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Tuesday, June 8, 2010
Forecasting NFC North injuries

By Kevin Seifert

Harris/Smith/Henderson
Al Harris (left), Kevin Smith and E.J. Henderson are all still recovering from injuries they suffered at the end of the season.
NFL offseasons are filled with breathless updates on players recovering from injuries and surgeries of various degrees. Here in the NFC North, however, we have five players whose injuries occurred so recently -- or were so severe -- that their availability is already in doubt for the start of the season.

Teams have been known to express intentional and excessive optimism about injured players -- shocker! -- so let's try to take an unvarnished look at the severity of each Black and Blue situation, the latest timetable and the likeliest contingency plan. Note: There aren't any Chicago Bears mentioned below. The Bears are lucky that their roster is relatively healthy.

Player: Detroit Lions tight end Brandon Pettigrew
Injury: Torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee
Injury date: Nov. 26, 2009
Status update: Pettigrew has been participating in individual drills during organized team activities but isn't expected to be ready to practice when training camp begins next month. It's likely he'll start camp on the physically-unable-to-perform (PUP) list. If you subscribe to the 10-month timetable for typical ACL injuries, Pettigrew will be cleared at some point in September.
Contingency: The Lions traded for Denver tight end Tony Scheffler and re-signed backup Will Heller. The Scheffler trade was a smart move regardless, but it reinforced the point that Pettigrew isn't likely to be at full speed when the season begins. At some point, Pettigrew and Scheffler will form a potent one-two duo. But for the immediate future, Scheffler and Heller are the likeliest candidates to open the season.

Player: Lions tailback Kevin Smith
Injury:
Torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee
Injury date:
Dec. 13, 2009
Status update:
Like Pettigrew, Smith has been participating in some individual drills during OTAs. Coach Jim Schwartz recently said he "wouldn't be surprised at all" if Smith is ready to practice at the start of training camp, putting him back on the field less than nine months after the injury. It's been done before but would represent an accelerated timetable.
Contingency: Whether Smith was injured, it's likely the Lions still would have traded back into the first round to select speedy tailback Jahvid Best. Given Schwartz's well-known feelings about Best's game-breaking ability, it's hard to imagine a situation where Best isn't the Lions' top option in the backfield -- no matter when Smith returns. If Smith isn't ready to provide backup carries, the Lions still have 2009 backup Maurice Morris on their roster.

Player: Green Bay Packers cornerback Al Harris
Injury: Torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee
Injury date: Nov. 22, 2009
Status update: Harris' injury has been described as worse than a typical torn ACL. According to Jason Wilde of ESPNMilwaukee.com, Harris required a second procedure to accelerate the healing process. Harris recently moved his rehabilitation work to Green Bay and is back around the team. But while Harris has expressed some optimism about being ready for training camp, it appears a trip to the PUP list is much more likely.
Contingency: The Packers protected themselves by issuing a high tender to Harris' presumed replacement, restricted free agent Tramon Williams -- a move that ensured Williams wouldn't be able to sign with another team. Whether it happens this season or further in the future, Williams seems destined to take over for Harris, who turns 36 in December.

Player: Minnesota Vikings cornerback Cedric Griffin
Injury: Torn anterior cruciate ligament in left knee
Injury date: Jan. 24, 2010
Status update: Griffin has been rehabilitating at the Vikings' facility but hasn't yet participated in organized team activities. It's likely he'll miss minicamp later this week and it's hard to imagine that he won't wind up on the PUP list for training camp. A 10-month rehab would put him back on the field at midseason.
Contingency:
The Vikings' public optimism must be viewed in the context of their rapid-fire offseason moves to add depth at cornerback. They re-signed 2009 nickel back Benny Sapp, brought in veteran free agent Lito Sheppard and made Chris Cook the No. 34 overall pick of the draft. Coaches also have praised second-year player Asher Allen during OTAs. That collection of cornerbacks suggests the Vikings aren't counting on Griffin returning anytime soon.

Player: Vikings linebacker E.J. Henderson
Injury: Fractured left femur
Injury date: Dec. 6, 2009
Status update: Henderson said Friday he is beginning to run at full speed and that he would do everything he could to be cleared for the start of training camp. But it would be a shock if Henderson didn't open camp on the PUP. The same goes for the possibility of opening the season as the Vikings' middle linebacker. Henderson's original recovery timetable was one year. He has a permanent titanium rod in the leg, a rare predicament for an NFL player.
Contingency: It seems likely that second-year player Jasper Brinkley will open the season as the Vikings' middle linebacker. The real question will be whether Brinkley handles all of the duties associated with that job, or if the Vikings will have outside linebacker Ben Leber call the defensive signals until Henderson's presumed return.