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Is Terrell Suggs' Injury Career Threatening?: A Statistical Analysis of Achilles Tendon Tears in NFL Players

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Dr. Bobby performs a statistical analysis of athletic performance following Achilles tendon ruptures in prominent NFL defensive lineman and linebackers.

Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

Last week I wrote an article that provided an overview of Terrell Suggs'  injury as well as the impact it could have on his career moving forward. I also discussed a research study that examined Achilles tendon ruptures in NFL athletes. The authors concluded that only two-thirds of players ever come back, and those that do ultimately experience a drastic decline in their performance. These findings appear to paint a pretty bleak picture for Suggs' future. However, there are a few things that should be considered before accepting such a claim.

First of all, the study examined athletes from 1997-2002. There is no doubt that rehabilitation methods have improved since then and it's likely that surgical interventions have as well. Second, the article does not specify what positions the involved athletes played. It's possible that players at certain positions have a harder time regaining their NFL form compared to players at other positions. Lastly, the authors do not discuss the experience or level of accomplishment of the involved players. Certainly an established or Pro-Bowl caliber player has greater odds of playing again and making a roster than those that are reserves or relatively unproven.

So in order to obtain a clearer picture of the impact that Suggs' injury may have on his career, I looked to perform a statistical analysis of players that fit the following criteria:

1. Suffered a torn Achilles between 2005 and 2013

2. Played linebacker, defensive end, or defensive tackle

3. Been named a Pro-Bowler or been a starter for at least 5 years

I searched and found eight players that met each of these conditions. I then assessed four different variables (games played, tackles, sacks, forced/recovered fumbles) and calculated career averages for prior to the season they got injured (labeled "1" in chart) and for seasons after they returned from injury (labeled "2" in chart). From there I determined the difference in percentage for each player as well as an average for all the players combined. The results can be seen below:

PLAYER

POSITION

YEAR OF INJURY

GAMES PLAYED 1

GAMES PLAYED 2

TAKLES 1

TAKLES 2

SACKS 1

SACKS 2

FF/FR 1

FF/FR 2

Takeo Spikes

LB

2005

15.857

15.000

(-5.41%)

112.286

88.571

(-21.13%)

2.786

1.214

(-56.43%)

3.428

1.000

(-70.83%)

LaVar Arrington

LB

2006

13.167

0.000

(-100%)

65.833

0.000

(-100%)

3.750

0.000

(-100%)

2.833

0.000

(-100%)

Greg Ellis

DE

2006

15.500

14.333

(-7.53%)

49.750

32.000

(-35.68%)

6.500

9.167

(+41.03%)

2.875

2.333

(-18.86%)

DeMeco Ryans

LB

2010, 2014*

16.000

14.000

(-12.50%)

129.750

87.250

(-32.76%)

1.875

1.250

(-33.33%)

3.250

0.250

(-92.31%)

Bryan Thomas

LB

2011

15.667

12.000

(-23.41%)

44.889

24.000

(-46.54%)

3.444

2.500

(-27.41%)

1.444

0.000

(-100%)

Jon Beason

LB

2011

16.000

5.750

(-64.07%)

135.250

35.750

(-73.57%)

1.000

0.000

(-100%)

1.750

0.000

(-100%)

Terrell Suggs

LB

2012, 2015*

15.667

16.000

(+ 2.13%)

62.889

70.500

(+12.10%)

9.167

11.000

(+19.99%)

4.111

1.000

(-75.68%)

Vince Wilfork

DT

2013

15.333

16.000

(+ 4.35%)

51.111

47.000

(-8.05%)

1.778

0.000

(-100%)

1.778

0.000

(-100%)

-25.81%

-38.20%

-44.52%

-82.21%

* = subsequent tear; not included in statistical analysis

As you can see, the prognosis following an Achilles rupture is not a favorable one. These findings show that, on average, prominent NFL defensive lineman/linebackers experience a 25.81% decrease in games played, a 38.20% decrease in tackles, a 44.52% decrease in sacks, and a 82.21% decrease in fumbles forced and recovered. Of the players listed, only one (LaVar Arrington) was unable to return to play in the league. Still, seemingly every player but Suggs experienced a substantial drop-off in performance.

I could only identify five other NFL players who have suffered 2+ Achilles tears and most have occurred so recently that there is not enough data to evaluate their subsequent performance (Leon Hall, DeAngelo Hall, Ronald Curry, DeMeco Ryans, Anthony McCoy). However, if the data above tells us anything, if there's one guy who can successfully come back, it's Terrell Suggs.

- Bobby Esbrandt, PT, DPT, PES