Is Westbrook putting himself at risk?

Brian Westbrook (AP/Michael Perez)

The 49ers' new running backs says he's healthy again, but another concussion could end his playing career for good.

When he's healthy, Brian Westbrook is still one of the most dangerous running backs in the NFL – a player who can beat defenders to the edge or catch the ball out of the backfield and break off a long run. What team wouldn't want him?

There's just one thing: concussions. If Westbrook suffers another one, is his career over? Is he taking too big a risk by playing again?

Westbrook thinks not – and apparently neither do the San Francisco 49ers, who signed him to a one-year contract on Monday worth $1.25 million. He can double his salary with incentives.

Westbrook, who turns 31 in two weeks, missed eight games last season after suffering two concussions and an ankle injury. The Eagles released him in February even though he leads all NFL running backs in receptions (380), receiving yards (3,372), receiving touchdowns (25) and yards after the catch (3,137) since 2004.

He insists that doctors have told him he's fine, but the 49ers will have to be cautious with their new player, both in training camp and during the season. One more concussion wouldn't just end Westbrook's career, it might have long-term effects on his brain.

To the NFL's credit, it has imposed stricter guidelines when players sustain head injuries, and safer helmets are continually being developed. But there are no guarantees, given the violent nature of the game, that a crushing blow might result in a concussion to any player. New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning took a dangerous hit Monday night after his helmet was knocked off. He showed no signs of a concussion but needed 12 stitches to close a gash to his head. Luckily for him, he's going to be all right.

But Westbrook is clearly taking a risk by returning to the game. Even though he said, "I am fully healthy," he will always be one more hit away from another concussion.

His next one will certainly be his last.

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