Should Bills be worried about Mitch Morse concussion history?

The Buffalo Bills continue to rumble through free agency picking up pieces to build the roster and take that next step. These moves also allow the Bills to narrow down their needs in the draft and find cornerstones for the next four to five years.

One deal that is not cheap but could work out nicely for the Bills is the recent signing of Mitch Morse. The steady center has been an anchor on the Kansas City Chiefs offensive line the past four seasons, helping protect Alex Smith and later their prized quarterback, Patrick Mahomes, and priming the motor that was the very efficient and high-powered Chiefs offense. However, despite all that Morse had done for Kansas City, they still let him walk due to injury concerns, most notably concussions.

Mitch Morse was drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs out of Missouri in the second round in 2015. He was immediately inserted into the lineup and proved to play well, making the PFWA All-Rookie Team. Overall, Morse has had several concussions and a foot injury over his four-year career, which causes concern going into this contract.

His injury history:

  • 2015: concussion Week 12, missed one game
  • 2015: concussion Week 17, missed playoffs
  • 2017: foot sprain Week 2, missed 5 games
  • 2017: re-aggravation foot sprain in Week 13, placed on IR, missed 5 games
  • 2018: concussion Week 6, missed 5 games

As mentioned above, 2015 saw Morse begin some of the concussion issues, missing three games total. 2016 saw him totally healthy and avoid the injury report all season. However, 2017 saw Morse take a big step back both figuratively and literally. Morse suffered a foot sprain in Week 2—reporting that he felt a pop—when he was bull rushed by Fletcher Cox of the Philadelphia Eagles. He later found out he suffered a foot sprain and, as a result, missed five games. He eventually came back cleared to play but was shut down after a few games and placed on IR, missing the remaining five games due to eventual surgery. As to what surgery or original injury he had, he appeared to have suffered a general mid-foot sprain with the possibility of a Lisfranc or longitudinal stress fracture. It was reported that he had surgery to place hardware to assist in healing consistent with stabilization to ensure the bones and ligament in the mid-foot healed together correctly. He was then non-weightbearing for six weeks and eventually had the screw removed several months later. While this was a setback, this injury does not cause concern for the future.

Though Morse came into 2018 healthy, he sustained another concussion. According to pro-football-reference.com, this was his third concussion in the NFL. As previously stated in my Kevin Johnson article, individuals that have had three or more concussions are three times more likely to sustain a future concussion and, as a result, have slower healing times. This was clearly evident with Morse taking five weeks to return from his concussion midway through the season in 2018 compared to concussions in 2015.

In addition to having slower healing times and a greater likelihood for a repeat concussion, the threshold to have another concussion goes down compared to healthy subjects. So this means while a player may get rocked and suffer a concussion the first time around, a simple bang-bang play or inadvertent hit could bring on a concussion the next time around. Considering Morse is in the trenches, suffering sub-concussive hits nearly every play, this is cause for concern. If Morse does suffer another concussion, he could have more problems with visual memory and processing speeds. Considering Morse was brought in to assist Josh Allen with play calling, identifying coverages, and provide protection for the quarterback, it is vital that Morse stay healthy.

While there is still much we don’t know about concussions, we know that rest and proper recovery are key to reducing the incidence of recurrence. Morse has taken his time to come back from each concussion, which is by design due to the NFL concussion protocol. While steps have been taken to reduce concussion severity including improved helmets, protocols, and concussion spotters to identify questionable hits, we cannot eliminate the injury all together. While it is not a foregone conclusion that Morse will suffer any future concussions, the concern is certainly there. As a result, the Bills better have a backup center who can step in at a moment’s notice. Right now, the Bills have Spencer Long and Russell Bodine under contract and they have the ability to re-sign Ryan Groy, though the latter move may not occur.

In addition, the Bills made Morse the NFL’s highest paid center for the moment at $11 million/year despite all these risks. The second-best center in free agency was Denver’s Matt Paradis. A quick search on pro-football-reference.com identified his injury history. Outside of arthroscopic surgery on both hips in 2017 and a broken fibula in 2018, Paradis has a shorter list of significant injuries. His injury history along with the price that the Carolina Panthers paid to sign him appear to be the better deal at the moment. However, he is approaching his age-30 season and concerns for further decline are very real. Paradis would have been a better signing if the Bills had someone waiting in the wings or if he was younger.

The Bills will need a smart, young, effective center helping to run the offense to assist Josh Allen in taking the next step forward. I expect the Bills to have a strong contingency plan in place in the event that Morse goes down just as they had when Eric Wood went down and Ryan Groy was able to step in. Without an effective backup, this would be a very risky signing. If the Bills didn’t pony up the money, someone else would have. I’d rather have Mitch Morse on my team as the Bills march towards greatness.

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