Spoiler alert: there is no "next Adrian Peterson." The comeback last season from ACL surgery was notable not just in the amount of time it took for Peterson to come back, but how well he played from Week 1 on. Peterson didn't have down time and his talent level is such that he could put up one of the great running back seasons of all time.
There's not going to be someone like that, in the sense of putting up record breaking numbers. It's possible, sure, but it's not likely. What we have here is a list of players that could come back and have an oversized impact. Some, like Robert Griffin III, are expected to come back quickly and well, giving them the chance to produce as we'd expected before the injury. Others are more supporting players, but their support is crucial.
In looking for the next Adrian Peterson, we have to define what it is we're looking for. The player has to be coming back from a significant injury that would be expected to cause the player to miss significant time. They must be in a key role with a team and if healthy, would be worth at least one win. There's also a downside: if the player is not as healthy as we think or left some of his talent on the operating table, that win could be lost to injury as well.
Valuing both the potential upside and downside of these players is key on understanding who they are expected to be and understanding the effect and timeline of their injury. Being able to do both accurately and dispassionately will lead to a proper valuation and placement on your draft board or at least being able to tell your buddies "I told you so" when people are surprised by one of these comebacks.
Robert Griffin III
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Robert Griffin III had one of the most documented injuries in NFL history when he injured his ACL at the end of his rookie campaign. His knee gave out dramatically as he tried to play through a previous knee sprain, only to overtax the once-replaced ligament.
By February, Griffin was walking without a limp or a brace and by May, he was back on the field, making athletic movements. It's easy to project that Griffin will continue to improve throughout the summer as he continues his rehab and begins to focus more on "football-related activities."
The most notable movement Griffin made during the Redskins' OTAs was a rotational movement on the knee. This tends to be one of the last movements that a rehabbing player becomes comfortable with. Griffin, simulating being in the pocket in a non-contact drill, appeared to have that movement available to him, though it's unclear if it was an unconscious movement or intentional.
With the pocket movements coming along, there remain many questions about his ability to run. While Griffin should not lose a significant amount of speed, he may hesitate a bit more, especially at the goal line where hits are more likely and where his injury took place.
As well, Mike Shanahan looks to be much more hesitant to run Griffin here, especially early. That could lead to reduced TDs for Griffin and an uptick for Alfred Morris, Roy Helu or perhaps Fred Davis, returning from an injury of his own.
If Griffin's rushing yards and touchdown runs were cut in half—a reasonable expectation based only on hesitance—he would be the rushing equivalent of Russell Wilson. That's not a terrible downside and one that would keep him among the top 10 fantasy quarterbacks, even with ESPN's more aggressive projection.
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If I was forced to pick, right now, a player who could have the biggest difference between his perceived value (i.e., ADP) and his possible upside, it would be Jake Ballard. The opportunity that Ballard has in a revamped Patriots offense as compared to his perceived value is immense.
Ballard missed the 2012 season after injuring his knee in the Super Bowl while with the Giants. It was a high price to pay for the ring, but Ballard was scooped up in a neat roster move by the Pats while rehabbing.
Ballard is not without risks. His injury was more than "just" a ruptured ACL. Ballard also needed microfracture surgery to attempt to heal up the joint space, which has made the rehab go much longer than expected. It will have been almost 18 months when training camp opens and reports are that Ballard is moving well. He was never a speed player, so he won't be too inconvenienced by losing a step.
Moreover, the Pats TE offense is predicated less on speed than size and precision. Ballard shouldn't be expected to be a Rob Gronkowski replacement, if the back surgery and long fight with infection keep Gronkowski out or at least down. He's not the same player, but at that position and with a lack of other options for Tom Brady, Ballard could very well put up top 10 TE numbers.
I'll repeat for emphasis: It's possible that Jake Ballard could put up big production. Possible, not likely, to be sure, but in the late rounds, it's usually best to pay for possibilities. With the No. 12 TE coming in under 100 points in ESPN's projections, it's not a big jump to that level.
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DeMarco Murray dropped in the NFL draft because of injury concerns. While he can hardly be blamed for the bad luck of a broken leg, the fact is that Murray has missed almost a third of his possible NFL games, all with leg concerns. If he wants to prove (as reported by Dallas TV station WDSU) that he's not injury prone, he'll have to break his pattern of regularly having injuries, something he hasn't done at any level in five years.
Murray is talented and, yes, sometimes the injury-prone tag falls off for a year. The luck can be good as easily as it can be bad, which makes a breakout campaign for Murray possible. It's a path to frustration, but Murray's talent and opportunity give rise to the possibility that one healthy campaign could vault him from a projected 21st slot and 150 points up to a true 200-point season that would put him into the top ten.
The question then is Murray more a Darren McFadden clone or more Frank Gore. While McFadden remains talented, there's less possibility that he'll be healthy and put up the numbers people once expected of him. Gore overcame his early injuries, and while we may never know what he might have been, what we ended up with was pretty good and more durable than expected.
Murray not only has the opportunity to get big rushing yards, he's also a solid receiver out of the backfield, which could be the key. Murray's injuries have been ones of fatigue and contact. A few more swing passes means a few less runs up the gut, with the hits taken there. Especially in PPR leagues, Murray is still worth the gamble, drafting him as an RB2 and hoping for top 10 upside.
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If. That's the single word that's defined Michael Vick's NFL career. I'll leave aside most of them and focus on what he might have been if he could have stayed healthy. Actually, the question to ask here is whether he can come back from one more injury-prone campaign and have one more big year.
