GREEN BAY, Wis. – There’s an adage held by NFL scouts. “Injured players get injured.”
In 2017, the Green Bay Packers used their first draft pick on Washington cornerback Kevin King. An elite size-athleticism prospect, King’s injury pushed to the start of the second round. Then-general manager Ted Thompson saw value and grabbed King at No. 33 overall. In four NFL seasons, he has played only about 52 percent of the defensive snaps due to injuries.
Sometimes, however, those risk-reward decisions pay off. University of Arizona tight end Rob Gronkowski missed the 2009 season due to a back injury that required surgery. Gronkowski bet on himself, not only bypassing his final year in college but bypassing an insurance policy that would have given him $4 million had he been forced to retire due to injury. Given the fickle nature of back injuries – especially a decade ago – Gronkowski was removed from some teams’ draft boards. The New England Patriots picked him at No. 42 overall. A four-time All-Pro, Gronkowski might be the best tight end in NFL history.
As is the case every year, the 2021 NFL Draft features some high-equality prospects with medical red flags. Virginia Tech cornerback Caleb Farley, whose recent back surgery could keep him out until the start of training camp, tops the list. Because of King’s inconsistency, the Packers enter this draft with a need a cornerback. Farley’s injury could send him tumbling toward the Packers’ spot at No. 29. Even if he doesn’t fall that far, Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst has traded up in each of his three first rounds.
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“Every organization is going to view it differently,” said former NFL and college coach Jim Mora Jr., a SI.com contributor. “A guy like Gronk, it worked out. Caleb Farley, hopefully it works out, but he’s going to sit there on draft day and every time a team passes on him, he’s going to go, ‘Oh, my goodness, what’s going on?’”
Mora has first-hand knowledge. After serving as the head coach in Atlanta and Seattle, Mora led UCLA for six seasons. One of his best players was linebacker Myles Jack, a talent so exceptional that he starred on offense and defense. Early in the 2015 season, Jack suffered a season-ending knee injury. In the 2016 draft, Mora sat with Jack in the Green Room as the potential top-10 pick tumbled through the first round and into the second round after rumors spread late in the draft process about Jack’s knee.
“I’m desperately working the phones calling my general manager and head coach friends in the NFL saying, ‘Listen, it’s not true. He’s great, good to go,’” Mora recalled in the accompanying video. “But it didn’t matter at that point. People had become too concerned that he had a knee issue that they couldn’t resolve within their organization and take him in the first round.”
There’s no foolproof way to determine whether a player with an injury history is worth the risk, as Jack was for Jacksonville. The recent medical rechecks in Indianapolis provided team physicians an opportunity to check about 150 players. But will an injured player continue to get injured? Or was it simply a matter of a year or two of bad luck in a violent sport?
“Medical isn’t completely black and white. There’s a lot of gray,” David Chao said, a former team doctor and @ProFootballDoc on Twitter, told the Boston Globe. “Just like there’s not always consensus on who the top players are in the draft. This is why 32 teams go to a workout — everyone wants their own look at the guy.”