The NFL season is a battle of attrition, and the teams that win—both in the real world and in fantasy football—not only feature superior talent but get plenty of luck on the injury front, too. The past two weeks have been rough for many teams, with a shocking succession of key players suffering significant multiweek injuries and season-enders. These setbacks have left teams scrambling to fill voids, and more than a few are already having to test the limits of their depth at multiple positions.
How do teams adapt and account for the losses of important players? It’s not always going to be simple—or even possible—and some are better set up to ride out the storm than others. Here are the injury situations to keep an eye on.
Pass Rushers J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus, Texans
The Texans defense came into the team’s Week 5 matchup with the Chiefs ranked fourth in Football Outsiders DVOA, surrendering an average of 22 points per game (17th). The Texans had given up 784 passing yards (ninth), an opponent completion percentage of just 59.5 (seventh), and an opponent passer rating of 86.3 (12th). Losing two of their most important pass rushers in Watt (tibial plateau fracture) and Mercilus (torn pectoral) to season-ending injuries certainly didn’t help their case Sunday night against Kansas City, when they lost 42-34, and it’s going to be just about impossible for Houston to replace both going forward.
Last year when Watt went down, Mercilus stepped up alongside Jadeveon Clowney to carry a big part of the load and keep the Texans defense competitive. This year with both Watt and Mercilus gone, the team will have to dig a whole lot deeper and spread the responsibility out among linebackers Dylan Cole, Zach Cunningham, and Brennan Scarlett and defensive ends Christian Covington and Joel Heath. Expect the drop-off in effectiveness to be significant. Houston’s defensive depth was already diminished when it lost cornerback A.J. Bouye to free agency in the offseason and linebacker Brian Cushing to a 10-game suspension, and, as a unit, it’s bound to regress.
A step back on defense would put more pressure on the offense to produce. Rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson has already exploded for 12 passing touchdowns on the year—more than any rookie in his team’s first five games ever—and while you’d normally expect a ton of regression from a hot start like that, Houston’s current predicament on defense combined with Watson’s incredible knack for big plays may create a situation where the Texans are in back-and-forth, high-scoring games week after week. Watson thrived in those types of games in college, and, so far, he has flourished in the pros as well. Receiver DeAndre Hopkins should be the main beneficiary of an increased urgency on offense, and if Will Fuller’s first two games back from injury are any indication (six catches for 92 yards and four touchdowns), he’s going to get plenty of downfield targets as well.
Tight End Charles Clay and Receiver Jordan Matthews, Bills
Poor, poor Tyrod Taylor. Not only did Buffalo force Taylor to take a pay cut coming into the year, but the team then immediately set him up to fail by letting most of last year’s receiver corps (Marquise Goodwin, Robert Woods, Justin Hunter) go in free agency before trading away the team’s last good downfield threat in Sammy Watkins. When the dust settled, Taylor’s top two targets were the newly acquired Jordan Matthews (from Philadelphia) and the steady veteran tight end Charles Clay. A predictable implosion of Buffalo’s passing attack followed.
Taylor has been efficient enough over the team’s first five games, throwing six touchdowns and just two interceptions, but he’s been anything but prolific with his arm, averaging just 6.69 yards per attempt and 182 passing yards per game. Per ESPN Stats and Information, Bills receivers as a group have averaged just 4.8 receptions and 63.2 yards per game, both league-worst marks this season (and worse than any team dating back to 2011).
A lack of a downfield threat has created a snowball effect for the offense as a whole, and the Bills are currently tied for 23rd with the winless 49ers in points per game (17.8). Without many weapons to throw to, Taylor hasn’t posed much of a threat to opposing defenses, and without that threat through the air, teams have loaded up to stuff Buffalo’s rushing attack, which currently ranks 27th in yards per carry (3.4) after leading the league in 2016 (5.3). Oh, and now both Matthews (thumb) and Clay (torn meniscus) are both injured and out indefinitely.
The Bills defense is going to keep the team in most games, but outside of LeSean McCoy, they have an almost unbelievable shortage of playmakers. Buffalo heads into its bye week with a receiver corps consisting of rookie Zay Jones (who has just five catches on 23 targets this year), third-year receiver Kaelin Clay (who’s on his fifth team, and has one career reception), Andre Holmes (who is 29 years old and has caught six passes this year), and Brandon Tate (who is mostly a returner). At tight end, the team will rely on Nick O’Leary (17 receptions in three seasons) and former quarterback Logan Thomas (one career catch). That’s … that’s about it.
It’s hard to expect much from the Bills’ passing game until Mathews and/or Clay returns (and even then, the outlook is grim), and while the team has ridden its defensive renaissance to a tie for the top spot in the division so far, the offense is likely to continue to struggle. Don’t bet on Jones, Clay, Holmes, or O’Leary to post big numbers.
