3 QBs, 2 WRs, 1 RB, 1 TE.
No, that's not some newfangled fantasy league lineup. It is, however, the lineup of the most -- shall we say -- "watch worthy" injury situations heading into training camp. These seven position players sit atop the list because they all missed significant time during the past year ... or two. And they are all returning from major injuries. (Spoiler: four are ACLs.)
The good news is that they all seem optimistic about their prospects for the fall, and each of them is expected to participate in training camp. But for two of the players on this list, there were high hopes heading into last season as they returned from injury, yet between the pair, they played just two games.
Here is a closer look at those 3 QBs, 2 WRs, 1 RB, 1 TE and other key players returning from injury in 2018.
Andrew Luck, QB, Indianapolis Colts: It's like déjà vu all over again. Except it isn't. On the one hand, we find ourselves at the start of the second consecutive Colts training camp in which Luck's health is the dominant topic. On the other hand, the Luck we're seeing now looks different and sounds different than last year's version. He even projects a not previously seen confidence in how his shoulder will respond as he moves forward, telling reporters in June: "The pain is gone, and it's going to stay that way."
But, just how much stock should we put into this new-and-improved sounding Luck? After all, there are mostly just words to go on thus far. We have yet to actually see him play football.
To recap, here is a summary of the events that have taken place since Luck last played in an NFL game:
January, 2017: Luck undergoes surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right (throwing) shoulder.
July, 2017: Luck opens training camp on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list.
November, 2017: The Colts place Luck on season-ending injured reserve and his throwing program is shut down. He leaves for Europe for six weeks of continued therapy for his shoulder.
February, 2018: Luck travels to California to work on throwing mechanics with Tom House and Adam Dedaux.
June, 2018: Luck throws some footballs in public during minicamp.
July, 2018: Colts open training camp and Luck is scheduled to practice without limitation (although he will be granted intermittent rest days).
There is now a measurable activity difference to accompany Luck's words; this season, he opens camp as a full participant. It's fair to retain a healthy level of skepticism until Luck takes the field once again, or even until he is playing consistently at the elite level he demonstrated pre-injury. Still, if he continues to progress according to plan, he should be under center in Week 1.
For fantasy purposes, it's worth reiterating that Luck has not played in an NFL game since January 2017. How much preseason action he sees could influence how "ready" he appears by Week 1, but nothing will substitute for repeat outings of four full quarters of play against real competition. In other words, don't be surprised if it takes a little time for Luck to shake off the rust and re-acclimate to being an NFL quarterback.
Carson Wentz, QB, Philadelphia Eagles: Wentz says he expects to be ready for Week 1. That's certainly what Eagles fans and fantasy players want to hear. But, feeling ready to play and actually playing may not happen simultaneously.
Not all ACL injuries are created equal. Factors such as whether the injury to the ACL was isolated or whether it was accompanied by additional structural damage will potentially affect the rehab parameters, as well as the overall timeline. Time of injury within the season is also a factor; sustaining an ACL injury in Week 1 allows a player several additional months of post-op recovery compared to suffering the same injury in Week 16. Other factors, such as mechanism of injury, player age (both real and football service years) and the demands of the position to which he is returning (quarterback versus defensive back versus running back) can also play a role.
So where does Wentz's scenario fit? The mobile quarterback tore both the ACL and the LCL in his left knee in Week 14 (Dec. 10) when he was tackled while diving into the end zone. He underwent reconstructive surgery within days, a move that hinted at the serious nature of the injury.
How so? One of the concerns with an injury to the outside of the knee (where the LCL or lateral collateral ligament is located) is the risk of damage to a group of soft tissue structures that reinforce the stability of the outside back corner of the knee, also known as the posterolateral corner. Damage to this area can leave the knee dangerously unstable, potentially putting the athlete at increased risk for degenerative joint changes if left untreated or inadequately treated. Since there are several layers of delicate tissue (ligaments, tendon, joint capsule) in the area, it is imperative to address the injury fairly quickly before scar tissue sets in its place. Swiftly addressing the injury with surgery is just the beginning; the steps in the athlete's subsequent rehab must be controlled to allow for proper healing.
By all accounts, Wentz has been diligent with his rehab, which has gone according to plan. He was doing individual drills in May OTAs and participated in 7-on-7 drills in June, contributing to Wentz's building confidence about his readiness. But there are clues from the organization that they are in lock-step agreement about not rushing their young franchise quarterback to return -- not the least of which was retaining Nick Foles.
