The 2011 NFL season ended with more than a few highly productive fantasy running backs on the injured reserve list. How do these injured players fit into the 2012 fantasy football landscape? Will they be healthy enough to contribute to their NFL, and more to the point, your fantasy teams in the upcoming season? Let us take a look at some of the more prominent names that finished 2011 nursing season ending injuries, and their potential heading into 2012.
Matt Forte , CHI: Forte suffered a grade 2 MCL sprain in a week #13 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs and would miss the remainder of the season for the Bears. He would return to action in February 2012, participating in the Pro Bowl (3 touches for 10 yards), so it is safe to assume he has fully recovered from the injury. Forte is a safe late 1st, early 2nd round selection in fantasy drafts for 2012.The signing of Michael Bush (who will vulture touchdown opportunities) and the possibility of a hold out, keep Matt Forte from being a top five fantasy running back.
Jamaal Charles, KC: Charles will be 10 months removed from ACL surgery by the time training camp opens. Reports are that he is already running in cleats, and that his rehab is right on schedule. Coach Romeo Crennel has stated that the Chiefs will proceed cautiously with Charles heading into the 2012 season. The Peyton Hillis signing may limit goal line touches for Charles, but his all around skill set as a runner and receiver will keep Hillis mainly in a complementary role. Charles is on track to be the week one starting running back for Kansas City and is a mid to late 2nd round option in fantasy drafts.
DeMarco Murray , DAL: The Cowboys are optimistic that Murray will be sufficiently recovered from the broken ankle he suffered in December, to actually participate in OTAs. Even if he is not be available for the off season program, he is on schedule to be ready for training camp, and will be the lead running back in 2012 for Dallas. Murray is a solid #2 fantasy RB (with #1 RB upside) and should be selected no later than round #3 in fantasy drafts.
Fred Jackson , BUFF: Jackson has recovered from the broken fibula that ended his 2011 season, and has already been cleared to return to all football activities for over a month. Jackson was averaging over 5 yards a carry before getting injured, and is a full go for off-season activities for the Bills. There may be a RBBC situation with CJ Spiller in 2012, but Jackson remains a late 3rd, early 4th round selection in 2012 fantasy drafts.
Adrian Peterson , MINN: Recovering from surgery to repair both a torn ACL and MCL, Peterson was expected to begin running the last week in March. The Vikings are hoping that he will be available for week #1, but that is a lofty expectation. Should Peterson be the week #1 starter, his early season role is sure to be a very limited one, as he tests his repaired knee. Optimistic fantasy owners may reach for Peterson in the 2nd round, but targeting Peterson in the 3rd round of fantasy drafts is the wise move.
Mark Ingram , NO: After January surgery on a tendon in his big toe, Ingram should be a full participant in training camp, if not OTAs. Scheduled to be running and cutting on the foot by early April, Ingram will look to add to his rookie totals of 474 yards and 5 touchdowns. The plethora of RBs in New Orleans (and lack of touches) will continue to limit Ingram moving forward, he is a 7th round or later fantasy draft option as a plug and play bye week filler.
Jahvid Best, DET: As of March 6th, Best was cleared to begin working out. Suffering his second concussion of 2011 last October, Best appeared in only 6 games for the Lions. Very high risk of re-injury makes Best a fantasy enigma heading forward, as the chances of avoiding a hard blow to the head as an NFL runner are remote at best (no pun intended). Should he come out of training camp healthy, Best is still only a late 7th, early 8th round fantasy option.
Rashard Mendenhall , PITT: Tearing his ACL on New Years Day leaves Mendenhall as virtually a lock to start the 2012 season on the PUP list, if not miss the entire season. Only 24 years old, Mendenhall could conceivably still have a thriving NFL career, but appeared surprisingly sluggish in 2011, before getting injured. He is a free agent after the season, and his time in Pittsburgh is most likely over when the contract expires. His time as a fantasy starting running back is almost certainly over as well; he should not be drafted before the 10th round of fantasy drafts, if at all.
Jonathan Dwyer, PITT: Placed on IR early last December with a broken foot, Dwyer is expected to be ready for training camp. Flashed potential with 107 total yards, including a 76-yard run against the Titans in week #5 in 2011. With Mendenhall a question mark for 2012, Dwyer needs to make good on what may be his last chance to be a viable NFL running back. Could be passed on the depth chart by John Clay, it is now or never for Dwyer. He is not a player to be on fantasy draft boards for 2012.
Tim Hightower, FA: Hightower tore his ACL in week #7, underwent surgery in November, 2011, to repair it and may not be able to work out for teams until May. Is a free agent, and may have to wait until training camps to open before being signed by a team who suffers a loss at running back. Will most likely be relegated to third down action only, wherever he lands. Possibly a 10th round or later draft option in PPR leagues, and not a draft option in standard formats.
Earnest Graham, FA: Tore his right Achilles tendon in week #7 last October. Had been filling in admirably for an injured LeGarrette Blount, before going out for the season. Hopes to be fully healed by May, which would be amazingly fast for an Achilles injury, and then must test the free agency market and hope to find a home for 2012. 32 years old and coming off major surgery, it could be the end of the road for Graham. Not a name that belongs on 2012 fantasy draft boards.
A couple of high expectation, second year running backs that missed their entire rookie campaigns are also worth noting.
*Mikel LeShoure, DET: Jim Schwartz expects LeShoure to be ready for training camp, but Achilles injuries are very difficult to bounce back from for running backs. However, LeShoure is still a safer option in fantasy drafts than teammate Jahvid Best. Late 5th, early 6th round is the prime area of fantasy drafts to select LeShoure.
*Ryan Williams , AZ: Underwent surgery to repair a torn patellar tendon last August, and had the meniscus in the same knee "cleaned up." Was reported to be "75-percent" recovered from the injury as of late March. Still a question mark for training camp, and merits only a 10th round or later look in fantasy drafts, as a 'stash and see' type of player for 2012.
Continue to monitor the health updates on all these running backs as there is always the possibility of a set back in their recovery. Fantasy draft season is still a few months away, so don't fall asleep at the wheel and let any information slide by unnoticed.