The NFL season is underway and the first game was overshadowed by an injury. Travis Kelce stood on the sideline, a Chiefs towel around his neck, while his team fell just short against the Lions. It's hard to think Kelce wouldn't have made a difference in the game, but it's a long season and Kelce's bone bruise in his knee kept him from generating any power, according to reports during the game.
That's the way of the NFL - last-minute decisions that can change the course of a game. To help, I'm going to use twenty-plus years as a sports injury reporter and my network of contacts to give you context to the biggest injuries. Whether you're a gambler checking for an edge, a fantasy player looking to beat your buddy head to head, or just an NFL fan rooting for your team, injuries are the one thing that can throw everything off. NFL teams have the best medical staffers and doctors. Now you can have your own staff - well, me - to help you make the best decisions with the best information. I'll be here each week of the NFL season and into the playoffs.
A couple reminders: NFL Official Injury Report designations aren't about injuries. They're about availability. For that, they're accurate and fit to the guidelines. Remember "90-60-10" for how often probable, questionable, and doubtful play, respectively. Also, active rosters are set 90 minutes before kickoff and become public almost immediately. You know who to trust when it comes to those reports.
Now that we know what we're doing here, let's get to it.
All this info is correct and up-to-date as of the time of publication, but things change fast in the NFL. You can follow me on Twitter/X or Threads where I'm @injuryexpert on both.
JOE BURROW, QB CIN (strained calf)
There's no mystery with Joe Burrow. The highest-paid player in the NFL is going to play on Sunday. His calf strain has healed and he's not limited in any way. A source tells me that missing the preseason games was never an issue because Burrow was unlikely to play at all under Zac Taylor's plan. They slow played his return to practice, but never had a doubt that Burrow would be ready to lead the Bengals in Week 1.
The calf strain does have a risk of recurrence, but it's minor. Burrow is not a running quarterback, but there's a minimum level of mobility a quarterback needs to be effective in 2023 - or even just survive. As Tyler Brooke showed in The Science of Football, running quarterbacks don't get hurt more. As long as Burrow can move enough to avoid big hits, he should be fine. Long runs? Not part of his game, but he'd be smart to slide early for the first couple weeks.
My expectation is that Burrow should be consider 100 percent for any model. The arm is fine, the leg is fine enough, and Burrow's biggest worry is his offensive line, not his calf.
GEORGE KITTLE, TE SFN (strained groin)
With Kelce out, George Kittle becomes a candidate to be the top scoring TE this week right? Well, his groin says otherwise, or would if groins could talk. Kittle's adductor strain is problematic. The adductor muscles are focused on pulling the leg to the midline. (Abductor goes out, adductor goes in. Spread your legs? Abductor. Close your legs? Adductor.) Think of all the motions a TE has to make, then try to do them without pulling one leg in. It's impossible and while Kittle isn't at zero function, the risk of recurrence is going to have him as a risky play and even a real GTD. (Game Time Decision.)
Kittle's presence as a receiving option, blocker, and all-around safety blanket for Brock Purdy can't be underestimated and the effect on Purdy's game could be more if he's out than with Patrick Mahomes and Kelce. We still don't have a good read on Purdy's arm strength; the elbow is fine physically, but has he built his strength up, or will he be more apt to check down?
As with Kelce, the long-term is in effect here. The 49ers have aspirations this season and sacrificing Kittle for one game to have him healthy for the rest is an easy, if conservative move. The Niners medical staff is likely to let Kittle make every effort to show them he's ready to play, but they're going to be biased towards waiting. If Kittle plays, we likely won't know until 90 minutes before game time.
ODELL BECKHAM, WR BAL (sprained ankle)
MARK ANDREWS, TE BAL (strained quad)
Odell Beckham popped up on the OIR (official injury report) late in the week and these can often be an issue for players. Lack of time to heal and get treatment on a "fresh" injury is a clear problem. However, Beckham's ankle issue appears to have been minor, dropping all the way off the report on Friday. Teams err on the side of caution with reports and knowing Beckham isn't a quick healer, it must have been minor. Many athletes have rolled their ankles so many times that the ligaments and tendons get loose, which actually helps some when they do something like this.
That's less true for Mark Andrews. He's had limited practice time and is questionable for Sunday. He's likely to have reduced plays, but he could have a big day anyway. I think back to Antonio Gates at the end of his career, when he could have three catches, five yards, and two touchdowns. Fantasy gold, man. Andrews is much more the modern TE and the quad strain has lingered, hurting both his quick first step and ability to accelerate out of a cut. He's likely to underperform the heightened expectations that go with a healthy (we hope) Lamar Jackson and an improved receiving corps to keep the doubles away.
