly or wrongly – to have the most worrisome injury risk-reward profile.

I’ll list them by position and include their current overall ADP, 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 as needed over the next two weeks. Any additions will be dated and in red typeface.

Footballguys will have all the injury angles covered for you during the regular season. In addition to an updated and deep wiki of players in the news and current injuries, I’ll have a review of the week’s injuries on Monday, a discussion of the first injury report of the week on Wednesday and an assessment of the fantasy expectations of all the key injured players on Sunday morning.


Quarterback

Drew Brees | oblique strain

QB3 | ADP 19 | LATE 2ND – EARLY 3RD ROUND

The oblique muscles are a group of overlapping muscle layers along the side and front of the abdominal wall. They help the trunk flex and rotate from side to side. A strain in this area is impossible to splint and immobilize, making it hard to rest the muscle layers and leaving them prone to aggravation if an athlete returns too soon. So, even though the Saints repeatedly said Brees’ injury was minor, it’s no surprise he was given extra time to heal.

Brees was back practicing this week after taking the past three weeks off. While he says he still isn’t 100%, Brees expects to play in this week’s preseason game.

The Saints are approaching this carefully, but there’s still a sliver of concern with Brees saying he’s not yet fully recovered. Like any muscle strain, Brees is at risk of an aggravation and a potentially worse strain in these first few critical practices after his return. With each passing day and each successful consecutive practice, Brees becomes a more trustworthy draft pick.

Draft recommendation: First, decide whether you’re willing to consider any quarterback in this range of your draft. If you decide you won’t be sloughing the quarterback position until much later in your draft, I believe the Saints have exercised enough caution to trust Brees at his current ADP. If Brees makes it through this preseason week, including the preseason game, without a setback, it’s a strong sign that his injury will not linger and limit him throughout the season.

8/30 UPDATE || Brees was effective and looked healthy in his only preseason action and had no reported setbacks or difficulties in practice last week. There's very little concern for a lingering muscle injury now.

Cam Newton | ankle surgery

QB8 | ADP 66 | 6TH – 7TH ROUND

Newton had surgery in late March to tighten his ankle ligaments and relieve chronic pain and weakness he had been dealing with for years. His recovery was expected to take 3-4 months, with a target date for his clearance coinciding with the beginning of training camp. Though Newton has missed parts of multiple camp practices with soreness in his ankle, he’s yet to be held out for an extended length of time since his return. And while he showed some rust, Newton was cleared to play in Carolina’s second preseason game and didn’t suffer any setbacks.

Soreness isn’t unexpected here. Newton had an open surgical procedure and ligament reconstruction. He waited until the last possible days to have surgery and still be reasonably expected to be cleared for camp. He met those goals and still has two weeks to condition and prepare for football-related contact. That doesn’t mean Newton will be in top form in the early weeks of the regular season, but I believe more has been made of Newton’s missed practice reps than should have been.

Draft recommendation: I don’t like Newton at his ADP and I’d recommend you avoid him in favor of other options in the same tier (e.g. Nick Foles) or wait another 2-4 rounds and draft any number of players with a similar upside-floor profile (e.g. Jay Cutler, Russell Wilson, Philip Rivers, etc.). But my reservations on Newton have as much to do with his surrounding cast as any chronic injury concern. If you think Newton is closer to the Andrew LuckMatthew Stafford tier, don’t let the injury concern push Newton too far down your board.

8/24 UPDATE || Newton reportedly has a "hairline fracture" in his rib. Hairline, when used in this way, likely means that Newton's bone is not bent at an angle and it's not in two pieces separate from one another (which we call displaced). But it's still a very painful injury, sure to cause discomfort with any deep breath or rotation around his trunk or even moving his arm away from his body. It's also an injury that won't fully heal for many weeks.

But it's an injury that can be played through if pain management is successful and Newton is comfortable with the flak jacket padding he'll need to wear in the coming weeks. It may help that the injury is to his back rather than front or side. Expect the team to hold Newton out of practice as long as possible and limit any strenuous conditioning that would stress his ribcage with movement and hard breathing. Whether that will affect his ability to work through leftover soreness from his offseason ankle surgery is an open question.

As noted above, I was lukewarm on Newton's draft prospects in his current tier anyway. The rib injury doesn't change that perspective much. Approach him with caution in his current tier.

