The NFL Comeback Player of the Year is one of the greatest awards handed out after a season’s completion. Considering the high number of seasons cut short in 2015, there are plenty of candidates in the running, but we’ve narrowed down to the top ten.
After the 2015 season, Kansas City Chiefs safety Eric Berry won the Associated Press and Pro Football Writers of America Comeback Player of the Year. Berry was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in December 2014, but after going through rounds of chemotherapy, he returned to pick off two passes, knock down 10, and tally 55 solo tackles to earn First-Team All-Pro and Pro Bowl honors in addition to being named to Pro Football Focus’ 2nd-Team All-NFL.
The Sporting News went a different route, naming Arizona Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer as their Comeback Player of the Year. In 2014, Palmer three weeks after the season opener and the final nine games due to injury. Carson’s numbers were on pace to be the best of his then 11-year career. The former first-rounder came back in a big way, to officially record his best stats ever: 4,671 passing yards, 35 touchdowns, 104.6 QB Rating, and 82.15 QBR.
So, which players that experienced the struggle in 2015 will be the owner of some new hardware after the 2016 season? Let’s take a look at the top ten candidates.
10. WR Kelvin Benjamin, Carolina Panthers
Benjamin had a great rookie campaign in 2014, starting 15 of 16 games played and catching 73 balls for more than 1,000 yards along with nine touchdowns. Kelvin also fared well in the playoffs with a nice showing against the Seattle Seahawks in the Divisional Round, hauling in 7 passes for 75 yards and 2 touchdowns.
A few weeks before the 2015 season was due to begin, the former Florida State standout tore his ACL during practice. Some felt losing Benjamin would’ve doomed the Panthers, but Cam Newton was still able to flourish and win league MVP. Did losing Benjamin make Newton a better quarterback? Will Kelvin’s return disrupt the flow? Well, The Sports Daily feels Benjamin is the missing link to Carolina’s Super Bowl chances.
It’s conceivable that Carolina could see three targets with 1,000 receiving yards: tight end Greg Olsen, and wideouts Devin Funchess and Benjamin. If Kelvin’s able to be the top gainer of the three, he should garner significant attention for the Comeback award.
Kelvin’s ranked eighth on NFL.com writer Chris Wesserling’s list of the top Comeback candidates, with Wesserling commenting:
“One of the biggest stars in a historically great rookie receiver class, Benjamin beat a string of the NFL’s stingiest cornerbacks…he’ll be the top receiving threat on a Super Bowl contender.”
The Panthers have one of the tougher schedules in the league, but the easiest within the NFC South as Carolina appears to be the clear favorite to win the title for the fourth year in a row.
9. OLB Terrell Suggs, Baltimore Ravens
Suggs started all 32 games over the previous two seasons before he tore his Achilles in Week 1 against the Denver Broncos last year. In 2013, Suggs was a Pro Bowler with 10 sacks and 80 combined tackles. In 2014, Terrell had 12 sacks (9th best in the league), a safety, and 69 combined takedowns. Though he’ll be turning 34 during this upcoming campaign, expect Sizzle to ball so hard.
Ravens columnist John Eisenberg wrote the Terrell is one of Baltimore’s biggest enigmas on a team that was ravaged by injuries, most notable of which were to Joe Flacco, Steve Smith, and Justin Forsett. Elvis Dumervil feels he and Suggs can return to being the top sack duo in 2016 and head coach John Harbaugh stated Suggs could be ready to go in training camp.
NFL.com columnist Jeffri Chadiha noted:
“Suggs’s absence also impacted fellow pass rusher Elvis Dumervil, who registered just six sacks after amassing 17 in 2015, along with a defense that ranked 24th in the NFL in points allowed. Dumervil already has been touting the potential of this duo once Suggs is back on the field. The entire Ravens team should be equally excited about those possibilities.”
Baltimore has the toughest schedule in the AFC North, but still easier than most other teams in the league. If Suggs can get to double-digit sacks and guide the Ravens back to the postseason, a Comeback award could be within reach.
8. RB Arian Foster, Miami Dolphins
In 2014, Foster racked up 1,246 rushing yards (6th best in NFL) on 260 carries and eight touchdowns along with 38 catches for 327 receiving yards and five scores through the air in only 13 games to earn a Pro Bowl nod. Arian’s 95.8 rushing yards per game were second highest league-wide.
Foster’s 2015 season got off to a bad start when he tore his groin muscle in training camp and missed the first three games. His first game back in Week 4 against the Falcons was forgettable, but his next three outings were encouraging. Then he tore his Achilles tendon in the Week 7 match-up against the Miami Dolphins, whom Foster recently signed with.
