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The Most Important Thing to Watch at NFL OTAs: How Injured Players Are Recovering

Most of the news coming out of these voluntary workouts is predictable, but how some of football’s biggest stars make their way back from injury is worth tracking

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

We’re headed smack-dab into the summer doldrums of the NFL offseason, and at this time of year, meaningful football news can be hard to come by. Apart from the requisite fretting over which veterans have decided to skip their team’s voluntary, non-contact practices, a few “highlight” clips of running backs doing footwork drills, or the occasional depressing, season-ending injury, the OTAs happening during the next couple of weeks aren’t all that important or interesting. There is, however, something that is worth watching closely: the progress of key players working to return from major injury.

The rash of injuries to the league’s most talented players was one of the defining story lines of the 2017 season. From David Johnson to Odell Beckham Jr., Aaron Rodgers, and Carson Wentz, the injury bug struck the league’s superstars at an extraordinary rate—and in most cases, changed the fortunes of their respective teams (shout-out to Nick Foles for making me write “most cases”). But the majority of those injured players are due back for the upcoming season, and their return to the field could have an outsize effect on the league’s power structure. Here are a few of the most important comeback players to watch—and what we can and should expect from them in 2018.

QB Aaron Rodgers, Packers

Coming out of Week 5, Green Bay (then 4-1) looked like a team to beat in the NFC. But the Packers’ Super Bowl hopes came crashing down in an instant the next week when Rodgers broke his clavicle. Under backup Brett Hundley, Green Bay lost that matchup with the Vikings—plus another four of its next seven—and Rodgers’s Week 15 comeback attempt was too little, too late. If it wasn’t already completely obvious, that turn of events illustrated just how crucial Rodgers is to the Packers’ success; without their all-world signal-caller, they were average … at best.

Rodgers’s clavicle is now fully healed—he threw without any apparent limitation at the team’s OTAs this week—and while he’ll have to adapt to changes with his pass-catching corps (Jordy Nelson is out, Jimmy Graham is in), Rodgers’s return alone propels the Packers right back into the NFC’s playoff-contender category. There’s no reason to expect anything but another year of MVP-caliber play from the 34-year-old signal-caller.

QB Deshaun Watson and DE J.J. Watt, Texans

There’s no team in the NFL with a wider range of potential outcomes than the Texans—a squad that features two of the biggest X-factor players in the entire league: Watt and Watson.

Watt could be a make-or-break factor for Houston’s defense—but considering he’s missed all but eight games in the previous two seasons to back and leg injuries, there’s no telling which version of the three-time Defensive Player of the Year we’re going to see in 2018. Will Watt return to his early-career form, that unblockable force who racked up 79 sacks in 64 games from 2012 to 2015? Or will he look more like the guy who’s grabbed just 1.5 sacks in those eight games since? Watt’s reportedly healthy and ready to go—but back injuries can be easily reaggravated, and after spending most of the last two years on the sidelines, it’s fair to wonder if the 29-year-old will ever regain the explosive speed and power he once had.

On the other side of the ball, Watson carries similar game-changing potential. As a rookie, he took the league by storm, tossing 19 touchdowns in just seven games. But that magical run came to an abrupt halt when he tore his ACL in practice on November 2. The 22-year-old signal-caller looks like he’s on track to return in 2018—he got back out onto the practice field for the first time on Tuesday and reported that his knee felt good. But he has a big challenge in front of him, to not only in stay healthy in year two, but to also reproduce the electric style of play we saw last year. It’s unreasonable to expect that Watson will maintain a 9.3 percent touchdown rate, but if he can play at a level that resembles anything close to that of his rookie year, the Texans should be major contenders in the AFC.

QB Carson Wentz and T Jason Peters, Eagles

Look, I understand that Foles looked like a star as he led the Eagles to playoff glory and a Super Bowl win against the Patriots. But it still feels like we’re not yet talking enough about Wentz’s timeline to a full recovery, which, even if you’re being optimistic, butts right up with the start of the season. There remains some doubt that Wentz will be on the field for a big chunk of the Eagles’ first-half schedule.

