Fantasy: Projecting How Jamaal Charles, Others Return from ACL Tears

| February 27, 2012

The 2011 NFL season was a bad year for injuries to running backs, and five prominent ones ended the year on injured reserve after tearing their ACLs. The injury, no matter when in the season it occurs, is hard to return from successfully after just one offseason of rehabilitation. Running backs in years past have had mixed results once they come back and it’s likely to be more of the same this season. Let’s break down the chances the five players felled in 2011 will be productive members of your fantasy football roster in 2012.

Jamaal Charles, Kansas City Chiefs (Injured: Week 2)

At 25 years old when he tore his ACL, Jamaal Charles’ age shouldn’t be a factor when it comes to his ability to bounce back well from his injury, and his long recovery time almost guarantees he will be at relatively 100 percent when the season starts. Again, though, the key word is “relatively,” because no ACL is ever the same after it is torn, no matter the quality of the medical care available.

I don’t anticipate the Kansas City Chiefs limiting Charles’ carries in 2012 as a result of the injury, but his numbers should still suffer some, namely his yards after contact. In 2009 and 2010, nearly half of Charles’ yardage came on yards after contact (YCo) even though his yards after contact per attempt (YCo/Att.) weren’t all that high:

Jamaal Charles Rushing, 2009-2010
Year Yards YCo Yco/Att. MT
2009 1,120 687 3.6 28
2010 1,541 759 3.2 28

As you can see, Charles thrives on getting a high number of carries and making defenders miss. Charles’ elusiveness is his most valuable attribute, not his speed (though it’s certainly a close No. 2). Expect that elusiveness to fall off somewhat in 2012 and with it his yardage total. Charles could be below 1,000 yards this season, but I don’t anticipate him to be too far below it, simply because he’s had quite a while to recover. Still, an ACL tear takes at least eight months to fully rehab, so even if he returns to his usual form it will be after a noticeably slow start. He’s not a top-five draft pick in my book this year.

Tim Hightower, Washington Redskins (Injured: Week 7)

Tim Hightower is set to be a free agent this year and the Washington Redskins have themselves an abundance of running backs, however Hightower is valuable in pass protection and in third-down running situations, so he has a good chance to get at least one more year to frustrate fantasy owners. Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan loves the running game but never a particular running back, which makes adding any of his rushing crew to your fantasy team a gamble that, quite frankly, I myself am unwilling to take.

Things are even more difficult this year when contemplating Hightower’s ACL tear and how that will both effect his performance as well as his playing time. Shanahan is clear that he wants him back and that there’s a role for him, but the combination of so many running backs on the team—plus the potential they draft quarterback Robert Griffin III, effectively adding another running threat to the roster—makes Hightower a high-risk fantasy pick.

Hightower’s big draw is power, which results in up-and-down performance on a weekly basis. In 2009 and 2010, when he was with the Arizona Cardinals, his carries week-to-week were wildly varied; in 2011 in Washington, you could tell that Shanahan wanted to lean on Hightower the heaviest, but you also knew that at some point, Shanahan would start experimenting with someone else. The ACL injury sped up that process considerably, but it had already been hinted at in Week 4 with his eight carries, perhaps levied as a “punishment” of sorts for gaining just 41 yards on 14 carries in the previous week, after putting up 70-plus per week to start the season.

Hightower could be best compared to the New England Patriots’ Kevin Faulk, who tore his ACL in 2010. Faulk was never the Patriots’ top rusher and found himself caught in a shuffle similar to what Hightower experienced in Washington in 2011. In his five games in 2011, you could tell that the ACL tear had an effect: 211 of his 380 yards in 2009 came after contact, an average of 2.9 YCo/Att. In 2011, just 26 of his 57 yards came after contact, leaving him with an average of just 1.5 YCo/Att. In Washington’s running back-by-committee system, Hightower would be relegated to third down and goal line duty, but only if his knee can hold up. In space, he’s just not going to be the guy.