 

Robert Griffin III | knee

QB9 | ADP 68 | 6TH – 7TH ROUND

Last summer, optimism was everywhere in Washington. Griffin had made a strong recovery from surgery to revise an already once torn ACL and repair a damaged LCL that had given way on the same play. He was reportedly moving well in camp and hadn’t yet begun to show signs that he didn’t trust his knee. I got caught up in the hype myself. But it didn’t take long for the Washington offense to sputter and much of the blame fell on Griffin’s health.

The talk shortly after the season was decidedly different. Griffin had been rushed back and should never have been expected to return to his pre-injury form in 2013.

This summer, there’s been more caution among Washington camp observers, but a general expectation that Griffin will return to form this year. I’m not yet convinced. Griffin’s physical and mental health should be better this year. But the ACL/LCL combination is significant. It’s possible that Griffin will never be the same dynamic runner he once was. It’s possible that Griffin will continue to be leery about driving his lower body through passes from the pocket.

Griffin didn’t shy away from hits outside the pocket during the second preseason game, but he got up limping on at least one occasion. Griffin’s comfort level and movement is something I’ll be watching more closely over the next two preseason games.

Draft recommendation: I don’t mind Griffin’s ADP. I think QB9 is a reasonable middle ground for his risk-reward profile. If in form, Griffin has the talent and weapons to be a top five fantasy quarterback. If not, he’ll still be a QB2 in the majority of his down weeks. But I’m not drafting a risky quarterback in the sixth or seventh round. There are too many good quarterback options later and too many attractive running back / wide receiver options in this ADP range. Griffin’s final two preseason efforts may push me to reconsider him in the sixth or seventh round. For now, I’d pass.

 

Tony Romo | back

QB12 | ADP 90 | 7TH – 9TH ROUND

Romo has had two spinal surgeries since April 2013. One addressed a cyst, the other addressed a herniated disc that left him unable to play late last season. Both issues are degenerative conditions. Surgery for such conditions has been more consistently successful than ever in recent years. But we’re still looking at a 34 year old quarterback with multiple recent back procedures that has been sacrifice his body and take the big hit.

Last week, Jason La Canfora reported that Romo wasn’t throwing consecutive passes in drills and also noted his passes weren’t crisp and lacked their normal downfield accuracy. These may be signs that Romo has some residual weakness or pain after surgery.

I thought Romo looked healthy in the second preseason game, though it’s impossible to know if the two downfield passes he completed to Dez Bryant were designed back shoulder throws or great adjustments by Bryant on underthrown balls. I do think it’s a positive sign that Romo attempted multiple downfield passes after taking questions about his arm strength and the health of his back earlier in the week.

There are two weeks left to evaluate Romo’s practice participation and his arm strength and accuracy in preseason game action. For now, I’m leaning toward believing that Romo is close to full strength.

Draft recommendation: If you can get him in the ninth round, the risk-reward equation skews in Romo’s favor. At that stage, you’ve likely decided to roster a QBBC and have already rostered preferred depth targets at running back and wide receiver. As with Newton and Griffin, however, there’s little reason to take on added risk at the quarterback position at this point of the draft.


Running Back

LeSean McCoy | turf toe

RB2 | ADP 2 | EARLY 1ST ROUND

My default response to questions about elite veteran skill position athletes who miss practice time and preseason games early in training camp is indifference. Adrian Peterson hasn’t taken a preseason snap in years. It hasn’t affected him. Unless you’re battling for regular season playing time or fighting to make the final 53 or in need of snaps to get into football condition, it’s not a red flag if established veterans miss time.

My spidey senses start tingling with certain injuries, especially if they are reported to be of a higher grade or represent a setback from a prior known injury. For example, aggravating a hamstring strain and missing multiple practice days without any work on the side would be a major red flag at this stage of training camp. Missing team drills with soreness or for maintenance reasons but continuing to do individual drills is not.

When you hear the words turf toe associated with a running back, particularly one that relies heavily on explosive change of direction, it’s – rightfully – cause for concern. However, McCoy has not missed much practice time with the injury and was back fully participating in all drills the day after discussing his painful toe with the media.

I don’t believe there’s any way the Eagles, a team known to be using multiple types of injury metrics during practice, would risk their primary offensive weapon in practice three weeks before the season with an injury that was serious enough to risk aggravation. Don’t jump to the conclusion that McCoy’s injury must be serious if the Eagles sent him for an MRI and x-ray (both of which were reportedly negative). NFL athletes often have a pre-emptive and precautionary set of imaging tests.

