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The Impact of the NFL’s Injured Superstar Class

How have teams adapted to losing someone like Aaron Rodgers, Odell Beckham Jr., or J.J. Watt? The answer says a lot about certain players’ value—and about which franchises are best positioned to succeed in 2017.

Odell Beckham Jr., J.J. Watt, and Aaron Rodgers Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The rash of injuries to NFL stars in 2017 has impacted the league in ways both large and small. From a big-picture perspective, the extended absences of players such as Aaron Rodgers, Odell Beckham Jr., J.J. Watt, and Andrew Luck have affected the playoff race, the marketability of prime-time games, and the standing of the league’s class of famous faces. From a team standpoint, the individual effects are harder to identify.

It may be plain to see how the Packers are limited without Rodgers, but it’s much more difficult to parse how the Ravens offense has been altered without Marshal Yanda, or how the Chiefs defense has taken a hit sans Eric Berry. Few teams have managed to escape major injury in 2017. The key for clubs has been figuring out how to keep rolling despite them.

With three-quarters of the season in the rearview mirror, it’s a good time to take stock of which injuries have made the most significant difference and which have inspired successful solutions. Since each position group is drastically different, let’s divvy this up into four categories in an attempt to gauge how teams can give themselves the best chance to win in the modern NFL, even after a few unlucky breaks.

Quarterbacks

Biggest injuries: Aaron Rodgers, Packers; Andrew Luck, Colts; Deshaun Watson, Texans; Sam Bradford, Vikings; Carson Palmer, Cardinals

Team that has most successfully compensated: Vikings

Injuries to starting quarterbacks are the most impactful in all of sports, save for a season-ending blow to a headlining NBA star. No matter how well a backup plays relative to expectations, it’s unlikely that an NFL team in this situation will come close to reaching the ceiling that it could have with its franchise passer under center. A telling example from this season has been Jacoby Brissett in Indianapolis. The Colts nabbed Brissett in a September trade with New England, all but conceding that Scott Tolzien was not a viable stand-in while Andrew Luck rehabbed from offseason shoulder surgery. As Luck’s delayed return morphed into a trip to IR, Brissett’s status as the starter was solidified for the rest of the season.

In a vacuum, Brissett’s 2017 numbers are disappointing. He’s completing just 60.4 percent of his passes and averaging 7.1 yards per attempt while piloting a passing game that ranks 29th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA. But that output doesn’t speak to how often Brissett has kept the Colts offense afloat. Brissett has been pressured on 41.6 percent of his passes, per Pro Football Focus, the second-highest rate in the NFL among quarterbacks who’ve taken at least half of their team’s snaps. He’s been sacked 47 times, eight more than anybody else in the league. Brissett’s tendency to extend plays has occasionally exacerbated this issue (his 2.92 seconds to throw is the third-highest in football, according to Pro Football Focus), but the Colts’ pass-protection woes would hinder the vast majority of quarterbacks.

Luck’s prior success in shoddy circumstances speaks to how big of a difference a transcendentally talented quarterback can make — and how glaring that player’s absence can be, no matter the replacement. Take Green Bay, for example, where Brett Hundley has struggled while filling in for Rodgers, to the point that the Packers sometimes look like they’re playing a different sport than they were before Rodgers broke his collarbone in Week 6. Green Bay has hung around in the NFC playoff picture thanks to a newfound running game and some stellar outings from individual defenders, but it’s clear just how much this team would benefit from having Rodgers in the lineup. Deshaun Watson isn’t at Rodgers’s level yet, but his ability to conjure plays from nothing despite regularly being under siege allowed the Texans to score at least 33 points in five of his six starts. The rookie showed the first inklings of being a transformative passer, and Houston’s returns with backup Tom Savage have only confirmed how valuable Watson was.

Sam Bradford is hardly the same caliber of quarterback, but losing him to a knee injury still threatened to torpedo the Vikings’ season. What Minnesota has managed with backup Case Keenum has been nothing short of remarkable. The Vikings rank second in passing DVOA, behind only New England — a stat that no one would have believed even if Bradford were healthy. The front office’s decision to bring in Keenum in April was initially treated as an afterthought, especially with Teddy Bridgewater’s return looming. Yet with him, the Vikings have constructed a top-flight passing offense thanks to an expertly tailored play-action scheme, a fully revamped offensive line, and a group of pass catchers that rivals any in the league. The support system has played a large part in Keenum’s success, although it’s not the only reason he’s played the best football of his career for a team with its eye on securing home-field advantage throughout the postseason.

