Over the next few months, Kyle Trimble of Banged Up Bills will be profiling some 2019 NFL Draft prospects for us who may have medical concerns. Make sure to follow his work @BangedUpBills.
A top tier draft prospect going into the 2019 NFL draft is Stanford RB Bryce Love. The dynamic runner backed up current Panthers star RB Christian McCaffery for two seasons before breaking out his junior year for a school record 2,118 yards, collecting Doak Walker & Lombardi awards, Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year, unanimous All-American honors, and a Heisman Trophy runner-up nod. Despite all of the accolades, Love decided to return for his senior season to finish his undergraduate degree to become a doctor after his football career is done. Unfortunately, this may have been a failed plan in the short term, as he accumulated only 739 yards, just one-third of his previous season, and sustained several injuries along the way, which both slowed his production and potentially cost him millions of dollars. Today’s post will identify what injuries he sustained this year and how they will affect his professional career.
Love’s 2018 injury issues began during the second game of the season against USC. He suffered an undisclosed injury late in the second quarter, which appears to possibly be a concussion. The hit and ensuing moments are consistent with a possible head injury and, as a result, he missed the next game against UC Davis. That fits in line with going through a concussion protocol and eventual clearance.
The next injury Love sustained was a left ankle injury in the loss to Notre Dame. He was injured early in the 4th quarter on a carry, on which his ankle got rolled up on. Looking at the video, the mechanism appears to be consistent with a mild high ankle sprain. It’s noted that he injured the same ankle last season, but that does not appear to be the sole reason he was re-injured. As a result, Love missed the next game against Utah and was out almost three weeks before playing again against Arizona State. That game, he had 11 carries for 21 yards, his lowest production of the season, hinting that he was not quite 100%. It has been noted that he has battled chronic ankle issues, similar to what Jaguars RB Leonard Fournette has dealt with.
Love was able to put up decent numbers for the rest of the season and play in the regular season finale against Cal. He rushed for 74 yards before injuring his knee on the final play, on which it was later was revealed that he tore his ACL. We know how important this ligament is to playing football and other activities such as running and pivoting. If you would like to learn more about the ACL and its reconstruction history, please read this article and this.
As for Love, if this is solely an isolated tear, he could be back optimistically as early as training camp, as he will be 8-9 months out from surgery. If there are other associated damages, such as a meniscus, LCL, MCL, or even PCL, then this could complicate his recovery. We are working with the knowledge that he has only torn his ACL until more information is known.
However, there are several factors that will certainly affect his draft stock and when he makes his pro debut. Important elements for risk include reinjury to the surgical repair or to the opposite side, his age, the amped-up level of competition going to the NFL, and his overall recovery. Once an athlete tears their ACL, there is about a 500-600 percent chance for another injury to the ACL compared to healthy subjects. There are varying numbers based on research, but roughly anywhere from 15-30 percent of initial ACL tears have another ACL tear after surgery within two years, regardless of gender or age. Getting more specific, athletes under the age of 25 have a higher risk to re-tear, with an overall risk to either tear the same side or opposite side at 23 percent, compared to others who have torn their ACL. Finally, according to this article from sources cited, only 63 percent of NFL players return to play after ACL reconstruction, and even then, there is no guarantee that they reach their prior level of production. Those who return are typically players with several years of experience and lower draft picks. Basically, players who have proven their worth and are not hugely expensive.
To synthesize the above material, the risk to tear an ACL is greater for Love because he’s under the age of 25, and there’s a greater chance he suffers another ACL tear to the opposite side than to the surgical side, and his overall chances of suffering another injury are greatest within two years of the original injury.
Despite all of the grim statistics, Love will still be drafted. We have seen through recent history the number of players that have suffered ACL tears or more complex injuries in college that have gone onto be drafted and have productive careers. These include but are not limited to: RB Willis McGahee, DT Dominique Easley, OT Joe Thomas, RB Marcus Lattimore, QB Deshaun Watson, QB Robert Griffin III, LB Jaylon Smith, TE Jake Butt, and many others. Of those listed, Easley, Watson, and Butt since re-tore their ACLs as professionals. Add in the fact that Lattimore never played a down despite being drafted in the fourth round by the 49ers, and that indicates that this injury alone will not scare teams away from drafting Love. The worry is that he gets drafted and continues to suffer multiple ACL tears, as in the case of Dominique Easley and Jake Butt, though I believe these are extreme cases.
So we know he is a risk due to his production drop off in his senior year, his ACL injury, the risk of re-injury, and how his game will translate to the pros. But how much of a risk is he? We saw Joe Thomas of the Browns and RG3 of the Redskins taken at the top of their respective drafts, despite injuries. McGahee was drafted in the first round by the Buffalo Bills despite destroying his knee in his final game, and he had to miss a year to rehab. Jaylon Smith’s draft stock did take a hit due to his injury, but he has since been incredibly productive for the Dallas Cowboys. Having an ACL tear will not scare teams away from drafting him high if they feel the potential is there.
Factors that will impact his draft stock include his interview at the combine, his overall health, and where he’s at in his recovery. By the time the combine rolls around, he will be 10 weeks out from surgery from the reported December 18th surgery date. Unless he is on an aggressive protocol, he will still be working on strengthening and proprioceptive exercises to prepare his knee for higher-level demands. He will most likely not be cleared for running or any football related drills at that time. The doctors will make their medical assessments and determine the health risks associated with drafting him, and the front office people will determine where he would fit best with their team.
I cannot say where he will be health-wise until we have we see him function post-surgery at the combine with what he is cleared to perform. We also do not know where he is on draft boards so he could be anywhere based on a team’s grade. I would make the guess that based on the fact that his availability for training camp is questionable, he would go to a team who has a running back in place for now, is looking to the future, can afford to let Love sit on the PUP list until he is ready to play, and then can work his way onto the active roster. As an example, a team such as the Bills may have a need for him with the front office committing to RB LeSean McCoy for at least the next season. It would allow Love to get ready at his own pace rather than be thrust into the starting role. Other teams such as the Colts, Broncos, Eagles, and Packers may also want to consider him, as they are in similar positions to the Bills.
My guess is that he is taken some time on the second day, and he will be allowed to work into shape with a second-half appearance during the season. Outside of his desire to play, there is no incentive to rush back to playing until he is ready. Only time will tell whether he transitions into a dependable back, a flash in the pan, or a chronic injury risk. I believe he will be able to find a team that suits him and hopefully have a productive NFL career while avoiding further major injury.
Thank you to Cover 1 for allowing me to provide injury analysis on upcoming draft prospects prior to the draft. If you like what you read, make sure to follow Banged Up Bills on Facebook, on Twitter @BangedUpBills, on Reddit at u/BangedUpBills, and online at www.bangedupbills.com. Thank you for reading and GO BILLS!