NFL's Biggest Injury Question Marks for 2017

Sean Tomlinson@@SeanGTomlinsonNFL AnalystApril 18, 2017

NFL's Biggest Injury Question Marks for 2017

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    There's always a reason to be concerned about the various mending bones and muscles around the NFL. That doesn't go away deep in the offseason, when there are no games to prepare for and no practices to miss.

    Offseason injury concerns are different and often drift to more troubling thoughts that come from dark places. In April, there are few insignificant injury questions that can be shrugged off with little thought.

    Questions like these ones: Will Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt bounce back to the same level? Will Minnesota Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater ever play again? Can Cincinnati Bengals tight end Tyler Eifert mange to get through a full season just once?

    We're talking about injury questions set to define a player's career. Oh, and potentially alter the direction of his team in 2017 and beyond.

    See, the injury report never rests. Let's take a look at the most notable injury situations to keep an eye on throughout offseason workouts and into the summer when training camp begins.

Teddy Bridgewater, Minnesota Vikings Quarterback

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    Flash back to the summer of 2016 for a second. That's when you read plenty of gushing praise for the progress made by Minnesota Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater heading into his third season. He had struggled mightily with his deep throws in 2015, but head coach Mike Zimmer was calling that part of Bridgewater's game "phenomenal."

    Looking good in shorts is great, but it's also meaningless if it doesn't translate to live snaps. Yett there was Bridgewater in the third preseason game—the only one that kind of, sort of matters—completing 75 percent of his pass attempts while averaging 10.1 yards per completion. He was comfortable and confident during a game when he needed just 12 completions to finish with 161 passing yards.

    Then all that optimism suddenly vanished when Bridgewater suffered a catastrophic knee injury in practice.

    Bridgewater did more than tear his ACL, an injury that on its own is severe enough but usually requires about a one-year recovery. If an ACL tear was the extent of Bridgewater's injury, there wouldn't be a doomsday cloud hovering around him. Remember, a 34-year-old Carson Palmer tore his ACL in 2014 and came back in 2015 to average a career single-season high 8.7 yards per pass attempt.

    Bridgewater suffered much more damage beyond the ACL. He also dislocated his knee while planting on a dropback.

    Youth is on his side, as a 24-year-old can hopefully mend his broken body quicker than an older veteran. Still, it's looking like Sam Bradford will remain the Vikings' starting quarterback in 2017, and anything they get out of Bridgewater will be considered a bonus.

    He recently posted an Instagram video of a throw during a workout. In it Bridgewater dropped back, planted hard and was able to step into his throw while powering the ball downfield. He looked like a normal and perfectly functioning quarterback.

    But while that's encouraging, the gap between practice throws and taking contact is massive. Which is why Zimmer told USA Today's Tom Pelissero there's still no timetable for Bridgewater's return, and his strength-building exercises haven't progressed to weight-bearing yet.

    Worse, Bleacher Report's Jason Cole reported Bridgewater likely won't be on the field at all in 2017. Cole's sources said the estimated recovery time from a torn ACL and dislocated knee is a whopping 19 months.

    Forget OTAs in 2017 then. Offseason workouts in 2018 could come with a question mark for Bridgewater too.

J.J. Watt, Houston Texans Defensive End

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    Every update on J.J. Watt's recovery from his latest back surgery comes with more than a glass half filled. That glass is overflowing and the faucet is about to burst.

    Back in early February, Watt said he was fully cleared. Watt was confident even then, with Aaron Wilson of the Houston Chronicle reporting Watt feels there's "no reason" to think he won't be ready for OTAs.

    Overstated confidence from a recovering player is one of the NFL's staple offseason storylines. But Texans head coach Bill O'Brien echoed Watt's confidence.

    "I don't know how much he'll do in OTAs and things like that," O'Brien told the Chronicle's John McClain. "But he's on track to be ready to play."

