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Preseason Power Rankings No. 12: Chicago Bears

Alshon Jeffery, Brandon Marshall AP

The 2013 Bears scored the second-most points in franchise history (445). Only the 1985 Bears tallied more in regular season play, putting up 456 in their bulldozing of all non-Dan Marino-led competition in a 15-1 season.

But for all of their skill on offense, the 2013 Bears were overmatched on defense, surrendering 478 points, 57 points more than any previous Chicago club had given up.

Long before the Packers’ Randall Cobb sprinted through the Chicago secondary en route to the division-clinching touchdown in the regular season finale, the Bears’ defense was broken. Chicago surrendered at least 28 points in half of its games, including 54 to Philadelphia, 45 to Washington, 42 to St. Louis and 40 to Detroit. No team allowed more yards per play than the Bears, and no team was worse against the run.

In the offseason, the Bears set out to bolster that “D,” signing two of the best available defensive ends (Lamarr Houston, Jared Allen) and drafting defensive players with four of their first five picks. On offense, the Bears tried to build continuity. They re-committed to quarterback Jay Cutler, signing him to a seven-year contract worth up to $126.7 million in January. In May, they signed wide receiver Brandon Marshall to a four-year deal worth as much as $40 million.

These were logical moves for Chicago. For once, it was the offense didn’t need much work. Now, the focus turns to whether the defense can provide more resistance in head coach Marc Trestman’s second season on the job.

Strengths.

The Bears’ 2014 offense could be one of the best the franchise has ever fielded. Marshall (100 catches, 1,295 yards, 12 TDs in 2013) and fellow starting wideout Alshon Jeffery (89-1,421-7) were Pro Bowlers a season ago, as were tailback Matt Forte (1,933 combined rushing-receiving yards) and right guard Kyle Long.

Cutler — now in sixth season in Chicago — appears to have taken well to Trestman’s scheme. The strong-armed Cutler connected on 63.1 percent of his throws a season ago, his best completion percentage in six years. He’s quite capable of being the first Bears quarterback to make a Pro Bowl since Jim McMahon 29 years ago.

If Cutler gets an all-star nod, he’ll be aided by strength of his pass catching corps. Marshall and Jeffery form an outstanding tandem. Forte is one of the game’s best receivers out of the backfield. Tight end Martellus Bennett is solid, too.

In Trestman’s inaugural campaign, the Bears’ passing attempts rose nearly 20 percent, but total sacks were down more than 30 percent. Moreover, the club’s completion percentage was up more than five percent. In short, the 2013 Bears threw it more and threw it better — and their quarterbacks hit the ground less. That’s testament to Trestman’s scheme, but it also reflects well on the offensive line, which the club overhauled last year, drafting Long and right tackle Jordan Mills and signing left tackle Jermon Bushrod and left guard Matt Slauson.

The Bears can only hope their offseason D-line investment will pay similar dividends. And Allen, Houston and ex-Lions end Willie Young should strengthen a defense that got just 20 sacks from its front four a season ago.

Finally, in Robbie Gould, the Bears have one of the NFL’s most reliable kickers. He hit 26-of-29 field goals in 2013, including 9-of-11 from 40 yards and beyond.

Weaknesses.

Even with an upgraded defensive line, the Bears’ defense looms a major concern. The top player in the LB corps, Lance Briggs, will be 34 in November. Shea McClellin, the Bears’ 2012 first-round pick, could get reps at strong-side and middle linebacker in an attempt to jump-start his career. More is also needed from second-year pro Jon Bostic, whether at middle or outside linebacker.

The Bears’ secondary also looks shaky. Per Pro Football Focus grades, the club had two of the four worst starting safeties in 2013 (SS Major Wright, FS Chris Conte). Wright departed in free agency, and Conte comes off shoulder surgery. The Bears added four veterans and a draft pick at safety, which at least gives them some options as they try to craft a workable solution on the back end.

The Bears’ cornerback play should also be monitored. The club added some much-needed youth and depth in the draft, taking Kyle Fuller in Round One. Fuller, veterans Tim Jennings and Charles Tillman figure as the top three corners. If the 33-year-old Tillman stays healthy and returns to form, and if Fuller is a quick study, the Bears should be just fine at this key position. But if Tillman misses time, and if Fuller isn’t quite ready for prime time, the Bears could have a problem.

