Top 15 Candidates for 2012 NFL Comeback Player of the Year

Steven Gerwel@Steve_GerContributor IIIMarch 19, 2012

Top 15 Candidates for 2012 NFL Comeback Player of the Year

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    There's always a chance for redemption when it comes to the NFL

    Every season, there are players who free fall and lose the limelight, while there are also players who emerge from the shadows to claim or reclaim the respect of the entire league. 

    The dramatics of the NFL is what makes the game so intriguing to the average fan. The heroic stories and unpredictable failures are so real and emotional that no alternative form of entertainment can even compare. 

    In the NFL, the unexpected is so expected that there's even an annual award dedicated to the subject.

    Every season, there's at least one forgotten player who steps onto the gridiron and earns redemption, and that player is awarded with the Comeback Player of the Year award.

    In 2011, Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford won the award. After missing 19 total games throughout his first two NFL seasons, Stafford bounced back as a third-year player and threw for an astonishing 5,038 yards and 41 touchdowns. 

    But who will be the man that steps up his game in 2012? 

    If we know one thing, it's that the NFL is anything but predictable, so it's impossible to answer that question.

    However, this article will look at 15 candidates who have the best shot at this time. 

15. LeGarrette Blount, RB (Tampa Bay Bucaneers)

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    As an undrafted rookie in 2010, LaGarrette Blount on had 10 total carries throughout the first six games of the season. 

    It wasn't until Week 7 against St. Louis, when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers finally allowed him to carry the ball 11 times, resulting in 72 rushing yards and a 6.5 yards per carry average. 

    After that game, he became the team's featured back and finished the year with 1,007 yards and six touchdowns despite missing significant playing time towards the beginning of the year. 

    However, while he was seemingly unstoppable in 2010, he struggled to produce similar numbers in 2011 after rushing for just 781 yards and five touchdowns. 

    The Buccaneers were frequently trailing their opponents, taking away their desire to run the ball, which is one reason why Blount failed to produce.

    Blount's teammate, quarterback Josh Freeman, has a much better shot at winning the Comeback Player of the Year award. However, if Blount puts together a dominant 2012 season, then he'll certainly be in the conversation.  

14. Clay Matthews, OLB (Green Bay Packers)

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    The Comeback Player of the Year Award suggests two things about the the recipient: 

    First, that they were once playing at a high level (which makes it odd that Matthew Stafford won in 2011, considering it was his first productive season).

    And second, that they experienced a decline in overall play before returning to that higher level of production.

    So because of the second qualification, linebacker Clay Matthews is not a likely candidate since he remained a productive player in 2011.

    However, Matthews was a dominant pass-rusher in his first two NFL seasons with 23.5 total sacks, but his sack total dipped down to just six in 2011.

    If Matthews' sack total returns to double-digits in 2012 and if there are no other clear-cut favorites for the Comeback Player of the Year award, then he has a shot at winning.    

13. Miles Austin, WR (Dallas Cowboys)

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    Dallas Cowboys receiver Miles Austin was an undrafted rookie in 2006, but he emerged out of nowhere and had back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons in 2009 and 2010. 

    However, he missed six games in 2011 due to a hamstring injury, which forced him to end his season with just 43 catches for 579 yards. 

    If Austin exceeds 1,000 yards in 2012, then he'll establish himself as a clear candidate for the Comeback Player of the Year award. 

12. Mario Williams, DE (Buffalo Bills)

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    Many people were skeptical of the Houston Texans drafting defensive end Mario Williams No. 1 overall over Reggie Bush in the 2006 NFL draft. 

    But by his second NFL season in 2007, Williams had already established himself as a premiere pass-rusher after racking up 14 sacks.  

    However, his sack total dropped below double digits in 2009 (nine sacks) and has steadily decreased until he had just five sacks in 2011 after missing 11 games with a torn muscle.

    But regardless of the injury, the Buffalo Bills signed Williams to a contract worth up to $100 million, making it the most lucrative contract ever rewarded to a defensive player.  

    Such a sizable contract will surely garner plenty of attention, which means Williams has a solid shot at winning the Comeback Player of the Year award if his sack total returns to double digits in 2012. 

