Jeff Stotts, MAT, ATC & PES.
Nothing ruins a fantasy football season like injuries. While they are an inevitable part of the game, a diligent owner can minimize their likelihood and be better prepared in the event they occur by assessing what players come with elevated risk.
The initial step is a simple one; research the individual's history. Take a look at how many games the player has suited up for over the last few years. For example, Michael Vick is a stellar talent but has played 16 games in a season only once in his career. He's missed time with a variety of ailments including a broken fibula, a quadriceps contusion, a concussion and broken ribs.
After you've done your initial research on a player's history, dig deeper to see if the player has multiple injuries to the same extremity. Multiple injuries on the same side of the body often suggest there is an imbalance in the kinetic chain that could lead to more problems down the road. To better understand this concept, visualize the leg as a chain, with each link representing one of the joints in the lower extremity. If one link, like the hip, is weakened or not functioning correctly, the strength and ability of the entire chain is compromised. The other links (the knee, ankle and foot) must undergo a compensational shift to make up for the weakened hip, resulting in an increase the player's likelihood of suffering injuries to the muscles or ligaments of these joints.
Consider the case of Oakland running back Darren McFadden. McFadden's professional problems began during his rookie season when he missed time with a right turf toe injury. He again missed time the following year with a right hamstring strain while a Lisfranc injury to his right foot limited him to just seven games last season. Three different injuries to the same side of the body make an injury prone player like McFadden an even riskier one. Others who fit this description include Reggie Bush (right leg and knee), Andre Johnson (left knee and hamstring) and Ryan Mathews (left foot and calf).
Previous injuries aren't the only good way to assess risk. One thing no player can elude is time - eventually age plays a factor, particularly with wide receivers. Skills directly tied to receiver success, including explosiveness, speed and jumping ability, erode over the course of time, resulting in a quick decline in productivity.
For receivers, the decline usually begins in their early 30s. One recent example is Chad Ochocinco, a stalwart of the Cincinnati lineup from 2003-2007 who made five straight Pro Bowls while playing every game but two. However, as he entered his 30s his production dipped, outside of a lone Pro Bowl trip in 2009. In the three other seasons he's played since turning 30, Ochocinco averaged 45 receptions, 549 yards and three touchdowns. Other veteran receivers around this mark in age include Carolina's Steve Smith (33), Anquan Boldin (31) and Reggie Wayne (33). Fantasy owners should discount these older wideouts appropriately, even if - as in Smith's case - he's coming off a strong season.
If age and history all check out, it's time to factor in the player's workload, especially with running backs. A back that has consistently received a high number of touches has likely sustained a large amount of damage to his body. The immediate effects might not show, but as time goes on, the wear-and-tear will take a toll. For seven consecutive years, LaDainian Tomlinson carried the ball at least 310 times while collecting a minimum of 50 receptions. In the following four-year span, Tomlinson's touches gradually diminished, and he missed more games than in those previous seven seasons combined. Shaun Alexander, Eddie George and Priest Holmes are other notable names who faded from fantasy prominence after years of shouldering their teams' offensive loads. Steven Jackson, Frank Gore and Maurice Jones-Drew are top-rated talents who enter the season with large career workloads.
In addition to workload, you have to consider the individual's style of play. Players known for absorbing contact and shedding tackles may have lengthy highlight reels, but also have absorbed added punishment. Marion Barber was considered to be one of the hardest hitting backs in the game. Unfortunately his smash-mouth style of play limited the longevity of his career, and the former Pro Bowler retired after seven years in the league. Brandon Jacobs, Adrian Peterson and Steven Jackson have never shied away from contact, but each has missed time in recent seasons with a significant injury. Boost the value of players who know the importance of occasionally getting out of bounds or whose workloads have been mitigated by the presence of complementary options.
Of course, there's no risk-free way to draft a fantasy football team, and some of the riskier players are worth a gamble at the right cost. But keeping these general parameters in mind should help you price in injury risk properly and have backup options at the ready for the more vulnerable parts of your teams.