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Is a Torn ACL a Death Sentence for a WR’s Fantasy Value?
gamedayr.com
gamedayr.com

The NFL draft is nearly upon us and the site is filling up with rookie info because you need to prepare for you dynasty rookie drafts and everyone loves rookies. Whatever you do, don’t look back at results from previous years rookie drafts because they’ll only depress you. I tend to be quick to send away my rookie picks for proven players when I have the chance1. Earlier in this offseason, I traded away some late future picks for Jeremy Maclin2 and Kenny Britt3. To some extent, I was just playing free agent roulette in the hopes that one or the other would end up in a favorable situation and see a value bump. Then I started getting worried about their knees. [EDIT: This piece has been revised to remove Todd Pinkston from the data set. He injured his achilles rather than his ACL. Conflicting injury information is a big part of why it’s difficult to quantify injury result].

The Dynasty Doctor

The Dynasty Doctor over at DLF, Scott Peak, published an article last year about ACL injuries. One of the things I enjoy about the dynasty fantasy football community is that it’s tight knit and everyone is very responsive. I emailed Dr. Peak to press for more details about his article. Specifically, he mentioned that ACL recoveries are improving and I wanted a list of players that had suffered this injury and what their outcomes were. I tried to find this myself and stumbled across this abstract from the American Journal of Sports Medicine. I brought that to his attention and then, in turn, he sent me this article which looked at results for collegiate players.

Peak’s Dynasty Doctor article mostly discussed the nuts and bolts of ACL surgery and recovery times contrasted against achilles injuries4. He cited a couple of player examples, but is mostly focused on letting you know exactly what an ACL is, how it gets hurt and what they can do about it.

Quantifying Player Performance Post-Injury

That AJSM abstract I sited above is for a paper presented back in 2005 that looked at outcomes for a total of 31 NFL players at the WR and RB positions between 1998 and 20025. They calculate a “player rating” for players that’s effectively just their total number of fantasy points, and compare the injured players vs a control group of everyone that isn’t injured. They find that less than 80% of these players return to the field after an ACL injury and those that do return lose about a third of their production. That’s pretty bleak. Dr. Peak pointed out in the article above that surgical techniques have evolved considerably starting around 2003 so this data pre-dates improvements in player outcomes. I’d really like to quantify how much improvement we should expect.

The article about collegiate outcomes brings up an interesting area of study because tapping into college players would really increase your pool of injuries to look into. That was published just last month and looked at 184 players agnostic to their positions. Those findings indicated that 82% of those players returned to the field though they didn’t attempt to quantify their performance beyond that. Given the small numbers of samples in both studies, these results are basically identical as far as getting back to the field goes.

How Do Wide Receivers Fare?

Both of these studies are interesting, but they leave me wanting more. I’m especially curious about whether or not there is any positional dependent outcome. Both of these studies mixed positions in their result, but I’d like to know if any particular position fares better or worse than others for this specific injury. Full disclosure, I’m too cheap to shell out the $36 it would cost me to purchase the full AJSM article to see if they broke things down by position. I just recently started getting paid to write about this stuff and my accountant is way too stingy with the write-off opportunities. I fear that they won’t list the players involved in the study due to privacy concerns around medical records anyway.

I can think of a few high profile RBs and QBs that have successfully returned from ACL surgery, but I’ve been drawing a blank at the WR position. The one guy that comes to mind is Wes Welker and then in poking around a bit I learned that Jerry Rice suffered an ACL tear when he was 35 and returned to play at a high level afterwards. The fact that both Welker and Rice, outliers extraordinaire, returned successfully from ACL surgery just makes me more convinced that the average WR will fail to do so.

Conducting My Own Quick Study

I’m not a doctor6, but I have access to the internet. Since techniques have improved since 2003, I decided to focus on WRs that injured their ACLs since that season. I created a list of players by simply setting a custom time range on my google search and using “NFL,” “receiver” and “ACL” as my search terms. I used one year windows of time and made a list of all the players that turned up. To analyze performance before and after the injury I used the simple method of just looking at their per game fantasy average (PPR) before and after injury. I realize that there are many other factors at play here like the aging process and coaching changes. Ideally, I’d control for those, but this is just an informal start to looking at injuries like this.

