The successful completion of his third major injury rehab will provide former second-round receiver Ryan Broyles with one last chance at making a meaningful impact for the suddenly receiver-rich Detroit Lions.
A healthy Broyles—the rarest of occurrences during his first two seasons in the NFL—can still win Detroit's third receiver job and give the Lions' talented offense another pass-catching option. While there are some encouraging signs, many roadblocks still stand between Point A (right now) and B (Broyles finally making an impact).
First, the good news.
According to Kyle Meinke of MLive.com, Broyles competed in Detroit's first round of organized team activities last week, putting him one step closer to a "full recovery" after tearing his Achilles tendon in late October of last season. Given more than two full months before the start of training camp, Broyles will likely be as close to 100 percent as he can be to open next season.
Yet 2014 marks the third straight offseason in which a major injury has clouded Broyles' future.
He entered the NFL still recovering from a November 2011 tear in his right ACL. Just 13 weeks into his rookie season, and only 11 months after his first tear, Broyles tore his left ACL—a cruel twist of fate for a player who was coming into his own late in the year.
Crisis struck again in 2013, as a torn Achilles tendon after just six games and eight catches ended Broyles' second season.
Not long ago, two ACL surgeries and a ruptured Achilles would have been a death sentence to an athlete's career. In 2014, Broyles still has a chance.
Advances in the treatment of his latest injury provide a glimmer of hope.
According to Matthew Barrows of The Sacramento Bee, a torn Achilles tendon once came with a one-in-three chance of never playing the sport again. But now, doctors use minimally invasive procedures to insert much stronger sutures into the tear. The incision then heals faster, with more tissue in place and surrounding the tear, which means a shorter rehab time.
Also, the growing use of platelet-rich plasma helps speed up the healing process in a part of the body that is typically one of the slower areas to heal.
The end result is an injury that once took a year or more to fully heal now requiring six months or less for some players. Examples include Terrell Suggs, who needed just less than six months to return from the surgery, and Michael Crabtree, who tore his Achilles in May of last year but returned to make his season debut in late November.
That's all good news for Broyles, who had his surgery at the end of October last year. He is now in his seventh month of healing and well within the range of a full recovery.
Missed 16 career games
Broyles at 100 percent is a player who can help the Lions.
Over a six-game healthy stretch in 2012, Broyles caught 21 passes for 307 yards and two touchdowns while establishing himself as a viable No. 2 option next to Calvin Johnson.
He did need the majority of his rookie season's first two months to recover from his first ACL tear. But his eventual return included back-to-back games with scores, plus two other six-catch efforts, including a six-catch, 126-yard performance on Thanksgiving Day against the Houston Texans.
Below is his first catch from that day in 2012:
You see the quickness out of his break against the slot cornerback. The reception goes for 25 yards on a third-down play.
Just a week later, Broyles tore his ACL for a second time during a game against the Indianapolis Colts.
He never did look 100 percent upon his debut last season, when he caught no more than three passes in a single game and had three games with one or fewer receptions. It's possible Broyles returned too soon, compromising his football abilities while also adding unnecessary stress on his Achilles tendon.
He finished 2013 with just eight catches on less than 200 snaps.
His numbers in 2012—which include a 73.3 percent catch rate, 14.1 yards per catch and a 7.2-yard average after the catch, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required)—provide the only real evidence available of what kind of receiver Broyles can be when healthy.
Sadly, that six-game sample might represent the healthiest and most productive we ever see him in the NFL.
It's certainly worth wondering how sudden and explosive he will be after three major injuries to his lower body. There may be progress made in the recoveries of both ACL and Achilles tendon tears, but the cumulative effect on start-and-stop movements could be significant for a 5'10" slot receiver.
Broyles doesn't have great long speed. He has always relied on short-area quickness to get open, and there are probably no two injuries that can hurt such a trait more than what Broyles has suffered through the last two seasons.
He'll now need to prove over the next few months that his best qualities haven't been overly damaged.
The Lions' offseason of player acquisitions has also hurt Broyles' chances.
Detroit wisely attacked one its most glaring weaknesses, signing Golden Tate away from the Seattle Seahawks and using the No. 10 overall pick on North Carolina tight end Eric Ebron. General manager Martin Mayhew also drafted Notre Dame receiver T.J. Jones in the sixth round.
The three additions shrunk Broyles' margin for error considerably.
Keep in mind, the 5'10" Broyles has been primarily a slot receiver in the NFL. According to PFF, 200 of his 301 career routes have come from the slot, or roughly two-thirds. And, of his 44 career targets, 32 came after he lined up in the slot at the snap. Targets from outside the slot make up just 27 percent of his career total.
This is a problem for several reasons.
For starters, Tate has experience in the slot and will likely play inside on several formations. He's an underrated player in space, and the Lions will want to get him as many opportunities to run after the catch as possible—especially underneath when defenses key in on Johnson. It's fairly easy to envision sets that have Johnson on the perimeter and Tate tucked in next to him in the slot.
But an even bigger problem for Broyles is the arrival of Ebron and Jones, two players who are expected to take on roles in the slot.
Will Ryan Broyles make the Lions' 53-man roster for the 2014 season?
Ebron is a glorified receiver playing tight end. After the draft, we discussed at length how the Lions and new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi will use Ebron in a Jimmy Graham-like role. Part of his package will almost certainly include snaps in the slot, where Graham ran almost half his routes last season. Only two tight ends—Tony Gonzalez and Jason Witten—saw more targets from the slot than Graham in 2013.
Jones, a 6'0", 188-pound receiver taken in the sixth round, might as well be insurance for Broyles. He enters the NFL with an extensive background playing the slot from his time at Notre Dame. If the Lions were at all confident in Broyles staying healthy, there'd be no need to draft a player so similar in likely usage.
It all adds up to a long road back for Detroit's second-round pick in 2012.
There's little doubt that if healthy, Broyles can earn a role as a complementary possession receiver for a Lions offense that should feature its fair share of three-wide sets. Such a scenario would give Detroit a ridiculous wealth of receiving options, including Johnson, Tate, Ebron, Brandon Pettigrew and both running backs. Not many offenses in the NFL today could match that depth and firepower.
But three straight serious injuries and the influx of new talent should ensure this offseason is a make-or-break one for Broyles. Either he will prove healthy and ready to contribute, or the Lions will likely move on with the new players acquired this offseason.
Zach Kruse covers the NFC North for Bleacher Report.