Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Injury-Prone or Unlucky?

Written for fantasyfootballwhiz.com.

The debate is older than Al Davis. Are certain players more prone to the pine, or have they simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time in an unforgiving collision sport? Does an injury increase the odds of a repeat? Are certain injuries more recurring by nature? The truth is, there's no formula for this kind of exercise. Every human heals differently, and everybody has different pain thresholds. I can't crawl into Maurice Jones-Drew's knee, or Ricky Martin's bed, to tell you what bone-on-bone feels like. And the closest I've come to a Percy Harvin migraine or an Austin Collie concussion was my first morning as a 22 year-old. At the end of the day, it's up to you to decide if you're going to paint injury risk with a broad brush, or if you're going to approach it like a Bob Ross "happy tree."

This is far from a perfect experiment, but it's not without merit when you look beyond the numbers. In addition to crunching the raw data, I've analyzed individual circumstances to compliment the "play rate" for 2011's top draft picks. By tabulating injury-caused DNP percentages, I've removed opinions and speculation from the equation. I did not account for games left early, as these instances would not have factored in to your original lineup decisions. And it would have been a colossal pain in the ass. Should this information be considered a valuable tool come draft day? I'll let you be the judge.


1. Aaron Rodgers - 97.9%
Rodgers has missed one game (47/48) due to injury since becoming the Packers' starter in 2008. He suffered two concussions but missed just one game in 2010.

2. Michael Vick - 81.3%
Vick has missed 18 games (78/96) due to injury since becoming the Falcons' starter in 2002. His 2001 rookie season and his 2009 season have been omitted from this exercise, as he was not a regular starter. He's missed single games with minor injuries to his shoulder, ankle, and leg. He also missed 11 games in 2003 with a fractured fibula, and three games in 2010 with an injury to his rib cartilage. In six years as a starter, he's played a full 16-game slate just once.

3. Drew Brees - 100%
Brees was benched in 2003, and was rested for the postseason in both 2004 and 2009, but he has not missed a single game due to injury (139/139) since becoming the Chargers' starter in 2002. He went through offseason shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum before joining the Saints in 2006, but he's clearly shown no ill effects.

4. Peyton Manning - 100%
In his 13-year career, Manning has started a remarkable 208/208 games.

5. Tom Brady - 90.5%
Brady missed 15 games after he suffered a torn ACL and MCL in the 2008 season opener. They remain the only games he's missed due to injury (143/158) since becoming the Patriots' starter early in the 2001 season.

6. Philip Rivers - 100%
Since becoming Drew Brees' successor in 2006, Rivers has started 80/80 games.

7. Tony Romo - 82.4%
Romo has missed 13 games (61/74) due to injury since becoming the Cowboys' starter part way through the 2006 season. He missed three games in 2008 with a broken pinkie on his throwing hand, and the final 10 games of 2010 with a broken clavicle.

8. Josh Freeman - 100%
Since becoming the Bucs' starter midway through 2009, Freeman has started 25/25 games.

9. Ben Roethlisberger - 94.1%
Roethlisberger has missed five games (80/85) due to injury since becoming Steelers' starter. He missed four games in 2005 with injuries to both knees, and one in 2009 with a concussion. To our knowledge, he's tallied four concussions (three on the field and one on a windshield). Note: Games missed due to motorcycle accidents, postseason rest, and rape suspensions were not factored in.

10. Matt Schaub - 84.4%
Schaub didn't become a starter until he was traded to Houston in 2007. He missed five games in each of his first two seasons, with a concussion and a separated (left) shoulder in 2007, and a knee injury in 2008. He's rebounded with back-to-back full seasons (54/64).

We all know the risk we're incurring when we select Michael Vick, and seeing this data only heightens the anxiety. I'm not sure "injury-prone" is technically the right word here -- he's not necessarily more breakable than the rest of the bunch. However, his style of play invites extra contact, and his fantasy owners have paid for it again and again. The next four guys on the list are much safer choices, still carry outstanding upside, and will cost you much less on draft day... Speaking of safe, there's no denying it: Peyton Manning is the safest pick in the history of fantasy football... Tom Brady was clearly "unlucky" with the knee injury. It's an isolated incident on an otherwise spotless resume, and it could have happened to anyone... Tony Romo is more mobile than most quarterbacks, but his two injuries feel a bit flukey, as they were both bone breaks that occurred inside the pocket... As far as injuries are concerned, I no longer hesitate to draft Matt Schaub... For what it's worth, the top-10 drafted quarterbacks have a combined play rate of 93.7% (915/977), which equates to exactly 15.0 (of 16) games played per season.

