Preseason Injury Outlook: Running Backs

Let’s continue our dive into injury issues that can affect games this season. We started with quarterbacks and today, we follow with running backs and soon hereafter, wide receivers and then tight ends. 

Here are the top five running back health issues this preseason:

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Todd Gurley, Los Angeles Rams

Gurley’s troublesome knee, which was initially passed off as tendonitis last season, made him miss Weeks 12-13 and seemed to affect his play during the Rams’ Super Bowl run. He only had 30 rushing attempts combined in three playoff games and was completely ineffective in the last two games. The offseason talk was of arthritis in his knee. The question is how much? Gurley at times tried to deny it, but even his trainer talked about it. He is losing some weight to lighten the load and was limited all offseason. He will be treated as a “veteran knee” with his workload managed closely.

I did see a workout video with a close up of Gurley’s left knee and it appeared to show significant bone spurs on the lateral side of his knee. This means it is likely arthritis has been progressing for a while which means he has been successful while playing with the arthritis. This is not the end of his career. He can still be a productive running back. After all, Sony Michel was drafted with known arthritis in his knee and helped the Patriots defeat the Rams in the Super Bowl. However, the days of Gurley with routine 20-plus touches a game are likely gone. He did pass his physical and is active during drills at training camp. His fantasy value takes a hit but he still has value to the Rams.

Sony Michel, New England Patriots

Michel was drafted with known knee issues, yet the Patriots won the Super Bowl with him as the starter. New England was fully aware of his knee arthritis and factored that into drafting him late in the first round in 2018. Appropriate management and rest led to a productive season. There was a scary-looking knee injury Week 7 that made him miss the next two games.

Part of the management of a chronic knee condition is offseason clean up surgery, which he had. He started camp on the PUP list but there should not be any additional concern. Indeed he has quickly passed his physical and joined the team on the field. Michel does not have the knee where he could practice six out of seven days for the six weeks of training camp, anyway. Even though he is only in his second year, he has to be treated like he has a “vet” knee and be given days off and managed. Doing so can keep him relatively productive but he remains unlikely to ever get to a significant second contract. Former Georgia running backs Gurley and Michel are in similar medical situations.

Jerick McKinnon, San Francisco 49ers

Last season’s projected 49ers starter tore his ACL in the final practice of the 2018 preseason. He landed on PUP to start training camp in 2019. He is coming up on a full year from injury and was just activated off PUP. The good news is he has a full year. The bad news is the full year still led to a stint on PUP. Do not expect an Adrian Peterson-like comeback. McKinnon will be eased back in and get stronger as the year progresses and look for him to share the load with Matt Breida behind Tevin Coleman, especially in the early going.

Leonard Fournette, Jacksonville Jaguars

Fournette was bothered by a hamstring injury throughout last season for the Jaguars. He injured it in Week 1 and missed six of the next seven games. His attempt to come back in Week 4 was cut short when he was pulled in the first half due to hamstring tightness. After coming back, he failed to reach 100 yards in any game but scored six touchdowns in the final six games of the year. Fournette also came into the league with chronic ankle issues and has been absent at OTAs thus far. All of this adds up to a yellow flag. There is no firm health reason Fournette won’t succeed, but there seem to be many smaller issues that have prevented him from being the dominant running back he was projected and drafted to be.

Derrius Guice, Washington Redskins

Guice tore his ACL last preseason and he joins the Redskins with the distinction of being one of three players that need three or more surgeries for the same original injury. He suffered some sort of infection from his surgery in Pensacola and had to have several subsequent procedures. It is good to see Guice practicing and off PUP but I think next year will be better for him. This year he is essentially still a rookie learning the NFL and will have to deal with a knee that seems to be coming along but is far from 100%. Guice can contribute but I do not see him dominating in yards or carries for the team.

Bonus: I have optimism about Philip Lindsay and his wrist as well as Dalvin Cook having a bounce-back year in his second season after an ACL tear. On the other hand, Derrick Henry’s calf strain is something that could leak into the start of the season.

Next up: wide receivers including Antonio Brown, Julian Edelman, DeAndre Hopkins, AJ Green, Marquise Brown, and more.