Injuries have always been a large part of the NFL. Many players style their game around dealing as much physical punishment to their opponent as possible. When you combine that with putting athletes in situations where they're often awkwardly positioned, you get a sport that has a serious injury issue.
Injury prone players are those who suffer the worst injuries - injuries that you can't just fight through. They injure ligaments in their knees and can barely walk. They injure their heads and struggle to function. It isn't a matter of just fighting through the games until it heals, like the "durable" players do. They are forced to take time off to heal and hope they can come back and play at a respectable level. The cause of their problems is often nothing more than bad luck. Other times their play style or their body type leaves them more vulnerable to injuries.
Every player on this list has an unfortunate story. Some of them should have had amazing careers, but had it all ruined as a result of poor luck. Others fought through it and still managed to be great. However, that still leaves a sour taste in everyone's mouths. They were great while being significantly slowed down by something largely out of their control. We all want to know what it would have been like to see them play if they weren't hindered.
Here are the NFL's top 20 players who were made of glass.
20 Steve Emtman
Steve Emtman was an athletic freak on the defensive line. He was 6-4 and 290 pounds, while maintaining 9% body fat. He was an incredible player at Washington, leading the school to a National Championship title as well as winning numerous personal awards. He was the perfect prospect coming into the NFL.
After being selected with the first overall pick, it appeared nothing would stop him from becoming a star. Unfortunately, injuries got the better of him. Over the course of his career, he ruptured a disk in addition to tearing ligaments in both of his knees.
He played for three teams in six years before retiring at age 27. He ended up recording 8 sacks and 121 solo tackles on his career. Considering he only started 19 games and was never really at 100%, those are solid numbers.
Emtman certainly had a chance to be special in the NFL. It's terrible to see injuries cost him his career.
19 Matt Schaub
For a short period, it looked as though Matt Schaub was going to have a quality NFL career. In the end, it turned out to be a brief period of success on an otherwise unremarkable career.
Part of the problem was that Schaub got drafted in the third round. No coach will ever feel compelled to give starting time to a mid round quarterback just to see what they can do, as they would with a first round quarterback. As a result, it took Schaub until his fourth year to get a real shot as a starting quarterback when he was moved to Houston.
He dealt with injuries immediately. Just over half way through the year in his first season with Houston, he suffered a concussion. Several weeks later he suffered a shoulder injury that shut his season down. He had a similar experience in 2008 as well.
Though in 2009, it appeared a switch flipped in Schaub. He led the league in passing yards and threw 29 touchdowns compared to 15 interceptions. He continued his solid play until 2012.
With his injuries starting to pile up, notably a nasty foot injury that sidelined him for a good chunk of the 2011 season, his play began to sharply regress. His arm strength just wasn't there, perhaps due to some of the shoulder injuries suffered. He appeared to be skittish in the pocket and made rash decisions. He very quickly went from a solid starter to a backup.
18 Ickey Woods
Ickey Woods was one of the most promising young running backs in the NFL when he came into the league with the Cincinnati Bengals in 1988. The 31st overall pick quickly earned the starting role and he went on to rush for over 1,000 yards. He also led the league in yards per carry with 5.3.
After a 12 win season, Cinci went on to make a deep playoff run. They relied heavily upon Woods, who averaged over 100 yards per game over the course of the playoffs. Though, the Bengals were eventually be defeated by Joe Montana's 49ers.
It was a near-perfect start to what appeared to be a highly promising career. But in the second game of the following season, the Bengals lost Woods to a nasty knee injury (a knee which had already undergone reconstructive surgery). He spent over a year attempting to rehabilitate.
His knee plagued him for the next two seasons as he fought to continue playing. He only managed eight more starts in that period and failed to exceed 100 carries. Despite being a talented player, his knee prevented him from furthering his career. His fourth NFL season was his last.
17 Troy Polamalu
Troy Polamalu led the oppressive Steelers' defense during the 2000s. The safety won two Super Bowl titles with the team and was named a First-Team All-Pro four times, in addition to eight Pro Bowls. Furthermore, he was named the 2010 AP Defensive Player of the Year.
He was a thrilling player to root for when he was on the field, but that also added to the frustration as he was often injured. He had numerous lower body injuries that caused him to miss timem especially in the prime of his career. Between 2006 and 2009 he was dealing with an obnoxious knee injury that seemed to keep popping back up. In 2010, it was his ankle that kept him out. In 2012, he missed over half the season as a result of a calf injury.