There have been not-so-subtle statements from the Eagles' brass as well. In March, Eagles executive vice president of football operations, Howie Roseman would not commit to Wentz being available for the start of the season. Eagles head coach Doug Pederson told Peter King of NBC Sports in mid-July that he could not honestly say whether Wentz would be ready by Week 1 of the regular season (a point that will mark roughly nine months post-surgery). Pederson made it clear who will be making the call with regards to his quarterback's status.
"It will be a doctors' decision. Carson will have to be 100 percent before he takes the field."
Keep in mind that Wentz is not just a quarterback. He is a mobile, agile quarterback who will make plays with his legs. He also got hurt in traffic while attempting just such a play. How long will it take for him to be comfortable not only moving around the field but also dodging the swarming defenders who will undoubtedly be eager to test his confidence? It's one thing to practice against your defensive teammates; it's quite another to face real opponents who are not trying to protect your surgically repaired knee. Given the multitude of factors in play when it comes to Wentz, it would not be surprising if the decision about his Week 1 status comes down to the wire.
Deshaun Watson, QB, Houston Texans: Watson has been through this whole ACL-reconstruction thing before ... and oh, by the way, the first time around, he came back to lead Clemson to the national championship game ... twice (and they won on the second try). Not bad. And, while no two ACL-recovery paths are identical (see: Charles, Jamaal), it certainly helps when an athlete knows what to expect along the way and achieved the highest level of success upon his return to play the first time.
Also working in Watson's favor this time around is that he is dealing solely with a reconstructed ACL in his right knee (no other ligaments were involved) and suffered his injury in Week 8, giving him an additional six recovery weeks on Wentz, for instance.
He was throwing in OTAs and participating in select team drills in June minicamp. Both Watson and Texans coach Bill O'Brien have indicated they expect him to be without limitation for training camp. While the plan is likely to integrate Watson gradually into a full workload and, ultimately, game play, it certainly looks as if he will be under center when the regular season opens.
Odell Beckham Jr., WR, New York Giants: Beckham appeared to suffer a serious ankle injury in a late-August preseason game, but it turned out to be minor, and he was back on the field by Week 2 of the regular season. His playing time was short-lived, however, as he suffered another left ankle injury in Week 5 -- this one serious -- as his leg was caught underneath him and a defender, bending it in a way it was not meant to bend. The force resulted in a fracture, and Beckham underwent surgery to stabilize his ankle.
And then the waiting began. The natural questions arose. Will he be able to run as fast? Will he be able to cut, pivot and spin like before? And is he going to hesitate before leaping to make his signature one-handed grabs? The answers will make themselves known soon enough.
Beckham was limited to individual drills during OTAs and minicamp, but the expectation is that the reins will be lifted through training camp. There have been Beckham sightings where his movement has been on display, including a Super Bowl commercial in which he danced with Eli Manning (limited, yes, but encouraging to see nonetheless) and, more recently, a video clip of him making a double move on a defender while running a route (capped off by a one-handed catch, no less).
His mobility and quickness appear to be on point. The bigger question -- and one that will only get answered as we see Beckham play in live games -- is whether any apprehension remains around going up in the air in traffic.
Allen Robinson, WR, Chicago Bears: Tearing an ACL is devastating enough; tearing it in Week 1 of the NFL season seems particularly cruel. A player survives the toll of training camp, gets to the good stuff when the games actually count, then tears his ACL in the early minutes of the game after just one reception, rendering his season over before it truly began. Brutal.
This is what happened to Robinson, then of the Jacksonville Jaguars. But, there is always a silver lining, and in Robinson's case, the fact that the injury happened so early gave him a big head start on his rehab, relative to his fellow 2017 ACL reconstruction club members.
In fact, when the 2018 regular season opens, Robinson, now with the Bears, will be one year post-injury. Not only has he had the benefit of additional rehab time, he has also had the opportunity to begin developing chemistry with his new quarterback, Mitchell Trubisky. Robinson is expected to be a full participant in training camp -- though, like others returning from similar injury, his workload will undoubtedly be ramped up gradually.
Barring a surprise, Robinson should be ready to start the 2018 season, and he deserves far more than one catch this time around.
Dalvin Cook, RB, Minnesota Vikings: The lead running back member of the 2017 ACL injury club, Cook was off to a fine start last season before the all-too-familiar non-contact injury took his left knee down in Week 4. After undergoing reconstructive surgery, Cook remained in Minnesota throughout the season and afterward, diligently rehabbing his knee, eager to move forward.
