Latest Offseason Updates on the NFL's Biggest Injured Stars
Every offseason, a handful of injuries are monitored breathlessly.
We watch to see who is on the field during minicamps. We wait to see who is participating in seven-on-seven drills during OTAs. And then we wait some more, hoping the most important bones and muscles around the league are mended in time for training camp.
The fates of seasons depend on a happy conclusion in that process—especially in 2017, after four notable quarterbacks spent a chunk of their offseasons recovering from surgery. Three seem to be coming along just fine and will be ready when camps open. Then there's Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, who hasn't thrown a football since January. Brace for blaring alarms in Indianapolis if he doesn't take the field for the first training camp practice.
There's generally pleasant news elsewhere, except in Detroit and New Orleans, where two franchises are missing core pieces of their offensive lines.
Let's check in on the star-studded section of the league's injury report one more time before balls start to fly.
Notable Injured Players
Mike Williams, Los Angeles Chargers wide receiver: Williams doesn't have the star power of others on this list. Heck, he hasn't even played a regular-season snap yet. But he's a top-10 pick who sat out nearly all of the Chargers' offseason program and now could miss some of his rookie season due to a lingering back problem.
NFL Network's Ian Rapoport offered optimism by reporting surgery is no longer on the table. Still, the Chargers drafted Williams to be an immediate-impact player for a team cursed by injuries at wide receiver. An absence of any length will be detrimental to the team.
Corey Coleman, Cleveland Browns wide receiver: Coleman has done nothing but get hurt during his short NFL career, and often in especially unfortunate ways. Like when he broke his hand during a practice last September, or more recently, when the 23-year-old landed on the ball awkwardly during OTAs. He's dealing with that issue along with a recurring hamstring problem, and Mary Kay Cabot of the Plain Dealer expects him to be eased in when training camp begins.
Josh Doctson, Washington Redskins wide receiver: The Redskins are set to lean on Doctson heavily after Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson left as free agents. The 2016 first-round pick was on the field for just 31 snaps as a rookie because of an Achilles injury. But he's healthy and participated in OTAs, as Mike Jones of the Washington Post observed.
Teddy Bridgewater, Minnesota Vikings quarterback: Seeing Bridgewater on a field and doing any meaningful football activity feels like a miraculous development. He suffered a gruesome training camp injury in August 2016, tearing his left ACL and doing other structural damage to the knee.
But surprisingly he threw passes during individual drills at OTAs, as Matt Vensel of the Star Tribune noted. Bridgewater will still likely begin the season on the physically unable to perform list. However, a quick return and getting cleared sometime around midseason is now a possibility.
Tyler Lockett, Seattle Seahawks wide receiver: Sometimes football isn't fair. This became evident when Lockett broke his leg in 2016 one week after recording a career single-game high 130 receiving yards.
He still has obstacles to clear in his recovery, and as always the most notable is facing contact. But Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll told John Boyle of Seahawks.com there's a "good chance" Lockett will be at full speed when training camp begins.
Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts Quarterback
Only Indianapolis Colts fans know the right time to let Andrew Luck's injury lead to a creeping sense of dread.
News broke Monday that Luck will be starting training camp July 30 on the PUP list, per Andrew Siciliano of NFL Network. That creeping sense of dread will reach a screaming crescendo if he doesn't appear in their first preseason game August 13.
Then all those cold sweats and hives will be for nothing when Luck is just fine for Week 1 against the Rams.
That still seems like the most likely outcome of his ongoing recovery from surgery intended to repair a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder. The Colts don't seem concerned, as Scott Tolzien's backup status indicates they aren't mashing panic buttons.
But there's cause for at least mild concern. The Colts have been open about their plans with Luck since his surgery in January. They didn't offer any assurances he would be ready to begin camp. Yet as far back as May, owner Jim Irsay expressed little doubt about Luck's Week 1 availability.
"We are not going to be rushing him," he told Stephen Holder of the Indianapolis Star. "We are going to make sure, obviously, that the shoulder has to be ready and the doctors are going to give full approval before he starts putting real reps on it. We really feel that he's going to be completely healed for the season and he's going to have a great season."
And more recently, a league source also told the Indianapolis Star that Luck's recovery is "status quo."
The cautious approach is the right one with the franchise cornerstone. But that can go too far, and as we enter training camp with the intensity set to increase, Luck has gone seven months without throwing a football.
He'll probably erase doubts fast. But uncertainty in late July is scary when it's hovering around your star quarterback.
Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers Quarterback
There's reason to be concerned about Cam Newton, as it's never fun to read the words "quarterback" and "partially torn rotator cuff" together. The Carolina Panthers signal-caller had surgery to repair that issue in March.
But unlike Luck, that concern is limited for one simple reason: He's throwing.
Newton might not be using his arm cannon at full capacity yet. But he's still using it, and threw most recently during private workouts between the end of OTAs and the start of training camp. Head coach Ron Rivera told ESPN.com's David Newton that his quarterback's shoulder is apparently fine, because he's been ramping up activity.
