The Jets’ back was the favorite for Offensive Rookie of the Year prior to his season-ending injury
The New York Jets are winning despite having lost one of their best players for the season.
Unfortunately, during the Jets’ Week 7 win over the Denver Broncos, Breece Hall became the victim of the dreaded ACL tear, which spares virtually no NFL team each season. It was an instant season-ending injury that the Jets expect him to recover from in time for next season. With a recovery timeline of 9-12 months, that may be a slightly optimistic projection.
More than whether Hall will be healthy, though, it’s important to understand what the injury may do to his speed and athleticism. When you’re talking about a back whose quickness and cutting ability are so critical to his game, it’s fair to question what he’ll look like following an ACL tear. The knee is one of the key pivoting points.
Breece is not the first running back to return from an ACL tear, so we have a history to look at. Keep in mind that he is only 21, whereas some of these running backs were older when they sustained the injury. That can also have affected their post-injury success.
How have other running backs performed in the past following a return from an ACL tear?
Dalvin Cook or Saquon Barkley?
The poster child for the typical progression in a return from an ACL tear is the Giants’ Saquon Barkley.
Barkley, the 2018 No. 2 overall pick, won Offensive Rookie of the Year that season after posting 1,307 rushing yards and 2,028 total yards from scrimmage. He followed that season up with a less-impressive but still stellar 1,448 yards from scrimmage the following season. However, in the second game of the 2020 season, Barkley tore his ACL and was lost for the year.
In 2021, Barkley returned and looked like a shell of his former self. He put up just 3.7 yards per carry after having averaged 4.7 for his career prior to the injury. He totaled just 856 yards from scrimmage on 191 touches. There were whispers that the ACL tear finally did Barkley in.
However, Saquon is enjoying a bounce-back 2022 season. He’s back up to 4.8 yards per carry and is second to Nick Chubb with 779 rushing yards. He’s also seventh with 41.5% of his rushes going for 15+ yards. Still running behind a porous offensive line, Barkley has largely recaptured the burst that made him a can’t-miss prospect coming out of college.
Meanwhile, a back whose situation was extremely similar to Breece Hall’s is Dalvin Cook. Cook tore his ACL just four games into his rookie season. To that point, he had been playing pretty well, averaging 4.6 yards per carry and putting up a 56.1 elusiveness rating, per Pro Football Focus, which would have been in the 80th percentile among backs with 100 attempts had he qualified.
However, the Dalvin Cook who returned the following season was even better than he had been before. In 2018, Cook averaged 3.02 yards after contact per attempt, in the 66th percentile among backs and far better than the 2.65 mark he had posted prior to his injury. His elusiveness rating climbed to 81.9 (91st percentile), and his missed tackles forced per rush increased from .189 to .218.
Cook has continued on post-injury to have a top-notch career. Now, at the age of 27, he’s averaging 3.21 yards after contact per rush, is 10th in the NFL with 561 rushing yards, ranks 14th with 4.9 yards per carry, and is posting a career-high .237 missed tackles forced per rush. He seems none the worse for wear for having torn his ACL five years ago.
The numbers on other backs who have torn their ACLs are mixed. Adrian Peterson and Jamaal Charles returned to post career-best numbers, while Jay Ajayi and Lamar Miller were barely able to return and retired shortly following their injuries. Miller was already 28 when he got hurt, but Ajayi was just 25. Rashaad Penny has been injury-prone his entire career, but in his first full season following the ACL tear, he put up strong numbers.
Considering Hall’s age at the time of his injury, there’s a good chance that he can return and be reasonably successful immediately. Unlike Saquon, he does not have a prior injury history to his legs.
However, it’s important to note that Cook is more of a power back and straight-up runner, whereas Hall mirrors Barkley in using a combination of speed and power to make defenders miss. Barkley’s breakaway rate (percentage of yards gained on rushes of 15+ yards) went from 33% in the season prior to his injury to just 21.6% in the year after. This year, he’s up all the way to 41.5%, still not as jaw-dropping as his rookie number of 54.0%, but stellar.
Cook, though, has never been a back who relies on that big-play ability to the same extent. His breakaway rate has never broken 40% in his career. He’s more of a grinder than a home-run hitter, which made it easier for him to return to form following the injury.
Meanwhile, Breece was fifth in the NFL with a 43.1% breakaway rate prior to his injury. There’s a decent chance that that number decreases to a certain extent next season. His 4.11 yards after contact per attempt ranked third, and that might diminish somewhat, as well.
There’s no way to know for sure. However, there’s good reason to be optimistic that Hall will regain his form in the long run. The Jets certainly need that to happen if they’re going to become a serious contender in 2023.
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