How to Approach Saquon Barkley & Joe Burrow in Fantasy Football Drafts
Without a doubt, the two biggest question marks from an injury perspective heading into the 2021 NFL season are Saquon Barkley and Joe Burrow, two players coming off major knee injuries from 2020. They’re by far the most common subject of the questions I get from fantasy managers. “Betz, any idea what we can expect from Saquon in 2021?” “Betz, how soon do you think Burrow will be back to 100?%” “Should I draft these guys are their ADP, or should I fade them because of injury?”
These are the questions I’ve been getting on a weekly basis, and the goal of this article is to answer them to the best of my ability. Of course, I’ve already discussed both of these guys in the Injury Report section of the 2021 Ultimate Draft Kit, which includes my analysis on over 20 of the biggest names in fantasy who are coming off an injury. Be sure to check that out to get a leg up on the competition.
But back to Saquon and Burrow – How are their injuries different? How quickly will they return to 100%? And how should fantasy managers approach these two dynamic playmakers in fantasy football drafts this year? Let’s dive in.
The table above highlights the specifics for each player’s ACL injury, and it’s important to understand that not every ACL tear is the same. For Joe Burrow, there have been several reports that his injury resulted in a confirmed ACL tear, MCL tear as well as “additional damage” inside the knee joint. There have also been many reports (SI.com, TheSpun.com, 247Sports, among others) indicating that his PCL and meniscus have been involved, including ESPN’s Adam Schefter, who broke this news at halftime of the Monday Night Football game just one day after Burrow’s injury.
When discussing the major ligaments that stabilize the knee joint, we have four of those in the human body: the ACL, PCL, MCL, and LCL. Additionally, the medial and lateral meniscus work to help provide secondary stability in the knee joint as well as function as a shock absorber to protect our cartilage. When looking at these aforementioned tissues, there’s a total of six different structures that could have been injured, and Burrow reportedly injured four of those six. The bottom line here for fantasy managers to understand is that this was a significant injury. Now, that said, the degree to which the PCL and the meniscus were injured matters, as the size of the tear and the extent of damage in these tissues can have an effect on how quickly a player returns to full speed, and unfortunately, we don’t know those details without Joe Burrow‘s MRI results.
For Saquon Barkley, we know more definitively what’s going on, as we have several confirmed reports that the Giants RB tore his ACL, MCL, and meniscus. Unlike Joe Burrow, there was no additional damage to the PCL. One thing that’s important to understand here is that this information was known shortly after the injury in Week 2. However, the general public probably over-reacted a little bit when ESPN’s Jordan Raanan reported in late May that Saquon Barkley “won’t be rushed back” from his ACL injury. For some, this may have come as news as it’s possible fantasy managers weren’t clear that Barkley had also injured his meniscus. However, I tried to be clear in my Week 2 Injury Recap article that this was likely and that we should expect a slower recovery as a result, but this isn’t just true for Saquon Barkley; it’s also true for Joe Burrow.
Why The Meniscus Repair Is So Important and What About the MCL?
From a medical perspective, recovery after an ACL surgery depends on several things, but one thing that fantasy managers can take away from this article for future reference is that whenever a player has to have their meniscus repaired, it is going to delay the rehab process by about 6-8 weeks at a minimum. Most orthopedic surgeons prescribe to a physical therapy protocol that requires a patient to limit the bending of their knee to 90 degrees or less for three weeks and in addition, that patient is not allowed to walk with any bend in their knee for a minimum of six weeks. In addition, patients are in a knee brace that has their knee locked in full extension and on crutches for those six weeks. Essentially, in PT we can’t begin weight-bearing strengthening with these athletes for a month and a half, and sometimes longer if the patient struggles to regain adequate ROM, reduce swelling, etc. The take-home: PT after the meniscus is repaired just takes longer, and there’s no way around that. As a result, it’s unrealistic for an athlete that had an ACL plus a meniscus injury to be back to full strength at the same rate as another athlete who only had surgery on their ACL.
On the flip side, when a patient comes into the clinic after having just the ACL reconstructed, patients are encouraged to regain full range of motion, begin walking and progress strengthening pretty much right from the get-go. Of course, it’s not that straightforward, but the ability to regain strength after “just” an ACL surgery comes more quickly and is generally easier for patients when compared to surgeries that involve the meniscus. Athletes can begin higher-level strengthening sooner, running sooner, jumping sooner, and eventually, cutting sooner.
For reference, it’s rare that surgeons will operate on an MCL injury, even those that are completely torn, as this ligament has an excellent blood supply and can actually heal on its own with adequate rest. The one area that this ligament does come into play, however, is that when the MCL is injured in conjunction with the ACL, most surgeons will defer operating on the ACL until the MCL is healed on its own. Take Saquon Barkley for example. We’ve already established that Barkley’s surgical date was delayed by about 6 weeks, and that’s because of the torn MCL.
