2020 NFL Draft | Oregon TE Jacob Breeland Eyes Recovery Entering Draft Season

02/22/2020
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Oregon tight end Jacob Breeland was supposed to make 2019 “his year” in his final season in Eugene. He was coming off of a strong junior year performance in which he developed a strong rapport and became a favorite target for quarterback Justin Herbert. Breeland was named to the preseason Mackey Award watch list, given to the best collegiate tight end in the country. CBS Sports was touting Breeland as a late-first-round draft choice. Since 2010, only nine tight ends have been selected in the first round, which would have put Breeland in rarefied air. 

Through six games into his senior season, he had already eclipsed his totals from his 2018 campaign before it all came crashing down. A torn left ACL against Colorado derailed his exceptional year. His season was never to be completed. His once-high-billed draft status had been turned into a giant question mark.

While Breeland suffered a torn ACL that ended his 2019 season, there are still concerns regarding the Oregon tight end. During his career at Oregon, he managed to suffer a variety of injuries that likely prevented him from excelling and helping to take the Ducks to the next level. Below are his season-by-season injuries. 

2016

  • Breeland appeared in three games with minimal playing time and avoided any documented injuries. 

2017

  • Suffered a left-hand injury that required several fingers to be buddy-taped together for support. He was also sporting a hard cast on his right hand, as seen in the picture below. Both occurred during the preseason. Little is known about these injuries besides the linked article. My assumption is that he suffered some minor sprains to his fingers on the left side and broke a bone in his right wrist, but he was eventually cleared for Week 1.
  • In-season, he missed games against California and Stanford with undisclosed injuries. There have been virtually no details regarding the specifics of the injuries outside of articles and game logs noting that he didn’t play.

2018

  • In spring ball, it was mentioned that Breeland suffered a back injury, which kept him out of most team activities. An article by the school detailed that he suffered a back injury as the result of weightlifting. Besides that, there are no further specifics.
  • During the regular season, Breeland missed three games, including against Portland State, California, and Arizona State. There was never any mention that Breeland would not play against Portland State. There was only a brief mention that he had a foot injury and was in a walking boot during practice prior to the California game. He missed the game against California but was back the next week without explanation. He missed the Arizona State game without any details. Only the game log shows he didn’t play. Rotoworld outlined that he was dealing with a nagging leg issue during the season. It is hard to pinpoint the exact injury when there is a walking boot reported, but other sources state leg.

2019

  • Breeland missed the 2019 spring game with an undisclosed injury that may be tied into the leg/foot injury he was dealing with 2018. Like most of his other injuries, there is little to no information available.
  • On the play that led to the season-ending ACL injury, Breeland made a routine catch on an out route before engaging his blocker and getting twisted out of bounds, grabbing at his left leg. The video, starting at the 2:36 mark, is benign in that the injury is not readily apparent. Looking closer, it can be observed that there is a valgus force through the left knee with the foot planted and rotational component, leading to the ACL tear. 

ACL function and injury

The ACL is a ligament that runs lateral to medial and prevents anterior translation of the femur over the tibia. This ligament assists with rotational stability by preventing the knee from rotating at the tibia, ensuring that the knee acts as a hinge joint. The ACL contains mechanoreceptors that assist with detecting changes in direction, speed, and tension. It is the most commonly torn ligament in the knee during sporting activities.

Credit: aquaphysicaltherapy.com

Causes for injury include a sudden change of direction, jumping and poor landing, deceleration, or direct blows to the area. There is usually associated damage to the area during an ACL tear. This could include damage to the meniscus, articular cartilage, and/or MCL. Damage to the PCL and LCL are also possible, along with nerve and vascular damage in severe knee injuries. 

ACL Re-Tear Risks

There is no information to identify what other structures were damaged that could impact Breeland’s recovery timeline. Several risk factors weigh against him in regard to re-tearing the knee once he gets to the NFL. Still being under 25 years old (23), he is at risk to suffer a future ACL tear for up to two years, and still at risk to tear the other ACL due to the original injury with about a 20-30-percent increased risk. Specifically, the MOON study showed that roughly 10-percent of football players re-tear within two years.

There are other studies that show more favorable numbers for NFL players including those that entered the NFL from 2010-2013. During that range, 12.7-percent re-tore the same ACL that had been repaired with only 7.3-percent tearing the opposite side.

Players entering the NFL from 2006-2012 were analyzed retrospectively, and those that had an ACL tear prior to entering the NFL were at greater risk to re-tear. Their rates when re-tearing either side were 25-percent, compared to 9-percent in the control group. These injuries also occurred within the two-year window mentioned above. 

The numbers specific to NFL players are more favorable but may be skewed due to smaller sample sizes and shorter time frames. There is a greater chance that he could develop arthritis as his career progresses, but it is unknown how likely that is, as the other structures damaged are not known. 

Injury Risk in the NFL

Due to the vagueness noted in the reports, there are questions about how healthy Breeland can be at the next level. The hand injuries aren’t much of a concern, but the back, foot/leg, and left ACL injuries are. The ACL injury will take roughly nine to 12 months to heal, and that’s if he didn’t have any associated damage. A clearer picture may form if reports are released detailing the exact damage.  

He was invited to the NFL Scouting Combine, though he will not be able to participate in any physical testing. Instead, he will go through the medical testing and team interviews, hoping to maintain his draft stock. It is unlikely that Breeland would participate in Oregon’s pro day, either. He would be five months out from ACL surgery, so it would not be wise to participate.

I can see Breeland going one of two ways with some NFL comparisons. He could go the Rob Gronkowski route. Gronk suffered a back injury that caused him to miss his junior year. In turn, that dropped his stock going into the draft after his senior year. Gronkowski later suffered a multitude of injuries, including fractures, back issues, and a torn ACL. He was a steal for the Patriots, even in the second round. However, this does not imply that Breeland will have the production that Gronkowski had, merely that his stock may drop similarly due to injury, but he could be productive at the next level. 

Breeland could also go the route of Jake Butt. He came out of Michigan as a highly-decorated tight end, winning the Ozzie Newsome Award, the Mackey Award, and garnering All-American status, among other accolades. He also projected to be a first-round draft pick before suffering an ACL tear with nerve damage in his bowl game

The resulting injury dropped him all the way down to the fifth round to the Denver Broncos. Butt eventually got back on the field briefly before suffering another ACL tear in 2018. To note, this was Butt’s third ACL tear going back to college and has yet to make a meaningful contribution with the Broncos.

NFL Draft impact

There are a lot of tight ends that fall in between what Gronkowski and Butt are as tight ends. Over the past decade have we have seen the tight end position evolve into what it is now with Zack Ertz, Travis Kelce, and George Kittle. The hope is that Breeland can return from this ACL tear and stay healthy enough to prove to be an effective player. He will turn out to either be a draft-day steal or just another player. Breeland should be ready for training camp in 2020 and could realistically play Week 1. Ideally, he should be brought along slowly to allow his body to acclimate after the ACL tear and to a faster speed in the NFL. 

The possibility of a first-round grade has gone out the window. I believe he could sneak in at the end of Day 2 with positive medicals or be an early Day 3 draft pick due to the injury history. Despite losing out financially, this could work out in both Breeland’s favor and the team that drafts him that matches his skill set. This could avoid an unhappy pairing by drafting the best player available early on and misusing his talents with an ineffective quarterback or offense. Breeland will get drafted and play in the NFL, but how effective and where is uncertain.

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