The NFL Draft is a lottery with ample time to prepare for. While much of it relies on occasional blind luck, the draw of players your organization selects matters. Studying put into drafted players has great precedence. Putting prospects through a variety of rigors is crucial.
Nowhere is this roll of the dice more evident than when a team picks a talented player coming off injury. That’s because while film can show a contributor with a seamless projection to the NFL level, the line is muddled as to whether that player is the same after health issues. The beauty of this is that most guys in their early to mid-20’s recover well and go on to have lengthy careers. That’s modern medicine and the gift of youth in motion.
However, that recovery isn’t always a guarantee, which is why draft stock often drops in these cases. Every evaluation in this injury light must be taken on a case by case basis as the ability a player showed when healthy is then taken into account. A risk is more likely to be taken in players because they’ve proven to be stars. Sometimes, their stock doesn’t even take a hit. That’s part of the gamble of the draft where the feet of organizations are held to the fire.
Last year, the Bears had this experience when they gave their now entrenched starting free safety Eddie Jackson the benefit of the doubt by taking him with the 112th pick in the 2017 Draft. Jackson, who had been a stellar performer at Alabama, broke his leg in October 2016. That necessitated a metal rod for stabilization be inserted as Jackson’s football livelihood was thrown into flux.
There was no doubt that the 24-year-old Jackson would do everything in his power to return to full strength, but until he showed it in game action, no one could be sure as to the player they were getting. Tape showed the Bears had franchise level player with coveted ballhawk ability in the fourth round. A second rounder by many’s estimation if he had not suffered such a traumatic injury. But the danger was ever present.
Chicago would either see the Jackson who had nine interceptions, three defensive touchdowns, and two punt return scores in four college seasons, or a shell of a formerly explosive talent.
As evidenced by his stellar rookie year where Jackson had 53 tackles, had five turnovers, and scored two defensive touchdowns, the Bears saw the Jackson they had projected. A year of records for a rookie as he was the first Bears safety to record at least four takeaways in a season since 2013. He also became the first NFL player to ever score two 75-yard defensive touchdowns in one game against the Carolina Panthers: done a year to the date of his fateful broken leg that allowed him to slide to the Bears.
Long story short: the Bears received tremendous value with their fourth round pick of Jackson. So much so, they may have finally solved their safety conundrum: a position that’s vexed the franchise since the glory days of Mike Brown.
Let’s take a closer look at recent history of drafts from 2010-2016 with other formerly injured stud payoffs.
2010: Rob Gronkowski, TE, Patriots
When healthy, it’s difficult to argue that Gronkowski isn’t the most dominant tight end of all time. Despite missing 39 career starts in eight NFL seasons, he’s caught 7,179 yards, 474 passes, and 79 touchdowns. He’s regarded as the singular most unstoppable defensive matchup problem, which is reflected with his five First-team All-Pro selections. A former second round pick in 2010, Gronkowski fell that far due to a documented major back surgery in 2008 and 2009 at college in Arizona.
As a professional, Gronkowski has proven to be a bit fragile of late, but the freak was worth every penny for his slight fall.
2011: Kyle Rudolph, TE, Vikings
The consensus top tight end of the 2011 draft class, Rudolph spent three months in rehab to help recovery from hamstring surgery. That dropped him from what would’ve been a mid-first rounder to a mid-second rounder to Minnesota.
A prolific college producer, Rudolph is now one of the best tight ends in the NFL with 37 career touchdowns and two Pro Bowl selections in 2012 and 2017. He hasn’t had any health issues sans unrelated foot and hernia injuries in 2013 and 2014, respectively.
2012: Chandler Jones, Edge, Patriots
As a junior at Syracuse in 2011, Jones only played in seven games due to a knee injury suffered early in the year. When healthy, it wasn’t debatable that he was one of the top pass rushers in his draft. Evidently, the injury wasn’t a concern for New England. The organization lucked out with a transcendent talent that dropped some due to injury for the second time in as many years.
Unfortunately, for the Patriots’ sake, the bulk of Jones’ recent work has come with the Cardinals after a trade in 2015. While New England won a championship with Jones as a key contributor in Super Bowl XLIX, he’s since become a Defensive Player of the Year type in Arizona as he led the NFL in sacks with 17 in 2017 and was a First-team All-Pro.
2013: Star Lotulelei, DT, Bills
Back in 2013, the former first rounder in Lotulelei had a heart problem that was unearthed at the Scouting Combine. None of this scared the Panthers away who made him the 14th selection. He became an anchor for of one of the league’s most underrated defenses over the next five seasons, culminating in a Super Bowl appearance in 2015.