When he was on the field he never seemed to be playing at full strength. Even still, he made a name for himself as being one of the most talented and most feared defensive backs in the game, an especially impressive accomplishment given the circumstances.
16 Rich Gannon
Rich Gannon has an interesting story. He was drafted in the fourth round of the 1987 draft by the New England Patriots. However, he ended up beginning his career with the Minnesota Vikings. It took him until his fourth year to get a shot at the starting quarterback. When he finally managed to get his shot, he played well. He didn't set the world on fire, but he was solid.
He was traded to Washington just prior to the 1993 season. This is where his injury issues were at their worst. Over the next five years, he only managed to start 23 games. He played pretty well when he was on the field, but he just couldn't stay there.
Surprisingly, when he came to Oakland things changed. He played far and away the best football of his career, while in his mid 30s no less. He pulled together a four year stretch where he didn't miss a single game, something he had failed to do at any point his career prior. He went to the Pro Bowl every one of those years and even got named a first team All-Pro twice. In 2002, he led the Raiders to the Super Bowl and was named league MVP.
Following 2002, injuries slowed him down yet again. He managed to only play 10 games over the next two years before electing to retire.
15 Kris Jenkins
Kris Jenkins is an interesting case. In his 10 year career, four of them wrapped up with him on season-ending injured reserve. In the remaining six seasons, he played in all 16 games. There was no middle ground for Kris Jenkins.
In both 2002 and 2003, he was named a first team All-Pro. He was a force on the defensive line, recording a combined 12 sacks and nearly 80 solo tackles. In 2004, he missed the bulk of the season after being placed on IR with a shoulder injury. His 2005 season was also wrapped up quickly after suffering an ACL injury.
He rebounded strongly over the next three years. His stats dropped off a bit, but he did still manage to make it to two Pro Bowls. For a player coming off an ACL injury, that's very impressive.
Unfortunately, his last two years in the NFL were derailed by knee injuries. He only played 7 games in 2009 and 2010 combined. He decided to hang it up on a disappointing note. In the end, Kris Jenkins certainly had one of the strangest careers in recent memory.
14 Dan Morgan
The Carolina Panthers selected linebacker Dan Morgan with the 11th overall pick in 2001. He was supposed to come in and be a standout player in the middle of their defense, and he almost was.
Morgan was a talented player. In fact, he was named to the Pro Bowl in 2004. He probably would have made it to quite a few more had he stayed on the field. He was never healthy though. In seven years, he failed to finish a season with more than 13 games played and played in more than half the season just four times.
The first few years of his career were filled with concussions. He had five reported but the number was likely higher (as it always is with players who suffer head injuries). The final blow was an achilles injury. He worked hard to attempt to come back from it but it never happened. He decided to retire in 2008, prior to the start of the season.
13 Al Toon
Al Toon was a fearless receiver for the Jets in the 80s and early 90s. He prided himself on doing whatever it took to make the catch. His ability and attitude didn't go unnoticed, as New York paid him handsomely and the NFL named him a first team All-Pro and sent him to three Pro Bowls.
He paid dearly for it though. The number of concussions he suffered was somewhere between eight and nine - a horrifying number. It led to a short career of only seven seasons. He managed to play a full 16 game season just once as well.
It's amazing what he still managed to accomplish. He was missing a significant among of time and likely was never at his full potential due to the nature of his injuries. Even still, he managed to be one of the premier receivers in the NFL for a period of time.
12 Donovan McNabb
The Eagles of the 2000s led by Donovan McNabb featured some of the best teams in franchise history. He got, and continues to get, a lot of criticism from the fan base for failing to deliver a Super bowl to the city. But McNabb was one of the elite quarterbacks in the NFL over his career, something that many often forget due to his postseason performances. The Eagles were highly competitive over that period and it was on the back of Donovan McNabb.
He stayed reasonably healthy early on in his career. In the second half, it seemed as though he was always dealing with nagging injuries. He played from 1999 until 2011, but after 2003 he only finished a 16 game seasons once. It eventually raised questions as to whether the Eagles could count on him. They decided to move on and dealt him to Washington, where his career quickly fizzled out.
11 Robert Smith
Robert Smith was the Vikings' 21st overall selection in the 1993 draft. The pick came as a surprise to many as Smith had some conflict with the coaching staff at Ohio State as well as injury concerns. There was no doubt he was a talented player, but the risk associated with him caused many to believe he would slide down draft boards.
