Carson Wentz and the ACL Return Timetable

Carson Wentz and the ACL Return Timetable
Carson Wentz and the ACL Return Timetable
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Scott Kacsmar

Concussions draw the headlines in NFL injury news these days, but a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in the knee is still a big deal. A torn ACL almost always means a player's season is over, but what are the concerns for the following season? Recovery time for these injuries is generally viewed as six to nine months.

Roughly 50 players tore their ACL in 2017. The biggest name on that list is Carson Wentz, the starting quarterback for the defending champion Eagles. Wentz tore his ACL in Week 14 last year before the Eagles finished 5-1 with Nick Foles starting in his place. We are exactly one week away from opening night kickoff in Philadelphia and Wentz has not been cleared for contact yet. He has been cleared for 11-on-11 practice, but not contact, and he did not participate in the three preseason games. While it seems unlikely that Wentz will land on the PUP list, which would require him to miss at least the first six weeks of the season, there is a growing possibility that he misses a couple of regular-season games.

How common of a timetable would that be for someone coming off an ACL injury so late in the season? With help from our injury expert Zach Binney and the Football Outsiders injury database, we prepared some data.

A couple of notes about the injury numbers we are using here. First, since we are interested in seeing when a player returned to action, we wanted to make sure we were looking at players of a higher caliber. An undrafted free agent who tears his ACL in July may have just watched his NFL dream wash away. So we limited our data to just the players we marked as starters or key reserves in the season they tore their ACL. This does not mean they were going to be starters or key reserves the following season, but they were at least coming back from a role of importance. This also means no kickers or punters were studied.

The other clarification is that this data does not include players who tore their ACL during the playoffs, such as Tennessee's Jack Conklin this past January. Frankly, our playoff injury data is not up to the standards of our regular-season data that is used to calculate AGL, so we were not able to include those few players that would have added to the list. That would include Jeremy Lane, who tore his ACL in Super Bowl XLIX for Seattle and wasn't able to return to action until Week 12 in 2015.

In the end, we studied 112 players with a torn ACL suffered in the 2011-2016 regular seasons. Sixty-one of those players (54.5 percent) were active in Week 1 the following season, while 51 were not. The following table is a comparison between those two groups of players, including splits for age and the week the torn ACL occurred.

Players One Season After Tearing ACLs (2011-2017)
Statistic Week 1 - Active Week 1 - Inactive
Number of players 61 (54.5%) 51 (45.5%)
Average age 26.4 26.9
Ages 21-24 18 (62.1%) 11 (37.9%)
Ages 25-29 33 (51.6%) 31 (48.4%)
Age 30+ 10 (52.6%) 9 (47.4%)
Average Week ACL occurred 4.5 6.4
Before Week 1 22 (62.9%) 13 (37.1%)
Weeks 1-5 17 (63.0%) 10 (37.0%)
Weeks 6-10 13 (50.0%) 13 (50.0%)
Weeks 11-17 9 (37.5%) 15 (62.5%)

The key, logical finding was that the players who were slower to return saw their ACL injury occur almost two weeks later than those who returned quickly. The Week 1 inactives were also on average a half-year older, but "old age" wasn't too significant of a factor. Of the 19 players who were 30 or older, 10 of them were ready by Week 1 the following season, which is right in line with what happened to players aged 25-to-29. Younger players aged 21-to-24 were available Week 1 more often at 62.1 percent.

The splits for when the injury occurred produced some interesting results. Whether it was an injury that occurred before the season or one that happened in the first five weeks, the players were ready for Week 1 about 63 percent of the time. When it happened in Weeks 6 to 10, then that dropped to a 50-50 proposition. In the final seven weeks (the Wentz situation), the player only returned to Week 1 action 37.5 percent of the time, or roughly the reverse of the rates from early in the season.