Cook's injury happened early enough in the season that it gives him some extra cushion for recovery time. After participating in various team drills during June minicamp, Cook is expected to be a full participant in training camp. Like others recovering from this injury, he will see a gradual uptick in workload, and if all goes well through the preseason, he should be on the field when the Vikings' Week 1 contest gets underway.
The key for Cook will be building up the endurance necessary to keep him on the field as much as the Vikings hope to use him in 2018.
Tyler Eifert, TE, Cincinnati Bengals: In 2015, the healthiest season of Eifert's NFL career, he snagged 52 catches, 13 of them for touchdowns. Eifert has also missed 22 games during the past two seasons, thus proving that two things can be simultaneously true: A player who is elite at his position can be a game changer, but that same player, if regularly unavailable, may no longer qualify as elite.
This is the conundrum when it comes to the Bengals' tight end. Now that he is poised to return from his second back surgery in two years, will he return to his top form of three years ago and, if so, can he sustain it for an entire season?
The clues, at least as far as his current health is concerned, will hopefully emerge as training camp unfolds. While it is not yet known just what level of participation the Bengals have planned for Eifert, his July 23 tweet that said he feels great and is looking forward to the grind of training camp suggests he will indeed be on the field.
Eifert was held out of June minicamp (after being limited in May OTAs), as he continued to recover from surgery to address a herniated disc. It's worth noting that Eifert may have benefited from the additional rehab time between his most recent surgery and this preseason.
Still, his extensive injury history indicates he is at increased risk for missed time during the season. In fact, during a five-year NFL career, Eifert played his most games in a season (15) during his rookie campaign (2013). Since then, he has had one 13-game season (2015) and played a total of only 11 games during the remaining three seasons due to a variety of injuries (elbow, neck, concussion, ankle, knee and back). It would be a storybook season if Eifert can reverse his injury hardships and put together a full slate of games, but his history suggests it will be an uphill battle.
Here are some quick updates on a few other players who might appear on your fantasy football draft boards:
David Johnson, RB, Arizona Cardinals: A left wrist dislocation in Week 1 knocked Johnson out of the game for months; a lousy season for the Cardinals ensured that he remained out until 2018. The extra healing time was a plus for his wrist, and the injury should be in the rear-view mirror as camp opens.
Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers: A fractured collarbone on his right (throwing) side sent Rodgers to the operating room to have plates and screws inserted. Although he made a return appearance in Week 15, soreness in his shoulder (and the clarity of no postseason prospects) sent Rodgers to injured reserve to finish out the campaign. With an additional seven months of healing, he should be back to form during camp.
Jordan Reed, TE, Washington Redskins: Shoulder, hamstring and chest injuries sidelined Reed during the course of last season, but it was the toe ailment from training camp that sent him under the knife during the offseason. Expect Reed to take it slowly during camp and for it to be more likely than not that he misses time during the season. In four of his five seasons in the NFL, Reed has played in 12 games or fewer with the fewest (six) played in 2017. Talent? Absolutely. Health? Questionable.
Devonta Freeman, RB, Atlanta Falcons: Freeman played through a sprained MCL and PCL in his right knee late last season and has spent the bulk of the offseason rehabbing. As of May, he was able to run, cut and sprint and should get steadily stronger as the season approaches. Freeman has said the injury won't change his running style, but the knee issue, combined with two concussions in close proximity, reflect the physical toll he endures on the field. Whether he can maintain his physical style as he ages is the burning question.
Marlon Mack, RB, Indianapolis Colts: Mack underwent surgery this spring to repair a torn labrum, but he is expected to participate in camp, albeit while wearing a brace. Keep an eye on his ball-handling and willingness to engage in contact as he moves to participating in games.
Alshon Jeffery, WR, Philadelphia Eagles: Jeffery underwent a rotator cuff repair in his right shoulder in February after playing in all 16 games in 2017. He was held out of OTAs and minicamp and will likely be limited through training camp. Keep an eye on his progress as Week 1 approaches.
Julian Edelman, WR, New England Patriots: Edelman tore his ACL last preseason, so expectations were high all along for a Week 1 return in 2018. However, with a suspension to start the season, Edelman will not have a chance to debut until October, though there should be little doubt as to his readiness.
Hunter Henry, TE, Los Angeles Chargers: The table was set for this to be Henry's true breakthrough season ... but those plans will be on hold until 2019. Henry tore his right ACL in May during the team's first organized workout and underwent subsequent reconstructive surgery. Working in his favor are his youth, his work ethic and, above all, the timing. Henry will have more than a year of rehabbing and conditioning before the next NFL season, and if all goes well, who knows? By next year's training camp it may be hard to tell which knee had surgery.