Star Alabama wide receiver and punt returner Jaylen Waddle appeared to end his promising junior season in Knoxville in October. During a kickoff return, his right foot got caught under a Tennessee defender as he attempted to tackle him at the 15-yard line. As a result, Waddle suffered a significant right ankle injury as he withered in pain near the sideline.
Following the game, head coach Nick Saban reported that he would be out for the year and needed surgery. However, a mere 11 weeks after a season-ending injury, Waddle returned to play in the national championship against Ohio State. However, Waddle didn’t look all that reassuring in warmups with a noticeable limp on the right side. His stat line did reflect that he was struggling with three receptions for 34 yards. However, as a top prospect in the 2021 NFL draft, what are the long-term implications for this injury and beyond?
The ankle is made up of the tibia which is comprised of the medial malleolus, the fibula which is comprised of the lateral malleolus, and talus, which is a dome-shaped bone that is the top-most portion of the foot. These structures all articulate together to allow the ankle to move up and down and side to side.
The ankle structure is held together with a syndesmosis, tough, relatively immobile ligaments, and membrane that assist in maintaining stability. These motions are essential for everyday activities and allow for the lower extremity to adjust to uneven terrain or absorb landing from jumping to reduce stress on the hip and knee joints.
Waddle’s injury was severe enough that he broke a portion of his distal fibula when he was tackled. Reports also indicated that he had a sprain in addition to the fracture. When Waddle’s foot got caught and turned outward, this also stretched and damaged the syndesmosis that held the ankle complex together, also resulting in a high ankle sprain.
One fortunate detail is that there aren’t reports of additional ligament damage due to a dislocation like we have seen with other past draft prospects such as Jets cornerback Bryce Hall. I had thought that he would be ready for Week 1, but the ankle injury was severe enough that he was not activated until Week 9.
While we don’t know the specifics of where the lateral malleolus broke, the fact that it needed an open reduction internal fixation (ORIF) surgery indicates that the surgery was more invasive than just requiring the “Tightrope” procedure popularized at Alabama. Waddle likely has a plate on the lateral malleolus along with the Tightrope procedure to ensure that the syndesmosis heals fully.
While this is a rehab timeline that is roughly four to six months to return to full baseline health, Waddle returned in 11 weeks to play, though it was obvious that he was not 100%. Of the NFL players who suffered a similar injury from 2000-2014, 78.6% have returned to play football within a year. By the time Waddle returned, the bone and ligaments had mostly healed, but the function including muscle strength and flexibility were not quite there yet. With him returning to play in the national championship game, he had already established that he is part of the 78.6%.
Hindsight is 20/20, but I questioned the need to play in the national championship when the draft position already took a hit due to the injury. Another injury could have tanked his draft stock, especially in an era when players have sat out bowl games to preserve their health. It can be appreciated why he wanted to play, but to lose millions of dollars due to another injury or performance that raises questions about the long term abilities is concerning.
Looking forward, Waddle is cleared to participate for pro days in lieu of the NFL Combine. I do question how his numbers will look during testing. Every team that has him on its board will be looking at that ankle to ensure proper healing but they will also be looking at his pain and function. There is a chance he may require hardware removal in the future or his recovery may be slowed if he continues to push through pain which would prevent his body from fully recovering on time for training camp.
NFL injury impact
With the expectation that wide receivers produce immediately as we saw last year with CeeDee Lamb and Justin Jefferson, any delay with getting Waddle on the field could be problematic. It does help that Waddle doesn’t have any other publicly reported injuries when teams are looking at the entirety of his health.
While the draft class doesn’t appear as deep as the 2020 draft class, there is still elite talent at the top of the board and Waddle still sits near the top. Had he not been injured, it’s possible that he would be WR1 off the board. He currently sits at WR3 and should be drafted in the top 15. If he tests poorly or his medicals don’t look great during the draft process, I could see him dropping down to WR4 or WR 5, but there is little concern that he drops out of the first round.
This injury he suffered was an isolated event and should have no bearing on his long term future in the NFL. Countless other players including former Crimson Tide running backs Kenyan Drake and Derrick Henry have both suffered the same injury and have had productive careers. Considering the likely hardware and surgical stabilization in the ankle, he has little concern to suffer further injury to the area. If he slowed by the hardware with pain and stiffness, it may delay him temporarily, but would not cause any long term deficits if he were to get the hardware removed.
For a top 15 team in the draft, there is an excellent chance that Waddle will be there for the taking. If he tests poorly or concerns are brought up publicly regarding the healing process, he could drop to the mid to late first round, but his talent far outweighs his injury concerns. There have been plenty of players with far more serious injuries that teams have invested high draft picks on for the potential alone. By the time Week 1 starts, Waddle will be just under a year removed from the original injury and should be able to show the ability to pick up where he left off during his last healthy game in Knoxville.