Georgia running back Todd Gurley tore his ACL later in this 2014 game against Auburn, and now teams have to factor in that rehab going into the draft.
INDIANAPOLIS – When Texas A&M left tackle Cedric Ogbuehi learned he tore an ACL in his final college game, it only bummed him out for about a day. After that, he was determined to put it behind him and attack rehabilitation with vigor.
"ACL isn't a life or death injury," Ogbuehi said. "I'll come back next year and be full-go again."
While Ogbuehi projects the utmost confidence in his return, for teams considering his place in the upcoming NFL draft, the question is not so cut and dried. Ogbuehi, Oregon cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and Georgia running back Todd Gurley are among the top talents in this year's draft who projected as early picks before suffering serious knee injuries.
The recovery process has become more efficient through the years – Ogbuehi pledges to be ready by training camp – but drafting damaged
goods is always a risk. The injuries are sure to drop the trio down draft boards, where clubs must weigh the possible long-term value gain against the missed time and potential lingering effects.
"You have to rely on your medical staff," Cardinals General Manager Steve Keim said. "Our doctors and trainers do a great job. This is a very detailed process here, so we'll make sure that all those guys who had those types of injuries, that structurally they're going to be fine, that really there's just a ligament that needs to heal. With time and preparation, that that player is going to make a full recovery."
The Cardinals are familiar with this scenario. In the 2010 draft, they chose linebacker O'Brien Schofield, who dropped from a possible early-round pick to the fourth after suffering a torn ACL in a practice leading up to the Senior Bowl. He missed the first six games of his rookie year and had a part-time role the rest of the way, and then played all 16 games with 4½ sacks in 2011.
Keim said the key is to figure out how much the missed time will affect the incoming player both physically and mentally. The rookie learning curve is steep, and if it drags on too long, the risk might become too high.
"The one thing you have to do is make sure they're up to speed mentally so when they do have the opportunity to get on the field, they're ready to go," Keim said. "So many times, you have these young players and that's the biggest obstacle. It's not the physical part of it, it's the mental part of the game."
There have been both success stories and failures in the selection of injured players. Running back Willis McGahee starred at Miami in college, but tore three knee ligaments in the 2003 national championship game. He was expected to be a top-five pick before the injury but
dropped to the Bills at No. 23 overall. McGahee missed his rookie season, but then averaged more than 1,100 rushing yards per year over his three seasons with Buffalo to begin an impressive pro career.
The 49ers drafted running back Marcus Lattimore in the fourth round in 2012. He was one of the top-rated tailbacks in the country during his time at South Carolina, but suffered significant knee injuries in both his sophomore and junior seasons before declaring for the draft. Lattimore tried to rehabilitate for two seasons, but announced his retirement this November without ever playing in a game.
Gurley is aware of both circumstances, and is confident he can return to form and make an impact as a rookie.
"I'm a strong-minded person and I've been through a lot of stuff," he said. "I feel like I'll be fine."
When teams decide where to place the injured players on their draft board, positions can play a factor. A lineman doesn't need to make as many quick cuts or explosive actions, so they generally can return to full effectiveness faster. All other things being equal, Ekpre-Olomu and Gurley could be dinged more than Ogbuehi for their injuries because of the potential downside.
"A tenth of a second for speed guys in the NFL is a big deal," said Dr. Patrick Kersey, the Medical Director of USA Football. "If they haven't regained the whole accordance of speed, that can make a big difference."
Every team will pore over the medical updates at the combine, and there will be a second evaluation for injured prospects six weeks from now to determine how well they are recovering.
It's a tough circumstance for the players, who face close scrutiny while also coping with the expected monetary loss from dropping in the draft. However, they tend to come to grips with it and devote their energy to the recovery process.
"I'm really not too worried about how it will affect my draft stock," Ekpre-Olomu said. "I'm really worried about once I get there, how I'm going to move on from it and how I'm going to perform once I get onto a team."
It's the teams now who must make the risky call of sacrificing the short-term for a potential long-term payout.