The 2017 season was a devastating year for injuries in the NFL, simply based on the ridiculous number of stars and Pro-Bowl caliber players who sustained major injuries. Everyone expects studs like Aaron Rodgers and Odell Beckham Jr. to return from the Injured Reserve and take their teams to the next level. However, there are some underrated players coming back from injury who will fill an important hole on their team. Here are three key NFL players returning from injury who are flying under the radar:
Jason Verrett: Defensive Back (LAC)
Jason Verrett is a former pro-bowler who builds his game off grit and anticipation. When healthy, he combines with Casey Hayward to form one of the stingiest cornerback tandems in the league.
Along with using physicality to read the receivers he covers and detect their routes, he often recovers quickly when he does get beat and is able to make a play on the ball. While Verrett is not very tall or strong, his physicality, quickness and football IQ allow him to shut down quick, shifty receivers and precise route runners. In the video below, Verrett covers the best route runner in the league, and arguably the best receiver in the league, Antonio Brown.
On both routes, Verrett stays physical with AB throughout in order to anticipate what Brown is running. In the first play, Verrett stays behind him to protect the streak. He knows he has the closing speed to make a play on the ball, as he did in this situation if Brown runs a comeback. On the second play, Verrett reads the slant perfectly and easily breaks up the pass.
Los Angeles has one of the most loaded rosters in the AFC. If Verrett can stay healthy for a full season, he will be the final piece of the puzzle.
Dont’a Hightower: Linebacker (NE)
Dont’a Hightower is the most proven, but underrated, of these players returning from injury. Along with being the Patriots’ defensive leader and captain, he is an all-purpose linebacker. He plays inside, outside, in coverage and at the line of scrimmage, doing anything Bill Belichick needs him to.
Here is a breakdown of some stats from 2016 that show just how valuable he is to the Patriots.
Coverage: Dont’a Hightower only allowed 7.1 yards per catch on players he covered. This was the lowest of any linebacker in the league that year.
Pass Rush: In 2016, Hightower cause a sack, knockdown or QB hit 18.29 percent of the time when he rushed the passer. This was second among all qualifying defenders, higher than the likes of Von Miller and Brandon Graham.
Overall defense: In Hightower’s 675 snaps, NE allowed 4.9 yards per play to their opposition. In the 322 defensive snaps without him, they allowed 5.8 yards per play. That’s almost an extra yard every play he was off the field.
As great as Hightower is, what truly makes him a special player for New England is his ability to make big plays in big moments. In both Super Bowl XLIL and LI, Hightower made huge plays that allowed the Patriots to win.
Against Seattle, prior to Malcolm Butler’s interception, Hightower stuffed Marshawn Lynch at the one-yard line to keep the game alive. Against Atlanta, down 28-12 midway through the fourth, Hightower came up with a huge strip sack that allowed the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history.
After allowing 41 points in a SB LII loss, New England eagerly awaits Hightower’s return in 2018.
Ryan Tannehill: Quarterback (MIA)
People have overlooked Ryan Tannehill throughout his entire career. Just this past offseason, many, if not most, mock drafts had Miami taking a quarterback in the first round. However, before his ACL tear last offseason, Tannehill had improved his game each year of his career. He was finally leading his team to the playoffs under Adam Gase with the highest QB rating of his career of 93.5 before injuring his leg.
Look at the Miami Dolphins QB’s stats in his first 77 games compared to those of one of the best quarterbacks in the game.
The first fact that stands out is that Tannehill and Brees have exactly the same number of touchdowns and interceptions along with an extremely close completion percentage. These show that not only is Tannehill accurate and reliable, but he also makes plays to further his team’s chances of winning.
The other stat that jumps out is that Tannehill has been sacked nearly double the number of times that Brees had been at this point in his career. This problem, due in large part to the Dolphins’ disastrous o-line, will improve. Over the last couple of years, it has added solid pieces such as offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil and guard Josh Sitton. Better protection up front will give Tannehill will have more time to find his open receivers and make plays.
While Tannehill is nowhere near Brees’ level, this strikingly similar comparison does show Tannehill’s accuracy and potential. lf he stays focused on improving his game and receives stable offensive line play, he has the ability to become a solid franchise quarterback and consistently put his team in playoff contention.
Three players returning from injury – Three different opportunities
All three players returning from injury are important to their team in their own ways. Verrett is the last piece on a very talented team that could go further than expected. Hightower has a chance to come back and make more timely plays that will always be part of history. Tannehill has much to prove, but has shown the potential to play consistent football and take his game to the next level.
Hopefully, all of them are able to stay healthy and on the field in 2018. If these players can simply avoid the injury bug, they will be great pieces on their teams.
Featured image by Mike Roemer/Associated Press
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