Thursday, June 13, 2024

2024 fantasy football injury outlook: Aaron Rodgers, Kirk Cousins among those returning

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As you begin fantasy football draft preparations, determining how you feel about players returning from injury is critical.

Achilles ruptures and ACL tears dominated the season-ending injury list in 2023, but there were also a few upper-extremity injuries that knocked out starting quarterbacks. As the 2024 NFL season approaches, it should come as no surprise that each situation comes with its own outlook.

Achilles repair

Let’s be honest. In the not-too-distant past, an Achilles rupture was considered a career-ender for most NFL players. Even those who managed to return to play (Texans RB Arian Foster, Colts RB Marlon Mack) often did so at less than their pre-injury level. Recently, however, players have not only returned more quickly (Rams RB Cam Akers), some have also returned to comparable or even superior performance levels over time (RB D’Onta Foreman, while with the Panthers).

What we haven’t seen since Dan Marino, Vinny Testaverde, Jim Miller and Trent Dilfer — a time period spanning more than two decades — is another starting quarterback who has suffered this injury. In 2023, we saw not one, but two starters go down, and yet both are poised to return in 2024.

Aaron Rodgers, QB, New York Jets: Four snaps and a pop. That’s the sum of Rodgers’ 2023 season, as he was on the field only briefly in the season opener before his left Achilles failed, leaving him sitting on the ground in disbelief. An aggressive rehab program and an optimistic outlook had Rodgers targeting a potential late-season return, but when it became apparent the Jets’ postseason aspirations had expired, the clock was reset to 2024. Still, his ability to return to practice before the season ended was evidence he would be ready to participate unrestricted this season. The additional time for tendon remodeling and strengthening only adds confidence to Rodgers’ readiness, and his style of play should not be impacted.

Kirk Cousins, QB, Atlanta Falcons: Cousins was having a strong first half of the season before it came to a crashing halt in Week 8 when he tore his right Achilles tendon. Although Cousins’ surgery and rehabilitation process have been less aggressive than that of Rodgers, he was never trying to get back within four months, given his late-October injury. All reports indicate his progression has gone smoothly, and the Falcons saw enough to make a guaranteed investment in his return. It is worth noting the injury is to Cousins’ back leg when he throws, the one responsible for helping push the ball down the field. Any power deficit in the Achilles could show up on deeper throws, so this will be something to watch when Cousins retakes the field.

J.K. Dobbins, RB, Los Angeles Chargers: Among the starting ranks of fantasy football players, quarterbacks were not the only victims of Achilles ruptures. Dobbins suffered a torn left Achilles in Week 1 of 2023 and, as if the severity and timing of such an injury weren’t painful enough, he had just returned the year prior from an ACL/LCL reconstruction on the opposite side. It took Dobbins most of that 2022 season to regain his form, but heading into last season he appeared poised to lead the backfield. Dobbins has played in only 24 games in his four NFL seasons, but he wants to turn his injury narrative around. As of spring OTAs, he said he felt “100 percent” and hopes to start training camp on time, but acknowledges the Chargers’ staff will control his progression. It typically takes athletes a year of game action to regain explosiveness and power following an Achilles repair, elements critical to Dobbins’ style of play. Even if he returns to action this fall as it appears he will, it might be 2025 before Dobbins can realize his post-injury potential.


ACL reconstruction

Return to play for NFL athletes following ACL reconstruction has become so successful that the expectation is for them to not only return the following season, but also to return to their pre-injury level of performance. It’s important to remember this remains a significant injury with a lengthy and intense recovery process, including highly variable individual parameters depending on the complexity of the injury (other ligament involvement, meniscus injury, cartilage damage), the timing (early in season vs. late, or even offseason), the demands of their position and style of play (mobile vs. pocket quarterback, power vs. speed/agility running back), to name a few. Consequently, each athlete’s unique situation warrants consideration.

T.J. Hockenson, TE, Minnesota Vikings: Perhaps the 2023 holidays were not the most fondly remembered for Hockenson, as he suffered a torn ACL and MCL in his right knee in Week 16 during a loss to his former team, no less. The upshot was Hockenson had to wait several weeks for the MCL to heal before undergoing reconstructive surgery on his ACL in late January. While he is progressing well, the Vikings have made it clear they will not rush to bring him back, nor should they, given his value to the team. When the season begins, Hockenson will be just over seven months removed from surgery. Even if he were to be cleared for football activities in training camp at six months post-op — as is sometimes the case to allow a player to progress via practice participation — it would not be surprising if he were still delayed to start the season.

Mike Williams, WR, Jets: In Week 3, the former Chargers receiver went down with a torn left ACL. Here’s where the timing is the silver lining. After undergoing surgery in late October, Williams will be nine months post-op when training camp opens with his new team. He has already indicated he expects to be ready to start the season, and if all continues smoothly from this point forward, it’s a reasonable expectation. Still, there is some acclimation to game action that will be necessary on his part, given his physical style and willingness to make contested catches, especially in the red zone. Moving past apprehension in a surgically repaired knee is a real thing athletes have to face and just how confident he is in his knee early on could be telling when it comes to his involvement in the Jets’ offense.

