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Fantasy football injury-risk players: Careful with RGIII, Gronkowski

Photo: Charles Krupa/AP

After multiple offseason surgeries, Rob Gronkowski is one of the most risky players to draft in fantasy.

Fantasy football 2013 draft prep central: Rankings, position primers and much more

No matter how much the NFL does to ensure the safety of its player, injuries will always be a part of the game, and therefore, a part of fantasy football. Knowing which players to draft based on talent is one thing; navigating through which ones will avoid serious injury is far more of a crapshoot.

The best an owner can do is calculate the risk, estimate the potential reward and draft accordingly.

No one could have predicted the sudden fantasy demise of Jeremy Maclin, Dennis Pitta and Danario Alexander, as all three of those potential fantasy starting options have already been lost for the season with knee ligament tears in training camp, which require reconstructive knee surgery. For those owners who have drafted already, all you have to show for their selections is an open roster spot. For those who haven't, we will try to steer you clear from further injury disaster in your upcoming drafts.

There are three types of players with injury risks in fantasy football: those who are hurt, those coming off injury and those that just seem to be chronically injured. None of them are particularly intriguing to fantasy owners, but sometimes the players in those categories can be downgraded and give you value later.

Let's break down the top starting-caliber picks by position that fit into those three categories. We forecast their 2013 injury fortune and prescribe not a treatment for their ailments, but a draft position for you to side with the reward and accept the risk.

Quarterbacks

Robert Griffin III, Washington Redskins: While he is hurt, coming off injury and chronically risky, his recovery from January knee surgery has him on target to start Week 1 of the regular season. Although he is still not permitted to play full-squad drills and won't take the field in the preseason, owners should feel confident that this middle-round pick is going to at least start the season on time.

  • 2013 future: He is going to be at risk on every offensive snap he takes, making it highly likely that he'll be a high-maintenance fantasy quarterback. Griffin will be great when healthy, but he'll frequently leave owners sweating out the "Questionable" designation from the NFL injury report. If you want to pick just one stud quarterback, do not pick Griffin.
  • Draft status: Modest. RGIII is one injury-risk pick that can qualify as a sleeper. He is going to be downgraded from his potential elite fantasy status because of his injury last year. Chances are, this potential top-five fantasy starting quarterback will drop to the middle rounds, but his owner will have to draft an insurance player -- preferably a round immediately after.

Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers: Coming off of his surgically-repaired knee, Roethlisberger fits into all three injury categories (he's seemingly always dealing with something). Chalk it up to his lifestyle, perhaps. Big Ben plays football with the same reckless abandon he lives his life. Think: Riding a motorcycle without a helmet (which he has crashed before). He also is not a picture of health -- he has as many chins as you or I. Taking care of the body is a huge part of extending an NFL career, and it doesn't look like that message has sunk in for Big Ben.

  • 2013 future: Despite all the negative things we said about him, remember that Big Ben is going to be playing behind an improving offensive line. It's not a great one, but at least they're improving, and that should help him stay more upright. He also needs to remember that he is now 31 -- not 25 -- and he shouldn't go taking on linebackers scrambling out of the pocket. While he isn't in lean shape, he is, however, a physical dude who can take a hit.
  • Draft status: This is the best part about Big Ben: Affordability. With the loss of Mike Wallace, no one is drafting him as a fantasy starter. Everyone is too readily dismissing the fact he is one of the game's elite quarterbacks, even if it doesn't seem that way to a fantasy owner. His 26 touchdowns to just eight interceptions in 13 games a year ago is a ratio only the likes of Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady can sustain year to year. He should be the first backup quarterback off the board in standard, 12-team leagues.

Running backs

DeMarco Murray, Dallas Cowboys: He hasn't been able to play a full 16-game season yet, and there are a number of fantasy drafters putting him in the don't-touch category among running backs. That would be a bit of a mistake, since he's a potential 1,200-yard, 10-touchdown starting back.