Running Back Dalvin Cook, Vikings
Just when it looked like the Vikings offense was starting to fire on all cylinders, Minnesota lost one of its key playmakers in Cook when the rookie sensation out of Florida State tore his ACL. Cook had quickly emerged as a foundational playmaker out of the backfield for the Vikings, so replacing him will be a tall task. Minnesota has plenty of depth at running back, with recent free-agent acquisition Latavius Murray and third-year pro Jerick McKinnon waiting in the wings, but both represent a big step down from what Cook had shown the first four weeks of the season. Neither McKinnon nor Murray offers the same type of burst, agility, and tackle-breaking ability in the open field as Cook, and neither is as versatile in the passing game (Cook was excellent in pass protection and explosive in the open field) as the rookie they back up.
But both should get plenty of chances to pick up some of Cook’s slack. It seems logical that Murray is a candidate for early-down and goal-line duties, while McKinnon will get the passing-down and third-down roles. Don’t be surprised if play-caller Pat Shurmur tries to ride the hot hand throughout the rest of the season.
Receivers Odell Beckham Jr., Brandon Marshall, Sterling Shepard, and Dwayne Harris, Giants
The 0-5 Giants are all but eliminated from the playoffs, but losing Beckham for the rest of the year to a fractured left ankle is still devastating for football fans everywhere; there’s just about no one more exciting to watch run routes on Sundays. Making matters worse for New York’s receiver corps: The team has also lost Dwayne Harris for the year with a broken foot, Brandon Marshall is out for the year with an ankle injury, and Sterling Shepard is day-to-day with a sprained ankle. That means that if Shepard misses any time, the Giants could be looking at a three-receiver set this week and beyond that features Roger Lewis Jr., Tavarres King, and Travis Rudolph, with the latter two being recent call-ups from the practice squad. The good news is that the Giants travel to Denver to take on the Broncos defense this week. Wait, that’s not good news, that’s terrible news.
As Denver’s trio of shutdown cornerbacks blanket the Giants’ inexperienced pass-catching crew, expect head coach Ben McAdoo and quarterback Eli Manning to funnel targets to rookie tight end Evan Engram and resident air back Shane Vereen, who might see an increased workload in the passing game. Past that, the team should hope that it can reproduce the rushing attack that finished with 152 yards on 6.1 per carry against the Chargers last week. With Paul Perkins sidelined (rib), expect Orleans Darkwa and rookie Wayne Gallman to battle for carries; both could rack up numbers down the stretch purely because the Giants may not have many other options.
Running Backs Chris Carson and C.J. Prosise, Seahawks
The Seahawks’ run game had finally started to show some signs of life on the legs of rookie Chris Carson, who averaged 4.2 yards per carry on 49 totes over the first four weeks of the year. But when he broke his leg late in the Seahawks’ blowout win over the Colts last week, it sent Seattle back to square one: with Prosise perpetually dinged up and an unclear hierarchy featuring Thomas Rawls, Eddie Lacy, and J.D. McKissic behind him.
There’s always plenty of potential volume with the Seahawks’ run game—Pete Carroll believes in establishing a tough, physical ground attack to run play-action off of and set up downfield throws. But dating back to the start of last season, Seattle has struggled on the ground, and a lack of talent on the offensive line has stunted Carroll’s plan. That makes just about no one in Seattle’s backfield trustworthy: Since his breakout rookie campaign in 2015, Rawls has been banged up and ineffective. Free-agent signee Lacy has yet to show much elusiveness for his new team. And the shifty McKissic is more of a change-of-pace player than a between-the-tackles workhorse.
With Seattle’s big-ticket free-agent lineman Luke Joeckel set to have clean-up surgery on his knee during the Seahawks’ bye this week, the team’s offensive line becomes more of a question mark than ever. Right now, it’s looking more and more like the Seahawks will have to depend a lot more on Russell Wilson’s arm than anyone in their backfield.
Quarterback Marcus Mariota, Titans
The viability of the Titans offense hinges on the health of its quarterback. Mariota (hamstring) is listed as the purposely vague “day-to-day,” but if he misses further time, it could wreak havoc on what this team wants to do on that side of the ball. Tennessee’s passing game, and much of its rushing attack, runs through the runner/passer.
Without Mariota (and for part of the game, left tackle Taylor Lewan) on Sunday, the Titans gained just 188 total yards of offense and averaged 3.2 yards per play in their loss to the Dolphins, going just 2-of-13 on third down with an ineffective Matt Cassel under center. Not even the normally dominant ground game could gain traction, and without the running element that Mariota brings to the rush attack, Tennessee picked up just 69 yards on 20 totes. Until their starting quarterback returns, the Titans offense will remain severely restricted, and that’s bad news for DeMarco Murray, Derrick Henry, and the team’s cadre of pass catchers.
An earlier version of this piece incorrectly identified Giants coach Ben McAdoo and misspelled receiver Roger Lewis Jr.’s name.