NFL depth charts have their limits
Most injury replacements are short-term fill-ins instead of stars in the making
Randy Moss buys Vikings time for return of slow-recovering Sidney Rice
Clinton Portis appears likely to miss more than six weeks with groin injury
Another week, another set of injuries that takes the talent level in the NFL -- and your fantasy league -- down just a notch.
A good amount of the questions I get relate to trades or waiver pickups, but I always note we're seeing "fill-ins" more than we're seeing real talent pushing upwards. Sure, people are spending free agent dollars on Peyton Hillis or Ryan Torain, guys who rightly went undrafted in all leagues that didn't involve blood relatives of those running backs. I'm not saying they're not valid NFL players either. It's just that there's a "next man up" mentality in the NFL that ignores the reality of the depth chart. The guy is the next man because he's not quite as talented, has a skill set that doesn't fit the scheme just right, or just didn't win the job for whatever reason. Guys can be very talented but not get chances.
Just ask Ryan Grant, who was given to the Packers because he couldn't crack the Giants top four. In Green Bay, he became not just an RB1, but a legitimate Top-10 pick. With Grant gone, we're seeing the Packers forced to reach down to RB2 and RB3, to empty the backfield and push Aaron Rodgers' passing game, and otherwise adjust, all because of an injury. Just keep in mind we've only had four games so far -- one quarter of the season. Managing risk is as hard, even harder, than managing talent. I can't imagine what that will look like in an 18-game season. Let's get to the injuries:
Randy Moss isn't a replacement for Rice; they have different skill sets. What Moss does is give Brett Favre a target he can trust, something that Favre seems to need. My pal Antonio Freeman used to say that being Favre's favorite receiver was the best position in football, and it's hard to disagree.
The need for the Moss trade was also pushed along by Rice's ongoing rehab from hip surgery. Rice is one of the first football players to have this type of surgery, coined "FAIL" by me, since that's easier to type than femoral-acetabular impingement laparoscopy. Kurt Warner played last year after an off-season surgery that was similar, but it's very difficult to catch the timing on an off-season surgery. We don't get the same sort of data on when someone may return to play, since there's nothing to return to. Rice is still on crutches and at least four weeks away, which is the timing that was expected, but sources tell me that "at least" is the key term. "He's way behind," said one source with knowledge of his rehab work. Moss' presence gives the Vikings time to let Rice come back healthy. Whether your fantasy team can be as patient is up to you.
I'll stay away from karma and focus on the actual injury to Vick. His rib injury is one that affects the cartilage rather than the bones. It's tough to get our heads around the idea that a fracture isn't the worst outcome, but soft tissue injuries can be just as bad and just as painful. In modern sports medicine, breaking bones is sometimes a better scenario than an injury to soft tissue. Bones heal, predictably and quickly given modern treatments and pharmaceuticals. There's not much to be done aside from rest.
I asked Dr. Neal ElAttrache of the Kerlan-Jobe Clinic about this injury and he reminded me that it's essentially a sprain of the joint between the ribs and sternum. "After a costal cartilage (rib cartilage) injury, active contraction or use of the pectoral muscles, deep breathing, or certainly any direct blow will often be painful for three weeks." Dr. ElAttrache just described all the things a QB needs to do, including breathing. The use of a flak jacket will help, but Vick was wearing one when he got hit, so it's not going to prevent the same thing from happening again. Vick isn't likely to take that kind of precisely timed hit, where there's nowhere for the energy to go but inward, but his style is going to make him more susceptible than normal QBs. It's part of his value, but also much of his risk.
A "groin separation" sounds like something that would have most men crying. Portis might not be curled up in the fetal position, but he will be out for at least the next six weeks. The injury, actually a Grade III strain to one of the muscles that makes up the complex we colloquially call the "groin," is a bad one, especially for a running back. It will drastically hurt his mobility and ability to start and stop. Bill Barnwell of Football Outsiders points out that this injury sounds very similar to one that Fred Taylor had in 2001. That injury occurred in Week 2 and Taylor was unable to return, becoming a player who was talented, but risky for the next several years. Given what we know about how Taylor -- a similar back with a similar injury at age 25 -- I don't see how the Redskins are selling that Portis will be able to come back in four-to-six weeks at age 29. Six weeks seems the low end, and even that seems unlikely. Ryan Torain becomes the RB1 for Shanahan's Skins, something that seemed in the works anyway.
Vick wasn't the only Eagle to come out of last week's game with a rib issue. McCoy left Sunday's game with a fractured rib, but could be back at practice on Thursday. The Eagles think the rib is stable enough for him to take hits and that they can protect him, both with protective equipment, painkillers and a game plan that will allow him to avoid at least some direct hits. McCoy isn't a straight-ahead runner, so he doesn't take the abuse there, but rib injuries can be very tricky, and even on a stretch play, one wrong hit or push could shift things to a point where McCoy couldn't tolerate the pain. I'm unsure how effective McCoy can be through this, but it seems the Eagles are heading toward giving it a try Sunday. If you have to start McCoy, this is one of those weeks where pairing him would work, if there was a clearer pair. Mike Bell has been a disappointment so far and Eldra Buckley isn't someone to spend big waiver bucks on just yet.
The Texans' offense is more than just Matt Schaub to Johnson, but despite the emergence of a solid running game, the absence of Johnson does put a big cramp in the Texans' style. Johnson's continuing struggles with an ankle sprain haven't made significant progress since we last saw him on the sidelines Sunday. With Jacoby Jones also out (calf strain), getting Johnson back is even more important. Reports out of Houston have the plan for Johnson involving running on Wednesday, patterns on Thursday and a normal practice on Friday. Sources are very dubious that Johnson will be able to make it through all that and be ready on Sunday. Then again, Johnson was telling people he was close to playing last Sunday, though my sources tell me there was "no chance, no chance at all" of that happening last week. Look for the same kind of pattern leading into this week, with more activity, more reports of Johnson saying he's ready, and then a GTD that will have fantasy players twitching.
