NFL Nation: Dustin Keller
ESPN.com New York Giants reporter Dan Graziano makes his game-by-game picks for the 2014 season.
Week 1: at Detroit Lions
The Giants are coming off a mess of a preseason, undermanned and overwhelmed, with the offensive line still a mess and the new offense not clicking at all. No one will pick them to win this game. Except me. Prediction: Win
Week 2: Arizona Cardinals
This one's a comedown off the Week 1 surprise, as Arizona's banged-up defense still manages to flummox Eli Manning and collect a few interceptions. It's a bummer of a home opener as reality begins to set in. Prediction: Loss
Week 3: Houston Texans
Houston's defense is as liable as Arizona's to make life miserable for Manning and the offensive line. But Houston has bigger questions on offense than even the Giants, and this is a win for the New York defense against Ryan Fitzpatrick. Prediction: Win
Week 4: at Washington Redskins
Week 5: Atlanta Falcons
The pattern continues, and the Giants overcome two Osi Umenyiora sacks to outscore the Falcons with a furious Manning comeback in the final minutes. The Giants poke their heads over the .500 mark as they make the turn into the most brutal stretch of their schedule. Prediction: Win
Week 6: at Philadelphia Eagles
The Giants don't have Matt Barkley to kick around this time when they visit the City of Brotherly Love. Chip Kelly and the Eagles show them what a truly innovative offense looks like. Prediction: Loss
Week 7: at Dallas Cowboys
The season-long debate about what gives when an anemic Giants offense meets a pathetic Cowboys defense tilts in Dallas' favor in the first meeting. Tony Romo & Co. have more than enough weapons to outscore Manning and his bunch, and the Giants hit the bye with a 3-4 record. Prediction: Loss
Week 9: Indianapolis Colts
After a long break before the Monday night home game, the Giants get taken apart by Andrew Luck, Hakeem Nicks & Co. at MetLife Stadium for a third straight loss. The offense is starting to run more smoothly, but it still doesn't have enough playmakers to outscore one of the league's better offenses. Prediction: Loss
Week 10: at Seattle Seahawks
You're kidding, right? Prediction: Loss
Week 11: San Francisco 49ers
The Giants have obviously handled the Niners in recent years and in some high-profile situations. But by this point in the season, San Francisco's defense is back to full strength, and the 49ers can't afford to lose ground to the Seahawks by failing to beat the team Seattle just beat the week before. Prediction: Loss
Week 12: Dallas Cowboys
A sixth straight loss is by no means out of the question here, as Romo and his crew still have the potential to outscore anyone in a given week. But from this far out, I'll forecast that something goes wrong for Romo late in this game, and the Giants get a gift. Prediction: Win
Week 13: at Jacksonville Jaguars
This is where the schedule starts to soften up, when the Giants start playing teams that insist on not starting their best quarterback. It's unfortunate they're 4-7 at this point and just about out of the playoff hunt, but they will get it going against the bottom-feeders. Prediction: Win
Week 14: at Tennessee Titans
I think the Titans are going to be dreadful this year, and by December they won't be very difficult for anyone to beat, even at home. A third straight victory keeps the Giants' hopes alive. Prediction: Win
Week 15: Washington Redskins
Have to be honest: The NFC East is so unpredictable that, when doing these predictions, I just decided to give the Giants a 3-3 division record with victories in all three home games and losses in all three road games. It's as fair a way as any to do it, I believe. Prediction: Win
Week 16: at St. Louis Rams
After moving back to .500 with four straight wins, the season falls apart at the hands of the St. Louis pass rush. An offensive line that has once again been the Giants' biggest problem all year can't protect Manning in a must-win game. Prediction: Loss
Week 17: Philadelphia Eagles
Tom Coughlin's teams can always find a way to play for pride. The Giants' playoff hopes are extinguished, but they still manage to end the season on a high note and with a .500 record. Prediction: Win
Predicted Record: 8-8
ESPN.com Seattle Seahawks reporter Terry Blount makes his game-by-game picks for the 2014 season.
