Several NFL stars or key starters saw early-season injuries affect their own trajectories and/or their teams’ fortunes. Here are the players who missed big chunks of last season who stand to play big parts in 2022.
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Alexander was one of a few Packers whose rehab efforts allowed a return after the team’s first-round bye, adding salt in the wound after the No. 1 seed’s upset loss. But the Packers could have been even better than they were in 2021. Alexander’s AC joint injury sidelined him for 13 games last year, stripping Green Bay’s secondary of its top cover man. In 2022, the Packers will be able to roll out a top-notch crew of Alexander, first-round pick Eric Stokes, and breakout performer Rasul Douglas. Alexander signed a market-topping extension as well, raising the corner salary bar to $21 million.
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David Bakhtiari and Elgton Jenkins
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Despite the reinforcements the Packers had against the 49ers, they played that game without their top two offensive linemen. Ideally, Week 1 will be the first time Green Bay’s two Pro Bowl blockers play together since December 2020. Bakhtiari has experienced trouble rehabbing a torn ACL that occurred on New Year’s Eve 2020, playing 27 snaps all of last season (in Week 18). Jenkins, who filled in for Bakhtiari at left tackle and has a Pro Bowl nod at guard, suffered a torn ACL last October. It is not a lock Jenkins returns in Week 1, but Green Bay should have both Aaron Rodgers’ top protectors back by midseason at the latest.
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The dislocated kneecap and MCL sprain Becton suffered in Week 1 of last year has thrown his career off-axis. A promising left tackle as a rookie in 2020, Becton is no longer certain to keep that job this year. But the mammoth blocker should be a Jets starter — at left or right tackle — once he returns to full strength come training camp. That said, the Louisville product continues to battle weight issues, which plagued him during his rookie year and through 2021. He declined to reveal his present weight at minicamp. Becton’s return to functionality will precede a pressure-packed year for the former first-rounder.
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Conklin has spent this year rehabbing one of the tougher injuries to surmount, a patellar tendon tear. The six-year veteran suffered a dislocated elbow early last season before the severe knee injury ended his year. The Browns still expect their right tackle to return by the start of this season. The team has moved on from longtime center J.C. Tretter but stands to return the rest of its top-tier O-line. A 2016 first-round pick, Conklin has already needed to rehab a major injury as a pro — a 2018 ACL tear — but the ex-Titan re-emerged as an All-Pro in Cleveland. At 27, prime years should remain after this latest setback.
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J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards
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Dobbins and Gus Edwards both suffered ACL tears that prevented them from playing last season. This forced the Ravens to cycle through younger backs and veterans near the end. One of the most injury-riddled teams last year should have its top two backs available. With more than a year between the runners’ injuries and Week 1 of this year, the NFL’s run-heaviest team will see that dimension regain some strength. That said, having two running backs completing ACL rehab should require some insurance. Veteran addition Mike Davis, his struggles in Atlanta notwithstanding, suddenly looks important in Baltimore.
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If there was ever a Jaguars season to miss, 2021 was it. But Etienne has yet to play an NFL down, having suffered a Lisfranc injury before his debut. With two-year starter James Robinson going down with an Achilles rupture late last season, Etienne’s health becomes more important ahead of Doug Pederson’s first season. The Urban Meyer-tabbed first-rounder, Etienne thrived as an outlet option for Trevor Lawrence at Clemson. An offense that has both Etienne and Robinson active would certainly look better than Lawrence’s first NFL attack did.
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On a similar rehab timeline as some Packers, Henry made it back for the Titans’ divisional-round game. But his Halloween foot injury, which sidelined the two-time rushing champion for nine games, KO’d numerous fantasy teams last season. It saved some wear-and-tear on the Tennessee-based bulldozer’s body, but the way running backs age, the injury also spoiled what could have been a dominant age-27 season. Henry, who still finished ninth in rushing, can no longer afford to miss prime years. This season likely represents one of the last of those. The post-A.J. Brown Titans may need their All-Pro back more this season.
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Hopkins suffered two notable injuries in his second Arizona season, and they were a big part of the team’s second-half slide. The 2020 All-Pro Cardinal battled a midseason hamstring problem and suffered a season-ending MCL tear upon returning in December. The Cards could not consistently muster a competent passing attack without their centerpiece, leading to an ugly conclusion. Hopkins is now 30 and going into his 10th season, but his previous full season resulted in a 1,407-yard showing — 43 of those yards as the “Hail Murray” finisher — and his fifth Pro Bowl. The contested-catch dynamo, however, cannot return until Week 7 because of a PED ban.
