The Impact of ACL Surgery on Fantasy Performance: Wide Receivers

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Last week, I took a look at how running backs perform in year one after ACL surgery compared to year two, and I also compared post-operative year one performance to a player’s career average to see if RBs generally hit their pre-injury levels in year one. Before proceeding with this article on wide receivers, I’d recommend checking that one out. In the article, I highlight my methods and process for collecting the data and the rationale behind why I chose to use the sample size I did. I largely used the same methods, so getting a quick refresher in that article will be helpful.

You can read the article here: The Impact of ACL Surgery on Fantasy Performance: Running Backs

RB Article Summary

For those of you who prefer the “Tell me what I need to know” approach, here’s the summary of my findings:

  • Younger RBs are more likely to return to pre-injury performance than older backs
  • When looking at both efficiency metrics and fantasy points per game, RBs are generally less efficient and score fewer fantasy points in year one following surgery
  • In year two, backs tend to outperform their year one metrics, suggesting we should buy into RBs in their 2nd season off ACL surgery, while generally fading those in year one after surgery

Methods

With this study, I want to quantify the effect of ACL injuries on the performance of wide receivers from an efficiency standpoint and a fantasy performance standpoint. I’ll outline my methods in the following sections and then give some key takeaways and conclusions about how to use this data at the end of the article. The data in this sample comes from 2015-2021.

I did not control in this sample WRs who had multi-ligament and/or meniscus injuries on top of their ACL injuries, as I feared that would make the sample far too small. However, it is worth noting that in the rehab world, we have to progress these athletes slowly compared to “clean” ACL injuries. Intuitively, fantasy managers will want to factor that analysis into their takes of players coming off the surgery for future reference. In other words, a player with a meniscus and an ACL injury for example, will take longer to return to optimal performance than a player with a straightforward ACL.

The final thing to point out here is that I really tried to focus on only including fantasy-relevant names in order to further tailor the study to what we as fantasy players care about – how these players perform for fantasy after they’re back on the field. There were more players who met my criteria that I did not include in the study given that they were 2nd or 3rd string players who were never on our fantasy radar anyway. Including them in the study would have likely made the data and outcomes look worse.

As you’ll see in the charts and graphs below, I split this study into two different parts:

  1. How NFL WRs perform in year one after the surgery compared to year two
  2. How NFL WRs perform in year one relative to their career averages before the injury. In other words, if a player tore their ACL in 2018 but entered the league in 2015, I used averages from 2015-2018, excluding the game in which the player was injured.

Metrics Utilized

When looking at how to quantify a player’s performance after injury, I could have used any number of data points, but I chose to focus on efficiency metrics rather than raw numbers. Why? In these types of studies, it’s extremely difficult to quantify so many other factors that affect fantasy performance – coaching scheme, offensive line play, etc. Of course, because of the fact that WR production is heavily dependent on QB play, that is one factor that is difficult to control.

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Below is a list of metrics utilized with a short definition for each efficiency metric as well as the source of the information:

  • Catch Rate, The Fantasy Footballers Player Profiles
  • Yards/Reception, The Fantasy Footballers Player Profiles
  • Yards/Target, Pro Football Reference
  • Yards/Route Run, PFF
  • Fantasy points per game, The Fantasy Footballers Player Profiles

Comparing Year 1 vs. Year 2 After ACL Surgery

Player Age Year of Injury 1st season catch rate 2nd season catch rate 1st Season Yards/Reception 2nd Season Yards/Reception 1st Season Yards/Target 2nd Season Yards/Target 1st Season YPRR 2nd Season YPRR 1st Season Fantasy PPG 2nd Season Fantasy PPG
Jordy Nelson 30 2015 64% 60% 13.0 9.1 8.3 5.5 1.86 0.95 16.0 7.4
Kelvin Benjamin 24 2015 53% 62% 14.9 14.4 8.0 8.9 1.99 1.91 10.4 7.9
Keenan Allen 24 2016 64% 71% 13.7 12.3 8.8 8.8 2.55 2.50 14.6 13.2
Allen Robinson 24 2017 59% 64% 13.7 11.7 8.0 7.4 1.69 1.82 9.7 12.7
Julian Edelman 31 2017 69% 65% 11.5 11.2 7.9 7.3 1.95 1.83 14.2 12.9
Cam Meredith 25 2017 90% N/A – Retired 12.7 N/A – Retired 11.4 N/A – Retired 1.37 N/A – Retired 3.3 N/A – Retired
Cooper Kupp 25 2018 70% 74% 12.4 10.6 8.7 7.9 2.08 1.89 14.0 10.8
William Fuller V 24 2018 69% 71% 13.7 16.6 9.4 11.7 2.03 2.28 9.9 14.8
Preston Williams 22 2019 51% 38% 16.0 11.8 8.2 4.4 1.38 0.68 8.2 5.4
Odell Beckham 28 2020 54% N/A – 2022 12.2 N/A – 2022 6.5 N/A – 2022 1.30 N/A – 2022 7.7 N/A – 2022
Dede Westbrook 27 2020 67% N/A – 2022 6.8 N/A – 2022 4.5 N/A – 2022 0.43 N/A – 2022 0.8 N/A – 2023
Courtland Sutton 25 2020 59% N/A – 2022 13.4 N/A – 2022 7.9 N/A – 2022 1.43 N/A – 2022 7.1 N/A – 2024

