Even in the season openers, health is a major issue
Injuries can change the course of a team’s season before it even starts. These 10 big-name players are either out for Week 1 or getting ready to come back, and their status will have a lot to do with what happens in the season openers.
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Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Vikings (knee)
The Vikings have already made the big move to address Bridgewater’s season-long absence -- sending draft picks to the Eagles for Sam Bradford -- but that absence will be the biggest issue in Week 1, given that Minnesota hasn’t yet decided whether career journeyman Shaun Hill or Bradford will start Sunday against the Titans. The Vikings need Bradford to be ready now because this is a game they can’t afford to lose. With the Packers and Panthers up next, a loss to Tennessee could make an 0-3 start a real possibility. And an 0-3 start would make the decision to give up draft picks for Bradford look like a really bad move.
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Tony Romo, QB, Cowboys (back)
Before Bridgewater left Vikings practice in an ambulance, Romo’s broken back was the most devastating injury of the preseason. He's out indefinitely even though the team didn't place him on IR, and that would seem like a huge problem for a squad that went 1-11 without him last season. But Dallas gained a (false?) sense of security when rookie Dak Prescott completed 39 of 50 passes for 454 yards with five touchdowns in the preseason. The Giants spent $200 million upgrading their defense this offseason, so there’s a real possibility that Prescott, a fourth-round pick, might not look quite so good Sunday.
Jimmy Graham, TE, Seattle Seahawks (knee)
Graham was expected to take Seattle’s offense to the next level last season after arriving in a blockbuster trade with the Saints, but he was spotty in 11 games before suffering a season-ending patellar tendon injury in Week 11. His return from offseason surgery is on schedule, but it’s unclear whether that schedule will include his playing in Week 1 against the Dolphins after he missed the entire preseason. Seattle kept three other tight ends on its final roster, but it sure would be nice to have Graham playing against a Miami defense that ranked 20th in the NFL in pass defense lasts season.
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Jordy Nelson, WR, Packers (knee)
Nelson tore his ACL during Week 2 of the 2015 preseason and hasn’t seen live action on an NFL field since. The Packers’ offense fell apart without their No. 1 receiver last season, and a “hiccup” in Nelson’s other knee kept him off the field this preseason. Coach Mike McCarthy said Monday that Nelson would be “full bore” for Sunday’s opener against the Jaguars, but it’s fair to wonder whether the now-31-year-old will play anywhere near the same level that allowed him to post career highs of 98 catches for 1,519 yards in 2014. If the Packers’ offense doesn’t look considerably different in Week 1 than it did last season, it’ll be tough to take them seriously as the Super Bowl candidates nearly everyone thinks they are.
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Carson Wentz, QB, Eagles (ribs)
Wentz has had a roller-coaster offseason before even taking his first NFL snap. He flew up draft boards in the spring on the strength of a ridiculous pro day, to the point where the Eagles traded up to grab him with the No. 2 overall pick even though they had already re-signed starter Sam Bradford and added backup Chase Daniel in free agency. Wentz suffered fractured ribs in the preseason opener and seemed like a lock to start the season as the team’s No. 3 quarterback – right until Philadelphia traded Bradford to the Vikings on Saturday. Daniel struggled in the preseason while Wentz was healing, and now Wentz is the Week 1 starter. Fortunately for the rookie, he gets to ease into his NFL career against Cleveland in Week 1 and Chicago in Week 2. One problem: A CT scan last week revealed that Wentz’s ribs weren’t fully healed at the time. The team says he’s 100 percent now, but putting a rookie on the field with so little time to prepare is a big gamble.
Benjamin Watson, TE, Baltimore Ravens (Achilles’)
Baltimore was hoping to have the best group of tight ends in the league, but it certainly hasn’t worked out that way. Watson, signed after a career season with the Saints, tore his Achilles’ in the preseason. Dennis Pitta (finger) and Maxx Williams (undisclosed) both returned to practice just Saturday. Pitta was Baltimore’s starting tight end in 2011 and 2012, but hip injuries have limited him to seven games in the past three seasons. Williams caught 32 passes as a rookie but has yet to prove he was worth a second-round pick. Nate Boyle and Darren Waller will begin the season serving suspensions, so all this leaves Crockett Gillmore, who started 10 games last season, as the presumptive No. 1 option. Baltimore will have quarterback Joe Flacco (ACL) back when it opens the season against Buffalo, but perhaps the most important position in coach John Harbaugh’s offense doesn’t appear ready to go.
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Jamaal Charles, RB, Chiefs (knee)
Charles’ 2015 season ended with a torn ACL in Week 5, and Kansas City has been taking it slow with the four-time Pro Bowl selection given that it went 10-1 after losing its start running back. Charles said he was “full-go” last week, but Chiefs coach Andy Reid told reporters Monday that Charles is a stretch to play in Sunday’s opener against the Chargers. KC kept three running backs – Spencer Ware, Charcandrick West and Knile Davis – on the roster in case Charles can’t go, and the Chiefs had little trouble running the ball against San Diego in two wins last year. Ware had 11 carries for 96 yards in Week 11 and West and Ware combined for 18 carries for 106 yards in Week 14. There seems to be little reason to force the issue with Charles on Sunday.
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Vontae Davis, CB, Colts (ankle)
Davis has been week-to-week since mid-August with a severe ankle sprain, and it’s starting to seem unlikely the two-time Pro Bowl selection will be ready for Sunday’s opener against the Lions. No. 2 corner Patrick Robinson (hamstring) has been hurting as well, which isn’t a good situation to be in against Lions quarterback Matt Stafford, even if Calvin Johnson no longer is around. The Colts started 0-2 last year and never recovered, and with defending Super Bowl champion Denver on the schedule in Week 2 there’s little room for error against the Lions.
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J.J. Watt, DE, Texans (back)
Watt got a six- to eight-week recovery timeline when he underwent surgery July 20 to repair a herniated disc in his back, but he reportedly is ready to play in Week 1 against the Bears. That’s big news for the Texans, who had a less-than-full-strength Watt when he was playing with torn core muscles for much of last season. Houston started 1-4 in 2015, and a healthy Watt will go a long way toward making sure the defense is the strength of the team while new quarterback Brock Osweiler gets up to speed.
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Tyler Eifert, TE, Bengals (ankle)
Eifert had a breakthrough season in 2015, hauling in 52 receptions for 615 yards and a ridiculous 13 touchdowns before injuring his ankle in the Pro Bowl. He’s not yet fully recovered from offseason surgery and as of Monday wasn’t cleared to practice for the Week 1 opener against the Jets. Tyler Kroft, a 2015 third-round pick, was supposed to bridge the gap until Eifert got healthy, but he hurt his knee in practice on Aug. 2 and just returned to workouts last weekend. It seems almost certain that the Bengals won’t be anywhere near full strength at a position that was key in helping them to a 12-4 record in 2015.