Power Ranking the NFL's Top Comeback Player of the Year Candidates
The 2015 NFL season was one of personal redemption for many stars who suffered major injuries in 2014. Earning the Comeback Player of the Year Award this year may be the most difficult of all major NFL awards because of the stiff competition. This power ranking of the top candidates for the Comeback Player of the Year Award is as deep with legitimate threats to win it as any in recent history of the award.
To help encapsulate the impressive pool of players who bounced back from a down 2014 season, we ranked the best seven candidates in order of the scope of their comeback. There are also four players who earned honorable mentions as well. We’ll break down the argument for each player.
The plethora of players returning to a high level of play from massive injuries is a testament to how hard each individual works. Factors like the advancement of technology and more knowledge about the human body certainly aid recovery time as well; however, no successful return is by accident or pure luck. The countless hours of rehab put in by these athletes is truly admirable.
Who would you vote for to win Comeback Player of the Year? Make sure you let us know in the comments section below.
Patrick Peterson, CB, Arizona Cardinals
While Patrick Peterson battled through diabetes in 2014, he ballooned in weight as he learned to control the disease. His play suffered as he lost the explosiveness he so often relied upon to be effective. But his dedication paid off in 2015, as he not only improved his physique but his technique.
Peterson was too content to rely on his athleticism in the past. His health forced him to develop as a technician, and according to Pro Football Focus, 2015 has been his best season yet. He’s allowed just 47.7 percent of targeted throws to be completed.
Doug Martin, RB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
What a difference two years has made for Doug Martin. He had a breakout rookie season for Tampa Bay in 2012 and then amassed just 950 yards total in 2013 and 2014. He returned to form this year out of the blue to tally 1,402 yards and six touchdowns.
Martin unexpectedly finished second among the NFL’s leading rushers. Considering the Buccaneers were possibly contemplating trading Martin last year, per Marc Sessler of NFL.com, his re-emergence as a star back must be a welcome development.
Richie Incognito, OG, Buffalo Bills
Richie Incognito was never a bad football player, but the bullying scandal nearly robbed him of his career. While he’s not the most politically correct person on the planet, Incognito returned from 18 months out of football to turn in a great season.
The Buffalo Bills may regret signing him to a one-year deal, as Incognito was graded as the second-best guard in 2015, per Pro Football Focus. His natural fit into their power-gap running scheme helped maximize his talent, and that relationship is one that should continue for both parties.
NaVorro Bowman, LB, San Francisco 49ers
NaVorro Bowman was the best linebacker in the NFL prior to his major knee injury last year. His return to the field after tearing his ACL and MCL in 2014 was a welcome one filled with quality play. He led the NFL with 154 tackles despite playing on a porous and young defense.
Bowman struggled in coverage in his first season back from his knee injury. He may never be the same, three-down linebacker who makes offenses sweat about his location; however, he is still an effective run-stopper and leader on the field.
7. Adrian Peterson, RB, Minnesota Vikings
|Adrian Peterson 2015 Statistics|
At 30 years old, Adrian Peterson returned to the field from a season-long suspension in great fashion. He quickly established his on-field dominance, leading the NFL with 1,485 yards and scoring 11 touchdowns. His per-game average of 92.8 yards ranked as the fourth-best in his career, so it seems his gas tank has quite a bit of juice left.
Peterson ranks seventh since he was out of football for his own actions and not an injury. His accomplishments are impressive, but the reason he missed 15 games in 2014 must factor into this award consideration. Had the competition not been as deep or impressive as it is, then Peterson well could have ranked first in this power ranking.
6. Tyler Eifert, TE, Cincinnati Bengals
|Tyler Eifert 2015 Statistics|
|Receptions||Yards||TDs||Yards per Catch||Yards per Game|
After missing 15 games in 2014, Tyler Eifert looked like a potential draft bust for the Cincinnati Bengals. He had just 42 receptions in his first two seasons, and only two were touchdowns. It’s a good thing the Bengals didn’t give up on him after he dislocated his elbow.