    The Texans will no doubt take a cautious approach with Watt during OTAs and minicamp. It's likely he doesn't do much more than individual work on the side. Having him healthy and ready for training camp is most important, and it seems like only a major setback would prevent that from happening.

    Still, it's hard to be totally worry-free about Watt until we see him being a dominant pass-rusher again during a live game situation—the same dominant pass-rusher who has recorded 76 career sacks over 83 career regular-season games.

    He's not old in football years yet. But Watt isn't young either at the age of 28. Sure, he's an athletic superfreak, but Watt is also a human who went under the knife for two back surgeries over a six-month period.

Tyler Eifert, Cincinnati Bengals Tight End

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    The Cincinnati Bengals lost two core offensive linemen when Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler departed as free agents. That made having a football-vacuuming tight end even more important because quarterback Andy Dalton will inevitably face more pressure.

    He'll need a source of security, and Dalton will have one if tight end Tyler Eifert can stay healthy. But that's proven to be a tough and maddening task in Eifert's young NFL career.

    Eifert is constantly broken and has missed 27 games over his four NFL seasons. He hasn't been able to spend an offseason simply growing and developing. An ankle injury lingered throughout the entire 2016 offseason and still limited him when September rolled around. Then a back issue ended his season early and required surgery.

    Eifert recently told Geoff Hobson of that he's "close." He's not quite running at full speed yet and may not be a full participant in offseason workouts, but Eifert is confident he'll be ready for training camp, which would be a major boost to an offense that needs it.

    Eifert has scored 20 touchdowns over only 37 career regular-season games. Much of that scoring came in 2015, his Pro Bowl season when Eifert finished tied for fourth with 13 touchdowns, only one behind the league-leaders.

    With Eifert either sidelined or limited in 2016, the Bengals' offense limped too. Cincinnati scored 50 touchdowns in 2015 (fifth) and then only 35 in 2016 (tied for 24th).

Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers Quarterback

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    When an offense exposes its quarterback to constant pressure, the beatings will add up eventually. That was the dangerous game the Carolina Panthers played with Cam Newton in 2016, and now he's facing an offseason of recovery.

    Newton was sacked 36 times in 2016 and faced pressure on 37.7 percent of his dropbacks, according to Pro Football Focus. Even a large-bodied quarterback can only absorb so many whacks, and Newton developed soreness in his throwing shoulder toward the end of the season.

    The team initially thought and hoped the issue would resolve itself with rest and rehabilitation. But that didn't work, and Newton had surgery in early April to repair his partially torn rotator cuff.

    When a baseball pitcher has that injury, we start to throw dirt on his career. The throwing velocity required to be a successful quarterback isn't the same, but Newton still faces a four-month recovery, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter.

    He'll be pushing against the start of training camp then. Missing a week or two of camp isn't ideal, but a six-year veteran like Newton can make up for lost time faster.

    The far greater concern is the health of his throwing arm for Week 1. He's going through a delicate recovery from a severe shoulder injury, and there's little margin for error if Newton wants to be ready for the regular season. The slightest setback could be his Week 1 status in doubt.

Keenan Allen, Los Angeles Chargers Wide Receiver

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    Los Angeles Chargers wide receiver Keenan Allen is an absolute stud when healthy.

    That became obvious right away during his rookie season when the third-round pick in 2013 recorded his first year with 1,000-plus receiving yards. Allen finished that year with 1,046 yards on 71 receptions, and he scored eight times.

    At 6'2" and 211 pounds, he has quality height to complement solid route running. The peak of his dominance came in 2015, when he caught 67 balls over just the first eight weeks. That tied him for the third-most catches in NFL history during an eight-game span.

    The problem is his season ended at that point in 2015, and poor injury luck has followed him ever since.

    Allen suffered a kidney injury midway through 2015. Then, after missing eight games and battling back, he tore his ACL in Week 1 of 2016.

    So Allen has played only nine games over the past two seasons. When healthy, he becomes the centerpiece of the Chargers' offense and is a reliable bad-ball-catcher from increasingly wayward quarterback Philip Rivers.

