NFL injury mailbag: Tee Higgins’ hamstring history, looking ahead to Kyren Williams’ return and more

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In this week’s column, Greg Scholz warns of Tee Higgins’ troublesome hamstring history, weighs in on how spry Kyren Williams might be in his potential Week 12 return … and more.

Before we dive in, here’s a quick glossary of terms commonly used by Inside Injuries:

  • IRC = Injury Risk Category (three designations: “Low,” “Elevated,” “High”) — the overall likelihood a player will get injured
  • HPF = Health Performance Factor (Peak, Above Average, Below Average, Poor) — our metric to predict player performance
  • ORT = Optimal Recovery Time — the amount of time a player needs to fully recover from an injury (not the same as how much time they will actually miss).

Q: What is going on with Tee Higgins? Usually hamstrings are multi-week problems, and he’s out for this week, for sure. For a contract year, this feels like a horrible time for him. — Ethan T.

You’re not wrong, it’s an incredibly bad time for him. Between the previous rib injury, poor quarterback play early in the season, and now the hamstring strain, his production has been limited since Week 1. Additionally, this is not his first hamstring strain, which only makes things worse from an outlook perspective.

Higgins’ history with hamstring strains dates back to his college days at Clemson. Our first cataloged Higgins hamstring strain was in 2019, with additional instances coming in 2020, 2021, and 2022. If you’re new to the mailbag, that is an alarming trend.

What was working in Higgins’ favor when it came to these occurrences was the fact that he rarely missed time. It still makes him a bit of an anomaly — most injuries came late in the season, and like you pointed out, most of the time this is a multi-week injury —  but it’s a trend that is unlikely to continue.

Our data suggests an Optimal Recovery Time of 35 days for Higgins, meaning we anticipate a multi-week absence. Hamstring injuries do not heal well during the season unless the player is given adequate time to recover (more info in the Justin Jefferson Q&A below). With Higgins’ injury history, Cincinnati would be wrong to try and treat this like an isolated incident and rush him back.

Once Higgins returns, his Injury Risk will be High and his Health Performance Factor should be in the Above Average range. If he’s able to log multiple full practices as he ramps up his recovery, that HPF could end up in Peak territory.

Q: Is Kyren Williams coming back in Week 12? Is he at a high risk of injuring his ankle again? Sean McVay said he’s intrigued to see what Zach Evans can do the second part of the season. — Mark D.

Kyren Williams appears to be trending towards a return in Week 12, yes. Additionally, his Injury Risk will be Elevated, which is more comfortable than him being in High territory. That said, there are still some factors that we will be paying attention to when he returns.

Williams excels when he creates space laterally, so one of the first things we’ll look at is how he uses his lower half when he returns. High-ankle sprains involve damage to the ligaments that connect the tibia and the fibula. When these ligaments are sprained, there is instability in the leg and ankle. Generally, we see more pronounced instability with side-to-side, or lateral, movements. If the ankle isn’t healed fully, it’s unlikely Williams will be able to comfortably cut, juke, or pivot easily, which would limit production and potentially increase his Injury Risk.

Beyond that, we’ll want to look at how he gets involved in the passing game. It’s a smaller factor, but considering how the Rams have used him thus far, it’s a consideration. If he’s exclusively running simple routes, or not running routes at all, we’ll have to evaluate if it’s because the injury is limiting him or if the Rams are simply keeping his usage down to mitigate risk.

All things considered, Williams is in a good spot. He’s reached Optimal Recovery and his Health Performance Factor is Peak. As for Evans, we don’t anticipate him playing a major role with Williams back, Ronnie Rivers returning soon, and both Darrell Henderson and Royce Freeman looking serviceable in the meantime.

Q: Does Justin Jefferson’s injury affect his rest-of-season outlook? Should he be treated like he was at the beginning of the season? — Findlay M.

Yes, this injury does affect Jefferson’s rest-of-season outlook. No, he shouldn’t be treated like he was at the beginning of the season. Those might come across as negative answers, but there is a lot to be optimistic about.

