Injury Red Flags Heading into the NFL Combine

Will Carroll@injuryexpertSports Injuries Lead WriterFebruary 19, 2014

Injury Red Flags Heading into the NFL Combine

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    The NFL combine has become a big event, but behind the scenes in Indianapolis, a lot more goes on. The part you see on TV is nice, but the teams are doing interviews and conducting high-level medical exams, and those can carry a lot more weight than a nice time in the 40-yard dash.

    Last year, Star Lotulelei shot up and down mock drafts after an abnormal physical process. Worries about a heart condition knocked him down from a possible first overall pick to out of the first round. He proved that he was healthy, but he dropped to the Panthers much later than most expected.

    As a solid rookie, the Panthers are glad they got the chance to draft him, so the medical process worked for them more than it did for Lotulelei. 

    This year, a bunch of players are coming in with knees in various states of rehabs, and there are some questions about players with almost no injury history at all. More than ever, the medical tests and exams could shift what teams do in the draft.

    You'll hear about red flags, black flags and confusion, but remember that teams won't agree with one another. One team will pull a player entirely off its board, while another will move the player up, thinking it understands the condition and can handle it. We saw the 49ers do this last year with Marcus Lattimore, and we'll definitely see that with two quarterbacks this year. 

    The following slides are 10 of the top players whose stock will shift due to their health status. You may not get to order MRIs or even see the MRI results, but you should have a much better idea about what teams are looking for.

Johnny Manziel

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    Johnny Manziel comes in with a thin file. "There's not much there," said one NFL medical staffer, referring to Manziel's injury history. He had some minor injuries in his two years at Texas A&M, but nothing that kept him out. A mild shoulder sprain and a very mild knee sprain are all that are worth mentioning and barely so.

    Still, while the focus will be on his interviews and how teams perceive his off-field behavior, the medical and sport science staffs have their own ideas. "I want to see his weight," said one personnel staffer. I've heard this several times, with the theory being that while Manziel isn't big, he's "thick." 

    Compare Michael Vick, Aaron Rodgers and Robert Griffin III. Vick is short and not very heavy. Rodgers is taller and heavier. Griffin is even taller but about the same weight. The balance, according to most, is toward Rodgers, with some trying to quantify it with pseudo-stats like "pounds per inch" or BMI. 

    Since Manziel won't participate in all phases, his medicals and any gains between the combine and his pro day will be very notable. Don't pay attention to the 40 time; just watch the scales. 

Teddy Bridgewater

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    While Teddy Bridgewater is considered the "safer" pick at QB for the Texans (or any of the other teams looking for a top-flight QB), this isn't a situation like Andrew Luck versus Robert Griffin. In fact, Bridgewater has a much more significant injury history. 

    He finished his sophomore season with a significant ankle and wrist injury. While he was able to return and showed no problems in his final season at Louisville, the worry is about whether he's going to take the kind of nagging injuries that will slow him down or put his availability in question.

    "No one thinks he's Michael Vick," said one medical staffer, "but he's not spotless. He takes hits."

    As teams watch the film and try to decide just how much of a sure thing Bridgewater is, they'll have to take into account that he does seem to wear down and take hits. He'll take more and bigger ones in the NFL, even in the best of offenses. With bigger players like Derek Carr and Blake Bortles available and gaining in some circles, Bridgewater needs to come through his medicals with no red flags to stay at the top of the list.

    Teams will take big note of his knees. While he has no recent history of problems, Bridgewater plays with exposed knees as you can see in the picture above. That's not going to be something an NFL team will allow. 

    His weight is also an interesting note. "The kid was a rail," said one NFL personnel staffer, "but he put on weight." He's right—Bridgewater was as low as 175 pounds in his freshman season but should weigh in at or near 220 pounds at the combine. He's the definition of maturing and filling out. 

Jadeveon Clowney

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    Motor. Character. Want. You'll hear a lot of code words, but with Jadeveon Clowney, the question is whether or not he shut things down and played not to get injured last season.