  • 2013 future: This is mere speculation, but I think Murray is going to enjoy his first healthy season of his career. He's only 25 years old, so he deserves the benefit of the doubt. The Cowboys have a potent offense and Murray is going to be one of the prime beneficiaries of that.
  • Draft status: Murray is going to be picked out of the top 10, but his talent and supporting cast give him the potential to finish among the top five at the position. You might even be able to get him outside of the top 15 backs, which would make him a steal. There is too much reward to not accept the risk in Round 3, which is when everyone is snatching up receivers in lieu of quarterbacks and the risky running backs.

Maurice Jones-Drew, Jacksonville Jaguars: MJD is the latest example of a holdout turned bust in fantasy football. It should make you think holdout is a four-letter word, if you don't already. He had missed just three games in his first six NFL seasons before missing 10 last season alone. It goes to show you have to be conditioning your body in training camp to prepare to handle the NFL grind.

  • 2013 future: Dicey. MJD says his surgically-repaired foot feels good, but the history of the Lisfranc injury is not a favorable running backs, especially ones past the age of 27. MJD is 28, about the same age that Shaun Alexander was when his record-breaking fantasy career succumbed to a similar injury.
  • Draft status: Dangerous. Fantasy football drafts tend to be an exercise in name recognition, since owners love to pick players with whom they are familiar. MJD's name exceeds his potential now. When he goes off the board in Round 3, just be glad you don't have to deal with this potential headache this year.

Darren McFadden, Oakland Raiders: In injury terms, this back needs no introduction; McFadden is the poster child for injury risk. Remember, he has never played more than 13 games in his five-year NFL career. While he is still 25, he might be the most beat up 25-year-old back in the fantasy era.

  • 2013 future: What you have seen with Run DMc is what you will get: far less than 16 games and weekly entries on the injury report. Running back is a fickle position enough. Dealing with him on a week to week basis is asking for trouble. To top it off, the Raiders look like they might be the worst team in football. That doesn't tend to help nurture the health of a durable back, much less a paper mache one. He breaks like a piñata: into 1,000s of pieces.
  • Draft status: Too dangerous. McFadden is exciting when he is 100 percent healthy, which is about three plays a season. Wherever he is going, it won't be worth the risk. He is being drafted as a fantasy starter, but his owners will likely be uncomfortable starting him.

Ryan Mathews, San Diego Chargers: If McFadden is the poster child for injury risk, Mathews is his protégé. Mathews seemingly breaks his shoulder while taking a shower (Not really). Overstatements like that are the reason why Mathews was picked in the early fantasy rounds in each of his three seasons in the NFL. The truth is, he hasn't done anything of significance to warrant the high draft pick, yet.

  • 2013 future: For once, Mathews stands a better chance to stay healthy than McFadden. First, his injuries have seemed to be freak things, not one malady after another. Second, the Chargers do have some juice in their offense.
  • Draft status: Mathews is going to be one of the last starting running backs picked in drafts, but he could actually come through for 1,100 yards and 10 touchdowns -- unlike McFadden. If he is on the board in Round 5, you should be thrilled to take the risk of going grey worrying about his health.

Ahmad Bradshaw, Indianapolis Colts: Bradshaw has had chronic foot woes throughout his career. Although he is 27, he is coming off more foot surgeries and might not be a sure thing to hold off the younger and more durable Vick Ballard.

  • 2013 future: Hot and cold. Bradshaw is going to be similar to how he has been in his days with the Giants: Great at times, invisible at others. That will keep him from performing like a fantasy starter on a consistent basis.
  • Draft status: While many are expecting a once-healthy Bradshaw to start for the potent Andrew Luck-led Colts offense, that will be short-lived. Something else is going to hamstring him. Ballard is the safer pick at the round Bradshaw goes. He is a mere fantasy backup in drafts. So, make sure you have three safer, younger backs on your roster before you pick him.

