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Key injuries to watch

8/20/2009

A glance at the key injuries heading into the 2009 season:

Quarterbacks

Tom Brady, Patriots: Despite alarmist suggestions that Brady's career was over after he blew out the ACL and MCL on his plant (left) leg, which only escalated when he was faced with a postsurgical infection, Brady is showing signs of returning better than ever. Did you see how confidently he planted on that lead leg during the first preseason game? He even called his own number and ran the ball! Draft him with confidence.

Carson Palmer, Bengals: A partially torn ulnar collateral (Tommy John) ligament in Palmer's throwing elbow sidelined him for 12 weeks and it seemed as if surgery was a foregone conclusion. However, Palmer opted for the conservative rehab route and is reportedly throwing pain-free once again. Quarterbacks are not subject to the same elbow stress as pitchers (remember he was hurt on contact, not from overuse) and Palmer makes the case for being ready to deliver. Well, at least as far as his arm goes. During the preseason opener, he sustained what coach Marvin Lewis referred to as a "mild to moderate" left high ankle sprain and is missing the second preseason game. Despite Palmer and the team each downplaying the injury, high ankle sprains are more challenging to recover from and can certainly hamper a quarterback's mobility. An injury to his lead leg could result in more stress on his throwing arm, which is not what his elbow needs. The later your draft is the better because Palmer's progress leading up to Week 1 will be critical in properly assessing his fantasy draft value.

Matt Hasselbeck, Seahawks: Hasselbeck's back was the root of his troubles last year; a bulging disk led to leg weakness, which rendered him vulnerable and ineffective. After missing five games in the middle of the 2008 campaign, he was then forced to sit out the final four games of the season as well. His offseason regimen reportedly has him in great shape, but disk problems are always at risk to recur. After all, when his back first flared up last preseason it was dismissed as an old disk problem. Hmm.

Kurt Warner, Cardinals: At age 37, the Kurt Warner from the 2008 season looked like the Kurt Warner of the 1999 campaign who led his team to a Super Bowl victory. He has sustained numerous injuries over the years and is coming off March hip labral surgery, yet he gives every indication of being more poised than ever to repeat his performance.

Brett Favre, Vikings: Now it's official that Favre will be under center for the Vikings. He finally signed once he had the confidence that his shoulder would help him get to the promised land with his new team. He showed us during those high school workouts in Mississippi that he could still deliver the long bombs. The question is whether his shoulder, now confirmed to have a slight rotator cuff tear, will endure a full season. Look, no 40-year old quarterback with 18 years in the league has a pristine throwing shoulder, and there are no guarantees in football. Just ask Tom Brady, who was 100 percent healthy at the start of last season. But Favre has had an incredible run of luck with his health, and given his history, you have to like his chances of enduring another year.

Alex Smith, 49ers: While many are understandably prepared to write him off as a lost cause, it's worth remembering that Smith has not had a healthy throwing shoulder for the better part of three years. Two surgeries and several offensive coordinators later, and operating under a new head coach, Smith has shown flashes of potential with his restored arm during spring camps. Smith may be a worthwhile late sleeper pick.

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers: He certainly took his licks in 2008 but Roethlisberger kept on ticking right through to Super Bowl victory. Sure, Roethlisberger telegraphs his aches and pains to the viewing audience, but he also toughs out a number of moderate injuries (AC sprains, hand contusions, ankle sprains, for instance) and bounces back from major ones, like the spinal cord concussion he suffered in December. He has amazing resiliency, but continued pounding (read: lack of protection) is going to catch up to him eventually.

Marc Bulger, Rams: Bulger seemed to be on the ground more than he was upright last year and that always threatens a quarterback's health, not to mention his fantasy stats. Revamping the offensive line should help Bulger, but he's already suffered an injury in the preseason, a broken pinkie finger on his right (throwing) hand. Luckily it was a nondisplaced fracture that did not require surgery, and according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Bulger believes he'll be available Week 1. Nonetheless, this finger is critical for grip, and even if he does return to play, he may still have stiffness and some discomfort when the Rams open their season in September. Since fumbles are costly in fantasy, not to mention picks (which can result from a poor throw impaired by grip), drafting Bulger requires insurance for the early weeks.

