The Garbage Ail-ment Kids

The agony of defeat by injury. - Joe Robbins

This year's crop of injured-but-talented college players and if/when to take the risk on them in the draft.

This is only the second year I have been as invested in the NFL draft as I currently am (meaning: scouting as many players as I can during the CFB season and into all-star games and combine), so it feels like there are a shockingly high number of players going into this year’s draft with some serious injury concerns (if not serious current injuries). From Lattimore’s heartbreaking second knee injury, to Jarvis Jones’ spine, to Matt Barkley’s shoulder…many of this year’s best prospects are a little (or a lot) dinged up.

Injuries are not things NFL franchises scoff at. Not everyone can do what Adrian Peterson has done, and come back from a serious injury like Lee Majors…bigger, faster, and stronger. More than likely, many of these guys will slowly go the way of UW’s Chris Polk…a guy with an incredible college career, and many 3rd-round draft projections, who ended up off most teams’ boards and out of the draft altogether, not because of an actual injury, but because of reports of a degenerative condition that could lead to future injury.

So how will teams handle these players and their various medicals? I think it depends on the player, the position he plays, and the injury. Danny Kelly will take a deeper look at the logistics of drafting a player with injury or injury-concern (PUP/IR/etc). For my part, and without doing much research, I’m just going to make an educated guess that GM’s will prefer to take players at premium positions (OT/DE/DT) at a one-round discount (QB’s may only drop a matter of a couple picks), and for most other positions they will need a two-round discount. Basically, the Walter Thurmond rule…a 2nd-round talent that fell to the 4th.

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Photo courtesy USA TODAY Sports

Barkley is probably the highest profile name coming off an injury. He suffered a sprained shoulder late in the 2012 season causing him to miss USC’s games against Notre Dame and Georgia Tech. But Barkley is expected to be healthy enough to participate in all aspects of the NFL Combine next week, including throwing drills. As a QB, Barkley won’t be a need for the Seahawks, and I’d still expect Barkley to be taken in the first 15 picks of the draft.

Another projected 1st-rounder with medical "yellow flags" is Georgia LB/DE Jarvis Jones. Jones has a condition known as spinal stenosis which, from my limited understanding, is 1) degenerative, and 2) worst-case scenario, could lead to paralysis. Regardless of this condition, Jones is still expected to be drafted long before the Hawks are on the clock this year. More on spinal stenosis later.

This brings us to the first guy that has been linked to the Hawks at #25: FSU 6’5"/265 DE Cornelius "Tank" Carradine. Tank began the year as one of FSU’s unbelievable trio of pass-rushers that included top-5 pick Bjoern Werner and highly touted Senior Brandon Jenkins. Jenkins, himself, went down in the season opener with a Lisfranc injury, thereby opening the door for Carradine to start for the remainder of the season. Tank made it through 12 games, racking up 11 sacks, 2 more TFL, 9 more QBH, a forced fumble, and 80 total tackles before tearing his ACL.

Although the 11 sacks is the "sexy" stat, those 80 total tackles are not to be overlooked. That is an insane number for a DE (only Damontre Moore had more tackles from a DE: 85), and really speaks to Carradine’s ability against the run, and therefore his ability to be a three-down player. Watch his tape against Clemson and it’s easy to see that Tank is analyzing and diagnosing plays.

"Patience" isn’t generally a word used in conjunction with DE’s, but Carradine is patient. This does a couple things: 1) it allows him to play the run, 2) it prevents the OT from knowing if/when Tank is "coming" (a game-long rope-a-dope). When Tank IS coming, he has all you need from the edge…size, length, power, technique. Even while missing the final two games of the FSU season, Carradine still finished in the top 15 sackers in the country (and only 2 behind Werner). So where does this leave him?

I think it creates two different evaluations: "film value" and "injury value". I don’t have a problem giving Tank a 1st-round value from his film. And I don’t even worry as much about him returning from the ACL. The medical technology and physical therapy is so advanced at this point, I think he’ll make a full recovery and return to form. The problem is…time. Can Seattle (or any team) afford the price in time to wait for the full recovery to occur?

It’s my thinking that the players drafted in the first 3 rounds of every draft should be impact players from day one. I don’t use the term "starter" because on an already deep roster Seattle has the flexibility to draft for "role players". The nickel CB, the Joker TE, the Bruce Irvin 3rd-down rush specialist, etc. In fact, as Davis Hsu has pointed out, with the exception of a DT, it can be expected that most of the Hawks’ first four picks this year will only play about 30 snaps a game. Even if we got the one-round, injury "discount" for a premium DE in Carradine, I’m not sure I can pull the trigger on that pick simply because his recovery time is not going to put him on track to be ready for training camp, preseason, or even the start of regular season. That’s on top of the same questions we have for Chris Clemons. Give me the opportunity to get Tank in the 3rd round, and that would be a much tougher decision. I still think I’d pass, but that is because there are a couple other injury question mark DE’s that I think I can get even later.

