From Pop Warner to the NFL, football is different at every level, but the main constant is the aggressive nature of the game. And with the physical back-and-forth needed to compete on the gridiron, injuries are bound to happen. Some are bumps and bruises while others might be a tad more serious. Trainers and team doctors have become just as important to the draft process as scouts and coaches.
Players are often measured by their toughness, but injuries are simply a part of the game. And a complicated aspect of evaluating prospects for the next level, is distinguishing how durability and past injuries play into the scouting process. Sam Bradford won the Heisman Trophy and was considered a high NFL Draft pick, but he decided to return to Oklahoma and ended up missing most of the 2009 season with a throwing shoulder injury. However, that didn't stop the Rams from making him the No. 1 overall pick the next April.
Not all injuries have happy endings though, just ask wide receiver Greg Childs who looked like a future first round pick at Arkansas before a serious knee injury ended his 2010 season and hobbled him most of his senior year. A fourth round draft pick of the Vikings, Childs was poised for a good amount of playing time as a rookie in Minnesota, but he will miss the 2012 season after recently suffering the same patella tendon tear in both knees, a potentially career-killing injury.
Dozens of players suffered season-ending injuries last fall and below are the top 10 draft-eligible prospects that NFL scouts are keeping a particularly close eye on as they return to the field in 2012.
10. OLB BRANDON MAGEE, Arizona State
INJURY: Ruptured Achilles tendon, August 13 – missed all of 2011
While Vontaze Burfict commanded most of the headlines the past few years for the Sun Devils, the heart and soul of the Arizona State defense has been Magee. He finished second on the team in tackles (73) in 2010 and, along with Burfict, formed one of the toughest linebacker duos in the nation, but a ruptured achilles in summer drills put Magee on the shelf for the 2011 season. While Burfict bolted early for the NFL (and went undrafted), Magee earned a medical hardship waiver and will return as a fifth-year senior this fall. A tick undersized at 5-11 and 230-pounds, Magee is a two-sport star, recently signing a contract with the Boston Red Sox after he was selected in the 23rd round of the Major League Baseball Draft this past summer. However, Magee, who prides himself on his leadership and determination, will play for the Sun Devils this fall and wants to play in the NFL someday.
9. SS/LB KENNY TATE, Maryland
INJURY: Torn ACL (right knee), October 1 – missed final 8 games of 2011
Tate was a standout safety over his first three seasons for the Terrapins, including an All-Conference junior season in 2010 with 100 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss and three interceptions. However, head coach Randy Edsall moved the 6-4, 230-pounder to linebacker (“STAR” LB/S position) in Maryland's new 3-4 scheme last season and Tate responded with mixed results over the first four games before his season ended due to a knee injury. Tate, who applied for and received an extra season of eligibility by the NCAA, missed all of spring practice, but is expected to return to linebacker when the season begins on September 1. Sources say that scouts are split on where his best position will be in the pros, but NFL teams will want to see Tate's knee at full health first and foremost.
8. ILB BRUCE TAYLOR, Virginia Tech
INJURY: Lisfranc fracture (right foot), October 22 – missed final 6 games of 2011
Over the first seven games of his junior season last year, Hokies' middle linebacker Taylor was among the ACC leaders in tackles (48), tackles for loss (4.5) and sacks (3.0) and was on pace to be the team's leading tackler for the second straight season. However, a right foot injury suffered last season clouds not only his senior year, but also his NFL future. Since the injury, Taylor has undergone several surgeries and an extensive rehabilitation process that kept him out of spring practice and could jeopardize the start to his senior season in 2012. Like most of Virginia Tech's past pro prospects, Taylor doesn't receive enough respect, flashing the instincts to quickly diagnose plays and upper body strength to rarely miss a tackle. The emotional leader of the Hokies' defense, Taylor has early round potential, but how and when he returns from the foot injury is crucial to his draft standing.
7. RB RAY GRAHAM, Pittsburgh
INJURY: Torn ACL (right knee), October 26 – missed final 5 games of 2011
Although he seems to be the forgotten man in college football, Graham was a LeSean McCoy-clone prior to his gruesome knee injury halfway through the 2011 season. In his first six games last year, he recorded 893 rushing yards, averaging almost 150 yards per contest. Graham appears to be ready mentally, but the new Panthers' coaching staff is taking a cautious approach, holding him out of contact drills and not pushing their best player. Until he gets on the field and shows his knee is back to normal, Graham's draft stock will remain in limbo, but if healthy, expect top-40 talk for the lighting quick and elusive back.
6. RB CHRISTINE MICHAEL, Texas A&M
INJURY: Torn ACL, November 5 – missed final 4 games of 2011
The past two seasons, Michael has finished second on the team in rushing, both times behind Cyrus Gray. But his runner-up status among Aggies' rushers isn't because of lack of talent, but rather because he has struggled to finish healthy, suffering back-to-back season-ending injuries the past two years. After a broken leg in 2010, Michael was on pace to lead the conference in rushing last season with 899 yards on the ground through the first nine games before tearing his ACL against Oklahoma, the same game that saw Sooners receiver Ryan Broyles go down with a knee injury as well. Obviously durability is a concern for him after the past two seasons, but based on talent alone, Michael is an early round pick and arguably the best senior back in the nation.
