What to expect from six key NFL Draft prospects who are returning from injury
By Dr. Matt Provencher
FOX Sports Injury & Performance Analyst
One of the key things teams are evaluating as they prepare for the NFL Draft – which begins Thursday – is player health.
After all, if you’re going to invest millions of dollars in a prospect, you’d better make sure you’re going to receive a level of performance to match. And in a sport as physical as football, player health is of the utmost importance.
With that in mind, let’s look at six key draft prospects who have dealt with injuries, examine what they went through to get back on the field and offer a prognosis for what we can expect in future performance.
- Right high ankle fracture on Oct. 24, 2020. Had surgery the same night.
- Returned for the national championship game on Jan. 11, 2021, and recorded three catches for 34 yards. Did not return kicks in the title game.
Prognosis: Speed and cutting ability are huge parts of Waddle’s game, and a high ankle/ankle fracture is not something you want to see. But these can be fixed with strong surgical techniques that allow players to come back and play at a high level.
Waddle was averaging more than 22 yards per catch in his first four games before the injury last season, and he did not look like the same player when he returned for the national championship game. That’s to be expected. This injury could affect him in his first few games in the NFL as well, as he gets used to the ankle and how it feels at game speed, but this should be temporary.
Some have compared Waddle to Odell Beckham Jr. In 2017, Beckham suffered a left ankle fracture. When he returned in 2018, his performance did not suffer, as he averaged 6.4 receptions and 87.7 receiving yards per game.
Summary: I don’t think this injury will affect Waddle’s career. He will face an adjustment period in his first few NFL games, but in the long run, this will not be an issue, and he will excel.
- Non-contact ACL tear on Aug. 2, 2017. Underwent ACL reconstruction.
- Back spasms in November 2019. Missed the final two games of the season.
- Had back surgery on L5 but elected to let S1 heal on its own (original injury happened during a deadlift exercise).
- Opted out of the 2020 season because of COVID-19 and family illness.
- Reaggravated S1 and had microdiscectomy (procedure for disc herniation in S1) in March. Missed potential pro day workouts.
Prognosis: Farley recovered well from his knee surgery and returned to play at a high level. The back issues are a greater concern, as those can be tough in football, especially when they are cumulative. Farley can come back strong, but if the back acts up and he needs another procedure, we are looking at a bigger issue that could cut his career short.
Player safety is of course the most important thing, and this can become a concern, as additive injuries can diminish performance over time.
In the NFL, players in the secondary with 50% or greater snap percentage prior to a back injury see a general decline in snap percentage in their first seasons back.
Summary: With an ACL surgery plus multiple back surgeries, there will likely be a decline in Farley’s performance in his first 24 months. Performance and snap percentage should both improve from Year 1 to Year 2, however.
- Undisclosed lower-body injury on Sept. 14, 2019. Missed three games.
- Contact ACL tear on Sept. 26, 2020. Collided with a teammate pregame. Underwent ACL reconstruction.
Prognosis: ACLs can be a challenge to recover from, and it takes about nine months to return to NFL activities. With successful surgery, dedication to rehab and hard work, an NFL player can return and play at a high level, which usually normalizes for his position by the second or third year back.
You also have to take into account a player’s mental state because the player needs to trust the reconstruction before he can play at his highest level. After one ACL reconstruction, a player can be susceptible to retears, contralateral tears and muscle imbalance.
NFL players in the secondary usually see a decline in snap percentage in their first seasons back from ACL injury, with things improving but often still not reaching a baseline NFL level by the second year. Rookies will typically see an overall decline in the first two years.
Summary: Cisco will have a solid NFL career, but we should expect to see about a 35% decline in his first year back and a 10-12% decline in the second year. By Year 3, he should be back to a baseline level or even better.
Landon Dickerson, Center, Alabama
- Right ACL tear in November 2016. Underwent ACL reconstruction.
- Right ankle injury on Oct. 7, 2017. Underwent ankle surgery on Oct. 13, 2017. Used medical redshirt.
- Sprained ankle on Sept. 3, 2018.
- Right ACL tear on Dec. 19, 2020. Underwent ACL reconstruction.
Prognosis: The second ACL surgery on the right knee is certainly a concern for a grinder such as Dickerson. Whichever team drafts him will have to look hard at his MRIs and medical testing. I would really analyze the imaging and do a lot of muscle testing following some great rehabilitation.
Bracing will of course be a must, and there are some new ACL braces that could be looked at for him, but his team's need for him to be strong and get dirty in the trenches will put him at higher risk of reinjury.
I have no doubt that Dickerson can be a great player, but his body needs to hold up, and his history makes it seem like that might be difficult down the road.
Summary: Dickerson still needs about nine months to heal from his latest ACL procedure, perhaps longer because it is revision surgery. He will likely have a decreased snap percentage by about 20-30% in his first year back.
- Torn Achilles during pre-draft training in January 2021.
Prognosis: Odeyingbo had been projected to be drafted in the first or second round. Unfortunately, he’ll go lower now. A torn Achilles is an injury that warrants dropping in the draft and makes him a toss-up at the next level. This is not like a high ankle injury or a broken bone. There is a lot of force placed on these guys when they weigh 240-plus pounds and go up against guys who might weigh even more than that.
Players often don’t return with the same explosiveness after this procedure, and they can have issues with strength deficits in the injured leg. At the end of the day, Odeyingbo can still be a good player in the NFL, but his injury is definitely a big risk for whichever team drafts him.
In the NFL, linebackers at a 50% or greater snap percentage before an Achilles injury usually see a decline in snap percentage their first seasons back.
Summary: An Achilles typically takes seven-to-nine months to heal. Even once Odeyingbo returns, his team can expect declines in both snap percentage and performance in the first year back. Those typically return to normal by Year 2. At the end of the day, coming back from this type of injury while moving up to the highest level of football will be a very big undertaking for Odeyingbo.
- Season-ending knee injury on Aug. 31, 2019. Missed almost all of the 2019 season.
- Opted out of the 2020 season.
Prognosis: We don’t know exactly what Little's knee injury was, but for it to end his season, it must have been pretty substantial. Some are also worried because he then opted out of the 2020 season, which means there is less tape on him.
In my opinion, though, this might have been a really smart move on his part. Taking the year off to rehab and get stronger probably helped him to gain confidence and heal the injury. He should be ready to go. Although we don’t know exactly what his surgery entailed, there really isn’t a knee injury outside of dislocation from which he wouldn’t be ready to come back in fighting shape.
Summary: It’s hard to say exactly what Little’s future will hold, given that we don’t know much about his injury, but it seems likely that he won’t be at quite the level once expected.
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