Key players making return to lineup after injuries
By Don Banks, Sports Illustrated
The NFL is the ultimate full-contact sport, and injuries are the logical outgrowth of that well-earned moniker. Here is a key player from each team whose injury situation bears monitoring during training camp. Most of the players listed here missed a significant portion of playing time last year:
Arizona -- Rob Moore, WR: When Moore blew out a knee on the treacherous carpet of the Metrodome last August, it seemed to suck all hope from the Cardinals season. Arizona found a capable replacement in David Boston, but Moore is still the man in the eyes of struggling Cards quarterback Jake Plummer. Moore's return to full effectiveness gives Arizona their No. 1 weapon back.
Atlanta -- Keith Brooking, LB: Some league observers feel Brooking was headed for elite status among linebackers when he tore a ligament in his foot and missed the final 11 games of 2000. Has the ability to pursue the football all over the field and is also becoming a complete package player in both coverage and run defense. Falcons are expecting him to be their defensive impact player.
Baltimore -- Travis Taylor, WR: Taylor missed the Ravens' ride to Super Bowl glory when he was felled by a broken clavicle in the ninth game of the season. But he had shown flashes of play-making with 27 catches for 276 yards and three touchdowns. If the Baltimore passing game is to take the step up that the addition of Elvis Grbac is intended to produce, Taylor needs to evolve into Grbac's reliable stretch-the-field option.
Buffalo -- Kris Farris, OT: The Bills believe they've almost picked up a free draft pick in Farris, a former third-rounder of Pittsburgh in 1999 who was out all last season with a left foot stress fracture. The 1998 Outland Trophy winner from UCLA, Farris signed in April and after some fine minicamp showings has moved ahead of incumbent right tackle Robert Hicks.
Carolina -- Patrick Jeffers, WR: Picking just one returning Panther to keep an eye on isn't easy, given the plethora of injuries that hit the roster in 2000. But as much as anything, Jeffers' season-ending right knee injury in the preseason opener set the tone for a dismal year in Carolina. Jeffers' comeback suffered a setback Tuesday when he had his right knee 'scoped. He is expected to be out another three weeks and now looks iffy for early season production.
Chicago -- Bobby Engram, WR: Engram is the kind of overlooked, possession receiver you never miss until he's gone. His loss early last year did nothing to keep the Bears muscial chairs quarterback situation from going full throttle. If rookie receiver David Terrell can add the longball threat, it'll only enhance the role that Engram plays.
Cincinnati -- Darnay Scott, WR: Scott's return from a broken leg will be handled with kid gloves in the preseason, but the Bengals must have him back at his field-stretching best if they're to climb out of their well-established home in the bottom third of the league. Scott was a little overweight this offseason, and lacking in endurance, but Cincinnati is willing to be paitent.
Cleveland -- JaJuan Dawson, WR: If it seems like every team in the league lost a key receiver last season, it's because about half of them did. Dawson's rookie season lasted just two games thanks to a clavicle injury, but his return should give quarterback Tim Couch and the Browns' league-worst offense a little more firepower. Dawson knows how to find the open gaps downfield but still must work on doing some of the little things well.
Dallas -- Joey Galloway, WR: Dallas' season was over before it started last year, in no small part because of Galloway's knee injury against Philadelphia in that painfully memorable opener. Never has a team spent so much for so little. The Cowboys' twin-burner offense built around Galloway and fellow receiver Raghib Ismail never had a chance to take off. Probably nothing can save Dallas from another debacle this year, but it at least would be nice to see what Galloway and quarterback Tony Banks can muster together.
Denver -- Terrell Davis, RB: Even though they keep coming up with Pro Bowl-level results from his replacements, the Broncos hope and believe that this is the year Davis ends what has been a two-year battle with knee and leg injuries. Denver is optimistic after seeing Davis run in minicamp last month, but there have been false starts before. His 33-carry, 115-yard effort in early November against the Jets proved only a tease before he missed the final six games, plus the playoffs, with a stress fracture in his left leg.
Detroit -- Bryant Westbrook, CB: The Lions lost their best cover corner when Westbrook blew out an Achilles' tendon in a Nov. 30 loss at Minnesota. Westbrook is working off to the side with trainers in camp. However, he was placed on the PUP list July 24. Westbrook was enjoying a career year in 2000 when he was hurt, and was even tabbed a Pro Bowl alternate thanks to personal bests in both interceptions (six) and passes defensed (21).
Green Bay -- Dorsey Levens, RB: Just as Denver did, the Packers made a valuable discovery when their starting running back was lost for most of the second half of the season with a knee injury. But even though Green Bay just signed Ahman Green to a five-year contract, the Packers were pleased when Levens decided to stay in Green Bay this offseason. Levens must now prove that he's capable of staying healthy an entire season and contributing somewhere close to his former level.
Indianapolis -- Rob Morris, LB: Last year's plan called for Morris to evolve into the kind of roam to the ball difference-maker that Chicago featured in rookie Brian Urlacher. But after Morris was lost with a quadriceps injury just before mid-season, the smallish Colts defense got run over at times against the run. After a quiet season on the personnel front, it's clear that Indianapolis expects big things from their young middle linebacker in 2001.
Jacksonville -- Jimmy Smith, WR: No receiver has glitzier numbers in recent seasons, but no receiver faces the potential of a longer road back this year than Smith. His three abdominal surgeries this offseason cost him at least 20 pounds, and he'll be monitored closely in camp and this preseason until his conditioning returns to full strength.
Kansas City -- Trent Green, QB: What team has more at stake on the outcome of an injury rehabilitation than the Chiefs? They gambled the top of their draft on the bet that Green's left knee is going to bounce back and hold up the entire season. K.C. took it slow with Green all spring and early summer in an attempt to have him ready to go all-out in the second half of the preseason.