5. ILB SHAYNE SKOV, Stanford
INJURY: Torn ACL (left knee), September 17 – missed final 10 games of 2011
The top senior on this list, Skov led the Stanford squad in tackles (84) as a sophomore in 2010 and was called the “Andrew Luck of the defense” by the Cardinal coaching staff entering the 2011 season. However, he tore ligaments in his left knee against Arizona in the third game of last season, requiring surgery and missing the rest of his junior year. With successful rehab and his drive to get back on the field, Skov will be near 100% for the season opener, but he will be forced to sit out the first game because of a DUI arrest in the off-season.
4. RB KNILE DAVIS, Arkansas*
INJURY: Broken ankle (left ankle), August 11 – missed all of 2011
Davis is one of the few players on this list who didn't even play a snap last season, suffering his injury in summer practice. He had an All-SEC season as a sophomore with 1,322 rushing yards and 13 scores and was poised for another big season in 2011 before an ankle injury last summer sidelined him for all of last year. While this means he hasn't played a down of football in over 19 months, Davis also has had longer to recover from the injury and will be chomping at the bit to get back on the field for the 2012 season opener. When healthy, he has first round talent and NFL scouts can't wait to see him again this fall.
3. DT DOMINIQUE EASLEY, Florida*
INJURY: Torn ACL (left knee), November 26 – missed bowl game
After being one of the highest recruited players in the nation, Easley had a breakout sophomore season last year, tallying 37 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks. However, he tore his ACL in his left knee in the regular season finale against Florida State and had surgery before the Gators' bowl game. Easley missed all of spring ball, but is expected to be healthy for the 2012 season, moving outside to defensive end. He is very light on his feet for a big man with lateral burst and flexibility to explode in any direction. As long as the knee injury doesn't have an effect on his change of direction skills, Easley has early round potential.
2. RB MARCUS LATTIMORE, South Carolina*
INJURY: Torn ACL (left knee), October 15 – missed final 6 games of 2011
Considered one of the favorites for the Heisman Trophy last year, Lattimore's All-American worthy sophomore season took a turn for the worse – literally. With over 800 yards over his first seven games, he was among the nation's leader in rushing, tallying four 100-yard performances including a career-high 246 rushing yards against Navy. However, Lattimore suffered a knee injury in an October win over Mississippi State and left the game on crutches. Originally diagnosed with a “knee sprain,” he needed surgery to repair knee ligaments that ended his 2011 season and kept him from practicing this past spring. Even with the injury concerns, Lattimore is considered the top draft-eligible running back for the 2013 NFL Draft and should cement that status if he returns fully healthy this fall.
1. WR JUSTIN HUNTER, Tennessee*
INJURY: Torn ACL (left knee), September 17 – missed final 9 games of 2011
Any discussion regarding the top draft-eligible receiver in the nation should include this talented playmaker from Tennessee. At 6-4 and 205-pounds, Hunter has a similar play style and skill-set as former All-SEC receiver A.J. Green who was a top-five pick in the 2011 NFL Draft and is one of the best young receivers at the next level. After a seven-touchdown freshman season in 2010, Hunter registered a head-turning 16 catches for 302 yards and a pair of scores in two games last season. However, he turned his left knee wildly and tore his anterior cruciate ligament against Florida in game three, missing the rest of his sophomore season after surgery. Hunter returned ahead of the schedule and practiced this past spring, albeit not yet 100%. If his knee proves to be at full health this fall and he shows the same athleticism, Hunter has top-10 potential and could jump both Southern Cal's Robert Wood and California's Keenan Allen as the top draft-eligible receiver in most evaluator's minds.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: DT Kaleb Ramsey (Boston College), OT Manase Foketi (Kansas State), DE Nathan Williams (Ohio State), OLB Ramon Buchanan (Miami, FL), RB Eric Stephens (Texas Tech), CB Jerrell Gavins (Boise State), C Braxston Cave (Notre Dame), OG Jonathan Rush (Oklahoma State), CB Devin Smith (Wisconsin), OT Elvis Fisher (Missouri), OG Josh Dworaczyk (LSU), DE Jacques Smith (Tennessee), RB Dominique Whaley (Oklahoma), FB Devon Ramsay (North Carolina), QB Jordan Wynn (Utah), WR Brandon Wimberly (Nevada), RB Montel Harris (Temple), TE Mike Ragone (Kansas), WR Verlon Reed (Ohio State), RB Chris Thompson (Florida State), OT Shon Coleman (Auburn), OG Josh Jenkins (West Virginia), OT Corey Lewis (Illinois), CB Troy Stoudermire (Minnesota), OLB Jake Fischer (Arizona)