As players across the country start digging into the data and looking at the latest expert's draft advice, there's one factor that's going to keep coming up: injuries. Sure, I'm biased since this is my beat, but while Vince Lombardi famously said that football was a collision sport, fantasy football is about collision avoidance. A top pick and good research will help you win the league, but what usually wins is having a team that isn't forced to scramble for an injury replacement.
This season, looking through SI's top 100-rated players, we're confronted with more injury risk than ever. All five of the top five players have some injury risk or are rehabbing from injury. That's not some fluke -- seven of the top 10 have the same level of danger, 12 of the top 25. There's some parallel between workload and injury risk, axiomatic since the best players get the most touches.
While we should all know the Rule of 370 by now, but beyond the easy ones, let's take a look at which top picks you need to risk adjust before drafting. I'm including some projections, using the outstanding stats from Pro Football Prospectus 2008, which give you an idea on how much production you can expect from a player and how risky they are, using Aaron Schatz's red/yellow/green risk ratings.
LaDainian Tomlinson (Green, 1,400 rushing yards, 400 receiving yards, 22 TD)
A lot of people forget that Tomlinson ended his season standing on the sidelines questioning his quarterback while LDT was the one with the less significant knee injury. Less significant doesn't mean insignificant by any stretch and LDT's MCL problem is one that could push him down the draft board. If you have the first pick, don't let that happen. Tomlinson showed no lateral deficits in his limited work in minicamp and while he won't get much work in preseason games, that's normal for him. RBs come back from MCLs without much problem, and there's little reason to think that it will be different for the most consistent back in the NFL. The one real risk is that Tomlinson didn't appear to understand how to adjust his game and play at less than 100 percent. That could remain an issue going forward. On a final note, if Philip Rivers has early season problems with his own comeback, Norv Turner will lean more on Tomlinson and Darren Sproles.
Adrian Peterson (Yellow, 1,500 Rush, 300 Rec, 14 TD)
This time last year, we were all wondering if Peterson could stay healthy enough to be a good platoon back in the NFL. That answer: yes. At least for one year. One great year and a bunch of highlights later, Peterson is no less risky. In fact, he could be more risky having pushed his draft stock so high. All those college injuries, his upright running style, aggressive nature and the torn LCL that kept his gaudy rookie campaign from being historic can't be hidden behind all the magazine covers he's getting. Yes, he's that good, but yes, he's that risky. He almost has to be paired with Chester Taylor again this year.
Brian Westbrook (Green, 1,400 Rush, 500 Rec, 16 TD)
Westbrook has gone from a guy who can't stay healthy to the MVP candidate that no one knows. Just a couple years ago, we had a pretty vicious debate about who to take from Tomlinson, Shaun Alexander and Larry Johnson, but in that season and since, you'd have only rather had one of those guys over Westbrook. His combination of skills not only makes him valuable, but has helped keep him healthy. Like Barry Sanders, he doesn't take a lot of big hits, but it seems that unlike the preternatural shiftiness of Sanders, Westbrook figured it out along the way. The knees are going to bother him, but the Eagles have done an amazing job maintaining Westbrook and telling Andy Reid when Westbrook needs a week off.
Joseph Addai (Green, 1,250 Rush, 400 Rec, 9 TD)
Sure, Dominic Rhodes is back to back him up and maybe steal another Super Bowl MVP trophy from him, but Addai is now the man in the Colts offense. Colts RBs get as much help from the offensive line as Peyton Manning does, but it's seldom recognized. Some have questioned whether it's the system or Manning's presence, but feel free to let people keep asking the question as you take Addai's solid totals and points. Addai did show that he might have a ceiling on his carries, getting very banged up as the season went on with neck, back and shoulder issues, though none should be considered major. If the Colts decided to run more in close, Addai could put up even bigger totals. You don't need Rhodes as a pairing here, which can help your mid-round draft strategy.
Steven Jackson (Yellow, 1,250 Rush, 500 Rec, 10 TD)
If you designed a RB, he'd likely end up looking a lot like Jackson. Maybe not the hair, but the speed, power, chiseled body, big legs and receiving ability make him the guy that ought to be the prototype. He missed some time last season to a lower back injury that was called back spasms, but wasn't treated that way. Anything disc related should be a huge red flag, but there's no evidence that it was more, just speculation. His workload should go up in the new Al Saunders offense, and having Brian Leonard opening up some holes at FB might help both. Did I mention it was his contract year? Move him up and hope for the best with his back.
Peyton Manning (Green, 4,350 passing yards, 38 TD passes +1 rushing TD)
For a guy who lives in the film room anyway, missing training camp raises some interesting possibilities. Will he spend the extra time breaking down the weaknesses in opposing secondaries or will he lose timing with his receivers? Will Jim Sorgi surprise people with solid play in the preseason, making Tony Dungy more conservative in his final season, pulling Manning from late games and costing some yardage? Will the question marks surrounding Marvin Harrison cost Manning some value the way it did last season or will Anthony Gonzalez prove himself to be another smart pick by Bill Polian? Surgery to remove the prepatellar bursa is about as minor as surgery on a franchise QB can be. His value should hold within a narrow margin and I'd expect that he'll continue his consecutive games streak.