Week 1: Green Bay Packers
All the pregame hype will center around the so-called Inaccurate Reception, the controversial Hail Mary catch by Golden Tate two years ago that won the game over the Packers at Seattle on a Monday night. Tate has moved on to Detroit, but the Seahawks now have too many weapons for the Packers to stop, no Hail Mary required. Prediction: Win
Week 2: at San Diego Chargers
The Chargers better hope they play a lot better than they did in the preseason game at Seattle, a 41-14 victory for the Seahawks on Aug. 15. San Diego will play better, but not good enough to beat a much better team. Prediction: Win
Week 3: Denver Broncos
The Broncos and their fans got a tiny bit of meaningless Super Bowl revenge in the preseason opener with a 21-16 victory over the Seahawks in Denver. Enjoy it while it lasts, boys. Repeating that outcome in Seattle is not an option. Prediction: Win
Week 5: at Washington Redskins
Traveling coast to coast to play on the road for a Monday night game is a tough task against any NFL opponent, and even tougher against quarterback Robert Griffin III. But the Seahawks catch a break in this one by coming off a bye week with plenty of time to prepare and be fresh for the journey. Prediction: Win
Week 6: Dallas Cowboys
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones gave Seattle a little bulletin-board material last month when he said the Seahawks were to blame for the increase in penalty flags during the preseason. There won't be near enough flags against Seattle for the Cowboys to win this one. Prediction: Win
Week 7: at St. Louis Rams
Any division game in the NFC West is a rugged battle. The Rams have a defensive line that gave the Seahawks problems a year ago. But they aren't strong enough overall to beat Seattle, even at home in their out-of-date dome. Prediction: Win
Week 8: at Carolina Panthers
The Seahawks were fortunate to win the season opener at Charlotte a year ago. That Panthers team was better than this one, but back-to-back road games against very physical defensive teams will end the Seattle winning streak. Prediction: Loss
Week 9: Oakland Raiders
Coming off their first loss of the season and returning home against an outmanned opponent, is there any doubt? Prediction: Win
Week 10: New York Giants
The Seahawks easily defeated the Giants 23-0 last year in New Jersey, a dress rehearsal for their Super Bowl victory at the same location -- MetLife Stadium. The Seahawks won't need a rehearsal to roll past the Giants in this one. Prediction: Win
Week 11: at Kansas City Chiefs
This likely will be a low-scoring game between two strong defensive teams. Odds are against any team that has to try to win by matching its defense against the Seahawks' D. Prediction: Win
Week 12: Arizona Cardinals
The last time the Cardinals played at CenturyLink Field was last December when they handed the Seahawks a 17-10 loss. That won't happen again unless the Seahawks get caught looking ahead to the 49ers game. The Seahawks don't look ahead. Prediction: Win
Week 13: at San Francisco 49ers
It's a Thanksgiving night, national TV game in the 49ers' shiny new stadium against the hated Seahawks. If San Francisco can't win this one, its time as a championship contender is over. Prediction: Loss
Week 14: at Philadelphia Eagles
This is the toughest part of the season for the Seahawks with back-to-back road games against likely playoff contenders. But the 10 days between games will help and be enough of a cushion to keep Seattle from losing two in a row. Prediction: Win
Week 15: San Francisco 49ers
This is a game that could decide which team wins the NFC West. No way the Seahawks lose to the 49ers twice in three weeks, especially not in front of a rabid full house of 12s. Prediction: Win
Week 16: at Arizona Cardinals
The Cardinals probably will be fighting for a playoff spot, and the Seahawks already will be in at 12-2. That difference will be just enough for Arizona to win at home in the same stadium where the Seahawks will win the Super Bowl a few weeks later. Prediction: Loss
Week 17: St. Louis Rams
For the second consecutive year, the Rams close the regular season in Seattle. And for the second consecutive year, the Seahawks will beat them without much trouble. Prediction: Win
Predicted Record: 13-3
ESPN.com San Diego Chargers reporter Eric D. Williams makes his game-by-game picks for the 2014 season.
