Avoiding fantasy football running back injuries

While watching Monday Night Football, a friend of mine needed an 80-yard, one touchdown game from Tampa Bay running back Mike James in order to win the fantasy football week.

James was rocking and rolling, gaining almost 40 yards on just a few carries.

When James was injured on his goal line carry —  the one that would have nearly ensured a victory for my friend — he bowed his head, devastated and demoralized. What ensued after the game was a conversation on whether injuries are predictable or not.

One friend in the bunch argued that it all boils down to luck. Another argued that he just isn’t good at fantasy football, and that he should trade away Peyton Manning and just give up. I argued that injuries to running backs ARE predictable.

Dumbfounded, my old English (he’s really Irish, but I know he’ll read this) buddy cracked back with a weakly-worded and hardly-understandable insult.

I started to make my case until I realized that his recent loss had rendered him into the semblance of a grade school boy that just had his lunch money stolen.

So in this, I issue my case to the readers of SFBay and leave it to the comments section for a real counter-argument.

Injury history

It’s no secret that injury history is a starting point for gauging whether a back will be around for all 17 weeks.

Darren McFadden, for example, would be a top 20 fantasy draft pick based on his numbers. But his awful an lengthy history makes him a fifth or sixth round pick.

Be careful not to make history the sole measuring stick, however. Missing more than six games in multiple seasons is a red flag. Missing three games a year over five seasons is not.

Running style

While it’s not all-inclusive, running styles matter when considering injuries.

When a running back uses physicality to beat tacklers, it’s awesome to watch. It’s also an early warning that a feature back might not last through more than 10 games.

Trent Richardson’s rookie season is a great example.

Though he was able to finish the 2012 season, Richardson played through injuries and his performance suffered. This year, he has been without the explosiveness he showed last season, and being traded to a much better team hasn’t helped.

Mark Ingram has not been so fortunate, missing six games in his 2011 rookie season.

During his 2012 season Ingram had 156 carries — just 34 more than he had in his 2011 campaign — even though he was active for all 16 games.

There are also perimeter runners that have a tendency to take a blind-side blow.

This misfortune may soon hurt Zac Stacy owners, as he appears the next victim of these brutal hits.

Philadelphia’s LeSean McCoy — the league leader in rushing yards — has been one of these players. He hasn’t missed too much time in his career, largely in part to his tremendous speed, but did miss four games last season after getting knocked around from the side.

This year, McCoy is on pace for over 300 carries, which would be a career-high by a large margin. Not saying trade him, but I would suggest having Bryce Brown ready.

During Week 3, McCoy was caught in space by linebacker Akeem Jordan, who fell on top of his leg. McCoy exited the game for the duration of the quarter, but was lucky enough to return. Had the incident been just a tiny bit worse, the Pro Bowler may have missed a significant amount of time.

Offensive line

The best predictor of both injuries and production could be the offensive line, the unsung heroes of all football teams. The offensive line makes it possible for all elements of a team to thrive, from the run game, passing game, and even the defense.

A truly great offensive line can give the defense an extra four downs to rest up, while bad lines wear down the entire team. Injuries to a single starting lineman can also have a dramatic effect.

While playing without Richie Incognito or Jonathan Martin in Week 10 against the Bucs, the Miami Dolphins struggled to get the run game going.

Running back Lamar Miller has averaged more than four yards per carry in six of eight games, yet was only able to gain two yards on seven tries. Miller was smothered in the backfield on nearly every try, which clearly does not encourages good health.

With running backs, a bad offensive line spells trouble. It’s the reason Ray Rice has been playing torridly, whether you believe John Harbaugh and his injury theories or not.

Baltimore has been running a zone blocking scheme, a half-back’s nightmare, and Rice has not been having a good time. The same can be said for about half of the players in the NFL.

Football Outsiders is one of the best references for this particular information.

Quarterback

This comes right back to Baltimore, as well as a few other current teams.

When a team has a really good quarterback, defenses cannot stack eight defenders in the box for the whole season. When a team has a bad quarterback, they can.

More defenders equals more hits. While more hits doesn’t always equate to more injuries, there is a significant risk over multiple seasons.

This brings me to a basic point regarding the running back position: Most people fail to look at what a running back does 20 times per game, 16 games per season.

He tries to find a tiny hole between nine or more 300 pound men, then run through it. These men are also constantly moving, and the worst part, falling.

When a back succeeds in breaking through that wall, he then encounters a group of three or four 250 pound linebackers that are running at him with full steam. If he gets through that, he’s gone.

But more often than not, he’s crushed. 20 times per week.

So, how do we use all of this?

All running backs are going to get hurt. It’s common sense. But finding a distinction between “hurt” and “injured” is where the randomness comes in.

So to my friend’s point, there is some “luck” involved. And while I prefer to call it “randomness,” he’s not wrong. Entirely, anyway.

There’s some basic homework that a fantasy owner can do in order to improve his chances of long-term team health, by giving certain traits numerical values and using a formula of:

Aggregated injury history equals 1 per game missed. For fairness, take the average number of games played with over 12 carries.

There’s running style (1 for lateral and speed runners, 2 for between the tackles runners), Offensive line (3 for a collective that ranks in the bottom third of the league, 2 for 11-20, 1 for 4-10 and 0 for the top three) and quarterback (4 quarterbacks who face loaded boxes more than 50 percent of the time, 3 for quarterbacks who face loaded boxes 35-50 percent of downs, 2 for those who face loaded boxes 25-35 percent, 1 for QB’s who see a loaded box on 10 to 25 percent of snaps and 0 for QB’s with 10 percent or less) and you have yourself a starting point.

For every down backs like Jamaal Charles, you’d give them a 1.5 since they are equally between the tackle runners as they are lateral. In this, Charles would be given a risk factor of 6.5. Here’s how it all adds up:

Kansas City has the best offensive line in the NFL (giving that aspect a 0) and Charles has missed 16 qualifying games over six seasons, giving him a 4. Alex Smith seldom faces a loaded box (More than seven LB’s and DL) but it’s enough to give him a 1.

Offensive line grades, as well as a number of different metrics are given expertly by Football Outsiders and can be accessed for free.

Keep in mind that the scale is not perfect by any measure, and some defenses are really, really good. It’s a starting point though, and that’s what we’re all looking for.


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