The Early Wave of Injuries from NFL Training Camps, Possible Solutions
To paraphrase Thanos, "Injuries are inevitable."
They could become a bigger problem in 2020 given a truncated offseason in which the end game is putting the healthiest roster possible on the field amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
As such, teams are being extra cautious with how they're handling practices and making sure established veterans are getting enough rest.
Unfortunately, significant injuries have occurred. How will those franchises respond?
The answer to the previous question will likely determine how successful a squad is. Front offices have multiple avenues to pursue to fill an unexpected void, whether through free agency, a trade or an existing player on the roster.
The following solutions don't take into account previously existing injuries, soft-tissue issues or any malady that's only expected to limit a player for a few days during training camp. The injuries happened during the initial practice sessions, with the possibility of the individual missing games.
Arizona Cardinals: Robert Alford
The Arizona Cardinals have been searching for a cornerback opposite Patrick Peterson for some time. Robert Alford was supposed to fill that role when he signed a three-year, $22.5 million contract prior to the 2019 campaign.
Now he's suffered a pair of season-ending injuries before playing a game in a Cardinals uniform. Last August, the veteran defensive back suffered a broken leg. On Monday, NFL Network's Ian Rapoport reported Alford tore a pectoral muscle and that he'll miss the entire 2020 campaign.
"He's everything you want in your organization," Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury told reporters. "He worked his ass off to get back, and it's just everybody is heartbroken for him here."
Kingsbury then mentioned the team's next-man-up philosophy, as a good coach is wont to do. Technically, 2019 second-round draft selection Byron Murphy Jr. is next in line, but he's far more comfortable working in the slot.
"We're excited to see his growth with just the focus inside," Kingsbury said. "He's another young guy that we're hoping takes that next step."
With Peterson working one side and Murphy over the slot, the Cardinals recently signed a pair of veterans—Ken Crawley and B.W. Webb—to help at the other outside corner.
If Crawley and Webb, who have combined to start 60 career games, can't get the job done, the Cardinals should approach the Carolina Panthers and Los Angeles Chargers about the availability of Donte Jackson and Desmond King II, respectively. Jackson is the better fit since he's a natural outside corner, and the Panthers may be looking to move on from the 24-year-old after last season's disappointing performance.
Cincinnati Bengals: Trae Waynes
The Cincinnati Bengals were uncharacteristically active in free agency, with cornerback Trae Waynes an integral part of the incoming group. Waynes agreed to a three-year, $42 million contract after playing his first five seasons with the Minnesota Vikings.
Unfortunately, Waynes suffered a torn pectoral muscle that required surgery, and he's expected to miss most of the season, though the possibility of a return exists, per NFL Network's Ian Rapoport.
Head coach Zac Taylor told reporters Tuesday that it's "too early to tell" if Waynes will be able to play in 2020.
Waynes' addition was part of a defensive overhaul that included fellow free agents D.J. Reader, Mike Daniels, Josh Bynes, LeShaun Sims, Mackensie Alexander and Vonn Bell. Waynes' loss hurts, but the bigger concern is getting the entire unit on the same page so it can improve upon last season's 29th-ranked effort.
"We've just got to be on the same page with the same terminology, do a lot of walk-throughs and really stay active," Bell said earlier this month. "The after-hours, that's really gonna be key."
The 28-year-old Waynes was supposed to be one of the leaders pushing this group. Instead, two cornerbacks—Darius Phillips and Sims—will most likely receive the opportunity to earn the job opposite William Jackson III. Alexander is at his best working the slot.
A knee injury derailed Phillips' second season, but the development of the 2018 fifth-round draft pick could play a significant role in the Bengals defense. If not, Sims does have starting experience (11 games) from his four seasons with the Tennessee Titans.
Dre Kirkpatrick, Trumaine Johnson, Morris Claiborne and Cordrea Tankersley are available if Cincinnati wants to remain aggressive in free agency.
