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Jamaal Charles returned from an ACL injury
What you need to know about ACL injuries and RBs
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Running Back Two Year
Major Injury Rule

Fantasy football draft strategy

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Updated: July 10, 2014
Original Release: August 17, 2004


When it comes to most fantasy football drafts, there is hardly a position in fantasy football that is more coveted than the position of running back. With only 32 NFL teams and typically two running backs required for the start in most fantasy football leagues, it doesn't take long to see that quality running backs are hot commodities on fantasy draft day. Throw in the fact that several NFL teams support Running Back By Committee (RBBC) offenses (offenses that fail to feature a workhorse running back and consequently distribute the carries and the opportunity to score fantasy points to several different running backs), and quality running backs can go faster than free BBQ at a NFL pre-game tailgate. The importance of running backs in your draft plans is reflected in our free Fantasy Running Back Rankings.

What constitutes a workhorse running back?
By "workhorse", we mean a back that is likely to get at least somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 touches in a game (either directly from a hand-off or from a pass reception out of the backfield). Typically these are your household name backs; however, they could also be "up and comers" that people feel are going to get those kind of touches in the upcoming season but have yet to do so in the past. Regardless, the idea here is to select a running back that is slated to be the featured back in a NFL offense, but be sure to exercise extreme caution when selecting such a back. It is imperative to consider the leg injury history of a running back with respect to time, otherwise you may effectively pay the price for a Mercedes only to receive a Corolla.

Major injury history with respect to time?
You bet. It is not enough for a running back to be declared the feature back in an NFL offense. The back should also be two years removed from the season when the major leg injury occurred before paying the high price of an early round pick in your fantasy football draft. To help illustrate this point, let's examine the numbers for running backs the year before the season they suffered a major leg injury and then the numbers the year after returning from a major injury:

The Numbers:

First season returning from major injury resulting in a significant decline in production denoted in red text.

NFL Running Back
Player Injury YR Before Inj. YR After Inj. Team Pos Rush Yards Rec. Yards Total TD
  Curt Warner
ACL 1983 --
SEA
RB
1449
325
14
 
ACL -- 1985
SEA
RB
1094
307
9
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  Terry Allen
ACL 1992 --
MIN
RB
1201
478
15
 
ACL -- 1994
MIN
RB
1031
148
8
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  Ki-Jana Carter*
ACL 1994 --
PSU
RB
1539*
Unknown
26*
 
ACL -- 1996
CIN
RB
264**
169**
9**
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  Jamal Anderson
ACL 1998 --
ATL
RB
1846
319
16
 
ACL -- 2000
ATL
RB
1024
382
6
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  Terrell Davis
ACL 1998 --
DEN
RB
2008
217
23
 
ACL -- 2000
DEN
RB
282
4
2
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  Robert Edwards
Knee Disl. 1998 --
NWE
RB
1115
331
12
 
Knee Disl. -- 2002
MIA
RB
107
126
2
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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  Garrison Hearst
Leg 1998 --
SFO
RB
1570
535
9
 
Leg -- 2001
SFO
RB
1206
347
5
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  Olandis Gary
ACL 1999 --
DEN
RB
1159
159
7
 
ACL -- 2001
DEN
RB
228
29
1
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  Edgerrin James
ACL 2000 --
IND
RB
1709
594
18
 
ACL -- 2002
IND
RB
989
354
3
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  Jamal Lewis
ACL 2000 --
BAL
RB
1364
296
6
 
ACL -- 2002
BAL
RB
1327
442
7
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  Dominic Rhodes
ACL 2001 --
IND
RB
1104
224
9
 
ACL -- 2003
IND
RB
157
62
1
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  Deuce McAllister
ACL 2004 --
NOR
RB
1074
228
10
 
ACL -- 2006
NOR
RB
1057
198
10
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  LaMont Jordan
MCL 2005 --
OAK
RB
1025
563
11
 
MCL -- 2007
OAK
RB
549
247
3
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  Ronnie Brown
ACL 2006 --
MIA
RB
1008
276
5
 
ACL -- 2008
MIA
RB
946
254
10
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  Deuce McAllister
ACL 2006 --
NOR
RB
1057
198
10
 
ACL -- 2008
NOR
RB
418
128
6
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  Cadillac Williams
P. Tendon 2006 --
TAM
RB
798
196
1
 
P. Tendon -- 2008
TAM
RB
233
43
4
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  Kevin Smith
ACL 2008 --
DET
RB
976
286
8
 
ACL -- 2010
DET
RB
133
123
0
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  Jamaal Charles
ACL 2010 --
KC
RB
1467
468
8
 
ACL -- 2012
KC
RB
1509
236
6
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  Tim Hightower
ACL 2010 --
WAS
RB
736
136
5
 
ACL -- 2012
WAS
RB
0
0
0
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  Rashard Mendenhall
ACL 2010 --
PIT
RB
1273
167
13
 
ACL -- 2012
PIT
RB
182
62
1
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  Knowshon Moreno
ACL 2010 --
DEN
RB
779
372
8
 
ACL -- 2012
DEN
RB
525
167
4
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  Adrian Peterson
ACL 2010 --
MIN
RB
1298
341
13
 
ACL -- 2012
MIN
RB
2097
217
13
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
* Obtained while playing for Penn State. Drafted #1 overall in the 1995 NFL Draft.
** Carter tore his ACL in the 1995 NFL preseason as a rookie. Many point to this injury as the reason his NFL career flopped.


