Fantasy Football Fact or Fluke: How do you know when to start a player coming off injury?

Trust is a major factor in fantasy football and not an issue that is solved in a one-and-done kind of way. Players earn our trust mainly through what they do on the field but also what their coaches say about them — and nothing derails the trust train faster than injuries. If a player leaves a game hurt or sustains an injury during practice, he pops up on the team’s injury report and fantasy players naturally wonder: Can I trust him?

We’re not doctors and we’re certainly not privy to the full stories. We’ve seen every possible outcome with every possible injury in the years we’ve been playing this game. A guy hurt with what would be a months-long saga instead misses just one week and comes back to play at an elite level. Another guy seems to have a minor injury, but never gets back to his pre-injury production. Someone else is a game-time decision for weeks before finally being placed on IR.

The big question is, how do you know when to trust a player coming back from injury? And of course, the truth is that there is no magic formulaic answer. Out of my frustration, I once did a study on player performance in the first game back from injury in the NBA. In basketball, I found that if a player was deemed ready to start, he played pretty much at the same level he was playing at before the injury sidelined him (this was particularly true for point guards and power forwards). Football is a very different sport, however, and we know that is not necessarily the case with the NFL.

And no one is obliged to tell us anything about it.

Making decisions with only some of the important information sucks! My personal rule of thumb is to avoid groin and hamstring injuries when it seems like the player has been rushed back (a zero or one-week absence). These are very easy to re-injure during a game and it’s not uncommon for a skill player with one of these kinds of injuries to serve more of a decoy role than a primary play-maker.

With everything else, including fractures, concussions and sprains, I’d rather miss by being too trusting than play it too cautiously and leave a ton of fantasy points on my bench. In other words, when they say Josh Allen is ready to go, he’s ready to go for me. Let’s touch on his Week 10 performance as well as a few others, with a focus on what it means from an injury perspective.

Josh Allen

What a game! Allen started out looking fantastic. What elbow injury, we asked? He rushed for first downs, his passes were spot on and the team was having success with a balanced game plan. In the second half, though, things started to break down.

He threw two costly and frankly unnecessary interceptions and fumbled a transfer in the end zone. Although he ended with an OK fantasy line (330 passing yards, 84 rushing yards and one passing touchdown), I wondered if the elbow wasn’t quite as great as it had seemed as the game wore on. While in the first half it looked like he was making smart choices and not putting himself in needless danger, he was mentally in full takeover mode in the second half — when he puts the team and the game plan in his hands and feet. The Vikings were able to read him well and he wasn’t executing perfectly, possibly the consequence of some injury-related fatigue.

Josh Allen #17 of the Buffalo Bills is a fantasy superstar
Josh Allen put up the fantasy points despite returning early from what was thought of as a serious injury. (Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images) (Timothy T Ludwig via Getty Images)

In my mind, there is some question as to whether he should have been cleared to play, or whether the Bills should have used a more run-heavy game plan, especially in the second half, but no one should feel stupid for starting him in fantasy.

James Conner

Conner was not rushed back from a rib injury, taking a full three weeks to heal before taking on a limited role in Week 9. With Kyler Murray out and the ribs apparently completely behind him, Conner rushed a season-high 21 times for 69 yards and two touchdowns. He also caught all three passes thrown his way by Colt McCoy. This game represented his first scoring since Week 1 and his best fantasy effort of the season. Conner is still lagging way behind draft-day expectations, but the fact that Eno Benjamin didn’t even touch the ball (and was subsequently released) is encouraging for Conner’s managers going forward.

Jonathan Taylor

Trying to predict the Colts this season gives me a headache. Taylor had a great start in Week 1, the last time he scored before this bounce-back Week 10 performance (147 rushing yards, 16 receiving yards and 1 TD), only to disappoint repeatedly (when he played, that is) from Weeks 2-9. Whether it was low usage — like when he had nine carries in a loss to the Jaguars — or low efficiency — like when he had 20 carries in a win over Kansas City — he put up a slew of lackluster fantasy performances amid toe and ankle injuries.