The worries don’t stop there. The Bears’ special teams are quite unsettled entering training camp. The club will have a new punter, holder, long-snapper, punt returner and kickoff returner. And backup quarterback could be a trouble spot after the departure of Josh McCown. Veterans Jimmy Clausen and Jordan Palmer and sixth-round rookie David Fales will vie to back up Cutler. Clausen and Palmer have generally struggled against NFL competition, but Trestman is masterful with quarterbacks.

Changes.

The defensive depth chart got a makeover. The Bears released defensive end Julius Peppers and didn’t bring back defensive tackle Henry Melton, defensive end Corey Wootton or linebacker James Anderson. The Bears’ most expensive free agent signings — Houston and Allen — are defensive ends, a nod to the premium that ready-made pass rushers command. To bolster the defensive tackle depth, the Bears turned to the draft, selecting Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton in the second and third rounds, respectively.

The Bears took a value shopping approach at safety. Free agent additions Ryan Mundy, M.D. Jennings, Danny McCray and Adrian Wilson are all slated to make less than $1 million in salary this season, per NFLPA records.

On offense, the changes were reserved to backup spots. McCown left to be the Buccaneers’ starter, while tailback Michael Bush and Earl Bennett were released. Rookie Ka’Deem Carey could help replace Bush, while former Washington wideout Josh Morgan was signed to bolster the WR depth.

The Bears underwent several major shakeups in the kicking game. Long-time star returner Devin Hester signed with Atlanta. Punter Adam Podlesh was released, and the club spent a draft pick on a potential replacement (Pat O’Donnell, Round Six). Then, late in the offseason, 16-year long-snapper Patrick Mannelly retired, adding another layer of uncertainty to the special teams.

Camp battles.

Here are the positions and players to watch:

— Safety: Ex-Giant Mundy might have the edge at strong safety, but Wilson is a wild card if he has something left after missing the 2013 season with an Achilles injury. Rookie Vereen is the biggest threat to the incumbent Conte at free safety.

— Cornerback: The progress of Fuller must be monitored. There are plenty of snaps to be had in this secondary if he’s up to it.

— Defensive tackle: Can Ferguson or Sutton push starters Jay Ratliff and Stephen Paea? If not, can the rookies at least prove capable rotation players?

— Linebacker: Will Bostic, McClellin and second-year outside linebacker Khaseem Greene step up their play? The Bears didn’t draft a linebacker and added only veteran backup Jordan Senn in free agency.

— Wide receiver: Morgan and second-year pro Marquess Wilson appear the favorites to replace Bennett as the third receiver.

— Running back: Carey and second-year pro Michael Ford will compete for the little work that won’t go to Forte, a true three-down back.

— Quarterback: Palmer, Clausen and Fales will compete for no more than two reserve roles. The question is, which of this trio most quickly applies Trestman’s lessons?

— Returner: Eric Weems is the most experienced option in the competition to return kickoffs and punts.

— Punter: O’Donnell will try to hold off veteran Tress Way.

— Long-snapper: First-year pro Brandon Hartson and CFL veteran Chad Rempel will battle it out.

Prospects.

The Bears must hang tough early. Six of their first nine games are on the road, including trips to visit the 49ers (Week Two), Falcons (Week Six), Patriots (Week Eight) and Packers (Week 10).

If Chicago can get through that nine-pack in decent order, there’s a real chance to close with gusto. From November 16 through December 21, the Bears play five home games and take just one road trip — Detroit on Thanksgiving Day. The Bears end their season at Minnesota — no picnic, yes, but not the worst draw ever.

It all looks fairly cut-and-dried with the Bears. If their defense is better, and if their offense hums along, they are serious contenders for a playoff spot. But if the defense remains a sieve, and if the offense regresses, they are vulnerable.

The Bears aren’t the youngest of teams. Tillman and Briggs don’t have many NFL years left. Cutler and Marshall aren’t kids, either, and Forte is approaching 2,000 career touches. There ought to be a real sense of urgency to get into the playoffs with an offense this talented. As Bears observers with any sense of history would tell you, scoring points traditionally hasn’t been a Chicago strength.

