Philadelphia Eagles: The likelihood of full recovery for rookie Sidney Jones

Oct 22, 2016; Seattle, WA, USA; Washington Huskies defensive back Sidney Jones (26) in action against the Oregon State Beavers during the first quarter at Husky Stadium. Washington won 41-17. Mandatory Credit: Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 22, 2016; Seattle, WA, USA; Washington Huskies defensive back Sidney Jones (26) in action against the Oregon State Beavers during the first quarter at Husky Stadium. Washington won 41-17. Mandatory Credit: Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports /

Recent changes in the treatment of Achilles injuries bodes well for Philadelphia Eagles rookie Sidney Jones–but will he see the field in 2017?

They say it feels like someone kicked you in the back of the ankle. Jones himself likened it to a stray pass hitting his lower leg. Regardless of how it feels, the diagnosis isn’t tough. You can’t put any weight on the leg. Squeeze the calf, and the tendon doesn’t contract; the foot doesn’t move.

You’ve ruptured your Achilles.

Primarily responsible for plantar flexion (downward movement of the foot),  the Achilles is most often torn by sudden, forward explosion from either a backpedal or stationary stance. All of the weight rests on one foot, with a fully flexed Achilles. The rapid onset of stress tears the tendon directly in the middle, not from the heel at the bottom.

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Sidney Jones’ tear was just so: textbook. On a routine backpedal during his Pro Day, Jones dug his left foot into the dirt to change direction, and his Achilles just wasn’t having it.

Stray pass; clean rupture; tumble out of the first round.

It’s a familiar story to many Philadelphia Eagles fans–the second chapter is no stranger, either. Jones fell into the middle of the second round, after two less-talented, but healthier teammates from the Huskies secondary left the board before him. But when corner-needy Philadelphia hit the clock at #43, the slide of Sidney Jones stopped.

And the speculation began.

As Jones told USA Today following his injury, his doctors said he could play at the beginning of the season. His surgeon, the renowned Robert Anderson, cited a six-month recovery period that could have Jones ready in the beginning of September. Others, who perhaps aren’t as financially invested in Jones’ recovery, have differing opinions.

Eagles fans would certainly rather see Jones start sooner over later. The question is, will he?

Mini-Open Surgery and Recent Successes in the NFL

As mentioned previously, the Achilles injury is a menacing one. According to a study of NFL players’ return from Achilles injury across 1997-2002, one out of every three athletes never made it back to the NFL. Of those who did, the average player experienced a decrease of their power rating (a conglomerate stat of their positional production) of over 50%. They weren’t half as good when they returned; they were worse–and, on average, they played in about 40% fewer games per season, as well. According to Inside the Pylon, players with previous Achilles tears have a 3-5% chance of re-tearing, compared to a <1% chance for healthy athletes.

So…that’s bad.

But recent innovations in Achilles surgery have led to an uptick in success stories for the NFL. Both Jason Peters and Terrell Suggs were over 30 when they tore their Achilles tendons, and both returned successfully (though Suggs has seen a performance drop after rushing back from injury). Demaryius Thomas returned to football activity in about six months and has made multiple Pro Bowls since. Cameron Wake put together a 2016 season that many believe warranted a Comeback Player of the Year.

Leon Hall and Brent Grimes, both NFL cornerbacks, injured their Achilles. Hall tore both tendons, and has since returned to NFL play; Grimes tore only the one and bounced back to three consecutive Pro Bowl berths.

The story of Grimes is particularly interesting. He was one of the first NFL players to take advantage of mini-open Achilles surgery. A relatively new procedure, it minimizes the incision made during surgery, and thereby also minimizes scarring, wound infection, and (arguably) recovery time.

Jones’ surgeon, Robert Anderson, helped author a paper on the technique in 2014 and performed it on Jones in March. As the paper says, every athlete who underwent mini-open surgery made it back to NFL play. The average return length was 273 days (about nine months). One player made it back in five and a half.

Now, given the surgery’s youth, data measuring performance levels pre- and post-mini-open surgery is limited. That being said, to this date, there have been no examples of re-ruptures, nerve damage, or any issues with incision healing. What was previously an11-month return timetable has dropped down to nine. And the success stories (Steve Smith, Demaryius Thomas, Cameron Wake, Brent Grimes) keep piling up.

Sidney Jones might just add his name to the list.

Philadelphia Eagles
Nov 27, 2015; Seattle, WA, USA; Washington Huskies defensive back Sidney Jones (26) breaks up a pass intended for Washington State Cougars wide receiver Gabe Marks (9) during the third quarter at Husky Stadium. The Huskies won 45-10. Mandatory Credit: Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports /

2017 Return

There is, in my opinion, even more reason to be optimistic with Jones. For one, at 20 years old, he’s younger than any NFL player who tore their Achilles. For another, he has no significant leg or ankle injury history. All signs point to Jones making a full, successful recovery–but not so fast.

How the Philadelphia Eagles approach his timetable, the 2017 season and their roster will determine whether or not he redshirts.

Assuming the average return window (9 months) framed by Anderson’s study, Jones could see action around the middle of November. Philly’s bye falls on Week 10, the weekend of November 12th, before they head to Dallas in Week 11 for a Sunday Night game on the 19th. The Philadelphia Eagles may find themselves in competitive standing in the NFC East. They may be in desperate need of cornerback help. They may just want to see Jones play. If he returns in 2017, circle Week 11 against Dallas as a likely target date.

However, as PhillyVoice’s Jimmy Kempski astutely notes, cap wizard Howie Roseman may have never intended to play Jones this season. Kempski goes into more detail in his post, which I highly recommend, but in short: If Jones plays less than six weeks this season, at the end of his four-year rookie deal, Jones will become a restricted free agent. Should he play anymore, he’d be an unrestricted free agent. In 2021, if Jones were a restricted free agent, the Eagles would have the ability to place first- or second-round tenders on Jones, lowering his price tag considerably, and ensuring his departure with draft collateral should another team sign him.

In a month or two, Jones will shed his boot and walk without assistance. However, even his most optimistic outlooks have him missing a few weeks before he reacquires his full, NFL-level athleticism. Having brought in a 2017 class clearly oriented on winning later, not winning now, the Philadelphia Eagles may forego Jones’ rookie season, stash him on the PUP/NFI list, and save themselves a bit of money down the road.

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Whether Jones sees midnight green in 2017 is a storyline worth following, but for now, it’s immaterial. His recovery and return to first-round form should be the priority for Philadelphia. Considering his youth, his surgery, and his flexible timetable, I believe the future is bright for Sidney Jones.