Miami’s fifth round draft pick out of Boise State last year, Jay Ajayi, was considered the starting back after losing Lamar Miller (to Houston, ironically) and before signing Arian, prompting many to wonder how Foster fits in.
Ajayi only had 49 carries for 187 rushing yards and a touchdown in 2015, and the Dolphins drafted Alabama back Kenyan Drake in the third round. Of the three, Foster presents the most known option, but he might be seen as more of a one-year bridge and mentor to Ajayi and Drake.
7. RB Jamaal Charles, Kansas City Chiefs
Charles was a First-Team All-Pro in 2013 when he led the league with 12 rushing touchdowns, 19 total touchdowns, and was second league-wide with 1,980 yards from scrimmage. Jamaal’s 14 rushing and receiving touchdowns in 2014 were good for third most in the NFL.
Jamaal was averaging 5.13 rushing yards an attempt — but only about 14 carries — through five games in 2015 before he tore his ACL against the Chicago Bears in Week 5 and missed the rest of the season.
NFL.com columnist Jeffri Chadiha noted:
“In 2013, Charles represented approximately 37 percent of this team’s offensive production. Three years later, he’ll be part of a backfield that benefitted from surprising production out of little-known backs Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware in Charles’ absence. For a four-time Pro Bowler who turns 30 in December — and is coming off the second ACL operation of his career — Charles should do well with more rest and more help.”
The Chiefs schedule is middle of the pack in terms of toughness and with the a crowded backfield, it might take a lot more for Charles to make his mark. Despite the challenges ahead, Sports Illustrated ranked Charles as the NFL’s fourth best running back, adding:
“At 100% he is an ideal back for the modern game, a three-down playmaker with more than enough evasiveness and speed to be deadly in the open field. “
SI also called Jamaal the 7th best fantasy back, noting Charles scored an:
“average of 16 fantasy points per game in standard-scoring leagues, just 0.3 points behind 2015’s leader, Devonta Freeman… he remains one of the most bankable assets in the fantasy game.”
Charles has shown progress in his rehab, as evidenced by a video showcasing his lateral movement, but with a new role and less dependence on him for success, his chances of winning the Comeback award are not favorable.
6. DE Jason Pierre-Paul, New York Giants
In an article I wrote for GMenHQ, I posited that JPP could be in the running for greatest comeback player of all-time if he were to notch double-digit sacks, lead a much-maligned defense to the top echelon of the league, and help his squad make the postseason for the first time in five years.
NJ.com’s James Kratch believes 2016 will be a career-defining season for the seven-year veteran who had the second best year of his career in 2014, starting all 16 games for the first time and notching 12.5 sacks. Before the July 4th fireworks accident that forced him to miss the first eight games of the 2015 season, JPP was on his way to a franchise tag of $14 – $15 million with many believing he’d return to his First-Team All-Pro numbers of 2011. Instead, Big Blue was able to sign Pierre-Paul to a one year deal worth $10 million, which was considered one of the best free agent signings of the 2016 offseason.
So, JPP won’t just be trying to prove his doubters wrong, he’ll be in a contract year and will be lining up with newly acquired free agents Damon Harrison and Olivier Vernon in addition to Johnathan Hankins, a promising D-tackle whose 2015 season was also cut short by injury. Throw a revamped secondary and re-fortified linebacking corps, and JPP should get plenty of chances to make his case for Comeback Player of the Year.
5. RB Le’Veon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers
Bell was a First-Team All-Pro and Pro Bowler in 2014, racking up 1,361 rushing yards (second highest in the league) on 290 carries (third highest league-wide) and eight touchdowns on the ground to go with 854 receiving yards, 83 receptions, and three more scores through the air.
Before the 2015 season Bell was suspended for the first two games for a violating the league’s drug policy, but he put up exceptional numbers that were on pace with his 2014 output. Then he tore his Achilles during a tackle by Vontaze Burfict in Week 8 against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Sports Illustrated ranked Le’Veon Bell as the best fantasy football back…
“If you went into a lab with the goal of engineering the perfect back for the style of offense favored in today’s league, Bell would be the end product.”
“He was on an 1,800-plus-yard pace again last season before a knee injury ended his year in Week 8. Bell claims his legs are even stronger now after rehab, but if he even can get back to his ’14 form, he should again be as productive as they come.”
Bell has stated he wants to make $15 million per year and is ranked as the 4th most coveted free agent in the 2017 offseason by USA Today.
Pro Football Focus ranked Bell as the top candidate for CPOY award, adding:
“He is truly a three-down workhorse, and one that is a rare breed in today’s game… Though he appeared in only six games, Bell earned the highest grade of any NFL running back this past season.”
Steelers Depot noted that Bell would be the first Steeler to win the award since Tommy Maddox in 2002.
