Don’s Do Not Trust List: Running Backs

Will MJD be as bad as MGD?
Photo Credit: Jeff Kern

With draft season well underway, I think it’s time your favorite physical therapist chimes in on which guys I’m leery of drafting due to injury risk, and which guys should be fine going into this season. That’s right kids, it’s the official Don’s Do Not Trust List ®: Fantasy Football Draft Edition. I’ve got a number of players to discuss, some of whom I will endorse and some of whom will get a spot on the dreaded list. God has granted me a wonderful combination of medical expertise and fantasy prowess, and if baseball season was any indication you should pay close attention to my words here. There are far too many injuries and players to address everyone, so I’m sticking with players found in the majority of leagues. If there’s a player in particular I didn’t address and you’d like some advice on, or if you just want to thank me profusely for being your fantasy draft guardian angel, please feel free to drop me a line in the comments section or send me an email, I’ll help a brother (or sister) out.

This edition will focus on Running Backs. WR and TE editions will follow in the coming weeks (QB can be found here, WR here, TE here). I’ll preface this piece by saying that ALL RBs are at great risk for injury. These guys take a beating all game long and perform lots of explosive running, cutting and jumping. So while I endorse a couple guys here, don’t blame me when your workhorse runner shreds his ankle after getting horse-collared. It happens. Don’t hate the player, hate the game. Let’s get after it.

Maurice Jones-Drew: MJD enters this season as one of the biggest (and most publicized) injury risk candidates of 2011 after undergoing offseason surgery to repair the meniscus in his right knee. The meniscus is cartilage-like tissue between the femur (thigh) and tibia (shin) bones. The purpose of the meniscus is to provide shock absorption between these bones and assist with stability of the knee joint. Recovery time for a meniscus repair is typically four-to-six months for a return to activity with up to a year for full recovery. According to reports, MJD is right on schedule.

While this is still major reconstructive surgery, the meniscus is not nearly as vital a structure for an RB as a ligament (ACL, MCL, etc.) or muscle (quad, hamstring). So MJD physically shouldn’t demonstrate much of a drop-off in his ability to run, cut, spin, etc.  Psychologically, however, this sort of injury and recovery can wreak havoc on an athlete.  Part of the typical meniscus repair protocol will be a period of non-weight bearing (i.e. not putting any weight on the injured limb) for roughly four-to-eight weeks depending on the surgeon. There are also restrictions on how far the knee can be bent and extended and a knee immobilizer will need to be worn. This process takes time and involves being super cautious with the leg until given clearance to progress. When an athlete (or anyone) undergoes this sort of recovery and has been overly cautious with the leg for an extended period of time, there’s understandably a bit of hesitation upon being given clearance to really stress the area. In the case of a running back, it wouldn’t surprise me to see MJD a little hesitant when it comes to fully bursting through the line or trying to put an uber-juke move on a defender in the open field. You might even see him dropping to the ground or running out of bounds instead of fighting for the extra yards. Until MJD fully trusts his leg, he won’t be “right,” and it’ll show on the field.

Psychological issues aside, the biggest question marks about Jones-Drew’s knee will be just how strong the repair is and has enough time passed for it to heal sufficiently. It’s not uncommon for athletes to report pain and swelling in the knee up to a year after surgery with excessive exertion or repeated stress. MJD will be approximately eight months out from the procedure at the start of the regular season, which is still within the range where flare-ups can be expected. Will MJD be a constant injury headache for his owner’s this year? Will Rashad Jennings eat into MJD’s workload? Will the Jaguars give MoJo fewer touches in hopes of keeping him fresh all year and protect the knee? These are legitimate concerns to have about a player likely to be drafted before the end of the second round.

Advice: I’m a bit torn on this as I enjoy MJD as a player (and appreciate his love of fantasy sports) and I think there’s a reasonable chance he can bounce back and have big year, but there’s just too many question marks here to ignore. MJD gets a spot on the DDNTL. If I could land him in the third round (or less than elite RB money in an auction) I think I’d roll the dice, but he’s too risky for me in the late first or early second round. I don’t see any way MJD doesn’t lose touches to Jennings. Whether it’s the knee acting up, the coaches protecting him, or Jennings forcing his way into action, MJD will share more carries this year. Couple in the potential for flare-ups in the knee, and I can’t advise investing a top draft pick in Jones-Drew this year.

