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Rust vs. Rest: Can we ever trust A.J. Green in fantasy football again?

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For years, fantasy managers have debated the merits of a player who’s had time to heal a particular injury versus the overall deterioration that could occur during the rehab process. Whether it’s a veteran stud showing signs of decline or a young turk striving to bounce back from an upended season, FF enthusiasts are always weighing the pros and cons of time spent away from the field.

Given the COVID-related question marks surrounding this particular offseason and the durability concerns of some star competitors, I decided to get a professional medical opinion before drawing any conclusions. And so was conceived … Rust vs. Rest.

A.J. Green, WR, Cincinnati Bengals

In his NFL debut — on September 11, 2011 — A.J. Green caught his first pass as a pro. It was a 41-yard touchdown. That set the tone for the next six years.

Green posted fantasy-relevant numbers every season from 2011 to 2017, finishing inside of the top-12 FF players at the position over four separate campaigns. He also cleared 1,000 yards in six of seven efforts, with the outlier being 2016 when he only managed 964 yards over a 10-game period.

In 2018, however, which happened to be Green’s age-30 season, things went sideways … but not until late-October. Ironically, the year began solidly. In fact, Green was averaging 5.6 receptions and 86 yards per game, putting him on pace for a 90-1,374-12 effort. That stat line would have provided No. 18 with career numbers in yards and scores. It also would have gifted fantasy managers a top-10 WR finish.

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But in Week 8, after finding the end zone on a 17-yard score, Green sprained his big toe. Despite donning a walking boot and consulting with famed orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews, the injury was considered “minor” with no more than a three-game absence expected.

To keep the Bengals’ playoff hopes alive — after more than a month off — Green returned to action in Week 13 versus the Broncos. Just three minutes into the second quarter, he aggravated the toe injury, crumpling to the ground sans contact and grabbing his right foot. He was shut down for the remainder of 2018 and went under the knife to correct the ligament damage in his toe in early December.

Heading into 2019, optimism for a bounce back was tempered but still high, as the expected recovery for the toe issue was three to four months, providing the X receiver with plenty of time to rehab. But on the first day of training camp, Green slipped on some bad turf and was carted off the field after sustaining a left ankle injury. Initially, Green was expected to be sidelined for 6-8 weeks, but as we all know by now, he ended up missing the entirety of 2019.

Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green
Injuries have stolen much of the past few seasons from A.J. Green. (Photo by Ian Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Details surrounding Green’s most recent malady are far from abundant. In order to dig deeper and cull facts, I (once again) enlisted the help of orthopedic surgeon and USC team physician, Dr. Alex Weber.

The doctor agreed that the severity of the injury was difficult to determine due to the lack of reported details. Based on available public records and limited video footage, however, Dr. Weber concluded that Green likely suffered a low-ankle sprain.

He explains: “The reason I don’t believe it was a high-ankle sprain is because, if that were the case, Green’s medical team would likely have said that they performed a surgery to stabilize his syndesmosis. But all that was reported was that he had his ankle ‘cleaned out.’ Therefore, it was probably a low-ankle sprain.”

But low-ankle sprains don’t usually require surgery. And Green underwent a procedure on July 30th, just a few days after being carted off the practice field. I asked the doctor why that would be the case. He answered that presumably, Green was healing but was still “hampered by either a piece of the ligament getting close to the joint or a piece of cartilage in the joint,” so his medical team advised him to remove the “impediment in the joint” in order to ensure a full recovery.

Obviously, regular season evidence of that recovery has yet to be witnessed. Whether or not Green’s rehab was successful or whether he chose to preserve his body (and eschew further potential injury) in a hapless season (the 2019 Bengals went 2-14, which was the franchise’s worst showing since 2002) is unknowable.

What we do know is that Green hasn’t played a full four quarters of football since October of 2018. That’s A LOT of time off, especially for a player entering his age-32 season.

The main problem Green faces in 2020

According to Dr. Weber, “From a purely medical standpoint, having recurrent foot issues is concerning. While all signs point to him being well-rested, he hasn’t had any game speed in a really long time. Even if, as I believe, he’ll be 100 percent to start the season, there absolutely exists a higher risk of re-injury.”

When weighing rust vs. rest, it seems that (similarly to Ben Roethlisberger) the amount of rust is potentially more harmful than the benefit rest could provide. Per the doctor’s above statement, Green’s ankle shouldn’t be an issue to start the season. However, due to the rust that has accumulated over the past 18-plus months, the likelihood of him sustaining another injury — pedal or otherwise — presents a significant risk for fantasy managers.

In an attempt to calculate that risk, I asked Dr. Weber to estimate exactly how many games he anticipated Green to finish. He replied, “Factoring in significant rust, and the timing issues presented by a rookie quarterback, I’m going to say Green will play 10 full games this season.”

And that’s when I adjusted my rankings, moving Green down from WR18 to WR37.

It seems that the Bengals’ organization feels a similar pessimism about the 32-year-old’s ability to rebound. Not only did the team use a second-round pick (No. 33 overall) to acquire “a Green replicant” (credit to Andy Behrens who employed that phrase to perfectly describe Tee Higgins on a recent episode of the Yahoo Fantasy Football Podcast), but they also failed to sign the nine-year vet to an extension ahead of the franchise tag deadline. That means the 7x Pro Bowler will likely head into 2020 playing on the franchise tag — and across the field from his replacement.

I’m rooting for Green to prove everyone wrong … and I do believe a WR3 fantasy finish is in his range of probable outcomes. But there simply isn’t enough upside given his current ADP (WR28) for me to confidently draft him ahead of higher ceiling players like Michael Gallup or Terry McLaurin.

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There’s little doubt that Cincy’s offense is ascending. Ultimately, though, the aforementioned Higgins remains the most intriguing investment, particularly because he’s going largely undrafted (2%). A former basketball standout, Higgins is an exciting perimeter and end-zone weapon who knows how to high-point the ball. His success in the red area of the field was made evident during his career at Clemson, where he scored a touchdown on 20 percent of his catches. Whether he leapfrogs Auden Tate or spells a nicked up Green, Higgins figures to emerge as the Bengals’ best downfield weapon by the end of the year.

Which Bengals are you targeting in 2020? Let Liz know on social @LizLoza_FF.

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