A star quarterback’s injury can reveal his true value. There’s a case for Rodgers as MVP built around how Green Bay’s offense has struggled without him. But the way that Minnesota has overcome Bradford going down provides a blueprint for such scenarios: rely on the talent remaining in the huddle and construct a scheme that plays to a backup’s strengths.

David Johnson
David Johnson
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Skill-Position Players

Biggest injuries: David Johnson, Cardinals; Odell Beckham Jr., Giants; Julian Edelman, Patriots; Dalvin Cook, Vikings

Teams that have most successfully compensated: Vikings, Patriots

One of the first big blows to both real and fantasy football teams this fall was the injury to Cardinals running back David Johnson, who dislocated his wrist during a Week 1 loss to the Lions. Arizona’s star played just 46 snaps before taking a helmet to his left arm on a deep pass against Detroit, instantly ending his season. Losing a player with Johnson’s talent would be tough for most teams to overcome, but it’s proved especially brutal for an offense that relied on him to do a little of everything. Johnson’s 2,118 yards from scrimmage in 2016 made up more than 36 percent of Arizona’s total. His 120 targets were the second-most on the team behind Larry Fitzgerald, and his 80 receptions were the most among running backs leaguewide.

Without Johnson, the Cardinals were left scrambling. Arizona re-signed veteran back Chris Johnson to serve as its early-down runner, and both Kerwynn Williams and Andre Ellington moved into complementary roles. On October 10, general manager Steve Keim dealt a conditional late-round pick to land future Hall of Famer Adrian Peterson. After piling up 134 yards with two touchdowns in his debut game for Arizona, Peterson averaged fewer than 2 yards per carry in three of his next five. The Cardinals rank dead last in rushing DVOA.

Arizona’s running back wasteland in the wake of Johnson’s injury is the product of several factors. The pain of losing its best offensive player was compounded by season-ending injuries to both of its premier run-blocking offensive linemen (D.J. Humphries and Mike Iupati). Without having much help up front, the Cardinals needed a back who could create independently from the offense’s infrastructure — the exact type of back they lost in Johnson. The team’s other failure in trying to replace Johnson’s production — most notably his pass-catching contributions — is that it never found a piecemeal balance for replicating his role. And that’s an area where teams that have overcome losses to high-profile skill-position players have found success.

In his first three games with the Vikings, rookie running back Dalvin Cook looked as if he might fill an expansive role. The 2017 second-round pick was routinely getting more than 70 percent of the team’s offensive snaps, averaging more than 20 carries per game, and being incorporated into the passing game. Cook had already rushed for 66 yards against the Lions in Week 4 when he fell to the turf early in the third quarter, tearing his ACL and heading straight to IR.

Without the focal point of their offense, the Vikings were forced to devise a new plan. Their solution was to take the skill sets of Jerick McKinnon and Latavius Murray and attempt to engineer a two-headed Cook clone in the backfield. The 6-foot-3, 225-pound Murray — whom the Vikings gave $8.6 million guaranteed this offseason — took on a bulk of the rushing duties, while McKinnon filled a dual role as a change-of-pace back and receiving option. Neither brings what Cook does as a runner, but they’ve combined to allow Minnesota to sustain reasonable production at the position.

The Vikings’ decision to trade up this spring and draft Cook 41st overall once made the Murray signing look superfluous, but that’s no longer the case. Depth has been a consistent theme when it comes to how this year’s best teams have coped with injuries. The Patriots went hunting for pass catchers in the offseason, trading a first-round pick for receiver Brandin Cooks, signing running back Rex Burkhead to a $3.2 million deal, and swapping a fourth-rounder in a package for tight end Dwayne Allen.

