NFL stars coming off injuries eager for prominence in 2021
Dak Prescott’s right shoulder and Carson Wentz’s left foot sidelined the Dallas and Indianapolis quarterbacks almost all of training camp when the plan called for a normal ramp-up to their comebacks in the regular season.
Cincinnati QB Joe Burrow, New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley, San Francisco defensive end Nick Bosa and Cleveland receiver Odell Beckham Jr. knew they would be limited in the preseason coming off knee injuries that cut short their 2020 seasons.
The rest of the NFL stars seeking redemption had something approaching normal camps, and all of them — limited ones included — are eager to get back to prominent roles after watching and waiting for months.
Just don’t expect them to be longing for the Comeback Player of the Year award.
“There were so many guys that were injured, not just with our team but with this league, that whoever gets that, that will be special,” Prescott said. “I don’t think anybody ... is shooting for that, I guess. I want to be the best player I can be, and if that comes with it, then oh well.”
Prescott, whose season ended in Week 5 with a compound fracture and dislocation of his right ankle, strained his right shoulder warming up for practice the first week of camp this year. He didn’t play in the preseason but should be set for the Sept. 9 opener at Super Bowl winner Tampa Bay and seven-time champ Tom Brady.
Doctors told Wentz the roots of the former Philadelphia QB’s foot issue probably went back to high school. He had surgery to remove a bone fragment Aug. 2 and returned after three weeks when the initial diagnosis was as many as 12.
After Philip Rivers retired, the Colts traded for Wentz, who struggled in his final season with the Eagles and wanted a fresh start elsewhere. The foot issue might keep him out of the opener Sept. 12.
“Unfortunately, I’ve been here before with limited reps and had to go play,” said Wentz, who injured a knee when he was in the MVP conversation in 2017 and the Eagles went on to win the Super Bowl without him. “I’m excited that I’ve been able to do some walk-throughs the last couple of weeks and still be involved. It wasn’t one of those injuries where you go rehab and you’re away for a while.”
Knee injuries ended the 2020 season for Barkley and Bosa in Week 2, Beckham in Week 7 and Burrow in Week 11. Burrow was the only one of the four to play in this preseason — for 90 seconds in the finale Sunday.
“There’s a lot of things I have to continue to do because it’s truly a nine-month recovery process, minimum,” Burrow said in late July, at the 7½-month mark. “There’s still a lot of maintenance I need to do. But I’ll just compound that on practices, find places I can get rehab in.”
Barkley appears to be the only one with any doubt about being available for the Sept. 12 opener. He still had a non-contact jersey in practice last week.
“I’m going to give y’all the same answer I’ve been giving you, and it’s not like I’m trying to blow smoke or anything like that,” said Barkley, the former Penn State star who was drafted second overall in 2018 and was Offensive Rookie of the Year. “To be honest, I don’t know.”
Bosa wasn’t cleared for team drills until the final week of camp, but appears on track to start the season. The 2019 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year helped the 49ers reach the Super Bowl that season, then had 12 pressures of Patrick Mahomes. Kansas City rallied to win in the fourth quarter.
“The biggest thing always coming off of an injury is just the mental hurdle of taking a hit and hitting the ground and getting up and dusting yourself off and understanding that, ‘Oh, everything is still intact. I’m still OK,’” defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans said. “I think he got a little bit of that ... with his first day back. I see him just continuing to progress.”
Carolina running back Christian McCaffrey followed an All-Pro year in 2019 with a series of injuries that limited him to three games. He was full go from the start of camp but didn’t play in the preseason.
“He will take a lot of hits during the season, more so than anyone else out there on the field,” coach Matt Rhule said. “So we will save his hits for the season.”
New York Jets linebacker C.J. Mosley hasn’t played close to a full season since the last of his five with Baltimore in 2018. He was limited to two games with a groin injury in his New York debut two years ago before opting out because of COVID-19 last season.
Mosley has a new coach in Robert Saleh and defensive coordinator in Jeff Ulbrich, so pretty much everything feels new.
“Yeah, 100%, man,” Mosley said. “You can never take this game for granted, whether it’s the preseason or anything like that.”
Star pass rusher Von Miller of Denver sustained a season-ending ankle injury in practice just six days before the opener last year. The 32-year-old, who missed almost half of the 2013 season with a torn ACL, is entering the final year of a $114.5 million, six-year contract he signed after winning Super Bowl 50 MVP honors.
“It’ll definitely be emotional,” Miller said when asked about finally getting back in a game. “Whenever you can fight through a season-ending injury like that -- twice, for me -- it’s definitely a milestone that you appreciate and look back on.”
Plenty of NFL stars will have the same feeling in 2021.
AP Pro Football Writer Josh Dubow and Sports Writer Michael Marot contributed