Should Injury Risk Stop You From Drafting RBs Early?

***This article originally appeared in the Rotoworld Draft Guide

As fantasy players, we must accept that injuries are part of the game.

Obvious, right? But let’s go beyond the obvious and use this to our advantage:

We can leverage the myriad of past injuries to make better, more informed decisions. And the in-depth information from Sports Injury Predictor makes that possible. Currently the SIP database includes 2,190 injuries collected from 456 skill position players that have been practically relevant between 2012 and now.

In this article, we’ll tackle the trendy, antifragility based Zero RB draft strategy made popular by Shawn Seigele and investigate whether injuries make early-round RBs truly risky fantasy picks compared to WRs. Does the wear and tear absorbed by RBs actually elevate their fantasy risk? The answer might surprise you.

Games Missed by Injured Players: An Introduction

Here’s a representation of the 2,190 injuries in the Sports Injury Predictor database. Most commonly, an injury causes a player to miss 0-2 games. In fact, 66.1% of injury cases fall within that range. We can see that after 2 missed games the frequencies tail off dramatically. So, overwhelmingly, we’re dealing with nagging rather than catastrophic injuries.

Injury Breakdown by Position

Let’s lay out the broad number of RBs and WRs injured. (QBs and TEs, of course, are hurt much less often due to less exposure. You’ll see 81 players present in the database for QBs and 58 for TEs. We’ll ignore them for the purpose of this exercise).

In our data, 155 individual RBs have been injured versus 164 WRs. RBs collectively sustained 792 injuries; WRs totaled 811. Considering the rise in pass volume (and the corresponding opportunity to get injured) we might see the frequency of RB injuries as a surprisingly high number as compared to the abundance of WRs on the field on any given play. After all, NFL teams combined for a record 35.7 pass attempts per game in 2015. Contrast that to just 26.3 rushing attempts.

But, let’s consider these numbers based on touches rather than snaps, keeping in mind that RBs (and TEs) are siphoning touches from the wideouts. Touches increase the likelihood of contact and thus injury. When framed as such, RBs and WRs have very similar opportunity for injury.

Still, those raw injury figures don’t specifically account for the workloads of early-round picks or tell us how much time is being missed.

Comparing games missed of injured players, we see similar distributions. Most miss 0-2 games as discussed earlier, but we can see that RBs and QBs seem to miss slightly more time on average than TEs or WRs.

So to address the Zero RB theory, let’s look at My Fantasy League redraft ADPs for drafts after August 1st in 2012 through 2015. We selected Top-12 RBs and top-12 WRs as opposed to top-24 overall to provide an equal sample size for both positions and account for the fluctuation in early round positional preference from year to year.

Anti-Fragility of Zero RB

Certainly, we have to consider each individual’s injury profile when assessing their early-round viability. But as seen above, top WRs and RBs have experienced the same number of injuries and nearly same number of individuals getting injured over the last four seasons. This graph, however, does show top 12 RBs missed just under 1 game on average more than top 12 WRs (2.81 to 1.85)*. Additionally, the median WR in the top 12 misses 0 games to 1 for RB.

So, you could stop here and say, “yes, early-round RBs have missed more time in recent history than WRs”. But let’s keep things in perspective. The average margin is clearly slim and the distributions of games missed are also similar. Considering positional scarcity later in your draft — and the need to rely on your bench or the waiver wire to cover only the one additional missed game — you should NOT automatically shy away from targeting RBs in the early rounds.

Now, if you’re convinced getting RBs early is still a viable option, who in particular should you eye in the early rounds? According to the SIP algorithm, here are some of the top RBs least likely to suffer injury in 2016.

1. David Johnson, Cardinals

Johnson missed 2 weeks with a hamstring pull last August. That cost him precious practice time…but it didn’t prevent a 2nd half breakout. He finished top-2 across fantasy formats over the final 5 weeks. Johnson also doesn’t have a serious injury in his past, boosting his outlook for 2016.

2. Adrian Peterson, Vikings

Peterson’s played 14+ games in all but 2 seasons (2011 and 2014). He rebounded from a torn ACL to post 2,097 yards in 2012. Peterson’s legs were rested in 2014 as he missed all but 1 game due to suspension. Then, he appeared in a full slate of games last year and avoided any offseason surgery.

Peterson now aims to become the 22nd RB in league history to rush for 1,000+ yards at age 31 or older. He’s missed a few days of camp with a slight hamstring strain, although the Vikings are simply playing it safe. Among the all-time greats, AP isn’t one to bet against.

3. Lamar Miller, Texans

Miller’s relatively light workloads in Miami stunk for previous fantasy owners. He averaged only 12.1 carries per game last year. Compactly built at 5’10, 225 pounds, Miller has the size to withstand a larger role. That’s a given after Houston inked him to a 4-year deal worth $24 million ($14 million guaranteed).

Plus, his medicals are surprisingly clean beyond a 2013 concussion. He hasn’t missed a game since 2012.

*This difference in games missed distribution is statistically significant based on a Mann Whitney U test and significance level of 0.05