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Danielle Hunter and Za’Darius Smith
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It has been a bit since Hunter became the youngest player in NFL history to reach the 50-sack plateau, a feat he accomplished in 2019. He has played in only seven 2020s games, losing the 2020 season to a neck injury and nine 2021 games due to a torn pec. That raises the stakes for Hunter’s 2022. The Vikings are gambling at their edge rusher posts, having signed Smith after he missed most of last season. A back injury kept Smith off the field for 17 Packers games last year. Both rushers are two-time Pro Bowlers, and Hunter is still just 27. The Vikes are nevertheless living dangerously at their most important defensive position.
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Lawson’s Achilles tear cost him all of last season. Without an impact edge rusher for the umpteenth year, the Jets ranked last defensively in Robert Saleh’s debut. Signed to a three-year, $45 million deal, Lawson is expected to be the Jets’ defensive end anchor. The former Bengals talent will have some more help this season, with the Jets trading up for Florida State’s Jermaine Johnson in Round 1. These two will aim to conquer the John Abraham Curse together in 2022. Though well-paid, Lawson is still looking for his first 10-sack season.
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The Saints’ troubles extended beyond their passing game last season. Their Pro Bowl kicker did not take the field. An offseason groin injury kept Lutz out all year, and he underwent two surgeries during an 11-month odyssey to be fully cleared. That day finally came earlier in June. The Saints’ four-kicker contingent missed seven extra points last season. Lutz, who has played his entire career in the elongated PAT era, has only missed seven in his five-year career.
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A November foot injury ended Mack’s four-year Bears career. Chicago’s new regime shipped off the previous one’s defensive anchor, starting over upfront. Mack will attempt to move past the most serious injury of his career in Los Angeles. Mack, who missed 10 games during his age-30 season, will have some unusual opportunities when he returns to game action. The former Raiders Defensive Player of the Year will work as the sidekick to Chargers Pro Bowler Joey Bosa. Between them, the Bolts’ new outside linebacker duo has 10 Pro Bowls.
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After dropping a record-approaching season in 2019, McCaffrey has played just 10 games. He endured a three-injury 2020 season, one that saw thigh, shoulder, and ankle maladies take the Panthers’ top weapon off the field in the first year of his top-market RB contract. Last season, hamstring and more ankle trouble restricted Run CMC. Though only 26 and spared from the kind of mileage that elite backs usually accumulate in their mid-20s, McCaffrey is undoubtedly at a crossroads. It would behoove the Panthers to commit to giving McCaffrey’s backup — now D’Onta Foreman — a legitimate role.
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The 49ers powered their way to a second NFC championship game in three years and did so without their right tackle. McGlinchey missed San Francisco’s final 12 games because of a torn quad. The 49ers not only lost McGlinchey’s backup, veteran Tom Compton, in free agency. They saw longtime left guard Laken Tomlinson join the Jets in free agency and All-Decade center Alex Mack retire. The newfound inexperience on the 49ers’ O-line amplifies the importance of McGlinchey returning healthy. This also will be a big year for the former first-round pick, as it is the final season of his rookie contract.
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Peters’ late-summer ACL tear provided a cruel harbinger of the Ravens’ season, which claimed numerous injury victims in the months that followed. That included All-Pro Marlon Humphrey, though Peters’ cornerback mate only missed the end of what turned out to be a lost season. Between them, Peters and Humphrey have three All-Pro honors. Baltimore’s Peters-less season resulted in the usually defensively sound team ranking 32nd in pass defense. The ballhawk had never previously missed more than two games in a season. This will be Peters’ age-29 slate.
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Quietly, the Lions have assembled one of the NFL’s best-looking offensive lines. The group’s interior anchor, however, missed 13 games last season because of a toe injury. Ragnow missed what the Lions hope will be their worst season under Dan Campbell, and the center’s presence will aid the franchise’s rebuild. The Lions gave Ragnow a long-term extension last year, paying him despite two years remaining on his rookie deal. The 26-year-old snapper will aim to reward the team’s faith this season when he will pair with the likes of Taylor Decker — he of eight 2021 absences — and Penei Sewell.
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Last season marked a triumph for rehab efforts, with Smith-Schuster also among the players who rallied back to return in a playoff game. A shoulder injury still cost the five-year Steelers slot receiver 11 games. This impacted his hopes of using a one-year deal as a platform to score a longer-term payday elsewhere. Smith-Schuster departed Pittsburgh for Kansas City, where he will upgrade at quarterback and be part of the Patrick Mahomes-led team’s post-Tyreek Hill solution. Somehow still just 25, Smith-Schuster figures to be far more relevant in 2022 than he was last year.