Let’s go back to the meniscus for a minute before moving onto the next section, as this is important for dynasty managers to understand. Why the information may be viewed as a “negative” for Burrow and Saquon, in the long term it should absolutely be viewed as a positive in the long term. In the short term, the recovery takes longer with the meniscus being repaired. However, long term, there are studies that show it can lead to reduce rates of arthritis and help preserve the cartilage in the knee longer. Recall in the section above that the meniscus is designed to absorb shock in the knee, thereby reducing repetitive strain on the cartilage in the knee joint. For both Burrow and Barkley, this is beneficial for their dynasty outlook despite the fact that both of these players may get off to a slower start in 2021. If there’s a dynasty manager in your league worried about either one of these players, the time to make a trade offer for them is now.
Why Opportunity Cost Is Crucial to Discussing Players Coming Off Injury
Before I dive into the specifics of how I’m approaching in fantasy football for 2021 for Joe Burrow and Saquon Barkley coming off their ACL injuries, I think it’s important to first establish an understanding of why ADP is important for any player coming off injury. Prior to last year, people who have read my work or listened to me on podcasts will be the first to tell you I was never optimistic about Will Fuller’s health. Of course, my background as a physical therapist plays a huge role in that, but it also has a lot to do with opportunity cost. The year Will Fuller was coming off his torn ACL from 2018, he was being drafted as the WR34 in the 7th round. At that time, he was competing with DeAndre Hopkins for targets, and it was his first season off the injury.
Fast forward one year later, in Fuller’s second season off the ACL surgery, where we know data supports that players perform better in their second year removed from surgery, his ADP didn’t change. In 2020, Fuller’s ADP remained in the 7th round at WR31, but there were two major changes in his outlook. First, he was in his second year removed from surgery, so in general, compared to 2019, fantasy managers should have been more confident in his health, and second, DeAndre Hopkins and his 30% target share were no longer in town, leaving a massive opportunity ahead for Fuller. Even so, despite these obvious factors working in favor of Fuller, fantasy managers didn’t adjust their stance on him, and he ended up being a screaming value in round 7, and sometimes, round 8.
That’s the key. That’s the basis for any and all injury analysis I do. I want to be able to answer the question, “What can go wrong when I take this player who has a significant injury at their ADP?” If Will Fuller had been going in the 3rd or 4th round of drafts last year, he would have been an obvious fade given that in order to win in fantasy football, we generally need to hit on our first three or four picks to get off to a good start. The opportunity cost is simply too high for error. However, when players are falling in ADP because of injury, they may become a value in fantasy football given that if things do go wrong and the recovery isn’t what we’d hoped for with a specific player, it’s not going to sink our team. If Will Fuller didn’t have a great year last year, you weren’t burned. Your team could still succeed. That’s why Will Fuller was an obvious buy-in fantasy last year…but enough about Will Fuller. If you want a more detailed discussion on my process from 2020, check out this article.
Joe Burrow‘s 2021 Outlook
ADP: QB12, 9.04
Consensus Ballers Ranking: QB19
When the NFL season kicks off in September, Joe Burrow will be about nine months removed from surgery. I fully believe he’ll be starting for the Bengals in Week 1, especially given that all reports to this point have been positive. However, the thing to consider with Burrow is that he’s probably being drafted close to his ceiling as far as upside at the QB position. The QBs that finish inside the top five at the position need to be able to run the football in today’s NFL or be named Patrick Mahomes, who by the way, has shown a rushing ceiling when necessary. That’s sort of just the reality of the QB position in fantasy football, and for a QB like Joe Burrow who has shown the ability to run the ball and create with his legs, it’s fair to question whether or not he’ll be able to run during the 2021 season coming off a major multi-ligament knee injury with just nine months of rehab.
Given my injury background and understanding of the recovery, I highly doubt we see the quarterback who scrambled for a 23-yard TD run in Week 1 of the 2020 season. Remember, we’re talking about a significant injury here, one that is unlikely to be 100% until at least October. As a result, when projecting Burrow’s 2021 season, it’s certainly reasonable to expect him to be a traditional pocket passer for the first 1-2 months of the season. Now, that doesn’t mean he can’t scramble or won’t be able to maneuver in the pocket – I think he will be able to. And again, I’m not saying Burrow won’t play all 17 games or that he can’t have big weeks in fantasy, but when you look at what it takes for elite QB play in fantasy football, we need our QBs to run the football, and I do not believe we see enough of that from Burrow to outperform his ADP by a wide margin, or enough for it to really matter. If he finishes as the QB11 yet goes off the board at QB12, what’s the difference? Personally, when attempting to identify later round QBs who can make the leap into the top-5 at the position, Burrow does not fit the mold for me without the rushing upside, and as a result, at his current ADP, I likely won’t be drafting much Joe Burrow in 2021.
