A preseason injury outlook on fantasy-noteworthy wide receivers. This column will be updated throughout the summer:
Andre Johnson, Houston Texans: It's no secret that Johnson dealt with hamstring injuries for much of last season, injuring first his right leg, which resulted in a minor surgical procedure and a two-month absence, then straining his left leg, which led to another three weeks off the field. He did manage to finish out the season, however, so some were surprised when he underwent an arthroscopic procedure on his left knee in May, forcing him to sit out OTAs and minicamps.
Johnson explained that after hyperextending his knee last season, the knee continued to nag at him, primarily in the form of persistent swelling. The decision was made to surgically address the cause of the swelling in the hopes of being ready to go by training camp.
The concern about Johnson's durability at this point is warranted. He is, after all, now 30 years old, and the type of injury that forced him to miss such extensive time last season hints at the toll of the physical wear and tear accumulated after nine seasons in the league. In 2010, Johnson also missed time due to a high ankle sprain. The thing about Johnson is that when he is on the field, he is clearly the Texans' top receiving threat and still delivers fantasy value. Johnson understands the concern over his health given his recent history, but he seems intent on proving he can still deliver at an elite level. As he told reporters recently, he wants to get back to being "that 1,500-yard Andre." Fantasy owners would certainly welcome that, but admittedly the prospect seems a bit riskier this year than in years past.
Addendum (July 30): No sooner than Johnson declared himself fully healthy and "ready to go" for training camp, the injury bug struck again. Fortunately for Johnson and the Texans the bug seems to have delivered a minor sting as opposed to a full-blown bite. On just the second day of camp, the now 31-year-old Johnson went down with a groin strain during morning practice. An MRI confirmed a "mild strain." By the afternoon, Johnson was downplaying the incident, telling reporters he expected to miss "a week or so" primarily as a means of ensuring the injury does not worsen. By Sunday afternoon, Johnson was seen walking without a limp, lamenting the fact he has to spend a few days doing the all-too-familiar rehab instead of practice. This latest setback does not appear to be anything significant in terms of the scope of injury but it does reinforce our preseason assessment.
Kenny Britt, Tennessee Titans: Britt tore the ACL and MCL in his right knee in late September and underwent surgical reconstruction in October. It would seem that his timetable would put him right on track for training camp. Or not.
Shortly after making a radio appearance in May (in which he said he was running full speed and cutting), he noted he was still having swelling in the knee, and underwent a subsequent arthroscopic procedure to address the source of that swelling. While this is not completely unusual, it still represents a speed bump in the road to recovery for Britt, which necessitated a slowing of the timetable. The Titans are still optimistic that he will be ready for the regular season, but general manager Ruston Webster told reporters Britt will be limited in training camp. And as is always the case with these injuries, it remains to be seen how his knee responds once he introduces football activities. In other words, there is no guarantee at this stage as to when Britt will take the field or how much playing time he will see out of the gate.
It's worth pointing out that Britt, who played only three games in 2011 before going down with the knee injury, was held to 12 games in 2010 because of a significant hamstring injury. He also had issues with his hamstring during the 2011 preseason. With that history as a backdrop, it becomes even more critical that Britt returns to a high level of conditioning before taking the field in a game situation.
Addendum (July 20): As if the issues with his right knee weren't enough, Britt underwent yet another arthroscopic surgery -- this time on his left knee -- in late June, according to the Tennessean. The procedure was performed after Britt developed swelling in his knee following minicamp. The Tennessean notes the Titans are still hopeful that Britt will be ready when the season begins, but he may be forced to enter camp on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list. It is essential that Britt not overdo it while his left knee is mending, as that could place undue strain on his right knee which is still recovering from complex ligament surgery (and a subsequent scope). Not only is there uncertainty as to whether he can be ready to start the season but, perhaps more importantly, whether his trademark big-play athleticism will resurface. Britt was also recently arrested for DUI.
Addendum (Aug. 27): For the better part of the past two weeks, Britt has been increasing his individual workouts. The Titans' website notes he has been doing some route running, catching passes and generally ramping up his level of physical activity. On Sunday, Jim Wyatt of the Tennessean reported that coach Mike Munchak hinted Britt could come off the PUP list this week, although he will definitely not play in the Titans' preseason finale. In other words, Britt and his two recovering knees will not have any game play prior to the season's start. There still remains the issue of whether Britt will have a suspension imposed on him which would also affect his availability. That's a fair amount of uncertainty to ponder heading into September.