Jonathan Stewart, Carolina Panthers: Stewart is fantasy kryptonite: He has been destroying fantasy dreams for years. It wasn't just his health, either; he's had to deal with DeAngelo Williams being ahead of him on the depth chart. Now, Stewart is coming off ankle woes that have handicapped him in training camp and put the start of the season in jeopardy.

  • 2013 future: The ankle issues are unfortunately timed. Stewart was going to tote the load over Williams finally, but his body isn't allowing him to. It further extends Stewart's status as one of the most frustrating fantasy-team killers. Don't expect that to suddenly change.
  • Draft status: Stewart is one of the top 32 backs in fantasy. If he's healthy, he could be in the top 20. With injury and Williams checking him up, he is a mere backup to target in the middle to later rounds of drafts.

Wide receivers

Andre Johnson, Houston Texans: Johnson stayed healthy for 16 games last season, but he has battled injuries in the past. However, he's now 32 years old -- the age of breakdown for wide receivers.

  • 2013 future: You have to assume he is going to miss games this season. He's a physical receiver that puts his body in uncompromising positions with not only corners but heavy-hitting safeties over the top in double coverage. He also stalk blocks in one of the most run-heavy offenses. There are many ways Johnson can hurt himself.
  • Draft status: He is a top 10 receiver in many analyst rankings, but he is the oldest in that group -- by many years, in most cases. Wes Welker (32) and Reggie Wayne (34) are the only other fantasy starters at that age or older. At that cost, you might be better off waiting a round or just picking Randall Cobb, Eric Decker, Danny Amendola or even Torrey Smith.

Danny Amendola, New England Patriots: Amendola isn't dealing with any current or chronic injuries as Tom Brady's go-to man in Patriots camp. However, at this point, something is inevitable for the undersized slot receiver.

  • 2013 future: Amendola is entering an exciting year in his indistinguishable career. Wes Welker became a fantasy PPR monster with Brady, and 27-year-old Amendola is in the same position. The question is whether the multitude of ailments he's dealt with will cause him to lose time this season. You have to assume he won't play a full season or be the 115-catch, 1,200-yard, 10-touchdown threat Welker was every year -- if only because there only a handful of those players in NFL history.
  • Draft status: Amendola is going to be picked a round after Welker and Decker, but he has the benefit of not having to compete with any real veteran targets out of the gate. Many are going to jump on him among the top 15 receivers, but his risk makes it more responsible to wait until after that group is off the board.

Hakeem Nicks, New York Giants: He is the virtual 'What If' receiver: If he could stay healthy, he can perform like a top-five fantasy producer at the position. Here's a spoiler alert: He cannot stay healthy. If it's not his knee, it is his hamstring or groin.

  • 2013 future: Nicks is in a contract year, so it's plausible to think he might finally play 16 games, and even if he does, he'll play through some malady. This is still a pass-friendly Eli Manning-led offense, running a modernized Run-and-Shoot, so Nicks will have his moments again this season.
  • Draft status: The good news is that owners will get a potential 1,200-yard, 10-touchdown threat after the top 15 receivers. The bad news is that he's a weekly question mark. The reward outweighs the risk after the top 15 are off the board, though.

Pierre Garcon, Washington Redskins: You might think you don't need a big toe. Heck, just cut the thing off. What are they good for anyway? Well, for a receiver, the big toe is the final part of the body that releases from the ground on a cut. A receiver that doesn't cut runs routes like the Energizer Bunny -- straight and easy to cover!

  • 2013 future: Garcon vowed to play more this season, but under the belief that he'll play through injury more regularly. Guaranteeing injury is not a comforting thought for fantasy owners. Frankly, it is just a troublesome toe that might never be right. Garcon does have a lot of potential working as the first passing read in a read-option offense, though. High end, you have to figure 900 yards and eight touchdowns.
  • Draft status: Since Garcon won't be 100 percent, owners cannot count on him as an every-week fantasy starter. Sure, draft him among the starting-caliber receivers because of his potentially huge weeks, but plan on drafting multiple backups for the weeks he goes from "Questionable" to "Out" just hours before Sunday kickoffs.

