Mike Clay

Football Daily Dose

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Predicting Missed Games

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Some will say accounting for injuries when compiling projections and/or rankings is important. Others will argue that it’s impossible and should be ignored. The general consensus seems to just pick out a few guys who seem to be fragile and demote them down the draftboard.

Today, I’m going to try and find some answers by continuing a project I started over at Pro Football Focus a few months back. In my previous studies, I simply looked at games missed based on each player’s slot on the depth chart. This time around, I’m analyzing historical Average Draft Position to see how well it correlates with missed games. This figures to provide us with a better methodology for predicting missed games.

Historical ADP provided by www.myfantasyleague.com

You’ll notice that the graphs shown for each position include two lines. One shows ‘Median’ and the other ‘Average’. An additional five players are added to the mix as we progress horizontally. The ‘Average’ is as straightforward as it sounds. The ‘Median’ shown for each quintet is really the average of the medians for each draft slot over the four years spanning 2008-to-2011. Had I simply used straight-up median, it would’ve calculated as 16.0 almost every time. I realize that’s a mouthful, so here’s an example:

Games played by four QBs drafted No. 1 from 2008-11 – Average: 11.5. Median = 15.0
Games played by four QBs drafted No. 2 from 2008-11 – Average: 15.3. Median = 16.0
Games played by four QBs drafted No. 3 from 2008-11 – Average: 15.3. Median = 16.0
Games played by four QBs drafted No. 4 from 2008-11 – Average: 16.0. Median = 16.0
Games played by four QBs drafted No. 5 from 2008-11 – Average: 10.5. Median = 11.0

The average of the 20-man sample is 13.7. The Median we are using is the average of the five medians shown (14.8).

Why do it this way? Although the ‘average’ may seem like the logical number to utilize for projecting missed games, outliers (a.k.a. early-season, long-term injuries) are rare. We don’t want to project missed games for the entire field with the full added weight of these unique, season-ending injuries. Instead, we want to limit their impact by looking at median, which, while not a perfect fix, gives us more reasonable projections.

Side Note: For what it’s worth, top statistical experts still can’t come to a consensus on how to handle outliers. Simply ignoring them is frowned upon for obvious reasons, but it goes without saying that they need to be addressed in some capacity. We’ve done that by using tiered median averages.


The quarterback position is very much hit-or-miss when it comes to missed games. You will notice a lot of occasions where a quarterback misses either 0-to-1 games or half the season.

Starting with our graph, we see a noticeable slope downward as we add more drafted players to the mix. The median* ‘games played’ for the first 15 or so quarterbacks sits comfortably in the 14.5-to-15 range. That’s technically a good sign for you, but considering that most leagues have between eight and 16 owners, you don’t really have much of an advantage here.

Once place this could help is later in the draft when you’re trying to decide on whether or not to grab a backup quarterback. Although there are always going to be the aforementioned outliers (Tom Brady in 2008, Peyton Manning in 2011), the odds are pretty good that your starting quarterback will make it through most of the season. Of our top 48 samples (top 12 quarterbacks over four seasons), there were 35 occasions (73 percent) where the quarterback missed no more than one game. And, in many of those cases, the missed game was due to resting in Week 17, which isn’t usually a factor in fantasy football. There were only seven occasions (15 percent) where the quarterback missed more than four games.

Projection: My baseline projection for games played by quarterbacks is going to be 15 games. Our median* through the first 15 quarterbacks is 14.9, which I’ll choose to round up so as to have a clean number for the projections. Obviously that median falls off as we progress into the 20s and 30s, but that will be addressed in the subjective part of the projections. For example, I won’t be assuming 15 games for quarterbacks who I feel will be removed for ineffectiveness (e.g., Kevin Kolb vs. John Skelton) or as a result of the emergence of a young prospect (e.g., Matt Moore vs. Ryan Tannehill). Those players would already be projected as missing more than one start, so I don’t need to worry too much about injury rate.

Running Back

Next, we’re taking a look at the most injury-prone of the four top fantasy positions: running back. Top backs touch the ball nearly 20 times each game and a good chunk of those touches include them running full speed into what is essentially a brick wall with legs. This, not surprisingly, leads to a higher injury rate than that of other positions.

The good news, however, is that the ‘Missed Games’ numbers probably aren’t as bad as you expected. In fact, the median* missed games for our top 45 backs is 14.0 games. The average through the top 10 (13.8) isn’t far off that mark and sits at 13.4 through the top 35.

Interestingly, the No. 1 overall running back has appeared in all 16 games three of the last four seasons (Adrian Peterson’s 12 in 2011 being the exception). In fact, of the 12 players selected in the top-three since 2008, none have missed more than Peterson’s four games and seven appeared in all 16 games. We also see a strong run in what would be the late first round. Including the 12 players selected in the six-to-eight range, we show each player appearing in 13-plus games and 10-of-12 missing no more than one game. I obviously picked out a very small sample there, but the point is to show that there is potential for reliability from your first-round running back.