Hakeem Nicks, New York Giants: Nicks fractured the fifth metatarsal in his right foot, the long forefoot bone which connects the fifth toe to the midfoot, during the Giants' first session of organized team activities in May. It happened while he was running a route, a mechanism of injury that is not uncommon for receivers, as shear force through the foot during a directional change can cause the bone to crack.
Perhaps most importantly, Nicks addressed the issue immediately, undergoing surgery within two days. Foot and ankle specialist Dr. Robert Anderson in Charlotte performed the procedure to insert a screw to stabilize the bone. While there were some varying reports as to how long the recovery process would be, with the Giants initially projecting 12 weeks and another source telling ESPN's Adam Schefter it was more of a four-to-six-week injury, the fact is there can be quite a bit of variability in the time to return. The average recovery is six to 10 weeks, but there can be outliers on either side. Larger players, such as linemen, often take longer to recover (which makes sense, considering the load they put on their feet).
Key for the Giants is that there is no need to rush Nicks back to service, given the timing of the injury. While it would be nice to have every player participate in training camp, it is not an absolute requirement for Nicks. The more important target date is Week 1 of the regular season. No setbacks throughout the rehab course would virtually ensure his readiness for the start of the season. When his foot is symptom-free, Nicks will be cleared for progression to football activity, and it then becomes a matter of returning to football shape. Presuming his foot heals well, it should not present any issue going forward.
Addendum (Aug. 6): Nicks is currently on schedule in his recovery, which is further detailed in this column.
Steve Johnson, Buffalo Bills: Johnson didn't miss any games last season, but he played through a groin injury for a good portion of the season. For the most part, he played effectively even in the presence of injury, but he underwent a surgical procedure this spring to repair the tissue. Johnson is expected to be ready to participate at training camp and while it could be sooner (Johnson says he will participate in the next minicamp), the team is in no rush. Better to limit his activity and have full healing now, then ramp up the conditioning in camp and avoid dealing with the consequences of doing too much too soon.
The injury was a vertebral fracture that required surgery to stabilize Knox's spine. The recovery process has been slow and painful, not only for Knox but for teammates and close friends such as Devin Hester, who are nearly moved to tears when describing what they have watched him endure. As Hester told the Chicago Tribune, "I know he gets tired of the rehab because it's the same thing every day … it's going to be a miracle to get him back normal."
The focus for Knox at this point is building up the strength of the muscles that support the spine and doing light cardiovascular work. Reclaiming his physical conditioning and endurance will take quite some time. While he remains optimistic about returning to football, even Knox acknowledges there is the possibility that he will be forced to sit out the entire 2012 season. That decision has not been made of yet, but it's too early to count on Knox being a part of the Bears' lineup this fall.
Addendum (Aug. 6): Knox was placed on the reserve/PUP list as he continues in his recovery and therefore will be required to miss the first six weeks of the regular season. There is still a question as to whether he will return at all in 2012, but for now, the first third of the season at least has been determined.
Players added July 30
Michael Crabtree, San Francisco 49ers: Crabtree left Friday's practice early with what looked at the time to be an ankle injury. As of Sunday, Crabtree was still not practicing but according to Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com, Crabtree was sporting some Kinesio tape (an elastic tape often used in conjunction with soft tissue injuries) on his right calf. While the 49ers have not offered any specifics related to the injury, the tape would hint at a suspected strain in the calf region. There is certainly no reason to panic, though it is worth noting that Crabtree has dealt with injuries during the past two training camps.
Riley Cooper, Philadelphia Eagles: Cooper broke his left clavicle (collarbone) during practice Saturday and will undergo surgery Monday, which is expected to keep him out approximately six weeks, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. The projected time frame is not likely to budge much, at least not in the sooner direction, given the standard healing time for bone. Clavicle fractures can be slow to heal, which could potentially delay his return, putting a target of Week 1 in question. As the No. 4 receiver, Cooper did not have huge fantasy value but injuries to one often provide a window of opportunity to another. After all, Cooper saw an increased role late last season when Jeremy Maclin was hurt. Coach Andy Reid's comment that the Eagles will not pursue a free-agent receiver suggests rookie Marvin McNutt will get extra looks this preseason.