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Are the Jaguars Set at Defensive Tackle?

Many Jacksonville Jaguars fans feel like the Jaguars are set at the defensive tackle position. While the starting pair of Terrance Knighton and Tyson Alualu look like a nice young core that will be a very good pair as they mature, the depth behind them is a bit concerning. Leger Douzable, who saw lots of playing time last season, is a 2011 free agent. To my knowledge, he was not retained but that doesn't mean he won't be brought back. Nate Collins, a combination defensive lineman is a 2011 exclusive rights free agent, but again has yet to be retained. C.J. Mosley is under contract through the 2011 season and saw limited action in 8 games in 2010.

But, the Jaguars drafted D'Anthony Smith in the 3rd round of the 2010 NFL Draft, so they're good right?

Not so fast.

On August 2nd 2010, in the very beginning of training camp, rookie defensive tackle D'Anthony Smith tore his achilles tendon and was lost for the entire season. We never really got to saw what D'Anthony Smith was, as far as the caliber of player as a rookie. It seems many fans are of the opinion that getting D'Anthony Smith back will bolster the defensive line and pass rush, as his ability was akin to a penetrating defensive tackle.

The problem however, is that achilles tendon injuries are usually devestating to a player, especially if their biggest asset is quickness of the snap of the football. Not many players fully recover from this type of injury.

According to Lower Extremity Review, a magazine dedicated to lower extremity issues for practicing doctors, only 2/3 of current NFL players come back from a torn achilles tendon, and those who do have their abilities significantly reduced.

Compared to the general population, athletes in the National Football League (NFL) are at increased risk for injury because the game involves explosive acceleration and sudden changes in direction. Very little is known about the epidemiology of Achilles tendon ruptures in the NFL. Utilizing data publicly available on the Internet, one retrospective review identified 31 Achilles tendon ruptures in NFL players over a five-year period (5.2 injuries/year). During the 2008-2009 NFL season, six players suffered season-ending Achilles tendon ruptures. Although the incidence of Achilles rupture is low, 0.93% per NFL game, nearly 36% of affected players never return to playing at the NFL level.

Parekh et al used a player's power rating as a measure of functional outcome in the evaluation of "skill players" in the NFL, which included defensive tackles, cornerbacks, linebackers, wide receivers, and running backs. The power rating is a measure of a player's performance using statistics gathered during game play, such as passing and rushing yards for an offensive player and tackles and interceptions for a defensive player. This study showed that 31 acute Achilles tendon ruptures occurred in NFL players between 1997 and 2002. The average age of a player sustaining a rupture was 29, with an average career before injury spanning six years.

Of the 31 players who sustained an Achilles tendon rupture, 21 (64%) returned to play in the NFL at an average of 11 months after injury. In the three seasons following their return, those 21 players saw significant decreases in games played and power ratings compared to the three seasons preceding the injury.

So, according to the study conducted by Khalid Shirzad, MD; John D. Hewitt, MD; and Carter Kiesau, MD (orthopaedic surgeons at Duke University) and Selene G. Parekh, MD, MBA (associate professor of surgery at Duke University), the likelyhood of D'Anthony Smith to return to what he was drafted to be is very, very slim.

Jacksonville Jaguars fans aren't new to achilles injuries and their effects, either. Reggie Hayward, who was signed as a high profile defensive end free agent prior to the 2005 season, suffered an achilles rupture in the first game of the 2006 season. He was naturally lost for the year, and never even came close to being the same player he was prior to the injury. Hayward had 8.5 sacks in the 2005 season and just 9 sacks total in the next three seasons he played following his injury. While the sack total doesn't prove his lack of ability returning from his injury totally, you could tell he was not the same player just watching him in practice and on the field during games. It wasn't for a lack of effort, but the injury just limited Hayward's biggest strength, his explosive off the snap of the football. Hayward also wound up missing 19 games from 2007-2009 and was released following OTA's in the 2010 off-season.

Am I trying to say D'Anthony Smith will wind up being a total waste of a 3rd round draft pick? Not necessarily, but it will be something to keep in the back of your mind on draft day and if/when free agency starts. The Jaguars are slim at the defensive tackle position as it stands if they plan on running the 4-3 defense predominantly during the 2011 season, even with Smith returning. But, if the Jaguars spend a high pick or two on a defensive tackle, it could mean they're also very concerned with how Smith will recover. All indications from the Jaguars however is that Smith is on-track for a full recovery, but I'd expect them to say no different in March.