Black and Blue Report: Training Camp 2009
by Will Carroll
We're sick and need a twelve-step program. My name is Will and I'm a Fantaholic.
As I sit in front of the television watching Busch Stadium in St. Louis, all gussied up for the All Star game festivities, I'm typing away at this column on fantasy football. To recap: mid-July. Football column. The players aren't headed to camp, but we're already getting ready for fantasy season, saying that it takes guys on laptops longer to get ready than it does a real player on a real team.
Yeah, we're sick and I love you for it.
There is a lot going on in the training rooms as well as the fields of minicamps, OTAs, and the rest of the alphabet soup that's become the NFL offseason. However, before we get to a preseason look at injuries, let's talk about a new Football Outsiders feature that will help you injury-proof your fantasy football team once we get to the regular season: "Twinjuries," the Twitter Sunday morning injury feed.
"Twinjuries" is the fastest way to get you the injury updates you need. Before the game, before you set your fantasy lineups, Brad Wochomurka and I will be working the phones and watching the wire to make sure you have up to the second info. "Sunday Morning Med Check" was a popular feature at both ESPN and SI, but Twinjuries will be better -- why? Timing. A Twitter post takes seconds, while an article has to be written hours before. It's the same great info you've come to rely on, given the Steve Austin treatment - better, faster, stronger.
"Twinjuries" comes free with a subscription to FO Premium, or you can buy it separately for five dollars in the FO Store. That page has details on how to add your Twitter username to your FO user account, which will get you on the list that receives the Sunday-morning updates.
With that out of the way, and just a couple weeks to go before the doors open and the heat pours down on this year's crop of hopefuls, let's take a look at the injuries that will be affecting your teams. Camp's for a lot of things, but for me, it's about getting answers. Let's take a look at the players that will be giving us all the questions:
First overall? KUBIAK goes out on its own limb there, but I'm not sure, so let's measure the risk. Jones-Drew isn't a big guy, but neither was Barry Sanders. I had Aaron Schatz check to see how running backs dealt with workload increases, thinking that there might be some NFL equivalent of the Verducci Effect. Turns out, it's not that bad and certainly nothing along the lines of the Curse of 370. I'm still a bit concerned, but it's not a logical concern. (Besides, any "Verducci Effect" wouldn't hurt his numbers until 2010.) I think the key is that the Mighty MJD remembers he's not a power runner and doesn't start taking full-on hits. The Jaguars like Chauncey Washington and Rashad Jennings as backups, and they seem to know that they can't push him up near 300 carries.
(Ed. note: There's now an article about this up here.)
Michael Turner went over 370 carries and ... that's that. Not so simple, but the risk is clear, especially for a player that had never approached that workload before. Is that good? Is that bad? And why didn't the Falcons give the ball to Jerious Norwood a few more times? The problem with the curse is that it doesn't happen the same way. Sometimes it's injury and others, it's ineffectiveness. Sometimes it strikes quickly and other times almost at the end of the season. My biggest concern is with his big thighs and the cuts he makes on his home turf. Unless you believe Turner is the second coming of Eric Dickerson, you have to pair him with Norwood and just hope for the best.
To understand what Brian Westbrook is going to be able to do when he comes back and when that will be, we have to understand what he had done. "Ankle surgery" doesn't tell us a lot. Westbrook had bone chips taken out from the back of his foot. The chips had been floating around and causing some problems with a tendon that moves his big toe. We've all learned how important the big toe is, so freeing this up is a big key. Unfortunately, even if Westbrook makes it back for the regular season, this is going to add to the issues he has with his knees. Even a small change in his gait could cause further problems, making it harder for the Eagles medical staff to keep him on the field. I'm very dubious that Westbrook can make it through a full season so LeSean McCoy is more than a pairing; he might just end up succeeding along the lines of Joseph Addai in 2006.
He looks good in commercials, but Tomlinson isn't the guy you remember. He's the guy he is now, one that's worn down under workload and some minor injuries that have seemed to bother him more than they should. The team has downplayed the severity of both the toe injury and the late-season groin strain, something that's contributed to a "soft" image. KUBIAK gives him a "Green" Risk Factor because the overall projection already takes his injury-related decline into account, but even that might be too optimistic. Looking at his overall injury risk, the idea that he's going to bounce back to his previous level is just wishcasting.
Reggie Bush's anaconda don't want none unless it's got buns, hun. He's also got a newly rebuilt left knee after offseason microfracture surgery. The procedure hasn't worked well in the NFL, but most of the poor results came early, such as Terrell Davis. The procedure has undergone a lot of refinement, giving Bush and the Saints hope that he can come back to live up to his talent. The turf he plays on won't help and there's question about whether cuts will cause problems. Expect him to be more the changeup back than the feature, paired with Pierre Thomas, and used more outside to help keep the knee from being overtaxed.
