Cleveland Browns safety Grant Delpit saw his 2020 season come to an end almost before it had truly begun.
As soon as Delpit, the team’s second-round selection in the 2020 NFL Draft, suffered a torn Achilles tendon during a training camp practice in late August, it was clear he was done for the year.
While there was never a high risk that Delpit would not return this season, there has been a legitimate concern that he would not return as the same player.
A 2011 study in the Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy looked at the impact on players from 1997 to 2002 who suffered an Achilles injury and discovered that there could be a long-term impact:
Unfortunately, these injuries likely represent career-altering and often career-ending events for professional athletes, as one third of the players who sustain an Achilles tendon rupture in the NFL never return back to competition. The remaining two thirds, who are able to return back to play in the NFL following Achilles tendon repair, require approximately 11 months of rehabilitation. Moreover, these returning players experience a greater than 50% reduction in their power ratings, which is a measure of performance using statistics gathered during game play (eg, passing and rushing yards for an offensive player and tackles and interceptions for a defensive player).
That is not promising; however, there have been medical advances since that study was published that might put Delpit’s situation in a more positive light.
Stephen Holder at The Athletic recently took a look at the situation with the Indianapolis Colts, who lost running back Marlon Mack and safety Malik Hooker to torn Achilles last season, selected Dayo Odeyingbo in the second round of the 2021 NFL Draft even though he suffered an Achilles prior to the draft, and signed left tackle Eric Fisher in free agency despite Fisher tearing his Achilles in the AFC Championship Game.
Holder spoke with several orthopedic specialists about the nature of the injuries and one positive takeaway is that the rehab process for Achilles injuries has improved in recent years, according to Dr. Tim Kremchek, an orthopedic surgeon and the medical director for the Cincinnati Reds:
“The way it used to be 10 years ago is that coming back from an Achilles took 11 or 12 months. Now, it seems, the sooner you push them, you could be looking at a six- to eight-month period. It depends on the position you play and how your rehab goes. But it can be six to eight months, which is accelerated by 50 percent. And the results have been just as good.
The key to that is we used to put people in casts or boots for six to eight weeks after an Achilles tear just to let it heal. Well, they would atrophy, get weak and take forever getting their strength and power back. Now, 72 hours after surgery we’re already doing range-of-motion exercises and it tends to heal faster. So, yes, there is a faster return because of quicker, more aggressive rehab after surgery, and doing the surgical procedure relatively quickly after the injury rather than waiting.”
Another key indicator is how quickly players hit certain milestones in their rehab. While it is not a hard-and-fast rule, having full range of motion and being able to walk normally after three months is a positive sign, according to Kremchek:
“What happens at three months is, No. 1, (you can tell) what’s the strength of the Achilles and what’s the length. The biggest problem you have with fixing an Achilles is that you have to fix it at the right length. If you fix it and it heals and it’s too long, you might never have the power and the push-off strength. It’s very difficult to get back to that level. But by three months, you can tell whether they’ve got the proper length and the proper healing process to give you a better prognosis. If you don’t have that, then the chance of recovering at the same level is going to be much less.”
It is not clear where Delpit was at the three-month mark, a story on the team’s website from November 10, 2020 - roughly 10 weeks into his rehab - reported that Delpit was still in a “big walking boot” and was only able to do upper-body workouts. But, again, having full range of motion at the three-month mark is just one step in the process, so drawing any negative conclusions here is likely not justified.
The biggest takeaway is that the injured player’s position matters. Linemen like Fisher and Odeyingbo have a bit of an easier time because their roles do not require as much jumping or twisting, for example, as some other positions.
That might be a concern for someone playing the safety position, as Dr. Jan Szatkowski, an orthopedic surgeon at IU Health in Indianapolis and an assistant professor at Indiana University School of Medicine, pointed out:
“It’s not only the sport-specific. It’s position-specific. I get very concerned when a running back has this type of injury because of the amount of cutting they do, the quick moves that they need to do. That’s what the research has shown. Players like linebackers and running backs, though they can still return to the sport, they tend to not be the same as they were prior to the injury.”
The news out of Berea about Delpit’s rehab has consistently been positive and after participating on a limited basis during voluntary OTAs and the mandatory minicamp, he is expected to be ready to go when training camp opens in late July.
That is all positive, as it the fact that over the past five years, according to Kremchek, more than 80 percent of NFL players have returned from Achilles injuries and their long-term prospects appear to be good.
Which is good news for Delpit and the Browns.