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Stanley’s situation resembles Bakhtiari’s. They are both among the few offensive linemen earning more than $20 million per year, and each played just one 2021 game. Stanley has missed more time due to injury than the Packers left tackle has in recent years, however. The top Raven lineman earned All-Pro acclaim in 2019, being a major part of Lamar Jackson’s MVP rise. But Stanley’s prime has stalled since. The ankle injury he sustained midway through the 2020 season led to multiple 2021 surgeries. Playing seven games over the past two years, Stanley faces a pivotal 2022.
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The 2022 season will feature a few key players still trying to overcome issues from 2020. Thomas suffered a high ankle sprain in the Saints’ 2020 opener, then encountered a hamstring problem that year. The ankle issue overshadowed the former All-Pro’s final year with Drew Brees, and more ankle trouble followed him to 2021. Going rogue, Thomas ignored the Saints’ wishes for an early-offseason ankle surgery and waited. That delay pushed back his rehab timetable, and a setback cost him all of the ’21 season. Thomas is still the Saints’ No. 1 wideout, but that distinction will not survive 2022 if more significant injury trouble comes.
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The Texans were not attempting to contend last season, so Tunsil’s absence — like his former quarterback’s — did not prove critical. But the team will be trying to develop Deshaun Watson’s successor in earnest this season, making Tunsil’s presence more important. The highly paid left tackle’s October thumb injury was not supposed to keep him out for the season’s remainder, but the noncontending Texans shut him down anyway. Davis Mills having Tunsil back stands to further his progress, though the third-round pick fared surprisingly well despite an overmatched line to end last season.
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This era’s OG rehab-for-the-playoffs proponent, Watt pulled a second such effort to resurface for what was a miserable wild-card game in Los Angeles. But the future Hall of Famer again missed most of a season. A violent tackle attempt against the Texans led to Watt severely damaging his upper body — via a torn bicep, shoulder labrum, rotator cuff, and a separated shoulder — and missing 10 games. Injuries have cost Watt much of the 2016, ’17, ’19, and ’21 seasons. He was playing at a Pro Bowl level in each, but ahead of his age-33 season, the tenacious Cardinals D-lineman is running out of time to prove he can stay healthy and craft a strong final NFL chapter.
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The “13 seconds” phrase will haunt the Bills, but part of the reason they could not stop the Chiefs then or in overtime was their best coverage player’s absence. White going down with a torn ACL on Thanksgiving did not receive enough attention. The All-Pro cornerback could have helped what was the NFL’s No. 1-ranked defense do a better job containing the Chiefs during the divisional-round matchup’s explosive ending. White will return to a better Bills team, one rostering Von Miller and first-round corner Kaiir Elam.
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Somehow, Jameis Winston built a 14-3 TD-INT ratio over his seven-game cameo — spent with the NFL’s worst receiving corps. The ACL tear Winston sustained against the Buccaneers spoiled that intriguing start and led to the Saints starting four quarterbacks in 2021. New Orleans gave the inconsistent QB a two-year, $28 million deal to reprise his role as its starter. Winston will now work with a wideout cadre housing Thomas (assuming this year’s ankle rehab ends better), Jarvis Landry, and first-rounder Chris Olave. While Sean Payton is gone, Winston still has a big opportunity for a sneaky-interesting 2022 Saints edition.
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The Rams proceeded to win it all without Woods, and while the longtime Los Angeles wide receiver participated in the team’s parade, he is now a more necessary piece in Tennessee. The Titans dismantled their 2021 receiving corps, cutting Julio Jones and trading A.J. Brown rather than paying him at the new WR1 going rate. Woods suffered his ACL tear in November but is already participating in Titans workouts. With the Titans not seeing first-rounder Treylon Burks participate much, the 30-year-old Woods being back in form to start this season looms large.
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Another ACL tearer, Young missed the second half of a season in which he was already not following up on his strong rookie year. The 2020 Defensive Rookie of the Year, a key driver of Washington’s improbable playoff team, only totaled 1.5 sacks and four QB hits in nine 2021 games. Now, Young will need to recapture his rookie-year form after completing a lengthy rehab effort. While the former Ohio State superstar still profiles as a long-term Commanders cornerstone, a bit of uncertainty follows him into Year 3.