Be wary of injured wide receivers
Andre Johnson is a risky first-round pick and should be avoided if possible
Larry Fitzgerald's knee will be okay but Matt Leinart makes him risky pick
Though Calvin Johnson has lost some speed, he's still a good red zone target
I did my first fantasy football draft last week and I picked a duesy. It's the FSWA "Experts League" and this isn't an easy one. It goes 20 deep on a 12-team league and I'm playing with some hardcore fantasy people. So a couple mocks, a lot of research, a copy of the SI Draft Kit and Football Outsiders Almanac ready on the iPad and I'm ready, right? I was ready, but not for seeing Andre Johnson come off the board at No. 2 overall. A couple years ago, I started arguing against the orthodoxy of RB/RB in the first two rounds, based on the emerging principles of dynamic value based drafting. At the time, I argued that if you didn't get an upper tier RB at the end of round 1, it was reasonable to look at the solid upper-tier QBs like Peyton Manning or Tom Brady. The strategy worked and continues to work, but the changes in how running backs are used in the NFL continues to shrink the top-tier and makes the QB1 join the WR1 in the first round. Randy Moss, after his monster season in 2007, showed up very high in 2008 ... and that's the risk. WRs aren't consistent or predictable. Moss wasn't "worse" in 2008, he just didn't have Brady throwing to him. As more and more people use dynamic strategies and as NFL teams continue to spread carries out, WR1s and WR2s are going to come up draft boards. Let's take a look at the injury risks and help you avoid some issues:
Andre Johnson is going high. Too high? For me, yes, but I understand why some are putting him in that stratosphere. The projections are through the roof, but the one thing that I don't see people talking about is risk. Johnson missed a significant portion of 2008 with a knee sprain and if you saw the hit he took against the Saints, that's still a risk despite his health. Worse, he needs Matt Schaub to be healthy and available, because I'm guessing Dan Orlovsky is not going to give Johnson big-time numbers. Schaub was healthy for the first time in three years and with Johnson also healthy, they put up huge numbers. That's without even getting into line play, the lack of another solid WR2 to take some coverage off Johnson, and the confused running game the Texans have right now. That's a lot of risks and if you're drafting someone in the first round, you simply can't take on risk. Drafting Johnson this high is a make-or-break pick and the circumstances around Johnson are just too risky.
The NFL is talking about reducing pre-season games to just two and expanding the season to 18 games. I'll leave the discussion of what an 18-game schedule would do to teams for another day, but is two games any safer than four? Well, yes and no. Yes in that it is less reps, but stars like Larry Fitzgerald don't get a lot of reps over four games anyway and it only took one play for Fitzgerald's knee to get injured. He has a Grade I MCL sprain, which is a complex way of saying he got lucky. It wouldn't have taken much more for this to have been a season-ender. Fitzgerald has made good progress and should be ready to play even before Week 1, but it's unclear if the Cards will even take that risk. The issue that might push things is his timing with new QB Matt Leinart. Either way, if you liked Fitzgerald before the knee problem, you shouldn't change. Talk up the knee injury over the pre-draft beers and then snap him up if he falls even a bit.
With a nickname like "Megatron," you'd think Calvin Johnson could stay healthy. Maybe big hits are his Optimus Prime? Johnson had a down year despite a better QB and being in his third-year, which many think is the breakout season. His saving grace has been his size, which makes him a perfect red zone target. Then again, his willingness to post up and jump leaves him wide open for some heat-seeking safety to come barreling in when he's exposed. Recurrent knee and back problems are largely the result of those kinds of hits and there's no reason to think he won't keep taking those. This is who Johnson is, a physically gifted WR1 who is risky to put heavy expectations on. He's a guy you hope and dream on, not the guy you count on. The pattern of injuries is the most worrisome part for me. If he has any kind of problem with his hamstrings, it will keep him from accelerating and leaping and yes, the hamstrings are between the back and knees, where he's already got issues. At the top of the second tier of WRs, Johnson's a decent enough pick, but at an ADP of 15 and a range between 9 and 24, he's got no upside. The one thing to keep in mind is that even if he loses a bit of speed, he's still tall. That will keep the red zone looks high.
