Predicting NFL's Most Likely Comeback Player of the Year Candidates
After Associated Press voters threw precedent out the window by choosing San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers as the recipient of the 2013 NFL Comeback Player of the Year Award, there’s no shortage of players who could potentially earn the subjective honor in 2014.
The award has typically been given to a player returning from a major medical situation, such as Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning in 2012 after neck surgery cost him the entire 2011 season or New England Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi, a co-recipient of the award in 2005, who returned to play, despite suffering a stroke earlier that year.
That proved to no longer be the main criterion of the award this past season. Rivers, who hasn’t missed a single game since 2006, came back from nothing other than a season below his standards. Broncos running back Knowshon Moreno, who tied for second place in the voting, was inactive for eight games the season before, but due to poor play rather than injury.
It seems that last year, a majority of voters approached their decisions as though the award signifies the most improved player from the previous season, rather than highlighting the player who overcame the most adversity.
As a result, a prominent player who failed to play up to expectations this past season, like Rivers did in 2012, could be just as strong of a Comeback Player of the Year Award candidate as someone whose season was cut short by an injury.
There is one trend, however, that is obvious and ongoing: Since the Associated Press resumed giving out the award in 1998, 11 of its 17 recipients—including the last six—have been quarterbacks.
Given that pattern, it can be assumed that there are a number of signal-callers who are far more likely to win than an offensive lineman, tight end or defensive back, all position groups that have never been represented by either the AP’s award or the Pro Football Writers of America Comeback Player of the Year Award.
Leon Hall, CB, Cincinnati Bengals
One of the NFL’s best slot cornerbacks in defensive sub-packages but also an excellent starter on the outside, Leon Hall was a significant loss for the Cincinnati Bengals secondary this past season when a torn Achilles ended his year in October.
If he performs at his previous level of play all season in 2014, he deserves serious consideration for the award as an Achilles injury makes for a notoriously difficult recovery. However, he’d the first defensive back to ever win it.
Julio Jones, WR, Atlanta Falcons
Julio Jones might have been the best wide receiver in the NFL for the first quarter of last season, but a fracture in his foot sidelined him after just five games. If he comes back and resumes his place as one of the league’s elite offensive playmakers, he’ll draw consideration for this award.
Jermichael Finley, TE, Free Agent
It’s somewhat of a long shot that Jermichael Finley, who had spinal-fusion surgery in October and has yet to sign with an NFL team this offseason, will even play in the league this year or ever again.
That said, if he were to be cleared to play, the former Green Bay Packers' pass-catcher’s unlikely return from injury could be compelling enough for him to win the award if he performs well for any team that might be willing to take a chance on signing him.
David Wilson, RB, New York Giants
Like Finley, New York Giants running back David Wilson is trying to bounce back from neck surgery that put his career in jeopardy. He has not yet been cleared to return but is expected to be in July, according to the team physician Russell Warren, per Newsday’s Tom Rock.
Wilson’s season was a mess even before he was injured last season, but even if he plays all year and has a great season, calling it a comeback might be a stretch, as he is more accurately a player who has yet to break out and capitalize upon his potential.
10. Ryan Clady, LT, Denver Broncos
The Denver Broncos have at least four players who could be this year’s Comeback Player of the Year—outside linebacker Von Miller, cornerback Chris Harris and defensive end DeMarcus Ware could all meet the criteria—but there might not be any Bronco whose comeback is more important to the team’s success than left tackle Ryan Clady.
In 2012, Clady was an first-team AP All-Pro selection, and he was rewarded last offseason with a lucrative five-year contract. The star left tackle only played two games this past season, however, before a Lisfranc foot fracture sent him to injured reserve.
For most of the season, Clady’s absence went paid much attention, in part because of the position he plays but also because of the impressive play of Chris Clark filling in for him at left tackle. He was certainly missed in the Super Bowl, however, when the Seattle Seahawks overwhelmed the Broncos' offensive line in Denver’s humiliating 43-8 defeat.
The return of Clady, who has participated in offseason workouts, according to ESPN.com’s Jeff Legwold, is a crucial factor in Denver’s effort to make another championship run.
