NFL Players in the Spotlight After Early Training Camp Injuries
The never-ending string of training camp injuries over the first week has helped shift the NFL spotlight to each hobbled star's backup plan.
Franchises in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Denver and potentially Seattle have each been hit with devastating and season-changing injuries, while a number of other teams are working on Plan B's after seeing key contributors go down with ailments that could keep them out for a significant part of the preseason.
But with every injury comes opportunity, and that's exactly what we'll focus on here.
In the following slides, we'll present which players are now in the spotlight after important training camp injuries.
Baltimore Ravens TE Ed Dickson
Camp injury: TE Dennis Pitta (dislocated and fractured hip, out for season)
The spotlight is now on tight ends Ed Dickson and veteran Visanthe Shiancoe, but mostly Dickson, the presumed starter with Pitta on the shelf. A former third-round pick out of Oregon in 2010, Dickson has the size (6'4" and 255 pounds) you want in an in-line blocking tight end, but his role in the passing game is about to expand exponentially.
Despite catching 54 passes for 528 yards and five scores as a second-year player in 2011, Dickson saw his receiving role reduced to a line of 21/225/0 in 2012. Pitta was a big reason for that, as the starting tight end caught 61 passes for 669 yards and seven scores during a breakout 2012 season. He was also one of Joe Flacco's main targets in the postseason, when he hauled in 14 more catches with three touchdowns.
Usage was one culprit for the shift in numbers.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Pitta ran 523 pass routes over 848 total snaps in 2012 (including postseason), while Dickson received just 249 over 695. The year prior, Dickson ran 518 routes while Pitta was relegated to backup duty (344 routes). Inconsistency and an early-season shoulder injury likely contributed to Dickson losing his hold on the majority of the passing opportunities.
With Pitta now lost for the 2013 season, Dickson will be expected to resume his role as a primary pass-catcher. He's shown in the past that he's capable of producing in the passing game, mostly as an underneath safety blanket.
In his first practice with Pitta out, Dickson impressed with a touchdown catch from Flacco, per Matt Vensel of the Baltimore Sun. He'll need to continue impressing for the Ravens to feel comfortable about their tight end position.
Philadelphia Eagles WRs Riley Cooper and Arrelious Benn
Camp injury: WR Jeremy Maclin (torn ACL, out for season)
The spotlight in Eagles camp falls on Riley Cooper, and potentially Arrelious Benn if he can get his knee healthy sooner rather than later. But for now (Benn is out two weeks with a hyperextended knee, per Adam Caplan), Cooper will be the man to take the place of Maclin in the starting lineup.
While not an ideal starter—he has just 46 catches for 679 yards and five touchdowns over his three-year career—Cooper did get five games of starting experience to end last season, catching 13 passes for 138 yards and two scores. He's also bigger than most receivers at 6'3" and 222 pounds, giving him a chance to be both an effective blocker in Chip Kelly's run-based offense and a viable red-zone threat.
Benn is the wild card in this situation, but only if he can stay on the field.
An impressive athlete for his size (6'2", 220 pounds), Benn missed 11 of 48 games while with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and is now back on the training table in Eagles camp. If healthy, he could be an ideal replacement for Maclin, while Cooper retains his role as a backup and blocking receiver. But again, that's a big if.
Losing Maclin is a huge blow for the Eagles, but the offense is lucky to have depth with starting experience behind him. Kelly now has a month or so to figure out who is best positioned to replace Maclin opposite DeSean Jackson.
Denver Broncos OLs Manny Ramirez and Steve Vallos
Camp injury: C Dan Koppen (torn ACL, out for season)
The spotlight is now on Manny Ramirez, a starter at right guard for 11 games last season, and possibly Steve Vallos, whom the Broncos signed after learning of Koppen's season-ending injury.
Denver can't feel great about its current backup options at center, but there are few other paths the team can take with Koppen out and J.D. Walton recovering from ankle surgery. Having a former starter like Ramirez back on the line will be somewhat comforting, but his performance holding down right guard in 2012 was mostly up and down.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Ramirez finished last season as the site's No. 30 overall guard. He received high marks as a pass-blocker (10th-best guard) but struggled run-blocking (54th out of 81 guards) and avoiding penalties (six, 12th-most).
Denver's new acquisition on the interior of the line is likely for depth reasons only.
Vallos, 29, played a few more than 120 total snaps for the Jacksonville Jaguars last season, with 51 coming at center (Week 16 vs. New England) and 76 at right guard (Week 17 at Tennessee). He finished with a grade of minus-1.1, per PFF (subscription required).
Barring another injury, Ramirez will get the first shot at replacing Koppen. For a team with Super Bowl aspirations, the Broncos can't afford to take a big step backward at center.
New Orleans Saints LB Will Smith
Camp injury: OLB Martez Wilson (elbow injury, out two to four weeks)
Veteran Will Smith, already making the difficult transition from career-long 4-3 defensive end to 3-4 outside linebacker, is now in the spotlight thanks to Wilson's injury.