Washington Redskins Rushing Production, 2011
Name G Att Yds YCo YCo/Att TD
Hightower 5 84 321 198 2.4 1
Helu 14 151 640 369 2.4 2
Royster 5 56 328 189 3.4 0
Torain 8 60 200 158 2.6 1

Last year, Hightower was a surprising, breakout running back who could have had an excellent real-life and fantasy bottom line, but no one thought it would last the season with Shanahan as head coach. Now that Hightower is returning from an ACL tear and could remain with Washington for 2012, I would only recommend you draft him in a deep league. If you’re interested however, there’s little chance to treat him as a fantasy starter if you put him on your roster.

Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings (Injured: Week 16)

There’s never a good time for a running back to tear his ACL, but if he wants to get back on the field for the start of the following season, tearing it in Week 16 is just about the worst it can get. Generally, ACL tears and the subsequent surgery takes at least eight months to heal, if everything occurs without complication.

That Adrian Peterson injured his knee that late in the 2011 season puts his status for 2012 in question—at least, his ability to play on opening day—and leads, ultimately, to a huge fantasy football dilemma. Peterson’s the best running back in the league and has been for quite some time, his physical ability and strength are without many rivals and if there is any player one could think would return quickly from an injury this severe and appear as though it never happened, it would be Peterson.

But that’s dangerous thinking. He’s an athletic freak, as we’ve seen, but even the best players can and do have lingering after effects from injuries. It’s just a question of whether Peterson’s first season back will more closely resemble that of Dominic Rhodes, that of Edgerrin James or something different and unique to Peterson alone. Rhodes tore his ACL in the 2002 preseason after rushing for 1,104 yards in 2001. He returned in 2003 and had just 157 total rushing yards that year.

Peterson’s 2011 vs. Rhodes vs. James Before & After
Name Year (Games) Att Yds YPC TD
Peterson 2011 (12) 209 973 4.7 12
Rhodes 2001 (15) 233 1,104 4.7 9
2003 (11) 37 157 4.2 0
James 2000 (16) 387 1,709 4.4 13
2002 (14) 277 989 3.6 2

Of course, Rhodes’ number of carries suffered. In 2001, Rhodes had 233 carries. He only had over 100 in two more seasons after the injury, and never 200. The Indianapolis Colts moved on from Rhodes after the injury, but the Minnesota Vikings wouldn’t just cast Peterson off in the same way whenever he does return.

Rhodes, of course, was replaced by James, who suffered a torn ACL in 2001 and returned in 2002 to play 14 games and rush for 989 yards. In 2003, he had nearly 1,300 rushing yards and in both 2004 and 2005, he had 1,500 or more. He seemed basically unaffected by the injury, played well in his first (partial) season back and only got better as the years passed.

Peterson seems destined for the latter path, but the former is always a possibility. If Peterson’s rehab is relatively flawless and stays on schedule, he’ll still be questionable to start the season, but he could outperform expectations. He could also suffer a setback, as well, and open the season on the PUP list.

At this point, it’s hard to tell what Peterson will contribute in 2012, but if he seems set to take the field at any point this season by the time your draft rolls around, he’s worth the pick. It’s scary to use a first round pick on him, let alone a top-five, but it’s also hard not to. He is, after all, Adrian Peterson. I like his odds of playing well should he take the field in 2012.

Rashard Mendenhall, Pittsburgh Steelers (Injured: Week 17)

Pittsburgh Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert doesn’t like running back Rashard Mendenhall’s chances to play at all in 2012 after tearing his ACL in the final game of the 2011 season. Colbert says that he, and the team, would prefer to err on the side of caution and give Mendenhall a full 12 months to heal. That means there’s practically no reason to give Mendenhall your fantasy consideration this year.