Frank Gore (Red, 900 Rush, 500 Rec, 7 TD)
Gore is Steve Austin. Not the wrestler, but the guy who could be rebuilt bigger, faster, and stronger. He's always hurt but doesn't just come back well; he plays through injuries. Last year's 1,500 yards rushing was done on a high ankle sprain, so even the downside risk comes with some upside. There's really nothing left to break on Gore, and in a Mike Martz offense, he's expected to get more screens and flares which will take some of the harder hits off the menu. The downside is that keeping him healthy means less touches. Combine that with his risks and he shouldn't be this high.
Clinton Portis (Red, 1,150 Rush, 300 Rec, 8 TD)
I've always wondered -- is it Portis who's injury prone or is it Southside Jerome? Maybe Choo Choo is the one with a bad shoulder. Probably not, but Portis, when healthy, is good. It's just that "when healthy." You're going to pay '07 prices, not '06 on him with the downside risk. His brute force pass blocking might be the issue, so moving him from protection to weapon might actually see an uptick in his value, something Jim Zorn has talked about doing. He's a top-five talent, but the risk makes him the guy you take in the top 10 and just dream on.
Larry Johnson (Red, 1,100 Rush, 300 Rec, 9 TD)
I warned you last year that you didn't want to stand in the way of the Curse of 370. If you listened to me then, listen to me again. Johnson's a worn down, aging back with a bad line, no QB to keep guys from loading up the box and a coach who doesn't know the meaning of "ease up." Johnson carried the team, almost literally, to the playoffs in '06, but may have sacrificed having a long career for one that got him that one big payday. The foot fracture is something he should be able to come back from, but another year of heavy work might take away any gains he got from rest and recovery. Kolby Smith's not a bad backup, but he's not going to take carries, and as a pair, he's dead roster weight for most fantasy teams, which makes quick but small Jamaal Charles the better upside play that can probably be your pick. (Quick tip -- if you get Johnson, take a kicker in the next to last round, then grab Charles in the last round.
Andre Johnson (Yellow, 1,250 Rec, 12 TD)
Of the three Johnsons who'll be at the top of many WR lists, Andre's the one with perhaps the best upside. That's hard to believe, I know, but is a function of the other two (Calvin and Chad) having such wide variances in their projections. Andre's going to come back from the knee sprain and put up the best numbers of the trio, but that's really about it. He doesn't scare corners the way the others do and he hasn't meshed with Matt Schaub or Gary Kubiak's offense yet. The problems that the Texans have had running the ball don't look solved, another factor that may hold Johnson back some, but the injury won't despite finally having his knee scoped in May.
Laurence Maroney (Red, 1,100 Rush, 300 Rec 12 TD)
So which Maroney are we going to get? The one that missed the first half with shoulder and leg problems, or the second-half one who looked like the dominant runner? Some of that second-half surge has to be put into context since TomBrady was putting up historic numbers, keeping defenses on their heels. Maroney wasn't any better than free talent Sammy Morris was in the first half; both had a 4.5 YPC and similar success rates. The fact is Maroney has never been a pure feature back since high school and his fragility is the biggest reason. The biggest concern is the chronic shoulder problems that forced him to run more upright and exposed his legs. Maroney's risk keeps him down below the elite backs and will likely frustrate the guy who gets excited when Maroney falls to him in the latter part of the first round. Pairing him with Morris is a smarter play than grabbing Kevin Faulk. Yes, the TD projection looks high to me too.
Ronnie Brown (Red, 1,150 Rush, 350 Rec, 6 TD)
Running backs can come back from ACL tears, especially given modern techniques and improved rehab. It's a predictable progression, but for Brown, knowing that lateral "shake and bake" moves are the last to come might hold him back more than most. He's not a power runner in the traditional mode, and seeing a regular eight in the box, unless the Fins develop a real QB, is going to be more of a problem if he can't cut or bounce it outside. What makes this even more difficult is that Brown became a receiving threat last season, albeit on dump routes and screens. If getting him outside on passes helps free him up to be linear with the ball, that could be a big plus. I just don't see it working and would push Brown way down on my board. Let someone else take the risk here with a recovering back on a terrible team.
Antonio Gates (Red, 900 Rec, 10 TD)
Gates is coming back from the first major injury of his career. It's nice to be durable, but it makes it hard to tell how fast someone heals or how well they'll rehab. Gates is a workout junkie, so everyone expects -- and reports match up -- him to be pounding out the workouts. The toe is still keeping Gates from running, so it's unlikely he'll be at full speed for camp or even for the first game. Gates can lose half a step and be very good, but it likely keeps him from putting up big yardage. The interesting concept is that it could turn him into a big red zone target with his big body (and with tall Vincent Jackson on the other side.) He's likely to put up as many fantasy points as before, just differently.
