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Friday, November 16, 2012
Updated: November 19, 3:06 PM ET
Assessing risk in injured trade targets

By Stephania Bell
ESPN.com

It's down to the wire. With the trade deadline around the corner, it's your final chance to make a move that could mean the difference between landing in the winners or losers bracket in your fantasy league playoffs. One of the biggest factors affecting trade value is player health. Fantasy owners want to know how much risk they're taking on when acquiring a player returning from injury, and those looking to deal injured players want to be confident they won't miss out on a big late-season rebound.

Although there are no guarantees when it comes to injuries, there are some hints to help shape opinion. Listed below are several key fantasy players dealing with some level of injury that could impact their trade value.

Running backs

Without a doubt, this category takes the cake in terms of numbers. Running backs get injured often, leaving many fantasy owners desperate for replacements. In most leagues, there isn't enough depth to pick a good running back up off waivers, so owners must resort to trades. It's at least worth being aware of which injuries are plaguing these talented players before committing to buying or selling.

DeMarco Murray
DeMarco Murray's return to action remains up in the air.
DeMarco Murray, Dallas Cowboys (foot): Murray has missed four games since spraining his left foot and is in line to miss at least one more, maybe two. It's not unusual for a foot sprain to be a multiple-week injury; the problem in Murray's case is that, for the first few weeks afterward, there was excessive optimism (largely emanating from team owner Jerry Jones) about the nearness of his return. False hope each week led to vast disappointment among fantasy owners, causing some to wonder whether Murray would ever return. Recently, coach Jason Garrett explained that Murray needed to meet certain thresholds before he could even be cleared for practice (such as go up and down on his toes 10 times, hop on one leg, and jog), and Murray is still being kept in check, although he is working out on the field. Cowboys Executive Vice President Stephen Jones has been very clear that the team does not want Murray back in game play until he is fully healthy, another sign his return might not be imminent.

Couple the above with the fact that the Cowboys have their next two games within four days of one another and it appears questionable for Murray to be ready to play that quickly. Although he's making visible progress that hints at his nearing a return, the possibility of a setback will loom for several weeks. The better healed Murray's foot is before he returns, the less likely he'll have problems going forward. Do not count on his services before December, then cross your fingers.

Perceived risk: Moderate

Maurice Jones-Drew, Jacksonville Jaguars (foot): Jones-Drew suffered a midfoot sprain in Week 7, but it was not severe enough to require surgery. Still, it takes time for any ligament injury to heal and the foot has to be protected from excessive load through the injured region, hence the standard post-injury protective boot and crutches. On Thursday night in Week 10, while forced to watch his teammates from the sideline, Jones-Drew said he was "about two weeks away" from a return. As of last week, Jones-Drew was still using a boot, and he is still not practicing as of this week. Until he has resumed higher-level sport-specific activities, it's hard to gauge the accuracy of his target (see: DeMarco Murray). He, too, looks as if he is hard to count on before December.

Perceived risk: Moderate

Cedric Benson, Green Bay Packers (foot): Feet are the theme in the running back injury department, and Benson continues the trend. Of all the athletes who could return this season, Benson is one of the few who has a specific "soonest" return date. The earliest Benson could return to play is Week 14 based on the Packers' use of the "IR/designated for return" tag, which means a player must sit out eight games. Whether his Lisfranc injury will allow him to return by that date is another question. Benson was injured in Week 5, and, although he did not require season-ending surgery, the severity of his foot sprain made it clear that he would need a couple of months to recover. It's unclear just yet whether Benson will be able to resume practice when eligible next week, and then there's the matter of seeing how his foot will respond. At best, fantasy owners will get four weeks. At worst? Benson will be unable to return. Chances are it could fall somewhere in the middle with Benson possibly returning near the anticipated date but in a lesser capacity to start.

Perceived risk: High

Darren McFadden, Oakland Raiders (ankle): McFadden suffered a high-ankle sprain in Week 9 and has already been forced to sit out one game. Although he hasn't yet been ruled out for this week, his absence from practice would suggest he is a long shot to play. The Contra Costa Times reports McFadden was giving the ankle a "test run" under the watchful eye of the rehab staff, and coach Dennis Allen indicated McFadden was "working extremely hard" to return. Although the activity is encouraging, it still would be nice to see McFadden at the level of football activity before engaging in a trade for his services. With him questionable to play this weekend, that might not happen. Then there is the history of McFadden's foot and ankle injuries to consider, which increases his overall risk through the remainder of the season. In other words, he could be around the corner from returning to help fantasy owners, but, until that happens, there's reason to be a bit guarded in the optimism department.