11. DeSean Jackson, WR (Philadelphia Eagles)

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    Philadelphia Eagles receiver DeSean Jackson was regarded as one of the more dangerous weapons in the NFL throughout his first three seasons. 

    He's a lightning-fast player capable of scoring on any given play, whether it's through the air or in the return game. 

    However, issues with his contract caused him to hold out during training camp.

    Even after returning to action, the dispute was still a distraction that lasted throughout the season. It even forced the coaching staff to bench him during the Eagles' Week 10 matchup against Arizona.

    But despite not being the most popular athlete in Philadelphia following the 2011 season, the Eagles front office still took a gamble and offered the troubled receiver a brand new five-year deal worth $51 million. 

    With a new contract to feed Jackson's ego, there's a decent chance that he'll regain his focus in 2012 and reclaim his place under the spotlight. 

10. Adrian Peterson, RB (Minnesota Vikings)

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    For the first time since entering the NFL in 2007, Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson failed to reach 1,000 yards rushing. 

    Peterson finished with just 970 yards after missing three games due to an ankle injury obtained against Oakland in Week 11. And to top it off, he missed the final game of the season after tearing his ACL and MCL against Washington in Week 16.

    It's rare for running backs to return to full form after knee injuries. Most likely, 2012 will be a recovery year with limited carries, while Peterson won't be 100 percent until 2013.

    Also, it doesn't help that he received to injury so late into the season, as it gives him less time to fully recover.

    However, if there's one running back talented enough to put together a dominant season with a banged-up knee, it's Peterson. 

    Peterson finished 2011 with nearly 1,000 yards and 13 total touchdowns, so a solid 2012 campaign wouldn't be much of a "comeback," but rather, a successful return from injury. 

    Regardless, a respectable season in 2012 puts him into the conversation for Comeback Player of the Year. 

9. Andre Johnson, WR (Houston Texans)

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    After it became clear that Peyton Manning would miss games due to his neck injury, the Houston Texans immediately became the favorites to win the AFC South. 

    And as the centerpiece of the Houston aerial attack, receiver Andre Johnson was set to have another prolific season and help lead the Texans to their first playoff appearance in franchise history. 

    The Texans ultimately earned that playoff appearance, but it had little to do with Johnson. 

    Johnson missed seven games after suffering ligament damage in his knee, and he missed an additional three games with a hamstring injury

    As a result of the injuries, Johnson played in just seven games and put together the worst statistical season of his career with just 492 yards and two touchdowns. 

    But make no mistake, Johnson is an elite receiver in the NFL and will always be mentioned in the same breath as receivers such as Larry Fitzgerald

    Due to Johnson's dominance, it's inevitable that he'll rebound and put together another successful year in 2012. 

8. Carson Palmer, QB (Oakland Raiders)

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    Carson Palmer refused to play another game for the Cincinnati Bengals, and since Bengals owner Mike Brown refused to trade Palmer, he was forced to retire

    Palmer's "retirement" caused him to miss training camp and the first six games of the 2011 season.

    Eventually, Brown came to his senses and traded Palmer to Oakland in exchange for potentially two first-round draft picks.  

    However, after sitting out for so long, Palmer struggled to regain his form and threw just 13 touchdowns and 16 interceptions in nine starts. 

    It was a mildly disappointing year for Palmer, but after a full offseason of organized team workouts and training camp, there's a chance that Palmer will grow chemistry with his Oakland teammates and return to form in 2012.  

7. Peyton Hillis, RB (Kansas City Chiefs)

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    With the 29th-ranked offense in 2011 (288.8 yards per game), the Cleveland Browns were clearly lacking in talent. 

    It was a talent deficiency that could not be countered by one man, which is why running back Peyton Hillis was ineffective last season. 

    Hillis missed five consecutive weeks with a hamstring injury, but even when he was on the field he averaged just 3.6 yards per carry and only had one 100-yard game all season. 

    It was quite the downfall considering Hillis was basically unstoppable in 2010 with 1,177 yards and 11 touchdowns, which ultimately earned him the cover of the 2011 Madden video game (which might have been the true cause of his regression if you believe in the Madden curse).

