Will Carroll: How Healthy Are Derrick Henry, CMC, Saquon Entering 2022 season?

Written By Will Carroll on August 26, 2022
Derrick Henry Saquon Barkley

I’m thrilled to be joining TheLines this year to bring you the best injury information possible to help with your NFL betting decisions. If you’re not familiar with me and my work, I want to be clear that I’m not a doctor, athletic trainer, or the like. I’m a reporter with 20 years of experience and a network of contacts and sources that help me explain the what, why, and how of injuries. You already know that nothing moves the line more than injuries, but there’s still no advantage like understanding how injuries will impact a team. 

The same injury can affect different players in different ways. Genetics, skills, position, and even which team a player is with can affect things. Knowing more about all of it gives you a chance to understand when a player missing time is going to cost points, or if trying to play through something is going to cost even more. A player coming back is often seen as a positive, but that first game back can be a problem, especially for quarterbacks in-season. 

With the season coming up quickly, it’s tough to get a great look at players coming off of injuries. Starters barely play in the pre-season and “load management” is an easy excuse to rest them early and often throughout camp. Today, I’ll be taking a look at the most high-impact players coming back from injuries from last season, and how they’ll affect how you should be looking at betting around them.

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Derrick Henry, RB, Titans

Derrick Henry was having a very typical Henry season before one bad step on the Indianapolis turf – yes, it’s back to being a problem – resulted in a Jones fracture and surgery. Henry did return for the Titans in the postseason but had a relatively average performance (20 carries, 62 yards) in the team’s loss to the Bengals.

The Titans lost about a full touchdown in expectation last year after losing Henry. Looking at the O/U totals, you can see the line anticipated this and was even a bit conservative in how much was expected. Part of that was that no one guessed how bad the replacements would be.

This year, there’s no reason to think Henry will have a problem with the foot. He’s not playing in the preseason, but the Titans didn’t rush out to get solid backups. While Jones fractures often have some recurrence or problems with the screw that necessitates replacement down the line, most players come back well from it and get right back to level.

Henry’s going to get touches and touchdowns, and there’s no reason to think that last year’s injury will have any carryover. In fact, there’s some theory that a lowered workload last year will function as rest and slingshot him to a quick start. I just think he’s going to be back to being the most physically imposing running back in the league on a team that won’t hesitate to give him 350 touches.

Cam Akers, RB, Rams

Can a player be a comeback player if he already came back? Akers missed the regular season after tearing his Achilles in camp, but was a factor in the Rams Super Bowl run. The quick return wasn’t a miracle. It was having a great medical staff, a lot of hard work, and the fact that changes in the Achilles surgical technique have led to a quicker return times for everyone. Akers’ situation was just notable because of the visibility.

Add in a full off-season of work and Akers should be back to where he was at this time last year. Achilles and lower leg injuries often create a muscular imbalance between the legs. Akers’ injured leg was visibly smaller, but in camp this year, they appear symmetrical. Again, that’s normal and getting Akers to normal is exactly what the Rams want.

Akers isn’t going to bust open the offense. It was already very accomplished, as that ring they’re wearing shows. What he should give LA is a steady presence and some consistency at the position. That means win totals, not point totals.

Saquon Barkley, RB, Giants

Saquon Barkley struggled in his return from ACL surgery if you look at the stats, but did he really? I’d argue that the ankle injury he had in-season stole his burst and the sad offensive support he got didn’t help. While studies show that an ACL can take 24 months to fully heal, we regularly see players come back in 6-9 months with no issue. 

The downside here is that if we can’t rely on a physical resurgence, I don’t think we’re going to see much in the way of a statistical resurgence either. He’s got new coaching, but the same quarterback, plus a team that’s had more leg injuries than most over the past few seasons. (That might be the turf as much as the team, as the Jets will attest to.)

I simply don’t see Barkley being a 250 touch player, or staying healthy at that level. While he’s certainly big and strong, he’s only been as good as the offense around him and Eli Manning isn’t walking through that door. I’m not worried about his knee as much as I am a recurrence of the ankle sprains he’s had throughout his college and pro career.

Christian McCaffrey, RB, Panthers

My pal Aaron Schatz from Football Outsiders had a thing he called the Curse of 370. Running backs don’t get that many carries these days, but in a bigger-stronger-faster all the time NFL, the principle that running backs wear down, over a game, a season, and a career holds true. (What about those backs that “get better in the fourth quarter?” Bunk. They just don’t tire as much and tend to be big and punishing. As basketball coach Marv Harshman once explained about his preference for big players, “quick guys get tired. Big guys don’t shrink.”)

