Offseason Injury Rounds: Defense

Updating the status of J.J. Watt, NaVorro Bowman, Derrick Johnson, Jaylon Smith and many other injured defensive players


Edge Rushers
Player Injury Date Player/Team Says FBGs Expects
Jeremiah Attaochu Right foot fracture / fixation Late November 8 Weeks 12-16 Weeks / Ready for Training Camp
Cliff Avril Core abdominal muscle surgery Mid February   4-8 Weeks / Ready for Training Camp
Adrian Clayborn Torn biceps Mid January 5 Months Ready for Training Camp
Jadeveon Clowney Left arthroscopic knee surgery Mid January Doing well in rehab Ready for Training Camp
LaMarr Houston Left ACL repair Late September   6-9 Months / Ready for Training Camp 
Charles Johnson Microdiscectomy Mid March Ready for camp 12 Weeks / Ready for Training Camp
Ryan Kerrigan Left elbow surgery Late January 6-8 Weeks Ready for Training Camp
Hau'oli Kikaha Left ACL repair Early June Rehab ahead of schedule Ready for Training Camp
Demarcus Lawrence Back surgery Late January   Ready for Training Camp
Shaq Lawson Arthroscopic knee surgery Mid January Projected to be ready for OTAs Ready for Training Camp
Pernell McPhee Left shoulder labrum repair     4-6 Months / Ready for Training Camp
Jason Pierre-Paul Core abdominal muscle surgery Early December 4-8 Weeks Ready for OTAs
Noah Spence Right shoulder labrum repair Early January   4-6 Months / Ready for Training Camp
Terrell Suggs Biceps repair Early January   4-6 Months / Ready for Training Camp 
J.J. Watt Microdiscectomy Late September Says he was fully cleared in February Limited in OTAs / Ready for Training Camp

J.J. Watt | Microdiscectomy

Watt had microdiscectomy surgery to address a symptomatic herniated disc in mid-July last season. Initial estimates for Watt's return were in the 6-10 week range. Those estimates were technically accurate -- Watt would be healed enough to be cleared for contact within that timeframe -- but misleading. Many players, including recent defensive line comps like Jason Pierre-Paul and Dontari Poe, have said how difficult it is to recover from back surgeries similar to Watt's. Both Pierre-Paul and Poe returned but were not themselves for 4-6 months after the procedure. That's because it takes an additional length of time to recover the core strength and conditioning lost both before and after the surgery.

Watt returned for Week 1, only eight weeks after his surgery, and played nearly all of the available defensive snaps through Week 3 before re-injuring his back and requiring a second surgery in September. Watt would later say he was "being very prideful and wanting to get back as quickly as I possibly could. And wanting to...rehab quicker than anybody has rehabbed."

After the second surgery, the Texans quickly told reporters Watt would not return in 2016. Watt said in February he "finally realized...do what you need to do to make sure you're getting back 100% healthy." Watt also said his deliberate and focused rehab has been successful and he's been fully cleared for football activities. Now over six months from his second surgery, Watt is planning to participate in some OTAs and expects to return to form.

Many players have successfully rehabbed and returned to full form after microdiscectomy. The list includes a small handful of players who have had multiple procedures at the same level. (Rob Gronkowski is the most recent and prominent example.) Whether Watt joins the list of success stories remains to be seen but he will return to the field this summer having had enough time to regain the core strength and conditioning he was missing last September.


Defensive Line
Player Injury Date Player/Team Says FBGs Expects
Arik Armstead Left shoulder labrum surgery Mid November Ready for OTAs 4-6 Months / Ready for Training Camp 
Tyrone Crawford Left shoulder labrum surgery Late January   4-6 Months / Ready for Training Camp
Sharrif Floyd Femoral nerve palsy / quadriceps weakness September 2016 Career in jeopardy Awaiting Information
Eddie Goldman Left high ankle sprain Late December   Ready for Training Camp
Cameron Heyward Pectoral tendon repair Mid November   5-6 Months / Ready for Training Camp
Derrick Shelby Achilles tendon repair Mid October   8-9 Months / Could return for camp
Ndaumkong Suh Arthroscopic knee surgery Late January "minor knee cleanout" Ready for Training Camp

Linebackers
Player Injury Date Player/Team Says FBGs Expects
NaVorro Bowman Left Achilles tendon repair Early October  Rehab going smoothly 8-9 Months / Hopeful to return in camp
Deone Bucannon High ankle sprain Mid December Able to rehab w/o surgery  Ready for Training Camp
Brian Cushing Shoulder surgery Mid January Minor procedure, said 100% in March Ready for Training Camp
Derrick Johnson Left Achilles tendon repair Early December Wants to be running in OTAs 8-9 Months / Likely PUP in Camp
Luke Kuechly Concussion Mid November Expected to Return Ready for Training Camp
Koa Misi Neck surgery Early October Hopeful to be cleared in May Awaiting Information
Reggie Ragland Left ACL repair Early August Expected to be ready in camp Ready for Training Camp
Jaylon Smith Left peroneal nerve injury, ACL/LCL reconstruction January 2016 Will try to play w/ orthotic in 2017 Team conceding full recovery unlikely
Manti Te'o Left Achilles tendon repair Late September   8-9 Months / Hopeful for Training Camp
Danny Trevathan Right patellar tendon repair Late November Likely to open season on PUP 9+ Months / Start season on PUP
Sean Weatherspoon Right Achilles tendon repair Early October   8-9 Months / Hopeful for Training Camp

NaVorro Bowman | Achilles tendon repair
Derrick Johnson | Achilles tendon repair

As recently as five years ago, there was a sense among fans and fantasy football owners that an Achilles tear was a career death sentence for all football players. It was especially concerning for players who relied on explosion and change of direction. While I don't mean to minimize what is a very difficult recovery, improvements in surgical technique and rehab protocols had greatly increased the chances of a full recovery for most players.

