Free agency, the draft, trades. They’ve created the buzz this offseason because those are the means most teams use to re-tool or get that missing piece or two to put them over the top. Yet looking outside of the roster might not be the best way some teams improve.
Think the Vikings aren’t looking forward to getting back sledgehammer middle linebacker E.J. Henderson after he missed most of last season with a foot injury? The Patriots get back quarterback Tom Brady and they felt good enough about his recovery from two knee procedures to trade his ’08 replacement, Matt Cassel, to Kansas City.
Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh didn’t have the best running game in the world but that could change for the better with the return of tailback Rashard Mendenhall, the talented rookie who missed most of last season with a fractured shoulder.
It should never be assumed that a player will be what he once was before he suffered a devastating injury, but if some players who missed substantial time or were slowed by injuries last season have fully recovered and can produce to their potential, the in-house upgrades may be all that’s needed to help their teams contend.
Here’s a look at some teams that stand to gain ground with the return of injured players:
New England Patriots
The Patriots won 11 games without Brady but failed to make the playoffs. They’re seemingly more confident not just in him, but that his surgically repaired knee (follow-up procedures were needed to clear out infection) is healthy enough to push them back to the Super Bowl. Besides dealing Cassel, the Pats are rolling the dice with inexperienced backups Matt Gutierrez, Kevin O’Connell and rookie Brian Hoyer, which shows they feel extra comfortable with the status of Brady’s knee — and his arm.
Running backs Willie Parker (knee, shoulder) and Mendenhall missed 16 games between them, with Mendenhall, the team’s first-round draft pick, managing just 19 carries in four games before going on injured reserve with a fractured shoulder. The Steelers finished 23rd in rushing as a result. That could change this season if the pair stays healthy or at least one of them stays well enough to relieve the other. A rotation of the two might ease the physical burden and allow Pittsburgh to establish a fearsome two-headed monster.
Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck missed nine games with a back injury and threw five touchdowns and 10 interceptions when he did play. All-Pro defensive end Patrick Kerney missed nine games (shoulder). The receiving corps was decimated. The offensive line was banged up, too. Any wonder why Seattle won just four games? If Kerney can create the havoc he has created most of his career, Seattle’s defense, with the addition of linebacker Aaron Curry, could make life a little tougher on the defending NFC West champion Arizona Cardinals. Hasselbeck is healthy so far and he — as well as the ‘Hawks — could flourish with T.J. Houshmandzadeh at wide receiver if he is sheltered by the offensive line.
Running back Marion Barber missed just one game with a toe injury but it clearly was a hindrance for the hard-charging runner as he averaged a career-low 3.7 yards per carry. As much as a healthy Barber could impact the Cowboys’ running game, the return of Felix Jones from a serious toe procedure that landed him on injured reserve could provide the Cowboys the breakaway threat they lacked out of the backfield and in the return game. Of Jones’ 30 carries, four went for 20-plus yards. He also averaged 27 yards on his 16 kickoff returns, including one he took to the house. Throw in gutsy RB Tashard Choice and not as much demand will be placed on QB Tony Romo.
With all the talk about Brett Favre and Percy Harvin, the cog of the Vikings’ defense — Henderson — will be back and hungry after missing 12 games last season after a foot injury. Henderson is a playmaker who will be counted on more than ever with the possible four-game suspensions of defensive tackles Pat Williams and Kevin Williams, who tested positive for banned substances in 2008. Henderson also could solidify a defense that released veteran safety Darren Sharper, its cerebral playmaker.
Green Bay Packers
Defensive lineman Cullen Jenkins could ease the transition to a 3-4 scheme and make life easier for outside linebackers Aaron Kampman and Clay Matthews. Jenkins missed 12 games last season with torn pectoral muscles. With his physical style, Green Bay’s front could be radically more effective, especially since he’s just as capable applying pass pressure as he is holding up against the run. Safety Atari Bigby, who played in just seven games last season because of injuries, could emerge as an enforcer in the new defense. The most effective 3-4 defenses allow safeties to excel and the teeth-rattling tackler could be a different-maker if durability issues don’t resurface.