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Josh Johnson joins Jets, Jake Heaps jettisoned

Josh Johnson Pic Getty Images

The Jets have made a change at the bottom of the quarterback depth chart.

Veteran Josh Johnson signed with the Jets today, while rookie Jake Heaps was cut.

Johnson, who was cut by the Bengals this week, is one of the NFL’s most athletic quarterbacks, but has struggled as a passer. He has played in 29 games and thrown five touchdown passes and 10 interceptions while rushing for 274 yards. Heaps is an undrafted free agent from the University of Miami who threw one pass, an incompletion, for the Jets this preseason.

It’s unlikely that Johnson will make the Jets’ roster, but he’ll provide depth for now. While Geno Smith continues to recover from a broken jaw, Ryan Fitzpatrick is the starter and the backups are rookie Bryce Petty and the recently signed veteran Matt Flynn.

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NFL slated to start the season with more than 30 players suspended

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v New England Patriots Getty Images

The NFL has suspended more than 30 players this offseason.

Our NFL 2015 suspension tracker currently has the names of 34 players on it, with the possibility that more suspensions could still be coming.

It’s still possible that some suspensions could be overturned. Steelers receiver Martavis Bryant is still appealing his four-game substance-abuse suspension, while Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is still going through the courts to battle his four-game Deflategate suspension.

The two longest suspensions handed down this offseason were the 16-game bans given to Browns receiver Josh Gordon and Dolphins defensive end Dion Jordan. Some of the suspended players are little-known free agents who likely wouldn’t play in Week One anyway, but some of the noteworthy suspensions include six games for 49ers receiver Jerome Simpson, four games for Chargers tight end Antonio Gates, four games for Jets defensive end Sheldon Richardson, four games for Cowboys linebacker Rolando McClain, four games for Cowboys defensive end Greg Hardy, two games for Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell, one game for Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount and one game for Bills defensive tackle Marcell Dareus.

In all, players have been suspended for a cumulative 159 games for the 2015 season.

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Russell Wilson has more to say about Recovery Water

Seattle Seahawks v Kansas City Chiefs Getty Images

Over the past two days, Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson has said plenty of stuff about Recovery Water, a company in which he has invested. And most of what he has said indicates a belief by him that the product helps prevent or treat concussions.

Wilson was back at it on Thursday, extolling the virtues of a beverage with nanobubbles, which he claims helped him not get a concussion when he took a blow to the head against the Packers in January.

“I didn’t have a concussion,” Wilson told reporters, via comments distributed by the team. “I guess it was perceived wrong, but I did not have a concussion. I was saying that I had consistently been drinking the water for about a month, month and a half, you know, five to seven times a day and maybe this stuff is helping me out. It’s one of those things that I truly do believe it helps with recovery, it’s one of those things that the science behind it, all that help that they’re trying to do.”

Via Twitter on Wednesday, Wilson said that Recovery Water helped prevent him from getting a concussion, which meshes with what he said today. But what he said today conflicts with the message sent by his quotes to Rolling Stone, when he said, “I banged my head during the Packers game in the playoffs, and the next day I was fine. It was the water.”

Saying “the next day I was fine” implies that the prior day he wasn’t. Wilson said today that he was.

“I didn’t have any head injuries, but I was trying to say I think it helped prevent it,” Wilson said. “I think your brain consists of like 75 to 80 percent water so I think that just being hydrated and drinking the Recovery Water really does help.”

Under that theory, drinking any type water would help. As, possibly, would playing football while wearing not a helmet but a fishbowl.

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It sounds like Aaron Rodgers won’t play on Saturday

Packers Camp Football AP

Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said Wednesday that the Packers offense is right where it needs to be for the start of the regular season before saying he wasn’t sure how much playing time he’d get in Saturday’s game against the Eagles.

Based on what one of his backups had to say on Thursday, it sounds like he won’t get any playing time at all. The Packers have three starting offensive linemen battling injuries heading into the game, which isn’t the kind of situation you want to put Rodgers in if you can avoid it. Quarterback Matt Blanchard says that they won’t when discussing his own plans for the game.