Tabulating running back play rates is a muddy proposition. Quarterbacks are cut and dry -- they're starters or they're not starters. There's a lot of gray area for running backs, as many are eased into action early in their careers. I've used my best judgement to provide a fair outlook for each back.

1. Arian Foster - 100%
Foster was first worked into the Houston running back mix in Week 14 of 2009, and since then he's played in 20/20 games.

2. Adrian Peterson - 95.3%
Peterson has missed three games (61/64) due to injury since entering the league in 2007. He missed two games in his rookie year with a minor knee injury, and one in 2010 with a thigh injury.

3. Jamaal Charles - 100%
Charles has never missed a game (47/47) due to injury since entering the league in 2008. However, it's important to note that his "fantasy" service clock didn't technically start until Larry Johnson was cut midway through the 2009 season. Prior to that, Charles didn't receive enough work to incur equal injury risk, and he was irrelevant for fantasy purposes. Since Johnson's release, however, Charles has played in 25 straight games.

4. Chris Johnson - 100%
Johnson has never missed a game (47/47) due to injury since entering the league in 2008.

5. LeSean McCoy - 100%
McCoy has never missed a game (31/31) due to injury in his two seasons in the NFL. He accumulated 195 touches as Brian Westbrook's backup in his 2009 rookie season. In 2010, he played through a broken rib.

6. Ray Rice - 93.8%
Rice was used sporadically in his 2008 rookie season, and missed the final three regular season games due to a shin contusion. The ailment also severely limited him in two postseason games. This remains the only injury that's caused Rice to miss action (45/48). It's worth noting that he played through a knee contusion in 2010.

7. Maurice Jones-Drew - 97.5%
MoJo started out his career with a sparkling streak of 77 straight injury-free contests. However, after playing on an damaged right knee throughout the entire 2010 season, he was finally forced to the sideline for games No. 78 and 79. He underwent surgery to repair a partially torn meniscus after the season, and his progress will need to be monitored very closely into 2011.

8. Frank Gore - 87.5%
Gore's injury history (84/96) is enough to cause a national shortage on red markers. He missed two games in 2005 (groin/hip), one game in 2007 (ankle), two games in 2008 (ankle), and two games in 2009 (ankle). He also spent the final five weeks of last season on I.R. with a fractured hip. In his six-year career, he's played 16 games just once, and he's developed a knack for getting injured very early in games (after one carry in Week 3 of 2009, and after five carries in Week 12 of 2010). His play rate equates to a career average of 14.0 games per season.

9. Rashard Mendenhall - 75.0%
Mendenhall's 2008 rookie season ended when a fractured shoulder that cost him his final 12 games. Since then, he's played in 32 straight (36/48).

10. Matt Forte - 100%
Forte has never missed a game in his three-year career (48/48).

Here's a couple interesting bonus backs who fell just below the fold...

11. Darren McFadden - 79.2%
Darren McFadden has missed 10 games (38/48) due to injury in his three-year career. He battled turf toe in both feet throughout most of his 2008 rookie season, and although he only missed three games due to the ailment, he was completely phased out of several others. He missed four games in 2009 after undergoing surgery to repair knee cartilage. Last season, McFadden missed two games with a hamstring injury, and another with turf toe.

12. Steven Jackson - 89.3%
Steven Jackson has missed 12 games in his seven-year career (100/112) due to laundry list of injuries: hip, thigh, groin, knee, and back. Last season was just the second 16-game campaign of his career, although he was hobbled by a severe groin injury for much of the year.

