Ranking the Most Impactful NFL Players Returning from Injury in 2022
Everything about an NFL season can shift in an instant. A sudden change of direction, an accidental move or a mistimed hit can force franchises to reevaluate their season after a significant injury.
The 2021 campaign was no different. A list of established veterans and young stars succumbed to the injury bug. Fantasy managers probably noticed this more than most fans, especially if your top pick missed half of the season or more.
After sifting through the extensive list of injured playmakers returning to action in 2022, we've ranked the nine most impactful NFL players we'll see this fall. Each of these individuals suffered a season-ending injury or missed the majority of 2021 before returning to the field at less than 100 percent.
Recent production weighs into our definition of impactful, but so does the importance of the individual to their team's identity. Some players are more integral to the success of their squad than others even if they're not necessarily more productive in raw stats.
9. Chase Young, Edge, Washington Commanders
The NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2020, Chase Young emerged as a playmaker for Washington as soon as he stepped onto the field. He amassed 7.5 sacks and four forced fumbles in 15 games. Washington previously invested first-round picks in Jonathan Allen, Daron Payne and Montez Sweat along the line, but Young stood out the most.
Unfortunately, he didn't get the chance to fully capitalize on that momentum. He tore his ACL in November after producing just 1.5 sacks in nine games while Washington's defense started the year performing well below expectations despite boasting a feared group of trench athletes.
By the end of the season, the Commanders secondary was playing more cohesively despite Young's absence. It's easy to be optimistic about adding a premier pass-rush presence to a unit that has speed and playmaking at every level.
Commanders head coach Ron Rivera has already said Young will miss at least Week 1. Young should benefit from the extra time and patience from the organization. But when he's ready, expect the Commanders to see a noticeable bump in performance from their defense.
8. Tre'Davious White, CB, Buffalo Bills
The Buffalo Bills had the NFL's No. 1 scoring and passing defense in 2021 despite having zero Pro Bowlers. The lack of recognition should change in 2022. Getting back All-Pro cornerback Tre'Davious White from a torn ACL and adding superstar pass-rusher Von Miller further raises the ceiling of this unit.
White is one of the NFL's best zone cornerbacks, if not the best. He played in 11 games last year, totaling 41 tackles, one interception and six pass deflections. According to Player Profiler, White finished his campaign with the third-best passer rating allowed and the seventh-best coverage rating and catch rate allowed.
With 16 career interceptions and a history of being a force in the run game, White is a stabilizing presence in this talented secondary. Buffalo added first-round cornerback Kaiir Elam across from White, giving the Bills more flexibility to play more man coverage than in previous seasons.
Given the timing of White's Thanksgiving injury, he'll likely miss at least the start of the regular season. But considering the presence of star safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer, this might be the best secondary in the NFL in 2022 once he returns.
7. Christian McCaffrey, RB, Carolina Panthers
We haven't seen Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey at his peak powers for a full year since his All-Pro season in 2019. After producing 2,392 total yards and 19 touchdowns that year, McCaffrey has compiled 1,159 total yards and eight scores in the two years since.
Injuries to his ankle, thigh, hamstring and shoulder have piled up. Despite playing in each of his first 48 games, he's played in just 10 of his last 33 possible contests. McCaffrey turned 26 in June, but it's hard to not feel like this is a make-or-break season for the rest of his career.
The good news is McCaffrey appeared to regain his previous explosiveness in the seven games he played last year. He averaged 4.5 yards per carry and a career-high 9.3 yards per reception. With Baker Mayfield challenging for the starting quarterback job in Carolina, McCaffrey should benefit from a more talented passer being present.
The playmaking trio of McCaffrey, DJ Moore and Robbie Anderson is one of the more young, dynamic groups in the NFL.
6. Chris Godwin, WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Chris Godwin finished 2021 fourth in the NFL with 26 red-zone targets, 10th in receptions and third in yards after the catch despite missing three games, per Player Profiler.
A torn ACL and MCL on December 19 put the slot specialist's start to the 2022 season in jeopardy, but he returned to practice for the first time Friday. The Buccaneers will likely take the long-term approach with Godwin in order to protect him, especially since they signed him to a three-year, $60 million extension this past offseason.
Tampa Bay, which boasted the NFL's second-best scoring offense and top-ranked passing attack, didn't sit on its hands knowing Godwin might take time to get back to full health.
Veterans Russell Gage and Julio Jones were added to a unit that was otherwise filled with young, less proven talent behind Mike Evans. They'll help fill the void until Godwin is back, likely during the regular season at some point, but make no mistake that he'll return as a top playmaker for legendary quarterback Tom Brady.
5. Michael Thomas, WR, New Orleans Saints
New Orleans Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas was off to a Hall of Fame pace in his first 70 games. His peak season came in 2019 when he caught 149 passes (an NFL record) for 1,725 yards and nine touchdowns as he averaged 107.8 yards per game.
But a string of ankle setbacks derailed his career for 18 months.
We haven't seen Thomas since his 2020 season ended just seven games in. Since then, Drew Brees retired and Sean Payton resigned. Offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael is still in charge of the unit and Jameis Winston will return as the quarterback after he suffered a torn ACL in Week 8 last year.