If it's not bad enough to be a Raider in this era, McFadden had to fight turf toes on both feet in his rookie season. That opened things up for both Justin Fargas and Michael Bush. McFadden has new shoes and orthotics which should help, but this is the kind of thing that looks fluky when it happens but might not be. Given the options the Raiders have, McFadden could find himself not getting enough carries to really tax his toes. His health through camp is going to be key, so those of you with late drafts might be in luck.
Stewart started the season with some questions about his toe and ended it with some ankle issues. In between, he was just damn good. The Panthers have been very quiet about the exact nature of Stewart's problem, but everyone seems very confident that he'll be ready for camp. Don't be THAT sure. Sources tell me that the problem is actually an Achilles strain that caused a debate about surgery during OTAs. Achilles injuries have a tendency to linger, then pop. It's a relatively easy fix with good results, but he's also going to be very, very risky. He's more reliant on power than burst, so he's either going to be good or out. Pick him if you want, but have a good backup -- or just pair him with DeAngelo Williams, if you can.
Lower body fat, more muscle, but not up to 230. If he'd made it and passed the drug test in camp, I'd have been surprised. Carrying a bit more weight might help Peterson keep from wearing down but it might not help either. Putting more weight on his priceless legs, especially on turf, might hurt as much as it helps. The interesting thing here is that Peterson's collegiate injuries haven't been anything approaching an issue since he fell in the draft a couple years back on just those concerns. Physical maturity and a medical staff with financial incentive to keep a guy healthy sure help. Keep that in mind for next year's draft, which is very thin on running backs.
While Peterson is trying to put on weight, LenDale White is trying to take some off. It was a little more apparent to even a casual fan that White's weight might be something worth addressing. Just as with Peterson though, it's a question of whether losing the weight will actually help keep him healthy. Losing some of his mass might make him a bit less likely to survive the big hits he takes, especially if he gets the chance to repeat all those goal-line carries he got last year. Here's an interesting thought: Is it better to go with the big guy first to wear down the defense (as the Giants do with Brandon Jacobs) or to use him last to hold onto a lead and slow the game down (as the Titans do with White)?
Jim Andrews went into Brett Favre's shoulder and severed a tendon, freeing up Favre to throw. If that doesn't scream "going to play," I don't know what does. It's not quite to the level of Ronnie Lott's famous finger, but it's up there. Favre's arm is already back at full strength, as the tendon doesn't have as much involvement in the throwing process as it does in deceleration and stability. It's that last part that has me worried. Favre's shoulder might get fatigued or it might take a hard hit inside the Dome on that concrete floor and jar loose.
He's fine. I wish that was all I had to say about it, but he's fine. If you're worred about Brady, just look at how Philip Rivers or Carson Palmer came back. The knee isn't an issue for them and by this time last year, we can leave all this talk about ACLs, infections, comebacks and the rest of it behind and concentrate on what counts -- Gisele. That's not to say that Brady's without risk. The same thing that happened last year, an unhappy accident, could happen again. Maybe not his knee, but something. That's the same risk everyone on the field faces on every play.
Carson Palmer avoided the knife last season and now we wonder whether or not that elbow will hold up. The body repairs itself with scar tissue, so depending on how significant the tear was, his ulnar collateral ligament is weakened by that much. Quarterbacks don't put as much pressure on the elbow as baseball pitchers do. It's a different motion and fewer repetitions. He's throwing already, has been for a while, and doesn't seem to have the same pain that held him out last season. The key might be whether the revamped O-line can keep him upright. The injury started with a hit, not with overuse.
Kurt Warner had the same kind of hip labrum surgery that's been all the rage in baseball. Warner's not that mobile to begin with and assuming that the Cards stay with a majority of shotgun sets despite a new offensive coordinator, the effects should be minimized. It's still a new surgery and we don't know exactly how it will affect any of the players that have had it in any sport. Warner has to be watched a bit in camp, but all the signs look pretty good at this early stage.
Microfracture is not "minor surgery." The surgeon opens your knee and pokes holes in it with an awl. An awl! Maybe it's minor if you're doing it with a nice piece of pine in the wood shop, but a knee and bone? That's serious. Any knee/leg injury is serious business for a speed player, but for someone like Colston, it's potentially devastating. There's not a good comp here, except maybe his teammate, Reggie Bush. Colston had the surgery about a month after Bush, so it's reasonable to think that he'll be slightly behind him in recovery. Colston ran, but only in straight lines, during OTAs. It's his left knee, so he might have some issues going to his right. That can be game-planned both ways. He's still going to be a big red zone target.
Brandon Marshall is begging for a trade at the same time he's rehabbing from hip labrum surgery. Granted, the rehab is being supervised by his surgeon in Vail, but it's still a very awkward situation when camp opens, assuming he's still with the Broncos. Unlike with Kurt Warner, every step is going to tax Marshall's hip and we just have no way of knowing how that might affect him. Lateral movement isn't key to his game, but there's likely to be some issue with first step and burst. There's also some question about how it might affect his jumping, which would be a big issue for the increase in red zone targets he might be expected to get in Josh McDaniels' offensive scheme.