Given that a torn ACL used to be thought of as a career-ending injury, this is somewhat comforting. On the other hand, if almost half the time the player isn't ready for action in Week 1, then that is still a concern. But what if the player is ready for Week 2 or 3, which could be the case for someone like Wentz? We broke down our 51 players who missed Week 1 into four groups to get a better understanding of why they weren't ready for the season opener. We'll go through the groups in order from most serious situations to the least serious.

Note: the "Year" and "Age" is listed for the player for the season when he tore his ACL. The "Wk ACL" is the week of the season when he tore his ACL. A "0" means it happened prior to the Week 1 opener.

Significant Impact on Multiple Seasons/Rest of Career
Player Year Age Team POS Wk ACL Notes
Terrell Thomas 2011 26 NYG DB 0 Re-injured his ACL early in training camp
Jonathan Goff 2011 26 NYG LB 0 Tore same ACL in July; never played again
Sherrod Martin 2012 28 CAR DB 13 Out of action until 2014
Dustin Keller 2013 29 MIA TE 0 Career-ending injury (ACL/MCL/PCL/dislocated knee)
Danario Alexander 2013 27 SD WR 0 Never played in NFL again
Jabari Greer 2013 31 NO DB 11 Retired 9/11/2014
Sidney Rice 2013 27 SEA WR 8 Retired July 2014 (cited concussions)
Sam Bradford 2013 26 STL QB 7 Tore ACL again in 2014 preseason game
Vick Ballard 2013 23 IND RB 1 Torn Achilles in July 2014
Knowshon Moreno 2014 27 MIA RB 6 Never played in NFL again
Louis Delmas 2014 27 MIA DB 14 Tore ACL again in August 2015
Louis Delmas 2015 28 MIA DB 0 Hasn't played in reg. season since 2014
Louis Murphy 2015 28 TB WR 7 Setback while on PUP; released 11/29
Brandon Pettigrew 2015 30 DET TE 14 Started on PUP; moved to reserve list (released on 12/9)
Vincent Jackson 2016 33 TB WR 5 Did not play in 2017. Retired May 2018
Vance Walker 2016 29 DEN DL 0 Hasn't played in reg. season since 2015
Mike Jenkins 2016 31 ARI DB 0 Injured in 2016 preseason game. Hasn't played since
Ryan Tannehill 2016 28 MIA QB 14 Tore ACL in August 2017 practice
These players had multiple seasons, if not the rest of their careers, impacted by their ACL injury. Several of these players suffered multiple ACL injuries, sometimes to the same knee. Some, including Ryan Tannehill and Sam Bradford, played again, but others (Louis Delmas, Jonathan Goff) were not as fortunate. Some of these players retired after their ACL injury, though Sidney Rice cited concussions as his reason rather than his ACL. Some suffered a setback during their ACL recovery, prompting their team to release them (Brandon Pettigrew and Louis Murphy).
Activated from PUP List Later in Season
Player Year Age Team POS Wk ACL Notes
David Gettis 2011 24 CAR WR 0 Activated off PUP (hamstring) 11/6 (Wk 10 debut)
Mario Manningham 2012 26 SF WR 16 Activated off PUP 11/4 (Wk 10 debut)
Leonard Hankerson 2013 25 WAS WR 11 Activated off PUP 11/4 (Wk 11 debut)
Stevan Ridley 2014 25 NE RB 6 Activated off PUP 10/30 (Wk 10 debut)
Dion Lewis 2015 25 NE RB 9 Activated off PUP 11/12 (Wk 11 debut)
Chris Culliver 2015 27 WAS DB 11 Activated off PUP 11/7 (cut 12 days later)
Devin Smith 2015 23 NYJ WR 14 Activated off PUP 11/9 (Wk 14 debut)
DeAngelo Hall 2016 33 WAS DB 3 Activated off PUP 11/3 (Wk 9 debut)
These eight players began the season on PUP before being activated near the beginning of November, which is usually around Week 10. In the case of David Gettis, he was actually on PUP for hamstring issues unrelated to his ACL injury.
