Injury Prone Value Targets: Sidney Rice
Matthew Stafford, Dez Bryant, Demaryius Thomas, Andre Johnson, Marshawn Lynch, Frank Gore, and even Adrian Peterson have all, at one time or another, been characterized as being injury prone. In one way, the label is 100 percent correct – they are all injury prone. If any human steps onto a football field it is inevitable that they will get hurt. However, in most cases the label is thrown around too cavalierly and almost invariably sticks to the undeserving recipient…right up until the point where it no longer fits and is quickly forgotten.
Separating the stain of injury from a player, as fantasy owners, can be tricky. It can also be quite profitable, as overemphasized injury aversion is a sizable market inefficiency in our game, whether you participate in dynasty or redraft leagues. Just like avoiding, at all costs, the player whose performance burned you in a prior season, dismissing out of hand the possibility that someone who has suffered poor injury luck can subsequently become fortunate enough to play 16 games amounts to cutting your nose off to spite your face. The opposite is true as well. The fact that someone has a solid track record of staying on the field in the past plays very little role in determining whether that next linebacker will smash into his leg at thigh level, or just a few catastrophic inches lower.
In assessing perceived player values as training camp approaches, we will be paying particular attention to how much of a role their prior injury history plays in dictating their current ADP – both for the “injury prone” and the assumed ironmen. Let’s kick things off with a relatively forgotten name, who just a few seasons ago was viewed as one of the more dynamic pass catchers in fantasy.
Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Sidney Rice’s once promising career has been hampered of late due to a dizzying series of injuries, among other factors – not the least of which has been a chronic quarterback deficiency. The resulting receding of his reputation has been illustrated clearly by his ADP, which has dropped steadily from the 28th wideout chosen in 2010, down to 30th in 2011, then 41st in 2012, and finally at 49 in early 2013 drafting. Throw the addition of Seattle’s new offensive playmaker Percy Harvin on top of Rice’s well-earned injury prone label and it’s fair to wonder whether the Seahawks’ $41 million dollar man will ever be worth their investment.
While public perception and an evolving depth chart would appear to answer in the negative, the still-young Rice (he won’t be 27 until the season starts) stands a legitimate chance of reemerging as an explosive producer in both real and fantasy football. If nothing else, the minimal draft capital necessary to roster him is unlikely to buy similar scoring upside among his ADP peers. Injury risk tolerance will dictate if he is the right fit for prospective owners, and as we will discuss, his fragile track record might be just the thing that makes him a worthwhile target.
Rice was the 29th highest scoring wideout in 2012, and he posted this somewhat surprising result while battling through a seemingly never-ending series of nagging injuries that limited both his snaps and, consequently, his target totals. He finished the year 73rd in the NFL with just 80 targets. After undergoing surgery on both shoulders after the 2011 season, a year in which he was shut down after suffering a Week 12 concussion, he received a clean bill of health toward the end of training camp in 2012. Unfortunately he was soon to battle knee, calf, head, foot, and knee (again) woes as the season went along. Even though he managed to play in all 16 games last year, his participation in a number of them was negatively affected by his various ailments.
With all “cherry-picking” disclaimers aside, which admittedly is not the best way to assess performance, dropping the stats from five weeks in which Rice’s snaps were most impacted by his particular injury-du-jour, plus a Week 17 playoff tune-up, results in his finishing as the 12th highest scoring fantasy wideout. His 0.20 Points per Snap and 0.32 Points per Opportunity during those weeks support the projection – as the low-teens ranking is in the same general overall range that those two per play results tend to yield when examining full season wide receiver totals. Rice also finished seventh in Wide Receiver Rating (124.7) among pass catchers who saw at least 25 percent of their teams’ snaps. He obviously still has the ability to produce standout totals when conditions are favorable.
Aside from Rice’s sketchy injury history, it is clearly Harvin’s projected presence in the same huddle that is taking its toll on the former’s ADP. It is fair to wonder if Rice will once again lead the team in targets. It is a near certainty that he will spend less time in the slot, in favor of his new teammate. On the surface that appears to be a negative for Rice’s production, as he thrived on the 37.2% of his snaps he took while lined up there. He finished third in catch rate, fifth in Yards per Pass Route run, and scored four of his seven touchdowns on plays that originated with him in the slot.
However, getting Rice out of the middle of the field should serve to reduce the pounding he takes and, just maybe, the number of injuries he suffers as a result. During his most healthy and productive season in 2009, Rice lined up in the slot nearly half as often as he did in 2012 (20.1 percent of snaps). He put up over 1,300 yards and eight touchdowns, mainly while split out wide, and finished as the eighth best fantasy receiver.
Now that quarterback Russell Wilson appears to be fully acclimated to the NFL after a somewhat slow start to his rookie season, the prospects of Rice approximating his down-the-field impact from 2009 are not all that farfetched. Wilson has quickly developed a reputation as an excellent downfield bomber, and he actually finished 2012 as the fifth most accurate deep passer (48.4%) in the league – behind only Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning, Cam Newton and Drew Brees. He also went long on 16.3 percent of his passes, the second highest rate in the NFL. Rice was seventh in catch rate last year on deep balls, and a healthy 23 percent of his targets came on such passes.
So while he will most likely see less time running dangerous crossing routes in the middle of the field thanks to the Harvin acquisition, it will result in Rice doing more of what he does best. Additionally, a general increase in offensive efficiency by the Seahawks, due to a deepened roster and a more experienced Wilson, will most likely yield more Redzone opportunities. While Seattle has plenty of weapons with which to score from in close, Rice is easily the best receiving option – especially among Seahawks wideouts. At 6’4” he towers over the 5’11” Harvin and 5’10” smurfs Golden Tate and Doug Baldwin. Rice led the team in Redzone targets last season, and scored four of his seven touchdowns on balls thrown from between the nine and 13-yard lines.
While Rice was under drafted last year based on his ADP and year-end results, it certainly didn’t feel like it. Now, with the addition of Harvin to the offense and the assumption of more injuries on the way, Rice’s fantasy worthiness is in serious question as we approach training camp time. Although nobody can forecast a healthy season for him in 2013 with any degree of certainty, prior injuries are not necessarily a guarantee of future returns. Like so many other NFL players have been, perhaps Rice will wind up having been labeled as injury prone …right up until he’s not. Whoever happens to own him at that point will enjoy WR2 level production at a WR5 price.