    However, Hillis was signed by the Kansas City Chiefs to a one-year deal worth $3 million. 

    The relocation will pair him up with the dangerous Jamaal Charles, and the two will presumably form a capable duo in the Kansas City backfield. 

6. Sam Bradford, QB (St. Louis Rams)

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    As a rookie in 2010, quarterback Sam Bradford became just the third first-year passer in NFL history to exceed 3,000 passing yards (3,512). 

    He helped an abysmal St. Louis Rams team gain a respectable 7-9 record and was named the Offensive Rookie of the Year.

    Last season, however, Bradford struggled behind an incompetent offensive line that allowed an NFL-high 55 sacks. The lack of protection forced Bradford into a sophomore slump and even sidelined him for six games with an ankle injury.

    But now that head coach Steve Spagnuolo was fired and replaced with veteran coach Jeff Fisher, look for Bradford to recapture his status as a rising star in the NFL.  

5. Josh Freeman, QB (Tampa Bay Buccaneers)

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    Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman was presumably on the fast track to success after a remarkable 2010 campaign. 

    Freeman threw for 25 touchdowns and just six interceptions while leading his team to five fourth-quarter comebacks and a 10-6 record.

    Freeman slumped last season with just 16 touchdowns and 22 interceptions, while the Buccaneers finished with a highly disappointing 4-12 record.

    However, with the free-agent acquisitions of offensive guard Carl Nicks and receiver Vincent Jackson, look for Freeman to have a breakout year in 2012.  

4. Jamaal Charles, RB (Kansas City Chiefs)

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    In 2010, running back Jamaal Charles used his dominant speed to rush for 1,467 yards with an incredible 6.4 yards per carry average. 

    He was predisposed to have another remarkable year in 2011 and was a highly-coveted player in the world of fantasy football. 

    However, Charles tore his ACL during the second game of the season, ending his 2011 campaign. 

    It's hard to have faith in Charles' ability to fully recover from his knee injury since he's a player who greatly relies on speed and his ability to make sharp cuts. 

    But since the injury occurred so early into the season, it has provided ample time for a full recovery. 

    Charles is said to be on track in his recovery, and he could ultimately surprise everyone in 2012. 

3. Michael Vick, QB (Philadelphia Eagles)

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    In 2010, Michael Vick took over at quarterback for a struggling Kevin Kolb and took the league by storm. 

    The once prolific quarterback missed two seasons while serving jail time for illegal dog fighting, but he reestablished himself as a capable NFL quarterback in 2010. 

    In 12 starts, he threw for 3,018 yards and 21 touchdowns. He also picked up an additional nine touchdowns on the ground. 

    He helped the Philadelphia Eagles achieve a 10-6 record and a playoff berth, while he was also honored with the 2010 Comeback Player of the Year award. 

    Vick struggled in 2011 with 18 touchdowns and 14 interceptions, but his offensive line and defense certainly deserve a sizable portion of the blame. 

    If Vick can bounce back in 2012, then he has a chance to be just the second player in NFL history to earn the Comeback Player of the Year award on two occasions (the other being Chad Pennington). 

2. Randy Moss, WR (San Francisco 49ers)

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    Wide receiver Randy Moss started 11 games for three different teams in 2010 (Patriots, Vikings, Titans), but he finished the year with just 393 yards and five touchdowns. 

    The disastrous season caused teams to show zero interest in Moss the following offseason. As a result, Moss officially retired from the NFL. 

    However, the retirement was more of a phase than a permanent decision. 

    On March 12, the San Francisco 49ers and Moss reached a one-year agreement worth $2.5 million. 

    After sitting out for an entire season, a comeback year for the 35-year-old Moss would be simply remarkable.  

1. Peyton Manning, QB (TBD)

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    Peyton Manning is clearly the early front runner for the 2012 Comeback Player of the Year award, regardless of which team he ultimately signs with. 

    Manning missed the entire 2011 season with a neck injury, and his departure from the Colts and his hunt for a new team has been a highly-publicized story this offseason.

    As a result of the ongoing drama, he is guaranteed to win the award with just a typical Manning season.

    Even with a season that's merely average by most standards, he's still the front-runner for the award.