The last few weeks have been noticeably rough on running backs. Multiple teams are moving forward with both their primary and backup running backs nursing different injuries. Injury often breeds opportunity so let's take a look a closer look at these backfields and determine who could emerge from the pack.
Darren McFadden and Marcel Reece
In Oakland, both McFadden and Reece ended the game in street clothes after suffering injuries in the first half. McFadden carried the ball five times before exiting with a hamstring strain while Reece limped off with a knee injury.
McFadden is no stranger to lower extremity injuries. The former Razorback has missed 23 games over the past five seasons with injuries to his knee, ankle, foot, toe, and hamstring. His previous hamstring strain occurred in October of 2010 and cost him two games. While the Raiders are downplaying the severity of the latest injury, McFadden is far from out of the woods.
A running back's legs are the most taxed part of the body. Each joint works in unison with the others to perform a desired action such as running or jumping. Much like an iron chain, if any one link is weakened or not functioning properly in even the slightest way, the strength and ability of the entire chain is compromised. Both the muscles and ligaments of the other joints must undergo a compensational shift to withstand the change caused by the limitation or injury. Unfortunately even the smallest of alterations can increase the player's risk of suffering another injury to muscles or ligaments in a different location of the chain.
Hamstring strains are particularly bad at offsetting this balance of the lower extremity. The hamstring muscle group is responsible for motion at the hip and knee and works with the quadriceps to accelerate and decelerate the leg during activity. If one leg is strained or even one muscle, the other muscles began to compensate causing other problems to arise. For a player like McFadden that has had multiple injuries, a simple strain will significantly elevate his inherent injury risk. A strain on his right side would be considerably worse since this is the same side as his Lisfranc injury, his ankle sprain, and his previous hamstring strain.
Reece suffered a knee sprain though surgery will not be warranted. The team would not reveal specifics but their wording suggests a sprain to the MCL or LCL is likely. He seems likely to miss a game or two.
Rashad Jennings is the last man standing in the Oakland backfield and would be in line for the start if McFadden can't go. The late start of the team's game against San Diego will provide McFadden extra time to rehab and prepare but could also put fantasy owners in a bind as they await a final decision. Pick up Jennings as insurance if you are completely dependent on McFadden.
Eddie Lacy, James Starks, and Johnathan Franklin
A well-placed bye week has helped the Packers backfield get some much need recuperation time. After missing Week 3 with a concussion, Lacy has completed the league mandated concussion protocol and has returned to practice. The rookie running back resumes his spot atop the depth chart and is expected to play Sunday against the Lions. Lacy's odds of sustaining another concussion remain the same as they did before his prior injury, however it should be noted that the effects of multiple concussions are cumulative. If Lacy were to suffer another head injury the associated symptoms would likely be more severe and longer lasting.
The role of Lacy's primary backup is still up for grabs as both Starks and Franklin nurse lingering injuries. Franklin appears to have the upper hand, as he was able to practice Monday despite a foot injury sustained in Week 3. Starks suffered a right knee injury in that game as well but was not at practice on Monday.
CJ Spiller and Fred Jackson
The Bills have a quick turnaround with a Thursday night game on the schedule and both Spiller and Jackson could be game time decisions. Spiller sustained an ankle sprain on Sunday while already nursing a thigh contusion. As previously stated with regards to McFadden, multiple lower extremity injuries can be a recipe for disaster. While it appears Spiller will be ready to go, it's hard to believe these multiple ailments won't eventually catch up to him. Proceed with caution here.
Jackson aggravated an old knee injury in the same game and was limited in early week practice. Jackson missed the final three games of the 2012 season with a Grade 2 MCL sprain and had missed time earlier in the season with a similar injury. He's once again sprained his right MCL and will be hard-pressed to be 100 percent for Thursday. Look for his availability to come down to the wire. Tashard Choice would see additional carries if either Spiller or Jackson is unavailable.
Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce
Rice was a virtual no-show in his return to play, finishing Week 4 with five carries and zero receptions. However the numbers are not a good indicator of Rice's health. His left hip flexor did not worsen as the game progressed and his low usage appeared to be a result of the team's play-calling. Rice was still utilized in pass protection and a solid week of practice should allow him to reassert himself. The fact that Pierce suffered an injury of his own should help boost Rice's Week 5 value as well. Pierce is currently managing a calf strain though it is not believed to be serious. Look for the two backs to be play Sunday with Rice likely getting the edge in carries.
I'll admit I'm surprised that Gronk is not back playing yet. When the Patriots elected not to place him on the PUP list, I assumed he would be ready at least by Week 4. However here we sit with Week 5 quickly approaching and the Pro Bowl tight end has yet to take the field. Reports vary on whether it is the back or forearm keeping him sidelined. However the fact remains that he has undergone five surgeries in under a year and if he is not ready, both physically and mentally, then it is wise to keep him out. He will likely be a game-time decision once again.
Jamaal Charles: Charles is currently dealing with severe blisters on his feet though he is not expected to miss any time. Pain management will be Charles biggest obstacle while the athletic training staff will work to prevent any chance of infection.
Jermichael Finley: Finley has yet to return to practice and remains in the NFL concussion protocol after suffering a head injury in Week 3. Finley has been very open about the alarming symptoms he felt following the hit so it would not be surprising to see him sit an additional week.
Jake Locker: Locker suffered a gruesome hip injury against the Jets and will be out for the immediate future. He has been released from the hospital but the swelling within the joint is preventing the team from getting a MRI. He was slated for further testing Tuesday to determine the extent of the damage
Alfred Morris: The Redskins running back left the team's first win of the season Sunday after suffering bruised ribs. With Washington on a bye week, Morris should be fine to play the following week against Dallas.
Jeff Stotts is a Certified Athletic Trainer, MAT, PES and the Injury Analyst for Rotowire.com. You can follow him on twitter @RotoWireATC.