Frank Gore: Frank Gore was lost for the season last year due to a hip fracture, which is odd because I didn’t think Gore was 90 years old. Perhaps he should get a Life Alert (he should demand one in the new contract he’s holding out for). I jest. While the specific location of the fracture was not disclosed, more than likely it was a fracture of the femoral neck. The hip joint is a ball and socket joint, the “ball” part of the joint is connected to your femur (thigh bone) via the femoral neck. These sorts of fractures are typically the result of a significant trauma, such as getting hit by a truck (or NFL equivalent: linebackers). More often than not these fractures require surgery to fixate the fractured ends, and in most cases there are accompanying injuries to contend with as the traumatic event that fractured the hip likely injured other things as well. Recovery time varies depending on the size of the fracture and whether surgery was required.

Gore’s fracture was non-displaced, meaning the fractured ends stayed in alignment, and because of this good fortune he avoided the need for surgery. Gore didn’t tear or break anything else (that we know of) as a result of the trauma, so that’s also a good thing. As part of his recovery, Gore underwent an extensive rehab program to improve the strength, flexibility and overall functionality of the leg. He’s recently been deemed 100% and is expected to be fine for the start of the regular season. In fact, Coach Harbaugh plans on giving Gore even more touches this year, and at age 28 Gore might only have a year or two left of elite production.

Advice: Believe what you’ve been reading: Frank Gore will be ready to roll coming into this season and does not make my list. Yes Gore has taken a beating over the years and always seems to show up on weekly injury reports, but with the exception of last season’s somewhat fluky injury costing him half the season, he’s actually been more durable than his reputation suggests, playing in at least 14 games every season (except ’10) and logging at least 220+ carries and 40+ catches. Gore is a known as a workout warrior and he’s at no greater risk for injury because of the hip issue. In fact, I would say he’s probably less prone to injury due to the rehab program shoring up the entire leg. Look for Gore to get all the work he can handle this year (if his holdout doesn’t go on for too long).

Ahmad Bradshaw:  I will try to contain my Giants fandom during the following paragraphs. I do, however, love this guy (in a totally heterosexual way…yep). Now that we got that out of the way, Bradshaw enters the season recovering from both ankle (arthroscopic cleanup procedure) and wrist (fracture) injuries. These injuries come on the heels (bad pun intended) of previous injuries to both feet and ankles over the last few years.  Bradshaw actually played the final six games of the year with a fractured left wrist (because he’s a MAN) and he did not require any surgery for the fracture to heal this offseason. The wrist is of no concern whatsoever, don’t worry about it. The ankle pain Bradshaw was dealing with seemed to hamper him down the stretch last season and required an arthroscopic procedure to clean out scar tissue and various loose bodies and debris (Bradshaw had the same procedure on his right ankle last offseason). While the procedure alone is not a major concern as it’s a routine deal and there’s no reconstruction, there’s nothing routine about Bradshaw’s feet and ankles.

As previously mentioned, Bradshaw has had multiple foot and ankle injuries throughout his playing career, both in college and the NFL. Why does he have so many problems with his wheels? Bradshaw’s unique running style and gait pattern (bowlegged ferocity I’ll affectionately call it) predispose him to foot and ankle injuries. When Bradshaw runs, he displays a somewhat “bowlegged” appearance, which medically is known as genu varum (disclaimer:  I’m making this analysis based on what I’ve observed watching Bradshaw on TV – I have never formally evaluated this man and without taking specific measurements and assessments it’s not possible to judge this with 100% accuracy). Genu varum can cause a host of problems in the lower extremities, most commonly in the knees, ankles and feet. Because his knees “bow” like he’s riding a horse, Bradshaw lands more towards the outside of his foot when running, which places stress on the lateral structures of his foot and ankle (structures which weren’t designed to absorb that level of stress). This has resulted in fifth metatarsal (the “pinky” bone of the foot) fractures and multiple ankle injuries from altered joint mechanics. To this point, his knees have been fine, but it could be just a matter of time.

Advice: I love Ahmad Bradshaw, but he’s going on the DDNTL. He’s a smaller back, he runs very aggressively, and he has a significant past medical history that leads me to believe he’ll be on the shelf at some point this year. Yes he played 16 games last year and toted the rock an impressive 276 times, but he also broke his wrist and had yet another ankle injury in the process. I don’t like the chances of him repeating that sort of durability in 2011.

