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Why Le’Veon Bell is a Major Injury Risk in 2015

By Jared Smola | Updated on Tue, 23 May 2023 . 1:27 PM EDT

Sports Injury Predictor has partnered with Draft Sharks in 2015 to give you an even bigger edge in your fantasy football league. We have an algorithm that determines which players are more likely to get injured. Well isolate the risky high-value players and highlight the safer players. Follow us on Twitter and check out our site, www.sportsinjurypredictor.com, for more information.


Before you start yelling at us through your computer screen, let’s start with this: We’re not telling you not to draft Le’Veon Bell this summer. He’s a point-producing machine who’s just entering his prime at 23 years old.

But you need to understand the risk he comes with in 2015.

Discussing the floor of players is never sexy. Injury prediction does not take you to the giddy heights that you get when you start thinking about a player’s upside with the kind of volume and talent a young back like Bell has lined up.

In leading up to this article, I’ve found that the response I get when discussing Bell’s injury risk is about the same I’d get if I had to tell someone to think about the dysfunctional family of their super-hot girlfriend or boyfriend. No one wants to think about the derelict brother, crazy mother or aggressive dad when dating the prom queen from high school. Until you get married. And then you find yourself in hell every weekend at family gatherings and your in-laws move in after 3 years.

But discussing the downside of players is important because you want to make fully educated decisions with those high draft picks. And that’s what this article is about. It’s about not looking away from something that might be a bit uncomfortable and not in line with what every other fantasy expert is telling you. It’s about adding a layer of analysis that should help you make a better decision, whether you decide to draft Bell or not.

This discussion is no different than what we advised regarding Julio Jones in 2014. A player with enormous potential but an elevated injury risk dangling over him. If you did have him on your fantasy team last year, there’s a good chance that his 1,593 yards didn’t help you to a title. Why? Not because he missed 1 game with a hip pointer in Week 15. It’s because he had a 6-week stretch between Weeks 6 and 12 when he surpassed 70 yards just once and scored only 1 TD. It's no coincidence that he was playing through an ankle injury over that stretch.

Bell has a high risk for injury this year -- very high -- because of the following factors:

1) Experience in the NFL
2) Volume
3) Previous injuries

Let’s tackle each issue separately.


Experience in the NFL

Bell is going into his 3 rd NFL season. Players within their first 3 years are much more likely to get injured than players who are more experienced. Here’s a graph from last year that sums this up.

The graph above shows that 42% of all players that had been in the NFL for 3 years or less suffered an injury that held them out of at least 1 game last season. In contrast, only 25% of players going into their 10 th season suffered an injury that kept them out of more than 1 game.

As a young RB, Bell is at a higher risk than the more experienced RBs in the league.


Workload

We’re not referring to Bell’s previous workload. Our analysis shows that previous workload has no predictive quality when it comes to injuries. Some players can handle big workloads and some players cannot.

We look at injury as a linear event. Players start at 0 (not injured). The more they play, the closer they move toward a 1 (injured). What exposes a player to injury is how many times they WILL touch the ball in season and not how many times they HAVE touched the ball. When you start to think of it this way, you’ll see a clear relationship develop between the projections for each player and the associated injury risk. The more exposure to the ball, the more exposure to risk.

There’s no question that Bell is in for a monster workload this season. But with that workload comes increased risk. Statistically speaking, the more times he touches the ball, the closer he gets to an injury.

The defense most people will counter with is that his suspension will reduce the amount of exposure to risk. If all things were equal, it would be that simple. However, we find that most players actually get injured at the start of the season. The general population pictures players wearing down over time, but our data shows that players who are going to get injured are more likely to do so early.

As you can see in the graph below, last season there were twice as many injuries in September as there were in November and more in the preseason and September than November and December combined. 

Bell is exposed to the same risk in his first 8 games that everyone else is, even if those first 8 games come in Weeks 4 through 12.


Previous injuries

Even beforethe knee issue that we’ll dig into below, Bell’s injuries have been significant. He had the lisfranc sprain that kept him out of the first 3 games in his rookie year, along with the concussion against the Ravens later that season.

The knee issue is interesting and requires some research. We rely solely on 3rd party, public information to get our injury data. This means that we have to qualify everything that comes our way with objective information as much as possible.

The best forms of objective qualifiers for injury are games missed and whether surgery was required. These are solid indicators of the nature and severity of the injury.

When Cam Newton underwent his ankle surgery last year, for example, the team released information that this was preventative surgery undertaken to tighten his ligaments. Cam would be a better and faster player as a result, the story went.

But we have hundreds of cases of ankle surgeries in our database, so it was easy to call BS on that bit of info. Newton was not going to be faster. We’re not yet in an age where players are getting surgeries to give them bionic superpowers. Newton was coming into the 2014 season hurt, regardless of what the team said – and that’s exactly how it played out.

So when Bell’s injury first happened, it was referred to as a hyperextension of the knee. Hyperextensions do occur reasonably frequently in the NFL as players suffer collisions that cause the knee to bend the wrong way. Players recover from hyperextension injuries pretty quickly and can usually be back on the field within a week or 2.

The dots that don’t connect for this account of the injury are few but important:

-- Bell himself admitted in April -- about 4 months after the injury -- that he was only “getting close” to 100%. While he did participate fully in OTAs and minicamp and has been hitting the conditioning hard, a mere hyperextension should have healed much sooner.

-- Why did he not play even for a few snaps in the playoff loss to the Ravens? His loss crushed Pittsburgh’s running game. And it wasn’t like it was a regular-season game. A simple hyperextension would most likely have resulted in him picking up some opportunities in a game of that importance.

-- The hit was low, hard and came with his foot planted on the ground. Most normal humans would be walking like chickens for the rest of their lives. It’s possible that there was more damage here than originally thought due to the nature of the hit.

So where is this going?

The best-case scenario is that this was just a simple hyperextension, the Steelers took it slow with his rehab and Bell is being a little dramatic in his comments about still not being 100%.

The more likely scenario is that he’s dealing with a more severe knee injury, such as a posterior cruciate ligament (PCL) tear. The PCL is the ligament at the back of the knee that stabilizes the joint from bending the wrong way. (More about the specifics of this type of injury here.) This type of injury occurs when the knee hyperextends severely. Surgery is not always an outcome and players do return to form afterward. Some notable players who have suffered PCL injuries: Reggie Bush, Felix Jones, Calvin Johnson, Andre Johnson and Brian Hartline.

This is significant because associated injuries with this type of tear are hamstring, calf and cartilage issues in the knee.


Bell’s injury risk

Our algorithm takes all 3 of these factors -- experience, workload and previous injuries -- into account and produces a probability of the player being injured. Even with the injury being regarded as a hyperextension, Bell still enters 2015 with a high risk of injury (87.4%). If we adjust for a PCL, that goes up to 93%.

To conclude, we are not advising that you avoid Bell on draft day. No one ever won a fantasy championship by avoiding all risks. And when you factor in replacement points for the 4 games we project Bell to miss (3 due to suspension, 1 with injury), he comes out #1 among RBs in PPR points.

What we are advising is that if your strategy is to look for high-floor players in the first few rounds, Bell does not qualify. And if you do draft him, add DeAngelo Williams as a handcuff or stock up on more RB depth than you usually would.


Jared Smola Author Image
Jared Smola, Lead Analyst
Jared has been with Draft Sharks since 2007. He’s now Lead Analyst, heading up the preseason and weekly projections that fuel your Draft War Room and My Team tools. He currently ranks 1st among 133 analysts in draft rankings accuracy.
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