The Next Andrew Luck? Injured NFL Players Who'll Return to Stardom in 2019

Maurice Moton@@MoeMotonFeatured ColumnistApril 15, 2019

The Next Andrew Luck? Injured NFL Players Who'll Return to Stardom in 2019

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    It's the unfortunate side effect of a collision sport. No one wants to see someone down on the field in tremendous pain. Every year, teams lose significant contributors and hope for speedy recoveries. Some players come back quickly and better than ever while others need extra time to shake off an injury. 

    Typically, an ACL or Achilles tear leads to a spot on the injured reserve, which mandates eight games on the sidelines. But, on average, it takes close to a year to fully bounce back. Last year, several key players walked off the field with torn ligaments and tendons, but they have many good football years left. 

    In a look back at the 2018 campaign, let's focus on potential comeback stories. Among players who missed at least half of the previous term (eight or more contests), who's going to reach stardom or return to Pro Bowl form? 

    Each selection finished the 2018 campaign on injured reserve. One player took the field for just 14 snaps during the playoffs after missing all 17 weeks of the regular season.

          

QB Jimmy Garoppolo, San Francisco 49ers

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    Injury: ACL Tear

    Within three weeks of his 2018 campaign, Jimmy Garoppolo's season came to an abrupt end. He tore his ACL in the fourth quarter of a contest with the Kansas City Chiefs. The San Francisco 49ers signed him to a five-year, $137.5 million deal during the last offseason. The fifth-year signal-caller hasn't played in more than six games in a single term. 

    Despite Garoppolo's play during a 5-0 stretch in December 2017, we're still uncertain about his talent and reliability with just 10 career starts. But the 27-year-old does have a brilliant offensive-minded head coach in his corner. Kyle Shanahan called plays for the 2016 Atlanta Falcons. That team scored 540 points, which tied the 2000 St. Louis Rams—The Greatest Show on Turf—for seventh in all-time scoring.

    The 49ers don't have many elite weapons at their skill positions, but the passing offense ranked 15th with C.J. Beathard and Nick Mullens, a 2017 undrafted product out of Southern Mississippi, at the helm.

    Garoppolo isn't coming back to a talentless group, though. Tight end George Kittle is a rising star, who caught 88 passes for 1,377 yards and five touchdowns last year. The front office signed dual-threat running back Tevin Coleman. He'll join the team's 2018 leading rusher Matt Breida and Jerick McKinnon, who sat out  last season with a torn ACL. 

    Garoppolo is moving around on the practice field, but Shanahan would like to see him participate in organized team activities and training camp by late July, per NBC Sports Bay Area's Jennifer Lee Chan.

    "It’s very controlled movements and stuff,” Shanahan said. "When he does all that it does look very good, which means he’s getting closer. And that’s why hopefully it will be full-go for training camp and I think we will get a lot of work with him in OTAs also." 

    Since Garoppolo tore his ACL in September, he will have almost a full calendar year to recover. Shanahan seems optimistic about his signal-caller's ability to shake off the rust before the games count. If that's the case, the 27-year-old could add on to his 8-2 record as a starter with the offensive talent around him.

RB Devonta Freeman, Atlanta Falcons

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    Injury: Groin

    Running back Devonta Freeman suffered multiple injuries during the 2018 term. He missed a few games because of a knee ailment and then dealt with a bone contusion in his foot and eventually landed on injured reserve with a groin issue. He missed all but two games. 

    The Falcons' ground attack turned to Tevin Coleman and Ito Smith. The former signed with the 49ers in March, which leaves Freeman and Ito, a 2018 fourth-rounder, to carry the load with offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter back in Atlanta.

    In 2014, Koetter called plays for the Falcons before he accepted the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' offensive coordinator job. That year, Freeman logged 473 yards from scrimmage as a rookie behind lead ball-carrier Steven Jackson

    According to Matthew Tabeek of the Falcons' official website, Atlanta will have Freeman back in good health. "Based on everything we've heard so far (and it's been somewhat limited, to be fair), all signs are pointing to a healthy road to recovery for Freeman."

    Koetter will need to figure out how to balance the offensive attack. The Falcons ranked 30th in rush attempts and 27th in yards on the ground last season. The front office signed guards James Carpenter and Jamon Brown, which suggests a renewed focus to incorporate the run.

    Before Freeman's injury-riddled 2018 campaign, he tied Los Angeles Rams running back Todd Gurley for most touchdowns (35) between the 2015 and 2017 seasons. The two-time Pro Bowler should have a bounce-back year behind a revamped offensive line.