Cleveland Browns: Mack Wilson and Kevin Johnson
The Cleveland Browns have been hit harder by injuries than any other team.
Running back Nick Chubb, defensive end Myles Garrett and center J.C. Tretter haven't been practicing, though all three are expected back by the start of the regular season.
The two biggest blows came at linebacker and the secondary when Mack Wilson and Kevin Johnson suffered significant injuries.
Wilson hyperextended his left knee during a practice session and will miss at least six-to-eight weeks—and possibly more if he requires surgery—according to ESPN's Jeremy Fowler.
Cleveland's linebacker room is a disaster waiting to happen. The 22-year-old Wilson was expected to drastically improve after being thrust into the starting lineup last season for 14 games despite looking overwhelmed at points.
The organization doesn't appear to place much emphasis on the position since it allowed Joe Schobert to leave in free agency and cut Christian Kirksey. Cleveland only brought B.J. Goodson and No. 97th overall pick Jacob Phillips back in return.
The group, including Sione Takitaki, has potential. But general manager Andrew Berry should have already been looking for improvements. The Browns did bring in 2013 Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith for a workout, per NFL Network's Mike Garafolo. Berry should also inquire about the availability of the San Francisco 49ers' Kwon Alexander, New York Jets' Avery Williamson and Indianapolis Colts' Anthony Walker.
Johnson could be out as long as Wilson or longer depending on his recovery from a lacerated liver. The team revealed its projected starter at nickel corner was admitted to a local hospital and is expected to remain under observation for at least 24 hours.
The Browns signed Johnson to a one-year, $3.5 million deal this offseason to complement Denzel Ward and Greedy Williams. Fortunately, the front office claimed M.J. Stewart—who primarily played over the slot during his first two seasons—off waivers earlier this month.
Dallas Cowboys: Gerald McCoy
The Dallas Cowboys never saw what Gerald McCoy could be in their defensive front because the six-time Pro Bowl performer ruptured a quad tendon during his first week of practice. The team subsequently released the 32-year-old defensive lineman.
Fourteen months ago, McCoy was the biggest free agent on the market. Two teams later, his career is now in question. The Cowboys could look to a young defensive tackle to take over for the decorated veteran.
Dallas landed one of the best values in April's draft in Oklahoma's Neville Gallimore, who fell to the No. 82 overall pick after looking like a potential first-round talent during his final season with the Sooners. Now he could push for a starting spot.
"I like him a lot," defensive end Tyrone Crawford told reporters. "I think he's got everything you need. He gets off the ball. He's got power. He plays like a professional already, and he acts like it as well."
Head coach Mike McCarthy added: "I'll tell you what, Gallimore is, he's doing a nice job. ... So, very hard-working. Very intuitive. Has a great look in his eye, but it's coming."
As exciting as Gallimore's potential may be, defensive tackle Antwaun Woods and 2019 second-round pick Trysten Hill will have a say in who starts next to Dontari Poe.
"Trysten was young, a young player last year and had some vets in front of him," executive vice president of personnel Stephen Jones told reporters. "It's time for him to step up. Our current coaching staff feel really good about him."
While McCoy's presence would have certainly helped Dallas' defensive front, the team is still four deep at defensive tackle and has plenty of potential to improve.
Los Angeles Rams: A'Shawn Robinson
A'Shawn Robinson's situation differs slightly than the others because the Los Angeles Rams' medical staff found an unspecified "condition" shortly before the team's acclimation period started.
As a result, the Rams placed their newly acquired defensive lineman on the active/non-football injury list.
"He's able to partake in meetings, get treatment, be around his teammates," head coach Sean McVay said, per Stu Jackson of the Rams' official site. "We'll look forward to getting him back at some point this season. When that is, I don't know specifically."
Robinson signed a two-year, $17 million deal in free agency this offseason after spending his first four campaigns with the Detroit Lions. The 330-pound defensive lineman was supposed to be the anchor next to the all-world defensive tackle Aaron Donald.