Of course, we need to consider the potential for a long-term injury. No player averaging out as the fifth running back taken has made it past 14 games played since 2008. That was highlighted by Frank Gore missing five games in 2010 and Jamaal Charles sitting out 14 in 2011. DeAngelo Williams (2010) and Darren McFadden (2011) each enjoyed an ADP that ranked them ninth among running backs, but neither played more than seven games that season. Ryan Grant was the No. 11 running back in 2010, but went down for the season in the season opener.

Of our top 96 samples (top 24 backs over four seasons), there were 45 occasions (47 percent) where the running back missed no more than one game. As devastating as that may sound, just 12 backs (12.5 percent) missed more than six games and 20 (20.8 percent) missed more than four.

Projection: Very much like quarterback, the graph gives us a pretty strong indicator of where to go with this. Sticking right around two missed games through the top 50 or so backs, we’ll go with a baseline of 14 games played for a good chunk of our backs. Again, as we get deeper down the projections, we won’t assume the full 14 games for reserve backs and those who will be filling in for the starters when they are out nursing the injury we expect them to suffer.

Although your gut instinct here (assuming you agree with my math) will be to immediately remove one-eighth (two games) of each running back's projections, that’s not entirely the right way to go. It might be for players like Steven Jackson, LeSean McCoy, or Trent Richardson, who will be in line for a huge chunk of the workload. However, that is not the case for true committee attacks like those in Carolina and New Orleans. If DeAngelo Williams were to get injured, for example, Jonathan Stewart’s role would increase during those games. Assuming he were to then miss games later in the year, the overall impact wouldn’t be as severe as it would’ve been otherwise. Richardson, meanwhile, wouldn’t see as significant an increase in workload if Brandon Jackson were to go down with an injury, so missing two games would be more devastating to his overall production. The moral of the story: applying an injury factor across the board hurts workhorse backs more than those who are part of a committee.

Wide Receiver

The third position we’ll look at today is wide receiver. Although tight ends could give them a run for their money, wide receivers are arguably the most reliable of the four positions. Despite the fact that each team’s starting receivers will usually play more snaps than the squad’s top running back, they see significantly fewer touches and, more importantly, take fewer hits.

Right off the bat, we see strong reliability from our top-five wide receivers (15.2 average, 15.6 median*). Digging deeper, we show a median* of 15.0 for our top 35 wideouts. That ‘35’ is an important number when you consider that most fantasy leagues require three starting wide receivers.

Of our top 48 samples (top 12 wide receivers over four seasons), there was only one instance where a wideout missed more than six games (Andre Johnson in 2011). In fact, if we go a step further and count our top 20 wideouts (a sample of 80 wide receivers), Johnson was the only instance where a receiver missed more than seven games. This means that a top 20 wide receiver in terms of ADP has a 98.7 percent of appearing in nine or more games for his team.

Although we do see a consistent downward trend as we work our way through the draft slots, there isn’t a massive drop-off until we get to right around wide receiver 50.Here we see a drop of about one full game. These are players impacted, of course, by some injuries, but also by a lack of effectiveness or skill. This is the subjective portion of the projections where we will need to make our best educated guess as to which players will retain a relevant role all year along, as opposed to those who will be demoted to the bench or waiver wire.

Projection: The baseline for our wide receivers will be 15 games played, or one missed game. Although we’ve seen the top-selected wide receivers show enough durability that we could even go as high as 15.5 games, the mark quickly dives down to the 15.0 range and sticks there until well deep into the draft pool. As always, injury fill-ins and part-time No. 4/5 receivers will project out lower than 15 games.

Tight Ends

As foreshadowed earlier, a case could be made that tight end provides us with the most reliable production in terms of games played.

Despite a rough 2010 season in which the top-three tight ends off the board combined to appear in only 21 of a possible 48 games, we see a strong 15.1 median* among the top-five since 2008. That median sticks all the way through the top 30 tight ends, giving us our only position that doesn’t progressively decline as we work our way down ADP.

We see a sharp increase, actually, from the top five/ten tight ends to the top 15. The reason for this is the aforementioned injuries that plagued the position in 2010.

Of our top 48 samples (top 12 tight ends over four seasons), there were 35 occasions (73 percent) where the tight end missed no more than one game. There were only four occasions where a top-12 tight end missed more than six games (Chris Cooley and Owen Daniels – 2009, Dallas Clark and Jermichael Finley – 2010). This past season was a strong one in terms of tight end durability. Of the top 12 tight ends, eight appeared in all 16 games and two more suited up for 15 games. Antonio Gates (13 games) and Dallas Clark (11) were the exceptions.

Projection: Our numbers are driven down a bit by a freaky 2010 season, but with the way tight ends are being used more and more in the receiving game, going with a baseline of 15 games played is the best route to go. Unlike the other positions, we can also feel very confident about projecting 15 games played all the way through the top 30-plus tight ends.

Final Baselines

Quarterback: 15 games played
Running Back: 14 games played
Wide Receiver: 15 games played
Tight End: 15 games played

*This is simply a reminder that, as laid out in the intro, the ‘Median’ here is really the average of the medians of each draft slot since 2008.

Mike Clay is a football writer for Rotoworld.com and the Founder/Managing Editor of Pro Football Focus Fantasy. He can be found on Twitter @MikeClayNFL.
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