Week 1: at Arizona Cardinals
The Cardinals have a handful of new starters on defense. Two of Arizona's best players on that side of the ball definitely will not play in linebacker Daryl Washington (suspension) and defensive end Darnell Dockett (injury). San Diego appears to be catching the Cardinals at the right time. Prediction: Win
Week 2: Seattle Seahawks
The Seahawks' 41-14 manhandling of San Diego a month ago during preseason play at CenturyLink Field was not a good showing for the Chargers. The starters for both teams will play in this one, and the game is at Qualcomm Stadium. However, the Seahawks will have 10 days of rest after the team's season opener against Green Bay, while the Chargers are playing on a short week after a Monday night game in Arizona. Prediction: Loss
Week 3: at Buffalo Bills
The Bills are improved, with one of the better defensive front sevens in the NFL. They have a nice 1-2 punch at running back in C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson and a human highlight film in receiver Sammy Watkins. But EJ Manuel remains inconsistent at quarterback. Prediction: Win
Week 4: Jacksonville Jaguars
This game could be the first start for rookie quarterback Blake Bortles if Chad Henne struggles early. The Chargers haven't lost to the Jaguars at Qualcomm, but Jacksonville's defense should be better with the addition of defensive ends Red Bryant and Chris Clemons. The Jaguars also get after the football defensively. Prediction: Win
Week 5: New York Jets
Will Michael Vick be the starting quarterback for the Jets instead of Geno Smith by Week 5? No matter the signal-caller, Rex Ryan will lean on the run game -- his Jets were one of 12 teams to rush for at least 2,000 yards in 2013. The Jets averaged just 15 points a game on the road in 2013. Prediction: Win
Week 6: at Oakland Raiders
The Chargers lost 27-17 on the road against an awful Oakland team last year. San Diego will be ready and bring more effort this time. However, the Raiders do have a bye before this game, so they will be rested. Prediction: Win
Week 7: Kansas City Chiefs
San Diego has not lost to Kansas City at Qualcomm Stadium since 2007. That streak should continue, although the Chargers can't rely on a Ryan Succop missed field goal to bail them out again. Prediction: Win
Week 8: at Denver Broncos
A nationally televised game against the best team in the AFC last year will be a good, midseason test of where this team stands. San Diego traditionally plays the Broncos tough in Denver -- the Chargers are 6-3 against the Broncos in Denver, including the playoffs, since 2006. Prediction: Loss
Week 9: at Miami Dolphins
The Chargers let one slip away at Miami last year. The Chargers haven't won a regular-season game in Miami since 1980. Prediction: Loss
Week 11: Oakland Raiders
San Diego players should be well-rested for the Raiders coming off of a bye week. Since 2003, the Chargers are 9-2 at Qualcomm Stadium against Oakland. Prediction: Win
Week 12: St. Louis Rams
The Rams have one of the most dominant defensive fronts in the NFL, but Shaun Hill does not instill fear in the hearts of NFL defenders. Prediction: Win
Week 13: at Baltimore Ravens
This game is the beginning of a brutal stretch of games to finish the season. San Diego has never defeated the Ravens in Baltimore. Prediction: Loss
Week 14: New England Patriots
New England runs the football, has an improved defense and one of the best quarterbacks to ever play the game. And that Bill Belichick is a pretty good coach. Prediction: Loss
Week 15: Denver Broncos
This game is a late-season AFC West battle that the Chargers likely will need to win in order to stay in playoff contention. Expect San Diego to play with urgency in this one. Prediction: Win
Week 16: at San Francisco 49ers
You can't discount how San Diego's defense handled San Francisco's offense in the preseason matchup between these two teams. But Jim Harbaugh should have his team playing much better by December. Prediction: Loss
Week 17: at Kansas City Chiefs
For a second straight season, the Chargers finish against the Chiefs, but this time on the road. Since 2004, San Diego is 6-4 at Kansas City. Prediction: Win
Predicted Record: 10-6
So no, they didn't take a tight end in the early rounds of this year's draft. And they didn't take one in the later rounds. And even if they had taken one in the later rounds, it wouldn't have addressed the perceived problem, because whoever they drafted wouldn't have been more qualified to start than, for example, Adrien Robinson, who was a fourth-round pick in 2012 and hasn't really seen the field yet. Why would a tight end drafted Saturday be better qualified to play than Robinson, a former mid-round pick who's been in the NFL and the Giants' building for two years already?
"We weren't going to force any players or overvalue anybody just because people may think we need a tight end," Giants VP of player evaluation Marc Ross said. "That's just not the way we operate."
Which isn't to say that everyone in the building feels great about the tight end situation. Giants coach Tom Coughlin echoed the sentiment that there weren't any tight ends worth taking at the spots where the Giants were picking. But he also acknowledged that he's not fully comfortable with the options on the current roster.