I used to work withAntonio Freeman on a television show. He was once Brett Favre's favorite target and he often said "that's a good position to be in." It still is, which is why Sidney Rice was considered a real WR1 this year after a breakout last season. Instead, a chronic hip problem that is often blamed on the hard turf in Minnesota has cut his season in half. Rice had surgery this week to clean out the socket of the hip, shave down the ball of the femur, and make sure that the labrum inside the hip was intact. If you follow baseball, it's very similar to the surgery that Alex Rodriguez, Chase Utley, and Mike Lowell have had. It's also identical to the surgery that Brandon Marshall had in May. Look at the rest of this column - you won't see Marshall listed as a risk. Why? This surgery is pretty simple and clean. Marshall was ready for the start of camp, about eight weeks out. It's always hard to tell if a player is game-ready when there's not games, so the expectation that Rice will need a couple weeks after he's "ready" to be in games is what's bringing people to the Week 9 return. I'm not convinced that ol' Brett won't be pushing Rice to come back early if possible. Rice should be fine once he returns and is still a good WR3 pick. Move him down your draft board, but not off it. There is a weird note here: Brad Childress mentioned putting Rice on the IR, not the PUP as expected. That makes no sense given the information we have, but Childress is wacky enough that it worries me a bit. It does upgrade Percy Harvin, despite his issues with migraines this pre-season, though the Vikings though they needed depth enough to trade for Greg Camarillo, who never appeared to come all the way back from his ACL sprain.
The Eagles DeSean Jackson is really the opposite of Calvin Johnson in many ways. He's small and quick, needing long strikes to get his touchdowns. He did that a lot last year and even with a new QB, he's this high on draft boards because of his YPC and YPT numbers. He's not quite as productive when you dig into the more advanced numbers, but nine TDs and 1,000+ yards is going to get fantasy players' attention. All that was done with foot and groin problems plaguing him, topped off with a nasty concussion towards the end of the season. He started off training camp with a back injury on a big hit and that highlights the issue. Jackson's size is a disadvantage when it comes to taking hits in the most basic sense. His history of nagging injuries on top of that gives him some more risk. Really, when you compare the risks between Jackson and his injury history and skill set to someone like Wes Welker and his known issue, I'll take the more predictable one every time, all other things equal. Speaking of Welker ...
You want amiracle? Try this. Or maybe this. Orthis if you're some kind of hippie. I'm not saying that Wes Welker is some kind of piker, but this story is really more about the progress of sports medicine and some good timing rather than any mystical healing ability. Welker was in phenomenal condition, had a great surgeon, a great rehab process, and pow, he's back on the field. Welker played in the Pats preseason game, on turf in Atlanta, and looked like the Welker we saw prior to that writhing Welker on the field last January. I can't tell you that he's the mythical "100%" but it didn't appear that he had any hesitation, loss of acceleration, or inability to stop, which is normally the hardest thing. Welker appears to have full or near-full participation. If he has confidence in his ability to perform, that's usually the last thing to come. There is no physical reason that Welker cannot play a full season due to the knee. That's not to say he won't reinjure himself - there's some noted risk, but most of these problems came from the anchoring of the new ligament and new procedures make that issue a thing of the past. Welker, like any other receiver, could get jacked up or get bit by a turf monster. With an ADP of 72, getting this kind of player at that point in a draft is a winning move. In fact, he should be in the third tier of receivers and a target for your WR3 slot.
