Injuries are tough to predict because they often happen unexpectedly. In reality, every fantasy player is an injury risk because they’re facing 320-pound defensive linemen and hard-hitting safeties dozens of times per game each week. And that’s not mentioning all the injury opportunities they face each day at practice.
But fantasy football owners, like NFL general managers, can look at a player’s injury history and other contributing factors before determining how much they should invest in him.
The following players are all dealing with injuries or coming back from injuries from last season. They all represent a certain amount of risk, but the size of that risk is also dependent on where you end up drafting them.
Cam Newton, Panthers: Nothing makes fantasy owners more skeptical than hearing a running quarterback had ankle surgery this past spring. But he has no restrictions at this point (other than his wide receiver corps), and he led the Panthers on two scoring drives last week in their second preseason game. With an ADP around the fifth round, Newton seems to be a high-risk/high-reward quarterback just after the elite passers are off the board. My suggestion is to wait a round or two.
Tony Romo, Dallas: This offseason, the Cowboys’ signal-caller suffered a herniated disk in his lower back, which also affected his leg. While he did play in the team’s second preseason game, his surgically repaired back could affect him again at some point. Over the past three seasons, he has thrown 90 touchdowns in 47 games, missing just one start last season. He’s a mid-round quarterback in fantasy leagues, which is hardly a risk at all, since you can pick up a top-20 quarterback off of waivers if Romo does go down.
Injury notes: Drew Brees (oblique) missed the first two preseason games, but he’s expected to play Saturday at Indianapolis … Derek Carr suffered a concussion in the second preseason game, but he might still play in the third game, as he battles Matt Schaub for the starting QB job … A year after returning from a knee injury, Robert Griffin III suffered a thigh bruise when trying to run out of bounds in the team’s second preseason game. It’s not expected to cost him any time, but running QBs are always in danger of injury ... Sam Bradford is back from a torn ACL, and he has the best schedule for fantasy quarterbacks this season, but he always seems to get injured.
Arian Foster, Houston: Returning from back surgery, Foster is a risky second-round pick in most formats. However, the payoff can be quite big, considering he’s one of the Texans’ only weapons on the ground. He actually had the same microdisectomy surgery that Romo had in the offseason, and Rob Gronkowski had last offseason. That’s the good news -- history proves his back should be fine. The bad news is hamstring problems have affected him throughout his career (and this preseason) – and even a repaired back injury won’t make those go away. All running backs are risky, but Foster might be a little more this season.
Doug Martin, Tampa Bay: Entering training camp, new Bucs head coach Lovie Smith talked about using rookie Charles Sims as a complement to Martin, who is returning from season-ending shoulder surgery. But Sims suffered an ankle injury at practice that needed surgery, so Martin is now a “bell-cow” running back in Tampa. Martin’s previous injury isn’t likely to recur, unlike knee or back issues. But Martin’s offensive line is horrible – which means another piece of his body could get injured sooner than later. His second-round ADP is rising with the Sims news -- and his legs are fresher than ever.
Steven Jackson, Atlanta: A hamstring injury has already sidelined the 31-year-old running back, which opens the door for rookie Devonta Freeman. Their ADPs are slowly creeping toward each other, with Jackson dropping from Round 7 and Freeman’s rising from Round 12.
Jonathan Stewart, Carolina: Ankle issues limited Stewart to about half of a season last year, and then he tweaked his hamstring as training camp began. Fifty or so running backs are getting taken before him in most drafts, but he did score two touchdowns this preseason already, and the injury risk seems to already have killed his ADP, making him an interesting late pick.
Injury notes: Jamaal Charles, one of the top two picks in nearly every fantasy draft, bruised his foot while moving out of training camp this past weekend. It has cost him some practice time, but it’s not expected to delay the start of his season … The 49ers still expect to see Marcus Lattimore in a regular season game this season, just probably not the season opener. The fact they drafted Carlos Hyde to back up Frank Gore is quite telling in what the team thinks about Lattimore’s knee.
Julio Jones, Atlanta: A foot injury cost Jones most of his third season in the NFL, but he’ll play in the team’s third preseason game this Saturday. Those ready to gamble a second or third-round pick on Jones remember the 41 catches for 580 yards and two touchdowns he totaled before his injury five games into last season. With Tony Gonzalez retired, though, quarterback Matt Ryan will need to use Jones even more as a target in the red zone. Important to note, though, is this isn’t the first trouble Jones has had with his feet. This is the second surgery on the same foot.