Perceived risk: Moderate

Ahmad Bradshaw
Ahmad Bradshaw's latest injury has affected his trade value as the deadline approaches.

Ahmad Bradshaw, New York Giants (foot/neck): Had this article been written a week ago, Bradshaw would have been a low-risk candidate because, despite his regular presence on the injury report, he routinely shows up to play on Sundays. Now, there is added uncertainty about his health. After the Week 10 game, Bradshaw underwent X-rays on his neck. According to ESPN New York, Bradshaw was slated to undergo further testing during the bye week. "He'll probably have every test known to man here in the next couple of days," Giants coach Tom Coughlin said. With the Giants on bye this week, there are no updates as of yet. Thus, his risk goes up. Even presuming Bradshaw is able to play in Week 12, the suggestion that the neck problem (inflammation associated with a disc), which ailed him earlier in the season, could be flaring up might reinforce a shared workload.

Perceived risk: Moderate

Ben Tate, Houston Texans (hamstring): Tate has struggled to stay healthy this season, dealing first with a toe injury that caused him to miss Week 5 and most recently with a hamstring strain that has sidelined him since the team's Week 8 bye. This week, Tate has made some progress, returning to a limited practice Wednesday. He experienced soreness afterward, however, and was held out Thursday as a result. Although he has a chance to return to action this week, it wouldn't be a surprise if he got another week to recover. The question becomes just how much he will be used when he does return. Early in the season, it seemed as if his role might be substantial. As the weeks progressed, that role seemed to diminish, and, given the injury issues, it's hard to see him taking much work away from starter Arian Foster. Not to mention that lingering concern about a hamstring acting up again.

Perceived risk: Moderate

Darren Sproles, New Orleans Saints (hand): The injury to Sproles (fractured left hand) was a surprise when it happened; we didn't even learn of it until after he had undergone surgery. His progression back has been fairly swift, and he looks as if he will beat the early end of his projected timetable of four to six weeks. After practicing fully Thursday and reportedly looking good catching balls, obviously an important part of the value of his game, Sproles looks to be on track to return in Week 11. Given that he would not be cleared for activity unless his surgeon felt his healing was progressing well, the risk of a setback is fairly low. Even more impressive is the fact that, before this year, Sproles had missed only one game in the past five seasons.

Perceived risk: Low

Beanie Wells, Arizona Cardinals (toe): Like Benson, Wells was the beneficiary of the new "IR/designated for return" tag. Wells, who is no stranger to leg injuries, suffered a turf toe injury that was severe enough to warrant an eight-week absence. He has resumed practicing with the team but cannot rejoin the active roster until Week 12. According to the Cardinals' official website, Wells is confident he will play in that week's game against the Rams. Although he says the toe "feels good," it does raise a bit of concern that he also notes that having it taped properly makes a difference. It's not that taping the toe with this type of injury is unusual; it's more that this is a reminder that the injury is not completely behind him. There's no doubt the Cardinals will rely on him upon his return, so an opportunity for carries is not at issue, especially given that teammate Ryan Williams is on injured reserve. And his legs should be fresh after a very light workload thus far in 2012. If it weren't for his history of being a regular game-time decision the past few years, there might be a reason to lower the risk. But it's all about perception.

Perceived risk: Moderate

Rashard Mendenhall, Pittsburgh Steelers (Achilles): Mendenhall made a successful return from ACL surgery in Week 5, but another ailment forced him out of action just a week later. Mendenhall suffered an Achilles strain in Week 6 and has not played since. That is expected to change this Sunday, when Mendenhall is likely to make his return after putting in full practices this week. The question is twofold: Has Mendenhall put this completely behind him, and, given the quality play of the other Steelers running backs (Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer) in his absence, will they function as a committee? Neither answer is clear. The Steelers have seen the challenges of recurring Achilles issues firsthand, and the decision to bring Mendenhall back slowly no doubt is their strategy to prevent recurrence in his case. Until he tests the leg with game play, however, there is no way to know for sure. Coach Mike Tomlin has indicated he will go to a committee at running back if the situation calls for it, but the team has also said Mendenhall is the starter when healthy. If it weren't that he had so little game action under his belt this season, it would be easier to feel more confident going forward.

