NFL Players Coming Off Injury with Most to Prove in Training Camps
As we approach NFL training camp season, fans will be keeping close tabs on how new faces—veterans and rookies alike—are fitting in with their teams. While big-name free agents and early draft picks look good on paper, they still must prove they can jell with their new teammates, coaches and game plans.
Here, we'll examine eight veterans who have plenty to prove. Specifically, we looked at players returning from injures that ended or entirely negated their 2020 campaigns.
What injuries are these players coming back from? What do they need to show during camp and the preseason? What's the latest on their recoveries?
Players are listed in alphabetical order.
Saquon Barkley, RB, New York Giants
New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley suffered a torn right ACL just two games into his 2020 campaign. That's a tough injury to overcome, but it's especially problematic for a running back whose elusiveness is one of his biggest assets.
Barkley needs to show he is back to pre-injury form for a couple of reasons. For one, he is the centerpiece of the offense and arguably the best weapon quarterback Daniel Jones has at his disposal.
Secondly, Barkley, the No. 2 pick in the 2018 draft, is eligible for a contract extension. The Giants have already picked up Barkley's fifth-year option, but the Penn State product could want to become the league's highest-paid ball-carrier.
First, though, Barkley must prove he is worth the financial commitment an extension will require. He wasn't particularly effective before the injury last year, totaling just 19 rushing yards and 1.8 yards per carry. He was also hampered by a right ankle injury in 2019, though he still topped 1,400 scrimmage yards in 13 games.
If Barkley hopes to be the league's highest-paid running back, he must prove injuries won't be a long-term concern. He will also have to show he is the same special back who topped 2,000 scrimmage yards as a rookie.
Barkley appears to be recovering well, and he recently posted a beach workout video to prove it.
There's a big difference between running and cutting on the beach and performing on the field, however, and this training camp will be a huge one for Barkley.
Odell Beckham Jr., WR, Cleveland Browns
Cleveland Browns receiver Odell Beckham Jr. would have plenty to prove even if he weren't coming off a torn left ACL. The former Giants star hasn't been the same dynamic playmaker with Cleveland and has struggled to develop chemistry with quarterback Baker Mayfield.
In 2019, Beckham had just 1,035 receiving yards and four touchdowns while delivering a passer rating of 69.0 when targeted. He had just 319 yards and three scores in seven games last year before the injury.
With Beckham set to earn at least $15 million in each of the next three seasons, this was already going to be a make-or-break season for his future with the Browns.
Beckham appears to be on the fast track in his recovery.
"Man, he looked amazing," fellow wideout Jarvis Landry told reporters. "I can't wait for you guys to see him. I can't wait for him to get back out there. He's in fantastic shape and he's ready to go."
The next step for Beckham will be to show he can fit into Kevin Stefanski's offense and find that elusive chemistry with his quarterback. It's a two-pronged challenge and arguably the biggest of Beckham's pro career.
Joe Burrow, QB, Cincinnati Bengals
Quarterback Joe Burrow flashed plenty of promise as a rookie last season before he tore the ACL and MCL in his left knee. The Cincinnati Bengals signal-caller passed for 2,688 yards with 13 touchdowns and five interceptions in 10 games.
Burrow will face two big challenges: proving he is healthy and that he is indeed the franchise quarterback the Bengals hope he can be.
Carson Wentz never appeared to be the same quarterback after tearing his left ACL in 2017, and he was jettisoned by the Philadelphia Eagles just three years later.
Burrow was sacked 32 times last season, and hesitation in the pocket could be a problem. He'll get his first taste of contact in the preseason, and that could go a long way toward showing how Burrow will respond.
He appears to be on track to open the regular season behind center.
"Burrow, I'm told, has pretty much cleared every hurdle throughout his recovery process," ESPN's Jeremy Fowler said June 19 on SportsCenter (h/t Riley Gates of 247Sports). "Now the key coming into training camp will be planting and throwing from the pocket and real work."
The careers of young quarterbacks such as David Carr and Tim Couch were derailed by poor protection and injuries. Burrow can begin showing in camp that he won't follow a similar path.
Jimmy Garoppolo, QB, San Francisco 49ers
The San Francisco 49ers lost multiple key players to injury in 2020, but no one will face as much pressure as quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo in camp. While Nick Bosa (left ACL) and others aren't going anywhere, Garoppolo may be.
The 49ers selected Trey Lance with the third pick in the April draft, meaning he, not Garoppolo, is the quarterback of the future. Garoppolo will have to show in camp that he can still be the quarterback of the present.