If we accept this as true, a player like Christian McCaffrey becomes a study. He’s a hybrid back, but he runs between the tackles. He’s best in space, but he’s not shifty like Barry Sanders, regularly taking big hits. Sprained ankles and hamstrings are common injuries, but for a player like McCaffrey, those are the injuries that impact his skills the most. Add in the issues at quarterback and the sense that Matt Ruhle’s seat is warming and I’ll tell you that betting on a McCaffrey comeback is likely a loser.

I’m not saying that McCaffrey isn’t good, or that he can’t be a star. It’s that age, offense, and the chance – even likelihood – that he’ll have the kind of minor but problematic injuries in increasing doses as he ages and as those hits wear him down make those 2,000 total yard seasons nearly impossible. While McCaffrey has looked healthy in camp, you can make bank on taking the under on Carolina win totals (6.5) that are counting on that comeback.

Travis Etienne, RB, Jaguars

Travis Etienne was supposed to be the guy behind Trevor Lawrence last year, but an early season injury ended that. The Jaguars were just flat bad, on field and off, but if the problem was coaching, a new infusion of talent should help Etienne. What it won’t help is the fact that Lisfranc fractures often leave a player with a bit of instability. The feet are very complex, with small bones, ligaments, and lots of nerves that can create pain if everything’s not just right. For a player who’s got as much lateral quickness as Etienne, you can imagine why it’s more problematic for him than a battering ram like Derrick Henry.

James Robinson, RB, Jaguars

Etienne also doesn’t just walk into the job. James Robinson was a find last year and even with his season ending Achilles injury, he was one of the few bright spots for the franchise overall. As with Akers and anyone having Achilles surgery these days (especially if they do it with Dr. Neal ElAttrache in LA as the Rams and Dodgers team doc is the go-to for this surgery in the NFL) the regular return timeframe is six months. We’ve seen this time and again, so there’s no reason to doubt Robinson will be fine.

That leaves Doug Pederson with two post-injury players who should be close to full health in Week 1. Talent is always a good problem to have and my sources tell me that both have had no issues with agility or needing more rest than most. I expect a role split, which is probably good for Pederson’s offense, but bad for padding either player’s stats. Where I think there’s an advantage is understanding that both players should be at full-go from the start and shouldn’t wear down as much. It feels like this Jags offense is going to be underrated in the first weeks of the season, though the lines should catch up quickly.

Michael Thomas, WR, Saints

Michael Thomas went from one of the best receivers in the game in one of the best situations, to missing the better part of two years. Can he come back from that and get back to level, especially without Drew Brees? I think he can do the former, but no one might notice unless Jameis Winston really ups his game after coming back from his own ACL injury. Worse, the Saints need both to happen. Chicken, egg.

Thomas’ return has been hamstrung by, well, his hamstring. Always a tight, sprinter-type body, Thomas’ long rehab has amplified that. He’s run a lot, clearly, and lifted. How that translates to the field is the question, but the worry that his muscles might suffer is clear. Contrast that with his first seasons in the NFL where he was a week-in, week-out WR1. If the ankle is finally healthy, my guess is that Thomas will land somewhere in between. If the Saints got 13 or 14 good games out of Thomas, they’d likely be happy.

Jameis Winston, QB, Saints

Things are simpler for Jameis Winston. His ACL surgery was simple and the rehab was quick, with videos of Winston moving well just a few months after the surgery. While those videos were designed to convince front offices more than actually test his knee, there’s no reason that Winston’s rehab should be anything other than standard. That puts him back to what he was, a good not great QB who could lose some red zone chances to Taysom Hill, who’s returning from his own foot surgery.

Chris Godwin, WR, Buccaneers

Chris Godwin might have been the most impactful injury in all of football last year. While the Bucs had a lot of names and the thought was that Tom Brady can make anyone look good, it didn’t work out that way. Once Godwin was out, even Brady couldn’t keep the point totals high. 

There’s no reason to think Godwin won’t make a full comeback from his ACL reconstruction, but the Bucs do have more depth after being left short at the end of last year. Russell Gage and Julio Jones won’t take Godwin’s job, but Brady does spread the ball around and find the open man. 

Where I worry about a drop-off is in those red zone targets. Mike Evans was already getting the majority, while Cameron Brate and Jones are likely to get looks as well. That means Godwin relies on volume at the top of the zone rather than jumps and fades near it. If that goes down and he loses volume elsewhere, he becomes reliant on big plays for his numbers. Catches, yards, touchdowns … all of them will likely be down on a rate basis for Godwin because of game scripts rather than his knee being an issue. There’s upside on health and downside on almost everything else.

Michael Gallup, WR, Cowboys

The Cowboys need Michael Gallup and his imminent return – not Week 1, but not far out – is a reminder that the recovery time for ACL reconstructions is six to nine months now. Sure, more time would be better, but the season starts soon and with hopes and expectations for Dak Prescott and CeeDee Lamb at typical Cowboys levels, having Gallup back would be a huge boost.