Perceived risk: Moderate

Wide receivers

Numerous wide receivers are dealing with week-to-week injuries, and their values fluctuate accordingly. A handful of receivers, however, have been absent for a period of time, leaving fantasy owners to wonder whether they hold any value down the stretch.

Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson
Greg Jennings (left) could provide quite a boost to a fantasy lineup, if he's able to return to form quickly.

Greg Jennings, Green Bay Packers (abdomen): Jennings hasn't played since late September, so it feels as if he's been recovering for an eternity. But keep in mind, he only underwent surgery to address his torn abdominal muscle in early November. That was just two weeks ago. As reported in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, the plan was for Jennings to run full speed at three weeks. Jennings is feeling well and is eager to push it, but his surgeon is encouraging patience. Even after he begins to run full speed in straight lines, Jennings will have to add in route running, sharp cutting and jumping. One of the most challenging things for an athlete to do for the first time after this type of surgery is stretch out to make a diving catch. When Jennings demonstrates that he can do all of the above without pain or hesitation, he will be able to return. The good news is that, after this type of procedure, most athletes do very well and there is very low incidence of recurrence or lingering discomfort. Right now, it appears Jennings could be on track for a December return, and there should be no looking back for him once he has re-entered the playing field.

Perceived risk: Low

Vincent Brown, San Diego Chargers (ankle): Brown fractured his ankle in mid-August and was issued the Chargers' "IR/designated for return" tag. That meant Brown had at least eight weeks before he could play, but his return is actually taking a bit longer. Given the nature of the injury, the additional time is not unexpected. Once the bone has healed, regaining the necessary motion in the ankle, along with the strength, balance and coordination to function at the level of an elite receiver, can be challenging. Brown has progressed to the point of light running, along with his continued rehabilitation activities, but is not yet able to practice. This week, Michael Gehlken of the San Diego Union-Tribune reported that Brown said he felt "real good" while running and that it had been a long time since he had run that way. Brown also noted there was no target date for return to practice, although he hopes it is sometime this month. Brown still has much work to do to be able to return to the playing field, making any sort of timetable difficult to establish. Fantasy owners should not count on a contribution from Brown for their late-season run.

Perceived risk: High

Pierre Garcon, Washington Redskins (toe): Garcon is angling toward a Week 11 return, but no one, including Garcon, believes he is 100 percent healthy. Garcon has been out since Week 6, trying to rest his injured toe with the hopes of returning to play late in the season. He was originally injured in Week 1, sat out the next two weeks, then returned for Weeks 4 and 5, but his productivity was hampered by the pain in his toe. It was later revealed that Garcon had suffered a plantar plate injury at his second toe, a disruption of the fibrous tissue at the base of the toe that helps reinforce the stability of the joint. Not only is the injury painful but the resultant instability makes it difficult to generate power when pushing off that toe. Although the load is not as great as it would be if the injury were at the base of the big toe, it can still create significant impairments, as Garcon has experienced. Garcon has said he hopes to avoid surgery, but it ultimately might be required to stabilize the joint. In the meantime, he is going to try to press forward and play, but even within the Redskins organization, no one knows quite what to expect. According to the Redskins' official website, coach Mike Shanahan said Garcon's ability to push and make cuts was "obviously a good sign." However, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan told the Washington Times that the team was hoping to get Garcon to 100 percent health with rest but that "… now we've seen that we're not sure if he'll ever get there, we would definitely rather have him out there than not have him at all." In other words, even if Garcon returns to play, he is not expected to be at full health and there is the potential for a setback.

Perceived risk: High

Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh Steelers (ankle): Brown suffered what coach Mike Tomlin described as a "mild" high-ankle sprain in Week 9. He did not play the next week and has not yet practiced with the team, making a return this week unlikely. Brown reportedly is still dealing with significant swelling and clearly he will need to be able to run, cut and get up in the air (and land) without issue to return to the receiver position. Brown might end up missing another couple of games because these injuries, even when minor in terms of tissue damage, can be challenging in terms of recovery. Of course, even if Brown were to play within the next two weeks, he likely would be without his starting quarterback (Ben Roethlisberger suffered an SC sprain and a first rib dislocation in Week 10). The expectation is that Brown will be able to work his way back within the relatively near future and should be able to contribute by December. As always with these types of injuries, one has to account for the possibility of a setback, but he might be a good acquisition for a late fantasy playoff push.

Perceived risk: Low to Moderate