Every year, we dedicate hours on end trying to devise the best fantasy football lineup we possibly can for money, bragging rights, or both. We read thousands of articles about fantasy sleepers, boom-or-bust guys, and comeback candidates. However, the one area that still lacks full clarity are the guys coming back from injury. Regardless of our backgrounds, we’re not privy to players’ rehab response and healing timelines, which essentially leads us to speculation. And when we don’t have firm answers, it makes us over-think every last one of our decisions.
While there are numerous players coming back from off-season surgery, an injury-plagued 2013, or a checkered injury history, one thing we know for sure is that some guys will outplay our expectations and some guys will lead us to fantasy misery. Here are three players who have been slapped with a big fat “RISKY” tag that could lead you to fantasy football glory.
Rob Gronkowski, TE, New England Patriots: I’m not going to tell you anything that you haven’t already heard about Gronk. He’s reportedly still a 50/50 shot of being ready for Week 1 and most likely won’t make an appearance in the preseason. He had three surgeries on his broken-then-infected forearm two seasons ago and is coming off season ending surgery for a torn ACL in 2013. So why am I so high on him this year? For one, he’s had a full calendar year (and more) to rest his surgically repaired back, which I don’t think is discussed enough when talking about his 2014 prospects. A torn ACL is, obviously, a serious injury and takes anywhere from six to twelve months to bounce back from, but it’s a fairly predictable rehab process that should allow him to return to full reps quickly once he’s back on the field. He’ll have some rust to get rid of, but nothing that a game or two won’t fix. And to be honest, he wasn’t exactly reliant on his speed and agility. His greatest strengths are his size and ability to separate in tight spaces, which should still be as dynamic as ever.
One thing to remember when sticking your neck out to draft a guy like Gronk comes down to the lack of elite fantasy talent at the tight end position. Yes, the position is deep, but beyond Jimmy Graham and Julius Thomas, there aren’t any other difference-makers at the position. And for arguments sake, if Gronk misses 2 games to being the season, 14 games of Gronk is far and away more valuable than 16 games from anyone else not named above. Gronk is being drafted anywhere from early Round 3 to the 5th round, which is just ridiculous for the amount of value he can potentially provide.
I put my faith in Gronk last year and it backfired, but I take solace in the fact that his forearm and his back both held up extremely well and it was a freak knee injury that cost him the rest of the season. I think this year he regains his place as an elite fantasy tight end and challenges Graham for the top spot again.
Doug Martin, RB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Martin doesn’t get a fair shake, in my opinion, when people talk about his injury history. I will admit that his poor start to begin 2013 was not injury related, which scared some folks off, but that could have had more to do with the Bucs uneven QB play than anything else. Martin is coming off surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder and all signs indicate that he’s recovered nicely during the rehabilitation process. But he’s a young back without a ton of miles on his legs AND he doesn’t have a checkered injury history. Is there something I’m missing?
Although a labral tear in the shoulder is nothing to sneeze at, the fact that he’ll have fresh legs and little-to-no competition in the backfield are huge positives in his favor. So long as stability was restored in his repaired shoulder (the labrum is a ring of cartilage that deepens the shoulder socket and provides multi-directional stability) and the rotator cuff/shoulder blade muscles were properly re-trained and straightened, there’s no reason to believe he’ll have any limitations heading into the new season. You could make the argument that he may be a little gun shy reaching high overhead for passes or ineffective in pass protection, but we’re nit-picking at this point.
When Martin burst onto the scene in 2012, he did so by contributing in both the running and passing games, which means he is valuable on any down. Although there has been talk of Martin getting fewer carries in offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford’s new offense, Martin is entering the 2014 season 100% healthy and fresh off 8 months of rest for his legs, which are crucial for a young back. With stability under center with newly signed Josh McCown and a lack of legit competition from the rest of the Bucs’ backs, I expect Martin to far outperform his current ADP as the 12th best running back on the board. And if he doesn’t, it won’t be because of injuries, it’ll be because it’s the Bucs.
Michael Crabtree, WR, San Francisco 49ers: Crabtree came back very quickly last season from surgery to repair a torn achilles tendon. While the timeframe typically runs closer to 9-12 months, Crabtree was back on the field in just over 6 months, which is remarkable when you consider his position requires maximal ability to start/stop, cut, and explode. However, although he was back on the field, he didn’t look quite the same. He finished the year with only one touchdown and one 100 yard game. And we all know how he was treated by his BFF Richard Sherman. Needless to say, 2013 wasn’t a great year for Crabtree.
But that was last year and this is a new season. And by all accounts, Crabtree has looked fantastic in training camp and the preseason. He appears to be running routes with precision and has showed a burst that we just didn’t see from him last year. Achilles injuries are tricky because so much of an athlete’s ability to jump and accelerate off the line come from the calf, which is the muscle that the achilles attaches to the heel bone. For a WR to be able to compete at the highest level, he needs those attributes, which Crabtree clearly didn’t have. And if you combine that with the disappointing season Colin Kaepernick put together, it’s no wonder his numbers were so blah upon his return.
From a rehab standpoint, Crabtree is officially 15 months post-op, which is more than adequate time to get back to his previous level of function. Combine that with his age (27 in September) and he’s in great position to be as dynamic as he was prior to the injury. There isn’t much research that exists showing that tearing your achilles once predisposes you to tearing it again, so the risk for injury does not appear to be high.
If Kaepernick is going to have a bounce back third season, he’s going to need his #1 receiver healthy for a full season. And based on all accounts thus far, it appears that Crabtree is finally back to his former self. Crabtree is currently being drafted as the 20th best WR on the board, which is pretty low for a #1 receiver on a high ceiling offense. Grab him in the 5th round and laugh your way to the bank.