This situation is still worth monitoring closely. McCoy will likely have his practice reps managed. But unless he misses consecutive days or has a followup MRI, I wouldn’t overreact to McCoy’s comments earlier this week.

Draft recommendation: I still have McCoy as my RB1, closely followed by Jamaal Charles. I haven’t heard anything yet that worries me enough to push him to the bottom of the consensus elite tier.

ADRIAN PETERSON | ABDOMINAL SURGERY

RB3 | ADP 3 | EARLY 1ST

8/30 UPDATE || I have received many questions about Peterson in the past 24 hours after a Rotoviz article raised doubts about Peterson's ability to recover from offseason abdominal surgery.

Peterson had surgery for a sports hernia -- which isn't really a hernia, it's a muscle injury (which may include certain tendons) along the bottom of the abdominal wall -- in the offseason of 2012. He had played through pain for at least five weeks while chasing the single season rushing record. He also chose to have surgery to address ongoing pain in the area last February. Peterson was playing at his usual high level for much of 2013 before a midfoot sprain and a tough schedule (SEA, BAL, CIN) slowed him considerably in three of his final five games.  

There was no discussion of ongoing abdominal or groin pain late last season, but it was clearly bothering Peterson enough to address this offseason. Without getting bogged down in details, this second procedure is sometimes performed at the same time the first surgery is performed or sometimes not at all, and studies report varying degress of success in athletes.

There's no way to know whether the latest surgery addressed a specific lingering problem for Peterson or was the next step in a treatment plan to relieve chronic pain without a clear source. If it's the latter, Peterson may have more issues this year. 

With that as background, here's what we know: Peterson has played very effectively through pain related to abdominal and groin dysfunction in two consecutive seasons. He's now had two abdominal surgeries to address the pain. We also know that Peterson -- as much as any other running back who picks up the "injury prone" label (and more on that below) -- has had a string of serious injuries in recent years. There's extensive mileage on Peterson and he's entering his age-29 season.

So, is Peterson a risk this year? Absolutely. But I wouldn't argue that the bulk of that risk is due to his history of sports hernia and abdominal surgery.

Draft recommendation: I think Peterson is closer to the near-elite tier (Eddie Lacy, Montee Ball) than the elite tier of Jamaal Charles and LeSean McCoy. He wouldn't be a top three pick for me. But neither would I shy away from him at any point after the Charles, McCoy and Matt Forte are off the board. If you have concern about Peterson's history, I won't talk you out of considering Lacy or Ball (or whomever your near elite tier players may be) instead. But Peterson is still firmly first round value for me.

 

Montee Ball | appendectomy

RB8 | ADP 15 | LATE 1ST – EARLY 2ND

I live with a general surgeon. She told me she’d be comfortable clearing someone to begin returning to their usual activity 7-10 days after an uncomplicated laparascopic appendectomy. We’ve seen that happen with Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Cassel in past seasons. After a positive note from Chris Mortensen after Ball’s surgery, it was very likely that Ball didn’t have an open surgical procedure or a more complicated form of appendicitis.

So, it’s no surprise Ball was cleared to begin conditioning this week. Barring an unforeseen complication, he’ll have nearly three weeks to get into football condition. It’s a safe bet he’ll be ready to go.

Draft recommendation: Ball’s ADP may creep back toward the top of the near elite RB tier [RB5-RB7 range] as his return to practice gets baked back into his value. Ball may not play any preseason game snaps, but I don’t believe his expected workload will drop much, if at all, in Week 1.

 

Arian Foster | hamstring strain

RB10 | ADP 20 | MID-LATE 2ND

Foster is such a tease. He’s an elite talent with no competition for early down, passing down or goal line duty. He gained clearance for contact on time after back surgery and made it through OTAs and minicamp without injury. He entered camp healthy and presumably in better condition than any camp in years, when hamstring and groin and calf strains limited him significantly.

Then, the seemingly inevitable happened. Foster tweaked a hamstring early in camp, tried to return after a few days, only to sit for multiple practices after tweaking the injury yet again. Foster has been back practicing for consecutive days again this week but it’s hard not to wonder when the next muscle fiber is going to pop.

