Draft's top prospects have some minor injury red flags to watch
This year's top prospects have fewer serious injury concerns than last year
Trent Richardson's knee troubles lead teams to believe he needs a good No. 2 RB
There's more comfort with 'Bama players due to team doctor James Andrews
Well before the NFL Draft and even before the Combine, team doctors, athletic trainers and scouts will sit down and go through medical files of the potential draftees. Most players will make their medical files available to teams. The process is so thorough that things have gone from trying to hide injuries to open, proactive disclosure. "We're going to find it," said Dr. Neal ElAttrache, one of the top sports medicine surgeons and former team doctor for the Los Angeles Rams, "so most people get it out in the open."
Red flags are used to mark injury risks in those files. NFL teams tend to be very risk averse in the first round, leading to some players dropping slots and even rounds. If we look back to last year, we can see that injury risks coming into the draft often became injury problems on rosters.
This year doesn't have quite as many health questions in the first round (as determined by Don Banks' last mock draft). But there are still a few surprising injury dilemmas, and teams will be working right up to Thursday's picks (and into Friday and Saturday) in order to answer the question for themselves.
What? Yes, seeing Andrew Luck on an injury list is a bit of a shocker, but there is a history that had Indianapolis concerned. Luck has a tendency to hit his hand on helmets on his follow-through. It led to surgery in 2009 to repair internal damage (likely a torn tendon). A scout told me that his long follow-through helps his accuracy and deep ball, but it also exposes him if a teammate or pass rusher gets into that space. Just look at the picture accompanying this article for an idea of what Luck's fingers are doing. It's not a major concern, since all QBs have this risk at some level. Luck has certainly had results before and after the surgery to assuage any concerns. One scout told me that Peyton Manning has the same kind of follow-through. "[Jeff] Saturday learned to keep guys from right in front of him," he explained. "[Saturday] would turn them and let them push to the sides, but never straight back to [Manning.] Luck will need the same, maybe from the guards too."
The third QB in this draft missed both the Senior Bowl and the Combine while letting a broken bone in his foot heal. This wasn't a stress injury, like what Michael Crabtree dealt with in the run-up to his being drafted. While Tannehill hasn't made the explanation for the injury in public, teams seem comfortable with what they know. Comparisons to Matt Schaub's recent foot injury are way off, since Tannehill is already running, and should be able to begin working with his new team immediately. There is some concern about recurrence, but both Miami and Seattle seem willing to take on that risk if they can get Tannehill on Thursday.
Richardson is the clear No. 1 choice for any team looking for a back. While RBs are often considered unworthy of top picks due to their injury risks and the ability to find value in later rounds, Richardson is good enough to overcome the bias. The surprising part is that he does this with some serious health concerns. In the rush to anoint him the best available back and a pick as high as No. 4, few note that Richardson didn't run at the Combine. He'd had knee surgery -- not his first -- and was also unavailable at the Alabama pro day. He held his own workouts in late March and showed good speed. There's some durability concerns, but those are long-term, and he's helped by being a 'Bama player (more on that below.) The Browns have done their due diligence and seem comfortable, as do the Bucs. No doctor in the top 10 passed on Richardson due to his medical history or exams, though several seem to have questioned his durability. "Our [doctor] said he was going to need a solid No. 2 with him," a scout told me. "He's 25 carries, not 35. He's not [Adrian] Peterson."
Floyd is the prototype big receiver. He might "play slower" than his 4.4 speed, but his size is undisputed. Of course, that speed might be due to him never really staying healthy for a long period of time. It's one thing to rest a couple months and fire off a couple good sprints at the Combine, and another to stay healthy through the grind of camps and then the NFL season. Like many speed-size combos, Floyd has had a hard time staying healthy. It's confusing. Logic says that speed and size should make players more likely to stay healthy, but they're also a statistically small and improbable group to begin with. Floyd has had minor sprains and strains, but nothing serious enough to drop him on his medicals.
While Nick Toon got the WR gene from his father Al, he may not have gotten the health gene. Toon has had recurrent problems with both feet, requiring surgery after last season. While the injury itself isn't that serious, the recurrent, even chronic nature has teams dropping him way down their boards. One scout says that several teams stopped looking at Toon after the Combine, saying that because their teams played on turf, they didn't believe Toon would get past their doctors. Toon has also had issues with turf toe. While he had a fine pro day and has good size, the injury history has many worried, and he'll drop to Friday as a result. One team noted his father's problems with concussions as another factor, though there's no known genetic predisposition to concussions, and Toon has no noted history.
After testing positive for marijuana at the Combine, Adams shouldn't be surprised as he plummets toward Friday. It's not just that, as Adams has a history of off-field issues and on-field injuries. Shoulder, foot and knee ailments derailed him at times at Ohio State, though he was healthy for the last couple seasons. One team thinks he "matured late physically and later emotionally" and that the physical issues should be behind him. "He worked hard, rehabbed well, and never saw a physical problem repeat," said one scout who's been watching Adams closely. "All they'll talk about is the pot, but it's the shoulder that some teams are overreacting to." Adams is expected to go in the middle of the second round, perhaps to Cleveland or Detroit.
About the only knock on Hightower is the knee surgery he had in '09. He tore his ACL, had it repaired, and came back to dominate at LB. He's well thought of, can play several techniques depending on the scheme, and both Pittsburgh and Baltimore are known to really like his potential. Hightower has been durable aside from the major knee injury, but did lose a bit of explosion after that. He ran a 4.68 40 and showed some problems with quick backs who could cut back on him. A 3-4 scheme plays to both his strengths and weaknesses.
Another 'Bama player? Despite the injury histories, their players don't fall as far. The reason is very simple. Just look at their team roster, underneath all the top prospects, and find the team physician's name. You might recognize it: James Andrews. Having Andrews monitor its players throughout their college careers gives 'Bama (and Auburn! Yes, he does both teams.) an advantage in this regard. Just as NFL doctors were loathe to go against Andrews' opinion in the case of Sam Bradford or Adrian Peterson, they're less likely to go against someone Andrews knows as more than a consult. Barron's been relatively healthy, but had a pectoral injury that could be more of a problem in the pros than it was at 'Bama. The St. Paul's (Mobile, AL) product has a habit of jumping routes that can leave him reaching back for receivers.
Baseball has Mordecai Brown. The NFL might soon have Whitney Mercilus. You see, Brown is better known as "Three-Finger," after a farm incident left him without two digits. The extra movement on his pitches helped, sending him to Cooperstown. Mercilus lost just a tip after a weight room incident. Teams seemed overly concerned with this relatively minor injury as they looked at him, more a morbid curiousity than really wondering how it would affect his play at the next level. Mercilus could sneak into the bottom of the first round.