The war of attrition that is the injury front plays a part in deciding matters every NFL season, but by anyone's standards 2017 seemed particularly gruesome, with a who's who list of stars missing all or significant chunks of the season due to an assortment of physical issues.
How different might the season have been in places like Houston, Green Bay, Arizona or Miami had the picture been brighter in terms of the health of their key players, and which of those teams are ready to rebound as those recoveries take place?
If there are any meaningful topics to follow throughout the NFL's OTA period, it's how players look as they return from serious injuries after long absences last season. Those comebacks and how they unfold obviously could have a major impact on the 2018 division races, so here's a stab at the 10 most important players on the mend and what we know so far about their prospects for this season:
1. Andrew Luck, QB, Indianapolis
The state of Luck's surgically repaired throwing shoulder is easily the biggest ongoing mystery/enigma in the NFL these days, and the fact that he's still not throwing after missing all of 2017 has to be unsettling to everyone concerned, no matter what the Colts might confidently espouse. Until we see the guy with the neck beard chucking it again — accurately and with his trademark zip on the ball — nothing anyone says on the topic really matters. Luck doesn't change the entire last-place landscape in Indy with his return, but he'd improve it for sure, giving hope that the Colts bottomed out last year and are ready to rise again with an upgraded roster and the creative leadership of new head coach Frank Reich.
2. Deshaun Watson, QB, Houston
Has there ever been a starker night-and-day difference in a team's offense due to the loss of one player than the Texans with and without Watson last season? (Okay, we'll give you the 2011 Colts without Peyton Manning. Noted.) The rookie was other-worldly, throwing 19 touchdown passes in his seven games and infusing Houston with legitimate Super Bowl hopes before tearing his ACL in practice in early November. Watson has returned to the field this spring and is moving well enough for being just six-month-plus past surgery, but it remains to be seen if he'll have the same explosiveness this season that he flashed in 2017. Sometimes that kind of burst takes a while to return, and he may not look like the Watson of old right away, at least in terms of making those electrifying plays with his legs.
3. Odell Beckham Jr., WR, N.Y. Giants
The Giants were off to a dreadful start with ominous signs all around even with Beckham on the field last season. But once he broke his left ankle in Week 5 against the Chargers, New York's season went to hell in a hand basket. Beckham is doing limited work in New York's OTAs so far and reportedly is raring to run and catch at his previous game-breaking pace. All in good time, Grasshopper. The Giants aren't going to be pulling any worst-to-first in the NFC East unless they have a fully functional OBJ in the lineup in 2018. And New York can only hope it settles Beckham's contract-extension situation before it becomes a predominant story line of the season, and perhaps even leads to a training camp holdout.
4. Carson Wentz, QB, Philadelphia
It's been all hiccups and giggles for the Eagles since they pulled off the Super Bowl upset in Minneapolis in early February, but the reality is Philadelphia can't be sure it can count on its stellar third-year quarterback to be ready to defend its title from Week 1 on in 2018. Wentz will roughly be nine months past surgery in early September, and not every athlete can fully recover from a torn ACL and LCL in that time frame. It's entirely possible the first half of the season might wind up being a series of ladder rungs to climb for Wentz, with perhaps Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles again riding to the rescue until No. 11 returns to full health. Either way, the Eagles have too much talent to not be in the thick of the division race as their highly-anticipated follow-up season unfold.
5. David Johnson, RB, Arizona
Johnson last year set a goal of logging 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving, but that dream died when he suffered a season-ending wrist injury in Week 1. He has renewed his focus on the twin 1,000-yard feat this year, and there's no reason to doubt him. He's healthy, back on the field and still very much in his prime. And Arizona (8-8 in 2017) has assembled a better cast around him this season, with new head coach Steve Wilks, quarterbacks Josh Rosen and/or Sam Bradford, and rookie receiver Christian Kirk infusing the Cardinals with the aura of a fresh start. Johnson is a rare beast out of the backfield, and now he's the motivation of lost time to make up for.
6. Julian Edelman, WR, New England
Credit to the Patriots for getting to the Super Bowl last season despite losing their go-to receiver with a late-August ACL injury, but they don't want to have to face that challenge again in 2018, after trading Brandin Cooks and losing Danny Amendola to the division rival Dolphins in free agency. Edelman isn't all the way back just yet, but he should be by the time the regular season rolls around. Look for him to again be Tom Brady's favorite target and wreck havoc from the slot, giving defenses fits with his quick change of direction skills and ability to find and exploit the seams on the field.
7. Ryan Tannehill, QB, Miami
As even Tannehill this week acknowledged, it's make-or-break time for him in Miami, and that only adds to the urgency of his recovery from last year's re-injuring of his left ACL in training camp. Tannehill isn't showing any limitations thus far in OTAs, even abandoning the knee brace he has worn. But there's no getting around the fact Tannehill hasn't played a meaningful game since Week 14 of 2016, and now he'll have to resume control of a new-look Dolphins offense that's without familiar faces like receiver Jarvis Landry, running back Jay Ajayi, tight end Jordan Cameron, and linemen Mike Pouncey and Branden Albert. Miami is hoping a return to playoff-season form of 2016 by Tannehill, combined with the arrival of new cogs Danny Amendola, Albert Wilson, Daniel Kilgore and Josh Sitton will be enough to return them to AFC East contention. But if the Dolphins' bet is wrong, it'll be Tannehill on the move next offseason.
8. J.J. Watt, DE, Houston
Who knows if we'll ever again see the likes of the Watt who once dominated the league's Defensive Player of the Year award, winning it three times in the four-year span of 2012-2015? Watt has played in just eight games the past two seasons, registering a paltry 1.5 sacks and looking like a player whose body has betrayed him. He's got a history of back and leg injuries to deal with, and those aren't body parts that generally trend upward once they've been seriously hurt. If he's right again physically, Watt could push the Texans defense over the top and toward greatness. He's said to be moving well this spring and on his way toward a full recovery, but his speed and strength were always special, and it remains to be seen if they have both returned.
9. Dalvin Cook, RB, Minnesota
In that most over-used of terms, the Vikings say Cook is "ahead of schedule'' in his recovery from the torn ACL he suffered in Week 4 of last season. Let's hope so, because Minnesota needs his game-changing skill set if it's to improve upon last year's NFC title game loss, reaching the Super Bowl for the first time in 42 years. The Vikings had one of the league's leading Offensive Rookie of the Year candidates in Cook in the season's first month last year, and the tandem of Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon never truly compensated for Cook's loss. McKinnon left for San Francisco in free agency, making it all the more important for Minnesota to have Cook stay healthy for his entire second NFL season. By training camp, we should know if he's ready to carry the load.
10. (Tie) Richard Sherman, CB, San Francisco and Eric Berry, S, Kansas City
We're going with both veteran defenders, who each tore a Achilles tendon last season and face a season of trying to recover their speed and explosiveness while playing a position that demands good wheels. Berry was hurt in Week 1 and is pretty far ahead of Sherman's rehab timetable, given that the ex-Seahawk went down in early November. Sherman is only jogging this spring, but hopes to be full speed and ready to impress his new 49ers teammates by training camp. Berry is the key to a defensive bounce-back in Kansas City, and all signs point to him being ready to resume his role as one of the NFL's most consistent and proven defensive backs.