For the first four years of his career, everyone assumed him to be a major bust. He was talented when he was on the field, but those college injury issues carried over into the NFL. He blew out his knee in his rookie year. In his sophomore year, he injured his hip. The next year, he badly sprained his ankle. In 1996, he tore his MCL.
Against all odds, he turned it around in the second half of his career. He went from averaging fewer than three starts per year to becoming the full-time starter at running back in 1997. He still had injury issues, but managed to fight through them. For the first time in his career he broke the 1,000 yard mark, leading the Vikings to the playoffs.
He continued at that pace for the next three years, helping the Vikings secure a playoff spot each season. He never recorded fewer than 1,000 yards or 12 starts and twice exceeded 5 yards per carry. Currently, he is the second all-time leading rusher for the Vikings, despite only playing four solid years. It's crazy to think where he might be had he not been plagued with injuries.
10 Jon Beason
Jon Beason was the 25th overall pick in 2007 by the Carolina Panthers. He immediately established himself as one of the NFL's premier middle linebackers. He never missed a game in his first four years, routinely leading the team in tackles and earning three trips to the Pro Bowl. In addition, he secured a first team All-Pro selection in his sophomore season and a second team selection in the following year. Everything was going his way.
Unfortunately things suddenly collapsed. He injured his Achilles right at the beginning of the 2011 season. He was placed on injured reserve and began looking towards next season. Though the 2012 season started off the same way, as after four games he blew out his knee and was placed on injured reserve yet again.
He managed to play the bulk of the 2013 season, but was clearly not the same player. Two major injuries to his leg made a noticeable impact. The Giants traded a late round pick for Beason a few games into the season, thinking of it as a low risk/ high reward situation.
His time with the Giants proved to be more of the same. He was often injured and failed to be an impact player when he was in the game. He decided to hang it up following the 2015 season.
9 Fred Taylor
Fred Taylor is among the greatest running backs in NFL history, though he unfairly isn't regarded as such. He was playing for a small market team and simply got overshadowed by players such as LaDainian Tomlinson and Shaun Alexander. Combined with the fact that he was often injured, it isn't hard to see why that happened, but that doesn't make it right.
As it stands, Fred Taylor is the 16th all-time leading rusher, despite only starting 137 games in his career. To put that in perspective, the players just ahead of him on the all-time rushing list - Marcus Allen, Franco Harris, and Thurman Thomas - all had about 30 more starts over their careers. That's nearly two seasons worth of games.
Had Fred Taylor been more durable, it's very likely he would have gotten the credit he deserved. Over his 13 year career, he managed to play all 16 games just twice. He was constantly missing games due to injury and battling through them when he was on the field.
8 Gale Sayers
Gale Sayers was one of the most exciting players to watch of all time. He was a fast, shifty running back who played in the mid 60s. In his rookie year, he rushed for over 800 yards and 14 touchdowns. He was also active in the passing game, catching 6 touchdowns and recording another 500 yards. He didn't stop there. In the following season he improved, rushing for a league-leading 1,231 yards.
Unfortunately, his career was short. He only played for five full seasons, the last in 1969. It was an injury to his right knee in 1968 that eventually forced him to retire. But despite not playing long, he did still manage to make it into the Hall of Fame. Even still, his career could have been much more impressive had he gotten to play longer.
Sayers was before his time. If he was in the NFL today, his already impressive career would have been far more successful.
7 Chad Pennington
Chad Pennington was in the NFL for a decade, from 2000 to 2010. However, he only managed to play more than 10 games in a season four times. He fits the bill perfectly as a player who was made of glass.
He won the AP Comeback Player of the year award in 2006 after missing most of the previous season with a shoulder injury. He came back strong when he threw for over 3,300 yards and 17 touchdowns as well as leading the Jets to a 10-6 record.
Unfortunately, Pennington failed to build off that year. His 2007 season ended prematurely with yet another injury to his arm. But once again he came back strong with a solid 2008 season, this time leading the Dolphins to an unexpected 11 win season. He won a second Comeback Player of the Year Award for his impressive performance.
Unfortunately, that was the last run for Pennington. Due to more injuries, he only managed to play four more games over the next two years before retiring.
6 Shawne Merriman
Shawne Merriman had one of the most impressive starts to an NFL career in recent memory. In 2005, his rookie season, he recorded 10 sacks in 10 starts. The following season, he led the league in sacks with 17, despite playing in just 3/4 of the games. In 2007, he put up 12.5 sacks, a regression but still impressive nonetheless. Merriman looked to be one of the next great pass rushers.