At 33 and going into a new, NFL-unproven offensive system, things aren't set up well for success. Chip Kelly's focus on a mobile QB and a read-option look could give him more rushing opportunities, but each of those opportunities is exposure. Vick is not a big guy at 6'0" 215 and he's shown time and again that a solid hit can put him out of a game.
The question then is whether Kelly's offense is going to expose Vick to more hits or whether it will offer him the opportunity to have more chances to produce. The read-option on its own doesn't significantly increase a quarterbacks hits received.
The data shows that a read-option QB run is no different in terms of a player taking a hit than any other run. This isn't sending a fullback over the middle in a triple option, nor is the read forcing the QB to take hits in the course of the offense. While this will happen and dramatically so on occasion, it's foolish to think that Chip Kelly doesn't know about Vick's injury risk.
If Vick can play in 14 games or more, he'll be a top 10 QB. The upside is in his feet and while Andy Reid showed an affinity for LeSean McCoy towards the end zone, Reid's not in charge any more. Kelly's Oregon team didn't lock in on any one player towards the end zone either, so the upside is limited there, meaning most will be counting on Vick to have bigger rushing totals rather than simple TD points.
In fact, Vick's comeback is more reliant on his offensive line's reformation than it is on anything. Vick will suit up in his Unequal, assuming the team didn't forget to fit him this year, and we'll see if he can stay healthy enough to make us wonder again, what if?
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Michael Vick might be the difference in a winning and losing Philadelphia Eagles team, but what Vick does or does not do might not be within his own control. Instead, it could be that the most important man in the Eagles offense is not Vick, not LeSean McCoy and not even Chip Kelly. It might just be Jason Peters, the offensive left tackle.
Peters is coming back from an Achilles repair that was repeated due to a re-injury. While Peters was not at OTAs, the signs are positive, with the Eagles' O-line coach Jeff Stoutland saying via philly.com that Peters is moving as if he never had an injury. The repeat is something of a red herring, in that a repair is a repair. No one likes to have a re-do, but all it did was re-set the clock and force Peters to restart the process.
Players are coming back from these types of injuries much better and much quicker. Peters has had over a year from the re-do to heal and will be at 16 months post-surgery when the season begins. Peters will have to show that he has an explosive first step and that rushers won't be able to push him back over his heels, a position that would tax the repaired Achilles.
With Lane Johnson coming in to likely take the right side of the line and Jason Kelce up the middle, assuming his knee is recovered, the Eagles' line issues seem to be addressed. Whether those three can be productive enough to keep Vick and the rest of the offense much more upright could be the difference for whether Kelly's offense works or doesn't.
It's also important to note that longtime Eagles trainer Rick Burkholder followed Andy Reid to Kansas City, leaving longtime assistant Chris Peduzzi to take over. The Eagles have also made a big commitment to sports science, becoming one of the first NFL teams to have a full time sports science coordinator on staff.
No offensive lineman is going to have an Adrian Peterson like season, at least in terms of notice, but if Peters is healthy, Vick might be and LeSean McCoy could end up back on top of the fantasy heap as well.
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Brian Cushing will be at 11 months post-surgery when Week 1 rolls around. His ACL reconstruction and rehab should have him on the field for that game, but will his return be meaningful to the Texans defense?
The Texans were fine without Cushing, carried in large part by J.J. Watt's great season rushing, but when you compare the 2011 and 2012 defenses, especially against the run, it's clear that Cushing can be a difference-maker. Adding in Ed Reed, who is also recovering from his own series of surgeries, should add energy and enthusiasm, as while as a crushing presence for anyone sent over the middle.
The addition of talent behind Watt should make the load on any individual defender lessen, as well as taking some of the load off an offense that is waiting to see if it can keep its stars healthy as well. Injuries have been such an issue with this team, from Cushing and Brandon Harris, to the big three on offense: Matt Schaub, Andre Johnson and Arian Foster, who has a strained calf suffered in OTAs.
Cushing may end up a symbol. If the Texans medical staff can get him back on the field and healthy, maybe they can do the same with the rest of the roster. Of course, if they had less injuries, the staff could spend more time on prevention. It's a vicious circle for the team.
Of course, if Cushing comes back healthy and aggressive, there's going to be questions about that as well.
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Darrelle Revis could be one of the few defensive players where scouts, coaches and fans might think he could have an Adrian Peterson-like impact on his new team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The problem is that while he could, much like with Peterson, we have to believe that advances in rehabbing ACL injuries have gone to defensive backs as well as running backs.
Revis will be just under a year post-surgery at the start of the season, having injured himself in late September. Revis' surgery was done by Dr. Russ Warren, the ortho for the Giants, which exposes him to some criticism if he's slow to come back. While Dr. Warren is a very solid doctor, especially for football, he doesn't have the national reputation of a James Andrews or Neal ElAttrache.
Revis' knee hasn't been physically tested yet, but the fact that the Bucs were comfortable making a deal and signing him long term is the best indication that there's at least one team that believes he'll return to level. Defensive backs have had problems returning, with many pointing to the backpedaling and swiveling that's necessary for the position as the complication.
If Revis is healthy, he's a difference-maker. If he struggles to get his knee under him and becomes a good, but not great, defensive back, the Bucs are protected due to the structure of the deal, but he won't be a game-changer either.
Revis is doing well in his rehab, and while the Bucs see positive signs, there is no way of knowing when or even if he'll return to his level. The Bucs may be gambling their 2013 season on that, so we'll know quickly just how good their evaluation of his physicality turns out to be.