Running Backs

Brian Westbrook, Eagles: He runs, he catches, he scores … but he also misses games. And this year he might see himself in more of a timeshare as the team looks to develop rookie LeSean McCoy and they preserve the veteran Westbrook. Offseason knee surgery was expected, but subsequent ankle surgery was a surprise, and is potentially of greater concern. The hope is that Westbrook will be ready to start the season, but it would not come as a surprise if he is eased into a return and sees less playing time overall.

Reggie Bush, Saints: Bush has had continued problems with his left knee, ranging from a sprained posterior cruciate ligament (PCL) to meniscus and cartilage damage. He has had multiple scopes to help clean up debris, but the scopes can't restore the joint to its original state. For a guy who relies on quickness and agility, these continued injuries are a big blow. He will still make great plays, but consistency will be hard to come by.

Felix Jones, Cowboys: Jones was forced out for good in 2008 when he tore a ligament in his big toe while rehabilitating from a hamstring injury. Offseason toe surgery was a reported success, and Jones was running well in spring camps. Youth and speed are on his side, as are his high yards-per-carry average.

Marion Barber, Cowboys: In hindsight, Barber probably should have been shut down earlier since he couldn't run full bore after his Thanksgiving pinkie toe injury. The toe no longer appears to be a problem but the likely timeshare with Jones and Tashard Choice might be.

Darren McFadden, Raiders: As if turf toe wasn't bad enough, McFadden had to deal with it on both feet, which prevented him from reaching his rookie potential. But with new protective shoes, he hopes this is his year to shine. After all, he has had all offseason to rest his toes and heal his shoulder (he underwent a minor arthroscopic procedure). And he's only 22.

Rashard Mendenhall, Steelers: Welcomed to the NFL with a hit from Ray Lewis that fractured his shoulder blade, Mendenhall went on IR early. Turns out, he recovered well enough that he could have played by season's end, so he shouldn't have any ill effects from it heading into 2009.

Earnest Graham, Buccaneers: After recovering from a knee sprain, Graham suffered a season-ending high ankle injury in Week 11. But Graham has been confident about the health of his ankle this spring, which included full-speed running at offseason training activities (OTAs) in May. Fantasy owners should be confident too.

Laurence Maroney, Patriots: Maroney has played in progressively fewer games each of the past three years, managing only three games (and no touchdowns) in 2008. Of course, we didn't find out until the offseason that Maroney had suffered a fractured shoulder, but no matter. The object in fantasy is to draft players who will play -- and score -- consistently. Maroney's injury history, coupled with the addition of Fred Taylor to an already-crowded backfield, renders him a fantasy risk.

LaDainian Tomlinson, Chargers: Tomlinson struggled with an ailing toe for most of 2008, and it was evident in his lack of agility when pushing laterally and the absence of his trademark spin move for much of the year. Late in the season, he suffered a serious groin injury, but still managed to be a productive scorer. No doubt he wants to prove that he has something left in the tank, and he reportedly was running well (and spinning) in spring camp. At 30, LT might not be the fantasy No. 1 pick he used to be, but I expect him to have a bounce-back season.

Steven Jackson, Rams: Over the past two seasons, Jackson has struggled with that nemesis to all running backs: the lingering muscle strain. In 2007, it was his groin and a hamstring; in 2008, it was a quadriceps. As a big, powerful back, he will absorb plenty of contact, which puts him at increased risk. But on a positive note, the Rams did shore up their offensive line this offseason. Fantasy owners should expect better from Jackson in 2009, but be mindful that he carries risk until proven otherwise.

Wide Receivers

Anquan Boldin, Cardinals: It might have been the most frightening injury of the season. Boldin took a hit from Jets safety Eric Smith that resulted in implantation of facial plates and screws and nearly scared his quarterback into retirement. Boldin was out for only two games following that incident, and to his credit, he showed no signs of playing tentatively when he returned. However, soft-tissue injuries (shoulder, hip, hamstring) caused him to miss additional time. His physical size and style of play will always make him an injury risk, but he could miss a few games and still score more fantasy points than many guys who play every week.