    It feels like Allen has been around for a long time, and yet somehow he's still only set to turn 25 in late April. He has the young body to recover strong again, and so far that process is coming along well. Allen recently told Ricky Henne of that he's about 85 percent healthy.

    He'll surely be brought along slowly with little to no on-field work during OTAs and minicamp. But Allen should be healthy and ready to be a difference-maker again come late July.

    Staying healthy as the wounds on his body pile up is another matter entirely.

Sammy Watkins, Buffalo Bills Wide Receiver

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    Much like Allen, Buffalo Bills wide receiver Sammy Watkins has talent that dazzles the eye but health that hurts your heart.

    Lately, Bills fans have been left heartbroken by a receiver who has battled chronic foot issues. Watkins has now undergone two foot surgeries to repair a Jones fracture, an injury that comes with a difficult healing process for someone who relies on his quick-cutting ability to be effective.

    He's now missed 11 games over the past two years. The Bills transitioned toward a more run-oriented offense, and having running back LeSean McCoy still in his prime has made that move a smooth one. But the Bills offense could be a much more multi-dimensional unit if it could get Watkins on the field more often and at full health.

    What's maddening is that, even when he's ailing, Watkins is still difficult to cover deep. He missed three games in 2015 after completing a full rookie season in 2014. During those two seasons, he piled up 2,029 receiving yards on 125 receptions with 15 touchdowns.

    He's progressing well now in the recovery from his latest surgery. New Bills head coach Sean McDermott told that Watkins is on schedule with his rehab, and hasn't suffered any setbacks.

    We've heard similar rosy updates on him before, though, and then he kept on breaking down.

Carlos Hyde, San Francisco 49ers Running Back

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    The idea of Carlos Hyde has become better than the actual Carlos Hyde.

    Being a power running back isn't effective when the bruises of self-inflicted wounds add up to time on the sideline too often. Hyde's large frame (6'0" and 235 pounds) makes him an intimidating sledgehammer runner when healthy, as does his natural aggressiveness. Unfortunately, his body hasn't cooperated often enough.

    Hyde will enter his fourth NFL season in 2017, and we're still waiting on his first 16-game year. He's missed 14 games over three seasons, which includes playing only seven games in 2015 and missing two in 2016.

    And now, as OTAs approach, Hyde's latest recovery is progressing at a pace that can only be described as, well, leisurely.

    Hyde tore his MCL in Week 16 of the 2017 season. Luckily the injury didn't require surgery, and he's now back to running. But four months later, Hyde told Cam Inman of the Bay Area News Group that cutting comfortably still isn't quite happening yet.

    He may be held back from a portion of offseason workouts. And those workouts could be taking place with a different team. New 49ers general manager John Lynch recently told Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle that he's waiting to see how Hyde fits into head coach Kyle Shanahan's offense and zone-blocking scheme.

    There's a running back who can average 4.6 yards per carry and put up 988 yards over 13 games somewhere in Hyde, and he proved that in 2016. No one is doubting his ability to produce and be a central part of an offense.

    The doubt hovers around whether his body can go through the meat grinder that is an NFL season and successfully come out the other side.

Eric Decker, New York Jets Wide Receiver

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    It's at least somewhat surprising that wide receiver Eric Decker is still employed by the New York Jets.

    The Jets have thrown everything not screwed down overboard. They're embracing the full rebuild and have released many of the top assets that contributed to their 10-win season in 2015, including wide receiver Brandon Marshall, cornerback Darrelle Revis and center Nick Mangold.

    They still need to keep someone around so there's at least a reaching hope of fielding a semi-competent offense. Decker would certainly help in the mission to clear that low bar. He's a red-zone magnet and has recorded three seasons with double-digit receiving touchdowns. His most recent came in 2015, which is when Decker also finished with 1,027 yards on 80 catches.

    The problem is the Jets can't be sure Decker is coming back in 2017 as his true self, and neither can any other team he could potentially land with if they still decide to move on.

