Injured Players Can Be Best Ball Winners

Apr 21st 2023

Tom Strachan

Time and time again players with the little red dot next to their name on Underdog slide-down draft boards. We’re over four full months away from the start of the season and yet people shy away from drafting players with injuries but even those who could be injured to start the season can be worth taking that risk on.

The beauty of best ball is that there are no conclusive answers, no one strategy that works year after year, and there is no single roster construction that solves all. Year after year we do see similarities in player archetypes on winning rosters and we can learn from past winners and teams that did well. 

In 2021 Liam Murphy won Best Ball Mania II in part thanks to the performances of Jeff Wilson Jr. who despite missing a large chunk of the season, was healthy in time for the fantasy playoffs and combined for 32.10 Half PPR points over weeks 15 and 16. Wilson was largely being undrafted throughout the summer of 2021 with an ADP of 215.8 before drafts closed. Wilson might not have had the type of season that returns frequent big scores and is thought of as a league-winner to be remembered for the ages, but what he did do is perform highly when it matters the absolute most in best ball. Added to this is the fact that Wilson was drafted only 1504 times out of the 155’376 total teams drafted, or 0.96% to put it another way. Wilson represented huge leverage on the playoff teams that Liam’s teams faced. If you draft Christian McCaffrey and he has an incredible season, it’s not unlikely that you’ll face many more teams in the best ball playoffs with Christian McCaffrey on the roster. Where we gain leverage in those pods is with the lower rostered players on our teams and in 2021, Wilson was an example of leverage that helped Liam’s team reach the final.

In 2022 Pat Kerrane benefited to the tune of two million dollars thanks to two “injury-prone” running backs. Saquon Barkley was the RB5 in Half point PPR points per game, playing every game of the season, after an offseason where Barkley was drafted as low as 28th when Best Ball Mania III opened, peaking at as high as the top of Round 2 in the summer. Raheem Mostert stayed healthy after he had played a total of nine games in the previous two seasons. Mostert was drafted as the RB2 in Miami’s backfield behind Chase Edmonds, who was projected as the starter thanks to what we now know was an overpay during free agency and the common refrain was that Edmonds would have a clear run at the majority of Miami’s touches because Mostert struggled to stay on the field. Ultimately Mostert went on to have seven top-24 weekly performances and contribute frequently to Kerrane’s team.

Another running back who provided excellent leverage in the 2022 playoffs was Cam Akers who despite being the fantasy football equivalent of a chocolate fireguard for much of the season, turned it on in Week 16 with a 33.7-point performance. Akers had advanced to the playoffs at a rate of 11.3%, way below the baseline average of 16.7%, but then catapulted those rosters that survived through to the finals where he put in an RB14 result that certainly didn’t harm rosters. The wider takeaway here is that lowly-rostered players have a huge upside in the playoffs.

Like all things best ball, there are many levels to the nuance and we can’t start drafting player after player with the little red dot that indicates a potential injury, but situations like injuries present opportunities to build rosters in a way we wouldn’t be able to when the ambiguity isn’t hanging over a player. For different positions we can approach it in different ways, starting with quarterback where in single quarterback drafts, adding players with ambiguity can be done in three quarterback builds. The obvious case to consider is Kyler Murray who injured his ACL and Meniscus in mid-December and could face a wide range of outcomes for 2023. Murray is the QB18 in ADP and presents us with opportunities to pair him with other elite quarterbacks in a situation that would have proved very expensive in 2022. If you’re drafting Murray then it makes sense to pair him with two quarterbacks that on paper have good chances to stay on the field all year long. Those two quarterbacks will need to be relied upon heavily to carry your team to the playoffs, which means there is no sense drafting a player like Trey Lance as part of a trio with Murray, as it’s entirely possible his season could feature plenty of time spent on a bench for one team or another. Likewise, Murray makes less sense to pair with a young rookie who doesn’t have a clear path to consistent starts, for instance, Hendon Hooker or possibly Will Levis. Pairing Murray with the top tier of quarterbacks, then a proven veteran, should allow you to carry Murray to the playoffs. By then Murray should be a year removed from his ACL injury and hopefully settled into a new offense and ready to unleash his rushing floor in an offense not hamstrung by Kliff Kingsbury. Once in the playoffs, you’re hoping that Murray isn’t highly rostered and that he can put up a ceiling performance to propel you out of your playoff pool.

At running back most savvy drafters are weighing injury risk with how they build their rosters in one way or another. Part of the famous Zero RB strategy is that you target running backs later on knowing there is a chance the running backs ahead of them may get injured and present the backups with a larger opportunity. When drafting Zero RB, or any similar strategy, we want to be mindful of the types of running backs we’re drafting because drafting six backups could leave us very short-handed at the position. With regards to injury, considering how we draft backs with question marks can help hugely. Tony Pollard is being drafted as the RB10 at the moment, as that little red dot gets into the minds of drafters and subdues his ADP after finishing as the RB7 in 2022. In 2022 Pollard had 12 touchdowns, which was the fourth-most for a running back, he also created the highest fantasy points over expected and had the third most big runs. Pollard did all of this on 15.0 touches per game, less than Latavius Murray averaged across the season. Ezekiel Elliott averaged 17.1 touches per game, on top of Pollards, and with him now released, Pollard could see huge volume when recovered from his broken fibula.

There are always cases where injured players aren’t worth the risk, and certain builds make them more dangerous. Adding an injured running back to a hyper-fragile roster where typically you have no more than four-five running backs, is perhaps tempting fate, but in a contest against hundreds of thousands of teams, we’re trying to chase the ceiling outcomes that accompany taking some risks unless, of course, your primary goal is to win the minimum returns possible. An injured player shouldn’t be automatically off your board, and if you see them slide further past ADP to the point where they become a value, it’s time to snap them up and decide how to build around that injury.