Injury Risks – TE edition
In this Tight End article in the ‘Injury Risk’ series, we look at three players for whom injury may be an issue in 2020. How could suffering an injury affect their on-field and fantasy performances, as well as that of their team?
The success of American football is defined by maximum performance. The speed and velocity created by players. 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 players return, 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 Tight Ends that fantasy owners should be aware of with regard to injuries…
Engram heads up the list of Tight Ends at risk of injury. His returns were highest in his rookie year – 722 yards from 64 receptions. With only a 55% completion rate, that gave a brilliant 11.3 yards / reception. And, if his sophomore year could see a higher catch %, that production could go up.
In hindsight, owners who had him in his first year may considered lucky. The injury he got in his first year only affected Week 17. They got a full return on Engram’s qualities for their fantasy season.
Anyone who took him in the following years did not get the same amount of fortune.
2018 started with a whimper for Engram. In Week 4, he took a helmet hit to the knee and suffered an MCL sprain as a result. He missed the next three games, returning in Week 7. This return only lasted for four weeks before he missed another two games. This time, it was due to a hamstring injury.
While Engram’s return for those last games saw at least 75 yards for him in each, for some players it may have been too late. Engram was their TE1 – out for 5 regular season games. These games could have been the difference between making the play-offs – and missing them.
THE SAME IN 2019
Drafters (myself included) went into 2019 hopeful of Engram’s prospects. This year’s output had to outstrip that of the ‘injury ravaged’ 2018. Many experts felt the same and, as a result, he stood as TE5 in the 2019 ADP. And he started the season with a bang – with two 100+ yard returns in his first 3 games. He was TE1 on NFL Fantasy in the first week, and averaging TE5 after three. The outlook was bright for Engram owners.
But the Tight End’s presence only lasted 8 games – even less than 2018. A pedal foot sprain took him out for the rest of the season. And, after that white-hot start, those five remaining games saw a huge drop of average rank to TE16. A particular low point was a rank of TE36 in Week 7, where Engram caught just one target. That added just 6 yards to his total.
Engram drafted as a top 5 Tight End in many leagues. Those owners expected a top-5 Tight End return. They did not receive it, and most had to scramble for an adequate replacement. Again, Engram’s injury could have meant the difference between making and missing the post-season.
CHANGE IN 2020?
So where does Engram factor in this year? PPR leagues have him as high as TE7 – a slight drop from last year. That equates to an early 7th round pick. Other Tight Ends predicted to go in the same round include Hayden Hurst and Tyler Higbee. Higbee’s form blossomed in the second half of the season, but neither Tight End saw Engram’s volume. This was due to Engram being the Giant’s main pass-catching end. Hurst and Higbee were members of Tight End groups.
Due to his status, it seems like Engram’s high floor gives him the advantage. But the injury risks assigned to Engram must worry some owners. Looking to other Tight Ends as backups in case Engram does go down would be prudent. If you pick up another primary catching Tight End, then they can be factored into your plans should Engram does go down. No trades will be needed, and the risk of losing match-ups can be minimal.
But doing this forfeits a team place – and gives the other players an extra pick to take players in other positions. It is a tough decision, and one that should be considered carefully.
When Engram was out, Kaden Smith took over the reins. Smith did more than a decent job. He made more than 5 catches in 4 of his games, and he even had his own breakout performance. His Week 17 return saw 98 yards on 8 catches, and ranked him as TE2. In fact, he demonstrated a higher catch percentage compared to Engram’s. With Rhett Ellison’s retirement confirmed, that leaves Smith at the head of the supporting cast.
Smith features on www.fantasypros.com as the TE52, and 411th overall. As such, he will likely go undrafted and should be available on waivers should Engram go down. If he does see the starts, he could see the same amount of targets as his team-mate.
Next up, a returning legend.
Tampa Bay have made big moves this off-season. As if the news of Tom Brady joining their team wasn’t enough, the Bucs doubled down. Gronk was BACK – and coming to the NFC South. His signing brought a wave of interest from fantasy players in the veteran Tight End. After last year’s stranglehold by a small group of elite TEs, could Gronk give options? Could he open up the field?
BACK TO BACK INJURY RISK?
After all, Gronk put up a 1000+ yard season in 2017 – that was only three seasons ago! He got nearly 700 yards in the year before he retired. That was good enough for TE11. And in those two seasons he did miss several games, so those returns could have been even better. If he can recapture his form on his return, then whoever picks him must be onto a winner.
But, while we look at Gronk’s numbers and see potential elite status, it’s important to take stock. Those missed games were from a variety of injuries. The most recent one he suffered was a lower back injury in 2018. It kept him out for 3 games mid-season, but this particular injury sent alarm bells ringing. Gronk had needed lower back surgery several times – including the major surgery that kept him out for much of 2016.