I’ve written for years about studies with data showing how critical the first 7-10 days of full speed work are in the recovery of muscle strains. That’s when aggravations most commonly occur, and those aggravations are often of a higher grade than the initial injury.

That’s where Foster is once again. If he makes it through a week of practice without an aggravation, his prospects for 2014 improve. If it were as simple as putting red non-contact football pants on, there’d be less worry. But it’s not. And we have no idea how close to 100% Foster’s hamstring is. My guess is it hasn’t been for years and this year’s strain is the latest manifestation of that.

Draft recommendation: At some point, the low percentage chance that Foster is in full form for 12-16 games will begin to look attractive in a fantasy draft. Given what we know today, that’s not the second round. I’m not sure it’s the fourth round. It’s not because Foster is “injury prone.” He’s already injured and fighting the same type of injury he’s struggled to recover from in the past. Until we see Foster make it through a week of practice or look healthy in a preseason game, I’m letting someone else take the risk in the first three rounds. You’re much more likely to regret taking the risk in the second round than be ecstatic you beat the odds with Foster.


An "Injury-Prone" Running Back Interlude / Rant

This seems like a good place to address this year’s group of running backs with RB2+ ADPs that will make you cringe while pulling the trigger on draft day. Whether it’s a history of multiple past injuries or concern whether a back with a smaller frame can withstand the pounding of a higher workload – or both – the upper running back tiers are always peppered with players you don’t feel completely comfortable drafting.

The five this year I’m asked about most:

Eddie Lacy | RB5 | ADP 6
DeMarco Murray | RB7 | ADP 13
Andre Ellington | RB15 | ADP 31
C.J. Spiller | RB17 | ADP 33
Ryan Mathews | RB18 | ADP 41

Matt Waldman is considering using knockout factors in his analysis of college prospects – recognizing that no matter how elite some skills are in a given player, there are times when one skill is so lacking that it likely cannot be overcome. I’m warming to the idea that I should consider the same approach in certain injury situations.

But I'm not comfortable predicting the likelihood a specific player will suffer an injury. It suggests a belief that we can have some measure of certainty about the chances a single player will suffer an injury within a given amount of time. Yes, I’ll reference studies with data showing an X percentage chance of a certain injury recurring. But I’m not going to ascribe that to any specific player situation. It’s background to help assess risk, nothing more.

Some players will be more likely to have a recurrence, others less. But can we know exactly when is that recurrence likely to occur – next week, next month, two years from now? How many weeks or months or years have to go by before we can take an “injury prone” label off a player? Why was he prone to injury then but not now? What specifically changed?

If you ask orthopedic surgeons and athletic trainers if certain players are more prone to injury than others, they’ll tell you yes. There are genetic tissue factors at play – muscle, ligament, tendon and bone strength vary among individuals. Specialists use the term “tissue issue.” But, as I've written previously, that’s not the only factor.

Teams do biometric testing to assess some of those tissue variables, though I’m told probably not as much or as often as they should. They are collecting data from GPS and radio frequency tags, among other modalities, to catch fatigued players before they’re injured. Those players may be rightly considered injury prone. But even if those players with a body currently deemed to be at risk of injury may just have experienced a healthy dose of plain dumb luck at the time of their injury.

As Bill Belichick once said, "Football players play football. You tell me which guys are going to get hurt and I'll get them out of there." 

Football is not a contact sport. It’s a barely controlled trauma bay. Some guys are going to get hurt more than others. It’s natural to use past performance to predict the future. Even the best fantasy football prognosticators strongly weigh recent trends when projecting and ranking players. But let’s redirect the injury prone label to what it really is – a gut feeling biased by your risk tolerance for players who have been injured.

If a history of injury worries you, drop that player on your draft board. If you’re willing to set aside a history of past injury in players with elite talent and statistical upside, don’t drop that player.

What I’m going to do with this group of running backs – and with Arian Foster, with Julio Jones and with Rob Gronkowski – is give you an assessment of their current injury and recovery. I’ll share my concerns about recurrence and possible cascade injuries. But I can’t tell you how likely it is a player will be injured this year.

If you put a team’s medical staff in a room and asked them, “How likely is it X player will suffer an injury this year?” you’re going to get furrowed brows and hedging with a long discussion about variables and relative risk. That’s not because doctors don’t want to give an answer, it’s because the answer doesn’t exist in the way you want it to.