"Yeah, it's a concern," Coughlin said. "It's a concern in a lot of ways. But as has been said, we've got a couple of young guys here that ... Fellas, if you can't see your way to the field now..."
He's talking about Robinson, whose opportunity has never been better, and to a lesser extent Larry Donnell, who distinguished himself as a special-teamer in 2013 and could earn more opportunity as a result. The other two tight ends already on the roster were Daniel Fells and Kellen Davis, and reports Saturday night indicated that they'd added undrafted free agent Xavier Grimble from USC.
From that group, anyone could emerge. The Giants also could still add someone. Familiar names such as Dustin Keller and Jermichael Finley remain on the market, but they remain there due to medical concerns that might not be resolved to the Giants' or any other teams' satisfaction. If the Giants had their preference, Robinson would make a big leap this offseason and cash in on the promise they saw in him when they picked him in the fourth round two years ago.
"Adrien is very sharp and is able to count," Coughlin said. "He's on the field with four guys. And he's handled everything very well to this point. Very well."
The Giants will keep tinkering to make sure they get tight end right, as they will continue to do with every position on their roster. But they're not about to do anything drastic here. They just don't think it's as big a problem as a lot of people outside their building seem to think it is.
General manager John Idzik, who took a lot of criticism for the exodus, admitted Wednesday that the decision to let those players walk was based, in part, on knowing they'd receive compensatory draft picks for the losses.
The Jets ended up receiving the maximum number of compensatory picks (four), giving them a total of 12 picks in next week's draft.
"The compensatory draft-pick system is always in your mind," Idzik said at the team's pre-draft news conference. "It's a factor. It's not the determinant, but it's a factor."
A number of well-respected teams, namely the New England Patriots, Green Bay Packers and Baltimore Ravens, have maximized their compensatory picks. Now the Jets get a chance to cash in. The third day of the draft (rounds four to seven) will be hectic, as the Jets have nine picks over the final four rounds.
Not everyone is a fan of collecting compensatory picks.
"We never went into free agency saying, 'Let's let Bobby and Billy go so we can get a compensatory pick to replace them,'" said ESPN analyst Jon Gruden, a former coach. "We never said, 'Let's not sign a free agent because it will hurt our ability to get a compensatory pick.’"
The Jets' compensatory picks: Fourth round (No. 137 overall), sixth round (No. 209), sixth round (No. 210) and sixth round (No. 213).
Numbers game: A lot of work goes into a draft. It takes almost a full year for the entire scouting process. Former GM Terry Bradway, the senior director of college scouting, provided his annual numbers breakdown, illustrating the point:
Number of schools visited: 263.
Number of school visits: 575.
Number of players written up in scouting reports: 1,372.
Number of player evaluations: 3,500.
Player interviews: 635.
Pro days attended: 115.
College games attended: 120.
The numbers remain fairly steady from year to year, and you can bet every other team is doing the same amount of homework.
Speedy receiver Mike Wallace, slot receiver Brandon Gibson and athletic tight end Dustin Keller were all part of then-general manager Jeff Ireland's plan to build Miami into an explosive, high-scoring offense. The Dolphins also re-signed 1,000-yard receiver Brian Hartline to put as many skilled receivers and tight ends around budding quarterback Ryan Tannehill as possible.
Miami did little to invest in its offensive line in 2013 and, as a result, set a franchise record for quarterback sacks allowed with 58. Despite various weapons, the Dolphins often lost in the trenches and had the NFL’s 27th-ranked offense. That was a major reason Miami finished 8-8 and missed the playoffs for the fifth consecutive year.
Tuesday’s high-profile signing of Pro Bowl left tackle Branden Albert signifies a shift in the team’s thinking. The Dolphins opened their wallets during the start of free agency and agreed to a five-year, $46 million contract with Albert, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter. Miami got the best player available at the team’s weakest position: offensive line.
After another disappointing season in Miami, new general manager Dennis Hickey replaced Ireland in January and is wasting no time learning from his predecessor’s mistakes. The Dolphins must consistently win in the trenches if they want to become a playoff contender. Pairing Albert with center Mike Pouncey gives Miami two Pro Bowlers to build its offensive line around.
The Dolphins also agreed to terms with free-agent defensive tackle Earl Mitchell, according to Schefter, which fills another need in the trenches on defense following the departures of defensive linemen Paul Soliai and Randy Starks.