That's encouraging and quick progress after Newton started his throwing program in late June, which came inside the team's locker room with a trainer on the other end of his passes. At the time he said the recovery was mostly centered around loosening up his shoulder and working through stiffness.
"When I say it's not 100 percent, I'm noting the range of motion part," Newton told Bill Voth of Panthers.com. "Like if you sleep with your legs hanging off your bed the whole night, you're going to wake up and be super stiff. Or like sitting on your hands, or sitting in an awkward position and finally getting up and moving—that's how I feel."
Shoulder recoveries are delicate for quarterbacks, so there's always the chance of a setback. But everything seems to be progressing smoothly as Newton looks forward to Week 1.
Derek Carr, Oakland Raiders Quarterback
There was some serious misfortune at play when quarterback Derek Carr broke his leg in Week 16 after Oakland Raiders fans finally had their hearts filled with joy again following a long playoff drought.
The Raiders hadn't been to the postseason since 2002 and were well on their way to breaking that streak when Carr crumbled on Christmas Eve. A once promising 12-win season was derailed when the Raiders then had to start Connor Cook in a playoff game.
The Houston Texans easily pushed aside the Raiders, who were left to wonder what could have been.
If he avoids injury in 2017, they won't have to wonder much longer. Carr is fine and has been for a while after fully participating in the team's offseason program, as ESPN.com's Paul Gutierrez noted.
The Raiders will bring back the same core pieces of an offense that ranked sixth in the league in 2016 while averaging 373.7 yards per game. They also added running back Marshawn Lynch and tight end Jared Cook.
The Raiders will have turmoil swirling off the field for the remainder of what's now become a temporary stay in Oakland. But on the field, they should be championship contenders again.
Marcus Mariota, Tennessee Titans Quarterback
Two young franchise quarterbacks suffered broken legs on Christmas Eve 2016. It happened to Carr, and the Titans' Marcus Mariota also fractured his fibula.
A busted leg is concerning for any quarterback. But the level of fretting increases a notch or three when the player in question relies on his mobility—or at least the threat of it.
That's true with Mariota, who's at ease in the pocket as well and showed more comfort there in 2016. But over two seasons he's logged 601 rushing yards and four touchdowns on the ground.
More broadly, there's concern about Mariota's durability as he ended his first two seasons on injured reserve.
But he'll be healthy for Week 1 and will lead a Titans offense that features exciting new weapons, highlighted by wide receivers Corey Davis and Eric Decker. Mariota has progressed steadily in his recovery. He was on the field during OTAs, though not quite moving at full speed, as Jim Wyatt of TitansOnline.com noted.
Physically he's nearly there, but as he told Wyatt, the final mental hurdles in a long recovery are often the most difficult.
"Now it's getting to the point of trusting myself to do it," he said. "Because a lot of it, even through this entire rehab process, it's going through that mental obstacle of, you want to protect it.
"Now it's good, you've done everything. Just trust it, that you can do the movements that you've been doing. So for me, that's my next step. For me, I've got to just go out and do it."
As expected, Mariota shouldn't have any physical restrictions once training camp begins, per Terry McCormick of TitanInsider.com.
Le'Veon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers Running Back
Any time you've seen Le'Veon Bell's name pop up recently, it's been in reference to his ongoing contract standoff.
The multitalented running back didn't get a long-term deal from the Pittsburgh Steelers prior to the deadline to sign franchise-tagged players. He hasn't signed his tender yet either, and can therefore report to training camp at his leisure without penalty.
Which is exactly what Bell will likely do, with his absence extending into August. He's still 25, but Bell is surely aware that running backs can age quickly. Every bit of pounding he can avoid breathes a little more life into his career. That's especially important for someone who played just six games in 2015 due to knee issues.
The latest health problem for Bell has gone away, though. After blazing through 2016 while averaging 157 yards from scrimmage per game, he needed offseason groin surgery. As ESPN.com's Jeremy Fowler reported recently, Bell has recovered and will be ready for training camp.
Though whether he's actually there is another matter.
J.J. Watt, Houston Texans Defensive End
The Houston Texans defense allowed the fewest yards per game in 2016 (301.3) and finished narrowly outside the top 10 in points allowed per contest (20.5).
And they did it without arguably (or maybe not so arguably) the best defender in football for almost the entire season.
Defensive end J.J. Watt played just three games and 157 snaps due to a back issue that wouldn't go away. He had surgery for a herniated disk and began training camp on the physically unable to perform list. He then recovered enough to be out on the field to start the season and even recorded 1.5 sacks in Week 2.
But his back issues flared up, and this time Watt had to be shut down.
Needing to have your back carved up twice over a short period isn't good for any player. It's particularly frightening for Watt, a pass-rusher who has become a generational talent because of his unmatched power to create leverage.