But from there he just fell off, largely due to injuries. He underwent season ended knee surgery after the first game of the 2008 season. The following year he played in 14 games, but just wasn't the same player due to the injury; recording a mere 4 sacks. In 2010, an Achilles injury caused him to struggle through just three games where he accomplished very little. He signed with Buffalo prior to the 2011 season. That's where his career fizzled out. Over the next two years, he started just six games and recorded 2 sacks and 19 solo tackles.
There are few players who have ever gone through a sharper decline than Shawne Merriman.
5 Kurt Warner
Kurt Warner was the quarterback of 'The Greatest Show on Turf', a nickname given to the Rams recording breaking offenses in the late 1990s and early 2000s. He led the league in completion percentage three years in a row, was consistently among the best in the league in passing yards and passing touchdowns, and made three straight Pro Bowls. Best of all, he delivered a Super Bowl to St. Louis during the 1999 season.
However, he got off to a very poor start in the 2002 season and ended up breaking a finger on his throwing hand. He wasn't quite the same player after that. He stayed with the Rams through the 2003 season, but only started seven games combined. The Rams elected to release the former star quarterback.
At age 36 in 2007, Warner had a resurgence with the Cardinals. He led the team to a Super Bowl appearance and was among the best active quarterbacks in the game when he retired following the 2009 season.
Had Kurt Warner not had a large, injury-filled gap right in the middle of his career, he might have gone down as one of the greatest quarterbacks of all-time.
4 Steve Young
Steve Young is among the greatest quarterbacks of all-time. He's won a Super Bowl with the 49ers as the starter (two more as a backup), earned two MVPs, 7 Pro Bowls, and most importantly, was named to the Hall of Fame.
However, Steve Young suffered through many concussions throughout his career. Of all the injuries an athlete can go through, head injuries are the worst by far. Some of the most awful horror stories you will ever hear are athletes describing the impact of concussions on their lives.
Steve Young officially had seven concussions throughout his career, but the actual number is likely far higher. He falls into the category of having a highly successful career that could have been far greater. That's something crazy to think about given the success he already had. He was constantly leading the league in completion percentage, touchdowns, yards per attempt, and passer rating.
3 Kenny Easley
Kenny Easley is one of the best and most beloved players in Seahawks' history. To get an idea of how good he was, imagine having a safety that was a blend of Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas.
Easley played in the NFL for seven years. He was named a first team All-Pro in three straight seasons in addition to five Pro Bowls. He was also named the AP Defensive Player of the Year in 1984 and to the Pro Football Hall of Fame 1st team All-1980s Team.
Despite all of his incredible accomplishments, he could have been far better had he not been slowed down by injuries. He played all 16 games only twice in his career, constantly dealing with a variety of injuries, but most notably his ankle. Further adding to his medical issues, the Seahawks' staff had him on an insane amount of anti-inflammatory drugs that ended up ruining his Kidneys. Thankfully, Easley got a kidney transplant in 1990 but it was a terrible situation that should have been avoided.
2 Michael Vick
Michael Vick has always been one of the most talented and exciting quarterbacks in NFL history. His most famed asset was his mobility, as on many plays he wouldn't even consider his passing options, instead electing to break downfield. That is one of the worst traits for a quarterback to have but Vick made it work. Currently, he has over 6,000 career rushing yards, including a 1,000 yard season in 2006 with the Falcons.
However, his style of play came at a cost. Vick was constantly missing games, playing all 16 games only a single time over his career. Even when he was in the game, it never seemed like he was at 100%.
If he was a more durable quarterback (and hadn't made terrible life choices), Michael Vick may be in the discussion as one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. Though, that may not have even been a possibility given how chose to play.
1 Bob Sanders
Bob Sanders played 14 games in 2005 and 15 games in 2007. He was named a first-team All-Pro both years. In addition, he was a key player for the Colts defense during their 2006 Super Bowl run. He missed the majority of the regular season that year, but he was an impact safety in the postseason.
That's the story of Bob Sanders. He was an elite defender when he was on the field. The problem was that he was almost never healthy enough to play.
He had an eight year career, spanning from 2004 to 2011. However, aside from the 2005 and 2007 seasons, he never managed to play more than six games. He was constantly ending up on injured reserve for a plethora of issues.
It isn't crazy to say that Sanders would have been a Hall of Famer if he hadn't struggled with injuries. He was an insanely talented player and it's a shame his career went down the path that it did.