    He had a list of injuries, to be sure, but none of them was serious. If he comes through the medicals cleanly, teams will have two ways of looking at him.

    Some will say that he's a talented player with no real red flags and take him very high. Others will say he tanked and start using code words as excuses for why they'll pass on him for a player who is perhaps less talented. 

    The rib and foot injuries that he dealt with are expected to be clear by now, though his participation in the combine is still in question. There's little chance of a major red flag coming off, although his feet will be examined very closely, given his size. Teams that play on turf will pay especially close attention, which will include Atlanta, St. Louis and perhaps Minnesota. 

    Clowney's medical is not expected to be a major factor in his draft position, but combined with other factors, it could cause him to slip or at least slide down certain preference lists.

Louis Nix III

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    There's a lot of weight on Louis Nix's knee, and the fact that he's had knee surgery, even minor surgery, at this stage of his career could be a big red flag. As Dr. Dave Siebert detailed, the surgery was to his meniscus, so his rehab time should have him back well before even minicamp.

    The questions that the doctors will have for Nix at the combine will be more about the wear and tear of both the repaired knee and the other knee. If he is going to wear down and constantly need surgery, or if he can't stay healthy at this size, it will alter his position and how he's seen fitting into teams.

    For many teams, he would be an ideal 30 anchor along the lines of a Vince Wilfork. However the knee and his history of tendinitis are problematic.

    One NFL personnel staffer thinks that Nix will need to go to a team that has a line-rotation philosophy. "He's maybe a Wilfork type down the line or a [Nick] Fairley, but at first and if the knees are iffy, he's a rotation guy for running downs."

    Nix isn't going to fall far for most teams. "Size plays" is a continual call for the NFL, and his ideal size, outsized personality and storyline will have some team falling for him. A good medical exam could bring him back into the upper half of the first round. 

Silas Redd

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    If you wonder why so many athletes go to see Dr. James Andrews, watch Silas Redd on draft day. Not only did he keep his "procedure" relatively secret, he heads into the combine with Andrews' gold star on his file. (Of course it's not a secret—he had a meniscus issue.) 

    Redd should have had time to heal up, so medical and coaching staffs will want to see more from him than they would others, although it's unclear how much he'll participate. He'll have a pro day, but the turnover at USC could complicate that slightly. Then again, with his former coach Lane Kiffin now on Nick Saban's staff, there might be a bit more halo than otherwise.

    If Redd runs, teams will be looking for burst and cuts, which you don't see much in the drills. He just needs to show enough to get teams thinking about him, and then he can show off what he can do at private workouts a few months from now. That buys him even more healing time.

    It's unlikely that a minor knee injury, especially one done by Andrews, will cost Redd much. He'll need to show that it's minor, he's overcome it and he's worth more than a late-round pick despite a disappointing final season at USC. 

Vinnie Sunseri

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    While Vinnie Sunseri was never going to go as high as his teammate Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, the need of so many teams in the modern NFL for smart, hard-hitting safeties had many looking at him in the second half of the first round.

    A knee sprain did that in, so now teams will be trying to evaluate him to see just how far the injury will slide him down the draft and where the reward matches the risk. His injury happened in late October with the surgery shortly thereafter, so teams will be able to get a good indication on the pace of his rehab.

    Another ace in the hole is the Alabama team surgeon, who is a well-regarded guy. Dr. James Andrews will have not just his gold star on the file but will be one of the main voices in his complete record. 

    Add in that Sunseri has not only the backing of his Alabama coaches, which goes a long way, but he's also the son of a coach. "Son of a coach" is one of those draft cliches, but anything will help him if his knee shows the progress that teams expect. A very positive report could put him in the upper second round. 

Aaron Colvin

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    Aaron Colvin is the worst-case scenario for a draftnik. Injured in practice at the Senior Bowl, his ACL sprain and surgery will likely cost him most, if not all, of the 2014 season. That means a team will go from slotting him into a starting role to bolster a defense to now trying to redshirt him and see what he can offer one year down the line. 