Recently, the 28-year-old Lotulelei signed a mega free agent contract at five years with $50 million and $24.65 million guaranteed with Buffalo.
2014: Dee Ford, Edge, Chiefs
Back injuries seem to be all the rage for many of these value prospects. Ford was no stranger to this phenomenon as suffered back complications from a 2011 playing incident in 2014. A strong Senior Bowl then reinforced confidence in Kansas City to take him with the 23rd overall pick. Two seasons later, Ford began to reward the Chiefs’ good faith in him with 10 sacks in 14 starts. But when you’re the third outside linebacker behind stalwarts such as Justin Houston and Tamba Hali, chances to contribute come sparingly.
With Hali out of the picture, Ford is expected to make a consistent jump next to Houston in 2018.
2015: Todd Gurley, RB, Rams
A tumultuous final college season wracked by suspension and ruined by a torn ACL, threw Gurley’s NFL future into the wind. One of the elite all-around tailbacks in college football had major questions as to what was in store. This wasn’t off-putting to the Rams as they selected Gurley with the 10th overall pick in the 2015 Draft. Their faith has been rewarded summarily.
In 2015, Gurley was the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year and was a Second-team All-Pro. Last season, Gurley was the NFL Offensive Player of the Year and was a First-team All-Pro that led the league in rushing touchdowns. He’s the foundational offensive piece for Los Angeles and it’s as if his knee injury somehow made him stronger.
2016: Myles Jack, LB, Jaguars
One of the premier examples of athleticism in the modern NFL, Jack is a figurehead for a swagger-filled Jacksonville defense. The former UCLA star suffered a torn meniscus in a routine practice in his last amateur season. Instead of staying on with the program, he withdrew from school and decided to focus on his rehabilitation in preparation for the draft. Since Jack didn’t need surgery, his goal was getting healthy. For a player that coaches once considered playing at running back, he knew just had to show that he had the same twitchy athleticism. The Jaguars didn’t wait long to take Jack with the 36th overall pick afterwards.
In a breakout 2017, Jack recorded 66 tackles and two sacks, highlighted by various showcases of game breaking ability.
Health concerns clearly haven’t precluded this bunch from making their mark. These are some candidates to consider from the 2018 Draft pool for the Bears to find this year’s Jackson.
Jack Cichy, LB, Wisconsin
In 2015 and 2016, Cichy posted back-to-back 60 tackle seasons with 15 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks. He was one of the top defensive prospects for the draft in the 2017 preseason before suffering a torn ACL during camp in August. The 6-foot-2, 234 pounder is a former walk on at Wisconsin that’s used to grinding away and proving himself through adversity. He’s a player with plus instincts and reaction time that is rarely out of position.
Considering the versatility and intangibles offers, the Bears can’t go wrong with a late Day 2 to early Day 3 gamble on Cichy.
Duke Ejiofor, Edge, Wake Forest
According to Draft Analyst, Ejiofor underwent surgery to repair a torn labrum in early February, taking him out of pre-draft activities as he centers on rehabilitation instead. None of that should be necessary to evaluate him as the production and traits speak for themselves. In four seasons at Wake Forest, the 6-foot-4, 275 pound monster recorded 24 sacks and an unreal 43.5 tackles for loss. He became one of the most unblockable forces in the ACC.
A crafty pass rusher that can play on the interior and on the edge, Ejiofor presents a tantalizing addition to NFL defenses that is being projected in the third to fourth round. He’s a powerful player that knows how to use his hands and would make an immediate impact for Chicago. The perfect partner for Leonard Floyd.
Billy Price, C, Ohio State
Price, a two-time First-team All-Big Ten selection in 2016 and 2017, tore his pectoral muscle at this year’s Combine while being tested for his bench press. Fortunately, the injury didn’t require surgery as Price is expected to recover without taking much of a hit towards his draft stock. He was still marked down some teams’ boards for risk. A pick of Price in mid to late Day 2 by the Bears would mean a similar process to what they went through with Jackson. That means patience and him likely not being available through organized team activities and early training camp.
Provided the Bears would bring Price along properly, he’d help form a formidable long term interior offensive line with Cody Whitehair beside him.
Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for The Rock River Times, an editor for Windy City Gridiron and Inside The Pylon, and is a contributor to Pro Football Weekly and The Athletic Chicago. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.