Typically, you’d expect a player with a torn ACL to return to the field at somewhere around the six- to nine-month mark, but as we’ve seen in the past, some guys don’t regain full, pre-injury form until a year or more out. Wentz tore his left ACL and LCL in early December and is now five months into his rehab regimen; he’s not taking part in Philly’s OTA team drills this week, but encouragingly, was seen doing individual work on the side. How his rehab goes over the next few months could be of monumental importance to the defending champs. Foles caught fire for Philly at just the right time, but can he do that again in 2018 if he has to?

Oh, and whether it’s Foles or Wentz under center, the Eagles are going to need to get more from their blindside protector. After Peters tore his ACL and MCL in a game against the Redskins on October 23, Philly replaced the future Hall of Famer with swing tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai. It did not go well: Vaitai gave up nine sacks and 10 quarterback hits on the year—both second-most among tackles, per Pro Football Focus—and finished ranked 62nd among 83 eligible tackles in PFF’s run grade. Philly badly needs to get their longtime veteran left tackle back for 2018, and the good news is that he was out there on the field for the team this week and taking part in OTA drills.

QB Andrew Luck and S Malik Hooker, Colts

Luck still hasn’t started throwing—that should happen by training camp, one would hope—but the Colts, at least outwardly, have not yet begun to worry that his season could be in jeopardy for the second year in a row. A healthy Luck might not make Indianapolis a playoff contender on his own (that roster has plenty of holes, including at the receiver position) but he’d provide a massive boost to the team’s offense and make it a whole lot more competitive in what could be one of the most improved divisions in football.

A big jump forward on defense sure wouldn’t hurt, either—and getting Hooker back out on the field could be a catalyst for major improvement in 2018. In his first season, the Ohio State product made his presence known from the get-go, picking off three passes in his first seven games—second-most in the league at the time—before tearing his ACL and MCL on November 2 in a game against the Jaguars. Hooker’s timeline for return remains up in the air, but the former 15th overall pick took to the field at Indy’s OTAs this week, doing some backpedaling and cutting. That’s a great sign.

WR Odell Beckham Jr., Giants

Beckham Jr. missed all but four games last year after fracturing his leg—but the fifth-year pass catcher took part in a few individual drills at Giants OTAs this week (and was reportedly champing at the bit to do more).

When healthy, Beckham is one of the most electric playmakers in the NFL—and barring any setbacks over the next couple of months, he should have no problem getting back to making impossible catches look routine for the Giants. Of course, his health might not be the determining factor for whether or not he’s back on the field in 2018: Despite attending OTAs, Beckham Jr. is reportedly looking for a contract that pays him more than $20 million per year, and it wouldn’t be a shock if he tries to hold out to get that deal.

QB Ryan Tannehill, Dolphins

It’s just about impossible to know what to expect from the Dolphins’ offense in 2018. Not only will the team be making the switch from Jay Cutler back to Tannehill, who missed all of last year after reinjuring his ACL, but Tannehill’s about to get dropped back into an offense that’s seen an awful lot of turnover since the last time he took to the field back in December 2016. Receiver Jarvis Landry is gone. Tight ends Jordan Cameron and Dion Sims are gone; so are running back Jay Ajayi and offensive linemen Branden Albert, Mike Pouncey, and Jermon Bushrod. In their place, we find Danny Amendola, Albert Wilson, and rookie tight end Mike Gesicki, along with a cadre of new linemen led by Josh Sitton and Daniel Kilgore.

Here’s what we do know: When Miami’s OTAs kicked off this week, Tannehill was out there taking part in all the team drills, and he wasn’t even using knee brace. Let’s hope he gets through the preseason without any setbacks, because the soon-to-be 30-year-old needs to make a big jump forward in 2018.