Marques Colston, Saints: Colston suffered a torn ligament in his thumb last season, and even after he returned to the field in Week 7, the thumb hampered his pass-catching ability for several more weeks. The offseason allowed his thumb to fully recover, along with his knee (he underwent a minor arthroscopic procedure), so expect him to make more big-play catches -- and scores -- for your fantasy team this season compared to last.

Brandon Marshall, Broncos: Marshall underwent hip labral surgery this spring, which came as a bit of a surprise since he didn't appear limited in 2008. As of June, Marshall reports his hip is healing nicely while rehabbing in Florida. He has been a no-show for all Broncos activities, so other than running some laps with kids at his football camp, there has been no public viewing of his mobility. Let's hope we get to see Marshall, who says he wants out of Denver, running around somewhere by training camp.

Hines Ward, Steelers: Heading into this season, Ward's naysayers have pointed to his age (33) and the fact that he had a knee injury that threatened his Super Bowl status, as well as a shoulder injury that required offseason surgery. But Ward played in all 16 games in 2008, and finished with more than 1,000 yards receiving. His sprained MCL has had time to heal, and his shoulder surgery was considered minor. Ward's fitness and work ethic tip the scale in his favor.

Lance Moore, Saints: Moore benefited from Marques Colston's injuries last season, making a name for himself as Drew Brees' go-to guy. Now he's the one who's hurting. An injury to his left shoulder while lifting weights this spring (he dislocated it and tore the labrum) required subsequent surgery, and although he has returned to running, he will not be cleared to practice until at least training camp. With Colston healthy and Moore starting a step behind, expectations for a repeat of 2008 should be tempered.

Derrick Mason, Ravens: Instability in his shoulder forced Mason to play essentially with one arm (with the other in a protective harness) for a number of weeks. He underwent surgery in the offseason and is still recovering. Mason is 35 years old, and a recent report in the Baltimore Sun suggests that he might not be ready to rejoin the team until late in camp or even the start of the season. Despite the likelihood that he remains the No. 1 receiver in Baltimore, how Mason's body will hold up to the role is still in question.

Deion Branch, Seahawks: Branch struggled in his return following ACL reconstruction last year. Between sustaining a painful heel bruise and his left knee being less than perfect, his season was unspectacular. Branch, who underwent another arthroscopic procedure on his surgical knee in the offseason, has already said that he believes his knee will never be normal again (although he thinks he'll be ready to play by training camp). Although Branch is technically correct in that the knee is forever changed after such a procedure, when the athlete himself is making these types of declarations, it indicates that he has an awareness of the knee as being different. Consider yourself forewarned and draft at your own risk.

Joey Galloway, Patriots: Galloway was banged up and battered throughout the 2008 season in Tampa Bay, including a serious foot injury (originally labeled a sprain, Galloway actually had a fracture). But offseason healing and a change of venue has Galloway excited about his prospects. The Patriots bank on using a variety of weapons, so Galloway might be called upon only in a situational role. Spring OTAs showcased a speedy, enthusiastic 37-year-old, so don't count him out as an option.

Nate Burleson, Seahawks: Burleson's 2008 season came to an early conclusion when he tore his left ACL. It is worth remembering that for receivers and running backs, especially those such as Burleson who rely on their speed, the first season following surgery behaves like the final phase of rehab while the athletes are getting comfortable with their reconstructed knee. Burleson should contribute in '09 but might not achieve his ultimate potential until 2010.

Sidney Rice, Vikings: A sprained posterior cruciate ligament (PCL) caused Rice to miss three games and remained a factor in his decreased presence for the remainder of the season. As of May, Rice had told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune that he was still feeling some pain in the knee when running full speed. He was, however, clear that significantly increasing his strength was the key to his knee being healthy in 2009, and he has undergone rigorous offseason workouts as a result. There's some risk with Rice, as his knee is ultimately less stable, but he can compensate for that deficit if strong enough. Training camp will provide better clues.