ZACH ERTZ, TE ARZ (sprained knee/rehab)
With Zach Ertz's wife Julie retiring from international soccer, perhaps Zach can claim to be the best athlete in the family. Then again, he's still recovering from ACL reconstruction and Julie's shown that she could be an NFL-level kicker if she wanted (and if there's a really gutsy GM out there.)
Ertz sprained both his ACL and MCL, with the ACL being reconstructed in November 2022. He's moving well in practice, but 100 percent? Probably not and while we have to hope that new ownership means FedEx Field will have better conditions than in the past few years, that could play into the decision on whether or not to play him.
Not only that, but if active, Ertz is going to share time with rookie Trey McBride, while both of them will be catching passes from Josh Dobbs. Nothing against Dobbs, but that's hardly Kyler Murray, who's weeks away from returning. Add in all the changes and the question on whether the Cardinals are actually trying to win or getting in place for two really high picks next year and Ertz isn't in good position this week.
COOPER KUPP, WR LAR (strained hamstring)
What the heck is a "body specialist?" In Cooper Kupp's case, it's a doctor who specializes in proximal hamstring strains, which is exactly what Kupp is dealing with. Proximal, in this case, is the closer end of the muscle, up near the glutes. I'm not sure why Sean McVey said "body specialist", but when he often makes some ... interesting translations of medical info. More teams should let their Athletic Trainer or team physician tell the public, but we live in this world.
For Kupp, he's definitely out this week and the big question is not when will he be back, it's what will he be when he is? That's a major question for a player who's one of the most precise route runners in the game. That and his preternatural ability to find seams in the coverage are his skills*. Losing that makes him potentially ordinary, or worse. He's not big, relatively, and not fast, relatively.
*I spoke with an offensive co-ordinator during the NFL Combine who used Kupp as an example for what he calls "Madden thinking." Kupp seems to possess the ability to sense the field rather than see it, which he thinks is equivalent to the TV-style and overhead views used in the video games. He had a five minute video of Kupp finding gaps where there was not only no coverage, but a clear path for Matthew Stafford to get him the ball. Doing it that many times can't be just luck.
The biggest question now is not whether he'll play in Week 1 - he won't - but when he might be able to play. The Rams pushed Kupp to the IR on Saturday, putting him on the sidelines until Week 4, at least. What's the long end of the possibility? If surgery is necessary, it could mean the entire season. Even "body specialists" have a hard time sewing a muscle back together.
KENNETH WALKER, RB SEA (strained groin)
The Seahawks have been searching for a solid running back since Marshawn Lynch finally rode a cart off into the sunset. However, it's a different era now and backs like Lynch simply don't exist, don't fit, or don't get paid because they get hurt and wear down. For two years now, the Seahawks have used a second round pick on a runner, and it's clear where that's got them. Kenneth Walker was the '22 pick and while solid, going over 1000 yards as a rookie, he got dinged up a bit.
That's where he starts in '23, with a groin strain that hold him back this week, or at least give more carries to Zach Charbonnet, who was the second round back this season. Add in that Charbonnet is a better receiver (and healthy) and things look down for Walker in Week 1. This isn't thought to be a long term injury, but think about how many times you've heard a head coach talk about "hot hand" and you'll know there's touch risk for Walker if Charbonnet has a good game. (Note: Deejay Dallas is listed as the RB2 on the depth chart over Walker, but it all still holds. Walker also had no injury designation on the final OIR, a positive sign.)
RASHAN GARY, LB GBP (sprained knee/rehab)
The Packers' defensive lynchpin is coming back from an ACL sprain, reconstructed in November '22. The normal recovery time is six to nine months, but getting back to 100 percent on the football field can take longer. While the medical part of most recoveries is over in that normal quoted period, it's the football part and the confidence that is the last to come. That's where Rashan Gary is and even inside of eighteen months, it's still "normal" if less than ideal.
The Packers will have Gary on a play count through the first few weeks of the season, but this often isn't a problem for most players. The defense as a whole suffers more, but coaches can often get the player into the right situations to make an impact. With more defenses effectively making nickel packages their base, linebacker combos often rotate to the situation already.
Gary will obviously be affected by this more in the early weeks, but it's tougher to say when he will be back to his normal level of play. The easiest way to tell will be to watch, especially in Week 1. Even his participation will give us clues as to what the coaching and medical staffs see so far.
Bumps and Bruises
Darren Waller is a true GTD for Sunday night's game ... John Metchie won't make his debut just yet ... Chase Young is out at least Week 1 as he continues to deal with a neck issue ... Rhamondre Stevenson is questionable, but expected to play ... Same for Breece Hall, though the Jets are likely to be conservative with him given their depth. Yeah, weird to say that ... Nick Bosa passed his entrance physical and has been cleared to play after signing his new deal ... Marquise Brown is questionable for the Cards, leaving me to wonder who Josh Dobbs will throw to now.
And to close things off, this is pretty cool to see:
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