Why you should care

Because a ruptured heel can topple a top NFL draft pick.

Sidney Jones was seen as a lock for the first round of this week’s NFL draft. But on March 11, as the University of Washington cornerback was running his final drill on pro day, scouts and others in the building heard a pop and watched Jones tumble to the turf with what turned out to be a ruptured Achilles tendon. In that fraction of a second, Jones’ draft stock plummeted. He had suffered an injury that has claimed the careers of many NFLers, making it difficult to fend off a creeping fear that the second-team All-American’s full potential might never be realized.

From 2011 to 2015, 46 NFL players reported they had torn an Achilles tendon; 24 of them never played again professionally or retired shortly after.

Among the most prominent cases in that time period were Beanie Wells (Cardinals/Ravens running back), Vick Ballard (Colts running back), Fred Davis (Redskins tight end) and former Jets top cornerback prospect Dee Milliner. The question on the minds of many football observers is, “Will Jones be able to return to top form?” It’s the same question facing a trio of current NFL linebackers who have been felled by an Achilles injury — NaVorro Bowman (49ers), Manti Te’o (Saints) and Junior Galette (Redskins).

One of the most devastating injuries in sports, a torn Achilles tendon is “the new ACL,” according to David Chao, an orthopedic surgeon who was the San Diego Chargers team doctor from 1997 to 2013. “It’s the dreaded A’s,” says Chao. “Every coach knows Achilles and ACL. They’re both season-enders, and both need surgery. Everybody knows when you say those words, what it means.” How do players like Jones, Bowman or Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs, who has suffered the injury twice but managed to return both times, tear the tendon?

“Players get bigger, faster, stronger, but my Achilles is essentially the same size as Suggs’,” Chao explains. “No matter how hard he trains, his ACL and Achilles will not get any bigger, but the rest of his body will. You’re planting a bigger plant, bush or tree into the same-size pot. It is a physiologic weak point as we get bigger, faster and stronger.” The other issue with a torn Achilles, Chao says, is not that you may re-aggravate the same tendon, but that athletes are at a higher risk to rupture the other Achilles tendon because of bilateral movements. “If your right front shock goes out,” he says, “the chances are your left front shock is going out soon.”

Take heart, Sidney — a torn Achilles is not necessarily the end of the road. According to a 2016 study published in The American Journal of Sports Medicine, 73 percent of players sidelined with Achilles tears returned to the game. A number of factors come into play, including age and position. Bowman’s former 49ers teammate, wide receiver Michael Crabtree, tore his Achilles in 2013 and now plays for Oakland. Despite being relatively ineffective in 2013-14, Crabtree has been a top Raiders target for the past two seasons, scoring 17 touchdowns. If the player is worth keeping around, he most likely will return. “There’s no guarantee that they’ll come back,” says Chao, “but that’s sort of become the expectation.”

Manti Te'o

Manti Te’o missed 13 games after sustaining an Achilles injury during a game against the Indianapolis Colts on Sept. 25, 2016.

Source Andy Lyons / Getty

That’s all good news for Jones. Chao’s take is that the former Husky probably will not be as productive in 2017, but he’ll be fine in the long run, just as Crabtree, Demaryius Thomas (Broncos wide receiver) and Brent Grimes (Buccaneers cornerback) have been in their post-Achilles-injury careers. If so, Jones may be back to being the first-round draft prospect he was on the morning of March 11 — and that’s about as good as any cornerback in recent drafts.

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