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Receiver's dilemma: get hit high or low?

Eric Adelson
Yahoo Sports

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Not every NFL player has seen the season-ending injury to Dolphins tight end Dustin Keller.

Not every NFL player wants to.

Keller's right leg bent in an extremely awkward way after he was hit in a preseason game over the weekend by Texans safety D.J. Swearinger. The veteran tight end tore three ligaments and dislocated his knee.

"I can't watch stuff like that," says Jaguars wide receiver Toney Clemons. "It makes me queasy."

Swearinger said he felt he couldn't aim high on Keller, for fear of getting a fine under the NFL's new standards about targeting the head. That, however, raises a difficult question:

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Would a receiver rather be hit high or hit low?

Nobody wants to deal with head trauma and its potential consequences, but a knee injury can end a career instantly. So what are receivers more concerned with?

"That's the toughest question I've heard all year," said Jaguars receiver Cecil Shorts III.

The question hit home for Ace Sanders, who texted Swearinger (his former South Carolina teammate) right away to ask, "Are you all right?"

Swearinger told Sanders he was "shook up" with worry about Keller and then again when he got backlash about his tackle. Keller's teammate, Brian Hartline, told a Miami radio station that Swearinger's reasoning for going low was "crap."

"If you're telling me, 'Oh, I'm so worried about going high or hurting the head,' " Hartline told WQAM, "you consciously went low then is what you're trying to tell me."

Most tacklers aren't consciously doing anything other than trying to make the play – especially someone like Swearinger, who is a rookie. Receivers understand that.

"You can't blame a DB for doing that," Shorts said. "It's just a reaction. You gotta play ball."

Still, among this very small and unscientific sample size in the Jaguars locker room, more receivers said they would rather be hit low if given the choice. That hints the growing concern with concussions has sifted through to players.

"Down low would be safer," said Clemons. "You don't want the long-term effects. You don't want to be affected by the mental stuff up top."

Shorts agrees, explaining that he's dealt with concussions in the past. He left two games last December with head issues. "You'd rather get hit low," he said, mentioning the new thigh pads receivers are made to wear as a good extra layer of protection.

It wasn't unanimous. Rookie Tobais Palmer said he'd rather get hit high because "it's a bigger target on your body. As a wide receiver, you need your legs."

Inside the Jaguars locker room Monday, every receiver interviewed said there was really no way to adjust mid-tackle. And often there's no time to brace for a hit if you're in the midst of catching a pass. So in a prisoner's dilemma situation, which pretty much every NFL play can bring about, Swearinger may have actually done the right thing even if he didn't really have time to make any decision at all. The best hit is in the torso, or around the waist, but the worst outcome of any hit in football is a neck injury – not a knee injury.

It's just too bad the outcome in Keller's case was so dire. All Sanders could advise his friend was to "continue to pray for Dustin."

Swearinger told his old teammate he would.

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