The first few weeks of July are the deadest time of the NFL dead season — OTAs are over, players are on vacation, and coaching staffs are dispersed as everyone gets their last chance to relax and spend a little time with friends and family before training camp gets underway. At this time of year, we can’t even rely on all those trusty reports of players developing chemistry or moving up and down on the offseason depth chart to satisfy our football fix. For now, the only thing that matters for teams and their fans over the next few weeks — and the only thing that should really matter from now until the season kicks off — is for their star players to get healthy and stay healthy.
That seems to be especially true this year, with a sizable list of big-name guys coming off major injuries or offseason surgeries. Right now, there’s “no reason to be sullen or morose” about the prognoses for any of them, and whether we’re talking about Andrew Luck, J.J. Watt, Cam Newton, Derek Carr, Earl Thomas, or others, the outlooks are pretty uniformly rosy: Everyone’s “on target,” “on schedule,” “progressing nicely,” or “ready to go.”
But here’s the thing about the human body — it can be fickle. Jamaal Charles was a great example of this last season. The former Chiefs superstar and current Denver Broncos back looked poised for a comeback year after tearing his ACL the previous October. After light work in minicamps and OTAs, when he wrote in mid-July that “everything is going according to schedule,” there was little reason to doubt it. But when Kansas City’s training camp kicked off two weeks later, Charles was still on the sideline, and his comeback stalled. He didn’t play until Week 4, and appeared in just three games before suffering a torn meniscus — which required surgery and cost him the rest of the season.
Charles’s ordeal represents the exception and not the rule when it comes to most injuries these days, but it serves as a reminder that every injury is different, and there’s not always a linear timeline for recovery. So even though we’ve heard all the clichés from the league’s top players rehabbing to get back on the field in 2017, what can we expect for their teams if, for some reason, they don’t?
QB Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers
“Shoot, in two weeks, I’ll be ready to rock and roll.”
That’s from the former MVP himself in late June after he threw for the first time in nearly six months after undergoing surgery on his right rotator cuff. Though that session was limited to 45 short passes, if Newton is really “two weeks” out, he’ll have no problem hitting his stated goal of being ready to go when camp kicks off for Carolina on July 26.
But if Newton suffers a setback and isn’t ready when the season begins in September, Panthers fans will have to face the reality of running their much-anticipated Christian McCaffrey–boosted offense through Derek Anderson. The 13-year vet has been with the team since 2011 and has four starts with the franchise: two in 2014 and two in 2016, and the latter two probably shouldn’t inspire much confidence. Anderson finished 18-of-29 for 278 yards and three interceptions in those two games, and that third pick came on his first and only pass, after which he was promptly replaced (by Newton, who had been benched for a dress code violation). The Panthers lost both games, and if Newton does miss any time in 2017, more losses are likely to follow.
RB Le’Veon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers
“I’ll worry if he’s not here Week 1.”
That’s what Steelers defensive end Cam Heyward said when asked about Bell’s absence from Pittsburgh’s mandatory minicamp in mid-June. Bell had surgery on a groin injury in March and told ESPN at the time that he’d be ready for the workouts. But when he skipped out, it fueled speculation that either his rehab progress was slower than expected or that he was holding out for a long-term deal (he’s set to play on the franchise tag in 2017). A video showing Bell playing basketball that surfaced last week seems to dispel the former notion, but if the dynamic playmaker isn’t ready to go by the start of the season, the Steelers will find themselves in all-too-familiar territory.
Bell has missed 16 games over the past two seasons (including playoffs) due to various and sundry injuries and suspensions. The Steelers have gone 11–5 in those games, leaning instead on their downfield passing game and a quality backup running back in DeAngelo Williams. But Williams is now gone, leaving some combination of Fitzgerald Toussaint, Knile Davis, and rookie James Conner to fill any voids. None come close to matching Bell as a runner, nor does any other back on the roster possess Bell’s capability to line up all over the field and run routes as a pass catcher. In other words, Pittsburgh’s offense would be forced to take on a different identity if Bell is unable (or unwilling) to go Week 1.
QB Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts
“They don’t need to have any concerns about their quarterback. It’ll be all right.”
That was Luck’s message in mid-June to any worried fans, but there’s still plenty of uncertainty as to whether the Colts’ franchise signal-caller will be back on the field for Week 1 after undergoing surgery on his throwing shoulder in January. Head coach Chuck Pagano, for one, doesn’t seem quite as optimistic as Luck. “Am I hopeful? Am I praying? Yeah. But there is no timetable,” he said the same day.
Luck has missed 10 games over the past two seasons due to various injuries — nine in 2015 and one last season — and the Colts have compiled a 6–4 record in those games. But all six of those wins came two years ago and all but one came with an experienced veteran backup in Matt Hasselbeck. When current backup Scott Tolzien got the chance to start the one game Luck missed last year, things didn’t go nearly as well: The fourth-year pro out of Wisconsin completed 22 of 36 passes for 205 yards (just 5.7 yards per attempt), throwing one touchdown and two picks in a 28–7 loss to Pittsburgh. That’s probably pretty close to what Indianapolis’s future will look like if Luck is slow to get back on the field.
FS Earl Thomas, Seattle Seahawks
“I’m about 80 percent. I think my 80 percent is still faster than most of the guys out here.”
