Preseason injuries pile up as teams limp toward regular season

For fans and media, the NFL's regular season can't get here fast enough.

So imagine what it's like for the players injured this preseason who know they won't be back on the field until 2016.

Green Bay wide receiver Jordy Nelson became the biggest name thus far shelved for the 2015 campaign. FOX Sports NFL Insider Mike Garafolo confirmed that Nelson suffered a torn left anterior cruciate ligament in Sunday's 24-19 loss at Pittsburgh.

The injury didn't stem from contact. Nelson simply twisted his knee and came up lame after catching a first-quarter pass from quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

The ugliness didn't end there. Pittsburgh center Maurkice Pouncey went down with yet another ankle injury that led to him being carted into the locker room. Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said Pouncey will undergo surgery for a broken bone, which will assuredly sideline him through at least September.

As a slew of other Steelers and Packers players staggered or limped to the sideline, the cries for a truncated slate of exhibition games resonated on social media. A tweet by former Packers tight end Tom Crabtree (@itsCrab) best reflected such sentiment.

"Preseason football is the worst," he wrote.

That doesn't mean it will change.

For NFL owners, truncating or even eliminating the four-game preseason schedule would mean a substantial loss of game-day revenue. Potentially reducing player carnage is less important to them than the dollars generated from these contests.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has floated the idea of shortening the preseason but only if the NFL Players Association agrees to lengthen the regular season. While an 18/2 split would lead to bigger player salaries, the NFLPA has staunchly resisted. Its constituents believe there already is enough physical wear-and-tear inherent in a 16-game regular season.

As much as the quality is grossly subpar compared to regular-season action, there is merit in preseason games. Besides preparing teams for the regular season, they serve as a valuable tool in developing and evaluating young players when shaping a roster. That environment cannot be simulated through intrasquad scrimmages or joint practices.

And let's be realistic: The nature of football itself means injuries are possible at any time.

"It's tough," Steelers wide receiver Markus Wheaton told FOX Sports about preseason injuries after Sunday's game. "We know we've got to play preseason games. We know they don't count. Obviously, it's frustrating but it is part of the game."

The best approach for teams toward preseason contests is being ultra-conservative in how long starters and superstars play -- if at all -- to mitigate injury risk. For example, New England's Rob Gronkowski hasn't appeared in a preseason game since 2012. The absence hasn't hurt Gronkowski's performance in the regular season as the NFL's top tight end.

The only other thing a head coach can do? Cross his fingers and hope nobody gets hurt.

Here's a look at the five biggest injuries coming out of games and practices in Week 2 of the preseason:

Nelson: He has emerged as quarterback Aaron Rodgers' favorite target, posting career-highs last season in receptions (98) and yards (1,519) while catching 13 touchdown passes. The 6-foot-3 Nelson creates mismatches against smaller cornerbacks while also possessing the speed to burn defenses deep.

"It's difficult to lose a guy like that in a meaningless game," said Rodgers, who made his disdain for the preseason clear during his postgame news conference.

The only good news for Green Bay is that the Packers are deep at the position. Randall Cobb, who would be a No. 1 receiver for other teams, will likely replace Nelson in that role. Davonte Adams now steps into the starting lineup after offseason work that drew raves from teammates and Packers head coach Mike McCarthy. Jeff Janis and rookie Ty Montgomery will vie for the No. 3 receiver spot while backup tight end Richard Rodgers appears ready to assume a bigger role in the passing game alongside starter Andrew Quarless.

Pouncey: It's no coincidence the Steelers finished with the NFL's second-ranked offense last year in the first season that Pouncey started all 16 games since 2010. He was injured Sunday when Packers safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix rolled up on his leg while tackling running back Le'Veon bell.

Cody Wallace, who started five games for Pouncey in 2013, will likely get the starting nod. He needs to shake some rust. An errant second-quarter snap by Wallace to Bruce Gradkowski led to Pittsburgh's backup quarterback suffering a left finger injury when trying to recover the football.

Carolina wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin (knee): Like with Nelson, Benjamin's torn ACL happened sans contact. Benjamin crumpled last Wednesday when trying to cut in a passing drill during a joint practice with Miami.

Unlike the Packers, Carolina doesn't have another receiver like Cobb who is suited for No. 1 receiver duties. Devin Funchess is a big-bodied target like Benjamin, but the 2015 second-round pick isn't ready to handle the same type of load as the latter, who caught 73 passes for 1,008 yards and nine touchdowns during his 2014 rookie debut.

The Panthers will look to replace Benjamin's production with a committee approach that includes Funchess, Corey "Philly" Brown, Ted Ginn Jr. and Brenton Bersin. Long-time Indianapolis standout Reggie Wayne is apparently off Carolina's radar as ESPN reported he was taking a free-agent visit Sunday with New England.

Miami free safety Louis Delmas (knee): Ex-Dolphins linebacker Channing Crowder may want to consider a post-football career in medicine rather than broadcasting. On his South Florida radio show last Tuesday, Crowder said he noticed a hitch in Delmas' running style. Crowder believes it stemmed from Delmas making a quick but premature return from last December's reconstructive knee surgery.

The next day, Delmas re-tore the ACL in his right knee and is out for the season.

Walt Aikens, a 2014 fourth-round draft choice from Liberty, has replaced Delmas in the starting lineup. Special teams ace Michael Thomas is now the top backup to Aikens and strong safety Reshad Jones.