There is still work to be done for Miami. But it is clear the Dolphins have a plan, and this is a solid start.
Analysis: Lewis was pretty much MIA the first half of the season because of a calf injury and trying to find his spot in the offense, but he came on late in the season and caught 16 passes for 242 yards and four touchdowns in the last five games. If he's used the same way in 2014, he should have a 50-catch season. He is by far the team's best blocker, and Harbor and Reisner are flex tight ends who combined for 29 catches in 2013. Noble is a young, raw player with good size (6-foot-5, 248 pounds) and seems to be OK as a blocker, but he needs refinement. He flashed his potential with his 62-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown against Arizona. Barden signed a futures contract with the team in late December.
NFL free agents of interest: Ed Dickson, Garrett Graham, Dustin Keller and Andrew Quarless.
Need meter: 3. Lewis is among the league's best blocking tight ends and is a weapon in the passing game. He's not as much of a threat up the seam as some of the league's elite tight ends, but as long as he stays healthy the Jaguars are in pretty good shape. Harbor is an unrestricted free agent and he could be the Jaguars' best option. The tight end market is pretty thin after the top two or three, and the Jaguars are unlikely to invest a lot of money in this spot since Lewis already has such a high cap number ($8.25 million). Expect the Jaguars to draft a tight end.
There just isn’t reason to. The team locked up center Dominic Raiola to a one-year deal. It won’t use the tag on defensive end Willie Young. The only player who could conceivably earn the tag is tight end Brandon Pettigrew, but considering the likely price on that will be more than $6 million for one year, it seems unlikely the team would use it.
When general manager Martin Mayhew was asked about the franchise tag at the Senior Bowl, he gave his usual noncommittal answer about potentially using it, saying the team needed to evaluate various things with its unrestricted free agents.
And as good as Pettigrew has been at times in the Detroit system, he is not one of the top five tight ends in the NFL, so he isn’t going to be worth that type of price tag. While the tight end market might not be massive -- Dennis Pitta from Baltimore could be the top option out there -- there are players who could fit what Detroit wants and who would come at a potentially cheaper rate.
One of those is Pettigrew, which is another reason to not tag him. But Dustin Keller is an intriguing free agent if he can return from his knee injury suffered last preseason. Also, Pitta has experience with Detroit head coach Jim Caldwell.
The draft has some intriguing tight end options as well. So those avenues could be the way the team maneuvers when it comes to filling that spot.
Meanwhile, and not to jump too far ahead, but the talk of the franchise tag will likely be much heavier a season from now, especially if defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh does not sign a long-term extension this offseason. Then, this conversation would reach an entirely different category.
He preferred to stay focused on the present, on his fifth year with the Detroit Lions and trying to turn himself into one of the NFL’s top multi-purpose tight ends. He was in a contract year, but tried not to worry much about that.
He would deflect all of those questions and say he wasn’t concerned about it. That he would deal with it after his season ended. Now he has no choice. Free agency is a month away and the team’s decision on whether to pursue re-signing Pettigrew is one of the biggest left for the team after they chose to bring back center Dominic Raiola on a one-year deal.
It wasn’t that he was being shuffled out of the Lions' offense as he played 925 of 1,158 snaps according to Pro Football Focus and started every game until an ankle injury in Week 15 against Baltimore ended his season. But with a young offensive line and more of a focus on the running game with Reggie Bush and Joique Bell, the team needed him to run block and pass protect just as much as they needed him to run routes.
His dual ability could lead Detroit to decide it wants to try and keep the 28-year-old Texan. He was, by far, the most well-rounded tight end on the Lions' roster last season as rookie Joseph Fauria was more of a route-runner and pass-catcher and Dorin Dickerson was a fill-in replacement when Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler, who was released, were injured.
And Lions new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi values what Pettigrew is able to do.
“It’s important to have a guy that can block the point of attack,” Lombardi said. “That’s important. A lot of teams are going to back-or-forth these days and you need a tight end that can hold up against those guys. And then, you want a guy who can be a pass receiver so you’re always looking for those well-rounded guys.
“But, again, I’ve never been in a mode of I want to define exactly what this player is and then you have to go find him for me. Go find the best player you can. And if it is Jimmy Graham, we’re going to find a way to make it work. We’re going to find plays to help him be successful . When it was Jeremy Shockey, we might have had a little different philosophy with his strengths and weakness. So you want a guy who is a great blocker and a great receiver, obviously, and those guys are rare and hard to find.”
