8 Injured NFL Players Who Could Make a Huge Impact Late in Season

Russell S. Baxter@@BaxFootballGuruContributor IJuly 8, 2013

8 Injured NFL Players Who Could Make a Huge Impact Late in Season

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    Staying on the field is hard enough in the NFL. Coming back from a major injury increases the difficulty of the task.

    Players get hurt. That’s the sad reality of the game we all love.

    But players also come back from injury, sometimes even better than new.

    So here’s a look at eight players that late in 2013 may be healthy enough to make a big difference in their team’s fortunes.

    The understanding is that some of these players could be and will be ready for Week 1 of the regular season. But being available and playing well are two different things.

    For instance, as much as we marveled at the season-long performance of Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson in 2012, it’s interesting to note that his best football came in the second half of the season. Peterson played better the further removed he was from the injury.

    So here’s the list in alphabetical order, not by degree of diagnosis.

    I’m not a doctor and certainly don’t play one on Bleacher Report.

DE Chris Clemons, Seattle Seahawks

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    The Seattle Seahawks made quite an impression in 2012, despite not winning a division title.

    While teams like the Denver Broncos and Washington Redskins took longer winning streaks into last year’s postseason, perhaps, few teams were playing as well as Pete Carroll’s club down the stretch a season ago.

    While rookie quarterback Russell Wilson grabbed a lot of much-deserved headlines, it’s worth remembering that no team in the league gave up fewer points last season than Seattle.

    Defensive end Chris Clemons was Seattle’s best pass-rusher in 2012, totaling 11.5 of the club’s 36 sacks. The veteran totaled 40 tackles, knocked down four passes and forced three fumbles.

    However, Clemons was injured in the team’s playoff win over the Redskins in January.

    This offseason, the team signed free-agent defensive ends Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett to bolster the pass rush. But Avril is currently dealing with a foot injury, and Bennett has his own health issues. Second-year pro Bruce Irvin (8.0 sacks in 2012) will be serving a four-game suspension to start the season.

    The Seahawks will need a healthy Clemons sooner rather than later, so it will be interesting to see just when he is able to round back into form. But if he is playing his best football down the stretch, he could be a key cog in a title run.

WR Michael Crabtree, San Francisco 49ers

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    It’s hard to ignore the impact San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Michael Crabtree had on his team’s offense in 2012.

    The former first-round pick led the team in catches, receiving yards and touchdown grabs during the regular season, hauling in 85 passes for 1,105 yards and nine scores.

    During the Niners’ three-game postseason run, Crabtree, once again, led the team in all three categories, catching 20 passes for 285 yards and three touchdowns.

    Less than two months ago, the wideout suffered a torn right Achilles tendon. His status for 2013 is very much in doubt. But in this day and age of modern medicine and quicker healing, nothing is impossible.

    The 49ers did trade for wide receiver Anquan Boldin this offseason to pair with Crabtree. But now, the 10-year veteran becomes a very important focal point of the passing attack.

    Ironically, the rapport between quarterback Colin Kaepernick and Crabtree was growing as the season unfolded. In some ways, it was similar to how Boldin became Joe Flacco’s go-to guy with the Baltimore Ravens. That pair helped jump-start the team’s postseason run to a Super Bowl title.

    And when Crabtree is able to jump back onto the field, history may repeat itself.

CB Brent Grimes, Miami Dolphins

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    It’s not exactly going out on a limb to say the Miami Dolphins have been one of the league’s most aggressive teams this offseason.

    Be it a slew of free-agent signings or moving up to the third pick in the draft, general manager Jeff Ireland has added quality and quantity to a team that hasn’t had a winning season since 2008.

    With the free-agent departure of cornerback Sean Smith (Kansas City Chiefs), the team had a hole to fill. So the Dolphins took a flyer on former Pro Bowl cornerback Brent Grimes, who missed nearly all of 2012 with an Achilles injury.

    If the former Atlanta Falcons standout is eventually able to return to star form, he becomes part of a defensive unit that could be among the best groups in the league in 2013. 

    And the Dolphins could be a playoff team once again.

TE Rob Gronkowski, New England Patriots

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    Until recently, Rob Gronkowski was arguably the biggest offseason story for the New England Patriots. You could flip a coin when it came to how much his health and the free-agent departure of Wes Welker dominated the team’s headlines since February.

    And because he remains with the organization, he still may be.

    Remaining with the team is the key part here, because Gronkowski, who has spent the past few months either having or recovering from surgery, is one of the few familiar faces when it comes to the New England passing game.