I think at this point, it’s safe to say that Taylor was not at 100 percent until last week, but it’s also safe to say that even at 100 percent, the Colts can’t be trusted to utilize him the way we want for fantasy purposes. He’s a must-start player but not a guaranteed fantasy bonanza going forward.

Aaron Jones

I wasn’t so worried about Jones’ ankle after he spent time on the injury report last week, but the matchup scared me. Dallas is one of the best defenses in the NFL and we all know that Green Bay has been struggling (to put it mildly).

So of course Jones comes out and rushes a season-high 24 times for 138 yards and a touchdown.

He also caught two passes from Aaron Rodgers, who also had his best game of the season. With 13 carries, AJ Dillon was also involved, and both backs were highly efficient with over 5.0 yards per carry. I’m skeptical that the Packers have figured everything out, but Jones putting on this game-winning performance in such a tough spot is certainly a move in the right direction.

Christian Watson

While Jones certainly played a big role in the Packers’ success in Dallas all the glory went to this guy (four receptions, three for touchdowns and 107 yards). Watson had been hindered by a concussion and various other injuries this season but one of the only joys Rodgers has seemed to find in the game this season is throwing deep to him. There have been a lot of missed connections between the two and it was fun to see them on the same page for the win over Dallas.

I do not doubt that Watson has the speed and hands to be a very successful NFL receiver, but building back trust in Rodgers is going to be hard to do.

Kadarius Toney

You know how doctors used to prescribe country air or warmer temperatures as the cure for almost anything that ailed a person? That’s what comes to mind when I see Toney go from being the saddest, most talented but always hurt, guy in New York to suddenly the picture of health in the Midwest. Playing with Patrick Mahomes is an injection of the good stuff when it comes to Toney’s outlook.

There are still a LOT of weapons in the Kansas City offense, but Toney went from two targets to five in just one week, and Mahomes trusted him from inside the 10-yard line for his first NFL touchdown. If Juju Smith-Schuster and Mecole Hardman miss Week 11 with their respective injuries (concussion and abdomen), Toney is a possible FLEX start against the Chargers on Sunday Night Football.

Quick Hits

Justin Fields/Cole Kmet

Yes and yes.

I admit to giving up on both of them after lots of summer love for what I thought would be a dynamic duo in Chicago. That was around Week 3 or 4, when Fields’ volume was in the toilet and his accuracy was hovering below a 50 percent completion rate. Sometimes, we’re too flexible with our thinking about player value, because Fields was unleashed in Week 5 with his first game over 20 passing attempts, and he’s thrown at least one passing touchdown in the six games since. He’s also now rushed for at least one touchdown in each of the last four games.

Kmet has all the attributes of a Kelce-esque tight end, but he didn’t catch his first pass until Week 3. He never even saw more than four targets until Week 9. His volume still isn’t great, but after a few games with a 100 percent catch rate, they had to increase it a little bit, right? Can Kmet score two touchdowns per game the rest of the season? No. But with Fields playing like a top-five fantasy QB, they’re both must-start players in every format.

Nick Westbrook-Ikhine

NWI put up the best Titans’ WR game of the year by 15 fantasy points in Week 10. I have no idea why, or how, and I’m not going to invest a lot of energy in figuring out this fluky performance. Congrats to Nick on his 5/119/2 line, but Derrick Henry is the only startable Titan for any reasonable fantasy league.

Devin Singletary

Scoring the first two Bills’ touchdowns of Sunday’s loss to Minnesota put Singletary managers in high spirits. Singletary hadn’t scored on the ground all season and had just the one receiving touchdown in Week 3 vs. Miami. Perhaps this is some overdue TD regression, but fantasy managers shouldn’t get overly excited.

Despite his early success, he still had only 13 carries (James Cook had five) and was targeted only twice. The key to starting Singletary has everything to do with how competitive the game is expected to be — he has thrived in the close ones this season.

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