As I have stated before, the running back position this year for fantasy is a total mess after the top four or five running backs. A big part of the overall uncertainty at the position this year is largely in part due to several knee injuries that occurred to major running backs last year. Adrian Peterson and Jamal Charles, two top three fantasy picks last year, both suffered ACL tears during the season. Matt Forte, arguably running at the peak of his career, suffered a grade two MCL sprain towards the end of his season. And then finally, Beanie Wells played through knee pain for the majority of the season that ended up requiring surgery at the end of the year. All four of these players suffered their respective injuries while in great form, and the question that bears upon every fantasy owner out there now is, can they return to their greatness?
Beanie Wells, Cardinals
I’ll start with Beanie Wells, the least concerning of the four injuries. It must be noted that his surgery was a surprise to many and ended up being quite mysterious. Reports came out several weeks ago that the surgery was indeed more complicated than expected. Although it’s likely it wasn’t anything more than a quick scope, there is always concern when dealing with the knee. Wells posted the best season of his career last year with 1,047 rushing yards through only 14 games. On top of that he managed a very solid 10 touchdowns which placed him at the 15th best fantasy rushing back come the end of the season. Unfortunately for Wells, the Cardinals also drafted running back Ryan Williams, a highly touted, every down back out of Virginia Tech. With Williams assured to get some work, and Well’s mysterious knee problems it is likely we have seen the best we will get out of Beanie.
Matt Forte, Bears
Similar to Beanie, Matt Forte was also on pace for the best year of his career. With 997 rushing yards and 490 receiving yards through only 12 games, Forte was on pace to post over 1,300 rushing yards and 650 receiving yards. Forte’s season was derailed though after taking a devastating shoulder pad to his knee that resulted in a grade two MCL sprain. Although Forte did not undergo surgery in the offseason, this is the third knee injury of his career. In college at Tulane, Forte suffered a knee injury. Forte then played through the majority of his subpar 2009 season with a grade one MCL sprain that required arthroscopic surgery in the offseason. This is now the third significant knee injury Forte has suffered, and team doctors and officials are concerned enough with the durability of Forte’s knees that they are unwilling to sign him to a large long term contract. If team doctors that constantly diagnose and evaluate Forte are concerned about his knees, it seems to me the average fantasy owner ought to be too. When running backs decline, it isn’t gradual. Running backs hit cliffs and generally fall off the map. With the average career of running backs growing progressively shorter, it worries me that Forte has had one to many issues to return back to his prime.
Jamaal Charles, Chiefs
After being argued by many as a top three fantasy pick in 2011, Jamaal Charles suffered a demoralizing ACL tear in week two after attempting to avoid a mascot on the sidelines. ACL tears are never good for any running back, but are especially worrisome for backs that rely on their explosive and quick cutting style like Charles. The one benefit of Charles’ injury is that it occurred in week two. Because of this, Charles was able to immediately undergo surgery and begin his rehab during the 2011 season. Being only 24 years of age gives Charles and advantage as he is still young and has yet to reach the typical peak year for a running back at age 25. On the downside, the Chiefs also signed running back Peyton Hillis during the offseason. Although Hillis has had injury issues of his own, he is still a great back, and the concern for how well Charles can come back from the injury is apparent amongst the Chiefs organization. In my opinion, this is little to worry about as the Chiefs previously had Thomas Jones who played a very similar role as to what Hillis should be expected to take on. Remember, in 2010 Charles had the best year of his season rushing for 1,467 yards all while Thomas Jones still had 245 carries, actually 15 more than Charles had himself. Hillis will vulture some touchdowns on the goal line, but in reality, Charles never truly had goal line value to lose.
Adrian Peterson, Vikings
Finally, and probably most importantly, there is Adrian Peterson. Peterson tore both his ACL and his MCL in week 12 last year, and it was a gruesome one to watch. Usually running backs, or any player for that matter, who has such a significant knee injury that late in the season isn’t expected to perform very effectively the following year. For example, Rashard Mendenhall, running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers, tore his ACL in week 17 last year and isn’t even considered draftable for fantasy purposes this year. Peterson though is a different animal, literally. He has made it very clear to teammates, coaches, and the public that he plans on being back and ready for the 2012 season opener. There have been videos released of him cutting side to side, running wind sprints up hills, and even beating out Percy Harvin in a sprint. While doctors are hesitant to side with Peterson and confirm he will be ready for week one, it certainly is encouraging to see so much evidence and openness about his recovery. Every knee injury is different, and every player heals and responds to rehab at their own pace. While my gut says stay away because of his vicious running style, I foresee Peterson being drafted in the late first early second come draft time regardless. With a name of his caliber and the promise of how well his recovery is going, the hype will assuredly sky rocket his draft stock as we near the preseason.
The Bottom Line
No matter who the running back is, it is important to remember to learn from history. Unfortunately in the case of running backs returning from significant knee injuries, the history isn’t too pleasant. Would I completely stay away from all four of these backs in the draft, absolutely not. What I feel is important is to come up with a reasonably safe round that you would feel comfortable drafting each of these players in weeks before you go into your draft. Like I stated earlier, with the caliber of names of players on this list and the recent success of all of them, they are likely to be overvalued for the amount of risk they each carry. Personally, Jamaal Charles is the only one I feel safe drafting where he is likely to go. Come draft time in August, Peterson and Forte will most likely be valued too high and carry too much risk to validate a first round selection. While with Beanie I feel we have seen the peak, and there is just little upside left. In the end, always tread carefully come draft time, stick with your gut, and don’t let others influence how you value a player.