Yet even if Clady resumes his status as one of the NFL’s elite offensive tackles, he’s a long shot to win this award. As the Broncos offense still led the NFL in points and yards without him last year, most people aren’t going to take much notice to the positive impact Clady could have on the left side of Denver’s pass protection and run blocking up front.
9. Matt Schaub, QB, Oakland Raiders
The Houston Texans were the NFL’s worst team this past season, and there was no bigger factor in their demise than the decline of Matt Schaub as their starting quarterback. Known for being a steady and reliable—if unspectacular—passer in his first six seasons with the team, Schaub’s play became topsy-turvy last season, as he threw 14 interceptions, despite starting just eight games.
After a disastrous season in which he set an NFL record by throwing pick-sixes in four consecutive games, it seemed likely that Schaub’s run as a starting quarterback was over, but he’s getting another season. The Oakland Raiders, who traded a sixth-round pick to acquire Schaub from Houston this offseason, expect him to be their starter in 2014.
If he’s going to win the Comeback Player of the Year Award, Schaub is going to have to make a massive turnaround. He’s also going to have to hold off Derek Carr, the No. 35 overall pick in this year’s draft out of Fresno State, who took second-team repetitions behind Schaub in Oakland’s recent minicamp but has “flashed a strong and accurate arm,” according to Scott Bair of CSNBayArea.com.
With a largely uninspiring group of playmakers around him in Oakland, it’s unlikely that Schaub, who is more of a game manager than a big-play passer, will put up numbers impressive enough to make award voters take notice at the end of the year.
A surprisingly strong year, however, could get him this honor. Of all the other quarterbacks expected to be an NFL starter, there isn’t one who has to bounce back from a worse 2013 season than Schaub.
8. Henry Melton, DT, Dallas Cowboys
One of the NFL’s rising-star defensive tackles at the time, Henry Melton was franchise-tagged by the Chicago Bears last season. Unfortunately for him, he lost his chance to cash in on a long-term deal with high guarantees this offseason when he tore his ACL in Week 3 against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The 2012 Pro Bowler signed a four-year contract with the Dallas Cowboys in free agency, but according to Spotrac, the final three years of that deal—which include $24 million and $9 million guaranteed—are voidable. If he does not bounce back from injury and return to his 2012 form, the Cowboys won’t hesitate to put him back on the market after just one season.
He could certainly help his cause, whether it be with the Cowboys or on the competitive free-agent market, by winning this year’s Comeback Player of the Year award.
When he is fully healthy—which he still isn’t, as he did not participate in spring workouts, according to Rainer Sabin of The Dallas Morning News—Melton is one of the most explosive interior penetrators in the game. He had 13 combined sacks between the 2011 and 2012 seasons.
If he wants to make enough noise to win the award, he’ll probably to have to hit double digits in his sack total, which stands as a tall task as he adjusts to a new scheme while coming off of injury. It’s safe to assume, however, that Melton will have no shortage of motivation to perform as he attempts to make up for lost time and secure long-term financial security for himself.
7. Rob Gronkowski, TE, New England Patriots
A 6’6”, 265-pound playmaker who has consistently put up big numbers as a receiver, while also dominating opponents as a blocker, Rob Gronkowski has asserted himself as the NFL’s best tight end when he is healthy. He has to prove that he can stay on the field in 2014, however, after missing 14 regular-season games in the past two years.
Gronk missed the first six games of last season, as he recovered from forearm and back injuries, then he had his season cut short in Week 14 by a hit from then-Cleveland Browns safety T.J. Ward that tore his right ACL.
His recent injury history brings up some clear questions about his fragility, but it would still be a surprise if Gronkowski doesn’t come back this season to be a star of the New England Patriots offense. According to Ben Volin of The Boston Globe, Gronkowski has been “bursting, planting, and cutting” in offseason workouts, and “doesn’t look like he’s having any limitations.”
