Analyzing injury risk: how much should we be expecting from our RBs and WRs?

In such a violent sport, we know injuries are inevitable but we don’t know when they will happen or to whom they will happen.

Let’s think about it this way.  It’s much easier to predict who will get injured than who will not get injured.  Right?  Certain players are just more prone to it than others.  They have proven an inability to stay healthy over the course of sixteen games.  So should you automatically steer away from a player like Darren McFadden?  No, because it’s not just him.  All running backs are injury-prone.  If you’re going to steer away from him because of extra perceived risk, you might as well lower all running backs on your board.

I charted the top thirty running backs and wide receivers taken in fantasy football drafts over the past six years (using ADP data from and asked a simple question: how many games were each of these players able to play that year?

Darren McFadden, in five years in the NFL has played thirteen, twelve, thirteen, seven and twelve games.  So we can say  the odds that he will be able to play an entire season this year are probably not good.  But here’s the interesting truth: the odds that any running back will be able to play a full season are not good.  Out of all of the top-thirty running backs during the past six years, what percentage would you guess were able to play a full season?  (For our purposes, let’s define a “full season” as a season in which the player played in fifteen or sixteen games).

50.56%.  Only 91 of 180 running backs in this sample were able to play a full season.  Flip a coin.

How about wide receivers?  Take that same sample and you’ll find that 71.11% (128 of 180) were able to play a full season.

This graph shows that running backs are more likely to miss games over the course of the season.

L to R: Total percentage of games played by top thirty RBs (blue) and WRs (green) from 2012 to 2007.

Intuitively, I’ve always suspected that running backs are a more injury-prone group than wide receivers for the simple reason that they get tackled more than any other player on the field.  But I was also expecting the numbers to be closer than I found them to be.  After all, wide receivers have less control over the plays they’re involved in.  When a running back takes a handoff, the play is generally in front of him and he can see the defenders; whereas when a wide receiver catches a pass, he has to risk his body by going where the ball is placed.

In the six years that were sampled, the highest total number of games played by the running backs group was fewer than the lowest total number of games played by the wide receivers group.  Running backs are markedly more likely to play a full season and markedly more likely to suffer a catastrophic injury that costs them half of the season or more.

The most resilient year for running backs was 2009, a time long ago when you were drafting DeAngelo Williams in the middle of the first round and Steve Slaton early in the second.  The group of thirty running backs played 413 of 480 possible games that year. The least resilient year?  2007 and 2011 were both disastrous, with 371 and 379, respectively.  If you divide those totals among thirty running backs, you’ll find that they would have missed 3.63 and 3.36 games that year, which makes the entire group sound like Darren McFadden, doesn’t it?

The least resilient year for wide receivers was 2007.  In that year, the wide receivers still managed to play 425 of 480 possible games.  What was the most resilient year for wide receivers?  2008, with an impressive 453 of 480 games.

I also considered a player’s placement within his group and how it related to his likelihood of staying healthy.  For example, were the first ten running backs chosen in a draft more likely to stay healthy than the next ten?  I assumed that part of the reason why the first ten were drafted when they were was because they were perceived at the time as being “durable”.  As it turned out, this was not the case.  Injury risk was pretty much evenly distributed from RB1 to RB30.

Maybe this data affirms a belief that you must load up on running backs early and often.  If you’re driving through the desert, better bring a spare tire?  But to me, this looks like evidence enough to consider one or two wide receivers with your  first, second or third round investments.

Outcomes of the top thirty running back seasons from 2012-2007.

Outcomes of the top thirty running back seasons from 2012-2007.

Outcomes of the top thirty wide receiver seasons from 2012-2007.

Outcomes of the top thirty wide receiver seasons from 2012-2007.

I’ve attached a link to download the spreadsheet that I used.  Feel free to have a look and let me know if you have any questions or comments.

rb wr injuries data

Follow @arremmemm and @FFDriveThru for fantasy sports opinion and humor.


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