Daniel Jones, QB, New York Giants: Jones tore his right ACL in a noncontact maneuver on the grass field at Allegiant Stadium in Week 9, the first game he had played in a month after missing time with a neck issue. The silver lining was it was an isolated ACL tear — meaning no other structural damage — and Jones underwent reconstructive surgery in late November. As of February, he was throwing, and by May he was participating in spring practices, telling reporters he had introduced cutting alongside his running work and that his prior neck ailment is behind him. Jones’ goal is to be ready for Week 1 and, barring a setback, it appears he will meet that target. Given the nature of his recent injuries combined with his mobile style of play, there will be some apprehension about his durability at the outset. Jones can put that concern to rest if he is able to stay on the field throughout the season.

Jonathon Brooks, RB, Carolina Panthers: Brooks is the only rookie to make the list. He comes into the league recovering from ACL surgery but has a path to playing time as soon as he is healthy enough to go. Brooks stepped into the Bijan Robinson role at the University of Texas and looked ready-made for the pros until he went down in November with a knee injury. At the NFL combine, Brooks reported he had begun running and hoped to be fully cleared for training camp. Of course, it remains to be seen what his new team will have to say about his progression. An NFL study published in 2019 found players who entered the combine post-ACL surgery had a 25% chance of suffering a second ACL injury (on either side) within 22 months (as compared to a 9% chance for those with no history of a prior ACL injury). It would stand to reason that even once he begins football activities, he will be ramped up gradually as the Panthers do their part to protect their investment.

Nick Chubb, RB, Cleveland Browns: When Chubb’s left knee encountered the helmet of Steelers safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, it looked as if it might be the end of his career. After all, this was the same knee Chubb had dislocated in 2015 while playing at the University of Georgia. Despite tearing his PCL, LCL and MCL in that injury, Chubb returned to post more than 1,000 yards rushing in each of the next two seasons, which led to him being drafted by the Browns. In 2023, that same knee sustained tears of the ACL, MCL and medial meniscus, requiring two separate surgeries (MCL and meniscus in September, ACL in November). The Browns have only gone so far as to say they hope to have Chubb return at some point in 2024, but given his specific knee history and the complexity of his injury, it is likely to be a very slow process.


Everything else

Joe Burrow, QB, Cincinnati Bengals (wrist): Burrow struggled through the first six weeks of the 2023 season due to a calf injury sustained early in training camp. He finally rounded into form coming out of the team’s Week 7 bye, only to suffer a season-ending right wrist injury four weeks later. Burrow underwent surgery in late November to repair a torn scapholunate ligament, a ligament critical for wrist stability and normal motion. The key to a successful outcome is balancing the stability required from surgical repair with the mobility necessary to preserve touch and accuracy as a thrower. As of spring OTAs, Burrow was cleared to begin throwing the football, but how he performs as the volume of work increases will be something to watch during Bengals training camp.

Anthony Richardson, QB, Indianapolis Colts (right shoulder): Richardson started off his rookie season by putting to rest many of the questions about whether he could execute at the pro level after starting a limited number of games in college. The injury concerns, whether fair or unfair, remained, as he left early in three of the four games in which he played (bruised knee, concussion) with his third departure in Week 5 being for the remainder of the season. Richardson suffered an AC separation severe enough to warrant surgery which, at the time, presented some unknowns for how he would enter his second season. AC injuries are common in quarterbacks as a result of frequently being taken to the ground and landing on the point of the shoulder; surgeries to repair them are not (as most are less severe than Richardson’s). The good news is that the early videos that surfaced of Richardson throwing, combined with his spring practices, should inspire confidence about his progress. As of now, he appears well on his way to starting the season without limitation.

Tank Dell, WR, Houston Texans (fibula fracture): Dell was somewhat of a revelation in the upstart Texans offense, proving he could line up anywhere on the field and have success. In Week 13 however, he suffered a fibula fracture, bringing a premature end to his strong rookie campaign. Dell was determined to participate at the start of spring OTAs and appeared well on his way to doing so, as he was running full speed in March. Unfortunately, Dell was wounded in a shooting in April, and although the injuries were reportedly minor, it appeared he might be delayed in his return to football activities. But Dell was on the field with his teammates in May, running routes and moving well. His unrestricted return indicates he’ll be a full participant in training camp and on track to start the season.

Deshaun Watson, QB, Browns (right shoulder): Watson had problems with his right (throwing) shoulder for several weeks following a reported rotator cuff contusion in Week 3. He later sustained a fractured glenoid (socket of the shoulder) and a torn labrum, which ultimately ended his season. Watson underwent surgery in November to repair the fracture and the labrum and was projected to be ready to start the 2024 campaign, a lofty but not impossible goal. Watson resumed a progressive throwing program in March and had no setbacks up to spring OTAs. While there is still much work to be done to increase his work volume and throwing distance by the time the season begins, it appears Watson is on track to start the season.

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