“I know the starters aren’t going to be playing but for us, it’s our first time out on Lambeau this season,” Blanchard said, via Rob Demovsky of ESPN.com. “The backups don’t normally get these type of reps. We have a lot of respect for Philly and their defense. Their starters are going to be playing a lot of time. It’s a good opportunity for Brett [Hundley] and I to get in there and see where we’re at and take advantage of it.”

Given the usual operating procedure for the final week of the preseason, it seems likely that Rodgers’s next game action will come in Week One against the Bears. Demovsky reports the team’s defensive starters are expected to play in Saturday’s game.

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Thursday’s PFT on NBCSN poll question looks at Colts, Rams

NBCSN

Week Three of the preseason includes a game between a pair of franchises that were once swapped by Robert Irsay and Carroll Rosenbloom. The Colts visit the Rams in a matchup of teams that were in Baltimore and L.A. when their pink slips were swapped.

Thursday’s Pro Football Talk on NBCSN bases a poll question on these two teams, asking whether it’s more likely that the Colts will make the Super Bowl or the Rams will make the playoffs.

Cast a ballot below and then tune in at 6:00 p.m. ET for 30 minutes of new and analysis with Rodney Harrison, Paul Burmeister, and yours truly. It’s guaranteed to get you ready for the all-important third week of the preseason. Assuming any week of the preseason is important.

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Patriots waive/injured 2012 third-rounder Jake Bequette

Jake Bequette AP

The Patriots waived 2012 third-round pick Jake Bequette last year, but brought him back to the practice squad and then moved him from defensive end to tight end this year in an attempt to find a place for him on the roster.

That effort has come to an end. The NFL’s daily transactions report brings word that Bequette, who had been absent from practice of late, has been waived with the injured designation. If he’s not claimed, he can go on Patriots injured reserve or become a free agent after an injury settlement with the team.

Bequette was one of four players dropped from the roster on Thursday. The team announced that offensive lineman Mark Asper and linebacker Cameron Gordon have been waived and that veteran defensive tackle Antonio Johnson has been released. The team also waived defensive back Jimmy Jean on Wednesday.

All the moves leave the Patriots with several open roster spots, but they may remain unfilled with the deadline to cut rosters to 75 players coming next week.

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Terrelle Pryor not sure if he’s playing Saturday

Terrelle Pryor AP

Terrelle Pryor practiced for the Browns again on Thursday, but he’s not sure whether he’ll be in the lineup for the team’s third preseason game on Saturday.

Pryor said, via Nate Ulrich of the Akron Beacon Journal, that how his hamstring feels on Friday will determine whether or not he can make his first appearance of the preseason and his first game appearance since making the move to wide receiver upon joining the Browns this offseason.

Browns coach Mike Pettine said recently that Pryor’s extended absence this summer has hurt his chances of making the team, something Pryor is aware of but says won’t stop him from following the injury protocol laid out by the team.

Given the lack of potential playmakers on Cleveland’s offense, Pryor may stand a better chance than most players who have had as little to do on the field as he’s had during camp. Still, a good showing on Saturday that ends with Pryor healthy would go a long way toward extending his stay with the team.

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Eagles waive/injured Emmanuel Acho after thumb surgery

Philadelphia Eagles v Arizona Cardinals Getty Images

The Eagles are down one inside linebacker in the competition to make the 53-man roster.

According to multiple reports, Emmanuel Acho has been waived/injured because of a thumb injury. Zach Berman of the Philadelphia Inquirer reports that Acho’s injury required surgery.

Every team in the league will have an opportunity to claim Acho off of waivers. If no one does, he can revert to injured reserve with the Eagles or reach an injury settlement with the team that makes him a free agent.

Acho played 20 games for the Eagles the last two seasons and made two starts last year. He was competing for a backup inside linebacker job this year.

His departure leaves Brad Jones and Najee Goode in the mix for spots along with Kiko Alonso, Mychal Kendricks, DeMeco Ryans and third-round pick Jordan Hicks. Jones has been getting some work at outside linebacker as well, which could boost his chances of surviving the cut to 53 players.

