Fantasy football injury outlook for 2022: The ACL club, Christian McCaffrey, Michael Thomas
There is no denying the wealth of talent that exists among NFL skill position players, talent that can ultimately translate into fantasy football rewards. But fantasy managers can only reap those rewards if the talent sees the field, making injury and associated lost time perhaps the most pervasive threat to fantasy opportunity. While there is no crystal ball when it comes to predicting injuries, it is well established that past injury is one of the greatest risk factors for future injury. Understanding that not all injuries — or rehabs — are created equal, it is worth taking a closer look at where key fantasy players who suffered injuries last season are on their road to recovery as the 2022 season approaches.
Within the spectrum of NFL injuries, anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tears represent the single greatest injury burden in the NFL. When an NFL player tears his ACL, it immediately ends his season and potentially compromises the following one.
The 2021 NFL Health and Safety data shows there were 71 ACL injuries last season across the preseason and the regular season, 20 more than the previous year and a double-digit increase over each of the past six seasons. In other words, while surgical and rehab techniques continue to improve, ACL tears in the NFL aren’t going away.
Given the numbers and the impact on fantasy players, it seemed appropriate to give them their own section here. Plenty of stars are members of the ACL rehab club heading into 2022 and, as usual, their outlooks are as varied as the injuries themselves. While the average time to return to play following an ACL injury hovers around nine months post-surgery, that timeframe can vary. Return to play, however, is NOT the same as return to performance, and it can take a year — or longer — for an athlete to return to his prior level of function following ACL surgery.
Multiple variables can influence the recovery timeline ranging from associated injury (other ligaments, meniscus, cartilage, bone) to graft type and surgical approach. Along the course of rehab, hurdles such as lack of motion, persistent swelling, delayed strength return of the quadriceps or hamstrings or an overly accelerated return to high-level activity can slow a player’s recovery enough to impact the timeline, level of performance or both.
Additionally, the mental aspect to recovery cannot be ignored. Confidence in the surgically repaired leg can be slow to come by for an athlete. Even if the base physical metrics are restored, an unwillingness to trust the leg when maneuvering on the field or fear of contact to the previously injured knee can translate to an altered style of play, impacting performance.
While the overall success rate of returning NFL athletes to sport following an ACL tear is high, there is no guarantee when it comes to any individual athlete, as each player’s experience is unique. With that in mind, here are some of the athletes returning from ACL injuries we are monitoring heading toward the start of the 2022 season.
Dobbins quickly became the face of the debate about how much preseason playing time starters should see when he tore his left ACL the week before the regular season got underway. After undergoing surgery last September with Dr. Neal ElAttrache, it seemed logical to expect Dobbins’ return by Week 1 of 2022, but coach John Harbaugh’s suggestion in March that Dobbins might start the season on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list indicates he might not be ready. Although Harbaugh sounded slightly more optimistic in May about Dobbins being available by Week 1, the team still moved forward with the signing of Mike Davis. These injuries are particularly tough on players whose position and style demands both power and speed — in his rookie season (2020), Dobbins was fourth in the league in average yards after contact — and no timeline is guaranteed. Dobbins’ progression through training camp will be key.
See J.K. Dobbins. In an unbelievable stroke of misfortune, the Ravens’ running back who was expected to step up his role after Dobbins’ injury succumbed to his own ACL tear just two weeks later … in practice. The two backs shared a surgeon (Dr. Neal ElAttrache) and have been on a similar rehab timeline. Harbaugh also noted Edwards might begin the season on the PUP list and, as with Dobbins, his progression during training camp will be key.
Williams’ season ended in Week 5 in a gruesome manner when he took a hit to the inside of his right knee that forcefully bowed it out beyond its normal range (think: Jaylon Smith injury). These types of injuries are complex, and the recovery process is highly individual. While his one-year re-signing with the Cardinals is encouraging, it is worth noting they also signed Zach Ertz — who came to Arizona following the loss of Williams — to a three-year deal. They also selected Trey McBride in the second round of the NFL draft. Expectations for Williams’ return should be tempered until he is doing football activity, but he does not hold fantasy value at this time.
When a player as unselfish and hard-working as Woods goes down in practice with a season-ending injury, it reverberates around the organization. The silver lining for Woods was his ability to stay with the Rams’ top-tier rehab staff where he could remain involved with his teammates throughout their journey to the Super Bowl. His progress inspired enough confidence for the Titans to sign him in the offseason. Woods participated in OTAs, doing route running and pass-catching and is expected to continue to increase his football activity in training camp. He appears to be headed for an on-time start to the season presuming all goes well in camp.
The loss of Davante Adams could present a big opportunity for Tonyan to earn even more of Aaron Rodgers’ targets, if he can return to his pre-injury form. A torn left ACL on a Thursday night in Week 8 ended Tonyan’s 2021 season prematurely, but there has been optimism since early this year about his recovery. Although he did not participate in OTAs or minicamp because of his rehab status, the Packers must be encouraged with his progress given they signed him to a one-year deal in mid-March. A strong 2022 season for Tonyan — even if it starts after Week 1 — could yield benefits for both parties.
Winston’s injury reminds us just how vulnerable quarterbacks are when they are on the move outside the pocket. In Week 8, as Winston was pulled down from behind, a twisting hyperflexion mechanism resulted in a torn ACL/MCL in Winston’s left knee. His rehab workout videos have kept us apprised of his progress, and he remains on track to start the season on time, a notion further reinforced by the Saints granting him a two-year extension in March. The only question remaining will be how he handles traffic around his surgically repaired knee when he has to face real opponents. Joe Burrow worked his way through that mental hurdle during training camp and went on to have a banner season in 2021. As long as Winston can get the preseason exposure necessary to give him confidence in the knee, he should be in good shape when the season opens.