NFL fantasy 2012 RB injury report
Decline of feature running backs has led fantasy owners to draft multiple options
Arian Foster is a top-tier back but comes with a big risk of missing many games
Adrian Peterson could offer good value if he falls into second tier of running backs
As I started working on the preseason injury notes, I realized that the talent and the health concerns go deeper than I can recall on RBs. Finding that one elite back who can carry a team and be worthy of those first few picks is tougher than ever. It forced me to go much deeper than my normal top 10 or so. Fact is, I couldn't stop until I got into the 30s, noting that more and more players are both fantasy-relevant and injury-prone.
The RB position has morphed over the past decade more than any other in the modern NFL. We have very few true "feature backs," the descendants of Jim Brown, Walter Payton and Marshall Faulk. Instead, we're left with platoon backs, system backs and role backs. That's the future, and as we continue to see the position evolve, we'll need to evolve our drafting strategies along with it.
The value equation is still based on the need to go three deep at the position. Until leagues offer more flexibility, RBs will remain slightly inflated in fantasy football. Between evolution and value, fantasy owners are forced to go far deeper with RBs than any other. No one will look askance at drafting six or seven RBs in a normal draft. I've seen strategies out there that involve taking one backup at every other position, then loading the bench with RBs. Many will have four or five RBs drafted before taking a second QB, even with the upswing in injuries to QBs in the last five seasons.
All that makes it even more important to risk-adjust your RB rankings. I use SI.com's Eric Mack's rankings, but no matter who's rankings you choose to use, it's important to risk-adjust above and beyond what they have done. The fact that one in three RBs will underperform projections is largely a function of injury and therefore a function of risk-adjustment.
Timing is everything. Fred Jackson's broken fibula is a six-week injury, but he did it with just six weeks left in the season (and nothing to play for at that point.) He'll be 100 percent before camp and it won't hurt his production too much that he has to split carries with the dynamic C.J. Spiller. Jackson should be fine absent another unexpected trauma like his broken leg.
Reggie Bush probably takes a bit more heat for his injuries than he should. He's relatively durable absent the big traumatic injuries that just happen -- broken leg, knee problems -- to a smallish back playing on turf. Grass helped him and he showed more durability than expected as the RB1. A lot of Bush's value will depend on finding some sort of passing game so that the defense doesn't creep forward at the edges. If Daniel Thomas can stay healthy, Bush could lose some short-yardage carries as well. Surprisingly, Bush might be underrated at this point in his career and I'd risk-adjust him into the top tier of RB2s.
This is going to be another committee for Bill Belichick's Pats. Stevan Ridley will take over the BenJarvus Green-Ellis role and could see the most carries, but Danny Woodhead is still going to get his share of touches. Shane Vereen mixes in if he could stay healthy, but even in this backfield, Ridley has ridiculous upside. There's a chance Ridley ends up a feature back on a great team, but almost no one is drafting him until the late rounds. If teams figure out how to cover Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, the TDs could shift back to Ridley quickly.
Shonn Greene's never been able to hold the job, losing touches to a fading LaDanian Tomlinson and even Joe McKnight. Now Greene's going to lose some opportunities to Tim Tebow. It's an ignominious list to be losing out to, especially considering that he's reasonably durable. Greene's value -- perhaps his only value -- is in that durability. He shows up, he gets carries, but that's better suited for pairing with a more risky RB1 (like Adrian Peterson or Jamaal Charles) as an RB3 or even RB4.
Ray Rice took the goal-line carries last year. His success there transformed him into a potential 1-1 RB. He wasn't too overworked, tried to avoid the big hits and didn't lose much when defenses dared Joe Flacco to beat them. Whether you like LeSean McCoy or Rice really depends more on whether you like Flacco or Michael Vick.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis isn't taking over the Cedric Benson role like many thought. That would have likely overexposed him anyway. Instead, Green-Ellis will be part of a committee approach, which should keep him healthy and allow for decent point totals. The worry here is that his one weakness -- pass protection -- may limit his play count the same way it could with Donald Brown in Indy. There's no question Andy Dalton is more important than Green-Ellis in the scheme of things.