First, let’s start with some optimism. Here’s a list of a few players from before 2003 who suffered ACL injuries and mostly went on to have success.

 

PlayerInjury YearAgeFPPG pre-injuryFPPG post-injuryNotes
Michael Irvin19892310.215.3Tore his ACL in his second year, struggled a bit staying on the field in year three, and then took off in year four and never looked back.
Jerry Rice19973519.612.3Jerry F'n Rice. Not fair to compare his before/after since the dude was 35, but he was shot after his ACL tear. He only had 492 more catches, 6440 yards and 42 TDs after his injury (I can't add footnotes in a table, but that's sarcasm)
Joey Galloway20002914.010.3Galloway had his best season when he was 34 and playing for TB, well after his injury occurred.
Patrick Jeffers2000279.53.0Jeffers was a late bloomer who started 10 games for Carolina in 1999 and put up 1000 yards and 12 TDs. After his ACL injury his career was over and he blamed a botched surgery and sued. His court case lasted 6 years before all the appeals were heard and it was finally tossed out.
Anquan Boldin200121015.4Tore his ACL in college and then came back and had a great senior season and productive NFL career.
Lee Evans200221010.7Another college injury. If you look at his college season, he put up 23.6 fantasy points per game in 2001 and dropped to 20.5 in 2003 after sitting out a year for the ACL tear. His NFL career was productive.

 

That’s 5 of 6 players that had plenty of post ACL success. But, there’s tons of selection bias here. I didn’t set out to find these particular players, I just conducted my searches as described above and occasionally I’d run across a mention of a more prominent player who had also suffered an ACL tear so I made note of them too. Four of these guys were taken in the first 16 picks of their drafts, and Boldin was a 2nd round selection. The only late round pick here is Jeffers and he turned up because his court case was still in the news during the time frames of interest. I take if for granted that any and all information is freely available these days, but it’s not always organized in the way you’d like it to be. When looking at the list from my relevant time frame just imagine if those names had been injured 10 years earlier and whether or not they’d pop up right away in my quick search. I suspect the answer is no which is why this list is only names of players you’ve heard of. The ones you haven’t heard of that got hurt didn’t make the news.

Here’s my list of ACL injuries at the WR position compiled between 2003 and today. Some comments follow the table. [EDIT: Pinkston has been removed from the table and the discussion below has been updated to reflect the updated results]

PlayerInjury YearAgeFPPG pre-injuryFPPG post-injuryNotes
Javon Walker20052711.19.7Had one more nice season with Denver (69 catches, 1084 yards and 8 TDs in 16 games) but never played more than 8 games again after that one full season.
Brandon Jones2005236.55.1Jones tore his ACL in the midst of a promising rookie season. He didn't ever really establish himself.
Amani Toomer20063211.18.8He was older, and his post-injury seasons were pretty comparable to what he'd put up in the previous couple of seasons.
Deion Branch20082911.28.5Was entering the downside of his career anyway.
Nate Burleson2008278.111.3A player that actually improved in points per game though Burleson's whole career has seemed a bit star-crossed.
Greg Camarillo2008266.33.7Had one full season after the injury and then started bouncing around and missing games.
Brandon Tate20082102.0Tate suffered his injury in college but was still a 3rd round pick (83rd overall)
Wes Welker20092813.217.5His pre-injury includes some years in Miami. Welker's injur occurred late in the season and he was back the very next year so his down performance in 2010 was while he was still very early in the recovery process. His career highs in yards and TDs have come post-injury
Harry Douglas2009254.67.0If Julio hadn't gone down then Douglas' pre and post injury numbers would have been almost identical. His excess use this season boosted him up.
Steve Smith20102511.43.1This is the Giants version and it was with them that he was Victor Cruz before it was cool to be Victor Cruz (no salsa dancing yet). Played 9 games apiece for Philly and STL post-injury. Didn't play at all in 2013
Donnie Avery2010269.47.1He's bounced around a bit since being an early pick for the Rams who seem really good at drafting WRs. He's probably been better than you expect, but not terribly useful.
Domenik Hixon2010265.24.7Actually re-tore the same ACL and missed most of two seasons before he came back.
Terrell Owens20113816.50Owens was 38 and in the bouncing from team to team portion of his career. He was on the verge of retiring anyway so his ACL injury went largely unnoticed.
Kenny Britt20112311.95.7Poster child for my concerns
Jordan Shipley2011268.07.6Held his value in a limited sample size (7 games) but has since retired and didn't play in 2013.
David Gettis2011246.90Gettis had rotoviz approved size and speed, but limited college market share. He hasn't recorded a catch since his injury
Mario Manningham2012269.62.9A one time up-and-comer
Ryan Broyles2012246.52.8Even his "pre-injury" was post injury since he'd torn an ACL in college as well.
Reggie Wayne20133514.50Hasn't had a chance to test the knee yet, but maybe he can follow the Rice trajectory given his age and historical production.
Jeremy Maclin20132512.90One of the interesting new test cases. His situation looks promising, can he bounce back?
Danario Alexander20132710.10I don't even know how to properly contextualize this guy since I think even his college career was played post-injury to at least one knee and maybe both. It's unclear if his previous knee woes were due to ACL injuries while the latest one definitely is.
Sidney Rice2013279.70Another recent test case who'll be returning to action this season.
Leonard Hankerson2013257.50Hasn't played yet since injury was recent. Hankerson had some rotoviz qualities, especially his red zone prowess, but his college age kind of discounted some of those number in the age of the phenom index.
Arrelius Benn2013254.90Hasn't played yet since the injury and wasn't looking like much anyway.
Charles Johnson20132500Hasn't ever seen the field before or after, but I'm trying to be thorough and everyone loves Charles Johnson references.

