The 2017 NFL season was not kind to prolific young quarterbacks. Both Carson Wentz and Deshaun Watson had incredible seasons cut short due to ACL injuries. Wentz built on an excellent freshman campaign with almost 3,300 yards and a 33:7 touchdown-to-interception ratio in only 13 games. He managed to finish the season as the QB5 in fantasy without playing the last three games of the season. In doing so he cemented himself as an elite quarterback in only his second season and remains on a team that continued on to win the Super Bowl.
Meanwhile, Watson took the league by storm with arguably the best statistical start to an NFL career in history. Watson was tied for the lead in TD passes through Week 8, and had already tied the NFL record for three-touchdown games in a rookie season with four. Combine a prolific ability to throw touchdowns with the threat to run for big gains on every play and you have a fantasy star in the making. Watson’s injury came at the absolute peak of his media and fantasy hype and left fantasy players wanting more.
So let’s take a look at the ACL, when we expect Wentz and Watson to return to the field, and how it affects them moving into the 2018 season.
ACL: Anatomy and Return
The anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) is the most commonly injured knee ligament. It works with the other major ligaments in the knee to provide stability to the joint. ACL tears are notoriously non-contact injuries, but they can occur via trauma as well. They usually occur when an athlete plants the foot and rotates the knee. This twisting motion creates a shearing force within the joint space and over-stretches the ligament. In football, ACL injuries occur most often in positions that involve a quick change of direction, such as cutting when running routes. Athletes at certain positions like WR, RB, LB, and CB are all at an increased risk. There are other non-football related factors that influence ACL tears, including genetics, anatomic factors, prior ACL injury, field surface, and footwear.
The ACL can tear either partially or completely. Small partial tears can often be treated without surgery through physical therapy and other techniques. Complete or large partial tears almost always require surgery to stabilize the knee. Wentz underwent surgery in December, while Watson had surgery at the beginning of November. Typical rehabilitation time for ACL tears is between nine and 12 months. This means Watson is much more likely to return to start the 2018 season.
Wentz will also be recovering from a lateral collateral ligament (LCL) tear which may further slow his rehab. The LCL sits on the outer border of the knee and helps to further stabilize it by preventing the knee from buckling outwards when a force is applied to the inside of the knee. Although the added LCL injury should not add significant overall time to his rehabilitation program, it will slow his initial recovery. Even with the LCL injury, early reports are the Eagles’ star may still be looking to return by Week 1.
2018 Fantasy Outlook
ACL surgery techniques have come a long way. An injury that 30 years ago could have been career threatening is now rarely more than a lost season. This bodes well for Watson and Wentz heading into 2018. It is still a major surgery though, so it is safe to wonder if their production will be impacted going into 2018. Personally, I don’t expect either to replicate their 2017 production.
One component of both players’ game that will be affected is their rushing ability. ACL tears can have a major impact on leg strength and speed. This is why the surgery usually affects RBs and WRs more than QBs. The problem is that both Watson and Wentz rely heavily on mobility in their games. Watson was prone to tuck the ball for big gains, going for 269 yards on only 36 carries (7.5 YPC). Wentz primarily used his legs to escape pass rushes and extend the play. He went for 299 yards on 64 carries (4.7 YPC) in 2017. Fantasy players know that rushing QBs are notoriously more productive in fantasy. If we take away these player’s ability to escape the pocket or rush for chunk yardage their fantasy production suffers.
Besides the possible loss of rushing production, Watson was on a historic TD pace. He threw a touchdown on 9.3 percent of his throws. For reference, Aaron Rodger’s season-best TD% was 9.0% in his 2011 MVP year. Besides an incredible TD%, Watson was relatively average at throwing the football. His 61.8% completion rate was 20th in the league, between Jay Cutler and Eli Manning. His interception rate of 3.9% was also well below average. If he had maintained that interception rate throughout the season he would have been 30th in the league. Simply put, Watson’s TDs significantly boosted his production in fantasy. If he regresses to the mean, which at this point is almost a given, his value takes a serious hit.
My expectation of Wentz’s decline has more to do with the timing of his injury than his incredible 2017 season. Wentz’s recovery timeline puts him returning just in time for the 2018 season, the caveat being that everything must go right in his recovery. I expect the Eagles to be cautious with their franchise QB. They seemed to do just fine with Nick Foles starting, and I can see them easing Wentz back into the lineup further along in the season. They have no reason to rush Wentz’s recovery to play Week 1 as long as Foles is on the team. If the Eagles do decide to move Foles it could be a clear indication that Wentz is ahead of schedule. If they keep Foles on the team it may mean they plan on giving Wentz all the time they can to recover. If this theory holds true then Wentz will be short 1-4 games of fantasy production in 2018. QBs usually aren’t at 100% until one year after ACL surgery so we should prepare for regression for most of 2018 with Wentz. I would advise individuals planning on drafting Wentz early in 2018 to have a backup plan for the first four weeks.
Ultimately both Watson and Wentz could be affected in some way by their ACL injuries going into 2018. While they have both shown to be incredibly productive QBs, fantasy players should be cautious with their expectations. It is always possible that both players return and have amazing seasons, but more likely than not there will be a few hiccups. There are always exceptions to the rule and there is no way for me to predict what will happen in 2018. Based on what I know about ACL recovery, though, I would be leery of drafting either player with high expectations this off-season.