PHILADELPHIA -- After selecting cornerback Sidney Jones with the 43rd overall pick in the 2017 NFL draft, Philadelphia Eagles executive vice president of football operations Howie Roseman explained why the Eagles were willing to take the risk on a player who ruptured his Achilles tendon just a month prior.
“Well, because of [Jones’] age, it's a very, very high percentage of coming back to 100 percent. It's an extremely high percentage. And that's why we made the pick,” he said.
“We anticipate a full recovery for him.”
That level of certainty, or at least optimism, didn’t seem to sync up with the perception of the injury in question. Achilles ruptures are viewed as potential career-changers, and sometimes even career-enders. Add in the fact that Jones plays cornerback, where speed and agility are so vital, and the Jones pick appeared to be a major roll of the dice, even if he was considered one of the top two corners in the draft prior to the injury.
The Eagles’ studies, though, found that advancements in the treatment of Achilles injuries had made it a less debilitating injury and significantly increased the return rate -- even for players who play "quick-twitch" positions like Jones. Those odds are about to be tested, as Jones was cleared to practice this week, some nine months after suffering the Achilles tear at the University of Washington’s pro day.
His teammate, linebacker Jordan Hicks, is still early in his rehab process. He ruptured his right Achilles in late October. Hicks is scheduled to have his walking boot removed Christmas Day -- “a nice Christmas gift, right?” he said -- and plans to be back on the field for OTAs.
Like Jones, Hicks had what is called “mini-open repair” surgery performed by Dr. Robert Anderson in Charlotte, North Carolina -- a less invasive procedure made possible by a device called a “jig” that allows doctors to put the sutures in place with minimal incisions.
Hicks had the standard open treatment in college and the mini-open this time around. He said his scar this time was about the size of a hand-held eraser, compared to that of a pencil the first time.
“That by itself -- the atrophy in my muscles is going to be a lot better, there won’t be as much,” he said. “My range of motion -- I’m telling you, my range of motion is just about as good as my other foot right now. I didn’t have that when I did my other one. The strength is still there ... everything is a lot better than it was the first time.”
Dr. Anderson released a study in 2014 along with Dr. Kirk McCullough and Christopher Shaw on the results of their mini-open repairs on NFL athletes. All nine players that had the surgery in 2012-13 returned to professional football -- seven to the NFL and two undrafted free agents to the CFL and Indoor League, respectively. Those are positive results relative to a study done between 1997 and 2002, when 36 percent of the athletes were unable to return to play and those who did return to play experienced a 50 percent drop in performance.
The average time of return to play from the mini-open was about nine months, though the timing of the injuries on the NFL calendar influenced those numbers. Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs came back in just over five months and posted double-digit sacks in each of his next two seasons.
“That was unheard of, at least in the professional sports realm, that you could get an athlete of that size at that level back that quickly,” Dr. McCullough said.
Dozens of these procedures have now been done. A follow-up study on how these athletes are performing upon return is set to be released in the coming weeks. The findings, Dr. McCullough said, have been encouraging.
“I can tell you that the trend has persisted, and that we’re finding less complications and a similar type of return,” he said.
“We’re seeing guys come back at a higher rate and equaling performance at a much more consistent pattern than what at least historically has been talked about, and kind of been the black cloud around this injury in the past.”
The odds are even better for younger players, like Jones.
Dr. McCullough said he is unaware of any mini-open procedure that he or Dr. Anderson has done in which the player ruptured his Achilles on the same side again. If anything, he said, there could be concern with, “‘Well, what’s going on with the other side?’” Suggs would be an example there. He tore his left Achilles in 2015 after rupturing his right Achilles in 2012. He again made a comeback and has averaged 10 sacks over the last two seasons.
Dr. McCullough cautions this is still a serious injury, and that while the success rate has gone up, there are no guarantees.
It remains to be seen whether the Eagles opt to play Jones this season or continue to go the conservative route by waiting until 2018 to expose him to game action. Conditioning aside, Jones said he is beginning to feel back to his old self. He was heartened through the grueling rehab process by Dr. Anderson’s recent track record.
“I had all the confidence in the world he was going to do the same for me,” Jones said.
Hicks sounded equally assured that his will be a success story.
“Oh, there’s no question about that. I’ll be fine,” he said. “The advancements are better. There’s no doubt in my mind I’ll be a better player when I come back.”