In addition, when you consider that he led the NFL in dropbacks from Weeks 1-10 last year prior to injury, is there a scenario that exists that the Bengals don’t throw as often this year? There’s at least a non-zero chance of this happening, especially considering that Joe Mixon is back in the lineup, and now the face of their franchise is coming off a serious injury. I expect Burrow’s attempts and production to increase as the season progresses.
Saquon Barkley‘s 2021 Outlook
ADP: RB5, 1.06
Consensus Ballers Ranking: RB5
Opportunity cost, opportunity cost, opportunity cost. When selecting Saquon Barkley at inside the top 5 overall picks in 2021 fantasy football drafts, there is no room for error. He has to be the same old Saquon Barkley that we’re used to seeing make huge splash plays and winning you a week against your opponent. Can Saquon return to that form, and is it in the range of possibilities that he’s perfectly 100% entering Week 1? Yes. Is it the most likely scenario? No.
We already have the Jordan Raanan report telling us that the team “It has become clear in recent weeks that the Giants are going to take it slowly with the Pro Bowl running back. They are looking at this situation with a long-range view that prioritizes his well-being and future over the short-term gain of being ready for training camp or the start of the season.” In his article linked above, he also mentions that it’s extremely likely that the Giants sign Barkley to a second contract worth a lot of money (for a running back) after they used the second overall pick on him in the 2018 NFL Draft just three years ago. Assuming that is the Giants’ plan, does it make sense for them to trot Barkley out there in Week 1 and give him 70% of the RB touches? How about in Week 2? Week 3? At this point, we just don’t know when Barkley will be unleashed as the true bell-cow back he’s been for this franchise, but if we recall that his surgery wasn’t until October 30 and the meniscus repair slows things down from a recovery and performance standpoint, I’m betting against Saquon regaining his usual role in the first few weeks of the season. Now, to be clear, that doesn’t mean he won’t return to form or be amazing in the second half of the year. I do think Saquon does Saquon things at some point in the 2021 season, but we don’t know when that will be.
When Barkley finished as the RB2 overall during his rookie season in 2018, he played 83% of the snaps and averaged 24 opportunities (carries and targets) per game while playing in all 16 games. It’s certainly possible we see that type of usage from Barkley during the 2021 season, but I do not believe we see that in September. In terms of his target share and usage, there’s also a reason for concern with Barkley when using his 2018 season as the gold standard. After all, he’s going as a top-5 RB, so that’s what we’re shooting for, or at least what we’re hoping for in terms of upside. In 12 career games played with Daniel Jones, Barkley averages almost two fewer targets per game, five fewer receiving yards per game, 1.3 fewer receptions per game, and most importantly, 7.2 fewer PPR fantasy points.
When Barkley reached that RB2 ceiling in 2018, Eli Manning was still the QB and he was dumping off left and right to Saquon, which was PPR gold. To date, Jones simply hasn’t involved Barkley in the passing game as much as Manning did in Barkley’s rookie season. As with any scenario or splits that we discuss, it’s important to establish that it’s a small sample size, and player tendencies can always change, so I’m not here to say Daniel Jones won’t target Barkley at an elevated rate, but there’s also another giant elephant in the room, and that’s the signing of a true alpha WR1, Kenny Golladay, who got paid big-time money in free agency to be this team’s leader in targets.
When you combine this team level and player usage analysis with Barkley’s knee injury, there’s enough downside to his profile at his current ADP that I won’t have much Saquon Barkley in 2021, and it all has to do with the opportunity cost. When selecting Barkley in the first five picks of a fantasy draft, we need him to be the Saquon Barkley of old, and at his ADP, there’s no risk baked in. Would his ADP be different if he wasn’t coming off injury? Not by much, right? I mean would it go from RB5 to RB4? Or to RB3? Those are essentially the same player, and that’s why when you draft Barkley in the first half of round one of fantasy drafts, you’re drafting him as if there is no injury…but there is, and it’s a massive one. I have Barkley ranked lower than most analysts in the industry, especially when it comes to Best Ball Rankings, which are exclusively part of the 2021 Ultimate Draft Kit+ and the DFS Pass.
Let me know your thoughts on Joe Burrow and Saquon Barkley by hitting me up on Twitter to discuss these two players in more detail, and don’t forget, you can catch my injury show, The Injury Blitz Podcast in season if you’re a supporter over at JoinTheFoot.com.