Injuries are a way of life in the NFL, but it doesn't make them any less serious for the players who suffer them and the teams who have to find ways to replace those who are sidelined.
When a player was injured matters almost as much as where the injury was located and its severity. A late-season injury can turn into six weeks on the physically unable to perform list a year later. It can influence a team's approach to free agency and the draft. And it can shake up the plans originally in place for the makeup of the 53-man roster. Thus, players still recovering as training camps approach are under particular scrutiny.
Here are five players who are still in the process of working their way back from injuries suffered during the 2016 season and analysis of how imperative it is that each gets back into playing form during training camp.
Mike Pouncey, C, Dolphins
Of Pouncey's six seasons in the NFL, he's managed to play all 16 games just twice, in 2011 and '12. Since then, the 2011 first-round pick has undergone shoulder surgery (in 2014) and has, as of late, been trying to overcome a hip injury he suffered in the Dolphins' second preseason game a year ago.
The fractured left hip cost Pouncey the first four games of the regular season. He returned in Week 5 only to re-injure the hip in Week 9. At the time, both Pouncey and the Dolphins believed it wasn't a cause for concern. But Pouncey never returned to the field last year and is still dealing with the aftereffects of the injury. He underwent a stem cell treatment in the spring to help hurry along the healing process, and head coach Adam Gase said during June's minicamp that Pouncey's training camp and preseason status is dependent on "the next doctor's visit," adding, "He wants to be out there, but it's not good if we only get him for a couple of games."
As such, it should not cause too much concern if Pouncey starts training camp on the physically unable to perform list. After all, it was during the preseason that Pouncey suffered his injury a year ago, and the seventh-year veteran would likely be in line for a lighter summertime workload whether or not he had been hurt in 2016. What matters more is if the Dolphins don't activate him off the PUP before the regular season, forcing Pouncey to sit for at least six games. That would indicate that Pouncey's rehabilitation is not going as planned or he has suffered a setback.
Last year, a combination of Anthony Steen and Kraig Urbik took on the center's workload. The pair ranked 35th and 36th, respectively, out of 38, according to Pro Football Focus. In particular, the Dolphins missed Pouncey's ability to drive forward the run game, as they surpassed 100 yards rushing just twice without him last year. While the Dolphins desperately need Pouncey's services this season, they must learn from 2016, when rushing him back turned the initial hip injury into a longer-term problem for both the team and the player. It's better that the Dolphins let Pouncey rest this summer than to risk him missing more regular-season games.
Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Vikings
There may not have been a more gut-wrenching injury than the one suffered by Bridgewater last year, made even worse by its timing: Aug. 30, just days before the regular season was set to begin. Bridgewater dislocated and tore multiple ligaments in his left knee dropping back in a non-contact situation, a significant injury that cost the quarterback the entirety of the 2016 season.
The Vikings had to scramble to find a suitable starter, coming to terms with the Eagles to acquire Sam Bradford via trade four days later. While Bradford was a competent starter, posting career highs in completion percentage (71.6) and passing yards (3,877) and a career-low in interception percentage (0.9, with five picks to 20 passing scores), the Vikings still ended the year with an 8-8 record and decisions about the position looming on the horizon.
The first was to turn down Bridgewater's fifth-year option, which would have paid him over $12 million in 2018. While not a mind-blowing sum in a league where quarterbacks' yearly averages are now at the $25 million mark, it was also set to be a fully guaranteed payday for Bridgewater regardless of his injury status, something the Vikings weren't willing to commit to with few answers available regarding Bridgewater's future.
The other is whether or not Bridgewater will be taking the field for Minnesota this year at any point. In March, coach Mike Zimmer admitted that he wanted a healthy Bridgewater to remain with the Vikings both in the short and long term, but he also noted that he had "no idea" if Bridgewater could ever realistically play again. Something surprising happened, though: Not only did he participate in team drills during OTAs in May, he also threw passes in front of the media in early June, both signs that his career is perhaps in less jeopardy than it seemed just a few months ago and that he could be ready to take over for Bradford sooner than anyone thought possible.
