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The perils of drafting RBs earlyAnalysis of injury data for Round 1-3 guys shows RB picks are not very safeEmailPrintComments9By Bill Barnwell
Some people think Ryan Mathews could be an Offensive ROY. Based on history, he also has a good chance to have an injury issue.
After the NFL Draft takes place at the end of April, fans spend the months of May and June penciling in their team's newest talent for key roles on the upcoming roster. With the 365-day coverage of the league now extending to live play-by-play recaps of rookie minicamp on Twitter, each team's rookies are part of the Cult of Possibilities.
There's nothing wrong with hoping that your favorite team has unearthed some gems; in reality, though, players don't often develop into the game-changers that they might seem to be coming out of camp. That explosive running back loses a step against faster opposition and can't adapt. An intelligent linebacker lacks the athleticism to compete at the top level. A quarterback with great accuracy in college lacks the arm strength to fit passes into NFL-sized windows. These things happen.
In this article, though, we'll be looking at another factor preventing draft picks from reaching their goals: injuries. Players obviously can't contribute anything if they're not healthy enough to get onto the field, and in the past, injuries have sapped prominent players of their previously exhibited talent (Ki-Jana Carter comes to mind) and ended careers before they even started. Consider the Chicago Bears' 2007 second-round pick, Dan Bazuin, who suffered a knee injury in camp and missed the entire campaign. With the knee not close to 100 percent in the team's 2008 camp, the Bears chose to cut Bazuin, who has never suited up for an NFL game. Had Bazuin worked out, the Bears may very well have not required Julius Peppers, which would have saved them $42 million or allowed them to repurpose that money elsewhere. This stuff is important.
There is no algorithm that can predict an individual player's chances of getting hurt; the best way to avoid selecting injured players is a detailed physical from skilled team doctors at the combine. On a macro level, though, we can look at position groups and see which sorts of players are most likely to get hurt.
Teams obviously can't avoid a specific position in the draft altogether, but if one position's injury rate is significantly higher than another's, they might want to avoid committing serious cash to players who haven't proven themselves to be sturdy NFL veterans.
To measure the relative health of NFL newcomers, we looked at the participation rates of players taken in the draft between 2001-09. To avoid including a large majority of projects who got stashed on injured reserve as part of a redshirt program and really focus on those players teams expected to have an impact, we only included those players selected between Rounds 1-3. We compared each player's games played to the games they missed due to an injury.
First, let's just look at rookies in their first year. Which players struggled to stay on the field and make an immediate impact? We'll assume that players who missed a game due to an injury would have otherwise played, so we'll express the figure as a percentage of action missed due to injury. As an example, in the table below, defensive backs in the sample averaged 13.1 games played as a rookie, but they also averaged 1.6 games missed by injury. That means they missed 1.6 out of 14.7 opportunities, or 11 percent. (It's actually 10.9 percent, but some figures will be slightly different due to rounding.)
Rookie Year Injury Rates
A breakdown of games played -- and missed -- by position in rookie years for guys drafted in Rounds 1-3.
Position Group Games Missed Games Played Percentage Missed
DB 1.6 13.1 11.0
OL 1.4 10.9 11.4
DL 1.5 11.7 11.4
WR 1.9 11.3 14.5
TE 2.1 12.0 14.9
QB 1.2 6.2 16.0
LB 2.6 11.8 17.9
RB 2.6 12.1 18.0
Those are very interesting findings. The reason why is because of what's at the bottom -- running backs are generally considered the most pro-ready players coming out of the draft, since their responsibilities are relatively limited and the league does a good job of selecting only those backs who have the athleticism to compete at this level. It's clear that running backs are a high-risk, high-reward species as rookies.
On the other hand, defensive backs, offensive linemen and defensive linemen all seem to be roughly the healthiest groups of players. They have the most opportunity to play, but they don't miss an amount of time commensurate with those opportunities. You'll also note that the games-played figure for QBs is so low; of course, only one quarterback can play at a time, which limits their chances. Quarterbacks are also given phantom games played when they come in solely as a holder on field goals, so this analysis is limited when it comes to analyzing quarterbacks as opposed to other positions.
Rookie years can be fluky, though, and most teams will give these prominent draft picks three years to develop before making a decision on their future. What if we look at players over their first three years instead? (Since players taken in 2008 and 2009 haven't been through three seasons yet, they're not included in this portion of the study.)
Years 1-3 Injury Rates
A breakdown of games played -- and missed -- by position in the first three years of a career for guys drafted in Rounds 1-3.
Position Group Games Missed Games Played Percentage Missed Flameout Rate
OL 3.5 35.2 10.0 2.0
DB 5.1 38.9 11.5 3.5
WR 5.1 34.6 12.8 4.3
DL 5.1 34.5 13.0 7.9
TE 6.4 38.4 14.4 5.6
LB 6.5 36.4 15.2 7.8
RB 7.7 34.5 18.2 8.9
QB 5.6 23.2 19.5 18.4
Now, offensive linemen profile as the healthiest players coming out of the draft, which lends some credibility to their reputation as the safest picks to make in April. Compare them to the average running back, who will miss nearly twice as many games as an offensive lineman during their respective first three seasons, and running backs continue to look like a bad bet in the opening rounds of the draft.
We've also included a second statistic called "Flameout Rate." This captures the percentage of the player pool that missed more than half the games an average player at his position would have expected to play in. It just reinforces how safe offensive linemen are, although it also reveals that defensive linemen can be very risky. Considering that the quarterback figure is again not particularly relevant with this sort of analysis, running backs are very clearly the most dangerous bet for a team in the draft.
That might not be great news for fans of the Buffalo Bills, San Diego Chargers, or Houston Texans, each of whom may end up depending upon a rookie back this year. It's easy to dream of the Chris Johnson scenario, but there are also a fair number of guys like Darren McFadden lurking in the player pool. The message: If your team is drafting a running back or getting your hopes up after picking one, well, don't be surprised if your big dreams end up on the trainer's table.
Bill Barnwell is a writer for Football Outsiders who frequently contributes to ESPN Insider; you can find his ESPN archives here.
Sometimes running the Mularkey offense makes me feel like I'm in a prison.