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2019 free agency: Kevin Johnson injury history

Comprehensive injury review and concerns moving forward

And we’re off! The start of the 2019 NFL Free Agency period has begun! While the Buffalo Bills will be making moves to find pieces to add to their roster, much will be said about some of the acquisitions in the coming days and weeks. One of the Bills’ first contract agreement of 2019 came in the form of former Houston Texans cornerback Kevin Johnson. While contract details are limited, knowing that he has been signed to a one-year deal, this is a signing that leaves many wondering about his past injuries and his durability moving forward.

Kevin Johnson was drafted in the first round out of Wake Forest in 2015 by the Houston Texans. Johnson quickly became a fixture in the secondary. However, Johnson has not been able to stay healthy through his four-year career suffering several rather serious injuries.

  • 2015: Jones fracture, left foot, played whole last month of season
  • 2015: Wrist fracture, left side, broke in playoff loss to Kansas City
  • 2016: Lisfranc fracture, left foot, fractured Week 6, went to IR
  • 2017: Sprained MCL left knee, missed 4 games
  • 2017: Concussion, Week 11, missed no time
  • 2018: Concussion preseason
  • 2018: Concussion Week 2, went to IR

Outside of the first half of his rookie season, Johnson has not been able to stay healthy. This could be for a number of reasons including the nature of his position, his style of play, poor preparation for the season and games, or terrible luck. While you’ll notice a wide variety of injuries, some are concerning moving forward and others are fairly routine.

Going in chronological order, 2015 saw Johnson suffer a Jones fracture. If you’re getting sweaty and a little anxious, it’s understandable. This is the same injury that former Bill Sammy Watkins sustained. This is a fracture of the fifth metatarsal, which is the base of the pinky toe. Johnson was able to play through the injury for the remaining month of the schedule until he fractured his left wrist in his only playoff appearance with the Texans, a 30-0 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. He eventually had surgery to repair and correct both issues and returned healthy for training camp in 2016. I was unable to find any information that states he had a recurrence of the Jones fracture or failure of the hardware from the surgery. This surgery is known for having to undergo a revision due to improper healing, but has been highlighted due to Watkins, Julio Jones, and Dez Bryant suffering the same injury—which often makes people worry. This doesn’t seem to be the case as he suffered this back in 2015 and did not require a revision.

Jones fracture

As for his wrist surgery, there is little to no information regarding the surgery other than he had it and he recovered. There haven’t been any reports since then regarding his surgery or complications. Based off the lack of information, this appears to be a settled issue.

Moving into 2016, Johnson suffered a left Lisfranc injury, which required surgery and another trip to IR. I would surmise most people assume that the Jones fracture caused the Lisfranc. There is considerable worry as this was the same foot. The fifth metatarsal does lie in the Lisfranc complex, but I believe these are two separate injuries. Through research, I was unable to find any connection between Jones fractures and future injury complications outside of hardware failure mentioned above. The mechanisms of injury for Jones and Lisfranc are similar with a Jones fracture occurring due to trauma or forced inversion and plantar flexion, which is foot turned inward and pointed down. A Lisfranc injury can occur with direct trauma or falling over a foot pointed downward. However, we know they’re two separate injuries due to reports that the Jones fracture was a stress fracture and he was allowed to play through it, indicating overuse. He suffered the Lisfranc injury in Week 6 and was immediately placed on IR, which signifies more of a traumatic injury. So based off knowing the difference in how each injury occurred, it appears this is just bad luck. To note, he has not had any known foot issues since the surgeries.

Lisfranc Complex

2017 saw him have one of his more healthy years with only an MCL sprain that caused him to miss four games. Unfortunately, these types of injuries are fairly routine but typically players don’t have long-term issues afterward. He missed more time than a defensive or offensive lineman due to the nature of his position requiring him to push off, jump, run and twist, backpedal; everything that requires agility. He was able to come back and, unfortunately, shortly after sustained a concussion in Week 11, not missing any time. The concussion screening and protocol most likely captures more questionable hits to the head than actual concussions, but this is by design to prevent guys from being placed in harm’s way and suffering further injury.

After suffering minimal injury in 2017, the next season saw Johnson take a step backwards. He sustained a concussion in the preseason and then promptly suffered another concussion in Week 2, which sent him to IR for the season. Looking at video from Week 2, Johnson gets rocked during a helmet-to-helmet hit and, on slow motion, you can see that his body goes limp and he falls down like a sack of potatoes. While the severity of a concussion cannot be diagnosed by video alone, that type of hit signified he was going to be hurting.

The concern for Johnson was with him having two concussions within a month, with the second one appearing far more severe. As with any other NFL player, he went through the concussion protocol and most likely continued to have concussion-like symptoms with exercise and activity, preventing the Texans from activating him off IR. Bills fans saw how long Derek Anderson took to come back from his concussion and his hit was minor compared to Johnson’s.

While he has been cleared by neurologists, there is still concern for future concussions. He can’t prevent against the type of hit that led to his most recent concussion, but working on body awareness, tackling form, and neck strengthening can assist in reducing blows to the head. Research has shown that individuals who have had a previous concussion are three times more likely to sustain future concussions than those who aren’t diagnosed with one. Johnson has had three documented concussions in the NFL and the two last year are more than enough to cause concern. He was shut down most likely to avoid post-concussive syndrome and to eliminate the possibility that he would suffer second-impact syndrome.

To review, post-concussive syndrome is a condition in where the concussion symptoms last longer than the normal duration of time, which is anywhere from a week to three months. Second-impact syndrome (SIS) is where the brain rapidly swells due to a second concussion shortly after the initial blow. This can occur up to several weeks after the initial injury, which could have affected Johnson. SIS occurs with rapid brain swelling and can cause permanent neurological deficits or even death if not addressed immediately. Thankfully this did not occur. Looking at the Texans roster, they attempted to use their two return-from-IR-designations on D’Onta Foreman, Bruce Ellington, and Dylan Cole with Cole able to return.

Overall, Johnson comes in with a lot of medical baggage. He has had several significant injuries, which have contributed to his limited playing time, questions about his durability, and whether he can survive another season in the NFL. Looking at the big picture, he has several things going for him:

The Texans cleared him medically at the end of the season and the Bills would not pursue him if there were big concerns. He was a former first-round draft pick who has shown the ability to produce at the next level. He has shown the ability to return from serious injury.

However, it’s very hard to overlook that injury history as a whole. My biggest concerns are the recent concussions followed by the foot injuries. The only reason I’m on board with this signing is because it’s a one-year deal. From what I’ve read, Johnson has been brought in to compete with Levi Wallace with possibilities to start. As a Physical Therapist, I hope that he can move past all these injuries and have a healthy and productive season for the Bills. I will caution that he likely will not avoid all injuries, but hopefully he avoids the season-ending variety that has plagued him in past seasons. He would fit the mold of former Bill E.J. Gaines. Productive when on the field, notable loss when off.

I applaud the Bills for trying to find players who fit their vision. I applaud them for demonstrating judicious spending. While they won’t hit on every one of these types of signings, these one-year deals allow the Bills to reduce risk while maximizing depth. I believe that Johnson is getting signed for another chance as he was a former first-round talent, similar to what we saw with Corey Coleman last season. Looking at the entire player, I personally believe that he will come in and compete, avoid major injury, and regain some of his form that made him a first-round pick. Come August 2019, time will determine whether this holds true.