Caleb Farley’s back surgeries put NFL draft positioning in doubt

Ninth of an 11-part series. Coming tomorrow: Safety

A few months ago, Caleb Farley was at or near the top of any cornerback rankings for the 2021 NFL Draft.

Now, he may be on the board when the Jets are picking at No. 23 in the first round.

Back surgery in March, his second in a little more than a year, has led many to believe Farley will last deeper into this draft than expected. He is one of the most fascinating prospects because he has immense talent, but after two back surgeries and a torn ACL in college, the injury risk is going to scare plenty of teams. He also opted out of the 2020 season, which creates more difficulty in the evaluation.

Farley was unable to participate in Virginia Tech’s Pro Day last month because of the back surgery.

“I have to control what I can control,” Farley said. “I got a great report from [back specialist] Dr. [Robert] Watkins about the season. Really, the only negative about the situation is not being able to go put up the numbers that I was supposed to. I’m just thankful to still be in this position to showcase my talent at the next level and whatever team grabs me is going to have the best corner in the draft.”

Caleb Farley makes an interception during a 2019 game against Miami.
Caleb Farley makes an interception during a 2019 game against Miami.

Farley played the 2019 season with a herniated L5 disk and S1 bulge after injuring himself lifting weights. Those are at the base of the spine. He had surgery after that season to fix the L5 with the hope the S1 would correct itself. It did not, which led to the procedure in March.

At the medical check this month in Indianapolis, Farley reportedly got a good report and is expected to be ready for training camp. Still, teams may be leery of taking someone with that kind of injury history. For the Jets, it will remind some people of Dee Milliner, their 2013 first-round pick who always battled injuries.

Farley said he is not worried about how it affects his draft stock.

“That’s for the media,” he said. “When the teams look at the imaging and get the real information, I don’t think it will be an issue. I accepted my draft invite, so I’ll be in Cleveland. If a team wants the best corner in the draft, they’ll come find me.”

No one can question Farley’s athleticism. He played quarterback through high school, scoring 58 total touchdowns as a senior in North Carolina, and then moved to wide receiver at Virginia Tech. After a medical redshirt season in 2017, he moved to cornerback in 2018. The 6-foot-1, 197-pounder played the position for just two seasons, but had 25 passes defended in 24 games.

He opted out of the 2020 season with good reason. He lost his mother in January 2018 to breast cancer.

“I cannot afford to lose another parent or loved one,” Farley said when he announced his decision.

The opt-out could hurt his stock with teams going off two-year-old games for their evaluation and the question of how raw he is after just two years at the position.

“Caleb Farley, I thought needed to play this year to show that he could tackle and show the toughness because he’s a heck of a cover guy,” ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper said. “He gets a little … people say ‘handsy.’ There are some penalties that normally would be called in the NFL and weren’t in college. He’s got to clean that up. He’s got tremendous talent. A former quarterback and wide receiver and now he’s developed into a heck of a cover guy. He’s got the length. He’s got the athletic ability. But there are three injuries. You talk about the ACL, then the back and then another back to clean that up makes him the third cornerback, maybe the fourth cornerback. He could go anywhere, in my opinion, between 16 and 23, in that area.”

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