Kellen Winslow Jr. (Yellow, 1,000 Rec, 8 TD)
He's a soldier, he's a warrior ... whatever. He's fragile and that's really all that should matter to fantasy owners. If he's healthy, he's probably a bit above Gates and Tony Gonzalez on the TE chart, but ... what's this? He HAS been healthy, or a close enough approximation, playing in all 16 games the last two seasons. So yes, he was injury-prone, or in this case, a bit injury-asking-for-it-on-his-bike. The story however doesn't match up with the reality. He's that good, and while he's never going to be completely healthy or maybe even as good as he could have been, you still want this soldier on that wall, especially in PPR leagues.
Jay Cutler (Yellow, 3,100 Pass, 24 TD +3 Rush)
Is it smarter to worry about Cutler dealing with diabetes this season or should we just marvel at what he's accomplished along the way to a diagnosis? One executive mentioned that Cutler's decision making was affected late in games, perhaps due to exertion causing problems with his blood sugar. I'm not sure that's the case as most of his INTs came against tough backfields. I like his chances to come back due to proper medical care, a better diet, and that oh-so-amazing arm strength that lets him put balls where everyone else simply can't. He's not Manning or Brady, but he's got the tools to be up with them soon.
Jonathan Stewart (Red, 750 Rush, 100 Rec, 9 TD)
Stewart went to Oregon, not Oregon State, but get ready for the Steven Jackson comparisons. Same size, same body, same speed score -- all he needs is dreads. The only downside on this possible rookie of the year is that he'll share carries with DeAngelo Williams, taking on the DeShaun Foster role in the Panthers platoon, and the toe injury he suffered through. He ran a 4.5 at the Combine before getting it fixed, and coming off a big senior campaign, no one really seems too worried about it. He'll be ready for camp and could be one of those second RB picks that makes a team into a monster. Talk up the toe surgery before the draft and see if you can get him to fall to you. He's not going to put up huge numbers, but very solid ones.
Kevin Smith (Red, 650 Rush, 250 Rec, 8 TD)
The Rule of 370 doesn't really have a college component. So what does X number of carries, even at a mid-major do to a guy? In Smith's case, it gets him noticed and drafted into a situation where he's going to have a pretty good chance to get the starting job in a bad offense. Jim Colletto is going to shift to a more run-focused attack despite having the personnel for Mike Martz's aerial offense. I'm still very worried about whether 450 carries in college translates into 370 or so in the NFL. Given that he's going to be the feature back on Day 1 for the Lions, that's a big problem. Smith's personality has been compared to Clinton Portis. Let's hope he doesn't share the injury problems.
Deuce McAllister (Red, 200 Rush, 100 Rec, 3 TD)
McAllister has done this before. A couple years ago, McAllister came back from an ACL repair and was a linear runner for the first half of the season. It worked well, since Reggie Bush was alongside, doing the outside runs and cutback traps. Bush is still there, but after Bush proved he's not a feature back, McAllister will gladly take the "Mr. Inside" job on again. It's not coincidence that the Saints were great with both in '06 and terrible without McAllister when he went down early in '07. He's going to crush these projections and should likely approximate his '06 season numbers, which were 1,100 Rush, 100 Rec, and 10 TD.) It's good to know just how down the downside is however.
Philip Rivers (Red, 3,700 Pass, 26 TD +1 Rush)
Secret surgery got him to the AFC Championship game, but Rivers has more than a simple ACL tear to deal with. No, he's got the full boat, an O'Donaghue's Triad that can be the difference between a full comeback and one that takes longer. In football terms, it's the difference between Carson Palmer and Daunte Culpepper. Rivers is likely somewhere in between. I'd expect some problems at the start of the season. If you're near the Chargers training camp, the thing I'd be looking for is whether Rivers is pushing off his back foot or whether he's still "slinging" off his front foot the way he did during the playoffs. Sure, it can work, but it's not nearly as strong or as accurate. With all the offensive weapons hurting, you might want to stay away from the Chargers during the first four games.
Marvin Harrison (Red, 750 Rec, 5 TD)
I don't know either. Harrison will end up with an ADP anywhere from the second round to undrafted, with much of that variation based on the date of the draft. If you've got that kind of pull, have your draft as late as possible. Then again, the uncertainty about Harrison could make him a steal in early drafts if you guess right and he comes back from knee surgery on both sides and the mysterious problem he had last year. My sources tell me it was a stress fracture that came after a meniscal tear, not unlike what Tiger Woods had at the U.S. Open. Of course, Woods doesn't have heat-seeking safeties taking him down after a seven iron shot. We won't know a thing before training camp and even then, I'm not sure that he's not going to mirror Art Monk at similar age.