    Gone are the aforementioned Welker, who signed with the Denver Broncos, as well as wide receiver Brandon Lloyd and tight end Aaron Hernandez. The latter two players were released for totally different reasons.

    Running back Danny Woodhead signed with the San Diego Chargers, and the team has opted not to re-sign wide receiver Deion Branch, who totaled 16 receptions and zero touchdowns in 2012.

    No one knows when Gronkowski will return. But it’s not soon enough for quarterback Tom Brady, especially when you consider the Pro Bowl tight end has totaled 37 touchdown receptions in three seasons.

LB Melvin Ingram, San Diego Chargers

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    It’s a new start for the San Diego Chargers in 2013.

    It began at the top with the dismissal of general manager A.J. Smith and head coach Norv Turner.

    In their place are Tom Telesco and Mike McCoy, respectively, as San Diego looks to get back to the playoffs after a three-year absence.

    While the Chargers offense had issues last season, the defense had its positive moments. Far from perfect, the team finished ninth in the NFL in yards allowed in 2012, and only five teams gave up fewer rushing yards per game.

    Second-year pro Melvin Ingram, the Chargers' first-round draft choice in 2012, was expected to be the starter at right outside linebacker this season opposite Jarret Johnson. Veteran Shaun Phillips was not re-signed and wound up joining the Denver Broncos.

    But Ingram injured his knee in May, and his status for 2013 is very uncertain. It’s too early for him to be ruled out for the entire season for now. Ingram, who totaled 41 tackles and knocked down five passes in 2012, could be a nice addition down the stretch if he is able to return.

    For now, veteran Dwight Freeney takes over at right outside linebacker for McCoy’s team.

ILB Jameel McClain, Baltimore Ravens

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    With victory usually comes the spoils…that and a few free-agency defections.

    The defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens will have a very different-looking roster in 2013.

    Gone, for various reasons, are linebackers Ray Lewis, Paul Kruger and Dannell Ellerbe, defensive backs Ed Reed and Cary Williams, wide receiver Anquan Boldin and center Matt Birk.

    That’s a lot of very good players.

    General manager Ozzie Newsome always does a stellar job with the team. And he’s had to work overtime to rebuild the Baltimore defense.

    With Lewis and Ellerbe gone, having inside linebacker Jameel McClain back and in the lineup is important. Last December, he suffered a spinal cord injury in the team’s overtime loss to the Washington Redskins. He’s expected to return this season, but he’s not quite there yet.

    With young players such as rookies Matt Elam and Arthur Brown hoping to make an impact on defense this season, McClain could be an important cog on this unit once he’s ready to go.

TE Heath Miller, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    It’s safe to say that 2012 was an unusual year for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

    The team lost five of its last seven games following a 6-3 start. The club’s 8-8 finish was the first non-winning season for head coach Mike Tomlin.

    But a constant among all of the inconsistency this past season was Pro Bowl tight end Heath Miller. While most would guess that wide receiver Mike Wallace led the team in catches in 2012, it was actually Miller. In 15 games last season, Miller totaled 71 receptions and posted career highs in receiving yardage (816) and touchdown receptions (eight).

    However, Miller was helped off the field in an eventual Week 16 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals last December at Pittsburgh. He appears on course to be ready for the start of the season, but will he be the same player we saw in 2012?

    If he’s able to round back into Pro Bowl form by November, the Steelers offense could be primed for a strong stretch run.

DE Jason Pierre-Paul, New York Giants

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    Remember a few seasons ago when New York Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul opened a few eyes?

    No, this is not in reference to his backflips at the NFL combine in 2010. It was Tom Coughlin and company who were flipping over Pierre-Paul’s play in 2011. That year, the explosive pass-rusher totaled 86 tackles and 16.5 sacks and was part of the Giants' Super Bowl XLVI championship team.

    However, Pierre-Paul was not his 2011 self in 2012. In 16 games, he managed only 6.5 sacks. And New York’s defense suffered in part due to his performance. The Giants allowed the second-most total yards in the league last season and struggled against both the run (25th) and pass (28th).

    Back problems appeared to be the issue for Pierre-Paul a year ago, and in June, the former Pro Bowler had surgery to alleviate the problem. His return for the moment is uncertain, but he could be a big-time factor late in the year if he’s feeling like his old self.

    And when it comes to late in the season, the Giants have had a habit of turning December surges into NFL titles.