An Injury History of Round 1 RBs in Fantasy Football Drafts

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As a fantasy football owner, being able to avoid mitigate injury risk is a big factor for success in the hopes of raising that glorious fantasy football trophy come season’s end. However, at the same time, let’s be honest – part of success in fantasy football is luck, and when it comes to injury, that’s no different. Not all injuries can be predicted, and being able to avoid the dreaded season-ending injury to your stud running back can be a big difference maker amongst your league mates.

In the majority of cases, it’s not possible to truly predict injury. However, fantasy football owners can utilize data from seasons past to look at who might get injured, or how many players might get injured, especially those stud running backs in Round 1 of drafts.

I looked back at the average draft position (ADP) over each of the last four seasons in PPR formats on Fantasy Football Calculator to see which running backs were being selected in the first round of drafts. Here’s what I found:

Now that we know which running backs and how many were being selected in Round 1 of drafts from 2015-2018, let’s examine how many of these running backs were injured and how many games each injured player missed.

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For the purposes of this article, examining running back injuries, I decided to keep Le’Veon Bell and Kareem Hunt off the list. Obviously, those guys missed time for different reasons.

In 2018, Melvin Gordon, Leonard Fournette, and Todd Gurley were the three running backs drafted in Round 1 of drafts that missed time because of injury. Of the nine backs taken in the first round, three running backs were injured. In 2018, 33% of running backs taken in Round 1 missed time because of injury. Collectively, they missed 14 games.

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David Johnson was the headline in 2017 after fantasy owners were disappointed when Johnson went down in Week 1 with his wrist injury. He ended up having surgery to repair the torn ligaments, ending his 2017 season as soon as it started. Devonta Freeman also missed two games due to a concussion. Worth noting, he also sprained his MCL and PCL in Week 17 but didn’t cause him to miss any time, so I left it off this list.

Of the six running backs taken in the first round, two running backs were injured. In 2017, 33% of running backs taken in round one missed time because of injury. Collectively, they missed 17 games.

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2016 was a pretty healthy year for the running back position overall, but there was one big-time injury. Those who spent a first-round pick on Adrian Peterson were disappointed, especially after he rushed for 1,485 yards and 11 TD the previous season. In 2016, he tore the meniscus in his knee, which required surgery. While rehabbing, he missed eleven games. Upon returning to the field later in the year, he strained his groin, which caused him to miss the final two games of the year.

Getty Images Sport / Wesley Hitt

Lamar Miller also missed a couple of games due to a sprained ankle, but that’s it when it comes to round one running backs who got injured in 2016. Two of the six backs taken in the first round missed time due to injury. In 2016, 33% of running backs drafted in the first round were injured. Collectively, they missed 15 games.

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Of the six running backs selected by fantasy owners in the first round, five were injured and missed time. The only back who didn’t get injured was Adrian Peterson, who finished as the RB1 overall on the back of 1485 rushing yards. Big time running backs suffered serious injuries in 2015. Le’Veon Bell tore his MCL and underwent surgery. Jamaal Charles tore his ACL and underwent surgery. Marshawn Lynch required core muscle repair surgery for a sports hernia.

Overall, it was a rough year for the round one running backs in fantasy football. Collectively, 83% of running backs taken in Round 1 suffered an injury, and as a whole, they missed 32 games.

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What does the data tell us for 2019?

Looking back at the last four seasons, running backs selected in round one tend to have a pretty high injury risk. Over that four year sample, there was a total of 12 injuries to running backs selected in the first round out of a possible 27 players or a 44% injury rate.

Out of a possible combined 432 regular-season games (16 each for 27 players), round one backs missed 78 games combined. In other words, in 18% of regular-season games, the running backs taken in the first round of drafts were unavailable for fantasy gamers.

Looking at the data from 2015-2018, it’s reasonable to predict that of the seven running backs being taken in the first round of 2019 drafts (Saquon Barkley, Ezekiel Elliott, Melvin Gordon, Alvin Kamara, Christian McCaffrey, David Johnson, James Conner), three players (44%) are going to get injured in 2019. Of course, there are outlier seasons where there are very healthy seasons for these players, and unfortunately, there are seasons where the injury rates are much worse (see 2015).

When looking at these seven players, there are two that I think are most likely to get injured based off their injury history – Melvin Gordon and James Conner. Gordon has played all 16 games just once in his NFL career and has missed time due to hamstring injuries, a sprained MCL, cartilage injuries, and a hip injury. Conner, of course, missed three games in 2017 with a high ankle sprain. You’ll hear me say this time and time again – the biggest predictor of future injury is a prior injury, and these two backs have injuries in their history that have higher recurrence rates.

Take-home point: Austin Ekeler and/or Justin Jackson (LAC backup RBs) and Jaylen Samuels (PIT backup RB) could see significant playing time in 2019.

*Special consideration: Melvin Gordon is amidst a holdout in training camp. If he misses significant time before the season starts, it’s unclear what type of shape he will be in once he does get back on the field. This could affect his injury risk as players who aren’t in shape are more likely to get fatigued more quickly, thus increasing injury risk.

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