Do Injuries Offer Value in Fantasy Football?
There's no doubt 2012 was the year of the comeback player in the NFL. After suffering major knee injuries in 2011, running backs Jamaal Charles and Adrian Peterson combined for over 3,600 rushing yards and 19 total touchdowns. "All Day" Peterson's 2,000-yard performance was so sensational that it has many pondering the limits of the human body. And how could we forget about the Comeback Player of the Year - Mr. Peyton Manning? Even his biggest supporters couldn't have envisioned a 4,659-yard, 37-touchdown season.
For every big-name comeback story, however, there was a disappointment as well. Darren McFadden, DeMarco Murray, and Fred Jackson were all unable to overcome their injury demons; all of them finished at least 19 spots below their preseason ADPs.
Prior to the season, McFadden and Murray were actually both players I targeted. I got lucky that neither player ended up on more than one of my teams, but the truth is I thought their injuries in the prior season were causing owners to drop them too far in the rankings. In short, I figured those injuries actually provided value to McFadden, Murray and a handful of other players. While it's not inherently optimal to choose a player with a recent injury over a healthy one, I figured the difference between ADP and true value was greatest for injured players, i.e. owners inflate the importance of a low-frequency event and subsequently downgrade players coming off of injuries more than they deserve.
Guess what? I was wrong. I recently studied the biggest injuries to skill position players from 2008 to 2011. Some of the names on the list are Tom Brady, Steve Smith, Rashard Mendenhall, Knowshon Moreno, Wes Welker and of course the players listed above. I charted their preseason ADPs in the year following their season-ending injury, along with their final season rankings at their positions.
Overall, I examined the 38 highest-ranked players coming off of a recent injury - not a huge sample but perhaps enough for the dramatic results to be significant. Of those 38 players, only 12 improved upon their preseason ADPs. The average drop is nine spots in the rankings.
You can see that quarterbacks, running backs, and wide receivers, on average, all dropped between seven and 20 spots from their preseason ADPs. Those results are so major it makes up for the small sample. It's unclear whether tight ends are really capable of coming back from injuries better than players at other positions - tight ends actually rose an average of two spots from their ADPs - but it's worth noting there were just four highly-ranked tight ends who suffered season-ending injuries over the time period studied, and only one of them (Brandon Pettigrew in 2010) rose significantly.
Even if we confine the results to only those players who were ranked as No. 1 or 2 options at their position before the year, the results don't improve. For those elite players, the average drop is 13 spots.
Ultimately, it doesn't appear as though players coming off of major injuries offer much value as a whole. While it might be tempting to take the stud running back coming off of a torn ACL or the speedy wide receiver who broke his leg last year because they begin to drop in your draft, remember that there are more seasons that resemble McFadden's 2012 than Peterson's.
Jonathan Bales is the author of Fantasy Football for Smart People: How to Dominate Your Draft. He also runs the "Running the Numbers" blog at DallasCowboys.com and writes for the New York Times.