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IDP Stock Watch: Mark Herzlich

 

Entering the 2009 college football season, Boston College’s senior linebacker Mark Herzlich was coming off of a season where he was named ACC defensive player of the year. That same year he was also tagged as a Third Team All-American and a finalist for the Butkus Award (nation’s top linebacker). He was all but a lock to be a first round pick in the 2010 NFL Draft. If you watch a clip of Herzlich from the 2008 season, you’ll see a player that played much like he wears his eye black: Ultimate Warrior style. Simply put, he was a beast on the field.

With his future seemingly set and on an upward trajectory, things turned for Herzlich in the spring of 2009 when he was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare bone cancer. The young athlete’s focus shifted from an NFL career to purely surviving. The goal of playing football again never dissipated and became a source of motivation. He didn’t play the 2009 college football season and battled cancer throughout the year. Anyone who followed Herzlich throughout that period saw the will and determination to beat the disease and return to play football. He became an instant inspiration to many in the Boston area, football fans across the country, and others struggling with cancer.

Many doubted it, but amazingly he returned to play for Boston College in 2010 with a titanium rod in his leg for stabilization. He played through the season a year removed from radiation and chemotherapy. While he continued to be an inspiration by returning to the field and playing so quickly, he wasn’t able to play at the pre-cancer level and understandably so. His 2010 play was average as he amassed 65 total tackles. His inability to maintain the 110 total tackle level from the 2008 season was a direct result of the physical effects of the cancer treatment – it greatly reduced his strength.

Due to the medical concerns, he went undrafted in the 2011 NFL Draft. With Tom Coughlin’s Boston College roots and connections, the Giants head coach along with General Manager Jerry Reese took a shot on Herzlich’s natural ability overcoming the medical concerns. The Giants signed him as an undrafted free agent in the summer of 2011.

Last season was a year full of mixed emotions for Herzlich. He made the roster and “played” in eleven games in 2011, starting two of them. In the first nine games of the year, he didn’t see a snap, but he started the last two games of the year and played reasonably well before injuring his ankle against the Saints in week twelve and missing the remainder of the season.

In his first start against the Eagles in week eleven, Herzlich played a little over 70 percent of the team’s snaps and posted three tackles, an assist, and two quarterback hurries. In both games he started, Herzlich exhibited the ability to recognize the play/formation, play downhill, and fill the hole against the run, but showed weakness in pass coverage. Many suspect that was a result of the titanium rod in his leg. Still, not bad for a guy who was undrafted, without offseason activities as a rookie due to the lockout, and still feeling the effects of cancer treatment.

Why all the detail on his cancer diagnosis and the timeline of his college and NFL football career to date?

It’s essential in considering his long-term prospects. He has the talent – that can’t be doubted based on his 2008 college football season. The 2009 cancer diagnosis and subsequent treatment clearly affected his physical ability. However, he continues to regain strength and training reports detail that Herzlich is seriously pushing Chase Blackburn for the Giants’ starting middle linebacker.

Based on these early reports, not only does Herzlich appear stronger another year removed from cancer treatment, but he’s shown improvement in pass coverage ability. It’s still not where it needs to be and that may be one of the things that’s keeping him from starting over Blackburn initially, but it’s improving. Coach Coughlin even had praise for the young linebacker early in camp saying, “We really felt that with a year under his belt, and a chance to be in the off-season program, that this would be an opportunity for him to really come in and know what he’s doing, and be the player that we all think he can be. So far he hasn’t disappointed.”

In the first preseason game against the Jaguars, Herzlich built on that praise and performed well. He played quite a bit with the second team defense and continued to show the strong play against the run and exhibited those same qualities he showed in his two starts last season. He finished the game with two tackles, but many reports also confirm he showed improvement in pass coverage. Herzlich’s starting to put it all together and making a strong case to start at middle linebacker for the Giants.

In essence, he continues to trend towards his pre-cancer performance level as he becomes further removed from the 2009 treatment. The question is how much strength and athleticism does he need to regain in order to get to his pre-cancer form and if will he ever get to that point. He may not with the rod in his leg, but don’t forget that he’s only three years removed from cancer treatment. He’s likely to continue to regain strength and even if he doesn’t get to the pre-cancer level, he can still perform at a high level as he’s starting to show.

With these early camp reports and his preseason performance, there is still little discussion on Herzlich among IDP and football communities. While he’s unlikely to see an every down role unless his pass coverage ability improves, he may end up being the Giants’ starting middle linebacker at some point this season given the recent praise. Herzlich possesses tremendous upside given his natural ability, but he may not ever be the top NFL linebacker that many expected pre-cancer in 2008 and early 2009. At the very least, though, he can be a starting linebacker who is valuable across IDP leagues.

Ultimately, Herzlich is an upside IDP linebacker who must be watched and is worth a stash in deeper leagues at the cheap cost of a roster spot and a waiver claim.

Follow Steve on Twitter.

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Chris Russell
10 years ago

great story and always love when a player that struggles with so much adversity comes out on top. My only thought is that Keith Rivers is also in the mix there also. Track record says long shot but he has the pedigree and talent that you can’t count him out.

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