DeSean Jackson, Philadelphia Eagles: Here is a player is labeled injury prone a bit unfairly. Before missing five games last season -- after a holdout situation, go figure -- Jackson only missed four games total in his previous three seasons. He hasn't dealt with any serious issues and is having a great training camp.

  • 2013 future: Jackson is getting the added benefit of becoming the clear No. 1 target in the Eagles' up-tempo offense this fall after the loss of Maclin. See, injury can destroy fantasy production, but it also can create it, too. And it will in the case of Jackson, to the tune of 1,100 yards and 10 touchdowns -- plateaus he just missed reaching in Year 2 before Maclin assumed the leading role.
  • Draft status: Jackson wasn't going to be picked as a fantasy starter outside of three-receiver formats or flex leagues before Maclin's injury. Now, he should be. If your league is one that puts too much injury risk on Jackson, you are going to get a steal in the middle rounds. This is a top-25 fantasy receiver that will go off the board after that point.

Tight ends

Rob Gronkowski, New England Patriots: We buried the lead here. Gronkowski is the most important injury-risk player to track this preseason. He came with back warnings on draft day. He also broke his arm multiple times last season and needed multiple surgeries. He dealt with an ankle injury before the Super Bowl a few years ago, and he needed another back surgery in June, putting his status for Week 1 in jeopardy.

  • 2013 future: Don't believe the doomsayers that have Gronk opening the year on the PUP list. He is too important to the Pats success to guarantee his unavailability for six to eight weeks. He won't be 100 percent if he does play in Week 1, but if he does get good reports on his back surgery recovery in the next month, you have to consider him a 1,000-yard, 10-touchdown tight end. Those still are very rare commodities in fantasy.
  • Draft status: Gronk is the second tight end off the board in drafts, only because he is not 100 percent. The Pats need a go-to man and Amendola is equally injury prone. Once healthy, you won't care which pick you burned on Gronk after Round 2 or 3. You just have to cross your fingers his reckless ways won't get him injured again.

Jimmy Graham, New Orleans Saints: He doesn't necessarily have the injury stigma Gronkowski has, but he was injury-plagued a year ago (ankle) and had offseason wrist surgery. The perception is not equal to reality in that regard. Graham is not a picture of health either at the shaky tight end position.

  • 2013 future: We assume that Graham will be healthier this season. Also, the return of Sean Payton can help him regain his 100-catch, 1,300-yard, 10-touchdown form. Those are elite receivers numbers right there -- at a position of rampant uncertainty, it's a potential gold mine.
  • Draft status: Gronkowski's status, combined the loss of Aaron Hernandez (release) and Pitta (knee) have combined to crank up Graham back into Round 2 and even (gasp) Round 1 of fantasy drafts. Those are some ridiculous draft positions for a player who failed at that cost a year ago. Graham is better served as a third-round pick, but he won't make it there. You might be better off waiting and crossing your fingers on Gronk, or punting the position until very late.

Antonio Gates, San Diego Chargers: He's a future Hall of Famer, no doubt, and that alone should get him drafted as a fantasy starter. Despite the stigma of injuries and a chronic foot issue, he played fairly regularly compared to the others above on this list over his 10-year career.

  • 2013 future: At 33, Gates is no sure thing to stay healthy, but Tony Gonzalez has and Gates has looked pretty good in camp, according to reports. He hasn't found the fountain of youth in San Diego, but 50 catches for 600 yards and seven touchdowns are reasonable expectations.
  • Draft status: It will be forgotten he played 15 games last year and has a season-touchdown low of seven. That's a great year for many of the tight ends that will be picked around him in drafts. He stands to be more of a value than a risk at his draft position.

There are hundreds of other injury-risk players -- this is football after all -- but these above options are those of most concern to drafters looking for true starters in standard leagues. Just because you're drafting players that play 16 games year in year out won't protect you. With injuries in this game, you have to merely expect them, prepare for them and be ready to react to them.

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