No Preseason Action, But Debuted Later in Season
Player Year Age Team POS Wk ACL Notes
James Carpenter 2011 22 SEA OL 10 No preseason (Wk 4 debut)
Heath Miller 2012 30 PIT TE 16 No preseason (Wk 3 debut)
Tyrann Mathieu 2013 21 ARI DB 14 No preseason (Wk 2 debut)
LaAdrian Waddle 2014 23 DET OL 15 No preseason (Wk 3 debut)
Glenn Dorsey 2015 30 SF DL 11 No preseason (Wk 2 debut)
Henry Anderson 2015 24 IND DL 9 No preseason (Wk 3 debut)
Jamaal Charles 2015 29 KC RB 5 No preseason (Wk 4 debut)
Parker Ehinger 2016 24 KC OL 8 No preseason (Wk 17 debut; demoted to backup)
Thomas Howard 2012 29 CIN LB 1 Wasn't signed until 10/22 (passed away on 11/18)
Bill Bentley 2014 25 DET DB 1 Wasn't signed until 11/18 (Wk 11 debut)
Jake Long 2014 29 STL OL 8 Wasn't signed until 9/15 (Wk 13 debut as backup)
There are really two groups here, but we didn't want to make a table for only the bottom three players. They weren't active in the preseason, but were signed during the regular season and eventually played. Thomas Howard tragically died in a car accident six days after he was released in 2013. As for the top eight players, their teams were cautious with their ACL recovery, and held them out in August before they eventually debuted in Weeks 2-4. Parker Ehinger basically lost his job to injury in Kansas City last year, so he only took the field in Week 17. This could be where Carson Wentz shows up this year.
Played in Preseason, But Held Out Week 1 for Miscellaneous Reasons
Player Year Age Team POS Wk ACL Notes
Tim Hightower 2011 25 WAS RB 7 Didn't make final cuts; returned to NFL in 2015
Kenny Britt 2011 23 TEN WR 3 Wk 1 suspension, Wk 2 debut
Greg Toler 2011 26 ARI DB 0 Wk 2 debut
Jordan Shipley 2011 26 CIN WR 2 Wk 3 debut after several cuts
Leroy Harris 2012 28 TEN OL 9 Wk 17 debut
Brandon Meriweather 2012 28 WAS DB 11 Wk 2 debut
Ryan Broyles 2012 24 DET WR 13 Wk 3 debut
Will Smith 2013 32 NO DL 0 Didn't make final cuts
Darnell Dockett 2014 33 ARI DL 0 Didn't make final cuts; never played again
Joe Hawley 2014 26 ATL OL 4 Wk 2 debut
Hroniss Grasu 2016 25 CHI OL 0 Wk 2 debut
Reggie Ragland 2016 23 BUF LB 0 Wk 4 debut after being traded 8/28
Lamarr Houston 2016 29 CHI LB 2 Wk 6 debut after signing in Oct.
Geno Smith 2016 26 NYJ QB 7 Backup QB to Eli Manning (Wk 9 debut)
These 14 players were all healthy enough to participate in preseason action, but they still were inactive in Week 1 for various reasons. Some may have been cut after seeing their performance decline following the ACL injury, including Tim Hightower, Will Smith, and Darnell Dockett. Hightower actually didn't return to the NFL until 2015. Kenny Britt was suspended for Week 1 of the 2012 season; he otherwise would have played. In several of these cases, the player was demoted to backup status, so rushing him on the field wasn't paramount. Consider the case of Geno Smith as Eli Manning's backup for the Giants last year, or how Reggie Ragland was inactive for three games after getting traded from Buffalo to Kansas City in late August.

If we think of the 14 players who played in the preseason as being healthy enough to play in Week 1 had they been needed, then that would bring the Week 1 active rate post-ACL up to 67.0 percent. So it might be better way to think that about two-thirds of the players returning from an ACL injury in 2017, including Wentz, will play in Week 1.

We'll leave you with a list of 16 notable 2017 players, minus Jack Conklin, coming off a torn ACL and what their status has been this preseason.