Both Lacy and Murray were considered potential injury-prone players to be avoided last year. I thought the arguments were reasonable, but cautioned against fully buying into the injury-prone label for both – as I did for guys like Darren McFadden who would suffer serious injury. Murray missed two games, Lacy one in 2013. Both were top 8 running backs in PPR leagues. Mathews played all 16 games and was a relatively consistent RB2.

All three have much a higher ADP this year than their respective ADP last year. What makes them less of a risk this year? I’d argue the risk is the same and recency bias is a major factor. Ask yourself how much a concern of injuries and recency bias is driving the ADP and draft round projection of Ellington and Spiller before you put your draft board together.

I think it’s very reasonable to expect two of the five players listed above to miss significant time this year. It’s the nature of the running back position. One will probably bust for reasons other than injury. But just how confident are you that Lacy and Murray – the two with the highest ADP – are the two most likely to avoid injury?

Spiller was the only player in the list above to suffer an injury that limited him for more than two games last year. His high ankle sprain should be well behind him. I think all five backs are reasonable risks at their current ADP. If you like their situation, draft them with confidence.


Wide Receiver

Dez Bryant | back

WR3 | ADP 10 | LATE 1ST – EARLY 2ND

It’s not a torrent of worry, but judging from my email and Twtiter mentions, there’s still an undercurrent of concern on Bryant. It’s true the epidural injections he needed to treat a herniated disc during the season last year are concerning for a degenerative back condition. But there’s no way to know when the disc issues may bother Bryant again – if at all. It’s a good sign that last season’s epidural injections were enough to keep Bryant from needing a surgical procedure to decompress the disc. It’s also reassuring that Bryant’s body control and explosiveness to the ball were as good as ever in Dallas’ second preseason game.

Draft recommendation: Draft Bryant at his ADP with confidence right now.

 

Julio Jones | foot

WR5 | ADP 14 | EARLY – MID 2ND

I went on record in late June with a very optimistic outlook for Jones this year. While I expected his foot to be healthy entering camp, I qualified my optimistic take with a reminder to watch Jones’ progression through the final stages of reconditioning. The Falcons smartly worked Jones back into football shape with care and all reports suggest that Jones is looking like his pre-surgical self in camp.

Draft recommendation: Draft Jones at his ADP with confidence right now.

 

Andre Johnson | hamstring strain

WR14 | ADP 37 | LATE 3RD – MID 4TH

Johnson is already dealing with a hamstring injury. There are two key differences between Johnson’s hamstring injury and that of other players. First, Johnson has had high grade hamstring injuries in the past. At least one of his hamstring injuries was near a tendon and prompted a PRP injection to promote healing. While it’s not certain that this strain is near the same spot, Johnson’s past history is relevant here. It’s also relevant that Johnson tried to return once from this strain only to take another few days off.

Johnson has been able to make it through consecutive practices in his latest return, but his history is a worrisome setup. The further Johnson gets from his most recent strain, the better. But he’s not yet out of the prime window for an aggravated strain.

Draft recommendation: Until Johnson proves he can keep him hamstring healthy for consecutive weeks, I’d take another receiver from the same tier instead. Victor Cruz, Larry Fitzgerald, Vincent Jackson and Roddy White look like safer bets around the same ADP.

 

Wes Welker | concussion history

WR19 | ADP 47 | LATE 4TH – MID 5TH

The precise risks are still unknown, but it’s generally believed that any player who has suffered multiple concussions is at increased risk of a future concussion. We also know that neurologists, including those around the NFL, err on the side of caution when making return to play decisions on players who have had multiple concussions.

Welker may not suffer a concussion this year. If he does sustain another head injury, Welker may not sit for multiple weeks or see his season end prematurely. Though difficult to quantify, it’s a known risk.

Draft recommendation: Welker’s ADP means you’ll likely be drafting him as your WR2. The wide receiver tiers are relatively deep this year. You may see that as a reason to risk Welker (you’re more likely to find a strong bench player to use as a Welker hedge) or a reason to avoid Welker (there are many similar options in the same tier with less risk). I’m avoiding Welker at his current ADP, partly due to his concussion history, partly due to a concern that Emmanuel Sanders and Cody Latimer may steal more of Welker’s targets as the season progresses.