Quick Hits
Peyton Hillis: We all know the story with Hillis last year: he was a beast for the first half of the season and gradually wore down as the season progressed. Hillis had almost 200 more carries last year than his previous season high and a boatload of receptions to boot, leading to a breakdown. While Hillis doesn’t enter this season with any offseason surgery or major injuries to recover from, his size and running style predispose him to injury. His game is to seek contact and plow you over, which works well in smaller doses but not the length of a season. With Montario Hardesty back and a new regime (again) in Cleveland, the plan is to share the load a bit more in the backfield to keep Hillis fresh. That will certainly help his cause, but this is a guy who needs volume to be productive, and unless he changes the way he plays (not going to happen) he’s likely to end up injured at some point. Besides, the Madden Curse is real, they teach us all about it in PT school. Welcome to the DDNTL Peyton.

Knowshon Moreno: Moreno struggled with hamstring problems for much of 2010 and even suffered a rib injury to end the season. Moreno has had knee troubles in the past and has gotten a reputation for being soft. To combat this, Moreno has undergone an intense offseason workout program, strengthening and toning his body to the tune of a lean and mean 200 lbs. With DeAngelo Williams re-signing in Carolina and the underwhelming Willis McGahee signed as a backup in Denver, Moreno looks poised to get a sizeable workload this year. Moreno’s reputation of being a slacker and poor locker room guy seems to fly in the face of the reports of his offseason conditioning program, but if his new-found work ethic is a sign of things to come, perhaps Moreno can become a trustworthy option at RB. However, until he shows he can withstand the beating a RB endures and maintains the work ethic and high level of fitness required, Knowshon gets a spot on the DDNTL.

Pierre Thomas: Thomas underwent ankle surgery back in January, of course there’s no specific information available but it’s being reported as an “extensive arthroscopic procedure” to tighten ligaments in the ankle. PT was on crutches well into March, which indicates an extensive procedure that required immobilization and non-weight bearing until adequate healing occurred. Even now in late July PT still feels only 85%. Ligament reconstructions in the ankle can be tricky business and typically take a minimum of four-to-six months to recover from (he’s at about six months right now) and the athlete could notice limitations for up to a year post-op. It wouldn’t surprise me to see PT favor that ankle all preseason (and potentially regular season) and demonstrate reduced agility, explosiveness and cutting ability. Couple that with the long layoff and it will likely result in a lot of rust and flare-up potential all season long. Oh yeah, the Saints also drafted Mark Ingram, signed Darren Sproles, and have Lynell Hamilton and Chris Ivory cleaning toilets until they are healed enough to steal carries from talented players like PT…you think the Saints trust Thomas? Me neither, to the DDNTL with you Pierre!

Ryan Mathews: Mathews’ rookie season was disappointing to say the least. He suffered a high ankle sprain that derailed the majority of his season and underwent wrist surgery this offseason. According to reports, both injuries are 100% healed and Mathews is ready for the season. Do I trust him? I can’t call Mathews an injury risk because of one lost season.  He returned towards the end of the year and over his final two games Mathews was actually very productive, showing glimpses of the ability that made him the heir apparent to LT when the Chargers drafted him. The fact that he ended the season strong, hasn’t played long enough to have the injury risk label, and appears fully recovered entering the season means I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt heading into this year’s drafts. I’m leaving Mathews off the DDNTL for this year, and he might end up being a nice bargain.

Don’s Do Not Trust List: Fantasy Football Draft Edition
Quarterbacks: Michael Vick, Ben Roethlisberger
Runningbacks: MJD, A.Bradshaw, P.Hillis, K.Moreno, P.Thomas
Wide Receivers: M.Colston, S.Rice, M.Crabtree, A.Collie, K.Britt, MSW
Tight Ends Antonio Gates, Chris Cooley, Kellen Winslow

Don Brown is the resident Physical Therapist here at SoR. He takes care of all our knife wounds and shares his expertise on the injuries of the sporting world. For any further questions or comments, he can be reached at donnypump@hotmail.com


About Starbonell

Starbonell is the co-founder of Sons of Roto and one of the most insightful and colorful fantasy analysts in the game. Mixing intelligent and well-researched advice with an entertaining style of writing that is easy to digest, Starbonell is the king of info-tainment.