Before getting into some takeaways from this data, let’s take a minute to orient to the graphs above. On the X-axis, you’ll find efficiency metrics such as fantasy points per game (fPPG), yards per reception (Yds/Rec), yards per target (Yds/Tgt), and yards per route run (YPRR). On the Y-axis, is the raw score for each of these metrics. The green bar represents year one after ACL surgery, while the grey bar represents the 2nd season removed from surgery. I chose not to include the final three names in the table above (Odell Beckham, Dede Westbrook, and Courtland Sutton) given that these players don’t have data for year two after surgery.

Discussion Points

  • Unlike running backs, who pretty much struggled across the board with efficiency metrics and fantasy performance in year one, wide receivers generally performed well in year one following surgery.
  • More specifically, the players who did perform well in year one were generally elite fantasy options – Jordy Nelson, Keenan Allen, Julian Edelman, and Cooper Kupp. I’ll discuss these players in more detail in the following section below.
  • It’s important to note this is a small sample size. We want to be careful when suggesting that all WRs will be better in year one vs. year two after surgery. Certainly, taking any hard and fast rules away from this small sample would be irresponsible as the medical world has a wide data set that shows athletes regardless of sport generally reach optimal performance in the 2nd season removed from surgery. However, it’s possible these findings can help us better identify which types of WRs will be better in year one.

Comparing Performance in Year 1 vs. Pre-Injury Levels

Player Age Career Avg. Catch Rate Pre-Injury 1st season catch rate Career Avg. Yards/Reception Pre-Injury 1st Season Yards/Reception Career Avg. Yards/Target Pre-Injury 1st Season Yards/Target YPRR season prior 1st Season YPRR Career Avg. Fantasy PPG 1st Season Fantasy PPG
Jordy Nelson 30 68% 64% 15.6 13.0 10.0 8.3 2.66 1.86 11.6 16.0
Kelvin Benjamin 24 50% 53% 13.8 14.9 7.0 8.0 1.86 1.99 11.8 10.4
Keenan Allen 24 68% 64% 11.9 13.7 8.2 8.8 2.16 2.55 12.1 14.6
Allen Robinson 24 52% 59% 14.1 13.7 7.3 8.0 1.33 1.69 12.4 9.7
Julian Edelman 31 66% 69% 10.7 11.5 6.6 7.9 1.98 1.95 8.1 14.2
Cam Meredith 25 69% 90% 13.1 12.7 8.4 11.4 2.07 1.37 6.6 3.3
Cooper Kupp 25 68% 70% 14.1 12.4 9.8 8.7 2.05 2.08 11.4 14.0
William Fuller V 24 57% 69% 14.6 13.7 8.7 9.4 1.41 2.03 9.3 9.9
Preston Williams 22 N/A – rookie season injury 51% N/A – rookie season injury 16.0 N/A – rookie season injury 8.2 N/A – rookie season injury 1.38 N/A – rookie season injury 8.2
Odell Beckham 28 61% 54% 14.0 12.2 8.3 6.5 1.81 1.30 15.8 7.7
Dede Westbrook 27 63% 67% 10.8 6.8 6.1 4.5 1.20 0.43 7.9 0.8
Courtland Sutton 25 55% 59% 15.9 13.4 8.7 7.9 2.08 1.43 9.4 7.1

Again, just like in the first table above, we’re looking at the same metrics on the X and Y-axis. The primary difference here is that we’re now looking at comparing player performance Pre-injury to the player’s first season back on the field after surgery. There’s one small thing to point here and that is that I used career averages pre-injury for fPPG, Yds/Rec, and Yds/Tgt. These numbers were easy to find and calculate. However, the yards per route run data was a lot to input by hand when doing the math, and so I decided to use the season prior to injury for this metric.