Crutches are never a good sign. Seeing Smith on them Wednesday gives a good indication that he won't be out there on Sunday, but it's not a clear rule-out yet. This latest injury, an ankle sprain, is just another on a long list for the physical Smith. He's a small, compact guy who doesn't mind taking a hit, which makes him sound a lot like an offensive version of Bob Sanders. He's been productive, sure, but the physical hits seem to be taking an increasing toll on his availability. There's some question as to whether Smith's current injury is the dreaded high ankle sprain or the more classic "basketball sprain." The Panthers are acting as if it's a classic sprain, but that could be a bit of bluff in order to muddy the gameplanning for this week's matchup. I'll be digging on this one and hope to have more to add Sunday morning.
One of my favorite terms is "self-limiting injury." It's one of those few phrases in sports medicine that don't require a glossary. An injury like what Rice has is self-limiting due to the pain. It's very difficult to do too much and risk re-injury with the kind of pain that this type of bruise causes. Then again, these are not normal people we're watching in the NFL. Beyond the use of painkillers, which is much, much more common than most think, players often have pain tolerances that are well beyond normal. There's an element of evolutionary selection in any sport, finding players with the unique skills necessary for success. Pain tolerance, even masochism, is one of those. Rice was able to play through the pain of the bruise last week when he was called on. He should be able to do the same or more after another week of healing.
The Lions will be going without Stafford again in Week 5, but there's some positive news coming out of Detroit. Stafford has begun to throw, which means that the shoulder is healing properly and has enough strength that he can get back to more functional activities. It doesn't mean that he's close to game-ready status. The Lions' medical staff is going to have to quickly make the determination on whether the injury and resulting weakness will come all the way back. There have been some indications, but as with any rehab, there are going to be setbacks and plateaus. Stafford's original timeline had him coming back in Week 7 or 8 and that still looks about right.
Bears fans are curious how Cutler was back at practice from a concussion after a couple days while Hunter Hillenmeyer is on the IR due to his concussions. The fact is that every concussion is different, from the mechanism (how it happened) to the individual's response. That's just one of the things that makes treating them so hard. Cutler's concussion was deemed "mild", but more importantly, he was able to clear all the necessary neurological tests on Monday.
He'll be limited in practice this week as the team makes sure he doesn't take any unnecessary impacts, but they'll also have to figure out a way to do that once the games start. Smartly, the Bears are going to keep him off the field this week to make sure that he doesn't face a second impact so shortly after that last concussion. Cutler was knocked around so much he's lucky it was "just" a concussion.
When Bullitt took a hit and trotted off the field last week holding his arm, it looked to me like a stinger. He held his arm that way, he appeared in pain, but not too much pain, and came back on the next play. It wasn't a stinger. It was a broken bone in his shoulder. That's right -- Bullitt came back in the game, making a couple more plays and tackles with a broken bone. I know I just wrote about pain tolerance, but my goodness ... a broken bone? Yes, this isn't all that uncommon in the NFL, but it does leave the Colts with yet another defensive problem. Bullitt was filling in for Bob Sanders, who isn't on IR, meaning he could theoretically come back after biceps surgery this season. The Colts defense has always worked on the principle that with enough speed, size and talent could be overcome. We'll get a really good look at how true that is against the Chiefs, a team with a lot of speed of their own ... plus talent.
Maurice Jones-Drew was held out of practice to rest his sprained ankle, but he'll be ready to go on Sunday. (You can start yourself safely, MJD!) ... Reggie Wayne missed practice on Wednesday with what the Colts deemed a knee injury. It bears some watching, but the Colts do this a lot early in the week ... Things look good for Darrelle Revis early this week, but hamstring injuries have a way of recurring. I'm not convinced he's ready to be the lockdown guy just yet ... Nick Barnett will need surgery on his wrist, but the Packers are hoping it can wait until the off-season. He'll have a second opinion on Friday ... Jake Delhomme will split practice reps with Seneca Wallace. Sources tell me Delhomme's "80%" for starting Sunday, though that will be a GTD ... Pierre Thomas' ankle may keep him out again this week. The Saints tend to be conservative and feel that they can adjust as they did last week if Thomas isn't nearer 100 percent ... Knowshon Moreno took reps with the first team on Wednesday, but he's got a ways to go before he's a good fantasy start. He may play, but he'll be a timeshare at best this week ... Darren McFadden's hamstring has him out so far this week and it looks like the Raiders are comfortable with Michael Bush in the feature role ... Pierre Garcon and Donald Brown were back at practice and look like they'll be available on Sunday ... GTD's can sometimes go the wrong way. Louis Murphy was only able to go a few plays before realizing his shoulder wasn't going to hold up. Looks like the Raiders are being more cautious this week ... Jordan Shipley did not practice Wednesday. He has not been cleared post a nasty concussion that resulted in a $15K fine for T.J. Ward. Ward's getting a reputation around the league quickly ... Tony Scheffler is out with a concussion and looks unlikely to play this weekend ... A lot of people ask me about college football injuries. I don't cover that beat, but I know a guy that does ... I have one opening for radio on Sunday morning if anyone's interested. Contact me on Twitter (@injuryexpert) if so ... See you on Sunday as I do a Bengals-Reds double-shift in Cincinnati after getting you all the injury updates on Sunday morning.