8/24 230 AM | Wes Welker suffered another concussion in the third preseason game. Every concussion will be judged by the medical staff individually and Welker's symptoms will guide the decision-making on when he's able to return to play. But medical staffs commonly show more caution with players who have sustained multiple concussions, particularly in a compressed timeframe such as the three in nine months in Welker's case.

The Broncos have no incentive to clear Welker for contact until the Friday before the first regular season game. That gives Welker almost two weeks to progress through the return to play protocol. Whether that happens or not is an impossible question to answer for now. One thing is certain, however. If Welker is not cleared for Week 1, whether it's because his symptoms haven't cleared or the team isn't comfortable with his history, it's a major red flag. This concussion also puts Welker in a precarious situation for the remainder of 2014. Should he gain clearance and suffer another concussion this season, history strongly suggests he'll miss multiple weeks.

I'd amend the draft recommendation to say avoid Welker until his status is more clear. That's essentially a recommendation to take him off your draft board this year. His upside is worth the risk after the 10th round when you can get him as a low risk, high reward WR5. But that's as comfortable as I'd be with him for now.

8/25 1015 AM | Mike Klis, possibly the most clued of the local Denver media sources, caused a stir of sorts on Twitter late last evening with this:

 

Klis' take that Welker could play in Week 1 is notable -- and definitely not impossible -- I noted late Saturday night. But be careful about buying into the second part of his tweet. 

Spin it however you like. There's absolutely no way to know whether Welker's helmet had anything to do with his injury. Medical staffs, including those in the NFL, do not grade concussions. It cannot be known how severe an injury is until the player has fully recovered. It'll be at least another 3-5 days before Welker is allowed to strenuously exercise. Until he clears that hurdle -- and the first contact practice or game -- it cannot be known when he's healthy enough to return. Recurrence of concussion symptoms can occur at any point in the return to play protocol.

My take is this:

Klis may have a source telling him Welker is feeling good in the early stages of the protocol. He may also have a sense that the team won't have a problem clearing him when the protocol says he's ready, i.e. there may be no plans to hold him out an extra week (or weeks) as a precaution only.

That's important information, but it's still primarily speculation until Welker proves he's symptom-free.

Of course, this could also be a late night opinion without any sourced knowledge. If that's the case, we're back to where we were yesterday.

 

Percy Harvin | hip surgery

WR22 | ADP 52 | 5TH – 6TH ROUND

Harvin started last season on the PUP list after surgery to repair a labral tear of his hip. After an optimistic start to his rehab, a setback late in his recovery kept him from seeing meaningful snaps during the regular season. The Seahawks planned to manage Harvin’s practice reps in training camp, but Harvin wasn’t having it. He insisted on practicing on consecutive days and has been none the worse for wear. 

The hip issues may be behind him but Harvin is carrying a lot of injury history. A severe ankle sprain eventually required surgery and ended his 2012 season. Migraine headaches also dogged him during his time in Minnesota. Prior to his 2012 ankle injury, Harvin had missed three games in three and a half seasons. He was on pace to top 120 touches and 100 targets for the third consecutive year, plateaus he just barely missed in his rookie season.

Which Harvin is the true Harvin? The durable, productive player from 2009 to mid-2012? Or the seemingly brittle player who has just one reception since mid-2012? We’ll find out soon.

Draft recommendation: I think Harvin would have an ADP suggestive of a WR2 with upside (i.e. 10-12 slots and a round or round and a half higher) if he had returned to effectiveness during the second half of 2013. The hip injury that prevented him from doing so has been a non-issue this preseason. I won’t deny the injury risk with Harvin, but I think he’s a value if you can get him as your WR3.


Tight End

Jimmy Graham | plantar fasciitis

TE1 | ADP 7 | MID – LATE 1ST

Graham was limited last year by plantar fascia pain, which dredged up painful memories of the demise of Antonio Gates, one of fantasy football’s most dominant names. I wrote of my concern about the potential chronic nature of this condition, but Graham played through his injury better than I expected. The offseason provided the time necessary for the tissue in Graham’s foot to heal and there are no reports that Graham has been limited in camp.

Plantar fascia injuries scar rather than fully heal, so there will continue to be some risk with Graham. But he’s shown he can be productive with orthotics and pain management, so the risk of an extended absence is low even in the unlikely event Graham’s condition recurs.

Draft recommendation: Draft Graham with confidence at his current ADP.

