INJURY RISKS: RUNNING BACK EDITION
In the ‘Injury Risks’ series of articles, we look at injury issues that may affect a player’s 2020 fantasy performance.
THE NATURE OF THE GAME
The success of American football is defined by maximum performance. The speed and velocity created by players. The risks taken to beat an opponent. The drain on stamina and strength for a long run of games. For these reasons, and more, a lot of players get injured.
But surgery, rehab and conditioning help injured players return quicker than before. Sometimes, it’s astounding how swiftly they can be playing again after injuries, but the benefits of getting important players back can really boost teams.
But with that comes inherent risk – losing a player for longer due to more serious damage. This isn’t just a decision that managers need to take. Can fantasy owners count on a player with previous injuries? Is that second round pick worth it, when you lose them after two games?
Let’s look at three Running Backs where injury risks may need to be considered by fantasy owners next season…
TODD GURLEY – ATLANTA FALCONS
On March 19, the LA Rams announced the release of Todd Gurley. The news sent a shock-wave through the reporting world. Did anyone see this coming?? The overwhelming response indicated ‘no’.
Sure, Gurley may have had a little dip in form in the 2019 season. His carries and rush yards at their lowest level. His targets and reception yards at an all-time low. Yard average and number of touchdowns the smallest in three years. Of course, it was not a terrible season by any means. Gurley was 20th in rushing yards and finished RB15 on fantasy charts. But, when you have two stellar years in 2017 and 2018, there will be comparisons made.
So was the 2019 form enough of a reason for the Rams to release Gurley?
Warning sounds started when the lead back missed the last two games of the 2018 season. Questions were asked on Gurley’s reduced presence in the play-offs including that poor performance in the crushing defeat to the Patriots. But a few months later, there was an answer.
A March 2019 tweet reported an unknown source saying that Gurley had ‘arthritis in his left knee’. This was then confirmed by the Running Back’s trainer in June of the same year. Gurley required surgery to repair ACL damage on this knee years before.
There were many questions on Gurley’s health in the following off season. In response, both player and management reassured fans of Todd’s status – it would be business as usual. But Week 1 came, and carries were split between Gurley and Malcolm Brown. Throughout the season the health questions persisted, intensifying with Gurley’s Week 6 absence against San Francisco.
After the Rams missed the playoffs, they cut their losses on Gurley and released him. It didn’t take long before the Atlanta Falcons swooped in and offered him a deal.
NEW DEAL – NO FAITH?
So Todd Gurley moves back to Georgia. On the surface this is an exciting time for the Falcons. Devonta Freeman saw over half of Atlanta’s 2019 carries before he was released. This lines up well with Gurley’s 55% of carries at the Rams. Freeman also takes a 10% share of the passing targets. This too aligns with Gurley’s usage, which made up roughly 8% of the passing targets in LA. Both teams use a primary Running Back, with others as back-up. For both parties, it seems like a perfect fit.
But then why have the Falcons only offered Gurley a one year, $6 million deal? Outstanding deals means Todd earns $11M, making him the third-best paid RB in the league.
But confidence would surely mean a longer deal. And this decision could not be based upon his on-field returns. Gurley’s seasonal ‘dip’ still saw a far more effective rush game than Freeman. He gained 201 more yards, 10 more touchdowns and 20 more first downs on the ground vs. the former Falcon.
JOINING THE DOTS
One sentence from a March article about Gurley’s Falcons contract stood out. The deal would be finalised after a successful physical. But, according to a tweet from Falcons’ OC Dirk Koetter on May 14, that physical hadn’t taken place. Eventually, after over two months, the physical went ahead. Gurley duly passed. Granted, a world-wide pandemic has occurred since the contract agreement – bringing chaos with it. But other free agents managed physicals to get themselves rostered far quicker. So why the delay with Todd?
The deal and delayed physical suggest both Gurley and Atlanta have low confidence in his fitness. After Gurley passed that physical, Koetter indirectly questioned whether he could sustain the level of involvement he has seen in the past. The question itself doesn’t bode well for his fantasy potential.
The ADP rankings reflect some of this thinking. Gurley has dropped from RB9 in 2019 (11th overall) to RB15 in 2020 (25th overall). While this may be due to the Falcons move, the recent events regarding the physical could have affected drafters’ confidence.
If Gurley were to be injured, Brian Hill is listed as RB2 for the Falcons. Ito Smith’s neck injury led to Hill stepping into the role, seeing 21% of the total carries behind Devonta Freeman. Hill did reasonably well in the circumstances, and picked up 323 yards with those carries. Although Smith sets to feature in 2020, his neck injury marks him as an additional risk.
Attention should then be paid to both Gurley and Smith’s fitness. Brian Hill does not feature on standard league ADP boards at all and will go undrafted in virtually all leagues. He will be available on most waiver wires in case the Running Backs ahead of him go down. Incidentally, Ito Smith sits on the draft board at RB60.
Our second feature back is a young prospect who has the worst luck with injuries.
DERRIUS GUICE – WASHINGTON REDSKINS
After racking up phenomenal numbers playing college ball at LSU, it was clear that Derrius Guice was one to watch. Amazingly, these stats could have been even better, were it not for a leg injury during the first half of his junior year.
Recognising what he could offer, the Running Back entered the 2018 draft before his senior year. Despite rumours of off-field incidents, Guice was ranked as one of the best RBs in that year’s class. Ultimately, his decision to enter early was justified when the Redskins took him in the second round.
Fantasy fans were excited to see this prospect take the field, and they would get their wish in pre-season. Several rushes into the first game against the Patriots, Guice was unfortunate to pick up his first NFL injury – a torn ACL. This injury would stop his season as quickly as it started, decimating fantasy prospects for those who had scouted him. He sat out for the rest of the 2018 season.