NFL.com columnist Jeffri Chadiha noted:
“The Steelers still have plenty of talent on offense, but Bell’s versatility allows them to play at a different level when he’s healthy. They will need him more than ever this fall and he’s likely to come back with a vengeance.”
With Martavis Bryant suspended for the year, it’s possible we’ll see more of DeAngelo Williams to lighten the load on the workhorse Le’Veon Bell cow, but that shouldn’t hamper his chances of winning the Comeback honors.
The Steelers have a fairly weak schedule – tied for 23rd strongest in the NFL – so the offense should put up a lot of yards and points, which will only assist Bell’s campaign.
4. WR Victor Cruz, New York Giants
Vic hasn’t played a single down since his catastrophic knee injury in Week 6 against the Philadelphia Eagles in 2014, which means Cruz has missed 26 games. The Giants were 3-2 at the time of his season-ending setback, but went on to a 6-10 record.
Cruz was expected to be back in the lineup for 2015, but a calf injury ended his season in training camp. There was a lot of speculation that Cruz might get cut before June 1st, however, he and Big Blue came to an agreement that would reduce his hit against the salary cap, allowing the organization to make waves in free agency.
Victor has only started one full season in his six-year career, in 2012 when he made the Pro Bowl with 86 grabs for 1,092 yards and 10 touchdowns. The salsa dancer missed a couple games in 2013 and his production declined, mostly because there wasn’t a viable secondary threat for Eli Manning to consider.
That’s changed now as Odell Beckham, Jr. has emerged as a superstar and 2016 second round draft pick Sterling Shepard has thoroughly impressed everyone this Spring. Cruz can now come in and line up against either a #2 or #3 corner in single-man coverage and win battles.
Though, there are only so many targets and touches to go around, Cruz can conservatively figure on catching 50-60 passes for 660 yards and 5 touchdowns. But, seeing as all three top wideouts for the Giants are superb route runners, Cruz’s ceiling could be 70-80 snags for 800-900 and 10 scores. Plus, the Giants are tied for second easiest schedule in the NFL.
Given Victor’s history, if he can generate consistent, impactful production over all 16 games, he’d be difficult to ignore for Comeback Player of the Year.
3. WR Jordy Nelson, Green Bay Packers
Jordy started every game on the Packers schedule the two years prior to tearing his ACL in a preseason game and missing the entire 2015 season. Expectations for Nelson were high heading into last year’s slate. In 2014, he had the best season of his then seven-year career, hauling in 98 passes (7th most in the NFL) for 1,519 yards and 13 touchdowns. The man they call “White Lightning” made the Pro Bowl roster and was voted Second-Team All-NFL by the Associated Press and Pro Football Focus.
AP Pro Football Writer Barry Wilner believes Jordy may be the most important player in the league returning from injury, noting:
“It could be argued that no player’s recovery is more critical to his team’s title chances than Packers wideout Nelson from a torn right ACL.”
Sports Illustrated recently ranked Jordy as the NFL’s 14th best outside receiver, adding:
“He is a body-control extraordinaire, which is why Rodgers often looks his direction in tight spots. Nelson can win at every level of the field, but he is at his best finding space while Rodgers keeps plays alive.”
NFL Network analyst Jay Feely believes Nelson is the NFL’s most underrated receiver.
“You saw the ramifications on that offense in Green Bay and how much they struggled. He’s never been looked at as a No. 1 receiver, but if you look at his numbers the last couple of years, I just think that we saw just how important he was to that offense we they lost him last year. I think he’s a guy that I don’t think gets enough credit.”
NFL.com’s Chris Wesseling thinks Nelson is the favorite to win the NFL Comeback Player of the Year award, remarking:
“The wrong-headed notion that Nelson’s skyrocketing production was merely a byproduct of Aaron Rodgers’ excellence was put to rest last season when the Packers’ offense disintegrated without its go-to receiver… Rodgers has made a science out of the back-shoulder throw while Nelson rivals DeAndre Hopkins as the NFL’s most acrobatic boundary receiver.”
NFL.com columnist Jeffri Chadiha noted:
“Many people suspected that Green Bay’s offense was in trouble when its best receiver tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee last August. Still, it was stunning to see just how much the Packers ultimately missed Nelson. Perennial Pro Bowl quarterback Aaron Rodgers literally had nobody else on the roster who could create separation and big plays as consistently as Nelson could.”
Pro Football Focus ranked Nelson as the second most likely Comeback Player of the Year, writing:
“In terms of PFF grades, Nelson ranked second among WRs in both 2013 and 2014. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who was the NFL’s Most Valuable Player in 2014 with Nelson on the field, had a good—but not elite—season in 2015, finishing with the 12th-highest grade among QBs.”