Some still struggled to return to form (e.g. Mikel Leshoure), but many others recovered. The list of recoveries was heavily populated by defensive ends and linebackers who regained enough explosiveness to play every down and run up double digit sack seasons. Over the past few seasons, we've seen high profile wide receivers (Demaryius Thomas, Steve Smith, Michael Crabtree) join the ranks of those defenders.

Every Achilles' injury is different, however, and the rehab is long -- 7-9 months in most cases. Both Bowman and Johnson have important hurdles in their recovery. Bowman had yet to regain his explosiveness after a brutal ACL/MCL reconstruction before his injury. Johnson will turn 35 during the 2017 season. But both were playing at a high enough level that the loss of a small percentage of their athleticism may not end their careers.

Bowman says his rehab has progressed well and feels that this rehab has been easier on him than when he rehabbed after reconstructive knee surgery. He's hopeful for training camp. Johnson wants to be cleared to run and some individual work at some point during the OTA season but a December injury will make it tough for him to avoid the PUP list to start camp. Here's hoping both players can return to play effectively this season.

Luke Kuechly | Concussion

Kuechly did not return to play in 2016 after a November concussion. The Panthers were careful with Kuechly's rehab after their franchise linebacker took five weeks to return from a 2016 concussion. Though he had reportedly cleared concussion protocol before the end of last season, Carolina did not allow Kuechly to return to the field. 

After the season, Carolina general manager Dave Gettleman said there were "no concerns" about Kuechly returning to play this year and the Panthers have said he'll be ready to go this spring. Fully recovered, the question of whether Kuechly should be considered more likely than others to suffer future concussions lingers. There are two schools of thought here -- which are mutually exclusive. The first would argue that a fully recovered player should not be considered more likely to suffer a future concussion. The second would argue that a player who has suffered multiple concussions is more likely to suffer another -- whether a genetic, anatomic, or neurobiologic cause is identifiable or not.

What we do know is that the Panthers and Kuechly are likely to remain vigilant for symptoms and likely to rehab deliberately and carefully with any future injuries.

Jaylon Smith | Peroneal nerve injury

The Cowboys took a calculated risk when they drafted Smith in the second round last year. Pre-injury, Smith was an all-around stud and arguably the best linebacker in the draft class. Post-injury, the Cowboys knew there was a nerve injury complicating Smith's recovery and had a good sense of where he was in his recovery because Smith's surgeon was part of the Dallas medical staff.

There have been multiple updates on Smith's condition since last May. While mostly positive, Smith has yet to shed a special orthotic that keeps his left foot from dropping. That means the nerve that tells his lower leg muscle to lift his foot has not yet recovered. Though it takes many months to see full recovery, it's now 15 months after Smith's injury/surgery. It appears less and less likely Smith will gain full strength and function in his lower leg. The Cowboys have more or less conceded this as well, hinting that they're preparing to have Smith play with the orthotic this year.

Dr. David Chao tweeted that he knows of an offensive lineman and a quarterback who played with a similar orthotic. But it would be unprecedented for a player who relies on athleticism and change of direction to do so successfully. The orthotic will allow Smith to keep from tripping when he runs and cuts. But it cannot replace the explosiveness lost after Smith's injury. And, according to former New England team physician, Dr. Thomas Gill, it may put him at risk of other injuries around the foot and ankle.

Don't write off Smith entirely just yet. His recovery may not yet be complete. But it would appear that the Cowboys and Smith are beginning to recognize that a full recovery is unlikely. Let's hope not. A healthy Smith was a frighteningly good prospect.


Defensive Backs
Player Injury Date Player/Team Says FBGs Expects
Kam Chancellor Ankle surgeries Early March Minor, weight bearing soon after procedure Ready for Training Camp
Morris Claiborne Torn groin muscle Late October No report of offseason surgery Ready for Training Camp
Clayton Geathers Neck injury Late November Told reporters no long term concern Ready for Training Camp
Joe Haden Core abdominal muscle repair Mid January Expects to be ready for OTAs 4-8 Weeks / Ready for Training Camp
DeAngelo Hall Right ACL reconstruction Late September   6-9 Months / Ready for Training Camp
George Iloka Arthroscopic shoulder surgery January Expected to be ready for OTAs Ready for Training Camp
Kevin Johnson Metatarsal fracture revision surgery Mid October   Ready for Training Camp
Reshad Jones Rotator cuff repair Mid October Healed and expected to be cleared 6-8 Months / Ready for Training Camp
Sam Shields Concussion Early September Continued symptoms, not yet cleared Out indefinitely, remains free agent
Harrison Smith Ankle surgery February Expected to be ready for regular season 4-5 Months / Hopeful for training camp
Earl Thomas Left tibia fracture Early December Ahead of schedule Ready for Training Camp
Desmond Trufant Pectoral tendon repair Late November Expected to be ready for training camp Ready for Training Camp
Jason Verrett Left ACL reconstruction Early October   6-9 Months / Ready for Training Camp


Follow me on Twitter @JeneBramel for breaking injury news and analysis throughout the offseason.