A SECOND CHANCE
After a long recovery period, Guice was back and ready to play. Promising signs continued as he made it through a pre-season game against the Falcons with a modest return of 11 carries for 44 yards and one catch for four yards. Fantasy owners had the chance to use him, and he could release that potential in the regular season. But that potential was not realised once again. In Week 1 of 2019, Guice tore the meniscus in his right knee, placing him on injured reserve until Week 11.
Week 11 saw the Redskins face the Jets – a good game for Guice to slip back into game time. Although that week’s performance saw decent numbers, the next game against Carolina showed Guice’s promise. 129 yards and two touchdowns from 10 carries against the Panthers signalled people to take notice.
But, the following Sunday against the Packers, Guice left the game with another knee injury. The cause? A direct helmet impact – on the same knee that had needed surgery to repair the ACL years before. It ruled him out for the rest of the season.
THIRD TIME LUCKY
Now it’s Guice’s third season. Like last season, he looks to share carries with veteran back Adrian Peterson. The 35-year old Peterson has proven durable, with thirteen year as an NFL player. Over that time, he has had his fair share of injuries, including a torn meniscus and torn ACL – the same injuries as Guice. If anyone could give the young Running Back advice on recovery from these injuries, it would be him. And the veteran just had Washington pick up his option – so he will be around next season.
Guice has big-play potential. His college output and brief glimmers of talent in his NFL career show us that. He actually started against the Eagles, ahead of Peterson, before the meniscus injury. And this may well be Peterson’s swansong season so Guice stands to take the lead if the veteran retires.
But Guice hasn’t seen more than 10 carries in a regular season game, and this could be the thinking behind the Redskins bringing in Peyton Barber. Barber was used to working in a committee at the Buccaneers, so this could help the transition. The Redskins have also brought in pass-catching back J.D.McKissic from the Lions.
PLACES ON THE LISTS
At the time of writing, Derrius Guice isn’t on the Redskins injury report. In one sense, this is good news for both fantasy owners and the Redskins staff. If the team can handle him right, then Guice can do wonders for them. But with that comes a considerable downside. One direct impact was enough to take him out long term before – something that fantasy owners should be aware of when it comes to drafting.
He is placed at RB28 as it stands, and 75rd overall. Considering his play time, I still think a 7th round pick is too high. Guice’s injury risk should also put him lower. One place below at RB29 is rookie Ke’Shawn Vaughn, candidate for a big slice of Bucs rushing yards this season. Two place above? De’Andre Swift, likely to be Detroit’s lead back this season. When there are better options on the table, is it worth taking a shot on a one-hit wonderkid?
Our third focus for Injury Risks is another lead back who didn’t just have injury worries last year…
CHRIS CARSON – SEATTLE SEAHAWKS
For Carson, and Seattle, 2019 was a tough season on many fronts. Inconsistent performance. Consistent fumbles. The constant threat of dropping down the depth chart. Dealing with a rotating and injury-ravaged offensive line. The list is extensive.
Consider the Running Backs that were injured in the final weeks, and it was fortunate that Seattle saw the play-offs at all. First, Rashaad Penny suffered an ACL injury against the Rams. Two weeks later, both Carson and third string RB C.J. Prosise went down against the Cardinals. Carson picked up a fractured hip, whereas Prosise received a broken arm. This was during Week 16 – the Championship round for many fantasy owners. It could have made the difference in victory or defeat.
LINGERING INJURY RISKS
Carson is no stranger to injuries – he missed 18 regular season games over the last 3 years. While he started seasons well, Carson finished on injured reserve in two of them, and still had medical issues in the third. In Week 4 of his rookie season, Carson suffered significant leg and ankle injuries that ruled him out of the year. In his second season, a lingering hip injury affected practices and games, raising questions about endurance.
Indeed, practice reports suggest that this injury continued into 2019. For many weeks, Carson’s training status would be ‘limited’. This continued up until the Cardinals game where he sustained his hip fracture.
WAS THE OFF SEASON ENOUGH?
It does highlight that the off-season between the 2018 and 2019 seasons didn’t totally solve Carson’s hip issues. Due to that lack of recovery, those problems continued into 2019. The UK’s NHS online guide outlines that further fractures can be avoided by preventing falls. Unfortunately, Carson’s role means he will stand to take a lot of contact. Even if Carson wasn’t floored, the impact of incoming tackles could be enough to cause re-injury. And shaking off those tackles can still take its toll on the body.
You never know – his injured reserve status may have allowed more time to heal than before. And, as it stands, the Running Back is questionable for training camps. Coronavirus has affected preseason preparation – but that extra time difference can only be counted in weeks. Will that make a difference to a more severe injury? And does the injury itself mean that it is likely to recur in the future?
ON THE BOARD
Regardless, experts still consider him to be productive this season. He sits on the ADP board at RB21, comfortably within team RB2 territory. But after reports emerged that the Seahawks had spoken with various Running Backs, they finally signed one. With Rashard Penny currently on the PUP list, Carlos Hyde is now on-roster to provide depth to the chart. Hyde got over half the carries at Houston last season.
This is a direct threat to Carson’s status, and reinforces the opinion that the Seahawks can’t trust Carson at his current health level. It’s likely that Carson will start as the lead back due to his playbook knowledge. But picking up Hyde as a handcuff will certainly do no harm. Hyde ranked at RB77 on the day the Seahawks announced his signing. But fantasy owners have recognised that Hyde has great RB2 upside – and he is already on rise. He how stands at RB54.
In the next article, we look at Wide Receivers whose past slips and trips may cost you a match-up.
Until next time,