Miami -- O.J. McDuffie, WR: The effects of a chronic toe injury may force the veteran receiver to sit out the start of the season. McDuffie played in just nine games last season, and has now seen the same injury impact him at some point for three consecutive years. His production has slid since he signed a big, four-year contract extension in July 1999, following his career-best 1,050-yard receiving season.
Minnesota -- Orlando Thomas, S: With a career that has been plagued by health problems since a December 1996 knee injury, Thomas has at last reached his make-or-break season in Minnesota. He broke his scapula for the second time in two years in 2000, missed eight games and then returned to pull a hamstring in the first half of the Vikings' first playoff game. With only second-year man Tyrone Carter behind him, Thomas will be leaving the Vikings' always thin secondary thinner if he goes down again.
New England -- Robert Edwards, RB: Everyone in the NFL is pulling for Edwards' sentimental story. His near-miraculous comeback from a devastating knee injury in a beach volleyball game at the 1999 Pro Bowl sustained a setback July 24 when he was placed on the PUP list after failing a conditioning test, but he was reinstated to the active roster one day later after passing a second try. He remains a longshot to come all the way back, but doctors once predicted he would have trouble walking normally after surgery.
New Orleans -- Cam Cleeland, TE: The Saints overcame the loss of Cleeland to a ruptured Achilles last preseason, and still made the playoffs, but they'd love to have their pass-catching threat back down the middle of the field in 2001. Cleeland was just emerging as one of the game's best tight ends when he went down. With him healthy, look for the position to get renewed attention in the Saints game plan.
New York Giants -- Ike Hilliard, WR: For tactical reasons involving his quest for a new contract, Hilliard put off having surgery on his injured right foot until June 18, an injury that occurred against Detroit in mid-November. The move backfired big time, serving to irritate the Giants heirarchy to no end and shelving Hilliard for all of training camp. He's iffy to be ready for the season opener, and may have signed his own exit papers.
New York Jets -- John Abraham, DE: Before an abdominal strain cost him the final 10 games of his rookie season, Abraham was looking like an impact rookie, with 4.5 sacks in six games. With the Jets ditching the 3-4 defense, Abraham will move from linebacker to defensive end and try to generate the same pass rush with his hand on the ground.
Oakland -- Matt Stinchcomb, OT: His two seasons with the Raiders have been marred by shoulder problems. Oakland's first-round pick in 1999, he lost all of that season to shoulder surgery, then went down again after nine games last year, failing to retain the starting left tackle job even after he recovered. This year Stinchcomb will have to battle in camp to re-earn his lineup spot.
Philadelphia -- Duce Staley, RB: When Staley went on injured reserve following foot surgery in mid-October, the Eagles offense didn't go in the tank. But far too much of the load was carried by quarterback Donovan McNabb, and Staley's return to prominence can only help diversify the attack. Staley probably won't repeat his 201-yard opening-day effort at Dallas last season, but the Eagles would gladly take half that.
Pittsburgh -- Plaxico Burress, WR: The eighth overall pick last year, Burress hurt his wrist in the season opener and wound up succumbing to year-ending surgery on it in late November. It would be misleading to blame all of Burress's problems last year on his wrist, but it did contribute to his humbling first season. Burress hasn't been limited in any way so far in camp, and has vowed to make amends for his low-impact 2000.
St. Louis -- Kurt Warner, QB: The cobwebs that lingered so long after Warner's late-season battle with concussion problems appear to be cleared away. The broken finger that cost him five games in the season's second half is not an issue. But we still won't completely know that Warner is all the way back until he leads the Rams' rapid-fire offense down the field a time or two. That sound you hear is Mike Martz holding his breath.
San Diego -- Raylee Johnson, DE: Johnson finally arrived in 1999, posting a 10.5 sack season from right end. But his development was blunted when he tore up his ACL last preseason and sat out the schedule. After a long year of work, he is expected to be ready to go when the Chargers veterans get back to work this week. He should be aided by the free-agent acquisition of Marcellus Wiley at left end.
San Francisco -- Garrison Hearst, RB: His two-year-plus struggle to return to the field following a January 1999 broken ankle ranks as one of the game's most compelling fights. But Hearst is more than just a feel-good story this year. Having lost Charlie Garner to cross-bay rival Oakland, the 49ers really need Hearst to make it all the way back in 2001. So far, the reports are mostly good.
Seattle -- Robbie Tobeck, C: He may lack name recognition, but the Seahawks knew he was missing after he tore a left knee tendon in an off-season workout last year. Showed great perseverance and wound up playing the final month of the season for Seattle, rather than take the easy way out and accept an injured reserve assignment.
Tampa Bay -- John Lynch, S: Despite starting all 16 games and going to his third Pro Bowl in four seasons, Lynch had an injury situation to deal with last year. He dislocated his left shoulder at Chicago on Nov. 19, but played in the final six regular season games and one playoff game wearing a harness. He rehabilitated the injury without off-season surgery and is back to hand out more punishment this year.
Tennessee -- Eddie George, RB: Don't look for the Titans to let their workhorse running back gallop until the final preseason game or so. George had off-season surgery on his big toe and the team is playing it cautious with their franchise player. George won't even be allowed to take full part in practice until well into training camp.
Washington -- Michael Westbrook, WR: The 2000 Redskins were a circus from start to finish, but nobody was laughing when Westbrook was lost to knee surgery after two games. Although he has never been the type of player who could be counted on week in and week out, Westbrook was the team's longball threat and Washington's passing game grew increasingly shorter with him on the sideline. Quarterback Jeff George needs him more than ever this year.