An 2016 article by Dr. Jessica Flynn outlined Gronkowski’s injury history up to this surgery, and what the surgery itself was likely to do. It went on to discuss what the future could hold for him. Flynn predicted new issues arising from the results of the surgeries. Considering his physical style of play, those potential effects would not be good news for Gronk. Therefore, the injury caused concern when it happened.
Indeed, the Tight End’s injuries were the reason that Gronk retired in the first place. Focusing on his health was a priority that he mentioned when asked about leaving the game. And so his surprise return has raised some eyebrows.
A RISKY REUNION
In his first Bucs press conference, Gronkowski was the picture of confidence. Feeling good and ready to go. All for the love of the game, and the chance to play alongside his buddy Mr. Brady once more. He addressed injury concerns with talk of resting and talking care of himself. But he also talked about the painful situations he found himself in. According to Gronk, he couldn’t walk properly for 4 weeks after the Pats’ Superbowl victory.
But his injury risks goes beyond much-needed rest. If he continues as a blocker and pass-catcher, a return is a huge gamble on his part. Especially considering the condition of his back, and the work that has been done on it. Factor in the lack of physical conditioning from a year out, and the effect of COVID-19 for on-field preparation. And that injury risk stands very high.
STEPPING OVER THE OLD GUARD
With his reputation, it was natural to assume that Gronkowski would step straight into TE1. He comes into a Tight End group that did see a fair share of action last year. O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate registered 108 targets between them. Their completion rates averaged 58.3%, but this was with a quarterback who saw the most blitzes in the league last year (Jameis Winston). This completion rate may well rise but Gronkowski’s inclusion will impact their targets. However, if Gronk were to get injured then at least they have been in volume positions before.
And there would be a bonus of getting passes from Tom Brady.
At present, Gronk ranks at TE6 – which shows near-blind optimism, considering injury risks and lack of recent playing time. He predicts to go mid-6th round, around players like Marquise Brown and AJ Green (re: my Injury Risks WR article). He is touted to get drafted before Engram, Higbee and Hurst.
Howard, on the other hand, ranks at a more modest TE20, and has an ADP of the mid-14th round. Brate goes unranked. As Gronk is at high risk of injury, they should be the ones to watch, and will likely be on the waivers in all but the deepest leagues.
Next is a player whose injuries mainly stick to one area…
This year, many fantasy owners are expecting a breakout from Hunter Henry. Many saw him as Antonio Gates’ successor in 2016, when the Chargers drafted him in the second round. Gates was entering the twilight years of his career. Henry was a new pair of hands to continue the options in the Tight End area. And it was a perfect chance for a rookie to learn alongside a veteran.
2016 was a particular hit for both of them. They got 15 touchdowns between them. That success was significant for Henry, considering it was his rookie season. Despite seeing half the targets that Gates did, his production and number of touchdowns saw Henry finishing as TE10. That season, he only missed on game through injury. He sustained a knee strain in Week 8, and returned in Week 10.
RIGHT KNEE BLUES
Ultimately, it was this right knee that caused Henry his biggest injury in 2018.
A grade 3 ACL tear derailed his entire season. The Chargers made the play-offs that year, and by then Henry was healthy enough for a cameo in the loss to the Pats. But that one missed target was the extent of his season. Considering his injury happened in May, this was early enough for most fantasy players to avoid getting stung.
As 2019 rolled around, there was optimism that Henry would be able to come back strong. His past performances got used as the basis for his prospects. As such, he charted as the TE6 coming into the season. However, although there was a decent return, 2019 also proved problematic for the same leg. A knee fracture kept him out for 4 games early on in the season. This ended up affecting his final ranking, and he ended up as TE9 for the season.
That value is something to be careful of this year. Due to his increased presence and his primary Tight End status, Henry’s stock has maintained. He charts as the TE8 for 2020. But the condition of this right knee area is a major factor in his seasonal performance.
IF THE HUNTER FALLS
The Charger’s Tight End situation gears in favour of Henry being the primary TE target. Below Henry is a 9th year veteran – Virgil Green. Green has had a minor role in the Chargers offense since his arrival in 2018. That involvement wasn’t any larger at the Broncos, his last team. The most targets he saw in a 2019 game was two, so he wasn’t used as a viable replacement target with Henry injured. If Henry got injured again this season, it is highly unlikely that they turn to Green to replace him.
Below Green? Stephen Anderson and Andrew Vollert. Anderson has seen decent amounts of targets at his previous club, the Houston Texans. He is currently under a futures/reserves contract at the club. Vollert signed to the Chargers from the waivers before the 2019 season. His only involvement in a passing offense was in college, and he saw no targets last season.
None of the backup Chargers TE factor on any of the deep ADP or ranking predictions. They aren’t even considered in case Henry does get injured. So it would leave the Chargers with some difficult decisions to make if the worst does happen. Thankfully, fantasy owners don’t have to make those same choices. There should be a targeted Tight End on most waiver wires. But, should their TE1 take a hit, those Hunter Henry drafters should monitor players on waivers.
Next time we have a look at players who could be affected in your Superflex!
Until next time,