Preseason injury concerns warranted

If Arian Foster's calf injury suffered during OTAs, or subsequent back injury suffered at the onset of training camp, concerns his 2013 fantasy owners, they're sure not exhibiting it at the draft table.

Foster's ADP (average draft position) has scarcely changed in the past week, slipping by only one-tenth, and even at the height of "Foster injury panic" -- between Aug. 14-21 -- it dropped by only half a spot (2.9 to 3.4). What's more, the ESPN fantasy staff's ranking of him has gone unchanged: He remains a firm No. 2.

It's optimistic treatment of a player who won't take a single preseason carry, who has caused NFL insiders to believe he might cede some September work to Ben Tate and who 10 days ago had some doubt cast upon his Week 1 availability. One might wonder whether the smarter play in fantasy drafts is to take the conservative approach with an injured player, considering how close in value the next three players behind him are.

History supports this strategy.

Over a period of seven seasons -- the 2006 to 2012 campaigns, to frame this study -- 82 players were in a state of "injury flux" during fantasy draft season, which we'll define as either missing time late in the preseason or the preseason in its entirety, or up to the first four games of the regular season. These guidelines were by design: We want comparison points to this year's crop of questionable-or-worse-for-Week-1 players, which include such names as Justin Blackmon (four-game suspension), Josh Gordon (two-game suspension), Rob Gronkowski (back), Jordy Nelson (knee surgery) and Isaiah Pead (one-game suspension). These are the players about whom fantasy owners have the most relevant draft-day questions, and whom fantasy owners might be pushing down draft boards accordingly.

Admittedly, this is a somewhat subjective study, considering the varying types and severity of injuries, not to mention the inclusion of holdouts and suspensions. It would be impossible to identify and evaluate every such situation fairly; absorb this as more a cautionary lesson than a hard-and-fast rule.

To be clear, this study is not designed to address major injury questions, or to use 2013 examples, Le'Veon Bell (Lisfranc), Michael Crabtree (Achilles), Percy Harvin (hip) or Jonathan Stewart (ankle). Players known to be at risk of more than four missed regular-season games -- or in a few of these cases at least six -- are not included in the study. It's not difficult to judge that these are all significant injury risks.

Here are the findings about that 82-man sample:

• These players combined suffered a 33.8 percent decline in total fantasy production during those seasons, or 23.2 percent going by fantasy points per game.
• Only 20 of them scored more fantasy points than the preceding year; 12 of them enjoyed an increase of 20 percent or more, four an increase of between 10 and 20 percent and four an increase of up to 10 percent.
• Only three experienced an increase of 100 or more fantasy points.
Twenty-two suffered a decline of 100 fantasy points or more.
• These players missed an average of 1.4 games to begin their seasons, and 4.0 games during the course of said seasons.
• Three of them missed the entire first half of the season (through Week 9).

For more details, the entire chart of players examined can be seen at column's end.

This is not to say that every preseason injury question mark developed into a bust. Consider the three players whose fantasy point totals increased by 100 points or more during their respective seasons, two of which happened in 2012:

Randy Moss, 2007: He missed the entire preseason with a hamstring injury, yet recovered in time to set a single-season record for receiving touchdowns (23), not to mention tally the second-most fantasy points all-time by a wide receiver (280).

Adrian Peterson, 2012: You cannot possibly have forgotten this story. Peterson defied the odds in recovering from Dec. 30, 2011, knee surgery to reconstruct his ACL and repair his MCL, outscoring all running backs by at least 49 fantasy points.

Trent Richardson, 2012: After entering the league with somewhat of a reputation for being injury-prone, Richardson succumbed to knee surgery in early August, missing the preseason. He would return in time to play 15 of the Cleveland Browns' 16 games, notching the third-most productive rookie season by a running back and sixth by a rookie overall (188 points).

The problem, however, is that for every such success story, there are twice as many examples of disappointment. Here are just five of the most catastrophic tales of players who entered a season with a questionable status:

Tom Brady, 2008: Yes, this one is probably unfair. After all, Brady's preseason injury absence had nothing to do with the torn ACL he suffered as a result of a Bernard Pollard takedown seven minutes and 33 seconds into his season. But facts are facts; he did enter that year with questions about his foot, an unspecified, mysterious injury. (Then again, it's the New England Patriots, so what's new?)

Peyton Manning, 2011: You'll remember this one as the "four neck surgeries for Peyton Manning" year, only one of them (on May 23) reported before most leagues had drafted. Manning's draft stock plummeted precipitously throughout that August amidst questions he'd miss multiple regular-season weeks, but it wasn't until Sept. 9 that he'd succumb to surgery No. 3 -- and at that time it was only the second one publicly announced -- ending his season.

Larry Johnson, 2007: His was a 25-day holdout concluding Aug. 21, giving him 19 days to prepare for the season. His was a catastrophic collapse; he appeared in only eight games and suffered a 225-point decline in fantasy production. That said, the holdout alone shouldn't be blamed; Johnson's 416 rushing attempts in 2006 set an all-time record, his 457 touches the second most in history.

Maurice Jones-Drew, 2012: Another holdout story, his a 38-day wait that ended with only one week to go before the season, Jones-Drew's tale shares an important parallel with Arian Foster's. Jones-Drew was another clear first-round fantasy talent at the time, one who still had the faith of his owners (and prospective owners) -- this columnist included -- despite his preseason absence. He would wind up playing just six games, suffering a 193-point decline in fantasy production.

Brett Favre, 2010: May 21 surgery on his left ankle cast a shadow on Favre's draft status, fresh off his statistical rejuvenation of 2009, and limited him to only two preseason appearances. He would endure the most trying year of his career -- both on and off the field -- suffering in-season setbacks with his ankle before a shoulder injury finally snapped his 297-consecutive-start streak in December. His 90 fantasy points were his worst seasonal total in 19 years as an NFL starter, and they represented a 184-point drop-off from his 2009 total.

What this tells us is that, while there's no one-size-fits-all rule for question-mark players, the entire crop resides much more in "risk/reward" territory than we sometimes give credit, the risk considerably greater than the reward. This is a critical lesson with Foster; it supports the claims of those who plan to push him to the back end of the first round, as this columnist does (he's my No. 7 overall player).

It also validates any fantasy owner's strategy to take a conservative approach to drafting any injury/in-season absence risk, based on the notion that far more past examples than not resulted in disappointment. Yes, Rob Gronkowski's continually plummeting ADP is sensible; his No. 50 (53.1 ADP) status might, in fact, be generous. Yes, Jordy Nelson's No. 23 ADP among wide receivers (63rd overall, 66.7) is fair and perhaps also generous, considering he ranked 20th at his position in fantasy points per game in 2012 (9.5).

That's not to say that either player, or even Foster, couldn't recover brilliantly and repeat his 2012 effort. But if you have doubts about any, they've got validity.

The full 82-man injury study

Players are ranked by their fantasy point totals in the given season. "Prev. year" is the player's number of games played and fantasy points scored in the previous year. In the "Injury" year, "Pre" represents the number of preseason games, "G" the number of regular-season games, the player played in the given season.