Percy Harvin, Seattle: Harvin did come back last season in time to score a touchdown on a kickoff return after undergoing hip surgery earlier in the year. However, the term “injury risk” is always associated with his name, considering he had problems with migraines for years. He has only played in 16 games once in his career, back in 2011. Since then, he has only played in 10 total games, but he still has the ability to score from anywhere on the field. Seattle needs him for their passing game, and Harvin will get as many targets as he can handle. His ADP is Round 4, which is deep enough to risk losing a player for a few games, considering what he’ll get you when he does play.
Jeremy Maclin, Philadelphia: The Eagles got rid of DeSean Jackson, and now Maclin (hamstring) and Riley Cooper (foot) are struggling to get healthy. Maclin is already trying to come back from a torn ACL, but his offense should certainly pay off for his fantasy owners if he can get a full season in. He’s being drafted as a WR3 in Round 7, a couple rounds after a healthy Jackson is getting picked.
Reggie Wayne, Indianapolis: Another major knee injury victim, Wayne is reportedly in great shape and making cuts like he never had a knee injury to begin with. He’s 35 years old, though, which helps explain why owners are reticent to draft him higher than Maclin. But in Round 9, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better bargain than Andrew Luck’s favorite target.
Cecil Shorts, Jacksonville: Shorts broke out in 2012, alongside rookie receiver Justin Blackmon, but a groin injury ruined Shorts’ 2013 season. He underwent surgery on it in December. A bad hamstring has given him trouble in training camp, and considering the team’s shortage of veteran wide receivers (both Blackmon and Ace Sanders are suspended), the team will remain cautious with him through the preseason. Shorts’ 10th-round ADP is excellent value.
Aaron Dobson, New England: The second-year receiver is practicing in a limited fashion this preseason, after having surgery on his left foot this past spring. This is one of the best injury-risk bargains you’ll ever come across, considering his ADP has him beyond the top 150 picks, and he could become Tom Brady’s favorite receiver if he gets healthy.
Injury notes: A rib injury suffered last weekend is slowing down Sammy Watkins’ rookie preseason. While rib injuries could recur throughout the season, he’s still being drafted as one of the top rookies overall … A minor groin injury has kept Michael Floyd from practicing, but he’s ready for a huge season in Year 3 … The Jets got free-agent wideout Eric Decker (quadriceps) on the practice field again this week. But a WR2 on one team trying to become a WR1 on another rarely works out … Disgruntled and aging Andre Johnson has a bad hammy but is expected to be fine in time for Week 1 … Rookis Odell Beckham and Allen Robinson are also dealing with hamstring injuries … Kenny Stills had a quad injury keep him out of the first two preseason games, and he might miss a third exhibition game. But his upside beats out his ADP, as the Saints are on the lookout for players to pick up the targets left behind by Darren Sproles and Lance Moore.
Rob Gronkowski, New England: Last summer, we were rolling the dice on an injured Gronk, wondering if he was going to be able to come back from complications from a broken forearm – and then back surgery. This summer, we’re weighing whether or not you should spend a second or third-round pick on an oft-injured tight end coming off of reconstructive knee surgery. Gronk tore his ACL last year, like many players on this list, but a tight end coming back from this type of injury is a whole different story than a running back or even a wide receiver. For those positions, the precise cuts, hard plants and leaps into the air make a bad knee worse. A tight end may not need to do many of those things. The fact is, Gronkowski scores more fantasy points per game than any other tight end, including Jimmy Graham. So if you draft him, hopefully no earlier than Round 3, back him up later with a decent tight end and you’ll be good.
Jordan Reed, Washington: Reed’s rookie season ended due to concussion issues, which is definitely an injury the NFL is taking seriously these days. That’s the danger of taking him – another big hit could cost him weeks or another half-season. Had he stayed healthy last season, he would have eclipsed Tim Wright for best rookie tight end of 2013 – and the best fantasy rookie tight end since Gronk’s rookie year in 2010. Low risk/high reward for Reed’s owners, since his late ADP is built in because of the concussion.
Dwayne Allen, Indianapolis: Another Colts pass-catcher coming back from a major knee surgery, Allen should get worked back into the passing game ahead of Coby Fleener again. Allen enters his third season as one of Andrew Luck’s favorite targets, but there are just too many good tight ends who aren’t coming off of torn ACLs in the later rounds. He’s a flier in 12-team leagues, with a chance at being a top-10 tight end.
Injury notes: One of last year’s biggest surprises, Charles Clay injured his knee this summer, and now his status for Week 1 is up in the air, although, he believes he’ll play … Jermichael Finley is still a free agent, but after having spinal fusion surgery, it’s understandable. Even so, the Packers could bring him back at a big discount still, and he could even be a fantasy bye-week replacement at some point. But he’s not draft-worthy right now.