Arizona nose tackle Corey Peters (Achilles tendon): Twenty months removed from shredding his right Achilles tendon while playing for Atlanta, Peters tore his left one last Thursday during practice. Peters was signed to replace the departed Dan Williams (Oakland) as Arizona's starting nose tackle. That responsibility now falls to Rodney Gunter, a 2015 fourth-round pick from Delaware State, with veteran Alameda Ta'amu serving as the backup.

Injuries overshadowed Wheaton's standout performance

Pittsburgh's Markus Wheaton caught three passes for 42 yards. One of his catches was a 17-yard gain on third-and-11 on the Steelers' opening series. He added two more grabs on Pittsburgh's third possession, capping the drive with a five-yard touchdown catch that ended the day for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and other offensive starters.

"They played a lot of zone so fortunately I got the chance to work the middle of the field finding holes," Wheaton said in a telephone interview. "On the third-and-long, I was wide open. There also was a blown coverage on the touchdown. The DB (rookie Damarious Randall) jumped (tight end) Heath (Miller). Ben spreads the ball well so he found me."

After notching only six catches as a rookie, Wheaton blossomed last year with 53 receptions for 644 yards and two touchdowns. Part of the reason for such growth was an improved quarterback-receiver relationship with Roethlisberger.

"I sit right next to Ben in the locker room and pick his brain every chance I get," said Wheaton, a 2013 third-round pick from Oregon State. "I want to know where he wants me to be and what he's thinking throughout every play. I ask him so many questions I'm sure he's tired of me."

While reigning NFL receiving leader Antonio Brown remains Roethlisberger's top option, Wheaton should play a much bigger role now that he is mastering routes from the slot as well as the outside. Wheaton got his feet wet playing the "Y" in 2014.

"Being able to do more things in this league obviously makes you more valuable," Wheaton said. "Being able to contribute to this team is huge for me. Being in the slot, I'm starting to love it. It's a lot more than just reading coverages. You get used to seeing more blitzes so you're running hot routes and stuff like that. Mentally, it's more challenging and something I'm embracing."


Washington's decrepit offense

Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III is a convenient scapegoat for Washington's struggles, but others deserve just as much blame for the debacle during last Thursday night's game against Detroit. The offensive line was dreadful, which made the coaching staff's decision to not call pass plays that moved the mobile Griffin out of the pocket the NFL equivalent of malpractice.

Besides Griffin himself, the player with the most to prove in Saturday's game against Baltimore is rookie Brandon Scherff. Selected as a right tackle with the No. 5 overall pick in the draft, Scherff started at right guard against Detroit with disastrous results. Scherff showed little ability to anchor, which shouldn't be a surprise since his 23 bench-press repetitions of 225 pounds at the NFL Scouting Combine tied for 24th among all participants.

If Lions defensive tackle Tyrunn Walker shoved him into the backfield with ease, what will happen to Griffin when Scherff has to play Miami's Ndamukong Suh in the regular-season opener?

Cleveland's quarterback competition

Mike Pettine learned a valuable lesson after botching his handling of the Browns' quarterbacks in 2014. Once he publically failed to give Brian Hoyer a vote of confidence during his late-season struggles, the floodgates opened and Johnny Manziel rode the wave of doubt into a starting spot with disastrous results.

Pettine isn't making the same mistake twice. He is standing behind Josh McCown even though the 13-year journeyman is foundering and Manziel has made enough strides to legitimately push for the first-string spot. It also doesn't hurt to keep Manziel humble by dangling the starting job in front of him.

A sore elbow has left Manziel's status uncertain for Saturday's game against Tampa Bay. But should the former Johnny Football recover and continue his promising play to the point of winning the job, Pettine can simply say later that he changed his mind about the Week 1 starter against the New York Jets -- and there won't be a single Browns fans complaining.

San Diego's kicking competition

When a college free agent emerges with a chance to make the 53-man roster, teams often try to maintain radio silence in case they need to try and slip him through waivers and onto their practice squad. That was the case in San Diego with Texas A&M kicker Josh Lambo when I visited Chargers training camp earlier this month.

Well, the cat's out of the bag now.

Lambo replaced an injured Nick Novak during last Saturday night's win over Arizona and booted three field goals of 40-plus yards, including the game-winning 47-yarder. This isn't to say Lambo has won the job already. But not only is Lambo a younger and cheaper option, the 34-year-old Novak could fetch a draft pick from another team in need of a kicker -- a position that has never held more importance with the league switching to 33-yard PATs for the 2015 season.

The Chargers will be taking a long look at both specialists during Saturday night's game against Seattle.

Speaking of kickers ...

A 2014 slump has continued for Minnesota's Blair Walsh. He missed three field goals and an extra point in last Saturday night's game against Oakland. While inclement weather could have been a factor, head coach Mike Zimmer is clearly losing patience.

Vikings management was so confident Blair could rebound from last season's career-low 74.3 field-goal percentage that he was recently signed to a five-year, $13.7 million contract extension. The deal makes Walsh a lock to make the team. But at what point do the Vikings consider bringing in another kicker to handle duties while Walsh works to get back on track?

Quarterback decision in Buffalo

In Buffalo, Tyrod Taylor will have a prominent place in the offense even if Matt Cassel captures the starting role. One potential scenario would have Taylor designated to play in specific packages a la Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick under Bills offensive coordinator Greg Roman in San Francisco.

E.J. Manuel, despite his promising fourth-quarter showing last Thursday against Cleveland, isn't a factor in this race.