The Bills’ $50 Million Bet on Star Lotulelei

By Dr. Ankur Verma

Star Lotulelei. (Credit: Jeffrey Beall).

There were 19 defensive tackles that signed with teams in free agency.  The player that got the lengthiest and most expensive contract was Star Lotulelei, who got five years, which was two more years than the next closest player, and $50 million, which was almost double to the next closest player, to move from the Carolina Panthers to the Buffalo Bills.  In terms of guaranteed money, he’s getting $24 million, which is $10 million more than the next closest player, Ndamukong Suh.

It’s also worth noting that last summer he had shoulder surgery and also has a history of a foot fracture.  So given that, are the Bills making a wise investment injury-wise?

Foot Fracture and Stress Reaction

In January 2015, Lotulelei suffered a right foot fracture during practice for the playoffs.  Per reports, he stepped on a teammate’s foot at the end of practice.  It’s hard to get specific information on where exactly the break was , but Lotulelei had surgery almost immediately.  Per Coach Ron Rivera’s comments in that article, the hope was that the defensive tackle would return in two weeks, however the Panthers were eliminated from the playoffs before they could find out.

He was placed in a walking boot for several weeks.  His return was complicated in August before the following season when, while practicing, he suffered a stress reaction in the same foot.  A stress reaction is not quite a stress fracture; the bone is starting to weaken, but hasn’t actually fractured yet (to read more about stress fractures, or foot fractures in general, please read our article on NBA prospect Bruce Brown).  This caused him to miss the first two weeks of the following season.

Let’s take a look at a sampling of NFL players that have suffered fractured feet from 2008-2013 that are comparable to Lotulelei in size.  Because NFL information is sometimes sketchy, this list possibly encompasses both acute and stress fractures.

Physical Comparisons- Foot Fractures

NamePositionAge at InjuryHeightWeight (lbs)Games Played After InjuryRecurrence?
Star LotuleleiDefensive Line256-331546*Yes
Guy WhimperOffensive Line256-531554No
Scott JacksonOffensive Line296-43020N/A
Kyle KosierOffensive Line306-530595No
Todd HerremansOffensive Line276-632183No
Mike BrisielOffensive Line266-531055No
Nate GarnerOffensive Line256-731958Yes
Jared OdrickDefensive Line236-530186Unclear
Andre SmithOffensive Line226-433099Yes
Mike JohnsonOffensive Line246-630116Yes
Scott WellsOffensive Line316-230028No
David QuessenberryOffensive Line236-53062No
Ryan CladyOffensive Line276-631525No
Ryan JensenOffensive Line226-431935No
*Still active
Recurrence = Subsequently suffered foot injury in SAME foot that caused missed games
Games played after = Career games played after injury
Players may be missing and information may not be entirely accurate

 

This list includes all sorts of foot injuries, including stress fractures and Lisfranc fractures (to be discussed in a later post).  I could go on and include 2014-2017, but it would be unlikely to move the needle either way.  Bottom line is: should we be nervous that Lotulelei will be felled by another injury to the same foot?  Not necessarily.

However, further complicating the picture is what happened last offseason.

Shoulder Surgery

In Summer 2017, it was reported that Lotulelei had shoulder surgery.  Details were unclear at the time as he was only reported to have a “clean-up” procedure done, but according to the article linked, his surgery was similar to the one Mario Addison had undergone a year prior.  And Addison underwent surgery for a torn labrum.

I wrote about torn labrums in the NBA previously to some extent, so click here if you want to check that out.

Getting specific injury data in the 1990s and even early 2000s is hazy.  If we limit our search in ProSportsTransactions to labrum injuries, they only have data going back to 2003.  It’s a sampling of 14 players from random positions after accounting for players that received a modicum of playing time, but let’s see if we can glean anything performance-wise after their injury.  I have compared ProFootballFocus grades before and after the labral tears.

NFL Players with Labral Injuries: Production

NamePositionYear BeforeYear AfterIncrease/DecreaseAvg Years BeforeAvg Years AfterIncrease/Decrease
Jim FinnFullback1.6DNPN/A1.6DNPN/A
George WrighsterTight End-3.0-0.5Increase-3.0-0.75Increase
Orlando PaceOffensive Line4.17.9Increase4.1-5.3Decrease
Justin SmileyOffensive Line-4.42.0Increase-3.33.4Increase
Doug MartinRunning Back-4.3-5.5Decrease5.30.95Decrease
James DockeryCornerback-0.1-4.1Decrease0.1-4.1Decrease
Jace AmaroTight End-2.72.1Increase-2.72.1Increase
Brandon LinderOffensive Line-0.816.7Increase7.316.5Increase
Stephon GilmoreCornerback7.5-0.8Decrease0.86.3Increase
Kyle WilsonCornerback-2.8DNPN/A-2.5DNPN/A
Lawrence ThomasDefensive Line-3.5-1.3Increase-3.5-1.3Increase
Niles PaulTight End0.9-13.5Decrease-3.2-13.5Decrease
Jay CutlerQuarterback-10.3-17.7Decrease-3.3-17.7Decrease
Bryce PettyQuarterback-10.7-11.3Decrease-10.7-11.3Decrease
Production is based on Overall ProFootballFocus Grades
Year Before = Grade 1 year before labral injury
Year After = Grade 1 year after labral injury
Avg Years Before = Average of Grades in all years before injury
Avg Years After = Average of Grades in all years after injury
DNP = Did not play after injury

 

It’s about even in terms of performance getting better or worse after the injury.  Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of precedent in the defensive tackle position.  However, we can reasonably speculate that it is important for a defensive tackle to have healthy and powerful shoulders for shedding blocks and making tackles.  In terms of his ProFootballFocus performance, Lotulelei was just about getting increasingly worse every season since his rookie year, but had by far his worst year last season after shoulder surgery presumably for his labrum.

The Bottom Line

Due to pure performance issues and comparing his contract with that of the rest of his free agency class, Star Lotulelei’s contract looks like a bust.  And while we can’t say definitely that his previous injury issues will pop up again (just about none of the players with labral tears above had recurring issues in the shoulder), it can’t be encouraging to Buffalo that the defensive tackle registered his worst season yet coming off labrum surgery.  It is worth noting that in the table above, there was only one player (Stephon Gilmore) that was able to rebound from a bad year to put together a better overall career than he had before the injury.  The deal is already onerous on the surface; it’s hard to believe that the 2013 first-round-pick is at least twice the player as any other defensive tackle on the market, especially given that the 28-year-old has registered negative overall grades on ProFootballFocus in each of the last three years (ranked 109th among his position in 2017) and has never registered a positive pass rush grade.  There’s not a lot of precedent at his position and hopefully Lotulelei gives us a few more years so that we can add some data points.  But other than that, it’s hard to be optimistic about this signing.

(As an aside, I will have a separate piece on heart conditions and players in the near future; Lotulelei had some controversy over a potential heart condition at the the NFL Combine in 2013 when he came into the league).

Thanks to ProFootballFocus for their grades.  All contract information per Spotrac.

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