But we must not get ahead of ourselves. There is a significant difference between a quarterback in a non-contact jersey throwing passes in non-padded practices and doing so in live tackling situations, taking drop-back after drop-back. There's also the matter of Bridgewater feeling confident in his knee, a process that can take an unknowable amount of time.
The assumption has long been that Bridgewater will at least open the regular season on the PUP list with the potential to return by midseason, especially if Bradford struggles during the first few weeks. But Bridgewater's speedier-than-expected recovery could give way to a quarterback battle playing out for the Vikings later this summer.
Realistically, giving Bridgewater all the time he needs to return to 100-percent health would be in the Vikings' best interest. Bradford accomplished enough a year ago that Minnesota can afford to wait. The good news is that no matter what happens with Bridgewater's time as a Viking, it does not appear that his career is ending, which was the major worry last August.
Giovani Bernard, RB, Bengals
A season ago, it was clear that Bernard was playing second fiddle in the Bengals' run game to Jeremy Hill. Bernard had only two starts in his 10 games played and rushed only 91 times for 337 yards and two TDs, while Hill had 222 carries, 839 yards and nine rushing TDs. But Hill was out-targeted in the passing game: He caught 21 of 27 passes thrown his way for 174 yards, while Bernard caught 39 passes on 51 targets for 336 yards and a touchdown. Bernard, clearly, is the Bengals' third-down back.
But Bernard is not being rushed back from the torn left ACL he suffered in Week 10. And the Bengals don't need to push him, after drafting running back Joe Mixon in the second round in April. While Bernard opening the year on PUP doesn't seem in the cards as of now, Bengals.com's Geoff Hobson believes that Bernard will be held out of the first few games of the regular season. After that, his role will be determined by Mixon's development and how well Hill runs behind a Bengals offensive line that lost both tackle Andrew Whitworth and guard Kevin Zeitler during the offseason.
Initially, the Bengals drafting Mixon seemed to point toward Hill's roster spot being in jeopardy. But it now appears that Mixon's arrival could have the biggest impact on Bernard. Though Bernard was signed to a three-year, $15.5 million contract extension last June, it will cost the Bengals only $1.5 million to release him in 2018. Mixon's arrival was never a particularly good thing for Bernard to begin with. Combining that with his continued rehabilitation of a late-season injury further hinders his opportunity to prove his value as part of Cincinnati's offense.
Andrew Luck, QB, Colts
Luck's shoulder issues date back to October 2015, when the 2012 first-overall draft pick missed two games nursing the injury. He then returned, only to suffer injuries to his ribs, abdomen and kidney that cost him the rest of the year. It was later revealed, via the Indianapolis Star's Stephen Holder, that rushing Luck back from the shoulder injury may have resulted in his season-ending aliments or, at the very least, the shoulder injury never properly healing. Holder reported that Luck had to take pain-killing injections in order to throw while hurt.
While Luck's other injuries healed during the 2016 offseason -- an offseason in which he was given a five-year, $122.97 million contract to remain the Colts' starter for the foreseeable future -- the shoulder ailment lingered. Luck opted not to undergo surgery last year, relying instead on a course of rehabilitation. Though Luck made it through 15 of 16 games in 2016, it was despite the shoulder injury and not a result of its improvement. As such, Colts owner Jim Irsay announced in January that Luck had undergone surgery to repair the torn right labrum and noted that the quarterback "will be ready" for the 2017 season.
Andrew recovering from successful outpatient surgery to fix right shoulder injury that had lingered since 2015. Will be ready for season!- Jim Irsay (@JimIrsay) January 19, 2017
As of now, Luck has not yet been cleared to begin throwing, and he's not sure when that day may come. Luck said earlier in June that he's "not going to get into specifics, dates and timelines," but he did add that time is "absolutely approaching." His lack of participation in both OTAs and minicamp was a given, but Luck's training camp availability remains in the air. Luck said, "If I'm ready for it, great. If I'm not, then that's the way it is."
