For all the excitement generated by the news that hit in the wee hours of Tuesday morning, the Bears' top two receivers in 2018 are still working their way back from torn ACLs suffered last year.
Cameron Meredith tore his ACL in a preseason game against the Tennessee Titans on Aug. 27, 2017. Two weeks later, on the third play of the season, Allen Robinson tore his ACL against the Houston Texans. Both players missed the remainder of the 2017 season following their injuries.
Robinson says he'll be fully cleared for training camp, and the Bears hope the same will be the case for Meredith. Getting both players as many practice reps with Mitch Trubisky is key, given Robinson was with a different team a year ago and Meredith's only chance to fully practice with Trubisky came leading up to that third preseason game against the Titans.
"We’re going to try and get together as much as we can in the offseason," Meredith said in January. "Try and make up for the lost time. I’m excited to just to get in rhythm with him, come practice time."
All of that will be part of the Bears' efforts to improve the team around Trubisky. Having his two best receivers coming off ACL surgery seems risky, but recent history shows it may not be as risky as it may sound.
This comes with the caveat that every injury is different and every recovery is different. But since 2013, there have been 34 wide receivers who have suffered a torn ACL. We're crossing out 13 of those players, most of whom played only a handful of games in the NFL and aren't comparable to Meredith or Robinson. So that leaves us with this list of 20 players who we can use to can compare pre-ACL tear performace and post-ACL tear performance.
To keep the stats even, we're using Pro Football Reference's 16-game average, even though some of these players didn't play in every single game after returning. But it's an even benchmark for comparing production in this case. On to the table:
Of these 20 receivers, six never made it back from their torn ACLs. Domenik Hixon and Danario Alexander each had suffered multiple torn ACLs/knee injuries prior to their career-enders, while Sidney Rice decided to retire due to multiple concussions. Stephen Hill is the outlier here age-wise, but the former second-round pick wasn't particulary effective prior to his injury. The average age of when these six players tore their ACLs is 27.2 years old.
Seven players (Vincent Jackson, Kelvin Benjamin, Louis Murphy, Jordan Norwood, Arrelious Benn, Reggie Wayne and Leonard Hankerson) returned from their torn ACLs and saw their production decline. Jackson and Wayne were in the mid-30's when they tore their ACLs, while Murphy, Norwood, Benn and Hankerson were varying levels of productive before suffering their respective injuries, and they didn't play much after getting hurt. Benjamin's effectiveness declined, but not sharply until after he returned with 63 catches for 941 yards and seven touchdowns his first year back off the ACL tear. The average age of when these seven players tore their ACLs is 28.4. Among these 13 players who were either out of football or saw their production decline, the average age of when they suffered their injury is 27.8.
So that leaves seven players who saw their production improve after returning from tearing an ACL: Keenan Allen, Jaron Brown, Jordy Nelson, Paul Richardson, Jeremy Maclin, Charles Johnson and Travis Benjamin. We'll leave Johnson, who tore his ACL before his NFL debut, out of this argument for the moment. So narrowing it down to Allen, Brown, Nelson, Richardson, Maclin and Benjamin, we come up with this: Those six players saw an average increase of 26.8 targets, 12.3 receptions, 196.8 yards and 1.8 touchdowns in their 16-game averages.
And here's maybe the most important number: Those six players suffered an ACL tear when they were, on average, 25.2 years old. Meredith turns 26 in September; Robinson turns 25 in August.
Does this guarantee that Robinson will get back to his pre-ACL tear level of production (143 targets, 75 receptions, 1,060 yards, 8 TDs)? Or what about Meredith, who caught 66 of 97 targets for 888 yards and four touchdowns in 2016? Not exactly. But if you're looking for some reason to be optimistic the Bears' bet on Robinson will pay off alongside Meredith this fall, recent history could be it.