When calculating player projections, half the battle is estimating missed games due to injury. It’s especially tough when dealing with running backs, who are asked to run full speed into a collection of seven or eight of the biggest, most athletic human beings on the planet. Oh, and sometimes upwards of 20 times per game.
Still, we have to estimate as best we can, so today I’m taking a look back at missed game data for tailbacks from the 2011 season. I’ll be focusing on the top-two projected backs on each team prior to Week 1, and comparing each player’s actual games-played to the ideal 16-game season.
First off, here is a full listing of the 64 backs included in the study.
|Kansas City||HB02||Thomas Jones||16||16|
|New England||HB01||BenJarvus Green-Ellis||16||16|
|New Orleans||HB02||Darren Sproles||16||16|
|New York Jets||HB01||Shonn Greene||16||16|
|San Francisco||HB01||Frank Gore||16||16|
|San Francisco||HB02||Kendall Hunter||16||16||R|
|Tennessee||HB01||Chris D. Johnson||16||16|
|Green Bay||HB01||Ryan Grant||16||15|
|New England||HB02||Danny Woodhead||16||15|
|San Diego||HB02||Mike Tolbert||16||15|
|St Louis||HB01||Steven Jackson||16||15|
|New York Giants||HB02||Brandon Jacobs||16||14|
|New York Jets||HB02||LaDainian Tomlinson||16||14|
|San Diego||HB01||Ryan Mathews||16||14|
|Tampa Bay||HB01||LeGarrette Blount||16||14|
|Green Bay||HB02||James Starks||16||13|
|Minnesota||HB01||Adrian L. Peterson||16||12|
|New York Giants||HB01||Ahmad Bradshaw||16||12|
|St Louis||HB02||Cadillac Williams||16||12|
|Chicago||HB02||Marion Barber III||16||11|
|New Orleans||HB01||Mark Ingram||16||10||R|
|Tampa Bay||HB02||Earnest Graham||16||7|
|Kansas City||HB01||Jamaal Charles||16||2|
To kick off the analysis I’d like to focus on the overall percentage of missed games.
We see here that right at 80% of expected games are played. On the surface, that is pretty good, but we’ll break that down a little bit more later on. If we split out No. 1 backs from their backups, we see basically an even split. Starters actually appeared in four more games than their projected backups, which is interesting considering that the starters are playing more reps.
Next up, let’s dig a bit deeper and track down instances of missed games.
Now we’re getting somewhere. Note that only 21 of our 64 backs (33%) appeared in all 16 games last season. That is discouraging, but also not overly shocking. 35 of the 64 (55%) missed no more than one game and 14 of the 64 (22%) missed no fewer than five games. The only good news here is that your top back has a better chance of missing no games than he does of missing more than a quarter of the season.
Breaking it down by starter vs. backup, we see that only eight of 32 (25%) projected No. 1 backs appeared in all 16 games. On the other hand 13 of 32 (41%) backups stayed upright all season. Note that of all the data shown, only three backs missed the entire season, and they were all projected backups: Ryan Williams, Mikel Leshoure, Rashad Jennings.
The last item I’d like to look at today is rookie performance.
We see that the seven rookie backs included in the study appeared in only 60% of their expected games. If you recall, the league-wide average is 80%. It’s worth noting that two of the three players to miss the entire season were rookies, which certainly brings this number down, but we did see the same kind of thing in 2010 with Montario Hardesty and Ben Tate hitting injured reserve in pre-season. Note that only one of seven rookies played in all 16 games (49ers backup Kendall Hunter) and only two backs missed fewer than three games (Hunter, Roy Helu). DeMarco Murray and Daniel Thomas each missed three games and Mark Ingram was out for six.
Although it’s still very tough to predict injuries, this gives us a bit more clarity. First of all, you should never expect any running back to last 16 games. Players like Michael Turner, Jonathan Stewart, Maurice Jones-Drew, and Ray Rice held up all season in 2011, but the odds are very much against them doing it again in 2012.
At a minimum, projecting a player to miss a pair of games over a 16 game schedule is fair, but note that the 80% mark we discovered early on works out to 12.8 games, or just over three games missed. This is driven down a bit by players like Williams, LeShoure, Jennings, and Jamaal Charles, who were hurt in the first few weeks and ended up missing most of the season, but the risk of an early-season injury like that needs to be considered.
Drafting elite running backs is still the way to go in the first few rounds of your draft, but be sure you keep your bench loaded with the most talented handcuffs available. The odds say you’ll need them.
Follow Mike Clay at Twitter @PFF_MikeClay