    Decker needed surgery for two severe injuries after suffering through hip issues and a turn rotator cuff. Those are also two of the most crippling injuries a receiver who needs to cut abruptly and stretch for throws can endure.

    Rich Cimini of reported in early March there's a "good chance" Decker misses training camp. That actually feels like the most optimistic outcome with those two crushing injuries. Decker could miss camp and then perhaps return in some limited capacity early in the season.

    There was a more hopeful tone from Jets general manager Mike Maccagnan. He spoke to and said Decker should be ready for the start of the season. Maccagnan was also optimistic the 30-year-old will be a non-contact participant in OTAs.

    The Jets will sink much lower into unwatchable territory without Decker. If he misses regular-season time, the choice between watching the Jets or walking through a bunch of rakes on the ground might be pretty tough.

Marcus Mariota, Tennessee Titans Quarterback

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    The Tennessee Titans became a team that's so much fun to watch again in 2016 because of both their steamrolling rushing offense and the rapid growth of quarterback Marcus Mariota.

    For his part, Mariota averaged 7.6 yards per pass attempt with a rating of 95.6. The most significant improvement over his rookie season, though, was his touchdown-to-interception ratio. He threw 26 touchdown passes in 2016 and only nine interceptions having thrown 19 touchdowns with 10 picks a year earlier.

    Mariota is overflowing with promise while playing behind one of the league's best offensive lines. However, needing to spend part of his second offseason rehabbing a serious injury has slowed the natural course of his development a little bit.

    The 23-year-old broke his leg during the Titans' 2016 regular-season finale. That's an especially damaging injury for a mobile quarterback whose success is rooted in manipulating the pocket. Mariota has accumulated 601 rushing yards on 94 attempts (6.4 yards per carry) over his two NFL seasons.

    But at worst the injury should only be a mild setback when offseason workouts begin.

    The Titans will surely take it slow with their shiny third-year passer and franchise cornerstone. Mariota ditched his scooter for a walking boot in late February. Then about a month later, during an interview with KHON2, he was shown running on a windy Hawaiian beach.

    Of course, running under the island sun is a long way from having massive defensive linemen lunging at your leg. But at the very least it shows Mariota's leg has reached the basic but critical stage of being able to withstand the pressure of running.

    Dropping back to throw is the next step, which should come soon. And then from there, contact is the final hurdle.

Adrian Peterson, Running Back

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    Running back Adrian Peterson will find another NFL home eventually. That seems likely at least, even if his job prospects right now range from bleak to non-existent.

    Peterson will have to wait, because that's what happens to a 32-year-old running back who played only three games in 2016. He wasn't effective during that limited time and didn't run with nearly the same power, averaging a mere 1.95 yards per carry.

    He seemed to be zapped of his signature one-cut pile-moving aggression. That's defined Peterson throughout his career along with his durability, which has now taken a major blow too after he suffered a severe knee injury.

    But Peterson will surely find employment at some point while leaning on his established high-level history of seven Pro Bowl selections and seven seasons with 1,200-plus rushing yards.

    Maybe that employment will come in a reserve role with the New Orleans Saints. Nick Underhill of the New Orleans Advocate recently reported Peterson visited with the Saints, and a deal is still possible.

    Or maybe Peterson will have to wait until after the draft. The larger question, though, is if we assume Peterson finds a home, what exactly will he look like on the field?

    That's a tricky one to answer for any running back past the age of 30. But here's what we know right now: Peterson isn't moving like a normal 32-year-old running back who shredded a rather important part of his knee.

    Peterson has been posting offseason workout videos that show him performing various incredible athletic feats of strength. In one, he's beating players eight years younger in a hurdle jump followed by a sprint. In another, he's cutting and moving laterally with ease while acing a light drill. And in another, he's winning an uphill race.

    Physically, Peterson has something left then. Now it's a matter of how much those physical displays in the offseason translate to success on the field.