Some of the best offenses in the league have been hit by key long term injuries to starters before the first preseason game has even commenced. In fact, among the teams the 11 teams at the top of scoring in 2012, since the NFL Draft and the chance for key player acquisition concluded,
seven eight of them have lost a starter or key contributor for a significant period of time. [New Orleans joins the list after I started this, as Joe Morgan, the likely third receiver, is lost for the year]. That doesn’t include Washington, where Robert Griffin III is coming back from his knee injury in the playoffs. It does include New England, where Aaron Hernandez is locked up and Rob Gronkowski is coming back from surgery. Here is a breakdown of the other key injuries to offensive starters.
1. Michael Crabtree, Wide Receiver, San Francisco 49ers. Crabtree was on fire once Colin Kaepernick took over in San Francisco. In ten games together, Crabtree had 61 catches for 880 yards and 8 touchdowns. That represents 36% of the passing yards and receptions with Kaepernick at quarterback, and over half of the touchdowns. (For some perspective, Calvin Johnson was at 38% of the receiving yards in Detroit last year, while setting the single season record). Crabtree may be back at some point this year, as we have seen players come back from Achilles injuries faster. At a position like receiver, though, the question of how much he can do right away will be out there.
The bigger issue is who replaces him. Anquan Boldin is in, but will not provide the big plays. Other than that, it is a lot of question marks, and Vernon Davis can expect a bigger role in the offense.
2. Dan Koppen, Center, Denver Broncos. Koppen went from Brady to Peyton Manning, but after one season playing in Denver, has been lost for the year with an ACL tear, a recurring theme this training camp. Peyton Manning recruited former teammate Ryan Lilja to come out of retirement. How big of a deal is this? I would never rule anything out for Manning, who has carried teams with injuries and new starters many times over the course of his career, and will not lack for effort and work in getting the chemistry down.
Here, though, is a list of twelve other centers I found, going back to 1978, who missed at least 12 games for a team, in between operating as the team’s clear starting center. Like this year with Denver, these should represent cases where a veteran center was lost to injury in preseason or early in the year, and the team had to fill the void.
Those 12 teams saw the scoring drop from 24.2 points a game to 20.5 points in the year the starting center was injured. That certainly overstates the impact of just the center with such a small group, and other factors contributed (the 1992 Redskins, for example, had a host of injury issues, not just at center). Still, to expect it to be a seamless transition might be much. Manning will have to again be on top of his game to make up for the loss of Koppen.
3. Percy Harvin, Wide Receiver, Seattle Seahawks. Harvin is the one who is new to the team that lost him, so it is tempting to say that the Seahawks did just fine on offense without him, so they will be fine again. Fine is of course relative, because Harvin would have allowed the offense to evolve in some different directions. Seattle will survive and thrive with Russell Wilson, but Harvin would have made the offense absolutely scary, building off what they were doing by the end of last season.
4. Dennis Pitta, Tight End, Baltimore Ravens. Joe Flacco does not seem to concerned publicly over the loss of Pitta, who along with Boldin were key figures in Baltimore’s playoff run. The Ravens did have the luxury of a workable replacement in Ed Dickson, though he has also been slowed by an injury that will keep him sidelined in the preseason. With Boldin gone, Pitta would have served as a vital third down target. Expect the offense to be more vertical with Torrey Smith and a young player like Tandon Doss working in the mix.
5. Danario Alexander, Wide Receiver, San Diego Chargers. It is hard not to feel sorry for Alexander, who is an amazing talent who simply cannot stay on the field because of knee injuries. Alexander, if you do not recall, put together one of the most insane stretches for a receiver in college at Missouri. He has been lost for the year with another one yesterday. Alexander has managed only 14 starts, but has at least 80 receiving yards in 8 games, a pretty good rate. He finally was ready to enter the season with a team where he was considered the top option.
San Diego has some unknown variables in Vincent Brown, coming back from his own injury, and rookie Keenan Allen. In an offense that otherwise features Antonio Gates and Malcom Floyd, I’m not sure who is going to provide the big play potential down the field.
5. Jeremy Maclin, Wide Receiver, Philadelphia Eagles (along with Arrelious Benn). It seems like so many news cycle moons ago that Maclin was lost for the season, back before the time of the Great Riley Cooper Slur. Maclin was entering the last year of his contract and will likely be gone. The Benn injury just impacts the depth. Riley Cooper and Jason Avant should see more playing time; Avant did well when given the opportunity a year ago.
6. Bryan Bulaga, Left Tackle, Green Bay Packers. Bulaga was making the switch to the left side this year. It has been confirmed today that Bulaga will undergo surgery for a torn ACL suffered during the scrimmage Saturday night. Much of the talk has been about how this will affect Aaron Rodgers, because he has taken the most sacks over the last three years. I’m not sure how that is an indication of Bulaga, who has been there. I will note that the sack rate was similar without Bulaga last year (8.1% to 8.9% without Bulaga for the last 7 games). The yards per attempt actually went up. What did happen is that the pass attempts went down after the high sack totals early in the year, and I think you can expect, with the addition of the two running backs, that Green Bay will be quite as pass happy while scrambling to replace Bulaga (rookie David Bakhtiari is expected to take that spot for now).
Don’t expect them to become a run-based team, but look for 33 pass attempts a game versus 38, particularly if playing with a lead.
7. Joe Morgan, Wide Receiver, New Orleans Saints. Joe Morgan showed flashes last year, and was in line to play a bigger role in the offense and likely take a hold of the third receiver role in New Orleans. He tore his ACL today, though.
8. Mike Johnson, Right Tackle, Atlanta Falcons. Tyson Clabo signed with Miami, so Atlanta was looking to Mike Johnson as one of the potential replacements at right tackle. He dislocated his ankle, though, and so now the team will turn to Lamar Holmes to fill that position, while looking for offensive line depth.
[photos via USA Today Sports Images]