We are merely days away from training camp, and the spirit of football is in the air! The smell of freshly manicured fields as sweat drips down our foreheads is back in full, and we are all ready for some football! Our positional preview series begins with tight-end injuries and will cover all fantasy-relevant positions over the next month. Below, I will outline the tight ends who dealt with major injuries last season and will explain if you can expect those injuries to carry over into 2023.
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Pitts tops the list of tight end injuries heading into 2023. The athletic freak suffered a grade 3 MCL tear in week 11 (November 20, 2022), requiring season-ending surgery. Pitts did not participate in OTA’s or minicamps this offseason but is expected to be ready for week one.
Rehab from an MCL reconstruction can be lengthy, with the initiation of a running program typically delayed until 12-16 weeks after surgery. In fact, it often takes up to 7 months to fully return to sport! Fortunately for Pitts, he will be > nine months post-op by the start of the season and should be full go by week one.
It is a bit interesting that he did not participate at all in offseason activities. Drills, such as running routes or the footwork for blocking, are part of the final stages of rehab, and usually, teams will have their players participate in these activities with the team. Pitt’s absence from OTA’s and minicamp may have just been Atlanta’s management of his rehab rather than him being behind schedule.
With the rehab process from MCL surgery being slow, I would not be surprised if Pitt’s is not quite 100% of the athlete he was prior to injury in the first few weeks of the season, but I expect him to return his prior form before long. We do not have a great sample size of players returning from this surgery, but it is undoubtedly less involved than the infamous ACL reconstruction. Pitt’s current ADP is TE 5, 66 overall. This is fair, but I would not take him any sooner.
Ertz finds himself on the tight end injuries list as he suffered the dreaded ACL and MCL tear in week ten and underwent surgery on November 18th. The former standout tight end faces a challenging battle to return to his prior production level. I outlined the main factors contributing to a player’s ability to be ready in week one after an ACL injury a few months ago, which the Twitter thread can be seen below.
As we can see, Ertz faces challenges as all four main factors are against him. Ertz is 32 years old, which does not help with the speed of recovery. His injury was multi-ligament (ACL and MCL), both requiring surgery, slowing down the early phases of rehab. His injury was late in the season (42 weeks from surgery to week one), and while he once was an elite athlete, most would agree he no longer is.
What Ertz has going in his favor is how he has adapted his game throughout his career. Ertz is a master of finding holes in the defense and has incredibly reliable hands. These attributes do not require elite athleticism. I view Ertz’s career trajectory as likely similar to Jason Witten, who was still reliable and helpful for an NFL roster even when he lost his athleticism. Today’s fantasy football has only a handful of standout tight ends. Ertz may fit the mold of a streamable tight end this season, though I would not rely on him in the first quarter-half of the season.
Schultz was frequently on the tight end injuries list last year as he suffered a PCL injury in week two last season, limiting his production in his final year in Dallas. A grade I-II PCL injury is often treaded conservatively, which was the case for Schultz. The positive is no surgery and a quicker return to play; the downside is a high chance for re-aggravation, which is exactly what happened. Schultz only missed two games but was not nearly as productive as he was the year before, averaging only 7.6PPG compared to 10PPG the year prior.
Schultz’s production began to return to his norm in the second half of the season. With a whole offseason to continue to rehab and training, I do not expect any lingering effects from his PCL injury into 2023. Schultz signed a one-year deal in Houston this offseason. While this is a clear decline in overall team talent, I expect Houston to need to throw often, which, combined with a rookie QB, could mean a career-high in targets for the 27-year-old tight end.
Waller is no stranger to the tight end injuries list and missed a massive chunk of 2022 with a hamstring injury. He did return to finish out weeks 15-18 and is, by all reports, healthy this offseason. Waller has missed 14 games in the past two seasons and has a growing injury list, including hamstring injuries, ankle sprains, knee sprains, a thumb fracture, an AC joint sprain, and a concussion.
Waller is electric when on the field and was recently traded to the Giants, where he projects to be a major part of New York’s passing game. There’s no question the 30 year old can still play, but should we be concerned about his injury past?
I wrote a few weeks ago about factors that influence future injury. The two biggest factors are age and prior injuries. Waller is 30, which does not go in his favor, and he has a length injury history, also not in his favor. Both hamstring injuries and ankle sprains have high recurrence rates, even with a whole offseason to rehab. There’s no way to guarantee that a player will get injured or remain healthy, but Waller certainly has some factors against him. However, his ADP of TE7 and 75 overall is a perfectly fine place to take him, in my opinion.
Irv Smith’s talent has never been a question, as the Vikings used a second-round pick on Smith in 2019. Smith has shown flashes of productive ability but has struggled to stay on the field. A meniscus tear shut down his 2021 season before it started, and a grade 3 high ankle sprain disrupted a large portion of 2022. As mentioned above, prior injury is one of the major risk factors for future injury and Smith has a rapidly growing list of significant injuries.
In Smith’s favor, however, is his youth. Entering his 5th season, he is still only 24 years old (as of this writing). Youth is paramount for recovering from injury, but it also makes it easier to train modifiable factors for any pre-existininfluencing injury. Smith has had the entire off-season to train and hopefully identify any stiffness, weaknesses, or other factors that may have contributed to his lengthy injury list thus far in his career.
Smith lands in Cincinnati with a truly elite quarterback and offense. Smith will compete with arguably the best receiver room for targets and likely will not be more than a streaming, touchdown-dependent option outside of any injury to on of the star receivers.
Kincaid sat out of the combine as he recovered from a lumbar fracture suffered in Utah’s season finale. As I wrote a few months back, this is a non-issue. Fractures heal in 4-6 weeks, and this type of injury does not typically lead to mechanical changes that would influence future injury. Kincaid should be a full go for camp and enters a unique situation with one of the best quarterbacks in the game.
Kincaid’s skill set is a match made in heaven for the Bill’s offense. Stephon Diggs will be the primary target for Josh Allen, but outside of Diggs, the number two option is up for grabs. Expect the Bills to be creative with utilizing Kincaid, who many think has Travis Kelce-like potential.
Musgrave missed all but two games in his final collegiate season due to an MCL injury requiring surgery, similar to that of Kyle Pitts. Musgrave is fully rehabbed from his injury and participated in OTAs a few months back. Musgrave earned raving reviews during OTA’s, with Packer coach Lafleur saying Musgrave is “different,” hinting at his promising size and speed.
As mentioned above with Pitts, there is not a great sample size of players’ production after MCL surgery. In Musgraves’s favor is that he will be nearly a full year removed from surgery by week one and should be at 100%. I do not see this injury as one that would negatively influence Musgraves’s career outlook. While he may not warrant selecting in re-draft this year, he certainly deserves picking in dynasty and is one to keep an eye on as a potential waiver addition later in the season.