Injury Report: Next Man Up, Week 15
Rob Gronkowski’s unfortunate injury on Sunday reignited the debate over whether the NFL’s emphasis on preventing concussions is offset by more torn ACLs, as players choose to aim low rather than high. As reporters rushed to ask players if they’d rather get hit in the knees or head (as if asking a man to hypothetically choose between a year on crutches or early onset dementia proves anything to anyone), I failed to see why this has to be an either/or question. Though I won’t speculate on how specific coaches are teaching their players to tackle, I do know that some of the attempts we see in our film review (many of them on missed tackles) can’t be proper form.
If the NFL does ban low hits and blocks at some point, you won’t hear me lament that the league is killing the game. Even the clothesline and the head slap had its staunch supporters. Instead, I’ll see another step towards shuttling players back to better tackling and fewer missed tackles.
Keeping in mind that no rules are ever going to eliminate brutal injuries from football, here’s a rundown of this week’s biggest injuries and what to expect from the players stepping into a larger role.
Injury: Rob Gronkowski, Patriots TE (Torn ACL & MCL)
Next Man Up: Shane Vereen
What They’re Losing: Gronkowski’s receiving production is well-documented; his 2.75 Yards Per Route Run is the best mark for any tight end with over 25 targets this season. But the Patriots will also miss his dominant blocking. Though he hasn’t had as big an impact there this season, his +34.3 run block grade since entering the league is the best of any tight end.
What They’re Getting: Most teams wouldn’t rely on a running back to replace a tight end, but most teams don’t use their players in flexibly as the Patriots do. Vereen has been more receiver than runner, with a 2.54 Yards Per Route Run mark that ranks second among running backs with double-digit targets.
Outcome: New England will still find ways to move the ball without Gronkowski, but they’ll find a tougher time replacing his blocking. Tight ends Michael Hoomanawanui and Matthew Mulligan, as well as fullback James Develin, all grade negatively in that category.
Injury: K.J. Wright, Seahawks OLB (Fractured Foot)
Next Man Up: Malcolm Smith
What They’re Losing: Often flying under the radar in a star-studded defense, Wright has been one of the best cover linebackers in the league over the last two seasons. If you noticed him on Monday Night Football locking down the Saints running backs and tight ends two weeks ago, it won’t surprise you that he has the fifth-highest coverage grade of any 4-3 outside linebacker this season.
What They’re Getting: Despite his limited snaps, Smith has the fourth-highest overall grade of any 4-3 outside linebacker this season. He has yet to miss a tackle, and is near the top of his position in both Run Stop Percentage and Coverage Snaps Per Reception.
Outcome: Not to diminish Wright’s outstanding coverage, but Smith’s all-around play in a limited role makes me excited to see what he will do with a full workload these next few weeks.
Injury: Tyrann Mathieu, Cardinals DB (Torn ACL & LCL)
Next Man Up: Antoine Cason
What They’re Losing: Mathieu is listed as a safety on the Cardinals roster, but he was so much more this season. He played 65.4% of his snaps as a slot cornerback and allowed a 62.0 passer rating in that role. Living up to his playmaking reputation, he also was second among defensive backs in quarterback pressures.
What They’re Getting: A player as versatile as Mathieu can’t be replaced by one person, but Cason saw the biggest uptick in snaps in his absence last week, while Jerraud Powers slid over to handle slot duties. A former first round pick, Cason was in the Top 15 of our cornerback coverage grades as recently as 2010, but was Bottom 10 with the Chargers last season.
Outcome: The Cardinals secondary has enough talent that they won’t go in the tank without Mathieu. But they won’t be nearly as dynamic without a player who had a legitimate case for not just for Defensive Rookie of the Year, but for an All-Pro selection as well.
Injury: John Greco, Browns LG (Sprained Knee)
Next Man Up: Jason Pinkston
What They’re Losing: Last season was a big one for Greco. The fifth-year veteran finally got the chance to be a full-time starter and posted the fourth-best run blocking grade of any left guard in the league. We named him the Browns’ Secret Superstar, and shortly thereafter he agreed to a five-year extension with Cleveland. But his run blocking has been below-average this season, and now his 2013 campaign may end prematurely.
What They’re Getting: It was Pinkston’s injury last year that opened the door for Greco. He struggled in his only season as a starter, posting the second-worst run block grade of any left guard in 2011.
Outcome: Greco’s extension wasn’t big enough to absolutely guarantee him a starting job long-term, but Pinkston isn’t a big threat to grab this opportunity by the horns. There will be no role reversal here, and Greco should be in place in 2014 to rebound from a disappointing season.
Injury: Terence Newman, Bengals CB (Sprained Knee)
Next Man Up: Dre Kirkpatrick
What They’re Losing: Given how Newman finished his last season with the Cowboys, you would’ve been right to think his career was cooked. But he’s revitalized himself in Cincinnati, posting a +8.3 grade last season and again staying in the positives this year.
What They’re Getting: Kirkpatrick has yet to make the impact the Bengals expected when they selected him with the 17th overall pick in last year’s draft. The 2.03 Yards Per Coverage Snap he’s allowed is the fourth-most of any cornerback with 50 coverage snaps.
Outcome: I was concerned when the Bengals lost one of the league’s best cornerbacks in Leon Hall, but Adam Jones has filled in reasonably well for him. The same can’t be expected from Kirkpatrick, who may quickly be in over his head.
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