Heading into this rookie season, Trent Richardson has the help of the offensive minds who helped Steven Jackson and Adrian Peterson. He has no one above him on the depth chart. He has a bright future ahead of him. Perhaps the only worry is what's under him.
Richardson spent part of the offseason recovering from knee surgery, something he's had before. It's minor, sure, but the wear and tear appears to wear down Richardson to the point that rest isn't enough. He's hardly "injury-prone," but he's not proven durable either. Early camp problems are proving this to be the case. Another knee scope forces you to handcuff him ... but with who? Brandon Jackson missed much of last year with a toe injury and Montario Hardesty is hardly a fantasy stud. The better pick might be to tie him to someone in the division, even a Rashard Mendenhall, though that would force a RB3 pick higher than you'd probably like.
Isaac Redman has gone from "nice backup" to some people's idea of a valid fantasy RB2 based on the expectation that Rashard Mendenhall won't be back. Mendenhall might not be listed here (perhaps a mistake!) and he might not be the amazing Adrian Peterson, but he's not dead yet either. Mendenhall isn't making hard cuts, but even the Steelers expect him back before midseason. I'd expect he'll have the job back at that point. Redman's never been asked to be a feature back before, with only three career games with 10 or more carries, so there's no evidence of durability here. And with a significant groin straing suffered in training camp, Jonathan Dwyer might get the first shot at starting in the backfeld.
It goes without saying that Arian Foster is a health risk. He's able to rack up huge fantasy points in spite of this and with a credible backup in Ben Tate. Foster simply hasn't been able to stay healthy, going back to his high school days. If you're OK with losing a couple games with a risk of more, go ahead and take him in the top three picks. Tate's had his own injury problems, but is a decent and almost mandatory handcuff.
Donald Brown's a good runner, but he's a miserable blocker. The infamous "Dammit, Donald" clip reminds us that even with a clear blitz, Brown isn't going to always pick it up or even slow it down. That limits his ability to stay on the field. The "upside" here is that the Colts don't have a better option, even though they know how important it is to protect Andrew Luck. The Colts brought in Mewelde Moore, a guy Bruce Arians already trusts on third down, so if you're believing that Chuck Pagano really thinks Brown is an every-down back, I've got a beachfront place here in Indy to sell you.
People keep thinking back to Chris Johnson's holdout from a year ago and his subsequent falling off the table after it when trying to evaluate Maurice Jones-Drew. Remember that while injuries increase for some unknown reason after holdouts, Jones-Drew is as solid as they come. Last season was his third as the feature back and he took more touches without wearing down. At 27, he's probably nearing the end of a run, but not just yet.
Chris Johnson has bulked up a little coming into 2012, but he's going to get fewer touches in the revamped Titans offense. He's also a bit subject to having his fortunes changed by whether Matt Hasselbeck or Jake Locker wins the QB job. Those are both a plus and minus, but mostly a minus. Johnson has been very durable and seems to be able to take more touches than he's going to get this season. At 18 touches a game -- which could be high -- he'd be about an 1,100-yard guy on the ground. Without big TD numbers to support that, you end up with a durable back who's not scoring much. That's the definition of an RB3, not a first-round possibility.
The Broncos hope Peyton Manning feels like it's 2006 all over again, but behind him, it might be. Ronnie Hillman is playing the part of Joseph Addai, highly touted and explosive. Willis McGahee is the steadying influence who does the necessary things like pass blocking and not fumbling. The split in carries probably won't be the same, but McGahee's not going to get much more than 50 percent in what will likely be a more pass-happy offense than he's used to. Add in the return of Knowshon Moreno at midseason and there's risk taking McGahee high.
The "other" RB coming back from ACL reconstruction and the one that might not be as much of a physical freak, Jamaal Charles remains someone worthy of consideration. Charles doesn't rely on quick, hard cuts, which would tax his knee. Plays can be designed to get him outside -- stretches or tosses -- that will reduce any demands. He does lose some value due to the presence of Peyton Hillis, who could take both touches and goal-line carries.
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