The next injured DE (also with an ACL) is Western Kentucky’s Quanterus Smith. You may have read my thoughts on him before. I love the guy. I think he has more upside than Tank in terms of pure pass-rush (less ability vs the run), a slightly more timely recovery expectation, and with a lower draft projection. The name of the game in the NFL draft is maximizing value at each pick. And I think Q has comparable film value to Tank, but a better injury value, and available later in the draft. Basically, if either of these two fall to that WT3 spot in the 4th round, run to the podium. I can swallow the idea of stashing a 4th-round pick on PUP for a while. Q seems the more likely to be on the board that late.

The last DE from the injury report is different from Tank and Q. He doesn’t currently have an injury. He will be participating at the combine, and will likely crush at it (already known: 6’5"/250). This guy has a degenerative condition. We’re talking about Cincinnati DE Walter Stewart and his version of spinal stenosis. I’ve talked a bit about Stewart before, but to remind you…he retired from college ball six games into this year after doctors discovered the problem in his spine. The first diagnosis suggested continuing to play was too great a risk for Stewart. At some point, a second opinion or further tests were taken, and Walter was cleared to attempt to play in the league.

Even before the stenosis diagnosis, Stewart seemed a fantastic value as a 5th round projection. Now that he has missed so many games and the injury concern has been raised, Stewart will likely become an UDFA. But I would draft him. I wouldn’t mind using a 6th on him, so certainly I’d jump at the chance to get him in the 7th. He’s just a sick athlete with speed, power, and bend. Using the 6-game sample of his actual stats and projecting for a full 13 games, Stewart could have finished the year with similar production to Ziggy Ansah or Datone Jones, so to get him multiple rounds later than either of those two seems such a steal.

In terms of the D-line "bigs" there are a couple lesser names to consider with injuries this year. Both are listed as DE’s but are over 300lbs and could/should move to DT. Georgia has Abry Jones (6’3"/308) and Notre Dame has Kapron Lewis-Moore (6’4"/306). Jones only played seven games this year before suffering a season-ending ankle injury against Kentucky. Story goes that he was nearly ready to return in time for Georgia’s bowl game, but was held out at the end. However, he should be good to go for the combine. KLM wasn’t injured until the literal very last game of the season…the national championship game versus Alabama. And it was a knee injury. KLM is an interesting prospect that could play the Red Bryant 5-tech, but also can play inside at 3 and/or 1. Here’s my personal cut of KLM versus USC:

On the opposite side of the line, this year has a couple day-2 OT’s coming off of injury to keep in mind. The first is LSU’s Chris Faulk, who came out of the 2011 season with a lot of buzz. But I think the buzz was based on an assumption he would improve this year. Unfortunately, Faulk didn’t play past this year’s season opener, when he suffered a "significant" but unspecified knee injury. This leaves us with only tape from his sophomore year, which is less-than-compelling. He needs a lot of work. I wouldn’t recommend looking at him before the 5th round.

A bigger interest to me would be North Carolina’s ROT Brennan Williams. Listed at 6’7"/315, Williams spent most of the year playing alongside Jonathan Cooper and helping the Tar Heels to 193.8 rushing yards per game. Before suffering a torn labrum in his shoulder in October, Williams had some 1st-round projections due to his prototypical size, length, and speed. I had him rated higher than DJ Fluker. In this particular case, the injury may actually be a blessing in disguise, as Williams is now looking like he’ll be drafted in the 3rd-5th range, and I have no problem with taking him at the high end of that section. I watched a few UNC games this year, and Williams rarely (if ever) let his assignment get to the QB. Going forward as an organization, keeping Russell Wilson upright is priority one. I know we’re a "running team", but I think it’s easier for a good pass-blocker to excel at run-blocking in the ZBS, than it is for a good run-blocker to learn to pass-protect. Regardless, watch Brennan move and attack the second level against VT:

I have no doubts he can play ROT at the next level, he may be able to step in at left tackle if needed, and if he can pick up some OG versatility, Williams could be a highly valuable part of the O-line in 2013. He’d certainly be in my plans to replace Breno Giacomini in 2014 at a huge cap savings.

