The five players whose absence will be felt the most in 2015—and how the Cowboys, Panthers, Packers, Steelers and Vikings will cope
Editor’s note: Each week throughout the 2015 NFL season, The MMQB will publish an advanced analytics story by Neil Hornsby, the president of football operations at Pro Football Focus.
Injuries are a staple of training camp and the preseason, and some can a shape a team’s fortunes before football is ever played in earnest. As we enter Week 1, here’s a ranking of the five injured players whose absence will have the greatest impact on their respective teams.
1) Orlando Scandrick, CB, Cowboys
When Scandrick went down with a torn ACL and MCL, the Cowboys lost not only their best defensive player, but also one of the top five at his position in football. That may sound a little far-fetched given that his name rarely resides in that rarified conversation of great cornerbacks, but the key words here are “his position.” It’s not just cornerback, its also slot cornerback. With the prevalence of ‘11’ personnel in the current game—that’s one running back, one tight end and three receivers—his ability to come inside in nickel makes him special. Playing more than 50% of his coverage snaps inside (305 of 590) he still managed to rank as our No. 7 overall corner in coverage, and third out of anyone who played significant snaps in the more difficult slot role.
Tyler Patmon, an undrafted rookie last season, now looks to fill the slot role. While he hasn’t been a disaster so far, the heat ramps up once the regular season begins. Perhaps the worst part is putting Morris Claiborne on the field for every snap; he’s still with Dallas only because of his draft status (taken sixth overall in 2012).
2) Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Panthers
There’s a definite argument for switching numbers 2 and 3 on my list because, at this stage in their careers, I don’t think anyone outside Charlotte would say Benjamin (torn ACL) is a better wideout than Jordy Nelson. However, if you look at what the Packers have left compared to the Panthers, the difference is stark. When the topic of the Packers comes up with NFL defensive coaches, the first wide receiver mentioned is normally Randall Cobb, not Nelson, but that’s a tale for later on down the list.
While Benjamin had far from a consistent first season (of the 50 most target receivers, his drop rate was the 48th-worst) he did improve as the year wore on: His PFF -8.7 grade over the first 10 games was sharply contrasted by his +2.7 over the last eight. That’s a lot better than anyone else the Panthers are going to call on, including Jerricho Cotchery (an underrated star for most of his career who tailed off quite badly in 2014), undrafted second-year player Philly Brown (two catches on 12 preseason targets, including three drops) and Ted Ginn Jr. (logged only 159 offensive snaps for the Cardinals in 2014).
3) Jordy Nelson, WR, Packers
As intimated above, Nelson’s lower position on this list is more a nod to teammate Randall Cobb than any indictment on his ability. Nelson (torn ACL) was our No. 2 rated receiver in 2014 and, at times, his connection with Aaron Rodgers seemed almost uncanny. Nelson’s ratio of 13 touchdowns to one interception when he was targeted was the best in football, and he was also third in plays of 10 yards or more when his QB was forced out of the pocket. While Nelson is clearly a huge loss for the Packers, the guy who finished second in the NFL last season in TD to INT ratio was none other than Cobb, who also ranked higher than Nelson for 10+ yards when his QB scrambled.
4) Maurkice Pouncey, C, Steelers
We at PFF have never bought into the “conventional wisdom” that Pouncey is the best center in football, but we still think he’s a very good (and improving) player. In successive years we’ve ranked him Nos. 20, 12, injured and 6 at his position—and the trend suggests that reality will eventually meet the hype. (For now he’s on injured reserved with a lower leg injury, but is designated to return as early as Week 9.)
However, there is one thing here that is traditionally undervalued and that’s the worth of a good center. For another project, I’m building up a list of teams who had their pivot either retire or get injured. Whether it was Todd McClure or Matt Birk retiring from the Falcons and Ravens, or Alex Mack getting injured for the Browns in 2014, the results were pretty hairy; nothing worked well in their absence. Logically, it may seem like you are losing only one-fifth of the unit, but that doesn’t account for how vital the position is to the entire offensive line.
Last year, at the time of Mack’s injury, were PFF’s top-ranked O-line by some margin, but they went into a free fall and finished sixth by season’s end. The Steelers had to make do without Pouncey two years ago, but he wasn’t the player then that he is now. They will do well to have a top-half O-line without him.
5) Phil Loadholt, T, Vikings
Minnesota had issues on the left side of its line last season: Matt Kalil played hurt, but that couldn’t fully excuse his being the second worst pass-blocking tackle in football. So the Vikings decided to support him by moving quality right guard Brandon Fusco (our third rated RG in 2013) next to Kalil at left guard. They figured putting rookie T.J. Clemmings at right guard, between John Sullivan (the savvy center) and Loadholt (the right tackle and one of the best run blockers in football) wouldn’t be too much of a risk. But with Loadholt out of the equation following a torn Achilles tendon, Clemmings will slide over to tackle and Michael Harris, a player who struggles to keep his head just above replacement value, will fill in at guard, making the right side of the line an area of real concern.
Neil Hornsby is the president of football operations at profootballfocus.com.