Thomas was best known for dominating on slant routes with Brees as the signal-caller of the unit, but his role will likely change alongside Winston's vertical passing prowess. He's also surrounded by a better group of receivers than what the Saints had in previous seasons. Rookie Chris Olave and veteran slot specialist Jarvis Landry give the unit a well-rounded core.
At his best, Thomas is a dominating 6'3", 212-pound presence capable of carrying a unit to elite output. If he's 100 percent healthy for 2022—and he showed no issues in his initial team drills Saturday, per NFL Network's Ian Rappoport—the Saints offense can make this team into a serious playoff threat.
4. Marlon Humphrey, CB, Baltimore Ravens
The 2021 Baltimore Ravens suffered one of the worst bouts of widespread injuries of any team in recent years. Of their key injuries, star cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey (torn pectoral muscle) and Marcus Peters (torn ACL) missed a combined 22 games.
It shouldn't be a surprise that their normally stout defense fell to 32nd in passing yards allowed.
Humphrey is one of the NFL's most dominant and physically imposing man cornerbacks. Even as the Ravens defense underachieved last year, Humphrey ranked fourth in coverage rating, 13th in target separation and fifth in catch rate allowed, per Player Profiler. The 26-year-old had posted even better numbers earlier in his career, as the ecosystem around him was stronger.
New Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald will need Humphrey to be in his best form for the defense to get back into the top five. There's not another unit with as much cornerback depth as the Ravens, but having their playmaking stars is crucial.
With nine interceptions, 64 pass deflections and 12 forced fumbles over his career, Humphrey is certainly that—and he's expected to be ready for Week 1.
3. Khalil Mack, Edge, Los Angeles Chargers
The biggest trade this offseason not involving a quarterback was one of the earliest deals announced. As the Chicago Bears started their fire sale of veteran talent, the Los Angeles Chargers wisely swooped in to grab Khalil Mack. The 31-year-old saw a foot injury end his 2021 campaign after just seven games.
Mack has been one of the most feared, distinguished edge-rushers in the NFL since being drafted fifth in 2014. The six-time Pro Bowler and three-time All-Pro still had six sacks last year despite the injury. Adding him to a defense with Joey Bosa, Derwin James and J.C. Jackson could push the Chargers into the Super Bowl in 2022.
Besides his outstanding pass-rushing skills, Mack is a stellar run defender thanks to his incredible strength at the point of attack. His 23 career forced fumbles and 22 pass deflections are also rare for someone at his position.
Gilbert Manzano of the Los Angeles Daily News reported the Chargers are easing him back into action and noted that head coach Brandon Staley said, "He could probably go full speed right now." If that remains the case, Mack's Chargers tenure could help push him into the Hall of Fame.
2. Jameis Winston, QB, New Orleans Saints
Jameis Winston isn't the most talented player on our list, but his play in 2022 will determine whether the Saints are Super Bowl pretenders or contenders, as no position is more important than quarterback.
The 28-year-old tore his ACL and damaged his MCL after a promising start through seven games. During his first season in New Orleans in 2020, he backed up Taysom Hill and only attempted 11 passes. He earned the starting job last year and showed a much-improved ability to take care of the football.
Known for being a volatile passer with a penchant for throwing interceptions at an abnormally high rate, Winston cut his interceptions to a career-low 1.9 percent last year. With Michael Thomas, Chris Olave, Jarvis Landry and Alvin Kamara surrounding him this season, it's fair to expect one of Winston's finest campaigns as a professional.
There's no question he is talented. Winston led the NFL in passing yards with 5,109 in 2019 before Tampa Bay signed Tom Brady. He also led the NFL with 30 interceptions to go with 33 touchdowns that year.
He's expected to be ready to start the season. If New Orleans can continue to balance Winston's aggression with good decision-making, he'll be its franchise quarterback for years to come. The Saints could also prove to be a dark-horse Super Bowl threat in the immediate future. The rest of the roster is ready to compete at that level.
1. Derrick Henry, RB, Tennessee Titans
There's not another running back in the league built like Derrick Henry, both literally and metaphorically. The massive 6'3", 247-pounder has been the face of the Tennessee Titans since he earned the lion's share of carries in 2018. Henry has led the NFL in rushing yards twice and was set to do so again in 2021 before he missed nine games with a broken bone in his foot.
Henry returned in the divisional round against the Cincinnati Bengals and ran 20 times for 62 yards and one touchdown. Although he came back to the field last season, he admitted he was still doing physical therapy this offseason. Thus, he still qualifies as a player returning from injury.
The Titans aren't the same team without Henry bulldozing opponents, which puts him ahead of a signal-caller such as Winston.
His ability to handle such a large workload and remain efficient and explosive is unparalleled. He ranked second in juke rate, third in evaded tackles and 12th in breakaway runs last year, per Player Profiler, despite being so massive and playing in a power-run scheme that doesn't manufacture spread defenses.
He will again challenge for the NFL's leading rusher crown in 2022. Now 28 years old, Henry will look to push conventional norms once again and continue his dominance as he nears 30.
Statistics via Pro Football Reference unless otherwise noted.