WR Cooper Kupp, Los Angeles Rams

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    Injury: Torn ACL

    The Los Angeles Rams dealt with back-to-back hardships last season. Following their first regular-season loss, in Week 9 against the New Orleans Saints, Cooper Kupp went down with a torn ACL in Week 10. At that point, he led the team in touchdown receptions with six

    Although Los Angeles won an offensive showcase against the Chiefs in its next matchup, quarterback Jared Goff experienced a rough stretch late in the term. He didn't throw for multiple touchdown passes in a game until the regular season finale against the 49ers' 28th-ranked scoring defense. 

    Seemingly, Kupp's absence sapped a good portion of the Rams' offensive firepower. Now, with running back Todd Gurley's arthritic knee, Goff will have to further elevate his game. A healthy wide receiver trio, with Kupp, Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods, should help the third-year signal-caller in 2019, which likely results in a production boost.

    According to Clarence Dennis of the Rams' official website, Kupp "feels good," and said, "I think I’m where I’m supposed to be" in terms of recovery.

    The Eastern Washington product has caught 102 passes for 1,435 yards and 11 touchdowns in 23 contests. Assuming Kupp suits up for a full season, he'll continue to shine within head coach Sean McVay's innovative offense.

    Kupp improved his catch rate from 66 percent to 72.7 percent between his rookie and second terms. He's also tied with fellow wideout Robert Woods for most touchdown receptions (11) on the team over the last two seasons.

TE Hunter Henry, Los Angeles Chargers

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    Injury: Torn ACL

    Hunter Henry qualifies because he didn't take a single snap during the regular season; he tore his ACL during OTAs last May.

    The Chargers held out hope Henry would suit up during the 2018 term. The team activated him before its AFC divisional round matchup with the New England Patriots, but he only played 14 offensive snaps. Clearly, the third-year tight end needed more time to recuperate from a significant knee injury.

    According to general manager Tom Telesco, Henry is expected to participate in OTAs (h/t United Press International's Al Butler). He logged eight touchdown receptions in his rookie season and improved his catch rate in the following term (72.6 percent). 

    The Chargers selected Henry in the second round of the 2016 draft. He's the heir to Antonio Gates, who's the franchise leader in receiving yards (11,841) and touchdown receptions (116). The 38-year-old tight end could return, albeit to a limited role, after taking the field for 36.58 percent of the offensive snaps in 2018.

    Going into a contract year, healthy, it's Henry's time to put together a full breakout year. The Chargers also lost wide receiver Tyrell Williams to the Oakland Raiders via free agency, which frees up more targets for the 6'5" standout.

C Travis Frederick, Dallas Cowboys

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    Illness: Guillain-Barré Syndrome

    Travis Frederick's situation differs from the others on this list. He missed the entire 2018 campaign with a non-football related illness. Guillain-Barré syndrome is a condition that causes tingling and weakness in the extremities. In short, the immune system attacks the body's nerves.

    Back in February, the Dallas Cowboys center talked about where he stood in his quest to play again, per ESPN.com's Todd Archer. "Frederick feels almost all the way back, but says he won't know for sure until he is on the field again with his teammates." Archer wrote. "When pressed, he said he was about 90-95 percent, but he still has to regain strength in his lower body."

    The fifth-year offensive lineman is also recovering from offseason shoulder surgery. According to The Athletic's Calvin Watkins, Frederick seems like he's on track to join the team for offseason workouts, which begin April 15.

    Before his diagnosis, Frederick suited up for every game between the 2013-17 seasons and earned All-Pro honors in 2016. Even more impressive, he hasn't allowed a sack since the 2014 campaign, per Washington Post's STATs.

    Barring a setback, the Cowboys would have one of the league's better offensive linemen back at the pivot, calling out signals for and protecting quarterback Dak Prescott.

OG Brandon Scherff, Washington Redskins

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    Injury: Torn Pectoral

    Before quarterback Alex Smith suffered compound and spiral leg fractures in Week 11, the Washington Redskins controlled game flows on the ground. Running back Adrian Peterson signed with the team in August and logged 1,042 yards behind a high-end run-blocking offensive line. 

    Guard Brandon Scherff performed at a Pro Bowl level between the 2016-17 terms and served as a critical cog in Washington's rushing attack through the first half of last season. In Week 9, he went down with a torn pectoral, a few weeks after fellow guard Shawn Lauvao suffered a torn ACL. 

    According to ESPN.com's John Keim, the front office plans to extend Scherff's contract. "Redskins team president Bruce Allen said contract talks with right guard Brandon Scherff are "on-going" as the team seeks to prevent him from hitting free agency next offseason," he wrote. "... As of now, Scherff is playing under the option year of his contract with a $12.5 million cap hit. He's coming off a torn pectoral injury, but is seen as a crucial part to the future." 

    Although there's no definitive word on Scherff's recovery, the team's willingness to work on a new deal with his camp shows confidence in the guard's ability to return to Pro Bowl form.