Pettigrew, theoretically, is one of those guys and his potential free-agent value could force the Lions to look somewhere else to replace him.
That could be in the draft, although Detroit has bigger needs than addressing the tight end spot in the first round. But if North Carolina’s Eric Ebron or Washington’s Austin Seferian-Jenkins were available in the second round, it could be worth a pick investment. Same with Texas Tech’s Jace Amaro, Notre Dame’s Troy Niklas and Iowa’s C.J. Fiedorowicz in the third or fourth rounds.
Of these players, Seferian-Jenkins and Niklas could be the two most intriguing prospects -- although Ebron is the most talented pass-catching tight end in the draft.
If the Lions choose to re-sign Pettigrew, it would be unlikely the team would also draft a tight end.
The other option, of course, is free agency. While Graham could be the marquee name there, it is highly unlikely he reaches free agency. Even if he did, he would be well out of the Lions' price range. The non-Graham options in the free-agent pool aren't huge names, but there are some players who could fit.
Dennis Pitta played for Jim Caldwell in Baltimore and has shown to be a combination tight end when he was healthy in 2011 and 2012. Dallas Clark also played for Caldwell, but he is 33 years old and probably not worth an investment at this point.
Dustin Keller, the former New York Jet and current Miami Dolphin, is a free agent and after the knee injury that ended his 2013 season in the preseason, he could be available cheap on a one-year deal. That would give the team a chance to figure out whether or not Fauria or Michael Williams, the seventh-round pick last year that ended up on injured reserve, could grow into the full-time starter role. Keller had a $4.25 million cap number in 2013, but after the injury he could be looking for a spot to prove himself again.
While these are some of the potential options, the main thing for the Lions in the next few days and weeks is figuring out how much Pettigrew is worth to them as an organization and whether or not they can find someone to replace him.
The chart provides a snapshot of the league's tally, which it said was culled from the medical staffs of each team. It puts the count of ACL tears during the preseason and regular season (games and practices) at 57, which was actually lower than the total over the same period in 2012.
By my research, working off a list originally compiled and distributed via Twitter by @ACLrecoveryCLUB, at least 62 players tore their ACLs between the start of offseason work and last Sunday's championship game. The NFL's time period appears to have begun with training camp and ended with Week 17 of the regular season.
It's reasonable to assume the league's 2011 and 2012 numbers would have grown over that larger time span as well. So based on these updated numbers, we can't conclude that 2013 was a record-breaking year for ACL tears despite anecdotal fears to the contrary.
In releasing this information, the NFL had a vested interest in debunking two theories that link its actions and decisions to an increase in injuries.
The first is that new rules regarding hits to the head would inspire more low hits and produce more knee trauma. As we've discussed several times, that did not occur except in a handful of highly visible instances. (See: Miami Dolphins tight end Dustin Keller and New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski.)
The second suggests that the 2011 collective bargaining agreement's restrictions on offseason training opportunities leaves players more vulnerable to ligament injuries when football activities resume in the spring and summer. That theory has not appeared to manifest itself in ACL injuries over the past three years, although I don't have figures for 2010 or earlier for comparison.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick went on record last month linking the shortened offseason to what he believes is an increase in all kinds of injuries. What we do know is that more players were placed on injured reserve (125) in 2013, through the championship games, because of knee injuries than in 2012 (121) or 2011 (93), based on ESPN Stats & Information research.
While I agree the data doesn't support the first theory, I think the second requires further evaluation and discussion.
So what have we learned in our first year of attempting to track ACL injuries? There was without question some intense pockets of instances, peaking around Week 7, and the high-profile names of those ultimately affected -- Reggie Wayne, Sam Bradford, Tyrann Mathieu, Geno Atkins -- added some weight to the topic. But the rate dropped over the second half of the season, approaching the league's recent high but ultimately falling short.
Does that mean there is nothing to see here? I wouldn't say that. Discussions this year about shoe selection, playing surfaces and other potential contributing factors had merit. There is no reason to wait until a record is set before initiating the conversation.
The study produced larger numbers, of course, but supported the same basic conclusion: Knee injuries have increased in 2013 relative to this point over the past two seasons. I don't know that we're any closer to understanding the reason -- the data doesn't reflect the popular opinion blaming rules that encourage low hits -- but we will continue tracking nonetheless.