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RG3 declines to say if he had a concussion

Robert Griffin III AP

If you were inclined to believe that Robert Griffin III didn’t really suffer a concussion in last week’s preseason game, nothing he said today would change your mind.

Griffin met with the media today for the first time since the team announced last Thursday that he had a concussion, and when he was asked directly if he actually had a concussion, Griffin wouldn’t answer.

“You’ve got to talk to the people who report that stuff. I don’t report that stuff. I was in the locker room, taking a shower, getting ready to watch the rest of the game, so I don’t know,” Griffin said.

Questions have been raised about whether the team used a concussion diagnosis as a convenient way to let Griffin dodge the media. The NFL’s media policy says that all players are required to talk to reporters after games — with the exception of players who suffered concussions.

Asked today if he suffered a concussion when he got hit on his final play, Griffin answered, “I have no idea. I just know I was in some pain, the trainers came out and that was it.”

The team couldn’t get its story straight on the night of the game about whether Griffin had a concussion, and Griffin sounded today like he wanted to wash his hands of the team’s official concussion diagnosis, without coming right out and contradicting it.

What Griffin did say is that he’s been cleared to return, and he’s planning to play Saturday. He’ll have to address the media again after that game. Unless the team says he has another concussion.

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Still no timetable for Breshad Perriman’s return

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When Ravens first-round pick Breshad Perriman injured his knee in late July, the Ravens said they didn’t think it was a serious injury and that Perriman should be back without missing much time.

It’s almost a month since the injury and Perriman has yet to resume practicing, however. Coach John Harbaugh said last week that an MRI came back “normal,” but said Thursday that there still isn’t a timetable for Perriman to get back on the field.

“I’m asking too,” Harbaugh said, via the team’s website. “It’s just slower healing than [the doctors] expected. They really don’t have a timetable right now. That’s all I really have to say on that.”

Quarterback Joe Flacco called Perriman’s absence “disappointing” and said that Perriman will likely have work to do to get himself back into shape once he does get the green light to resume football activities. There will also be a lot of making up for lost practice time, all of which could lead to less of an impact from Perriman than the Ravens hoped to receive during the 2015 season.

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Pettine: Manziel likely done for preseason

Johnny Manziel AP

The mystery surrounding the elbow and arm soreness plaguing Browns second-year quarterback Johnny Manziel continues to grow with Thursday’s announcement by Browns coach Mike Pettine that Manziel is definitely going to miss Saturday’s preseason game at Tampa Bay and probably won’t be able to play in the Sept. 3 preseason finale at Chicago, either.

Pettine said Wednesday that an MRI on Manziel had shown no structural damage and that he was dealing with “a little bit of soreness.”

A day before announcing Manziel was likely done for the preseason, Pettine said Manziel “could play [if he had to]” in Saturday’s preseason game, but the team saw no reason to risk it. Thursday, Pettine said basically said the same, which adds to the mystery.

Earlier this week, new Browns offensive coordinator John DeFilippo told reporters Manziel’s injury was a function of his delivery.

Is it just soreness? Or is it something more — and potentially more serious — that’s likely to keep a player trying to rebound from a lost rookie season to miss basically two weeks of practice and two preseason games?

Pettine said Thursday the Browns had planned to give Manziel his first reps of the preseason with the starting offense at Tampa Bay. He led one touchdown drive in each of the first two preseason games with the No. 2 offense.

Manziel’s injury all but assures that Josh McCown will be the team’s starting quarterback for the Sept. 13 preseason opener at the Jets. Pettine had been firm that McCown was the No. 1 quarterback, but unless McCown can win a bunch of games the Browns need to see Manziel at some point to get a further evaluation on whether he can end the team’s ongoing quest for a franchise quarterback, and having arm problems makes things even more difficult on Manziel.

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Letroy Guion’s three-game suspension is upheld

Letroy Guion AP

Packers defensive lineman Letroy Guion was suspended three games by the NFL under the substance-abuse policy. He had appeal rights under a procedure that, as of September 2014, removed final say from the league office and exported it to an external panel.

The panel has now spoken, and the appeal has been upheld — only three days after a hearing on the situation.

The league has announced that Guion will miss the first three games without pay of the 2015 regular season. He’ll be eligible to return after the September 28 game against the Chiefs. The suspension begins following the preseason finale.