 

  • There are 25 players here, but some of them are so early in the recovery process that we haven’t learned anything from them.
  • If we look at just the 16 players injured before 2011 (so they’ve had a few years to recover) then we see that 14 of 16 returned to the field (87.5%) and those that returned saw an average decline in performance of over 15%. These are, again, small sample sizes but not really any smaller than those used in the first study sited above. The 15% reduction in performance is in keeping with Dr. Peak’s hypothesis that new techniques have improved player outcomes. The return to field rate is larger than the initial pre-2003 study which also confirms his hypothesis. If you dig into the collegiate results you’ll see that the return rate varies based on playing time with scholarship athletes returning at a rate of 87.6% which matches this data set.
  • I wouldn’t read too much into these results, but the fact that these numbers are in-line with expectations and other findings gives me some confidence that this quick and dirty approach isn’t leading me astray.
  • I would treat this table in the same manner as the comp lists that are typically generated for prospects. This list helps frame the possible outcomes and guides you toward a reasonable expectation for a player’s future performance.
  • There are only three players in that list of 16 that improved their per game production after suffering an ACL injury. That’s almost the same number of players that never returned to play at all. Welker’s improvement is mostly driven by his early career irrelevance. He mostly stayed good rather than getting better. Burleson’s best seasons were pre-injury, but he signed with Detroit right around the time they started annually breaking the pass attempts record. He’s only put in one full 16 game season in the five years since his injury and he’s averaged less than 12 games per season in that time. Harry Douglas‘ improvement is entirely due to his 1000 yard campaign in 2013 with Julio Jones sidelined.

Conclusions

There’s no smoking gun that wide receivers fare worse than any other position, though in fairness I didn’t look at any other positions. Mostly, I was worried that WRs were seeing a large decline in performance post ACL tear and these results indicate that the decline is real, but not a killer to fantasy relevance. Every player is different and I think that there are a lot of biomechanical reasons that some players may be more or less suscpetible to these injuries. Those same biomechanical processes likely affect whether players bodies are able to adjust and compensate post surgery in a way that doesn’t open the door to other injury problems. In putting together these tables I did notice that the players that were successful tended to be back to their previous performance within a season. This is bad news for Kenny Britt and at least allows owners of the more recently injured players to have a shorter time table to determine when to cut bait.

Did I miss anybody? If your favorite team or your fantasy team lost a player to an ACL injury and they didn’t make my list then please point them out to me in the comments. I’m interested in turning injury information into long term actionable dynasty advice and this type of data mining will just serve as a starting point.

  1. This site is for contrarians and on this issue I’m so contrarian that I refuse to even play your little game  (back)
  2. Target Acquired  (back)
  3. Post Hype Super Sleeper  (back)
  4. those are worse  (back)
  5. 5 total seasons  (back)
  6. I’ve never even stayed at a Holiday Inn Express  (back)
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