Three of the "Safest" Running Backs in 2015

By Jake 9:08am EDT 8/11/15

This article first appeared on Draft Sharks here. We have partnered with in 2015 to give you an even greater chance winning your league this coming season. Check them out for some really unique insights that are guaranteed to give you an edge in league domination this season.

The Running Back is without a doubt the most prized player on a fantasy team. A true workhorse RB who sees a heavy workload and who is able to catch the ball out of the backfield is the key to taking home a W in most seasons. The main reason a high volume RB is so valuable is because there is a shortage of players who a) get the opportunity and b) who have the durability to make it through the season. There is no worse feeling than paying a high draft price for an RB who gets injured and misses chunks of the season.

The challenge with finding “safe” players from an injury perspective is that they generally tend to be those players who see very little volume and who will not be winning you a championship any time soon. Simply put – the less exposure to the ball a player has the less likely he is to get injured. However, there are a few RBs who have the durability AND the projected volume to make them game changers in your lineup.

Marshawn Lynch

Injury probability: 5%

Projected PPR Total: 244

ADP: 1.05

Yes – there are a lot of Debbie Downers out there that are saying that his age, previous carries and his lingering back issues are going to be his demise this year. We’re here to tell you not to worry about any of that and that these misconceptions should allow you to zig when everyone else is zagging. Let’s go Beast Mode on the reasons people are hating one at a time.

Age – We have conclusively found that younger players get injured way more than older players. There could be several football reasons for this: coaches give the older players more time to rest during the season, younger players need time to adjust to the game or perhaps older players just know how to take care of themselves better. The statistical reason for this is known as “survivor bias”. Think of it in terms of nature. You have a herd of deer on the African savannah. Over time the weak and unlucky get eaten by lions to the extent that there are very few older deer left. However these deer have a much better chance at surviving because they are the tougher ones who made it through the early years.

Football players are no different. There is a misconception that older players are more likely to get injured when in fact it’s the younger players you have to worry about. The older players – especially older players who have been healthy for most of their career are usually locks to stay healthy. What usually ends an older running back’s career is not injury – its lack of burst and agility. Michael Turner is a classic example of a player whose career just fizzled out after it looked like he was running with a fork in his back after he turned 30. So that’s a better question with regard to Lynch: does he have the burst in his 30th year to still make defenders pay for trying to get in his way? All evidence points to “yes”. The Seahawks just added to his contract to make him one of the highest paid Running Backs in the league. They have every confidence he is going to be around for the next few years.

Previous carries

As we discussed in this article about Le’Veon Bell here, previous carries have no predictive quality in determining injury. There is no statistical evidence that we have encountered that can show how previous touches or yards rushed for in prior seasons will determine the likelihood of a player getting injured the following season.

We look at injury as a linear event. You start at 0 (not injured) and the more you play you will move towards a 1 (injured). What exposes you to injury is how many times you WILL touch the ball in season and not how many times you HAVE touched the ball. When you start to think of it this way you will see a flow develop between the projections for each player and the associated injury risk. The more exposure to the ball the more exposure there is to risk.

Lynch has a track record at thriving with a large workload. He has not rushed the ball less than 280 times since 2011. His previous touches are nothing to worry about.

The back problems

This is a very real problem but one that he has been dealing with since 2007. Lynch suffers from compressed cartilage in his vertebra or cervical spondylosis. Basically the cartilage in-between the vertebra act as a shock absorber to protect the nerve ending in the spine. Due to several reasons (age, genetics, trauma etc) the cartilage solidifies to bone pinching nerve endings and causing muscle spasms in the back. We have several thousand injuries in our database but Lynch is our only documented case of someone playing through this type of injury. As far as we know he has not undergone any surgery on his spine which leaves him with muscle relaxant, pain medication and rehab to get through the shooting pains this issue is causing him.

He has missed one game due to back pain in the last 5 seasons. Outside of that he has managed the pain and played at an elite level. There is no reason to think that this is the year he falls apart.

Finally – looking closer at the deal he signed with the Seahawks you can see how high the organization is on him. He was coaxed out of retirement with a two year extension to his one year remaining with the Seahawks for an additional $24M making his total earned over the next 3 years $31M. This from a team who won’t commit long term to a quarterback who has taken them to back-to-back Super Bowls. The ‘Hawks have ponied up to the production and bought in to the durability of Lynch – there is a strong argument to say that you should to.

LeSean McCoy

*** Update: McCoy limped off the field on 8/18 with a hamstring pull that was severe enough for Rex Ryan to say that he will be kept out the remainder of the regular season. This is absolutely something to monitor as we head into regular season as soft tissue injuries are the kind that can affect players all season long. We would go so far as to remove Shady from this list. Safer replacement level talent that can be found around about the same point in the draft where he was going are players who have shown their durability by playing for several seasons without injury: Frank Gore (7%), Justin Forsett (20%) and Lamar Miller (16%). Unless you can get him super cheap he should be left alone in drafts this year

Jeremy Hill

Injury probability: 12%

Projected PPR Total: 226

ADP: 2.06

This one surprised us as younger, less experienced running backs have an increased risk of injury. Last year alone 48% of all rookies were injured missing at least 1 game or more. Why then does Hill have such a low probability?

When we built our algorithm we tested many different things to come up with weightings we have for the factors we consider to be predictors. Size is one of those factors. We work on BMI and the way we work it out is a little different than the standard method but the results are more or less the same. Below is a graph of running backs by size with the smaller players to the left and the larger players to the right. The lines represent injury of more than 3 games missed in the previous 3 years.

BMI Three of the Safest Running Backs in 2015

As you can see the cohort of lighter players experiences on average a much higher frequency of injury than the heavier group. Hill has a BMI of 0.044 which places him on the heavier side. He is a big dude weighing 235lbs and standing 6’1”. Our algorithm likes that. Our algo also likes the fact that he has a clean bill of health having never been injured in college or the NFL. These factors combine to give him a very low chance of getting injured this year.

Hill is potentially undervalued at the moment at his ADP of 2.06 for two reasons. The first is that he is the lead back for the Bengals with potentially a great floor due to his durability. The second is that the only risk eating into his volume and production upside is Gio Bernard. But the reality is Bernard is way more likely to get injured. Bernard is a smaller running back (5’9” 209lbs), has suffered several injuries and has showed serious durability issues last year.

A quick comparison of the two Bengal RBs can be found here using our injury comparison tool.

If you’re looking to draft Bernard in the hope that Hill gets injured you’re zigging when you should be zagging. Hill stands a much better chance of being unleashed as the every down back at some point in the season due to Bernard’s elevated injury risk.


Losing a high draft pick to injury can be season ending. The players we have outlined above are players who have upside AND floor due to a track record of good durability. Obviously this is fluid as injuries take place during the offseason. Keep up to date with all the injury news out of training camp by following us on twitter @injurypredictor and check out our website for the injury history and probability of every player in the NFL.

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