RB David Johnson, Cardinals

Much has changed in Arizona since the last time Johnson took the field. The versatile back missed all but one game last season after dislocating his wrist in Week 1—and returns to a team with a new head coach (Steve Wilks), new offensive coordinator (Mike McCoy), new quarterback (one of Sam Bradford, Mike Glennon, or rookie Josh Rosen), and a handful of new receivers (Brice Butler and Christian Kirk). But one thing that should look familiar for the Cardinals this year is that Johnson returns to being a focal point of the team’s offense.

Johnson caught Wilks’s eye when he returned to the field for the first time last week. He’s now back to full health, and the 6-foot-1, 224-pound back is aiming for 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving in 2018. That’s a lofty goal indeed.

RB Dalvin Cook, Vikings

Cook’s exciting rookie campaign was cut short when he tore his ACL on October 1. In his stead, the Vikings relied upon Jerick McKinnon and Latavius Murray—but neither back offered the same combination of power and elusiveness that the former Florida State star showed off en route to 354 yards and two scores in four games. With McKinnon gone in free agency, Minnesota is going to need Cook to once again provide that explosive element for its run game in 2018.

The second-year pro took part in individual drills at Vikings OTAs this week and while he remains limited in what he can do, he is “ahead of schedule” in his rehab according to head coach Mike Zimmer. The team expects him to hit the ground running come training camp.

WR Allen Robinson, Bears

Coming into last year, Robinson looked poised for a big, bounce-back season in Jacksonville, but instead tore his ACL in Week 1. Now that he’s a Bear, expectations remain high for him; Robinson is the marquee free-agent signing for new head coach Matt Nagy—a playmaking threat for Mitchell Trubisky who, ideally, will be the focal point of Chicago’s new-look, innovative passing offense.

Chicago is taking it slow, though. Robinson wasn’t on the field when the Bears took to the field for OTAs this week and Nagy and Co. have no desire to rush him back and risk any setbacks. Robinson’s expected to be ready for training camp—“he’s ahead of the game,” says Nagy—but it’s a situation worth watching.

WR Julian Edelman, Patriots

After letting go of both Brandin Cooks (trade) and Danny Amendola (free agency) this offseason, New England finds itself having to replace 126 catches, 1,741 yards, and nine touchdowns from last year’s offense. Edelman’s return couldn’t come at a better time. The versatile pass catcher missed all of last season after tearing his ACL on August 25—but should have no problem returning as Tom Brady’s go-to guy out of the slot while reclaiming a big chunk of that production, assuming he’s healthy by the time the year kicks off. So far, things are looking good: Edelman was limited as he took the field for Patriots OTAs this week, but he was quick in and out of his routes and showed off plenty of explosiveness in making his cuts. Barring a setback, expect big numbers from the 32-year-old receiver in 2018.

S Eric Berry, Chiefs

The Patrick Mahomes era has begun in Kansas City, but Berry’s return to the middle of the team’s defense might be just as exciting of a development. Berry tore his Achilles in Week 1 last year and missed the rest of the season—but took to the field this week at the Chiefs’ OTAs. The NFL’s highest-paid safety, when healthy, is one of the league’s best and most versatile defenders, and should be major boon to a defense that struggled in all facets last year.

CB Richard Sherman, 49ers

Sherman is one of the biggest boom-or-bust free-agent signings of the offseason. The four-time All Pro tore his Achilles tendon on November 9, sat out the remainder of the year, and was released by the Seahawks in a cap-saving move. Now with the 49ers, it’s anybody’s guess as to the type of impact he’ll make in 2018. Sherman’s still a ways away from getting back onto the field—he’s just started jogging, and instead served as a de facto coach during San Francisco’s OTAs this week—but he expects to be ready for training camp. When healthy, Sherman is a shutdown corner with elite ball skills, but if the injury has robbed him of some of his speed and ability to change directions, it could limit his effectiveness next season.

Correction: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly identified Deshaun Watson as a Heisman Trophy winner.