Major leg injuries and running backs do not mix, and it takes time (typically two full years from the season when the major leg injury occurred) to recover to the pre-injury form that these backs enjoyed when punishing NFL defenses on a regular basis. Jamal Lewis, Deuce McAllister (first ACL tear in 2004), Ronnie Brown, Jamaal Charles, and Adrian Peterson are the only running backs to produce numbers extremely similar to their pre-injury form on their first year back from a major leg injury. For Lewis, there are two possible explanations that could help account for this. The first lies in the fact that Lewis tore his ACL during the preseason in the summer of 2000, hence Lewis had longer to rehab the injury and prepare for the 2002 season when compared to previous backs that tore their ACL during the regular season. The second possible explanation lies in the fact that Lewis had previously torn his ACL during his sophomore year of college while playing at Tennessee; consequently, he already experienced the recovery process and knew both physically and mentally what it would take to rehabilitate his knee and return to a high level of play. However, this same line of thought did not workout for McAllister, who successfully returned to his pre-injury form the first year he returned to action from a torn ACL (2006), but not the second (2008). Asking a player to successfully return from an ACL tear in each knee is a very tall order, and it is remarkable McAllister was able to work his way back onto the field in 2008. For Ronnie Brown, he is the exception to the norm as we have no concrete reason why he was able to return to his preinjury form so quickly. He did injure his knee in 2007 relatively early in the season (week 7), but that is not early enough to consider it a significant advantage in terms of recovery time. In every data set there are always a few points outside the data band, and Brown to his credit is one of those points. Regarding Charles, he suffered his ACL injury very early in the season. Similar to Lewis, he had a little more time to recover. Granted, he didn't need two seasons to recover, but he did benefit from the extra time. Hearst also had one of the better years on his return (70% of his previous fantasy performance based on a standard performance scoring system), but similar to Lewis and Charles, Hearst also had more time to rehabilitate his injury compared to other players (in fact, he had an additional year to recover). Last, there is Adrian Peterson, who is just a freak. It is unbelievable what he was able to accomplish. Not only did he have a significantly better year, but he also tore his ACL very late in the season and only had a few months to recover. Our hats are off to Mr. Peterson. Well done. He is the exception as a "once in a generation" type of player. Regardless, the overall trend illustrates that some of the best backs in the game struggled on their first year immediately returning from a major leg injury, which is something to keep in mind during your fantasy football draft.

Why does this RB two-year injury rule seem to exist?
In a word: hesitation. When returning to the gridiron after recovering from a significant leg injury, it is almost impossible for a running back to not hesitate when running with the ball. Minor leg injuries such as sprains and pulled muscles can and should be expected for running backs in the NFL, but major leg injuries such as a torn ACL can be devastating to a running back and delay their progress to returning to their pre-injury form. The key to this immediate one-year slump lies in the function of the ACL itself. The ACL holds the femur and tibia in place and is one of the most critical ligaments to athletes because of its primary function of stabilizing the knee joint during deceleration. Without the ACL, players would fall to the ground due to the knee buckling when applying pressure from either stopping or changing direction. It is only natural for a running back to be hesitant when running during the first year after an ACL injury. Given the speed of the NFL, there is no room for there to be any kind of hesitation and still expect a running back to put up big numbers.

By the way, for those that have endured a significant leg injury and played some ball, we're preaching to the choir. For those that haven't, go talk to someone who has. Physical therapy is brutal and requires not only considerable time to "fully recover", but also requires tremendous determination and sheer guts. The mental anguish on a player can at times prove to be as strenuous as the physical anguish. It is not uncommon for a player to ponder thoughts of retirement when going through this process, and it is a credit to those that made it all the way back to be able to play at the level the NFL demands.

When it comes to your fantasy football draft this year, keep the Running Back Two-Year Major Injury Rule in mind. These players have a place in your fantasy football draft, but just not in the early rounds. Let someone else fall prey to the memories of yesterday when selecting a running back that is in his first year returning from a major leg injury.

Who are candidates of concern for 2014 with respect to the "RB Two Year Major Injury Rule"?
On the RB front, major injuries were down in 2013. There were only three RBs that suffered one, and all three were back-ups: LaRod Stephens-Howling (PIT), Vick Ballard (IND), and Mike Goodson (NYJ). Stephens-Howling is on injured reserve and has his work cut out for him with plenty of competition at RB on the Steelers roster, including newly signed RB LeGarrette Blount from New England. Vick Ballard is practicing and says he is close to 100% after tearing his ACL in week 2, but we all know it really takes 2 years to reach 100%, if you are ever able to reach it again. He will be fighting for table scraps left by RBs Trent Richardson and Ahmad Bradshaw. Last, there is Mike Goodson, who is currently looking for employment as a free agent after tearing both his ACL and MCL last season.

Outside of RB, what are some other players at other offensive skill positions that suffered torn ACL's last season?
While not as strong an indicator in performance when returning the year after a major injury as RB, here are some of the bigger names that suffered torn ACL's last season: QB Sam Bradford (STL), QB Brian Hoyer (CLE), TE Rob Gronkowski (NWE), TE Dustin Keller (Free Agent / Previously MIA), WR Reggie Wayne (IND), WR Jeremy Maclin (PHI), WR Leonard Hankerson (WAS), WR Joseph Morgan (NOR), and WR Sidney Rice (SEA). Of this list, WR Reggie Wayne concerns us the most. You can read more details why in our Fantasy Football Busts article for 2014.

Want more freaky RB injury "rule-of-thumbs" to help in your fantasy football draft preparation?
Then be sure to check out our Effect of RB Carries on Future Production article as well.

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