 

Rob Gronkowski | ACL/MCL surgery

TE2 | ADP 28 | LATE 2ND – MID 3RD

Gronkowski is again the elephant on your draft board this year. No player is more polarizing or has sparked more preseason debate.

Here are the facts of the case:

  • Gronkowski’s return from multiple arm surgeries and a back surgery dragged into Week 7 last year
  • After his return, Gronkowski put up a 39-592-4 line in less than seven full games
  • Gronkowski blew out his ACL and MCL on a low tackle, which some feel he’s likely to see more of than most
  • Gronkowski was not put on PUP to start training camp, just six months after his surgery
  • Any positive vibes from the reassuring PUP decision were lost to perceived delays in a return to contact
  • Gronkowski is now participating in team contact drills

Here are some educated assumptions about the case:

  • Gronkowski’s recovery has been slightly quicker than average, about seven months to clearance for contact
  • Gronkowski’s reported limp probably means he’s still working through soreness in the conditioning process
  • Gronkowski is unlikely to see any preseason game snaps
  • Gronkowski is far from a lock to be on the Week 1 active roster
  • Gronkowski may see only limited, high leverage snaps in the first weeks of the season

I’ve been on the more optimistic side of this debate. I was impressed Gronkowski was able to return to pre-injury form after a long term infection and a second back surgery. I was impressed Gronkowski and the Patriots were confident enough in his rehab status to immediately take the PUP option off the table. He’s a 25-year old force of nature. Those factors make it easier to overlook doubts – appropriate doubts – about whether his knee will be recovered enough to allow Gronk to be Gronk and how soon his twice-operated-on spine might act up again.

Whether Gronkowski is active in Week 1 or not, it may be 4-6 weeks before he’s ready to play 60 Gronkowski-like snaps a game. But we saw a limited Jimmy Graham make very good use of fewer than usual snaps in the second half of 2013. Gronkowski may play a fraction of his usual snaps in the early weeks, but his usage should still be high.

Draft recommendation: Where you place Gronkowski on your draft board is dependent on your risk tolerance. If you aren’t willing to float with a less than 100% Gronkowski early in the season, cross him off your draft board and sleep easy – and hope you don’t face an in-form Gronkowski in the fantasy playoffs. If you’re willing to risk that Gronk may not be producing numbers typical of a second round pick until the second half of the season, roll the dice.

If you take do take the more aggressive approach on Gronkowski, consider erring on the side of a higher floor first and third round pick and make sure you get the later round tight end of your choice. That may be an upside play like Zach Ertz early or Dwayne Allen late or a simple smart late round high floor hedge like Heath Miller.

I’m comfortable taking Gronkowski in the second round right now, but my drafting philosophy is more risk tolerant than many. However, even the most risk tolerant owner will recognize that the ADP and upside-floor profile of the next player on this list is an awfully tempting reason to leave Gronkowski to another owner.

 

Jordan Cameron | AC sprain

TE5 | ADP 55 | MID 4TH – MID 5TH

Though Cameron returned to play in the Browns’ second preseason game, I’m still getting questions about his health. There were never any clear indications that Cameron’s shoulder injury was serious or that the Browns were doing more than resting him as a precaution. Now that he’s played in an early preseason game, there’s very little to worry about. AC sprains can become nagging and painful. They’re also relatively easy to play through with padding and pain management on gameday. A.J. Green and Cecil Shorts are two recent examples of that.

Draft recommendation: Draft Cameron with confidence at his current ADP.

 

Jordan Reed | concussion history

TE9 | ADP 89 | 7TH – 8TH ROUND

Everything I wrote in Wes Welker’s blurb above applies here. Reed is at higher risk of sustaining a concussion than other players this year and he’s at risk of being held out of contact longer than a player who doesn’t have such an extensive history of head injuries. That increased risk, however, does not mean he’s a lock to suffer a concussion this year, nor is it a given that he’ll miss multiple weeks if he does suffer a concussion.

Draft recommendation: Without the concussion-related concerns, I think Reed could be the third member (along with Julius Thomas and Jordan Cameron) of the near elite tier behind Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski. At minimum, he would have deserved consideration alongside Jason Witten a round or two earlier. If Reed falls to the 8th round, I think the risk-reward profile is worth it. But I have no fault with anyone who would rather wait another round for Zach Ertz.

 Follow on Twitter @JeneBramel for breaking injury news, commentary and analysis of this injury and others around the NFL.