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NFL Draft History of Injuries: A Brief Survey

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Let’s look at how some players with pre-draft injury concerns panned out in the NFL...

NCAA Football: Fiesta Bowl-Ohio State vs Clemson Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

One of the most difficult dilemmas facing NFL talent evaluators is weighing a player’s abilities on the field against their risk of suffering a serious injury.

It’s an over-used phrase this time of year, but the best ability is availability, and the reason we hear that so often is because it carries a lot of truth. The best player in the world can’t help his team win if he can’t get on the field.

Update (3:32pm PST): I should clarify that the below is meant to be an informative review of a handful of draft prospects that have entered the draft with injury flags. It is by no means meant to draw any definitive conclusions about players with medical concerns. This is just an interesting review of recent history... take what you will from the below information and leave the rest. It is a resource - a place to start when beginning to evaluate a player’s injury considerations for determining their draft value...

The 2017 NFL Draft

The number of prospects with injury concerns entering the 2017 NFL draft is staggering. The below table includes a number players who are generally considered first- or second-round “talents” with legitimate injury concerns (I might have even left a couple guys off)...

2017 NFL Draft Injuries.csv

POS. PLAYER SCHOOL INJURY / CONCERN
POS. PLAYER SCHOOL INJURY / CONCERN
DL Jonathan Allen Alabama Shoulder arthritis / long term effects
CB Marshon Lattimore Ohio State Multiple hamstring injuries
WR John Ross Washington Multiple knee surgeries, labrum tear
CB Sidney Jones Washington Torn achilles
S Malik Hooker Ohio State Torn labrum, hernia
ILB Reuben Foster Alabama Torn rotator cuff surgery
WR Corey Davis Western Michigan Ankle surgery
WR Mike Williams Clemson Neck surgery
DE / OLB Takkarist McKinley UCLA Torn labrum, broken glenoid
RB Dalvin Cook Florida State Shoulder injuries
S Eddie Jackson Alabama Broken leg
RB Leonard Fournette LSU Chronic ankle injuries
OT Ryan Ramcyzk Wisconsin Torn labrum
CB Fabian Moreau UCLA Torn pectoral
TE Jake Butt Michigan 2 ACL tears

With injuries plaguing so many of this year’s top draft prospects, I was curious about how the careers of players with pre-draft injury histories have turned out, so I decided to dig back in time a bit...

This article is not intended to look at how prospects panned out from a player caliber/skills perspective but instead attempts to focus more on how the injury histories with which each player entered the NFL draft manifested themselves in the league.

Disclaimers

It doesn’t serve our purposes to look at very specific cases, such as Marcus Lattimore’s knee or D.J. Hayden’s life-threatening heart condition. Instead, we’ll take a look at a few of the more high-profile prospects who entered the draft with traditional injury concerns over the past several years, dating back to 2010.

NOTE: I’ve excluded the draft classes of 2015 and 2016, as I don’t believe we’ve seen enough of their careers to know if injury problems have followed them to the NFL.

And the most important disclaimer of all... This is the NFL. It is a very violent sport. Players get hurt. Some of the current best players in the NFL have substantial injury histories. Von Miller, Tom Brady, and Adrian Peterson have each torn an ACL. Julio Jones and A.J. Green are often banged up. Ben Roethlisberger only averages 14 games played per season. Simply put, streaks like Eli Manning’s do not come around very often.

So while I look at the NFL injury histories of the below players, it’s important to note that almost every player in the NFL will get hurt at some point in their career. I’m looking for the types of players with such significant durability concerns that their scouting reports pointed out their injury histories, and then I’m seeing how they fared health-wise in the NFL.

Players

So without further ado, let’s travel through recent history and investigate how some injury-prone college prospects have fared in the NFL...

  • Sam Bradford, QB, Oklahoma - Shoulder

Although expected to be the #1 overall pick, Bradford entered the NFL draft with injury concerns that had many wondering if he would drop.

From a 2010 Bleacher Report draft profile on Bradford:

He suffered two injuries during the 2009 season, and considering they have to do with his shoulders, it raises some question marks. Add in the fact that these aren't necessarily "minor" injuries and that surgery was involved, and Bradford suddenly becomes a huge risk to a lot of NFL GM's.

Of course, he did not slide, going first overall, and even played well enough to win Offensive Rookie of the Year.

Alas, Bradford couldn’t outrun his injury history forever. Since 2011, Bradford has dealt with a number of debilitating injuries, including a severe high ankle sprain and two ACL tears to the same knee. Some would argue he was never able to develop as a passer because of his significant and frequent injuries.

  • Rob Gronkowski, TE, Arizona - Back

Rob Gronkowski’s name was thrown around as a sure-fire first-rounder/potential top-10 pick during his 2008 college season. However, a major back surgery pushed his value way down.

From his NFL.com draft profile:

Durability concerns since he missed the entire 2009 season after back surgery and missed three games in 2008.