Eifert returned to the field and helped transform the Bengals offense. He had 615 yards and a whopping 13 touchdowns, proving to be a great complement to A.J. Green. It’s not a coincidence the Bengals offense scored 10 more touchdowns in 2015 than 2015 and improved the team's record by two wins. Eifert’s presence and development into a top-tier tight end make him a serious threat to win this award.
5. Geno Atkins, DT, Cincinnati Bengals
After a torn ACL in 2013, Geno Atkins struggled in 2014 to regain anything near the explosiveness he had prior to the injury. He was a shell of his former self, totaling just three sacks in 809 snaps. Atkins simply couldn’t penetrate as a pass-rusher or run-stuffer like he had before the injury.
2015 saw the return of Atkins to full health. He was the lynchpin of the Bengals' defensive success, totaling 11 sacks. That’s more sacks than he had in 2013 and 2014 combined. The best part is he was able to accomplish this in 805 snaps. His pass-rush productivity rose back to where it was in 2012; he even eclipsed his quarterback hurries by five, totaling 58 in 2015.
4. Derrick Johnson, LB, Kansas City Chiefs
|Derrick Johnson 2015 Statistics|
|Total Tackles||Missed Tackles||Run Stops||Sacks||Quarterback Hurries|
Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson turned in one of the best seasons of any inside linebacker in 2015. Now, let’s consider he did so at 33 years old and coming off an Achilles tear. The Achilles tear can be fatal for athletic careers, but it didn’t stop Johnson from bouncing back as if nothing had happened.
The man in the middle of a truly dominant Chiefs defense, Johnson amassed 116 tackles, two interceptions and six passes defensed. He’s not asked to do as much as he was in the past because of the surrounding talent present, but he proved to be capable of filling any responsibility the defense asked of him. Since he's a free agent after the season, re-signing Johnson is a priority for a Chiefs’ team with other major free agents to worry about as well.
3. Sean Lee, LB, Dallas Cowboys
Few players have suffered major injuries multiple times in their career, only to return as if the injuries had no lasting effect. Sean Lee missed the entire 2014 season after tearing his ACL. After he dealt with injuries in 2010 and 2012 that kept him off the field for 10 or more games each season, nobody knew how Lee would come back.
One year and a move to weak-side linebacker later, Lee had a terrific 2015 season. He finished with 113 tackles, 2.5 sacks and five passes defensed. He gave Dallas the three-down threat it needed at the linebacker position. His instincts have always been a major positive to his game, and his ability to play in all but two games gave him the chance to show he is still an impact player.
2. Carson Palmer, QB, Arizona Cardinals
|Carson Palmer 2015 Statistics|
|Completions||Attempts||Completion %||Yards||Y/A||TDs||INTs||Passer Rating|
After tearing his ACL for the second time in 13 months, Carson Palmer’s future was clouded with uncertainty. The Cardinals offense plummeted after losing Palmer last year, dropping from 25 points per game scored to 16. His return in 2015 has led to the second-best scoring offense and passing attack.
Palmer has been terrific and has a legitimate shot at winning the Most Valuable Player Award. He ranks fourth in passing yards, first in average yards per attempt and tied for second in touchdowns thrown. His fit with head coach Bruce Arians couldn’t be better, as the two thrive in a vertical-base offense that relies on Palmer’s excellent downfield accuracy.
1. Eric Berry, SAF, Kansas City Chiefs
|Eric Berry 2015 Statistics|
|Total Tackles||Missed Tackles||Run Stops||Interceptions||Passes Defensed|
At 26 years old, Kansas City Chiefs’ safety Eric Berry was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. His career was put on the back burner as his focus changed from making game-saving plays to saving his life. It didn’t take long for Berry to defeat cancer, but his most difficult opponent could have taken everything from the young star.
Berry returned to the field in 2015 as if he had never missed a snap last season. He finished with the fourth-highest safety grade from Pro Football Focus and a Pro Bowl selection. His excellent coverage helped cornerbacks Sean Smith and Marcus Peters have their own impressive seasons because of the confidence in Berry’s ability to provide help over the top.
While every individual on this power ranking has overcome great odds, none was at risk of death. Losing football is one thing, but Berry’s inspirational return to the field is only made more amazing because of how well he’s played this season.
Ian Wharton is an NFL Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.
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