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If you’re an NFL prospect, be prepared to be put under the microscope and graded with a fine-tooth comb. From combine speeds to character checks, the NFL will stop at nothing when it comes to combining each player’s mental and physical attributes from head-to-toe.
Players are flown into Indianapolis once a year to perform their best in the underwear Olympics before being graded on written tests like the Wonderlic and whiteboard Q & A. Out of all the tests given, however, none will make or break you and your draft stock quite like the medicals.
All 32 teams bring their own physician and team doctor in to evaluate every player on their past and current injury history, trying to get every morsel of knowledge possible. That’s proven to be even more difficult this year with in-person meetings limited due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
A top graded player on film that has a long list of injury history is certainly not ideal for coaches and general managers to expunge an early-round selection given the risk involved. No matter how bright the player’s potential is thanks to the skill-set, athleticism or resume, if he has questions about his health then teams will be forced to pause.
Just last year, defensive linemen Jeffery Simmons and Nick Bosa were both coming off ACL tears and had to prove to scouts they were on track to full rehabilitation and were worth the first-round pick. Both players ended up being drafted on Day 1 and lived up to their first-round price tag, but not every story has a happy ending like those two.
In 2013, Utah defensive tackle Star Lotulelei was on schedule to become a top-five pick until, just hours before the draft, rumors of an enlarged heart surfaced and scared teams away. Lotulelei fell into the teens and ended up on the Carolina Panthers where he was above average for multiple seasons before eventually moving on in free agency.
No matter the injury or pre-draft concern, teams will always do their due diligence before pulling the trigger on a prospect flagged with the injury bug, no matter how talented a player.
Here are five high-end talents with major injury questions to answer heading into draft weekend.
Terrell Lewis, EDGE, Alabama
I got to personally talk to Lewis up close and personal on the field after Senior Bowl practice, so trust me when I say he has the size, length and strength to be a legitimate force off the edge at the next level.
The 6’5”, 262-pound defender flashed a ferocious get off and explosive pass rush for Nick Saban’s No. 1 defense, which is why, when healthy, Lewis looks like a second-round pick for some lucky team.
However, Lewis’s laundry list of multiple injuries started with an elbow injury his sophomore season, followed by an ACL in 2018 that knocked him out of 25 games combined. When he finally did return in 2019 it was obvious he was trying to find his confidence again against some of the nation’s top athletes.
When at his best, Lewis would thrive in a 3-4 scheme as a stand-up linebacker worthy of a Day 2 pick. But as of now, it sounds as if he’s only being mentioned as a late-round flier because of his medicals. Reportedly a large majority of front offices have him taken off their boards completely due to his history.
Maximum Ceiling: Top-40 Pick
Realistic Draft Slot: Late Day 3
Trey Adams, OT, Washington
You’ll be hard-pressed to find another player bigger than Adams at 6’8” and 318 pounds, but his size seems to be a blessing and a curse. Since his sophomore campaign in 2017, Adams’ name has been mentioned in Round 1 discussions thanks to his NFL-ready brute strength and arm length that scouts covet. Since then, however, Adams has yet to put together a full season, getting shelved with various nicks and dings.
Adams has suffered serious back and multiple knee injuries for three straight seasons, and even most recently tweaked his hamstring down in Mobile, Ala., at the Senior Bowl. Adams skipped a variety of combine workouts, and the ones he did participate in he was below average, like his combine-worst 5.6-second 40-yard dash.
Still, though, teams would love to ignore the sluggish drill times if it means getting any good news back from their team doctors. Coaches are looking for any glimmer of hope on this once top-15 prospect who now looks destined for a UDFA path pending the test results.
Maximum Ceiling: Starting NFL Left Tackle
Realistic Draft Slot: UDFA
Netane Muti, OG, Fresno State
In an interior line draft class that lacks star power at the top, Muti would be the star of the show and discussed as the only of his position worthy of a first-round selection if not for injuries he sustained to his lower body.
Muti’s film is a horror show for opposing defensive linemen as he swallows them up and spits the bones out, steamrolling whatever is in front of him. Muti allowed just three pressures on nearly 200 pass reps when healthy and put on a clinic at the combine, showing off his junkyard dog strength with 44 bench reps.
The only problem is Muti played just three games in 2019 before suffering a brutal Lisfranc foot injury that abruptly ended his season. What’s worse is he suffered another season-ending injury the year prior when he ruptured his Achilles on the other leg.
Scouts now face a dilemma when it comes to the 6’3”, 315-pound road-grading guard who’s played just five games the past two seasons after long term injuries to both legs. One of the bigger wildcards of the entire draft class, we’ll know just how good a job Muti did in easing teams’ injury concerns this weekend, judging by where he ends up getting drafted.
There’s no question; when healthy, Muti is the best guard in this class.
Maximum Ceiling: Pro Bowl Guard
Realistic Draft Slot: Round 4
Antoine Winfield Jr. S, Minnesota
Of all the players so far, Winfield’s injuries seem the mildest of the bunch, but it’s the long-term health and durability questions he may never shake. At just 5’9” and 202 pounds, Winfield has a stigma of getting easily banged up and missing time after playing a total of just eight games in 2017 and 2018.
Winfield sent a message this year, however, putting up his best statistical season and becoming an All-American as the Big Ten’s best defensive back. Following in his father’s footsteps, Winfield carries a rare NFL IQ with him to any position he lines up at and just needs to shake the “injury-prone” stereotype by putting together healthy back-to-back seasons.
If his small frame and tendency to get banged up were of no concern, Winfield would undoubtedly become the first Minnesota Gopher to be drafted in the first round since Laurence Maroney back in 2006.
Maximum Ceiling: Pro Bowl Safety
Realistic Draft Slot: Top-50
Bryce Hall, CB, Virginia
Of all the players I’ve watched, Hall is my favorite that few are talking about. How quickly things change heading into this past season. Hall was a lockdown cornerback who had first-round player written all over him. That is, until an ACL injury put Hall on the injured list in just the first month of the college season.
Before that, though, Hall displayed a long and physical playing style that swallowed up receivers in press and man coverage. While he was unable to perform during combine drills, it should be noted because his injury was so early in the season, Hall is on pace to be fully recovered and ready to play again by training camp.
While his peers like C.J. Henderson, Kristian Fulton and Jeff Gladney soak up all the first-round hype, don’t forget about Hall, who belongs in the same discussion and will go to a lucky team at a huge discounted price. While teams will still have to take a gamble he will return to his old form, an ACL tear is not as devastating as it used to be just a decade ago, and the domination Hall put on tape is well worth the price.
After all, no risk it, no biscuit.
Of this entire list, Hall intrigues me the most as a player who could develop into a CB1 for the team that has the guts to pull the trigger on him and his bargain price tag sometime on Day 2.
Maximum Ceiling: Top-15 Prospect
Realistic Draft Slot: Top 75