Gronkowski has thus far been the type of player who can completely dominate a game when he’s healthy, but that health has not been a given. Along with continued back ailments, Gronkowski has endured an extensive injury history since his arrival in New England.

  • Da’Quan Bowers, DE, Clemson - Knee

Bowers was thought of as a possible top-5 pick by some until he had knee surgery before the draft. During his medical checks at the combine, his knee was flagged as a “possible problem” down the road.

Bowers went on to tear his achilles during his second NFL offseason. He has been oft-injured and under-productive during his career. He’s now an unsigned free agent. It wasn’t all injuries that ruined his development, but they certainly played a role.

  • Ladarius Green, TE, Louisiana-Lafayette - Many minor, varying injuries

Was cited as an injury risk due to multiple varying injuries throughout his college career. His NFL career has been derailed by injuries (and a future Hall-of-Famer ahead of him on the depth chart) thus far.

  • Robert Griffin III, QB, Baylor

RGIII entered the draft with extremely high expectations, but also modest injury concerns. From a 2012 Bleacher Report article:

A lot of attention has been paid to the explosiveness of Robert Griffin III, and rightfully so. However, there hasn't been enough focus on his injury history. During his career, he missed time because of an ACL injury and concussion-like symptoms.

While his career got off to a promising start, ultimately it was multiple knee injuries that led to the downturn his career has taken since his rookie campaign. Perhaps these concerns should’ve been taken more seriously before Griffin was made the 2nd overall pick in the draft.

  • Kyle Rudolph, TE, Notre Dame - Hamstring

Finally, a hamstring problem! I’ve been looking all over for a player like this...

Rudolph was the best tight end prospect in a weak 2011 class, and the Vikings made him the first tight end selected towards the back half of the 2nd round.

Rudolph only played in 6 games his final year at Notre Dame due to a season-ending hamstring injury. After surgery to repair two of the three major tendons that connect the hamstring to the hip, Rudolph spent three months in rehab with team doctors at Notre Dame before starting to train for the NFL draft circuit.

Despite the major hamstring injury in college, Rudolph has for the most part managed to avoid injuries in the NFL. An unrelated foot injury cut short his 2013 season, and a hernia ended his 2014 campaign, but those fluke injuries are the only blemishes on an otherwise-healthy NFL resume.

  • DeMarco Murray, RB, Oklahoma - Ankles, Shoulders

Murray’s violent running style in college left him susceptible to minor injuries throughout his career, and NFL.com’s draft profile notes that Murray “struggled to stay on the field.” There was fear that this would continue into the NFL, and for the early part of Murray’s career, it did. Murray’s first few seasons in Dallas were cut short by injuries. He has only played 16 games twice in his six-year career, including last season, half of which he played on an injured toe. He has spent the better part of the last four seasons healthier-than-not, but I wouldn’t say he avoided the injury concerns surrounding his draft stock.

  • Eddie Lacy, RB, Alabama - Hamstring, ankle, foot

Widely regarded as the top running back in the 2013 class, Lacy was expected to be a first or second rounder, but due to injuries, he wasn’t drafted by the Packers until very late in the 2nd round.

Lacy suffered a partial hamstring tear while training for the combine and didn’t work out at all prior to the draft. He also had other injury concerns in college, such as turf toe problems and a history of ankle injuries.

Lacy’s first two seasons in the NFL were mostly injury-free, outside of a couple of concussions, and he even won Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2013. His last two seasons, however, have featured a little more James Starks than the Packers probably would’ve liked. While not related to Lacy’s hamstring problem in particular, he has dealt with his fair share of injuries and other well-documented weight control problems.

  • Jason Verrett, CB, TCU - Torn labrum.

Projected as a late-first / early-second rounder who underwent shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum in March before the draft. Chargers took him late in the first round.

Verrett went on to injure his shoulder again as a rookie, though the injury was supposedly unrelated to his previous labrum tear. He tried to play through it but was shut down after 8 games. He played a promising 2015 season, making the Pro Bowl as an alternate, and was having a great 2016 until he tore his ACL.

From his NFL.com Draft Profile:

“Durability is an issue -- struggles to stay healthy and is not built to endure the physical toll of the NFL, particularly as a starter.”

Verrett has only been in the league for three seasons, but two of them have ended much earlier than planned. He could be stuck with the “injury prone” label, and his college injury history certainly signaled that possible future.

  • Dominique Easley, DT, Florida - Multiple ACL surgeries.

Projected as a mid-to-late first round pick, Easley was drafted by the Patriots in the first round. He suffered two ACL tears in college, though his knee problems have yet to plague him in the NFL. However, during his second season, he was placed on IR for a thigh injury. The Patriots released him the following offseason for unknown reasons. I wouldn’t say his injury problems directly led to his release, but there was undoubtedly some relation.