Those moves became paramount in August, when Julian Edelman was lost for the season to a torn ACL. Like the Vikings, the Pats have pieced together production for one of their stars, but in an even more unconventional way. New England has relied on its running backs as pass catchers more than any other team in the league. James White ranks sixth among running backs with 51 receptions and Burkhead has another 24 despite missing four games. The presence of Cooks, the health of Danny Amendola (46 catches for 489 yards), and the team’s ability to deploy running backs as actual receivers has allowed the Pats to mimic the way Edelman attacks every part of a defense and pushed them to the league lead in passing DVOA. Having a 40-year-old android at quarterback probably doesn’t hurt, either.

It’s easy to say that overcoming the loss of an injured star simply comes down to splitting up production among a combination of players, but there are times when that isn’t an option. Take Beckham. Watching the 2016 Giants’ offense was a slog, save for Beckham’s habitual heroics. New York finished with 46 passes of 20 or more yards last season; Beckham had 20. Compare that to the case of Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown, who accounted for 22 of the Steelers’ 64 such plays. This season, the Giants have 23 passing plays of 20-plus yards. Only the Bears and Ravens have fewer.

Injuries to Brandon Marshall and Sterling Shepard haven’t helped matters, but even the combination of those two and standout rookie tight end Evan Engram wouldn’t have been enough to recreate what Beckham gives the Giants. Some players are just too special to be replaced. Former head coach Ben McAdoo had zero answers for how to manufacture offense without Beckham, and it’s one of the reasons that he’s no longer employed.

Joe Thomas
Joe Thomas
Rob Carr/Getty Images

Offensive Line

Biggest injuries: Joe Thomas, Browns; Marshal Yanda, Ravens; Jason Peters, Eagles

Team that has most successfully compensated: Eagles

They may not have much star power, but the most accomplished players to hit IR this season are arguably the guys up front. Browns left tackle Joe Thomas, Ravens guard Marshal Yanda, and Eagles left tackle Jason Peters will all have Hall of Fame claims one day, and each will watch from the couch for the remainder of the 2017 campaign.

Let’s start with Peters, whose team has done the best job of accounting for his absence. When Peters tore his ACL and MCL in a win over Washington in late October, the Eagles made a unique but crucial decision. Rather than move overqualified right tackle Lane Johnson to the left side in Peters’s stead, Philly kept Johnson put and slotted swing tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai in for Peters. By choosing to keep the rest of their line intact, the Eagles were able to maintain continuity up front and emerge as one of the league’s most dangerous rushing teams.

Peters is also one of the most effortless pass-blocking left tackles of his generation, and routinely was left on an island against an opponent’s best rusher when healthy. That approach had to change with Vaitai in the fold, and Philly knew it. As such, it’s consistently given him help on the left side in passing situations. Even the threat of a tight end or running back chip can affect the path of an edge rusher, and head coach Doug Pederson’s staff has done a masterful job of influencing the mind-set of defensive ends while getting receiving threats like Zach Ertz and Corey Clement into routes. Teams have thrown the kitchen sink at the left side of the Eagles’ line, and they’ve had to get creative with twists and blitzes to find success.

That hasn’t been the case for defenses attacking the Browns’ offensive line. Cleveland has often been content to leave Thomas replacement Spencer Drango alone at left tackle, occasionally with disastrous results. Jaguars defensive end Yannick Ngakoue had two strip sacks of quarterback DeShone Kizer in Week 11, including one that produced Jacksonville’s game-sealing touchdown with 1:24 remaining in the fourth quarter. That’s an ugly afternoon, and it reinforces a key lesson: Tasking a backup with single-handedly stopping one of the league’s best pass rushers is a bad idea.

Kizer’s tendency to hold onto the ball has only made the entire ordeal worse. Only Brissett, Tyrod Taylor, and Russell Wilson, three quarterbacks who are considerably more elusive, have longer average times to throw this season. The line’s inability to block well and Kizer’s lack of regard for when to get rid of the ball have contributed to the Browns having the fifth-highest pressure rate in football, per Pro Football Focus. And no matter where the blame lies, it’s obvious that the unwelcoming nature of the Browns’ pocket has hampered the team’s ability to evaluate what it has in Kizer.