He’s at speed, but he hasn’t taken contact. I still have a hard time believing football players really need to adjust to that, but there are studies that indicate the old coaching saw is true. With Gallup out for the pre-season, his early weeks may be adjustments and low totals. I think that means we’re likely a bit too high on the Cowboys in the opening weeks, especially opening against the Bucs and Bengals. We could see fans ride the roller coaster of emotions, but point and win totals are predictable and the Cowboys are problematic there. Under and under, thank you.

David Bakhtiari, OT, Packers

No one bets on tackles, but ignoring them is at your own peril. However, the drop-off from David Bakhtiari to his various backups over the last couple seasons is a reminder that with an acceptable level of protection and scheme adjustment, a top QB like Aaron Rodgers doesn’t need All-Pros. In fact, Rodgers has been sacked three or less times in every game but one over the last three seasons. That one? The game where Bakhtiari was injured. The adjustment wasn’t in game, but it’s been good enough since.

Bakhtiari’s had a number of issues with his knee after the ACL, including tendon issues that required more surgery that could have included cutting out a portion of it. Additional issues of pain and inflammation have made this rehab even more difficult. Knee injuries aren’t often career enders, but there’s a chance that’s what this amounts to for a guy who was, before the injury, widely thought of as one of the best. With or without Bakhtiari, Rodgers and the Packers have shown they can win, so getting him back shouldn’t raise expectations. 

Chase Young, DL, Commanders

Chase Young is going to miss the first four games, at least, as he continues his return from ACL reconstruction. Oh wait, the Commanders – still getting used to that – also disclosed that Young had his patellar tendon repaired, which is the real problem here. Having both, as well as more damage inside the joint, is why Young’s “ACL rehab” is taking longer than the standard. There was simply more damage.

The patellar tendon injury is rarer and tougher to come back from, but modern techniques have made it possible. Dr. James Andrews, one of the leading sports medicine surgeons, has developed many of these and performed Young’s surgery. All reports from his rehab, some done with Von Miller at altitude, have been positive, but the clock simply ran out.

Is four weeks enough? Young’s injury happened in Week 10 of last season, so we’re talking about 46 weeks versus the 52 in a full year. That’s not a lot of time, relatively speaking, but there can be big jumps, even late in a rehab. That doesn’t mean Young will have them, or that he’ll be 100 percent from the get-go, whenever his go gets. I’m down on Young in the short term, but high on him in the longer term. Don’t expect a big boost from him when he returns, but do watch for O/U totals to be slightly low.

Shaq Leonard, LB, Colts

Shaq Leonard had a weird offseason. He changed his name and he had back surgery to help his ankle. Umm, what? The story goes that Leonard had surgery on his ankle prior to the ’21 season. He played all season long at a very high level, but apparently was having issues with it throughout the year. While he didn’t have more surgery there, he did have back surgery in June to relieve a nerve that was apparently causing the ankle pain and weakness. That’s held him out of camp and has his Week 1 in jeopardy. 

So, two surgeries and the Colts still don’t seem to know if Leonard will be better. Until he’s in a game situation, moving at full speed, it’s impossible to know, even with all the positive reports and thumbs up from Leonard himself. That said, he played very well last year and the expectation is he should be physically better and at the very least no worse. 

Leonard’s most valuable skill is his punch. While fumble recovery is random, causing more fumbles gives the Colts more chances to get the ball and do something with it, given better quarterback play this year. But for Leonard to punch the ball, he has to be close, and if his ankle and back stop that, the skill goes away. A trusted source tells me that Leonard is already moving well, but that his back hasn’t been tested with contact. If that’s all that’s left to test, I believe Leonard will be just fine, which is more than fine for the Colts. 

Jalen Ramsey, CB, Rams

Jalen Ramsey played almost all of last season with a damaged shoulder. If he was that good one-armed at times, the repaired arm should make him even more destructive to the opposing offenses. Ramsey had issues tackling and had to avoid contact late in the season. That limited blitz opportunities and limited how he could cover. His legs and grit got him through, but a rejuvenated shoulder might make a scary player (and defense) even more so.

It’s tougher to judge how that will affect totals. Ramsey can shut down stars, but if he can make more plays, he might find himself adding to point totals with pick sixes. More turnovers and three-and-outs give Matthew Stafford and crew more plays in a game. More plays should be more points and maybe more rings.

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Will Carroll

Will Carroll has covered injuries in sports for more than 20 years, working at places like ESPN, Baseball Prospectus, Football Outsiders, and FanDuel. He’s written four books, including the upcoming “The Science of Football” and consults with several pro teams. He is currently the Director of Bioanalytics for Northstarr, a sports science startup company.

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