If he can re-establish himself as the league’s best player at his position and stay healthy for the duration of the season, he should be considered a top candidate for the award. A great year might not necessarily be viewed by all as a comeback, as NFL players still ranked him as the league’s No. 41 player this offseason, despite his injuries, but he’d be a legitimate choice nonetheless.
6. Joe Flacco, QB, Baltimore Ravens
You can consider the next two slides to be the Philip Rivers-inspired portion of these preseason rankings. While both quarterbacks played all 16 games for their teams this past season, each of them is looking to bounce back from a year of dismal performance that fell well below their standards.
Joe Flacco reached the peak of success two seasons ago when he led the Baltimore Ravens to a Super Bowl championship, received his customary ring and trip to Disney World and was rewarded for his glory with a six-year, $120.6 million contract.
Although he had never been one of the NFL’s more consistent or statistically proficient passers prior to the 2012-13 NFL playoffs, leading his team to a league title certainly qualified as a breakthrough.
This past season, however, the Super Bowl hangover never seemed to fade away for Flacco. He threw 22 interceptions—his combined total from his previous two years—while throwing just 19 touchdowns and completing just 59 percent of his passes. The Ravens suffered as a result, winning just eight games and failing to qualify for the NFL playoffs.
If Flacco is going to win the award, he needs to have one of the best regular-season showings of his career; he has completed less than 60 percent of his throws in each of the past three years and has only once had a quarterback rating above 90.
He should have the opportunity to flourish under Baltimore’s new offensive coordinator, Gary Kubiak, and if he can translate his play from the Super Bowl run into how he performs over the course of an entire regular season, he could still emerge as one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL.
Considering how poorly he played last season—his 73.1 quarterback rating ranked 32nd in the league—a career year should put him in serious contention for this award, especially if the Ravens get back to the postseason.
5. Eli Manning, QB, New York Giants
Like Flacco, Eli Manning has had a roller-coaster run as an NFL starting quarterback, with high peaks and low valleys. Three seasons ago, Manning was at the top of the hill when he won his second Super Bowl as the quarterback of the New York Giants. His play last season, however, was downright ugly.
If the 2013 season was one’s first exposure to Manning, that person sure wouldn’t have guessed that the Giants quarterback had two championship rings. He threw a league-high 27 interceptions, all the while completing just 57.5 percent of his passes—his worst mark in that category since 2007—and just 18 touchdowns, his lowest total since his rookie season.
Last season might have silenced those who used to say, “You can’t spell elite without Eli,” but his success at the league’s highest level still should not be ignored.
Like Rivers, the quarterback the New York Giants traded for Manning in the 2004 NFL draft when Manning refused to play for the San Diego Chargers, Eli is still capable of putting together a season that reasserts him as one of the league’s best passers.
Manning will have to overcome some adversity, as the Giants have a somewhat shaky offensive line and lost some key offensive weapons this offseason, including wide receiver Hakeem Nicks and tight end Brandon Myers. Also, the Giants announced in April that he underwent ankle surgery.
As long he is healthy, however, a bounce-back year should be expected. At least to same degree, he should be better than he was last year, when he set the bar very low.
4. Geno Atkins, DT, Cincinnati Bengals
No defensive player (or non-quarterback, for that matter) has won the Comeback Player of the Year Award since the AP honored Dallas Cowboys linebacker Greg Ellis in 2007. If there’s one player who can end that drought in 2014, it’s Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins.
By the end of the 2012 season, Atkins had emerged as one of the NFL’s defensive superstars. In what was his third year in the league, the first-team All-Pro selection recorded 12.5 sacks and was graded as the NFL’s best defensive tackle—by a wide margin—by Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
He was off to a good start again in 2013, recording six sacks in Cincinnati’s first nine games, before a torn ACL ended his season prematurely.
Going into the 2014 season, the biggest question for Atkins is whether he will be healthy enough to make the same degree of impact that he did in 2012. According to Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com, he might not be ready for the start of training camp.
That won’t necessarily keep him from being 100 percent by Week 1, but it often takes big linemen like Atkins longer to return to the top of their games than it does smaller skill-position players. If he is able to make an impressive recovery and be the star of the Bengals defense once again in 2014, he’d be a highly valid choice for this award.