Garoppolo has missed 23 games over the last three seasons and landed on injured reserve with a right ankle injury last year. His ability to fend off Lance and audition for prospective future employers will largely be tied to his health.
He appears healthy and prepared for training camp.
"I think Jimmy had his best spring since we've had him," head coach Kyle Shanahan said, per ESPN's Rick Wagoner. "I thought Jimmy came in in great shape, really locked in, a good place physically and mentally. And I thought he had as good of OTAs as he's had."
Garoppolo's test will be to stay healthy and ahead of Lance on the depth chart.
Christian McCaffrey, RB, Carolina Panthers
Saquon Barkley was not the only premier running back to miss the majority of 2020 with an injury. Carolina Panthers star Christian McCaffrey missed all but three games with right ankle and right shoulder ailments. His injury-plagued campaign came a year after he topped 1,000 rushing and 1,000 receiving yards.
That season led to a four-year, $64.1 million extension. The Stanford product will now have to show he's worth the money by being healthy, staying healthy and performing as he did in 2019.
McCaffrey will be expected to support new quarterback Sam Darnold. Carolina took a flier on the third pick in the 2018 draft, hoping he could succeed where he failed with the New York Jets.
For Darnold to be better, he may have to lean on McCaffrey, who is on the mend and preparing to be the centerpiece.
"I'm going to be ready to go and play as much as possible, and that's all I know," McCaffrey said, per Vinnie Iyer of Sporting News.
We'll get an idea of just how ready McCaffrey is during training camp.
Von Miller, Edge, Denver Broncos
Denver Broncos pass-rusher Von Miller missed all of 2020 after undergoing surgery on his left ankle. Miller has little to prove, as he's already likely to be a Hall of Famer with his Super Bowl MVP award, eight Pro Bowls and 106 sacks.
However, the 32-year-old is hoping he can still be a dominant sack artist.
"I'm still running around here beating everybody's ass, so I feel like, 30-what? Until I see otherwise, I'm going to keep doing it and I'm going to keep going," Miller said, per NFL.com's Grant Gordon.
Miller is entering the final year of his contract, and if he hopes to get paid next offseason—by Denver another team—he'll need to show he's healthy. He'll also need to show he can be better than he was in 2019, when he failed to reach double-digit sacks for the first time since 2013.
Miller will be a year removed from surgery by Week 1, and he appeared close to 100 percent at OTAs.
"Von looks like he's in his prime," general manager George Paton said, per Ben Swanson of the team website.
We'll find out if Miller really is still in his prime during camp and the preseason.
Tyron Smith, LT, Dallas Cowboys
Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott is returning from a dislocated and fractured right ankle that ended his 2020 campaign. While his recovery is arguably the most important for the Cowboys, Prescott finally has a long-term contract and is already healthy enough to be inspiring teammates such as left tackle Tyron Smith.
"The way Dak worked throughout the whole offseason, the way he pushed himself, the way he came back and is able to be on the field with everybody else, it's amazing," Smith said, per Clarence E. Hill Jr. of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
Smith has more to prove than Prescott. He underwent neck surgery in October to address a lingering issue.
"This is something that needs to be done," head coach Mike McCarthy said then, per NFL.com's Kevin Patra.
Like Prescott and right tackle La'el Collins (hip surgery), Smith appears to be on the mend and ready for camp. However, Smith could have his Cowboys future at stake. The seven-time Pro Bowler will turn 31 in December and needs to show his neck problem is a thing of the past.
"There's always something to prove," Smith said, per David Helman of the team website.
Ronnie Stanley, LT, Baltimore Ravens
Baltimore Ravens left tackle Ronnie Stanley's season ended just six games into 2020. An All-Pro the previous year, Stanley landed on injured reserve with a left ankle ailment and was replaced by Orlando Brown.
Brown made the Pro Bowl, only adding to the expectations for Stanley. Not only will the Notre Dame product need to live up to his five-year, $98.8 million contract, but he will also have to justify the Ravens' trade of Brown to the Kansas City Chiefs.
Brown has as many Pro Bowl appearances as a left tackle as Stanley, though without him Baltimore no longer has an elite Plan B at the position.
Stanley appears on track to start in Week 1.
"He should be ready to open the season, for sure," head coach John Harbaugh said June 15, per ESPN's Jamison Hensley.
Being ready and being in pre-injury form are two different things, of course, and Stanley must show the Ravens they still have a Pro Bowler to block Lamar Jackson's blind side.