Hines Ward came back for the Super Bowl victory due to a new therapy called Platelet-Rich Plasma Injection. That got him to the game, but the real news was when he didn't have knee surgery afterward. Instead, he had his shoulder cleaned out, a relatively minor procedure. The Steelers were confident enough to extend his contract and think he'll be ready to go for the season. The knee is a very minor risk and his physical style might be dialed back a bit by the shoulder, which could actually be a good thing for his health. A few less hits could do an aging wide receiver's body good.
Crabtree fell a bit further than expected on draft day. Blame most of that on Al Davis and credit the 49ers for not making the same mistake as a few other teams. They get a real playmaker who shouldn't have significant foot issues. Yes, the surgery he had does raise some red flags, but by having the surgery when he did, he's in better position once the season starts even if it had him in a slightly worse position on draft day. He's running well at this point, though he is yet to test it in full-speed action. We'll see that very early in camp and once he does that, he shoots straight to the top of the Niners' depth chart.
Well, I guess I don't have to do this one now. I wouldn't have expected him to stay healthy had he decided to play, so he made the right decision.
Big toe! Big toe! Yes, that old Stripes chant reminds us of what Antonio Gates is to this offense, or rather was, in large part because of problems with his big toe. He played through it, but his gait changes caused ankle and calf problems. Worse, the toe problems lingered into minicamp, meaning even rest isn't getting rid of it. Short of a surgical fix or a miracle, what you saw from Gates last year is about what we should expect this year. Expect declining targets but continued value from his use in the red zone. A bad toe doesn't make him any smaller.
The enduring image of Kellen Winslow, Sr., is that picture of him completely sapped after the epic game with the Dolphins. He has this blank look, one that either epitomizes "warrior" or shows him post-concussion and dehydrated, depending on how you look at things. With that legacy and name, I'm not sure if Junior could ever avoid looking a little soft compared to the ol' man. Winslow's had a run of injuries that don't follow any pattern: on-field, off-field, and the type of just plain odd that was specific to Cleveland over the last five years. There's some theory that leaving Cleveland will help him, but once again, a change of address doesn't suddenly make someone less injury-prone. I expect Winslow to have the same trouble staying healthy, especially if the injuries move from the joints to the muscles.
Like Winslow, it seems like Todd Heap has never been healthy. Unlike Winslow, it's never really been his fault. Heap is just one of those guys who always has something wrong, just enough to keep him at "good" rather than "great." The problem with that is that it's really tough to figure out when the potential for "great" passed by or if he's still got that one amazing season in him. Football needs hope, but rationally, health is a skill, one of the few skills that Heap doesn't have. Expecting that to suddenly change is foolish.
Reggie Bush and Marques Colston are one thing, but Walter Jones? His knee has a whole different set of stresses, but he had the same microfracture surgery. The work was done far more laterally -- towards the outside -- than was done with the speedsters. That puts a bit less stress on the repaired area, but also gives a bit less relief for his knees. Jones is at the end of his career, so this kind of Hail Mary type procedure might give him just enough to play a little bit longer. If it doesn't work, well, he'd be on the sidelines anyway. The biggest concern here isn't for Jones, but for Matt Hasselbeck.
I always wonder about guys who are labeled as "high motor." Does that mean they're just wound a little tighter or that they're max effort guys who can't coast and keep up? I think Aaron Schobel might be in that middle ground. He's certainly talented and potentially an elite level edge rusher, but coming off the first serious injury of his career, we do have to wonder. We've seen similar players, such as Dwight Freeney, come back from this injury and return to a high level, so the Bills should like what they see.
If you believe Kelly Gregg weighs 310 pounds, you might also mistake me for Brad Pitt. That kind of bulk is great for being a nose tackle, but it's bad for the nose tackle's knees. Simply put, human knees aren't built to carry that kind of load. There was a guy I knew back in Texas who could load things into his truck and weigh them by just looking at the truck. He'd been doing it so long that he knew the distance between the top of the wheel well and the tire as well as he could have looked at the gauge of a scale. Problem was that it only went so far. He had a cow in the back and it bottomed it out. Asked how much it weighed -- it had become a well-known parlor trick at that point -- he paused and said "too much." That's what Gregg's knees did and having them cleaned out is a short-term solution, since what they scraped out was also what cushions all that bulk.
Oh look, another member of the Ravens. They're putting a lot of pressure on Bill Tessendorf and his staff to keep these players healthy and active as the team both tries to mature some young players and get one more good year out of some of the aging ones, all while contending. Reed was consistently on the injury report last year, but consistently played at a high level. Is that a sustainable skill or is that something that comes just before the body breaks down? Reed's skills are there, but look out for any sort of indication that it goes beyond the maintenance issues he has had. When it comes for Ed Reed, it's going to come all at once.