Nose tackle will again come down to Sebastian Joseph-Day and Greg Gaines, though Michael Brockers' retention should help with the defensive front as a whole.
"I'm so thankful we got him back in general," McVay said. "Before we knew we were going to be fortunate to get Michael back, that was in large part—all right, you really liked A'Shawn Robinson, but it was kind of the vision before Michael got back on board that he was going to be able to fill some of those voids left by Brockers."
The Rams have little salary-cap space ($4.3 million, per Spotrac) to make significant moves unless a veteran defensive tackle is willing to sign a short-term, low-value deal. Eight-year veteran Mike Daniels did sign a one-year, $2.7 million contract with the Bengals. Maybe Damon Harrison, Marcell Dareus, Brandon Mebane or Domata Peko would be willing to take a similar offer.
New England Patriots: Jarrett Stidham
The amount of turnover the New England Patriots endured this offseason is staggering.
It extends beyond the loss of Tom Brady and the typical attrition associated with free agency. A league-leading eight Patriots opted out of the 2020 campaign.
Injuries tend to complicate things, although a recent injury might help clarify matters.
Quarterback Jarrett Stidham isn't expected to miss any time during the regular season. However, with Cam Newton also on the roster, the issues he's dealing with now could cost him a starting job if he's unable to perform in training camp.
So far, Newton, Stidham and Brian Hoyer have all rotated into the lineup in practices. The assumption is it is Newton's job to lose. An outstanding performance during training camps could change minds.
Stidham has been dealing with an upper-leg injury and needed to be taken to a hospital Thursday for precautionary reasons, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter. The Patriots coaching staff didn't seem too concerned about the status of the second-year signal-caller, though.
"I'm pretty sure he'll be ready to roll the next time we practice," offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels told reporters.
Stidham might practice, but don't expect him to be 100 percent. He's almost certainly trying to power through whatever ails him in an attempt to win the job. According to NFL Network's Michael Giardi, Stidham won't be fully healthy for several weeks.
The Patriots might as well start giving Newton the majority of the first-team reps since he's most likely going to be named QB1 and needs to prepare for the regular season.
Philadelphia Eagles: Javon Hargrave, Miles Sanders and Derek Barnett
The Philadelphia Eagles have suffered significant injuries at two of their deepest position groups.
Javon Hargrave's pectoral injury could have the biggest impact, though the Eagles are still hopeful the defensive tackle could be ready for the regular season, according to ESPN's Tim McManus. As of now, he's expected to missed multiple weeks.
Hargrave is the crown jewel of this year's free-agent class. He signed a three-year, $39 million deal to serve as Fletcher Cox's interior counterpart. Hargrave isn't a typical interior defender in that he can apply consistent pressure.
According to Pro Football Focus, the 27-year-old nose tackle managed 43 pressures last season. His skill set is predicated on creating disruption in opposing backfields.
Fortunately, the unit can rely on Malik Jackson to take over the starting role and hopefully return to form after last year's season-ending Lisfranc injury. The Eagles won't have to add anyone as long as Hargrave returns sooner rather than later. If he doesn't, Philadelphia should look to a veteran free agent like Damon Harrison or Marcell Dareus as a stopgap.
Like Hargrave, Derek Barnett, 24, could be back by the start of the season depending on how his sprained ankle heals, per NFL Network's Ian Rapoport.
Eagles general manager Howie Roseman had the foresight to re-sign Vinny Curry, who spurned a "more competitive financial bid" from the Cleveland Browns, according to Inside the Birds' Geoff Mosher. Josh Sweat will also see plenty of reps at defensive end.
Running back Miles Sanders is considered out indefinitely with a lower-body injury, though he may not miss any regular-season time.
"He will be ready to play," a source told McManus.
The running back's standing is the most interesting since the team could upgrade from Boston Scott and Corey Clement if Sanders does miss any game time. The Eagles already offered a deal to free agent Devonta Freeman earlier this offseason, per the Philadelphia Inquirer's Jeff McLane, who added the six-year veteran was "weighing other offers."