3. Robert Griffin III, QB, Washington Redskins
The regular season of Robert Griffin III’s rookie year went about as well as anyone could have expected.
Griffin outshined two fellow budding superstars, Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson and Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, to win the 2012 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year Award. He set the NFL record for highest passer rating by a rookie quarterback and led the Washington Redskins to their first playoff berth in five seasons.
He tore his ACL in Washington’s first and only playoff game, however, and never looked like the same quarterback this past season. He didn’t miss any time at the beginning of the year, but his completion rate dropped more than five percentage points, and his passer rating dropped by more than 20 percentage points.
Often appearing to favor his knee, Griffin didn’t play with the same mobility and running ability that he did in his rookie season. It’s reasonable to assess that Griffin might have never been fully healthy.
RG3’s play was so disappointing that before Week 15, with the team already out of contention, then-head coach Mike Shanahan decided to bench Griffin in favor of Kirk Cousins for the final three games.
Despite his sophomore slump, there’s no reason Griffin can’t return to his rookie form if he is fully healthy. If he can re-establish himself as one of the young superstars of the NFL, and lead the Redskins back to contention in 2014, it will come as no surprise if he ends up taking this award home.
2. Sam Bradford, QB, St. Louis Rams
Of all the quarterbacks who are prime candidates to win this award, the only one who missed significant time due to injury last season was Sam Bradford, who tore his left ACL in the St. Louis Rams’ Week 7 game against the Carolina Panthers.
In part due to injuries, which also limited him to 10 games in 2011, the No. 1 overall pick from the 2010 NFL draft has yet to live up to expectations in the league. But before his knee injury last year, he seemed well on his way on a career season, as he had completed 60.7 percent of his passes for 14 touchdowns and only four interceptions.
When he has been at his best, Bradford has shown the ability to break through and be the quarterback the Rams need to contend.
His future with the team will be determined by whether he can stay healthy and prove it in 2014. While Bradford has two years left on his contract in St. Louis, the Rams could save nearly $13 million by cutting him in 2015, according to Spotrac, and will likely seek his replacement if he doesn’t step up this year.
Winning the Comeback Player of the Year Award could help convince St. Louis that it should keep Bradford around past his rookie contract. As a starting quarterback who is legitimately coming back from adversity, he’d fit every trend of the award if he has the best season of his career.
1. Doug Martin, RB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Although the Associated Press’ award has only been earned once by a running back (Garrison Hearst of the San Francisco 49ers in 2001) since its rebirth in 1998, there is no stronger candidate for the trophy in 2014 than Doug Martin of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
With 1,926 yards from scrimmage and 12 touchdowns scored, Martin exploded into the NFL’s limelight as a rookie in 2012. In just one season, Martin had established himself as arguably the NFL’s best young running back.
Martin’s sophomore year, however, was ugly from the beginning. He averaged just 3.6 yards per carry and 5.5 yards per reception, compared to 4.6 and 9.6 as a rookie, before a torn labrum in his shoulder ended his season after six games.
The Comeback Player of the Year Award typically goes to a player in a later stage of his career than Martin, who is just 25 years old, but the stark contrast of his first two seasons would make it a clear comeback if he is a star once again in 2014.
While a return to greatness is a clear expectation for players such as Atkins and Gronkowski, it’s less certain for Martin, who plays the position that notoriously has the league’s shortest shelf life.
It seems even the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have some concerns about whether he can replicate his rookie-year excellence, considering they used a third-round pick in this year’s draft to select West Virginia running back Charles Sims.
Fortunately for Martin, a shoulder injury should present less obstacles in his recovery than a lower-body injury, which would have been more likely to curtail his explosive burst and ability to make defenders miss.
A very well-rounded back who has the strength to run inside but is also a great pass-catcher out of the backfield, Martin’s skill set should enable him to give Tampa Bay a star in the backfield—and potentially an award winner at the end-of-year NFL Honors.
All measurables courtesy of NFL.com unless otherwise noted.
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL Draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.