The Saints have been expecting Wilson, a third-round pick in 2011, to fill the role of the strong-side linebacker in Rob Ryan's three-man front. He still is likely to hold that position in 2013, especially if he's back on the field in two weeks. However, if Wilson misses his full recovery timetable—set at a month—he could be in danger of temporarily losing his starting job to Smith.
Injuries to Victor Butler (torn ACL, out for season) and Wilson should give the veteran pass-rusher a chance to rediscover the starting lineup. According to Larry Holder of the Times-Picayune, Smith has dropped his weight to 268 pounds, which is closer to what the average 3-4 outside linebacker weighs. As a 4-3 defensive end, Smith routinely weighed in the 280-285 range.
In theory, Smith should be more explosive and agile in space with the lost weight.
The Saints are already hurting at outside linebacker, making it imperative for Smith to adequately handle his new role while Wilson is on the mend. Any good 3-4 defense needs at least three quality edge rushers, and Smith should now be expected to be one.
Seattle Seahawks WR Doug Baldwin
Camp injury: WR Percy Harvin (partially torn hip labrum, unknown timetable)
The spotlight in Seattle is now on Doug Baldwin, the top backup to Harvin in the slot and a potentially very good No. 4 receiver. If Harvin is to miss significant time, Baldwin would be expected to be the primary option inside while being elevated to No. 3 receiver status.
According to Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports, Seahawks general manager John Schneider received trade offers for Baldwin this offseason but refused to give away any part of his offense's receiving depth. That decision looks smarter now that Harvin's season is up in the air.
A former undrafted free agent from Stanford, Baldwin has played in 30 games over his first two seasons. A total of 80 catches, 1,154 yards and seven touchdowns has been the result. His 51 receptions during 2011 came down to just 29 in 2012, which was a result of both Sidney Rice's returning health and the emergence of Golden Tate.
But with Harvin, who was penciled in as the team's go-to option in the slot, now looking at a potential lost season, Baldwin could very well recapture a large deal of targets in the Seahawks offense. He's made the most of his opportunities in the past.
Dallas Cowboys DE Kyle Wilber
Camp injury: DE Anthony Spencer (knee surgery, out two to four weeks)
The spotlight is now on Kyle Wilber, who was drafted by the Cowboys in the fourth round in 2012 but played sparingly as a rookie.
Spencer's injury is certainly a blow, but it hurts even more considering the team lost defensive end Tyrone Crawford to a season-ending injury earlier in camp. Wilber is now the next man up, and it's very possible that he could be a Week 1 starter opposite DeMarcus Ware if Spencer's recovery is on the longer end.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Wilber played just 16 defensive snaps as a rookie last season. He rushed the passer six times as a 3-4 outside linebacker but failed to register a hurry, quarterback hit or sack.
It's difficult to take anything away from such a small sample size, and his limited playing time was more a result of talented depth ahead of him than any obvious deficiency. However, it is worth noting that Wilber was primarily a stand-up player at Wake Forest and started his NFL career as a linebacker.
The Cowboys will bank on Spencer being ready for the season opener, but much will be expected from Wilber if the team has to go to Plan B. The transition back to the 4-3 defense has certainly been made tougher in Big D.
Miami Dolphins WR Brandon Gibson
Camp injury: WR Armon Binns (torn ACL, out for season)
The Dolphins spotlight falls on Brandon Gibson, but for different reasons than you are probably thinking. His primary competition is now gone, which puts all the expectations back on him to be a difference-maker as the slot receiver.
Binns, who the Dolphins picked up off waivers toward the end of the 2012 season, had been considered Miami's No. 4 receiver at the start of this offseason. However, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported that Binns "could push" Gibson for primary slot duties in the the Dolphins offense after impressing to end 2012 and in OTAs and minicamp.
In three games with the team last season, Binns caught six passes for 67 yards from the slot.
However, the position is now Gibson's, and Gibson's only.
Signed to a three-year, $9.76 million deal this offseason, Gibson arrives in Miami fresh off a 51-catch, five-touchdown season with the St. Louis Rams. The Dolphins would probably be thrilled to get that kind of production from their third receiving option in 2013.
Packers CB Micah Hyde
In Green Bay, the spotlight is now on Micah Hyde, even if the situation appears to be short-term.
A fifth-round pick by the Packers in April, Hyde has received the unlikely opportunity to see major practice reps at cornerback early on in training camp. Hayward and Williams, who are both expected to start, have each missed practice time with injuries, while up-and-comer Davon House has also been sidelined because of an illness.
In their absence, Hyde has delivered.
After the first camp practice, Packers head coach Mike McCarthy went out of his way to praise his rookie cornerback, calling Hyde one of the standouts.
Hyde is now getting limited reps with the first-team defense. The experience he's receiving now could be vital for the Packers should injuries continue to be an issue for the position in 2013.