That’s as of a couple of weeks ago, per Thomas, and Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll said in early June that there’s “no question” the rangy safety would be ready for training camp after breaking his left leg in Week 13. The Seahawks better hope nothing changes with that prognosis: In a six-game stretch from Week 12 to Week 17 last season, when Thomas played just one quarter, Seattle’s defense dropped from fifth to 30th in defensive pass DVOA, per Football Outsiders. There are always many factors at play, but the bottom line is that when Thomas got hurt, the Seahawks went from one of the best pass defenses in the NFL to one of the worst.
Seattle grabbed an insurance policy over the offseason in free agent Bradley McDougald and drafted four defensive backs, but as last year proved, it’s not easy for Carroll to replace the All-Pro linchpin of his scheme. Without Thomas, Seattle’s defense is just not very good, and if he’s not out there on the field in 2017, the Seahawks’ odds for another NFC West title wouldn’t be very good either.
QB Derek Carr, Oakland Raiders
“I’m just playing ball again.”
That’s from Carr, who practiced fully for the Raiders in their mid-June minicamp after spending the last few months rehabbing from a broken fibula. The Raiders’ franchise quarterback admitted there were a few mental hurdles to clear when getting back onto the field, but with luck, there won’t be many physical obstacles from now until Week 1. We all got to see what a Carr-less Raiders team looks like last year: After he broke his fibula in Week 16, Oakland foundered and sank, losing its next two games — the regular-season finale and a wild-card matchup with the Texans — with a combination of Connor Cook and Matt McGloin at the helm.
If Carr suffers a setback, Oakland will rely on one of Cook or free agent acquisition and former first-rounder E.J. Manuel to carry the offense. Neither looks like a fun option, and Oakland’s defense doesn’t look strong enough to pick up the slack. The Raiders are simply not a playoff team in 2017 without their $125 million man.
DE J.J. Watt, Houston Texans
“I’m very happy with the way it’s responded. It feels great.”
That was Watt updating the status of his surgically repaired back on June 14 after he participated fully in Texans minicamp. It’s been a long time coming for the superstar pass rusher. After having surgery to repair a herniated disc in his back last July, Watt missed all of Houston’s 2016 preseason, then most of the regular season after reinjuring it against the Patriots in Week 3. That injury meant another surgery and another long rehab, though all indications are that the three-time Defensive Player of the Year will be fully healthy once training camp rolls around. But back injuries can be tricky and are prone to reaggravation, especially for a player like Watt, whose game is based on brute physicality and explosive movement.
With a healthy Watt, the Texans could field one of the most dominant defensive groups in the game. But if he were suffer a setback, Houston’s defense has the talent to adapt: With Watt on the shelf for most of last year, the Texans still finished seventh in defensive DVOA and 11th in points per game.
QB Marcus Mariota, Tennessee Titans
“I feel like I could be out there right now.”
So said Mariota after the Titans’ minicamp in mid-June. The third-year pro has yet to be a full go in practice as he comes back from a broken fibula suffered in Week 16, but he has participated in seven-on-seven drills, individual work, and walk-throughs during Tennessee’s offseason activities. Mariota’s goal is to be ready by the start of training camp later in the month — but what happens if something goes wrong? The Titans have played without the former second-overall pick five times in two seasons; they lost all four without Mariota in 2015, but won their only game without him last year, a meaningless 24–17 win over the Texans in which backup Matt Cassel completed 16 of 26 passes for 150 yards, one touchdown, and one interception.
Cassel remains Tennessee’s backup — he re-signed on a two-year, $5.25 million deal — but without Mariota, the Titans would quickly lose much hope of making the playoffs for the first time since 2008.
TE Rob Gronkowski, New England Patriots
“I’m 100 percent. Good to go.”
That was Gronk in early June — confirmation that the big tight end is back to practicing without pain after undergoing surgery for a herniated disc in his back in December. All indications show that Tom Brady’s favorite target will be back out on the field for the Patriots come September, and that’d be very good news for a New England team that looks poised to make another Super Bowl run.
But like Watt, Gronk’s history of back injuries means the term “healthy” is always going to be tenuous, at best. In addition to three back surgeries, Gronkowski has been sidelined with hamstring, chest, knee, forearm, and head injuries at different points in his career. Brady and Co. can survive without the All-Pro tight end — they won a Super Bowl last season without him in the lineup over the final five weeks and three playoff games — but they’re certainly better with him out there catching touchdowns.
QB Ryan Tannehill, Miami Dolphins
“He looks normal to me.”
That’s from Dolphins head coach Adam Gase, referring to the apparent lack of any lingering issues Tannehill may have been experiencing from a sprained MCL and ACL. Tannehill missed the final three weeks of the season and the Dolphins’ wild-card playoff loss to the Steelers with that injury, but by all reports he’s put it behind him. That’s a big plus for the Dolphins.
But say Tannehill’s injury acts up — what would that mean for a team that finished 10–6 last season and still has the best chance of any AFC East team to dethrone the Patriots in 2017? Well, with a solid foundational run game built around Jay Ajayi and an above-average backup quarterback in Matt Moore, the Dolphins have the pieces in place to at least compete if their franchise passer is unavailable to start the year.