2018 Players Returning from ACL Injuries
Player Team POS Wk ACL 2018 Notes
Tavon Young BAL DB 0 Played in preseason (2 PD)
Julian Edelman NE WR 0 Played in preseason (suspended first four games)
George Fant SEA OL 0 Played in preseason
DeAngelo Hall WAS DB 0 Retired in offseason
Cameron Meredith CHI WR 0 Played in preseason (no catches)
Ryan Tannehill MIA QB 0 Played in preseason (39 passes)
Allen Robinson JAX WR 1 Played in preseason (no catches)
Darren Sproles PHI RB 3 Practicing, but no preseason action
Dalvin Cook MIN RB 4 Played in preseason (2 carries)
Markus Golden ARI LB 4 Might not be ready Wk 1 (no preseason action)
Malik Hooker IND DB 7 Played in preseason (1 tackle)
Jason Peters PHI OL 7 Practicing, but no preseason action
Deshaun Watson HOU QB 8 Played in preseason (15 passes)
Bryan Bulaga GB OL 9 Cleared for practice (no preseason action)
Tyvon Branch ARI DB 10 Remains a free agent
Carson Wentz PHI QB 14 Hasn't been cleared for contact (no preseason action)

Wentz and Tyvon Branch (free agent) were the only players listed who were injured in Week 10 or later last season. DeAngelo Hall retired this offseason. Of the 14 players still on active rosters, nine played in the preseason. In addition to Wentz, the Eagles have also held Jason Peters and Darren Sproles out of August games, but both seem more likely to play against Atlanta next Thursday. Green Bay tackle Bryan Bulaga and Arizona linebacker Markus Golden are in danger of not being ready for Week 1, but they have a few more days to prepare than Wentz does.

Obviously the timing and severity of an ACL injury will have an impact on when a player can return to action. Carson Palmer once infamously tore his ACL in a wild-card playoff game against the Steelers, and he was ready to go in the 2006 preseason. However, practically no one could have endured the type of injury that tight end Dustin Keller suffered in the 2013 preseason and gone on to a normal playing career. Keller not only tore his ACL, but also his MCL and PCL, and also dislocated his knee.

Thankfully, no one coming back this year has that big of a hurdle to overcome. But when a fan says they don't want to rush a player back from an ACL injury to jeopardize the rest of his career, there is something to be said for that given several of the names we looked at. The Eagles want Wentz on the field for a long time. In the grand scheme of things, next week (and the week after that) isn't that important. It also helps when Nick Foles has shown he can handle a few games just fine.


8 comments, Last at 02 Sep 2018, 6:55am

#1 by dank067 // Aug 31, 2018 - 10:39am

Packers ended up giving Bulaga some playing time last night in the fourth preseason game and also put McCray, the projected starting RG, in there next to him—would assume that means Bulaga will start Week 1. Will be interesting to watch him going forward because although he's always been a solid starter and this will just be his age-29 season, he has now torn both ACLs. Also leads me to wonder, has any player ever endured 3 ACL injuries over their career?

Points: 0

#2 by MdM // Aug 31, 2018 - 7:10pm

Why isn't Adrian Peterson part of the data set?

Points: 0

#4 by Scott Kacsmar // Sep 01, 2018 - 3:58am

He is actually. We just didn't list the 60+ players that played in Week 1 since we were more interested in the players who didn't play.

Points: 0

#6 by Scott Kacsmar // Sep 02, 2018 - 4:41am

I suppose it would have been beneficial to look at those 61 players and see how many were active in the preseason, but this really came together at the last minute and we wanted to post by Thursday afternoon. Also, I found that isn't very accurate in its preseason stats. They'll say a guy (like Wentz) played in a game when we know he didn't. That's why I usually based the accuracy on whether or not he accumulated any stats beyond just game played.

Points: 0

#7 by fyo // Sep 02, 2018 - 6:54am

The tables on the page mess up the layout on Android Chrome.

Points: 0

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