Despite the solid number behind MoJo's name, he scares me as much as any back on this list... The lowest two rated backs in this study provide us with a perfect example of "injury-prone" vs. "unlucky." Rashard Mendenhall (75%) was welcomed to the league with a bone-shattering hit by Ray Lewis. It could just as easily have happened in Week 14 as Week 4, and he's rebounded with back-to-back full seasons. He was clearly unlucky. Conversely, Darren McFadden (79.2%) actually holds a better play rate, but he's appears to be significantly more injury-prone. Drafting McFadden is a bit like dating a prostitute -- you're paying a steep price for damaged goods and loads of baggage. In three seasons, he's missed games for four separate injuries that have included knee, hamstring, and turf toe... I typically try to avoid Frank Gore, but I was a bit surprised to see how close Steven Jackson came to matching Gore's dismal play rate... For what it's worth, the top-10 drafted running backs have a combined play rate of 93.9% (496/528), which equates to exactly 15.0 (of 16) games played per season.


1. Andre Johnson - 89.8%
Johnson has missed 13 games (115/128) due to injury in his eight-year career. He missed three games in 2005 and seven games in 2007 with knee injuries. He also missed three games last season with an ankle injury.

2. Roddy White - 100%
White has never missed a game (96/96) in his six-year career.

3. Calvin Johnson - 95.3%
Johnson has missed just three games (61/64) due to injury in four years, but he's been noticeably limited in several others. He missed one game in 2007 with a back injury, and two in 2009 with a knee injury.

4. Hakeem Nicks - 84.4%
Nicks has missed five games (27/32) due to injury in two season. He missed two games in 2009 with a sprained left foot, two games in 2010 after undergoing emergency surgery for compartment syndrome (extreme swelling) in his right calf, and the final game of 2010 with a broken toe.

5. Greg Jennings - 94.9%
Jennings has missed four games (75/79) due to injury in five seasons. He missed two games in 2007 with ankle injuries, and two more in 2008 with a bad hamstring. He's since completed three straight 16-game seasons.

6. Reggie Wayne - 98.1%
Wayne missed the first three games of his career with a high ankle sprain. He hasn't missed a game due to injury since (157/160).

7. Larry Fitzgerald - 96.4%
Fitzgerald has missed four games (108/112) due to injury in his seven-year career. He missed three in 2006 with a hamstring injury, and one in 2007 with a groin injury.

8. Mike Wallace - 100%
In his two years, Wallace has never missed a game (32/32) due to injury.

9. Miles Austin - 91.7%
Because of his unconventional rise to stardom, tracking and calculating Austin's injury rate wasn't easy. In his first two seasons, he was primarily a special-teamer who saw spot duty at receiver, totaling just 10 targets. Therefore, I didn't start his "fantasy" service clock until 2008, when he became slightly more involved in the offense. While he was still a fantasy non-factor, we can't ignore the four games he missed with a lingering MCL sprain that he originally suffered in the preseason. Austin emerged as a star in 2009, and has played back-to-back full 16-game seasons (44/48).

10. Dwayne Bowe - 98.3%
Bowe has missed one game (59/60) due to injury in his four NFL seasons. He missed five total games in 2009 -- one with a leg injury, and four for a league suspension.

If you're choosing between Roddy White and one of the Johnson's, perhaps this data should be used as a tie breaker... I love Hakeem Nicks, but if you miss games for three separate injuries in two seasons, you're really pushing the "injury-prone" envelope... Over the last nine seasons, Reggie Wayne has been as reliable as Peyton Manning... We're officially in the clear with Greg Jennings and Miles Austin... For some reason, I had it in my head that Larry Fitzgerald was more fragile. I must have owned him in multiple leagues in 2006... It's no coincidence that the thrice-concussed Austin Collie, one of 2009's most productive per-game receivers, was nowhere close to the top-10 (20th)... For what it's worth, the top-10 drafted wide receivers have a combined play rate of 95.4% (774/811), which equates to 15.3 (of 16) games played per season.

Admittedly, there's a lot of useless information here. But weeding through piles of useless information is how we find the good stuff, and I truly believe there are some gems here. If nothing else, look at this as an informational piece -- a comprehensive injury directory for 2011's top draft picks. Whether you use this material to assess injury risk is certainly your call. For me personally, I've tagged Michael Vick, Frank Gore, Darren McFadden, Steven Jackson, and Hakeem Nicks as players carrying a legitimate risk of missing games. No surprises there. Several other players toe the line between "injury-prone" and "unlucky." That's where you have to trust your gut.

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