If we're talking about practice - or camp, in this case - how much does missing it really affect someone? In the NFL, the answer is "more than you think." Athletes don't come to camp fat and smoking anymore, so in almost all cases, it's not conditioning. Yet the increase in injuries to players that hold out is very noticeable. There's not a ton of data here and much of it involves rookies, so don't make more of this than what there is. One team's trainer suggested that it's "hit conditioning." He told me that there's no way to simulate hits and that without that, the body doesn't make adjustments. This implies that there's some sort of physical learning curve to dealing with the car-crash level hits that skill position players take. I'm not sure I'm ready to make that reach, but it's the most plausible explanation I've seen. On the other side, if you look at players that are held out for most of the preseason, there's no notable increase in injury risk. On his own, Jackson isn't that much of an injury risk, so I wouldn't adjust his draft position based on either of these theories. The risk of holdout is big, of course, and necessitates pairing him with Legedu Nannee if you do pick Jackson at any point aside from the late-game.
If Jackson's hold out might increase his injury risk, what does that mean for Dez Bryant? The NCAA kept him off the field much of last season and when he did come to camp, he quickly got hurt. The NFL is not the Big 12, so it's very tough to say how much, if any, relation there is between those two facts. There's been a lot of confusion on this injury -- did Bryant sprain his ankle or did he have a high ankle sprain? Neither are good, but they are two distinct injuries. The high ankle sprain is actually an injury to the syndesmosis; you can see why the term "high ankle" is preferred. The high ankle tends to linger, needing four to six weeks for a moderate sprain. A moderate "normal" ankle sprain would be two to four weeks, but - and here's where it gets confusing - a more serious "normal" ankle sprain would keep a WR out four to six weeks. Bryant is back in practice as of Monday, running and cutting with limitations. It's important to note that Bryant has always been criticized for is route running. A sore, braced ankle won't really cost him much. What counts is Week 1 and it appears Bryant's on target for that. The recurrence risk is the issue here. With Bryant coming back more quickly than expected, there's no clarity on which it was. Whether his lost camp time and reps hurts his targets remains to be seen, but physically, there's no reason to drop Bryant on your board. The other thing to keep in mind is that Bryant is a big guy. At 6'2, 220, he's not reliant on speed as many assume.
Anthony Gonzalez missed virtually the entire 2009 season after injuring his knee during Week 1. The PCL sprain was similar to the one Andre Johnson dealt with a couple years back, but Gonzalez had some issues during rehab that necessitated more surgery to clean the knee out. There were rumors, never confirmed by the Colts, that there was a similar infection issue to the one Peyton Manning dealt with at the start of '08. Gonzalez returns mostly healthy - he's not yet 100%, which raises many questions - and finds himself in an odd situation. When he was out, Austin Collie and Pierre Garcon stepped it up, making Gonzalez fight for his WR2 slot. That WR2 slot is really WR3, since Dallas Clark is a TE in name only. If Gonzalez gets the targets he got in '08, he's a massive value at an ADP of 179. If he's in the mix with the others, he's still a nice late pick and worth more than his ADP. Early - and I mean very early - looks from the Colts make it look like Manning still trusts him and that counts for a lot.
Losing Sidney Rice isn't going to help, but the line play in front of Brett Favre is what's going to keep him healthy. So far, it's not looking good and defensive ends seem more upset with his comeback than anyone ... Donovan McNabb's ankle sprain is more serious than originally thought, but should be fine by Week 1 ... Eli Manning has been practicing with a baseball cap on his injured head instead of a helmet. The stitches he needed after being cut against the Jets are still a bit of an issue for him, but should be long gone by Week 1 ... Darren McFadden will get some work in next week as he gets past a hamstring strain. He's been injury-prone and all in his legs, a bad sign for a speed player ... Michael Crabtree's sore neck is not a big deal. You didn't see him above so keep him in place on your draft boards ... It's tough in the NFL. Ramses Barden has a great name and a stress fracture in his spine. Tom Coughlin says "If he can handle the pain, he can play." If not, he's likely to be cut ... Dallas Clark isn't practicing or playing in the preseason, but says he'll be ready for Week 1. Given the Colts lies about Anthony Gonzalez and Marvin Harrison the last couple years, you have to be a bit worried ... Next week, we'll take a look at the "fantasy grab bag" - all the TEs, Ks and IDP issues that will affect the back of your draft. Follow me on Twitter (@injuryexpert) for info during the week.