Who Gets Drafted into the NFL?

April 25, 2013


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The National Football League is about 4 months from the opening day kick-off and yet millions of football fans will be riveted to their televisions and computer tablets on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Why? The annual NFL draft of amateur players occurs on these nights and for at least 254 players, it’s the most important day in their young lives.

Being chosen in the NFL draft is the first official step to becoming a member of a very elite club. It’s a club which can be very lucrative and one where the membership is short-lived – usually about 6 years. It’s also a business where the occupational hazard often includes debilitating back pain.

Since Texas Back Institute specializes in spine injuries, artificial disc replacement, and treatment of chronic back pain, we thought it might be interesting for players and fans alike to get a glimpse into how these supermen withstand the back pain resulting from playing professional football. For this analysis, we’ve asked Dr. Shawn Henry, whose specialty at Texas Back Institute is spinal surgery, to give us his expert opinion on how these men survive a  physically demanding of team sports. But first, let’s look at this year’s draft.

Who Gets the Top Pick?

For the players who hope to hear their name called from the stage at Radio City Music Hall in New York City, draft day is the next step in a journey which likely started when they were about 8 years old, competing in Pop Warner or Pee Wee football. Through high school and college, these athletes have excelled in a game that requires strength, speed, year-round conditioning and athletic instincts only a tiny percentage of human beings possess.

Using a formula that allows the teams with the worst record in the previous year to get the earliest choices and theoretically the most talented players, the NFL draft has gone from a little observed event, watched by a few hardcore sportswriters in the early days of the league, to a three-day, fan-friendly happening. This year is no exception. The hoopla around the draft is palpable.

While it is always possible for a last-minute “trade” to occur among the teams which can change the order of their drafting position, as it stands now the first five teams in this year’s draft and their likely picks (based on media reports) are:

(1)  Kansas City – Luke Joeckel, OT, Texas A&M

(2)  Jacksonville – Dion Jordan, OLB, Oregon

(3)  Oakland – Sharrif Floyd, DT, Florida

(4)  Philadelphia – Star Lotulelei, DT, Utah

(5)  Detroit – Eric Fisher, OT, Central Michigan

For the rest of the draft order, you can click here.

Based on factors too numerous to list, many of the teams have more draft picks than others. For example, San Francisco, which had an excellent year in 2012, has the most number of picks in this year’s draft at 13. Theoretically, this should enhance their status in the upcoming season. Whereas, New England, New Orleans, Chicago and Carolina with the fewest number of picks (5) should be at a disadvantage. However, NFL fans know  having lots of draft picks seldom translates to a winning season.

When the smoke clears on Saturday night, 254 players will realize their dream of playing in the National Football League, assuming they make the team. Unfortunately, not every player drafted makes the cut and others in  this group can  sustain an injury in the summer training camps conducted by every team  prior to the opening of the season and their dream will die.

As noted earlier, a typical NFL career is extremely short – usually about 6 years for a player who is on the opening day roster. The reason for this is obvious when one watches the games each Sunday. The human body –even the superhuman bodies of these highly-conditioned players – has not evolved to the point of sustaining the type of repetitive trauma experienced in a typical season without injuries.

Some of these injuries can be  associated with the neck and back areas of the body and for some insights about these we asked the opinion of an expert, Dr. Shawn Henry an orthopedic spine surgeon at Texas Back Institute.

Henry_MD_web_1Over a typical season, the bodies of professional football players take a tremendous pounding. What is it about these player’s bodies that allows their backs hold up under this abuse?

In order to have attained their position in the NFL, a player has spent his life building muscle mass. This is the most important aspect of his conditioning is what allows the player to withstand the constant trauma of a typical season. This muscle mass gives dynamic support to the spine. Every player in the league has built strong abdominal muscles, quadriceps and other muscles groups and these “load share” the impact of the constant hits to the spinal column.

As fans, we often hear that a player has sustained a “stinger.” What is a stinger and is this a serious injury?

Basically, when someone gets hit hard in the neck and shoulder areas, the impact causes a temporary trauma to the peripheral nervous system. This causes a short-term burning, stinging pain. However, since this does not affect the central nervous system, there is no potential for paralysis and typically goes away in a short time.

The NFL Players’ Association notes the most common back problem among their members is degenerative disc disease, associated with arthritis. What does this mean and how can a player avoid this?

Actually, the most common back problem for every human, not just a professional football player, is degenerative disc disease. The medical term for this arthritic condition is “spondylosis” and it is a condition that is exacerbated by smoking, obesity and trauma. A player is not likely to smoke, but he may have tendencies toward obesity and withstanding physical trauma is a part of the job description. This trauma and weight can cause injury to the disc. For an athlete, good conditioning is the only way to help protect your spine.

There will likely be a great many young athletes watching the NFL Draft this weekend thinking they might get a chance to perform in the Big Show in the future. What can a young football player focus on in order to strengthen his back muscles?

The key is to build core, isometric spine stabilization. Weak core muscles cause injuries. They should also work on flexibility and increasing a range of motion in their muscle groups, their cervical spine and their lumbar spine areas. They should also make certain the correct equipment – helmets, pads, collars – are used in practice and game situations.

In your practice, what is the most common back injury  you see in younger athletes?

The most common ailment in high school and college athletes is a herniated disc in the neck and a pars fracture in the lower back. This is most commonly seen among interior linemen because they extend their spine by arching their back when they come off the line to block. With repetitive trauma a fracture can occur. Interestingly, because of the tendency to extend the spine, this condition also occurs with some regularity among equestrian competitors and ballet dancers.

What is the NFL doing to help control the number of spinal injuries among players?

Because of the potential for long-term neurological disorders, the league is researching the effects and prevention of concussions among players. There is no correlation between concussions – which affect the central nervous system – and back injuries. As for the league’s efforts in helping to reduce back injuries, there have been many advances in helmets, facemasks and neck wraps. Plus, a few years ago the NFL  introduced rules which prohibit “spearing” and this has probably resulted in fewer incidences of spine and back injuries.

Injuries Are a Part of the Game

Based on viewer ratings, the National Football League has become the most popular spectator sport in the United States. The athletes in this game are big, strong and fast and when they collide, injuries will inevitably happen. As every NFL coach says a few times every season: “injuries are a part of the game.” Hopefully, with better conditioning and high-tech equipment, these spine injuries will be limited in the future.

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