Mark Bradley, Chiefs: Bradley had problems with not one but both calf muscles last year, forcing him to miss time in the latter part of the season. Injuries are nothing new to Bradley. In fact, they seem to be the barrier he has yet to get beyond in the NFL. His injury history makes him somewhat risky, but with Matt Cassel now in Kansas City, Bradley will have the best quarterback situation of his short career. If he could stay healthy, he could be productive.

Greg Camarillo, Dolphins: Camarillo was on pace to reach 1,000 yards receiving until he was derailed by a season-ending left knee injury in Week 11. A torn ACL and meniscus translate to a nine-month rehab typically, and a year of play to return to peak performance for a receiver. Nonetheless, Camarillo was a participant in spring camp, just six months after surgery, working with the first team and impressing coaches and teammates. According to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Camarillo is still getting comfortable with lateral mobility and deceleration, which is not surprising given the injury. Early reports are encouraging, but returning to competition is still a few hurdles away.

Michael Crabtree (R), 49ers: A stress fracture in Crabtree's fifth metatarsal (long bone on the outside of the foot that connects to the pinkie toe) was discovered at the NFL Combine, and he made the decision to undergo surgery rather than work out for prospective teams. That was a wise choice as these surgeries are highly successful and, once healed, present little risk of recurrence down the line. As of June, Crabtree has been limited to side running under the watchful eye of his new team's medical staff, but he's expected to be a full participant by training camp.

Percy Harvin (R), Vikings: Harvin racked up a variety of ailments with his impressive stats at Florida, the most concerning injury being an ankle injury in his final season (initially reported as a sprain, then a stress fracture that was slow to heal). His limited playing and practice time in college presents some cause for concern because he will only get hit harder at the professional level. However, word has it that he has excelled in spring camps as a full participant; consider him a high-upside player who carries moderate risk.

Tight Ends

Antonio Gates, Chargers: Surgery on his big toe slowed Gates at the start of 2008, and a high ankle sprain bothered him into the postseason. He played in every game but was not as much of a factor as fantasy owners have come to expect. That said, he continued to be a top target for quarterback Philip Rivers and likely will be again in 2009. Still, Gates was absent from portions of spring camp because of the troublesome toe. His activity in training camp will be very revealing as to whether he is fully recovered.

Kellen Winslow, Buccaneers: Winslow's 2008 season was forgettable on many levels. He endured a staph infection and a left high ankle sprain and played in only 10 games. His right knee has been through four surgeries and isn't getting any younger. His speed, strength and power, all of which led the Bucs to snatch him up, might not be the threats they once were. His young age (26) belies the toll that football has already taken on his body. He's still draftable, but he warrants insurance.

Jeremy Shockey, Saints: It is never a good sign when the first offseason report on your tight end involves dehydration, a pool and Las Vegas. Shockey would do better to focus on strengthening and agility training to protect his feet and ankles, which have sustained multiple injuries over the course of his career. After a sports hernia limited him early in 2008, it was once again an ankle injury that ended Shockey's season prematurely. He's not likely to play every week, but he has to be motivated to improve on the dismal performance of last year.

Benjamin Watson, Patriots: The first clue to be cautious with Watson is that he has not played a full slate of 16 games in three years. The second clue is that the Patriots are loaded with other scoring options. Knee and ankle problems have been Watson's nemesis for quite some time, and there is no particular reason to think they won't be again.

Todd Heap, Ravens: Loyal Heap owners know he is no stranger to the weekly injury report, making Sunday lineup-setting a bit nerve-racking. Despite playing in every game, Heap had trouble with his back throughout the season, and back injuries are always long-term concerns because of their potential for recurrence. Heap was able to participate in June minicamp, however, and appears confident he'll be ready for training camp. Heap has had a decline in fantasy production recently, perhaps due to a combination of increased blocking responsibilities and propensity for injury. Buyer beware.