    Teams won't be able to glean much from the combine aside from interviews with Colvin. The knee is still too raw after surgery to gain much in the way of insight. They'll see him more at his pro day and compare, though again, it will be difficult to get a good read.

    Instead, teams will look to make sure there's no other issues and use the interview process to get comfortable with the idea that he could help them down the line. Teams with a cornerback who is entering a walk or expensive contract year will take a hard look at him, as will teams with extra picks—the way that San Francisco did last year. 

Marcel Jensen

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    Marcel Jensen would be near the top of most tight end preference lists, if not for his injury history. While he has ideal size and skills to play the position in the NFL, a history of injuries is going to work against him.

    He showed up to the Senior Bowl with a strained groin, something that is chronic for him and cost him during his senior year. He lost nearly two years to injury, although he did convert from DE to TE in the interim. His size and speed plays, but teams are going to have to be comfortable that he's not the next Jermichael Finley.

    Like Finley, Jensen is exceptionally athletic and smart. It's a combo that some team is going to fall in love with. The red flags that his legs are going to cause will push him down from other TEs, but as a mid-round guy, the reward is going to be there. 

    "Put him in a situation where he's the No. 2, like what Ladarius Green had in San Diego and he can flourish," explained a personnel staffer. Two sources I spoke with said that Jensen would be a good fit for San Francisco or Detroit, if the Lions commit to Joseph Fauria as their starter.

Aaron Murray

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    Aaron Murray will not participate in the combine drills, but his presence will be many people's first look at him after an ACL sprain ended his season. He is three months post surgery, which should give teams a decent look at his progress. 

    If all goes well, he could be ready to play in some capacity during April minicamp and be close to full-go by the time the 2014 season starts. It's probably expecting too much to think he could do much in camp—certainly not enough to win a positionbut he would be an easy stash or guy on the PUP list if a team elected to do so.

    It's unlikely that a team would redshirt Murray, although it's possible. His knee should be well enough during the season to compete for a backup job, although a team would need a third quarterback for the first few months. Some people around Indy have suggested that Cincinnati, Green Bay and Oakland could be watching Murray closely. 

    Why Oakland? "Kirk Cousins didn't have a knee issue, but use him as the comp," said a NFL staffer. "If a team drafts a QB like a Manziel or a Bortles, that guy starts, but Murray gets no pressure and is there if one of them gets hurt. Oakland could carry a Pryor or McGloin to start the season and compete."

    It's an interesting theory, and while I don't think it happens just that way, it's an intriguing concept.

    Murray will need to go to a team that fits his skills and has a comfort level with rehabbing a knee. There are plenty of teams like that, and while he will slide well down from where he could have been drafted, the second day of the NFL draft will be a reverse auction for his services. 

Zach Mettenberger

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    Zach Mettenberger is in much the same situation as Aaron Murray, which is somewhat ironic given he played with Murray until he was dismissed from Georgia. He sprained his ACL and ended his college career with surgery instead of a bowl game.

    The difference is less in their ability than in their recoveries.

    Mettenberger got a bit of a bump early after his coach Cam Cameron, a former NFL coach, started comparing his recovery to Adrian Peterson. While he doesn't need to be rushed, it does open things up for some teams that may want to replace a quarterback or at least replace a needed backup. A team like Indianapolis is one possibility, although more think that Jacksonville or Oakland better fit what Mettenberger can do.

    Teams are going to test how far along his recovery really is, but most seem to expect that he'll be more along the lines of Murray. Mobility is less an issue for the pure dropback-style QB like Mettenberger, but even a QB like Andrew Luck needs some mobility in the modern NFL. 

    Mettenberger does have a history of knee, ankle and shoulder issues, but none of them was as significant as the ACL sprain. He also has some off-field issues going back to his time at Georgia, which will push him down some preference lists.

    He'll need the knee to be healthy to stay even on the third day, with some thinking that he will end up as a last-chance QB for a team. 

    Be sure to follow the unparalleled draft coverage here at Bleacher Report for more info all week long, including on Twitter (@injuryexpert).