The chart is updated through Monday night's game. Among other things, it shows that knee injuries have sent more players to the IR than all of the 2011 season, based on ESPN research. The NFL would exceed its 2012 mark if 12 more players suffer the same fate over the next three weeks' worth of games.
As we've pointed out a few times, there is no golden metric for injuries. IR accounts only for the most serious of injuries, and sometimes players are waived off IR once their injury settlements expire. After the season, the NFL's competition committee will compile a collection of data that includes IR numbers, missed starts, missed practice time and other metrics to form an overall picture of the league's health situation.
The issue is in the news this week, and has been for much of the season, because of several high-profile injuries caused by intentionally low hits. The most recent victim is New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, who tore two knee ligaments last Sunday because of a low hit from Cleveland Browns safety T.J. Ward.
Ward mirrored comments made in August by Houston Texans safety D.J. Swearinger, whose low hit on Miami Dolphins tight end Dustin Keller resulted in a traumatic knee injury. Both safeties said that stiff penalties and fines for hits to the head and neck area left them no choice but to tackle low.
Green Bay Packers receiver Randall Cobb was injured on a similar hit by Baltimore Ravens safety Matt Elam, but the resulting broken leg isn't part of this study. Regardless, a review of the full list provided by ESPN Stats & Information doesn't reveal many more instances.
Several alternative theories have floated this season. Commissioner Roger Goodell said at a fan forum in London that some players might be choosing shoes that emphasize speed but sacrifice stability and thus protection from knee injuries. Meanwhile, Dr. Mark Adickes -- a former NFL player who is now an orthopedic surgeon -- said last month that reduced football training time in the spring and summer could make players more susceptible to ACL injuries.
We'll monitor these numbers during the next three weeks and into the offseason.
Miami tight end Charles Clay, a former sixth-round pick, had a game-high seven receptions for 97 yards and two touchdowns. With the Steelers focusing their attention on Miami receivers Mike Wallace and Brian Hartline, Clay was able to make Pittsburgh's defense pay over the middle.
On the game-winning touchdown in the fourth quarter, Clay had to fight through a tackle to get to the end zone for a 12-yard score.
“It was just an attitude,” Clay said. “When you catch the ball that close to the goal line, the only thing I was thinking was to do all I could to get in the end zone.”
Clay entered training camp as a backup behind starting Miami tight end and big free-agent signing Dustin Keller. But Keller suffered a season-ending knee injury in the preseason.
Clay has stepped into Keller’s role nicely and has 60 receptions for 678 yards and six touchdowns this season. Clay proved he can be a starter in the NFL and is arguably Miami’s biggest surprise of the season.
“The guy comes to work hard every day,” Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin said. “He likes competing. He goes out and enjoys playing. He’s a good teammate, and he’s a talented guy as he’s shown.”
It takes good role players like Clay to make a playoff run. The Dolphins (7-6) join the Baltimore Ravens (7-6) as two teams with the inside track on the final playoff spot in the AFC.
A signature road win like Sunday’s against the Steelers (5-8) could be the type of game that helps propel the Dolphins into the postseason. Miami showed a lot of character to over six lead changes, in part due to Clay’s toughness and production.
“We earned every bit of it,” Clay said of the win.
The Dolphins will host New England Patriots (10-3) next week in another big game for both teams.
Fast-forward: Things do not get easier for Tannehill and Miami’s offense. The Dolphins will host the first-place Cincinnati Bengals (6-2) on Thursday, which is Halloween night. Cincinnati has a lot of talent on both sides of the ball. But the Bengals have a particularly aggressive and talented defense that poses a lot of problems. Cincinnati rattled and confused New York Jets rookie quarterback Geno Smith this past Sunday during a 49-9 blowout.
Losing targets: Tannehill lost one of his favorite receivers in Sunday’s defeat to New England. Slot receiver Brandon Gibson will be out for the season with a knee injury. Gibson was a reliable target for Tannehill over the middle of the field and recorded 30 receptions for 326 yards and three touchdowns. Tannehill has now lost two safety valves for the year due to knee injuries: Gibson and tight end Dustin Keller.