That, of course, adds value to the other Pittsburgh running backs, especially Isaac Redman, who is expected to be the team’s leading rusher in Mendenhall’s absence. Jonathan Dwyer and John Clay should also get carries, they may hold onto Mewelde Moore (a free agent) and there’s a very clear possibility the team drafts another running back, though 2011 seventh-round pick Baron Batch should be fine to play after tearing his Achilles during the preseason. With Mendenhall practically on IR before the league year even begins, target Redman in your fantasy drafts, but keep an eye on the rest of the Steelers backs during the summer.

Knowshon Moreno, Denver Broncos (Injured: Week 10)

There’s more than just Knowshon Moreno’s Week 10 ACL tear to make fantasy owners run from him in 2012. He was recently arrested for drunk driving (car: Bentley; license plate number: SAUCED—no joke) and the Denver Broncos’ rushing trio of Willis McGahee, Lance Ball and quarterback Tim Tebow has made Moreno expendable.

Moreno was Denver’s 2009 first round pick, selected 12th overall, but he’s only played one full season and has yet to reach 1,000 rushing yards in a year. Though he was useful in the passing game with Kyle Orton under center, he’s not a prime target for Tebow with McGahee proving far more effective instead.

Moreno was a marginal fantasy quantity last season, the kind of player you held onto in deeper leagues, on the bench, juuuust in case, or as injury insurance for McGahee if you were particularly superstitious. It was Moreno, whoever, who got injured and then got himself arrested while rehabbing that knee. No matter how quickly he recovers or how completely, Moreno’s not worth your roster space; he wouldn’t be worth it even if he hadn’t torn his ACL, in my opinion.

Referring to the below chart, which details the running backs who suffered ACL tears (or in the case of Cadillac Williams, an ACL tear and then two back-to-back patellar tendon tears in shortened 2007 and 2008 seasons), one thing is clear—it’s not that running backs struggle, physically, to return from the injury (at least not all that considerably, most of the time) but that teams are willing to move on once a running back has sustained it. Running backs, after all, earn their keep by how well they can carry the ball and elude defenders, and an ACL tear ultimately erodes those abilities, if not right away, then in a few years.

Running Backs Before and After ACL Tears Since 2007
Name Year(Games) Att Yds YPC TDs Notes
Ronnie Brown 2006 (13) 241 1,008 4.2 5
2008 (16) 214 916 4.3 4
Kevin Jones 2006 (12) 181 689 3.8 6
2008 (10) 34 109 3.2 0
Deuce McAllister 2006 (15) 244 1,057 4.3 10 Also tore ACL in ’05
2008 (13) 107 418 3.9 5
Cadillac Williams 2006 (14) 225 798 3.5 1 Tore patellar tendons in ’07, ’08
2009 (16) 125 437 3.5 2
Ryan Torain 2010 (10) 164 742 4.5 4 Tore ACL in rookie camp, ’08; not rostered in ’09
Danny Woodhead 2009 (10) 15 64 4.3 0 Tore ACL in rookie camp, ’08
Ladell Betts 2008 (13) 56 210 3.8 2
2010 (8) 45 150 3.3 2 Signed during season, injured in Week 11
Kevin Smith 2008 (16) 238 976 4.1 8
2010 (6) 33 125 3.8 0
Kevin Faulk 2009 (15) 62 335 5.4 2
2011 (7) 17 57 3.4 0
Jerious Norwood 2009 (10) 76 252 3.3 0
2011 (9) 24 61 2.5 0
Montario Hardesty 2011 (10) 88 266 3.0 0 Tore ACL at start of rookie season, ’10

The real worry for a running back who suffered an ACL tear, then, is obsolescence, rather than his ability to return to the field, play well and stay healthy. Though Adrian Peterson has little chance of facing this issue once he returns, the other four backs who suffered the injury in 2011 have the potential to find themselves splitting more carries or being phased out gradually. Of the remaining four, Charles has the least amount of risk in this area, followed by Hightower, then Mendenhall (when or if he returns in 2013) and then Moreno, though Moreno’s issues extend beyond the injury.

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