These 7 players will have an impact when they return
The NFL gave its teams some flexibility when it changed the injured reserved rules this season. Rather than having to designate a player to return at the time of placing him on IR, teams can now make that determination after six weeks. That’s a huge change, and it will have a big impact in the coming weeks as teams prepare to activate key contributors from IR, as well as the PUP list.
Looking at the players currently on injury lists, there are several poised to have substantial impacts when activated, like Bills receiver Sammy Watkins. These seven are the most notable.
Getty ImagesLeon Halip
Brandon Pettigrew, TE, Detroit Lions
The Lions are loaded with talent like Golden Tate and Marvin Jones, but adding another big tight end to pair with Eric Ebron would elevate the offense. Pettigrew can be that additional target for Matthew Stafford as he’s expected to return from a torn ACL in his left knee in the coming weeks. He’s become less of a focal point the past few years, catching just 17 passes in 22 games, but he’ll contribute as a blocking tight end right away.
With the way the Patriots are using both Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett, the Lions could have a blueprint for success at the position. He won’t catch a ton of passes in the Lions’ spread-it-around offense, but he’ll be a valuable addition as a blocker.
Bud Dupree, OLB, Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers pass rusher had a bit of a rough rookie season, recording just four sacks in 16 games. He figured to have a substantial role this year, but groin surgery in September derailed that idea for the start of the season. He’s expected to practice this week, beginning the Steelers’ 21-day window to activate him from injured reserve. And looking at the numbers, Pittsburgh needs him.
The Steelers are last in the league with 11 sacks, tied for the fewest with the Saints and Giants. Pittsburgh’s defenses always are built upon a strong pass rush, and the lack of pressure is part of the reason they’ve struggled defensively this season. Expecting Dupree to come in and record five sacks this season is a bit unrealistic, but he’ll provide a big lift to the defense.
Dion Lewis, RB, New England Patriots
The Patriots have one of the league’s top backs in LeGarrette Blount, but he doesn’t bring the versatility that Lewis does. Lewis has been out since last season due to a knee injury, but in seven games in 2015, he had 622 yards from scrimmage. James White has been a decent fill-in for Lewis this year, but the Patriots offense was substantially better with him in the lineup a year ago.
Lewis can become that reliable target for Tom Brady out of the backfield, catching passes and running routes on third down — something he excelled at last year. Lewis has begun practicing with the Patriots and is seemingly close to returning relatively soon, but the Patriots are comfortable with playing it slow, apparently. He’ll add another wrinkle to the offense in the coming weeks.
Justin Houston, OLB, Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs are expected to activate Houston, who's been recovering from ACL surgery, off of the PUP list this week, making him eligible to return for Sunday’s game against the Panthers. It’s unclear if the Chiefs will do it, but Houston is a dominant pass rusher when healthy. In 70 career games, he’s recorded 56 sacks, which is an outstanding rate. He led the league with 22 sacks in 2014, the last time he was fully healthy.
The Chiefs’ defense has been solid this season, but there’s no doubt it will be elevated to another level when the Pro Bowler is activated and put on the game day roster. He’ll have a huge impact on a defense that’s 21st in sacks with just 16.
Sammy Watkins, WR, Buffalo Bills
The Bills didn’t look like they missed Watkins much on Monday night against the Seahawks with Robert Woods putting in work, but don’t let that fool you. The Bills need help at wide receiver, and Watkins would be the best addition they could ask for. He and Tyrod Taylor had a good rapport last season as Taylor began to hone in on his deep ball, which the Bills have missed a bit this season — despite Marquise Goodwin’s emergence.
Rex Ryan hinted that Watkins could return relatively soon after the team released Greg Salas last week, saying “I know we're looking to the future about a certain receiver,” but they’ll have to take it slow with Watkins, who returned too soon from surgery to repair a fractured foot and had to go on IR on Sept. 30. Returning too quickly again could do additional damage and cause even more pain for the stud wideout. Regardless of when he returns, his presence will be felt right away.
Getty ImagesAl Bello
Eddie Lacy/Sam Shields, Green Bay Packers
The Packers will have a big decision to make late in the season and it could have significant implications for their season, depending on where they are in the standings. Both RB Eddie Lacy (ankle) and CB Sam Shields (concussion) are currently on injured reserve, but the Packers can designate one of them to return for the end of the year. The earliest each can return is Week 15, so that would leave only three regular season games on their schedule, but they could be very important games.
The Packers have an obvious hole at running back, but Lacy isn’t necessarily known for remaining in the best of shape during extended periods of time away from the field. Shields would contribute right away as the team’s No. 1 cornerback, assuming he’s recovered from his recurring concussion issues. Regardless of which route the Packers go — assuming both are healthy — they’ll be getting a key player back for the final stretch.
Associated PressMike Roemer
Adrian Peterson, RB, Minnesota Vikings
After five games, it looked as though the Vikings could take it slow with Peterson’s recovery from surgery on his right knee. Three weeks later and that doesn’t look possible. The Vikings are desperate for Peterson’s help on the field as they’re 31st in rushing, ahead of only the Giants. Fortunately, there’s a good chance he’ll return before the season ends.
While it’s not likely he’ll be back before Thanksgiving, he could return in December — just in time for the Vikings’ final four games. With the Packers faltering and the Lions surging, the Vikings really could use Peterson against the Colts, Packers and Bears to close out the year. There’s no guarantee he’ll return, but this is Adrian Peterson. He’ll do everything in his power to get out there. And when he does, the Vikings will become much better.
Bruce KluckhohnUSA TODAY Sports