49ers LB Dre Greenlaw’s Achilles Injury Suffered During Super Bowl LVIII

Originally published on A to Z Sports

Losing the Super Bowl in the fashion the San Francisco 49ers did was already heartbreaking enough, but things get even sadder when zooming out and adding in Dre Greenlaw’s freak Achilles injury.

It’s going to linger for a while, too. Because now, the trajectory of the 26-year-old’s career could easily change – and not in a good way.

“About a third of the guys didn’t make it back… they retired,” Dr. Geoff Watson, an orthopaedic surgeon who specializes in foot and ankle injuries at the Bone and Joint Institute of Tennessee, recently told A to Z Sports. “I think that sort of speaks to when they had their rupture. It was probably like in the 30s… typically, for a fair amount of guys and so that long recovery to come back and rehab just wasn’t worth it. They kind of made their money, and they sort of run out in the sunset. A third of the guys were able to make it back to prior level of play, and a third of the guys didn’t quite make it back [to the prior level of play].”

The referenced studies are ones based off cumulative fantasy points accrued after a player’s return from an Achilles injury. One was conducted across the NBA; the other, across the NFL. While we all know fantasy points aren’t the end-all-be-all, definitive measure of a player’s performance and impact – the studies do paint an accurate picture of the post-injury decline, or, sustained play. And that’s the main point. 

“So you look at that – only a third made it back to the prior level of play, in terms of point production for fantasy points for NBA or NFL. So, I think that kind of does tell you, the more, like, sprinting that needs to be done for your job, the harder it is to come back from.”

The road back is naturally harder for Greenlaw

The injury is clearly already hard enough to come back from, but Greenlaw’s role on the 49ers defense will only make it tougher, unfortunately. That’s because Greenlaw isn’t just a run-stuffing, downhill-type linebacker. He is a three-down player that actually helps form one of the best coverage duos at his position. 

Per Pro Football Focus, Greenlaw played 553 pass coverage snaps during the 2023 regular season, which ranked 18th out of 50 qualifying linebackers with at least 374 pass coverage snaps. He was in coverage for 92% of the pass snaps in which he was on the field – good for ninth-highest out of the aforementioned players. He was targeted at the second-highest rate, but allowed the second-lowest completion rate despite said targets being in the shorter-half of average depth of target. Meaning, quarterbacks targeted him, a lot, on high-percentage throws, yet Greenlaw won most of the reps at a high level.

And even though Greenlaw was targeted so often, he still finished with the seventh-lowest snap-per-reception rate. If you’re into grades, he graded out as the 12th-best linebacker in coverage, at 72.1, too.

“They do tend to happen [more] with the fast-twitch athletes: the point guards, the running backs, quarterbacks, and linebackers,” said Watson. “… Those are typically the guys that are at a higher risk of injury.”

The road to recovery for Greenlaw, itself

New York Jets quarterback Aaron Rodgers dominated headlines throughout the season thanks to his miraculous comeback attempt from his own Achilles injury. So, the obvious question becomes whether or not Greenlaw could follow that timeline, himself. Or, if Rodgers’ unique (to put it lightly) methods gave him the recovery advantage he seemed to have during the regular season.

“From a medical standpoint, it was just sort of fascinating to watch that process go along, and he [Rodgers] was able to do some things that were a bit ahead of schedule,” said Watson. “What Aaron Rodgers had, was, they passed the suture and the tendon above, and then anchored into the bone below, potentially being a little bit more rigid fixation, and that’s sort of the theory behind why he was able to sort of progress back a little bit quicker.

“That certainly hasn’t been borne out in the studies, in terms of functional outcome. But the thought process as to why so, in terms of, you know, if he gets fixed in that mannerism, eventually he could rehab a little bit quicker.”

So, Greenlaw doesn’t have to follow Rodgers’ exact blueprint, it’s more of the type of surgery the Jets QB had on his injury. We’ll obviously see how that plays out with time.

Was Greenlaw too amped up?

It’s interesting to note how fierce Greenlaw was playing before the injury. The dude was clearly on a mission and his play reflected as much.

It’s the Super Bowl, so it’s impossible to blame the guy for having enough adrenaline in him to make an elephant want to do a backflip. At the same time, however, it certainly could’ve played a role in the injury, especially when considering Greenlaw’s burst from the sideline right before it happened.

“I’m sure he was sprinting, full force, to get back on the field. And basically when a muscle contracts, the more force is going to be generated through the Achilles and it probably just wasn’t able to tolerate that amount of force,” said Watson.

“I mean, there is some level of like, he was making a very quick burst, his muscle really fired quickly and that probably did predispose him. Now are gonna tell the guy not to do that in the game? It is typically that, like, quick change in direction [or] quick takeoff – those are the times where it’s most likely to happen.”

Right. No one is going to tell anyone to behave differently, but Greenlaw’s experience can still serve as a cautionary tale, to an extent.

To compound things even more, Greenlaw is entering the final year of the two-year, $16 million contract extension he signed in 2022. He’s scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent at 27-years-old in 2025, meaning, it’s likely his last chance to score a lucrative, multi-year deal in his prime. A down year while trying to bounce back from a bad injury would definitely affect his 2025 market, which obviously isn’t ideal.

This is nothing new in the NFL – Greenlaw is yet another unfortunate injury story. But, that doesn’t mean his future is predetermined, by any means. And when considering the typical perseverance within an NFL player, it’d be a mistake to put any kind of limitation on the 49ers linebacker’s comeback.