The Colts have every incentive to take things slowly with Luck. There's the financial investment they've made in him, one that in turn results in a necessary commitment of time. There's the previous handling of his injuries -- the shoulder in particular -- that should make all of Indianapolis' coaches and training staff wary of putting too much wear and tear on the quarterback. Coach Chuck Pagano said so himself when asked about Luck's workload whenever he should report for on-field duty at training camp.
"There's going to be obviously a number, a pitch count on that, and he's going to have to continue to build from the ground floor up as far as that goes," said Pagano during minicamp.
With surgery a success, the next step is to make sure the recovery from it goes smoothly and without setbacks. Luck is the face of the Colts' franchise and is the biggest key to the team returning to relevance in the AFC South. The Colts have learned the hard way that pushing Luck back onto the field too quickly can have dire consequences. Don't be surprised if it is a very quiet summer for Luck, with the goal of him being 100 percent healthy and ready for Week 1.
Cam Newton, QB, Panthers
Newton is also working his way back from offseason shoulder surgery, but his timetable is a bit different from that of Luck's, primarily owning to the timing of the procedure. While Luck's took place in January, Newton's -- which was to repair a partially-torn rotator cuff -- did not happen until March 30. Newton, like Luck a year before, thought that regular (and intensive) treatment could solve the problem. When it didn't, Newton chose surgery.
Newton just started throwing again this week -- 45 passes to Panthers' head athletic trainer Ryan Vermillion (three sets of 15) -- with the media in attendance, not on a practice field but instead in the team's locker room. It was a way to test how Newton's arm is feeling, and Newton was candid in evaluating his brief session, saying, "When I say it's not 100 percent, I'm noting the range of motion part. Like, if you sleep with your legs hanging off your bed the whole night, you're going to wake up and be super stiff. Or like sitting on your hands, or sitting in an awkward position and finally getting up and moving -- that's how I feel."
But even with a more truncated journey between surgery and training camp than Luck, Newton is optimistic that he will be ready to participate fully when camp begins in a month. In fact, he's confident: "I want to be 100 percent come training camp. There's no doubt that I will be. Shoot, in two weeks, I'll be ready to rock and roll."
Newton has every reason to want to get back on track for 2017. His 2016 campaign, which saw him play his final four games while managing his injury, was a far cry from the previous year's, when the Panthers reached the Super Bowl and Newton threw 35 regular-season touchdowns to just 10 interceptions and ran for 10 more scores. Last year, the Panthers won just six games. Newton threw 19 touchdowns and 14 interceptions and had only five rushing scores.
Getting the Panthers back on track is serving as motivation for Newton to recover quickly from surgery and be ready for the upcoming season. But it may have tempered his desire to carry the team on his back as he did in 2015.
"There was a reason I picked my jersey number," Newton said. "There was a reason why No. 1 is on my back every single day. Those are high standards that I set for myself, and I always have to remind myself that anything less is unacceptable." But Newton went on to say, "The thing I have to realize is my job is not necessarily to always be the playmaker. I have to give other people opportunities to make plays."
Newton, in his own words, is still working on "getting the range of motion back, strengthening those joints and the arm." Therefore, expect Newton to be eased into throwing in training camp and kept on a strict pitch count, one that should loosen over time to guarantee his readiness for Week 1. With Newton's surgery taking place relatively recently, avoiding aggravation should outweigh the urge to indulge the quarterback's desire to take part fully in training camp. As Newton said, "I feel like I'm in my prime. My prime better be now. I don't want to have seen my best days -- that's scary."
Being conservative about training camp and the preseason might be the best way to assure Newton's prime isn't behind him.