While many detractors cite Nelson’s age – Jordy turned 31 at the end of May – as a reason he won’t return to form, the Packers have the weakest schedule in the league. The less strenuous agenda should help pad Jordy’s numbers and lead to a Super Bowl run.
2. QB Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts
Luck hadn’t missed a start in the first three years of his career and made the Pro Bowl in each of those seasons. In 2014, Andrew threw for the third most passing yards in the league, but his 2015 season stats were hampered by injuries.
Over seven starts, Luck went 2-5 while registering the highest interception percentage of his already prolific track record in the NFL. The Stanford product missed two games early on due to a shoulder injury and would later suffer a lacerated kidney and a partially torn ab after an upset win over the undefeated Denver Broncos.
NFL.com columnist Jeffri Chadiha noted:
“ In a division that will be as dramatically improved as the AFC South, Luck’s performance obviously will be the biggest determinant of whether the Colts return to the playoffs.”
Pro Football Focus ranked Luck as the third most likely Comeback Player of the Year, writing:
“Luck has been one of the most-pressured quarterbacks in the NFL since entering the league in 2012 as a result of poor offensive line play. In terms of pass-blocking efficiency, the Colts ranked dead last (32nd) in 2012, 29th in 2013, 21st in 2014, and 23rd in 2015.
To help the cause, the Colts selected Alabama center Ryan Kelly with the 18th overall pick in the 2016 draft. Kelly figures to be a significant upgrade at the position and a day-one starter (he surrendered no sacks and allowed just five hits and eight hurries the last two years in college).”
NFL.com writer Chris Wesserling believes Luck is the top Comeback candidate, stating:
“This is the same quarterback who led the NFL with 40 touchdown passes in 2014, carried a flawed team to the AFC Championship Game and had grizzled veterans such as Frank Gore and Andre Johnson raving that he was the best in the league as a “football god” with coach-like powers of perception…there’s no reason to believe Luck won’t recapture the form that led to a No. 7 ranking in the 2015 edition of NFL Network’s “Top 100 Players.”
Another appearance in the Conference Championship would somewhat bolster Luck’s chances for Comeback Player of the Year, but a Super Bowl run could give him the edge.
1. QB Tony Romo, Dallas Cowboys
The embattled Cowboys signal-caller finally got off the .500 schneid in 2014, going 12-3 and earning a Pro Bowl nod. Romo completed a league-high 69.9 percent of passes and was tops in the NFL for yards per attempt (8.5), touchdown percentage (7.8%), QB rating (113.2), ESPN’s QBR (83.62), and game-winning drives (5). His QB rating also ranks sixth-highest all-time in the NFL.
Romo got off to a good start last season as he orchestrated a game-winning drive against the New York Giants in Week 1 and spearheaded Big D to a 13-0 lead over the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 2 before getting sacked by Jordan Hicks and breaking his collarbone. That setback forced Romo to miss the next seven games.
The 12-year vet would return in Week 11 against the Miami Dolphins and looked like a little rusty before re-injuring the collarbone and effectively ending his season in a Thanksgiving Day game against the eventual NFC Champion Carolina Panthers.
AP Writer Barry Wilner wrote that “Around Big D, folks fully believe Romo’s return to health will ensure the Cowboys’ return to the postseason.” ESPN’s Dan Graziano believes Romo will be the MVP of the NFC East, adding:
“I predict the Cowboys quarterback bounces back from last season’s injuries and leads Dallas to a division title in a manner that looks a lot like his 2014 season…Ezekiel Elliott will only help with Romo’s protection and with diversifying the offense to take pressure off him.”
NFL.com columnist Jeffri Chadiha thinks Romo is the most impactful player returning from injury, stating:
“It’s fair to say the Cowboys would’ve run away with the mediocre NFC East had they not been forced to use three different quarterbacks to replace their fallen star. Bring (Romo) back to an offense with highly accomplished pass catchers (Dez Bryant and Jason Witten), an exciting rookie running back (Ezekiel Elliott) and the best offensive line in football, and it’s hard to not see the Cowboys returning to the postseason.”
Pro Football Focus ranked Romo as the fifth top candidate for Comeback Player of the Year:
“Romo has been one of the most consistent quarterbacks in the league the last five years, earning season grades that ranked 11th, 10th, 11th, 13th, and seventh from 2010–2014 before his injury-plagued season of 2015.”
Romo has said he still wants to be playing football in 10 years, and the Dallas faithful would love to kick off that decade-long run with a Comeback Player of the Year effort and a Super Bowl ring. The Cowboys schedule is among the easiest in the league, so the opportunity is there for the taking.