Injury Report: Next Man Up, Week 17
With the amount of teams facing must-win situations to make it past the regular season, half of the NFL is already essentially in playoff mode. Every injury is magnified even further, as missing a key player could be the difference between one more step towards the Super Bowl or an early start to the offseason. And avoiding the inactive list doesn’t necessarily put a player in the clear.
Cowboys linebacker DeMarcus Ware valiantly suited up for last season’s winner-take-all finale despite shoulder and elbow injuries, then earned a career-low -3.7 run defense grade as the Redskins romped for 274 yards on the ground. One year later, Dallas may be done in by an injury to an even more crucial position. That’s as good a place as any to start our final regular season edition of Next Man Up.
Injury: Tony Romo, Cowboys QB (Back)
Next Man Up: Kyle Orton
What They’re Losing: Romo will always have a meltdown game here and there, but his +13.2 pass grade this season lands him ninth among quarterbacks. His biggest mistakes come when he doesn’t have a clean pocket, and such was the case in Week 7 where he had two interceptions and a 24.4 QB rating when the Eagles pressured him.
What They’re Getting: Orton’s last notable NFL achievement was as the Chiefs quarterback in 2011, when he used an efficient and accurate performance to upset the 13-0 Packers. It helped that he was pressured on only three drop backs that day, as Orton’s game historically tends to collapse as his pocket does.
Outcome: Orton can be a solid quarterback when given the time to throw, and Dallas’ offensive line does have the eighth-best Pass Blocking Efficiency rate of any team this season. But the Cowboys interior line has shown some cracks the last couple of weeks, and Eagles defensive end Fletcher Cox terrorized them for seven quarterback hurries in Week 7. The winner of that matchup may decide whether Orton is competent enough to earn Dallas their elusive NFC East crown.
Injury: Von Miller, Broncos OLB (Torn ACL)
Next Man Up: Robert Ayers, Jeremy Mincey & Nate Irving
What They’re Losing: Some analysts who do their homework by sorting the “sacks” column on NFL.com have concluded that Miller’s five QB takedowns means he wasn’t the player he’s been in the past. Nothing could be further from the truth. With Miller’s +40.2 grade in nine games, only Robert Quinn can claim to be having a better season as an edge defender.
What They’re Getting: Miller’s skills and responsibilities are so unique, it takes three men to replace him. Ayers has the 11th-best run defense grade of any 4-3 defensive end, but both he and Mincey have been just average pass rushers. Irving has mustered just five QB pressures in three seasons off the bench.
Outcome: Simply put, there is no replacing Miller; a run-stopping linebacker who can rush as a down lineman and hold his own in coverage. We’ve seen teams overcome huge injuries to win a Super Bowl, but this is a crippling loss for a contender.
Injury: Kenny Vaccaro, Saints SS (Broken Ankle)
Next Man Up: Roman Harper
What They’re Losing: Merely calling Vaccaro a “safety” is a disservice to all the roles he plays for the Saints. Much like fellow rookie Tyrann Mathieu, Vaccaro split his snaps equally as a deep free safety, box strong safety, and slot cornerback, sometimes matching up against the NFL’s best receivers and tight ends.
What They’re Getting: Harper’s woes were a big reason the 2012 Saints gave up more yards than any other defense in the NFL history. His -13.2 coverage grade and 663 yards allowed in coverage were both the worst marks by any safety in the league.
Outcome: Vaccaro was only getting better in his very demanding role as the season went along; he’s earned a +4.9 coverage grade since the bye and hadn’t allowed a touchdown since Week 8. Now the Saints, already with a bye slipping through their fingers, have to downgrade at one of their defense’s most important positions.
Injury: Jake Long, Rams T (Torn ACL & MCL)
Next Man Up: Rodger Saffold
What They’re Losing: Once the NFL’s gold standard for left tackles, Long regressed so badly last year that the Rams were able to sign him for a relative value in free agency. But he took major strides back towards his old form this year, posting the sixth-highest grade of any left tackle and nearly earning a spot on our Pro Bowl team.
What They’re Getting: He may be disgruntled off the field after being bumped out of the premiere left tackle spot by Long’s arrival, but Saffold has carried himself well on the field with a +9.6 grade in six starts at his new right guard spot. And with 16 QB pressures allowed in 10 starts on the blind side last season, he can hold down the fort in the Rams final game.
Outcome: ACL tears this late in the season are especially tragic because they put next season in jeopardy as well. Set to hit free agency in March, Saffold gets one more chance to show prospective suitors that he is deserving of a spot on the outside (and the big money that comes with it). The Rams, meanwhile, are left to worry that Long may never recapture his old glory.
Injury: Steve Smith, Panthers WR (Sprained Knee)
Next Man Up: Domenik Hixon
What They’re Losing: Smith may not have won many fantasy owners a championship this year with just 745 receiving yards, but ask his opponents if he was any less of a menace to cover on the field. Though he wasn’t the deep threat he’s been in the past, the 15 missed tackles he forced were tied for the third-most of any wide receiver.
What They’re Getting: Hixon’s career has been pockmarked with injuries, but he’s always been productive when called on to play a starter’s role. His 2.25 Yards Per Route Run with the Giants last season were the 12th-highest mark of any NFL wide receiver with 50+ targets, and slightly ahead of Smith’s rate.
Outcome: Hixon already made an impact with his game-winning touchdown last week, continuing a career-long pattern of coming up big off the bench. Cam Newton’s success this season has been more about late-game heroics than consistent quality throws, but he has done a better job finding targets other than Smith. The Panthers would certainly prefer their No. 1 target suit up for their first playoff game, but they can survive without him.
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