Buying or Selling NFL's Biggest Stars Returning From Injury in 2022
Every season, the return of injured stars is one of the most anticipated parts of the NFL's opening week.
Running backs Christian McCaffrey and Derrick Henry headline the group in 2022. Quarterback Jameis Winston and wide receivers Chris Godwin and Michael Thomas are among the other big-name talents stepping back onto the field.
But will these players regain their previous form?
The players included missed at least eight games in 2021 or are returning from a serious injury that sidelined them for most of the offseason.
Jameis Winston, QB, New Orleans Saints
Jameis Winston looked like a different player in 2021.
During his stint as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' starter—and even in college at Florida State—he was a productively reckless quarterback. Winston averaged 3,947.4 yards, 24.2 touchdowns and 17.6 interceptions in his five seasons with Tampa.
Last year, however, he tossed just three picks in 161 attempts. Winston helped the New Orleans Saints start 4-2, throwing for 1,114 yards and 13 touchdowns in a reasonably efficient manner. But in the seventh game, a torn left ACL ended his season.
Longtime Saints head coach and offensive play-caller Sean Payton retired, so there is justifiable concern on the surface about what will happen next. The offense is in the capable hands of coordinator Pete Carmichael, though. He's held the role since 2009 and occasionally been the primary play-caller.
It's not controversial to say Payton is a major departure, but what the Saints lose on the headset they've atoned for with first-round receiver Chris Olave and free-agent signing Jarvis Landry.
Winston won't be an All-Pro, but he's a solid QB1 who should avoid a risk-filled passing game and keep New Orleans in the playoff race.
Christian McCaffrey, RB, Carolina Panthers
Context is important.
Are we expecting Christian McCaffrey to shoulder a massive workload and propel the Carolina Panthers into the postseason? No, because that's an unfair expectation.
He has, however, been one of the NFL's most prolific backs. McCaffrey crested the 1,000-yard mark as both a runner and receiver in 2019, which is the most recent healthy season of his career. He missed 13 games in 2020 and 10 contests last season because of various injuries.
Can the Stanford product be a superstar again? No doubt.
This offseason, the Panthers upgraded their offensive line substantially. Carolina added center Bradley Bozeman and right guard Austin Corbett in free agency, also using a first-round pick on left tackle Ikem Ekwonu
McCaffrey, as long as he's healthy, will be an immensely valuable player—and a fantasy football star.
Derrick Henry, RB, Tennessee Titans
After leading the NFL in carries, yards and touchdowns in both 2019 and 2020, Derrick Henry was headed that direction until a foot injury sidelined him in 2021.
On the bright side, Henry recovered from the Jones fracture in time to appear in the postseason against the Cincinnati Bengals. In that contest, though, he mustered just 62 yards on 20 carries. Tennessee dropped the game 19-16.
This offseason, the Titans had to replace left guard Rodger Saffold and right tackle David Quessenberry. Neither was a star, but they were decent run-blockers.
Henry likely won't flirt with another 2,000-yard season, but his volume is unparalleled in the league today. And his absence in 2021 made it clear that quarterback Ryan Tannehill needs a productive running game to succeed, so Tennessee will continue to lean on Henry.
Although it seems prudent to temper expectations for the Titans overall, Henry should be a terrific player once again.
Michael Thomas, WR, New Orleans Saints
During the first four seasons of his career, Michael Thomas averaged 117.5 catches for 1,378.0 yards. He peaked in 2019, setting an NFL record with 149 receptions and won Offensive Player of the Year.
Since then, though, he's had a rough time. An ankle injury limited him to seven appearances in 2020, and Thomas missed the entire 2021 campaign after undergoing ankle surgery and dealing with a setback in his recovery.
Thomas has a high, high bar to meet.
Now, don't mistake a sell for believing he won't be effective. Thomas should still be a key receiver for Winston, and a 1,000-yard season is a reasonable high-end projection.
But a drop in his target share is expected, especially now that Drew Brees isn't throwing the ball. Plus, New Orleans became a more run-oriented offense without the Hall of Famer last season. The most productive version of Thomas is likely in the past.
Chris Godwin, WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Late in the 2021 season, Chris Godwin endured an ACL injury that caused him to miss the playoffs. He's a game-time decision for Week 1, but—in theory—that suggests he'll be close to full health soon.
And it's difficult to not like his outlook.
Though ACL injuries are serious, there is a long history of elite players recovering just fine. The arrival of both Russell Gage and Julio Jones will spread targets elsewhere, but the retirement of tight end Rob Gronkowski leaves a void in the middle of the field—which is precisely where Godwin thrives in this Tom Brady-led offense.
He should threaten for the third 1,000-yard season of his career, even if he's slowed early in the fall.
David Bakhtiari, LT, Green Bay Packers
As the 2020 regular season came to a close, the Green Bay Packers were a strong Super Bowl contender. However, an ACL injury stalled David Bakhtiari's year at the worst possible moment. He then effectively missed the whole of 2021 and underwent another surgery this offseason.
In short, the last 21 months have been a brutal stretch for the All-Pro left tackle.
If you prefer the glass half full, well, Bakhtiari is optimistic.
"I can get through the season," he recently told reporters. "It's going to be fine. You have to just manage while playing."
Hey, nobody knows an injury situation better than the people involved. There is a very real possibility this prediction looks foolish. But that's not exactly the most inspiring statement in the world, despite Bakhtiari's elite ability when healthy.
Khalil Mack, Edge, Los Angeles Chargers
When the Chicago Bears traded for Khalil Mack in 2018, the initial results were overwhelmingly positive. But as the team declined—particularly the offense—the value of a top edge-rusher dwindled for Chicago.
Enter the Los Angeles Chargers.
The franchise is attempting to take full advantage of the financial flexibility that Justin Herbert's rookie deal provides, adding Mack via trade and signing cornerback J.C. Jackson. They're joining a defense that already boasts edge-rusher Joey Bosa and safety Derwin James.
Mack is an interesting projection. If you're expecting another Defensive Player of the Year-type campaign, that's probably too much. Yet he generated six sacks in only seven games on an uninspiring Chicago defense last season, and it certainly won't hurt to play opposite Bosa.
Provided the expectation is a All-Pro-caliber year as he assembled in 2019, Mack still has that upside.