I’ve raved about how the Vikings have handled Jefferson’s hamstring injury. Additionally, Jefferson himself seems to be taking it very seriously. He’s taking his time in his recovery and has been adamant that he won’t return until he’s feeling 100% healthy.

With that in mind, hamstring strains require a lot more attention than other soft tissue injuries. The hamstrings muscles play such a large role in a player like Jefferson’s success that they need to be treated slowly and methodically when injured so that nothing is missed. If rehab is rushed, you’re essentially setting the player up for a career full of hamstring injuries. If the rehab is slow, steady, and precise, you can mitigate a lot of risk moving forward.

So with Jefferson, all signs point to the Vikings employing the second method I laid out. Why is his outlook affected then? Simply put, it comes down to the data. These injuries impact performance, availability, or both. When it comes to availability, Minnesota might put Jefferson on a snap count in the first few weeks after he returns. As for performance, it could be route running, it could be yards after the catch, or it could be willingness to stretch out for a ball.

To close things out, provided Jefferson doesn’t suffer a setback, he’s trending excellently for 2024. Despite how good his recovery has looked, his Injury Risk will be High for the remainder of the season. His Health Performance Factor will be in Above Average territory for the first few weeks, and if things look good, will rise back up into Peak.

Q: Any thoughts on Zach Ertz and Dawson Knox returning, and the subsequent effect on Trey McBride and Dalton Kincaid? — Colin W.

Given Ertz’ age and the injury being to his quad, he’ll return with a High Injury Risk. His Optimal Recovery Time is 11 days from the time of writing, so he should be back once his stint on IR is up. Knox, on the other hand, has 22 days left until he reaches Optimal Recovery, so we expect he’ll be out a little longer. His Injury Risk will be Elevated when he returns.

Despite the difference in Optimal Recovery Times and Injury Risk, both guys do look to have been adequately replaced by their respective teams, so their production is likely to take a hit.

Trey McBride has been a great replacement for Ertz, racking up 131 yards in Kyler Murray’s first game back. Meanwhile, Kincaid and Josh Allen have started to develop some solid chemistry and he’s looking like the better second option in that offense behind Stefon Diggs.

Overall, Ertz is the more likely to see a steep drop off. Knox still has plenty of production potential, and his injury shouldn’t limit him too much, but Buffalo used a first round pick on Kincaid for a reason and it looks like they’re realizing that.

Q: De’Von Achane should return from IR this week. Do we expect a performance dip coming off his injury or will he be 100%? — Greg G.

A small dip is expected, but you shouldn’t give up all hope. Achane’s early production was a statistical outlier that was unlikely to continue at that same rate. Coupled with a high-ankle sprain, we anticipate he’ll put up some slightly less impressive box scores as he ramps back up.

I touched on it a little with my Kyren Williams response, but high-ankle sprains tend to affect guys with lateral ability a little bit more than runners who rely on pure strength. In the first week(s) back, you might see Achane be a little more hesitant to cut through a gap or he may opt to get out of bounds rather than try to evade an incoming defender. All of that is normal.

His Health Performance Factor is in a good spot (Peak) considering he had an extra week to recover, but his Injury Risk will remain High for the time being.

Q: What’s the prognosis on Matthew Stafford’s thumb? Thanks so much for your work. — Alex B.

It’s my pleasure, Alex. Thanks for reading!

Stafford has been dealing with a UCL (ulnar collateral ligament) sprain in his right thumb, which plays a key role in his ability to grip the ball correctly. The good news is that mild cases, like what Stafford is dealing with, heal well with minimal intervention (nor surgery, a splint tends to get the job done).

He’s been able to practice all week without limitations, so all signs are pointing towards him starting in Week 11 against Seattle. The most important thing to look for when he does play is his ability to control the ball, however the strength of his throws will be important as well. Basically, if he can throw the ball accurately and with some zip on it, he’s good to go.

(Photo of Tee Higgins: Kareem Elgazzar-USA TODAY Sports)

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