Is the Injured Reserve IRreparably Damaged?


Do you ever feel like more and more of your fantasy players end up on the Injured Reserve (IR) list season after season? Maybe you feel like you’re looking on waivers each week simply to keep your team competitive or limping along? Am I alone in these thoughts? I’m willing to bet I’m not, but if I am I brought evidence to support the ravings of a newly-minted madman. As the kids say nowadays, “I brought the receipts!”

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Over the past five seasons, the number of players placed on the IR has increased at a rate of 52 players per season, just short of an entire active roster’s worth of players removed from active play, compounded season after season.

Beginning in 2013, with the assumption of 55 starting players per team, or 1760 players in total, a full 18.6 percent of those players who started the season on a roster, found themselves on IR by the end of the season. In a standard fantasy league with 15 roster spots, that meant that three players from each team would end up on IR, a reasonable amount given that then, like now, most leagues had multiple IR spots, often up to 25 percent of the roster. This status quo was even reasonable in 2014 and 2015 when 16 percent and 22.4 percent of a team’s roster would end up on IR, respectively.

That changed in 2016 when the NFL saw 512 players added to the IR by seasons end. This amounted to 29 percent of all players on a roster at the start of the season. In fantasy terms this meant that for that same standard 15 player roster, as many as five players per team could end up on their team’s IR by year’s end.

I noticed then that something was different than prior seasons. I, like others, suddenly found that the IR spots allocated per team where no longer enough, not only for my team, or another team who in prior years might have been viewed as having bad luck, but for nearly every team in the league. That 25 percent IR allocation was suddenly, and dramatically, passed by the number of injuries incurred that season.

The 2017 season did see some relief over the prior season, but it wasn’t enough. The 489 players sent to IR that year accounted for 27.8 percent of those on an opening day roster.

Anecdotally, 2017 did see some movement on the part of some commissioners, to increase the number if IR spots in various leagues. This often amounted to an additional spot or two being added. For arguments’ sake, I’ll call it a five percent increase in IR spots from the previous 25 percent allocation, to now 30 percent of the active roster. The reaction was understandable, and even I cheered leagues that took this approach given the onslaught of injuries that seemed to have no end in sight.

However, in 2018, even those immediate changes appeared to lose much impact. By the end of the 2018 season, an astounding 589 players found themselves on IR. This amounts to a full third of the league that started on a roster ending up on IR. In fantasy terms, again referring to that standard 15 player roster, that means an average of five player on each team would not finish the year as a startable asset. The earlier five percent jump in IR spots was effectively wiped out by a six percent jump in NFL IR allocations year over year.

We obviously have yet to see how the 2019 season will play out in terms of the number of players that will ultimately end up on the IR by the end of the season. However, if we extrapolate the trend established over the past six years into the next six years, the following picture emerges:

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Disturbed yet? I am.

If the 2019 season ends with around 637 players on IR, this would amount to 36.2 percent of the players that started the season. The 40 percent mark is projected to be passed by 2021 with 754 players finishing the year on IR, translating into 42.8 percent of the players on a roster at the start of the season. After that, the 50 percent mark, or half of the league finishing on IR, is surpassed in the year 2024 with 929 players on IR, good for 52.8 percent of all rostered players.

While it is important to understand that there will be years that are either above or below the linear trend shown above, if the average year-over-year holds true, as it has thus far, dynasty leagues are in serious trouble.

The trouble begins to manifest as the average number of injured players per team meets or surpasses the number of draft picks each team is allocated. The reason this is an issue is teams will suddenly be forced to make decisions to draft future talents, talents that mind you will also be prone to the same injury trajectory as those already in the league, or to stand by existing talent and possibly developing talent that were placed on IR.

One solution bandied about as a cure all is the ability for teams to place an unlimited number of players on IR. While attractive at first, this also creates an issue if a team has even one more player on IR then they have draft picks.

For instance, if in our hypothetical league of 15 players per team, an owner has six players on IR and five draft picks then said owner will have to decide between players viewed as valuable enough to keep on IR and the whole of that owner’s draft class. An additional issue that presents itself when unlimited IR spots are introduced is the ability for teams to stash IR players that are on the waiver wire, unless rules are put in place to prevent such an issue.

What then, is the solution to ever-growing IR usage in the NFL?

One possible solution, as radical as it may sound, is the abolishment of the IR in dynasty leagues. This does present its own issues as teams would be forced to give up on drafted talent in order to continue competing and playing towards a championship. This is a decision that each team would need to make at some point during the season. This also makes the dynasty format a simple bastardization of redraft where player development is rendered useless, or at the very least, much less important than it currently is.

A second solution is the widespread and aggressive implementation of taxi squads throughout dynasty leagues. Such a recommendation would almost necessitate that such taxi squads be double the size of a single year’s draft class. This would allow players to develop on the taxi squad for two years, hence the double size of a single draft class, while preserving the ability to IR players and return them to the roster. This would also necessitate a continued, measured growth of the IR to match that of NFL use. While imperfect, it is dynamic which is appealing in its own right.

I’m certain there are other solutions out there and I’d love to hear them in the comments. In the meantime, I recommend our readers keep an eye on NFL IR trends as they will necessitate fantasy changes, both in terms of league structure and strategy.