Discussion Points

  • Again, we see a similar theme – elite fantasy WRs in this sample were able to out-perform their career averages in year one on the field.
  • There seems to be a dip in efficiency for players for most players in this sample. Even those who had a great fantasy season weren’t necessarily the most efficient in doing so. Again, we’ll dive into the players who performed well below.

Identifying WR Archetypes Who May Perform Well After ACL Surgery

I want to be extremely clear with the information I’m about to provide below – this is not meant to be a piece of information we use immediately and implement into our fantasy draft strategy as a hard and fast rule. Again, this sample size is just too small. But, it does provide some insight into what WR archetypes may perform well and those who may not. My hope is that we can look at the 4 WRs who were awesome in year one after ACL surgery and see if there are any trends that develop. From there, I hope to add to this data in future seasons to further strengthen this research topic. But for now, let’s see if we can identify anything in Keenan Allen, Jordy Nelson, Julian Edelman, and Cooper Kupp‘s profile to see if there are any trends that exist.

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Player Fantasy Finish Targets Target Share Targets Per Route Run Slot Rate Date of Injury
Jordy Nelson WR1 152 25% 24% 25% Pre-season
Keenan Allen WR3 159 28% 29% 43% Week 1
Julian Edelman WR22 108 26% 25% 52% Pre-season
Cooper Kupp WR4 134 22% 24% 66% Week 10

As mentioned above, some WRs saw a dip in efficiency in year one after surgery. However, there’s one thing that sticks out with this group of WRs who performed well. All of these WRs were target hogs for their team, banking a 22+% market share in year one following surgery. In addition, all four of these wideouts logged a 24+% targets per route run metric. In other words, these WRs were a focal point of their passing offense, and my theory here is that the target volume, which we know drives fantasy performance anyway, helped to mitigate some of the efficiency concerns.

Furthermore, all four of these wideouts spent plenty of time lined up in the slot for their offense. Inherently, we know this helps to create easier throws for the QB, leads to advantageous WR/CB matchups, and helps WRs earn more “lay-up” targets. Finally, all of these WRs had their ACL injury before Week 10 and three of the four had theirs in either Week 1 or during the pre-season. Several research studies suggest athletes reach optimal performance following surgery somewhere in the 10-12 month window following surgery.

The players who didn’t perform well in year one seemed to either be less talented (Cam Meredith, Kelvin Benjamin, Dede Westbrook) or were more downfield threats like Will Fuller or Courtland Sutton. Again, this sample isn’t enough for us to confidently say that these archetypes won’t perform well, but when trying to find factors that could lead to successful fantasy seasons following ACL surgery, we should be looking for the following:

  • Elite talent and route running
  • The ability to line up in the slot at an elevated rate
  • Minimum of 10 months recovery time; In general, the earlier the better

Again, this is probably oversimplifying the process, and every ACL recovery is unique. When did the injury occur? Were there multiple ligaments damaged? Is there a QB change Did the WR change teams or coaches? Was another elite WR added to the roster to add target competition? This is why injury analysis in the fantasy space can be a bit of an art and a science at times. I think this is the perfect example of why that’s the case.

With that in mind, the fantasy-relevant WRs recovering from 2021 ACL injuries include Michael Gallup, Jameson Williams, Chris Godwin, Odell Beckham, Robert Woods,, and K.J. Hamler. When looking at the factors consistent with the WR samples who did succeed, Chris Godwin probably fits that criteria the best given his elite talent, slot role, and ability to earn targets at a high volume. In two seasons with Tom Brady, Godwin earned a 19% and 21% target share while primarily operating out of the slot. The only box that Godwin doesn’t check is his recovery timeline. When the season kicks off in roughly one month, he’ll be just over 8 months removed from surgery. He’s clearly doing well for where he’s at in his rehab, but it’s unlikely he’s 100% to open the season. However, this data suggests that once the calendar turns to October, Godwin is probably the most likely candidate to join the list of top-tier fantasy wideouts who can return to form in year one. Meanwhile, deep threats like Michael Gallup and Jameson Williams could struggle a bit, especially given Gallup’s surgical timeline and the fact that Williams is a rookie. The other WR I think has a chance to perform this season is Robert Woods, who injured his knee in practice just before Week 10, giving him the time we’re looking for to not only complete his rehab but also reach pre-injury performance levels. Of course, veteran WRs who change teams with a QB downgrade generally aren’t fantastic bets in fantasy, but speaking strictly to Woods’ health, he has a chance to do well this year.

As I usually reference when talking about injuries, the recovery process is non-binary and there’s a lot of nuance to understanding how injuries impact a fantasy season. If you’re interested in discussing these topics more or have questions, be sure to find me on Twitter or message me on our Discord server. You can also find more of my injury analysis in the 2022 Ultimate Draft Kit.

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