From his NFL.com Draft Profile:

“Durability is a concern -- both knees have required ACL surgery.”

ACL tears are almost never a “recurring” problem, but it’s always fair to wonder how an athlete will return from such a surgery and rehab program. Word out of Patriots camp was that Easley didn’t work hard enough rehabbing his injuries.

When evaluating players with similar injury histories in this year’s class (hello, John Ross), it’s important to note that Easley was able to return healthy from the ACLs. John Ross also returned healthy from his ACLs. Therefore, the work ethic and attitude evaluation of John Ross will be a critical component in determining if injuries will totally derail Ross’s career. (For the record, I don’t anticipate this being the case).

A Few More Disclaimers

This list does not bode well for the prospects with true durability concerns.

From a purely “can he stay on the field” viewpoint, the players I would be most weary of drafting are John Ross and Marshon Lattimore.

Just looking at the list I’ve compiled above (off of which I’m sure I left many names), it seems that when there are concerns over a player’s smaller stature and ability to stay on the field, for the most part, those concerns come to fruition in the NFL.

There’s a reason Myles Jack - a perceived “top five talent” - fell all the way to the 2nd round. There’s a reason some mock drafts have John Ross out of the first round, and have Jonathan Allen tumbling past the teens. GM’s don’t want to risk their careers - likely their only chance to be an NFL General Manger - on a player who might never play, or one that will miss significant time every year.

Every once in a while, a Rob Gronkowski comes along - a player who doesn’t stay on the field near as much as you would like, but who is worth the consistent risk of re-injury due to their unstoppable on-field abilities. I would put Julio Jones in this category, as well.

Is John Ross going to impact a game like Julio Jones? Because he has to reach that level to be worth a first round pick... if he ends up having trouble staying healthy at the next level.

Now, of course, there are players who become more “injury prone” in the NFL without ever displaying signs of it in college. Guys like Sammy Watkins and Jadeveon Clowney have dealt with various nagging injuries seemingly since they entered the league with relatively minor college injury histories, and no concerns that prevented their top-four (or first overall, in Clowney’s case) draft status.

Then there are the Dante Fowler, Jr.’s, of the world - guys who’ve never been injured a day in their lives but their first day of practice, they tear an ACL and have to miss the whole season. And just like that, the Jaguars lost their number 3 overall pick.

Final Conclusion(s)

The NFL draft is kind of like gambling. There’s a certain amount of information you know for sure, there’s lots of information you try to gather by reading your opponents and using deception and strategy to gain an advantage, and then there’s the mathematical probability aspect.

It’s usually not smart to go all-in with the hopes that you’ll hit an inside-straight-draw on the river. Sure, you may get the card you need, but chances are you’re going to lose the hand.

I think drafting a player with legitimate injury concerns is the same type of gamble. Sure, every once in a while, a player will enjoy a relatively healthy career and make all the so-called ‘experts’ forget about their college injury history. It certainly happened with Willis McGahee. Or else they become Julio Jones, as mentioned already above.

But more likely than not, they are going to flash the brilliant talent that got them drafted in the first place but spend most of their careers on the sidelines. It is a sad reality we must accept when evaluating these guys. The fact of the matter is that only a handful will go on to be truly great players, and while it sucks, some of these players will never get their careers going because of injury. Drafting one of those players would be a stroke of bad fortune.

Obviously, we don’t wish injury on any player, especially during this run up to the draft where we look at all the great things these prospects have the potential to accomplish in the NFL. It’s easy to fall in love with a prospect’s on-field abilities and forget that in order for those on-field abilities to translate, they have to be, well, on the field.

Now of course, I’m not saying Marshon Lattimore’s career will be derailed by hamstring problems (as a matter of fact, I had a really hard time finding Internet documentation regarding players with perceived hamstring problems entering the draft).

(Plenty of players had minor hamstring strains suffered working out at either the combine or their pro days, but none that were considered significant hamstring injuries the way Lattimore’s are. For instance, Justin Blackmon suffered a minor hamstring pull at the combine, but that didn’t stop him from being drafted in the top 5 (by Mike Mularkey, I might add).)

What even is a “legitimate injury concern” versus a “minor” problem? That’s for the Tennessee Titans medical staff to evaluate. At the end of the day, all they can do is say if they think a player is any more or less likely to get hurt than any other player based on pre-existing medical flags.

So while anyone can get hurt, I think it is more practical to avoid the higher-risk players who have shown that they are susceptible to injury.

I don’t envy the NFL decision-makers who have to decide how valuable these players are. If it were up to me, I don’t think I would take the risk on a player like Lattimore at number 5 overall... or John Ross at number 18, even though I really do love both players as prospects.

Then again, they might be worth it. That’s the fun of the NFL draft!

What do you think? Is it worth the gamble in the event that we get a super star?

Mostly, I want your help - who did I forget to include above??