    Peterson re-signed with the team, and 2018 second-rounder Derrius Guice will join him in the backfield, coming off a torn ACL. Both ball-carriers have a physical run style between the tackles. Scherff's presence will be crucial to Washington's ground attack.

LB Kwon Alexander, San Francisco 49ers

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    Injury: Torn ACL

    Despite a shortened season because of a torn ACL, Kwon Alexander signed a four-year, $54 million contract with the 49ers.

    He'll line up alongside Fred Warner, which gives defensive coordinator Robert Saleh two solid chase-down linebackers on the second level of his defense. The former Buccaneer logged six interceptions and 22 pass breakups in 46 contests.

    According to Buccaneers reporter Jenna Laine (h/t Dom Cavalieri), Alexander resumed physical activities. “(Alexander’s) rehab is going really really well,” she said. “He started squatting a few weeks ago, and he also started jogging recently. He’s posted video of this on social media, so you can go see it for yourself. He’s not just squatting a couple of ten-pounders on each side, he’s definitely resuming weight training." 

    Laine also notes Alexander's ability to stick his foot in the ground and cut looms as a huge step in the 24-year-old's recovery. Team brass would probably like to see those sudden movements because of his responsibilities at linebacker. 

    At 100 percent, the 49ers could be gaining a player ready to return to his 2017 Pro Bowl form, when he recorded 70 solo tackles, three interceptions and four pass breakups.

LB Christian Kirksey, Cleveland Browns

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    Injury: Hamstring

    In 2016, linebacker Christian Kirksey took over a starting role and led the Cleveland Browns in solo tackles for consecutive seasons. Last year, he landed on injured reserve with a hamstring injury after seven games.

    In 2018, Kirksey lined up on the weak side and in the middle of the defense. Pro Bowler Joe Schobert should retain his spot at the heart of the unit, which shifts the fifth-year veteran to the outside in defensive coordinator Steve Wilks' 4-3 base scheme. 

    The front office released Jamie Collins. As a result, expect experienced starters Kirksey and Schobert to lead the linebacker stable in snaps for the upcoming season. The Iowa product's athleticism will allow him to pick up where he left off last season before his injury. In seven appearances, he recorded 29 solo tackles, five pass breakups and two interceptions.

    Kirksey's hamstring injury hasn't generated any alarming headlines over the offseason, which is a good sign for his recovery. As an ascending talent, he could put together his best year in 2019. A leader for the franchise, the 26-year-old will announce the Browns' third-round pick April 26. 

S Earl Thomas, Baltimore Ravens

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    Injury: Broken Leg

    Earl Thomas fractured his leg for the second time in three seasons last year. He left the field on a cart during a Week 4 contest with the Arizona Cardinals. The 29-year-old has missed 19 games since the 2016 campaign.

    The latest injury didn't hurt Thomas' market value. The three-time All-Pro inked a four-year, $55 million deal with the Baltimore Ravens—essentially to replace Eric Weddle, who signed with the Rams.

    When he's healthy, Thomas is one of the top ball-hawking safeties in the league. In just four games last season, the former Seahawk logged three interceptions and five pass breakups. The Ravens are betting on his ability to bounce back from injury and force more takeaways on the back end. 

    Michael-Shawn Dugar of The Athletic posted a video on Twitter of Thomas running around the track at a decent speed in February. The Ravens should have a well-rested, high-end safety with a point to prove after last season's contract disputes and unceremonious conclusion in Seattle.

S Keanu Neal, Atlanta Falcons

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    Injury: Torn ACL

    Keanu Neal didn't have an opportunity to build upon his 2017 Pro Bowl campaign. The third-year safety tore his ACL in the season opener against the Philadelphia Eagles. Although known for his physical play, the Florida product also logged 14 pass breakups and an interception in his first two seasons.

    As a tone-setter with the size to match bigger pass-catchers downfield, Neal's absence dealt a significant blow to a defensive unit that showed vast improvement between the 2016-17 seasons. Atlanta ranked 12th in yards and touchdowns allowed through the air two years ago before dropping to 27th and 29th, respectively, in 2018. Of course, the return of multiple healthy bodies, including safety Ricardo Allen and linebacker Deion Jones, will help this group in the upcoming season. 

    In March, Neal posted a workout video on Instagram (h/t the Falcons' official Twitter handle), showing off his footwork. But he hasn't put a timetable on a return, per Sirius XM NFL radio hosts Zig Fracassi and Alex Marvez. "I don't want to put a timetable on things," Neal said when asked about training camp. "We are heading in the right direction."

    It's too early to jump to conclusions or speculate if Neal participates in the early portions of the offseason program, but it's encouraging to see him active and moving toward a comeback. General manager Thomas Dimitroff plans to pick up the safety's fifth-year option. At 23 years old, Neal's surgically-repaired knee shouldn't adversely affect the Pro Bowler's career trajectory.