Let’s talk some skill positions. In the secondary I have a couple late-round targets with question marks: Syracuse SS Shamarko Thomas and Houston CB DJ Hayden. Shamarko is a really interesting, undersized but blazing safety in the mold of Earl Thomas. I pop on some of his tape, and I’m like "Sham-WOW! Where did he come from on that play?!" But if you stay till the end of some of his games, you’ll be like, "dude got knocked the F out." Concussions seem to have become a recurring theme in Thomas’ game. I like his skillset (got some thump, can play some man corner, certainly would be awesome on special teams), I like his aggressiveness, I like his demeanor, but sometimes he gets sloppy, puts himself in the wrong position, drops his head, and his build just doesn’t take the contact from big TE’s.

My second DB, Hayden, is one that has some of my absolute highest film value, but that comes with one of the absolute lowest and scariest injury values. Hayden’s injury came in practice and is so freakish that I’ve never heard of it before. And I don’t think I could do justice to properly describing what it was. The basic idea is that he tore a rather large vein near his heart. His doctor at UH described it as the single scariest football injury he’d ever been a part of. It’s the kind of injury that more often comes from high-speed vehicle injuries. It’s the kind of injury that has a 95% fatality rate. It’s the kind of survival that the word "miraculous" gets attached to.

So Hayden’s story becomes unprecedented. The injury never occurs this way, survival of the injury is improbable, and certainly a return to football from said injury has literally never been attempted. But something tells me this guy is special. Well, besides his film, which is special in itself.

In only 9 games this year, before his injury, Hayden had 4 INT, 8 PBU, 1.5 TFL, 1 FF, and a staggering 61 total tackles from the CB position. Numbers that put him at the top of the CB production chart if projected for 13 games, and that put him ahead of Richard Sherman’s senior-year numbers of 4 INT, 9 PBU, 50 TT, 1 TFL, 2 FF (all of which came over the course of four more games than Hayden played). And at 6’0"/190, Hayden is one of the more impressive corners by size, in this smaller draft class. I currently see projections of Hayden getting drafted in the 6th-7th round, and I wouldn’t be surprised at the former. His tape is simply too good not to take a day-three flyer on him. His backpeddle is butter, his hips are liquid, his wrap-up is textbook, his instincts are sharp, and his story is prepped for a storybook ending.

And I’ll close out with where I began…with Marcus Lattimore and the RB’s. I think most are familiar with Lattimore’s story. It’s tragic. And he will certainly take a multi-round fall in the draft as a result of his repeated major-knee injuries. I don’t think he will be on the Hawks’ draft board. But there are a couple RB’s that might be.

Out of FSU, Chris Thompson is a scat-back who began the season on an unbelievable tear. We’re talking over 7.5 yards per carry and 11.8 yards per catch as a change-of-pace back (only averaged 12.4 touches/gm), in the 9 games he managed to play in before tearing his ACL. The ACL injury came after Thompson already had made an impressive return/recovery from broken vertebrae in his back suffered in 2011. The guy has got some determination. Coming from a position that requires so much out of the knees, but not being an every-down back, it’s my estimation that CT doesn’t get drafted. But I would definitely consider him for a Chris Polk UDFA deal.

My last player is the one I have only recently learned about, but that I loved at first sight. Listed at 5’10"/210 (but looking more like 5’9"), this RB (in limited available film) showed me flashes of a mini-beast. Coming out of the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders, this is Benny Cunningham:

Power, balance, speed, toughness. So many great traits encapsulated in such a quick sample. I really wish there were more tape. But there isn’t. A) because MTSU doesn’t get a lot of TV time, B) Benny the Jet was injured after only five games this year. But in those five games he went for 600 yards on 97 carries (6.19ypc) and 11 TD’s. His 120.0 yards/gm would have put him 12th in all of the FBS, and his 11 TD’s tied him for 53rd. Project his 5-game totals for a full 13-game season and we’d be looking at: 1560 yds (10th in the nation), 28 TD’s (1st in the nation), and an additional 283 yards receiving (at 12.1 ypc). Cunningham is coming off of surgery to repair a torn patellar tendon in his left knee in mid-October. As with many of my favorite draft prospects, Benny is on the Nyquil…sleeping away. Not getting any draft love. Good. He could end up being this year’s Alfred Morris.

It’s interesting to note that, in spite of all of these various injuries/conditions, every single player in this story (except for Cunningham) have been invited to the combine. It will be even more interesting to see which will be able to participate (partially/fully). It will be most interesting to see how the league interprets their injuries, projects their success, and when they’ll finally call these names from the podium. If I'm a GM, I'm seriously considering Brenna William in the 3rd, Quanterus Smith in the 4th, Walter Stewart and DJ Hayden in the 6th, and Chris Thompson and Benny Cunningham in the 7th. Regardless of ailment.

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