Pressure hasn’t been a problem for the Ravens, namely because their offensive philosophy to throw the ball 5 yards downfield on nearly every passing play never invites it. Instead, Yanda’s absence has been felt most acutely in the run game. Alex Collins has averaged 4.9 yards per carry since arriving in Baltimore, but that number includes an average of 2.81 yards after contact per rush, tied for the fifth-highest rate in the league. Collins doesn’t deserve all the credit for a Ravens running game that’s 12th in DVOA — center Ryan Jensen has played well, and tackles Ronnie Stanley and Austin Howard have been downright dominant at times — but he’s made up for errors by backup guards James Hurst and Matt Skura. With Collins in the mix, the Ravens aren’t far away from boasting a devastating running game that would pair perfectly with their excellent defense. They just happen to be missing arguably the best run-blocker in the entire NFL, and there are moments when that’s unmistakable.

Whitney Mercilus
Whitney Mercilus
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Pass Rushers and Defensive Backs

Biggest injuries: J.J. Watt, Texans; Whitney Mercilus, Texans; Dont’a Hightower, Patriots; Eric Berry, Chiefs; Jason Verrett, Chargers; Richard Sherman, Seahawks; Kam Chancellor, Seahawks

Team that has most successfully compensated: Chargers

Losing two star players from the same position group is a recipe for disaster, and that’s precisely what happened to the Texans in Week 5. Both J.J. Watt (tibial plateau fracture) and Whitney Mercilus (pectoral) went down with season-ending injuries against the Chiefs, and Houston’s defense hasn’t been the same since. First-year coordinator Mike Vrabel’s unit has been slightly better than league average in 2017, but not having that pair of studs has hurt. Jadeveon Clowney has had another nice season up front for Houston, but the group’s varied pass-rush packages and ways of attacking a defense from every angle have vanished.

Diminished talent up front has only become more evident as the play in the secondary has fallen off. Outside of Johnathan Joseph, Houston’s corners are collectively having a down season. That combination has resulted in a pass defense allowing 7.8 yards per attempt, the third-worst mark in the league. The Patriots — still without Dont’a Hightower — have trended in the other direction, as their defense has come together largely because their secondary has sprung to life. The differing paths of two teams that met in the divisional round of last season’s playoffs show how a complete back end on defense can account for shortcomings elsewhere.

The Chiefs have felt the pain of life without a trustworthy secondary in recent weeks. Kansas City was torched through the air in a Week 13 loss to the Jets, allowing Josh McCown to pass for 331 yards in a 38–31 shootout. It wasn’t clear at first, but the absence of Eric Berry in the Chiefs’ secondary now looks crushing. Marcus Peters hasn’t reached the heights of his 2016 season, and the Chiefs’ other cornerback spot has devolved into a rotation of uninspiring options. As in years past, Kansas City entered 2017 hoping to rely on a fearsome pass rush to make up for the questions in the defensive backfield. That simply hasn’t worked. It ranks 29th in adjusted sack rate and a once-steady pass defense is 24th in DVOA. That decline has played a major role in the team’s ongoing second-half skid. Employing creative means to get to the quarterback is paramount when a secondary loses one or more of its most important players — which is why the Seahawks have used so many more line stunts and blitzes since Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor went down for the season.

The Chiefs’ collapse has created an opening for the surging Chargers, who had to deal with their own season-ending injury to a top-flight defensive back. Snake-bit cornerback Jason Verrett went on IR in late September after it was determined that he needed knee surgery. Yet while Kansas City has floundered without Berry, Los Angeles has replaced Verrett without skipping a beat. Cornerback Trevor Williams, an undrafted 2016 free agent, has filled in seamlessly, pairing with interception machine Casey Hayward to give the Chargers an excellent duo on the outside.

Being able to drop in a backup corner and not think twice is a luxury — and a reminder that the simplest way to solve against potentially season-shifting injuries can be stumbling upon a free-agent gem. A team overcoming a bout of rotten luck is always going to require some fortune to keep rolling, but it goes beyond that. Teams like Minnesota and New England have shown that the key to overcoming significant injuries is having a plan for when they happen in the first place. The preemptive moves those teams have made, combined with their flexibility on the fly, is a major reason both are in line to lock up first-round byes. Just because an injury could derail a potential contender doesn’t mean it has to.