The 2017 NFL regular season gets underway in just five days, but many teams will be without some key pieces as they line up, whether because of injury, suspension or sitting out. Some are lost for the season, others for a month. But either way, their teams will be forced to adjust in their absence.
Here’s a look at 15 players who will be sorely missed:
RB Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys, 6-game suspension for personal conduct: As of this posting, Elliott’s suspension is still in place, as we’re waiting for arbitrator Harold Henderson’s decision after last week’s appeal hearing. In 15 games last season, Elliott led the league in carries (322, the only player over 300) and yards (1,631), was one of only six running backs to average over five yards per carry (he was at 5.1), scored 15 touchdowns, and had nearly 2,000 yards from scrimmage. As Elliott and the NFLPA seem ready to go to court to fight the suspension if Henderson upholds it, he may not serve the six games at the start of the season – or even this season. But if he serves it, it’s a big loss for Dallas’ offense.
RB Spencer Ware, Kansas City Chiefs, torn PCL and LCL, out for season: Ware emerged as a versatile threat out of the backfield for the Chiefs last season, with a team-best 1,368 yards from scrimmage on 214 carries and 33 catches; he totaled five touchdowns. Ware underwent surgery on his right knee within the last few days, and while the Chiefs do have other options, including rookie third-round pick Kareem Hunt, they have sizeable shoes to fill.
QB Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts, shoulder surgery, return unclear: Even in a time where it seems everything can and will be reported, Luck’s recovery and return remain a mystery. The 27-year old former No. 1 pick finally underwent shoulder surgery this offseason, after playing in pain for two years. But while he’s been throwing for weeks, a couple of days ago Colts owner Jim Irsay indicated there’s little chance Luck will play in the opener against the Rams. Indianapolis didn’t place him on reserve/PUP, meaning he can come back at any time, and every Colts fan is left to wonder: when?
WR Julian Edelman, New England Patriots, torn ACL, out for season: Edelman’s numbers are eye-popping, but they don’t have to be – the Patriots have several options at receiver. But when Tom Brady needs him, Edelman is almost always there. Fifty-five of his 98 catches last season went for first downs. The former seventh-round pick was the only New England player with over 1,000 receiving yards last year.
QB Ryan Tannehill, Miami Dolphins, torn ACL, out for season: Everyone has been waiting for Tannehill to take a step forward in his development, and last year he seemed to – which is exactly why the Dolphins hired Adam Gase as their head coach. But he rehabbed a partially torn ACL suffered late in the schedule rather than get it surgically repaired, and in one awkward play in camp, the same ACL was again partially torn. This time, Tannehill and Miami decided surgery was the better course. Jay Cutler played well under Gase when the two were together in Chicago, and if Miami is going to build on the momentum it started last season, it will need the duo to recapture that success.
C Ryan Kelly, Indianapolis Colts, foot surgery, out 6-8 weeks: After asking Andrew Luck to play behind one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL for a few years, former general manager Ryan Grigson spent some draft capital on it last year, using the team’s first-round pick on Kelly. He started every game as a rookie and was slated to resume that job this year, but suffered a foot injury on Aug. 10 in practice. A week later, coach Chuck Pagano announced that Kelly would require surgery; the timetable for his return is 6-8 weeks. The Colts are carrying Kelly on the active roster, but it looks like he’ll miss at least three games.
LT Terron Armstead, New Orleans Saints, labrum surgery, return unclear: New Orleans’ starting left tackle the last three seasons, Armstead underwent labrum surgery in mid-June, and his initial return timetable was set at 4-6 months, which meant he could miss the entire season. But on Saturday, the Saints made Armstead part of their 53-man roster , giving reason for optimism that he’ll be back much sooner; they could have placed him on the reserve PUP list, which would have meant at least six more weeks of recovery before a return to practice.
LT George Fant, Seattle Seahawks, torn ACL, out for season: It is well known the struggles the Seahawks have had fielding a solid O-line to protect Russell Wilson, but in Fant it looked like they had a rising star. Primarily a basketball player at Western Kentucky, Fant played 10 games last year as a rookie when injuries hit his unit, but added 25 pounds in the offseason and had received raves from coaches and teammates for his rapid improvement and work ethic, earning his spot instead of getting it through attrition.
WR Cameron Meredith, Chicago Bears, torn ACL, out for season: Meredith was fashioning a nice story for himself: undrafted out of Illinois State in 2015, he played sparingly as a rookie but made a giant leap in 2016. As the Bears were forced to start three players at quarterback, Meredith was the most dependable option for each, with 66 catches for 888 yards and four touchdowns, all team highs. He came into training camp this year and picked up where he’d left off, a bright spot at a position of weakness for Chicago.
DT Aaron Donald, Los Angeles Rams, contract holdout, return unclear: Donald has established himself as one of the best defensive tackles in the league – in his three seasons, he’s been a Pro Bowler three times and first-team All-Pro in each of the last two. He’s outplayed his rookie contract (he’s currently owed just $9 million in base salary for 2017-18), and is staying away from the team until he gets a new one. Several members of the Rams front office flew to Atlanta last week to meet with Donald’s agents, but didn’t get closer to a deal . Rookie head coach Sean McVay could head into his first real game without his team’s best player.
LT Duane Brown, Houston Texans, contract holdout, return unclear: Brown has stayed away from the Texans all year, and there’s no indication right now as to when he might return. The 32-year old, a three-time Pro Bowler who has been named first- and second-team All-Pro in past seasons, is still Houston’s best offensive lineman and would like a pay bump over what he’s currently scheduled to make in the final two years of his deal.
DT Nick Fairley, New Orleans Saints, heart condition, out for season: You have to feel for Fairley – not only will he miss this season with a heart condition discovered by a team doctor (the exact problem has not been disclosed), he may not play football again . New Orleans first signed Fairley before the 2016 season, and after a career season, the team rewarded him with a four-year, $28 million extension; it was sometime after signing that deal that the heart issue was discovered. The Saints have placed Fairley on the non-football injury list for this year, but in the interest of his long-term health, he may have played his last NFL game.
S T.J. McDonald, Miami Dolphins, suspended eight games for substance abuse: This is a bit of a strange situation. The Dolphins signed McDonald as a free agent in March, a one-year, $1.34 million pact that came after the NFL announced the former Rams third-round pick would miss the first eight games of this season for violating the substance abuse policy. Then just this week, before he’s played a down in a meaningful game – and with McDonald still set to miss half the season – Miami signed him to a four-year, $24 million extension.
LT Taylor Decker, Detroit Lions, shoulder surgery, out at least six weeks: It hasn’t been a good stretch for left tackles. The Lions’ first-round pick in 2016, Decker started every game as a rookie, but had to undergo labrum surgery in early June, and Detroit moved him to the reserve/PUP list on Saturday, meaning Decker has to miss at least the first six weeks of the season, and the team doesn’t have great options to fill in during his absence. Quarterback Matthew Stafford, who became the highest-paid quarterback in NFL history this week, may not be sleeping too well for a while.
LB Anthony Hitchens, Dallas Cowboys, right kneecap fracture, eight weeks: The Cowboys got a bit of good news when it was determined that Hitchens’ injury could be resolved without surgery, as it’s believed there is no damage to his ACL. But the fourth-year middle linebacker, who started all 16 games last season, will still be out until about the end of October. It’s tough news for the player, and a defense that will also deal with suspensions.