Guion was arrested in February on marijuana charges. He eventually reached a plea deal in the case.

Packers linebacker Datone Jones also has been suspended for the first game of the 2015 season for violation of the substance-abuse policy.

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IK Enemkpali goes the “no comment” route, which is probably best

Buffalo Bills v Cleveland Browns Getty Images

While it’s hard to imagine what he could say to make this better, IK Enemkpali chose to play it safe this time.

According to Tyler Dunne of the Buffalo News, the Bills linebacker declined comment through a team spokesman about the bizarre catfishing story which has landed his name in the headlines again.

As we noted this morning, Enemkpali was named in a 2011 report saying he — maybe you should catch your breath here — punched a man he thought was a woman he had arranged to have sex with who now happens to be a pastor in Louisiana, allegedly breaking out two of his teeth before the imposter named “Missy Lee” tried to extort him out of $1,000.

Yeah, that’s what we thought too.

So yes, this story is lewd, lascivious, salacious, and outrageous. And it’s embarrassing for a kid who has enough to worry about without it.

At the same time, it’s at least the third time he is documented to have punched someone (along with an off-duty cop and former Jets teammate Geno Smith), which ought to be a concern for the league and perhaps the Bills beyond the prurient details of this particular story.

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Four-game suspension suggests multiple violations for Martavis Bryant in a year

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The new substance-abuse policy dramatically reduced the punishment for players who test positive for banned compounds like marijuana. Which means that more violations of the policy are now required to trigger a four-game suspension.

For Steelers receiver Martavis Bryant, the proposed four-game suspension means that the league believes he has violated the policy a second time while in Stage Two of the three-stage program.

Given the changes to the policy, the Steelers should be alarmed that Bryant already is facing a four-game suspension. It means that, only 16 months after he was drafted, he has failed to choose football over a banned substance on multiple occasions.

If he continues to not choose football over one or more banned substances, he eventually will face a 10-game suspension and, after that, a minimum suspension of one year.

The good news for the Steelers and Bryant is that, under the substance-abuse policy that was in place when Bryant joined the team, he possibly would be facing a one-year suspension now. The better news is that the new substance-abuse policy removes from Commissioner Roger Goodell or his designee final say over the punishment, with neutral arbitration available for Bryant to present any arguments he may have in support of the position that he didn’t violate the policy, this time.

Still, if he loses, Bryant could eventually be facing a one-year suspension — with a requirement to pass up to 10 tests per months in order to get reinstated.

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NFLPA, NFL say nothing unusual about number of preseason injuries

Kelvin Benjamin AP

Several teams have found themselves changing plans this preseason after seeing a key player go down with a season-ending injury and the growing number of such injuries have some people wondering if those injuries have become more prevalent.

Both the NFL and the NFL Players Association say that they haven’t. The loss of players like Jordy Nelson, Kelvin Benjamin, Orlando Scandrick, Ryan Clady and Junior Galette may leave teams shorthanded, but both the league and the union told Mark Maske of the Washington Post that there’s nothing unusual about the number of severe injuries to this point in the season.

“As a physician, your heart goes out to these guys,” NFLPA medical director Thom Mayer said. “You feel so bad for them. These guys put so much into this and it’s such a letdown for them, for their teams, for the fans. [But] as a research scientist, you have to say, ‘Let’s look at this over time.’ Statistically it doesn’t look like it’s a trend. Unless it continues at this pace for some time, it doesn’t look like anything out of the norm. But for each of these guys individually, it’s 100 percent of their experience. It’s a setback professionally and it’s very difficult personally.”

There have been coaches and others around the league that have shared their opinion that reductions in the number of practices and amount of hitting in those practices in the 2011 CBA have left players more vulnerable to injuries. Others argue that the league’s crackdown on high hits has left players at greater risk to knee injuries, but, per the league’s injury data, the number of ACL and MCL injuries has remained fairly steady in the last few years and, as we saw with Nelson and other players, many torn ACLs are non-contact injuries.

It’s still a subject that the league, union and teams should explore in order to make the game as safe as possible, but the end result may still be that playing football carries an inherent risk of injury that can’t be totally eliminated.

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