He won't be the same J.J. Watt if he loses his signature thrashing surge to either plant offensive linemen on their rear ends or bend around the corner with ease. But the 28-year-old was on the field during OTAs and has progressed well throughout the offseason. The only remaining hurdle is to test his body against contact during training camp.
"I feel great," Watt told Aaron Wilson of the Houston Chronicle recently. "I'm very happy with the way it responded. Obviously with the amount of time we took this time to make sure it responded properly, I would hope that it would respond the way it did. It feels great."
The three-time Defensive Player of the Year has recorded 76 sacks over 83 career games. With Watt healthy and fellow defensive end Jadeveon Clowney playing like a No. 1 overall pick, trying to pass against the Texans will become a painful experience.
Desmond Trufant, Atlanta Falcons Cornerback
A question has surely been bouncing around the minds of Atlanta Falcons fans since their team's Super Bowl meltdown. Would it have happened if Desmond Trufant—one of the league's best shutdown cornerbacks—was healthy and able to limit the damage?
Please recall that New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady torched the Falcons secondary in the second half and finished with 466 passing yards. He also completed 69.4 percent of his attempts as Trufant watched helplessly from the sideline.
Trufant's 2016 season lasted only nine games because of a torn pectoral muscle. In his absence, second-year cornerback Jalen Collins provided quality coverage. He finished with a solid opponent passer rating of 74.1 when lined up at right cornerback, according to Pro Football Focus.
Trufant, meanwhile, is only one season removed from allowing a reception just once every 17.1 cover snaps, per PFF. He returned during minicamp, and as D. Orlando Ledbetter of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution noted, Trufant appears ready to play full speed.
Terron Armstead, New Orleans Saints Offensive Tackle
The New Orleans Saints offensive line was rattled by an injury long before the 2017 season opener. But it's a setback the team was prepared for in light of tackle Terron Armstead's fragility.
He needed surgery to repair a torn labrum in late June, according to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport. The recovery timetable doesn't lead to much hope he'll make a meaningful contribution in 2017. Armstead is expected to be out four to six months, which means the best-case scenario is he'll miss about half the season. On the high end, he'll sit out the entire year.
This is just the latest, most painful long-term injury for Armstead, who has been a walking bandage over the past two seasons. A Saints third-round pick in 2013, the 26-year-old also missed nine games in 2016 due to knee and hip issues.
The Saints just used one of their two first-round picks in 2017 to reinforce the offensive line, selecting tackle Ryan Ramczyk. But Armstead's absence stings even if there's a highly regarded replacement waiting.
When healthy, Armstead is one of the league's sturdiest walls on the left side, a position with even more value for the Saints because they need to protect 38-year-old Drew Brees. In 2015, he allowed only three sacks and 20 quarterback pressures in 13 games, per PFF.
Sammy Watkins, Buffalo Bills Wide Receiver
Sammy Watkins has become the most maddening injury tease, with his field-stretching talent derailed far too often by a nagging foot issue.
That problem erased half of his 2016 season. And even during the eight games he played, Watkins was often hobbled and not himself.
Yet late in the season, we saw a flash of what could have been with Watkins in 2016 and what he could still become. The 24-year-old was finally able to run at full speed over the final few games, and he put up 154 receiving yards on seven catches in Week 16 against the Miami Dolphins.
That's the Watkins the Bills need, and the Watkins they've seen in the past. In 2015 he recorded his first 1,000-plus-yard receiving season, and did it even while missing three games.
Watkins has sky-high potential. But after two surgeries on the same foot, his upside is balanced by a different kind of potential. The kind that sees him limping around too often.
His latest recovery is progressing smoothly. During OTAs in June he was just over a year removed from the most recent surgery on his left foot. As John Kryk of the Toronto Sun noted, Watkins showed impressive burst and was on the field for most of the first-team snaps in 11-on-11 drills.
Taylor Decker, Detroit Lions Tackle
Since 2014, Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford has taken 126 sacks. That's the third-highest total over those three seasons, according to Pro Football Reference. Stafford is also one of just four quarterbacks during that span to be sacked at least 120 times.
The Lions offensive line made a marginal improvement in 2016 by giving up 37 sacks, which was down from 44 the previous season. But reinforcing a unit that had Stafford frantically scrambling too often was still an offseason priority, which is why the Lions signed guard T.J. Lang and tackle Ricky Wagner.
They were also counting on a second-year leap from left tackle Taylor Decker, who was impressive as a rookie in 2016. That might still happen, but not until at least midseason.
Decker suffered the same fate as Armstead when he suffered a torn labrum during OTAs. The four- to six-month timetable is the same, though the Lions are optimistic Decker's return will be on the shorter end. Lions head coach Jim Caldwell told Tim Twentyman of DetroitLions.com he doesn't think Decker will miss the entire season.
The 23-year-old will likely start the season on the physically unable to perform list, which means the earliest he could return is after Detroit's Week 7 bye. He was on the field for all of the Lions' 1,037 offensive snaps as a rookie, which makes Decker's loss a significant blow.