2021 hasn’t been kind to the Detroit Lions, especially when it comes to injuries and their star players. Defensive starters Jeff Okudah and Romeo Okwara each suffered season-ending Achilles injuries, in Weeks 1 and 4 respectively, and recent medical studies suggest a long road to recovery for each.
Achilles injuries were once thought to be career-ending, but as often happens in the medical field, progress has been steadily improving and the prognosis is much more optimistic.
In fact, in recent years there have been several cases among NFL players where they have returned to the field with relatively no setbacks, including Demaryius Thomas, Jason Peters, Terrell Suggs, Vince Wilfork, as well as former Lion Kerry Hyder and current Lion Jashon Cornell.
Three years ago, when I was writing for Lions Wire, I researched Hyder’s situation and examined his potential recovery time. In that piece, I cited a 2018 study of NFL players who had suffered Achilles injuries that noted players were recovering at a faster rate than what we had seen just a decade earlier and the career-ending percentages were dropping.
In the three and a half years since I wrote this piece about Hyder, he has seen an increasingly common career arc of recovery.
In 2018, the season following his injury, Hyder saw limited action with the Lions, playing in just seven games that season—though it’s worth noting that the Lions hired Matt Patricia that offseason, and Hyder was not a solid fit with the scheme. In 2019, Hyder signed with the Dallas Cowboys and played in all 16 games. In 2020, Hyder started 14 of the 16 games he played in for the San Francisco 49ers. And through four weeks in 2021, Hyder has started all four games with the Seattle Seahawks.
A 2019 study, Factors affecting Return to Play after primary Achilles tendon tear: A cohort of NFL players drew the following conclusions, which mirror Hyder’s recovery path.
“We found that 61.3% of NFL players were able to successfully (Return to Play) at a mean 11.90 months following a primary (Achilles tendon) tear... Players who returned displayed a significant decrease in the number of games played in the return season when compared with seasons preceding injury. However, when we examined >1 season following return, (Achilles tendon) tears appeared to not affect ability, as there was no significant difference in pre- and post-injury number of games played or started. Our findings suggest that players may return to preinjury performance levels if given the opportunity.”
Hyder’s path to recovery offers a blueprint for Okwara (both 26-year-old EDGE rushers at the time of injury) and potentially Okudah (a 22-year-old cornerback).
Both Okwara and Okudah’s 2021 season is over and they are looking at a recovery time that could reach a full year before they’re able to return to play—though it is becoming more common to return a bit sooner, meaning 2022 training camp is not off the table.
The odds are that the 2022 season could result in a reduced or situational role as each player is recovering to full health, but it's important to recognize that others in the NFL have overcome these odds and have returned without setback sooner.
By 2023, at a minimum, both are expected to be back at full capacity.