Prediction: Cincinnati is coming into this game with a lot of momentum. The Bengals are on a four-game winning streak, and the Dolphins are on a four-game losing streak. These are two teams heading in opposite directions. It will take a big performance from Tannehill to change that. Although it is possible, Tannehill is on a bad turnover streak and could continue that against a good Cincinnati defense.
At the time I was still seeking out documentation, but I have it now and it's as staggering as you might imagine. The bottom line: 30 players have already been placed on injured reserve this season because of confirmed torn ACLs, a pace that has already exceeded the total for all of 2011 and has nearly done the same for 2012.
That's right. In all of 2011, according to StatsPass.com via ESPN Stats & Information, confirmed ACL injuries sent 25 players to injured reserve. The figure was 32 in 2012. Those numbers do not include players who suffered a torn ACL but were waived/injured rather than placed on injured reserve.
(Special thanks to ESPN researcher Rachel Eldridge for researching and cross-checking this information.)
Even if this year's pace slows, which everyone hopes it does, the 2013 season is well on its way to producing the highest frequency of confirmed torn ACL injuries in recent memory. Those numbers are indisputable. The more difficult question is understanding why.
Two theories jump to mind, but neither are perfect by any means.
First, the continuing focus on eliminating helmet-to-helmet contact has in at least some cases prompted defenders to direct their contact to the lower legs. In the most high-profile incident, Miami Dolphins tight end Dustin Keller tore his ACL and two other ligaments when Houston Texans defensive back D.J. Swearinger hit him low in a preseason game.
League officials have said they will monitor the frequency of leg injuries in conjunction with their efforts to discourage head shots. The ACL figures, of course, don't include injuries such as the one Green Bay Packers receiver Randall Cobb suffered in Week 6, when he broke his leg on a low hit from Baltimore Ravens safety Matt Elam.
But any close observer would also note the frequency of non-contact ACL injuries this year, starting in training camp and bringing us to a second theory making its rounds among NFL teams. Have new limitations on offseason football work left players less conditioned for it when training camp arrives? Cardiovascular and muscle strength are important, but some traditionalists have suggested that football activities place unique trauma on the body, leaving ligaments more vulnerable to injury when not exposed to football movements over extended periods of time.
If that's the case, we'll see a drop-off in torn ACLs, at least in non-contact instances, as the season progresses and ligaments are re-conditioned to football movements. I'm sure there are other potential explanations as well. But there is no disputing the facts. Your eyes have not deceived you: ACL injuries are in fact occurring at a high rate this season.
Here are three things to watch for the Dolphins:
1. Players on the bubble: Miami must make 25 roster cuts by Saturday evening to get down to the 53-man limit. Several key players to watch are defensive tackle A.J. Francis, third-string quarterback Pat Devlin and receivers Marvin McNutt and Chad Bumphis. Look for the bottom portion of the roster to get plenty of playing time. Shameless plug alert: I will do my roster projection Friday after the final preseason game.
2. Progression of tight ends: It was not a strong outing for Miami’s tight ends following the season-ending knee injury to starting tight end Dustin Keller. The Dolphins got just three catches and 34 yards from the position. New starter Charles Clay had just one reception for five yards -- though he was targeted six times by starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill. This will be an important game for Miami’s tight ends to get reps in preparation for the regular season, even if Tannehill isn’t on the field. Let's see what more Clay, Michael Egnew, Kyle Miller and Dion Sims can do.
3. No injuries: To be blunt, there isn’t much for teams to gain in this final preseason game. The most important thing for the Dolphins is to exit without significant injuries. The real games start in about 10 days, when the Dolphins travel to face the Cleveland Browns. Miami head coach Joe Philbin has been coy about playing time for his starters. Some may play briefly, while others might not play at all. This is a game for backups and fringe players.
Final Atlanta 24 Jacksonville 14 Final Detroit 23 Buffalo 0 Final Indianapolis 7 Cincinnati 35 Final New York 7 Philadelphia 37 Final St. Louis 13 Miami 14 Final Kansas City 14 Green Bay 34 Final Carolina 10 Pittsburgh 0 Final New England 13 New York 16 Final Washington 24 Tampa Bay 10 Final Baltimore 22 New Orleans 13 Final Chicago 13 Cleveland 33 Final San Francisco 40 Houston 13 Final Minnesota 19 Tennessee 3 Final Denver 27 Dallas 3 Final Arizona 9 San Diego 12 Final Seattle 31 Oakland 41