Four teams remain on the road to Super Bowl 50. Each team playing in the conference championships has endured an assortment of injuries to make it to this point. Carolina lost Kelvin Benjamin, last season's top receiver, to a torn ACL in a preseason practice and withstood minor injuries to their running back corps. The Cardinals' defense has remained elite despite the absence of cornerback Tyrann Mathieu and the emergence of rookie David Johnson helped keep an injury-riddle backfield dynamic.
The AFC teams were equally resilient. New England's offensive line has been a patchwork job all season, and the team played without the services of receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola for significant stretches. Furthermore, running backs Dion Lewis and LeGarrette Blount were both sent to injured reserve, forcing the Pats to rely heavily on James White, Brandon Bolden and the recently signed Steven Jackson. Peyton Manning's torn plantar fascia was the most headline-worthy injury for the Broncos, but the loss of Pro Bowl tackle Ryan Clady in late May was also impactful. Fortunately, the injury concerns entering this weekend are minimal and set the stage for what should be two entertaining games.
With the Super Bowl contenders locked in on this week's matchups, fantasy owners have already shifted their focus to next season. As a result, let's look at injuries that could impact 2016 draft boards.
Tony Romo, Dez Bryant
The Cowboys endured a lost season after Romo and Bryant were injured in the first two weeks of the year. Both would return from their respective injuries only to suffer setbacks along the way. Romo re-broke his injured collarbone and Bryant's problematic fifth metatarsal never fully healed. Romo stated the team would examine all possibilities, including a surgical plate, to fortify and protect his now thrice broken clavicle. While it seems more likely that Romo simply allows the fracture site to calcify naturally, any move that would help minimize the risk of re-injury should be explored. Dallas is likely to address the backup quarterback role in the offseason with Romo continuing as the starter.
Bryant's situation is a bit trickier as he has already undergone a second surgery on his broken foot. The Jones fracture Bryant suffered Week 1 is was initially treated with a screw and bone graft and a stem cell injection was later utilized. However, the area remained unstable, a common occurrence with these types of injuries, and a second bone graft was performed during the first week of January. The timing should allow Bryant to return in time for offseason workouts though his status throughout summer will be worth watching. Atlanta's Julio Jones has bounced back from a similar injury and treatment path, suggesting Bryant could return to top form in 2016.
Reports have begun to surface that Houston plans to move on from the often-injured running back in the offseason. Foster has endured myriad injuries since taking over in the Texans' backfield, including surgeries for a torn meniscus in his knee and a herniated disc in his back. Groin surgery delayed his 2015 debut, but it was a torn Achilles' tendon that ultimately ended it. While Foster has shown a proclivity for bouncing back from injury, an Achilles' rupture is often a devastating injury and it's hard to imagine a scenario where a 30-year-old running back with a history of injuries is able to return to top form. It will be interesting to see where Foster lands, but fantasy owners shouldn't plan on making him a key contributor next season.
Like Foster, questions about Lynch's future run rampant. The running back missed nine regular-season games this year, primarily due to abdominal surgery, and was a non-factor in the playoff loss to the Panthers. There is already speculation that Seattle could opt to cut ties with Lynch who will be 30 in April and has the fifth-month touches amongst active players. Beast Mode's abdominal injury could be the first hint that the effects of his heavy career workload are beginning to take their toll. While it's far from a guarantee, Lynch will enter the upcoming season with a decent amount of inherent injury risk.
If the Seahawks do let Lynch walk, the team will turn to Thomas Rawls as its starting running back. The undrafted rookie impressed during Lynch's absence before a broken ankle ended his season. The injury was treated surgically, though Rawls is expected to shed his cast soon and expects to be ready for training camp. A full camp should help minimize any fears about the joint, and it appears Rawls could be a feature fantasy back next season.
Jordy Nelson, Kelvin Benjamin
Both wide receivers did not play this season due to ACL tears. While the timing of both injuries negatively impacted the 2015 season, it should reduce the chances of there being any carryover effect into next year. The normal recovery window for an ACL tear is eight to 12 months, and both wideouts will complete their rehabs in time for training camp. While there is a slight risk of re-injury and it is worth mentioning that most surgical grafts need a full year to exhibit the same biomechanical properties of the original ligament, both Nelson and Benjamin could be nice value picks on draft day.
Graham's first season in Seattle wasn't going as smoothly as many hoped, but a torn patellar tendon elevated the situation from bad to worse. The patellar tendon attaches the quadriceps to the lower leg at the tibia and aids in knee extension and hip flexion. The kneecap is situated within the tendon so any injury to the tendon impacts the patella as well. As a result, the associated recovery is particularly lengthy and often career altering. Players like Mark Clayton and Victor Cruz have failed to bounce back from the injury, and Graham will have plenty to prove entering the 2016 campaign.