8 NFL Players Primed for Major Bounce Back from Injury in 2023May 25, 2023
8 NFL Players Primed for Major Bounce Back from Injury in 2023
We wish injuries didn't happen, but it's part of all sports. Every year, NFL players are robbed of momentum from previous productive years and the joy of playing the game when they're on the mend. Fortunately, many of them bounce back and look better than ever.
This year won't be any different. Several upstart talents and marquee players who hit a career road bump and missed a good portion of the 2022 season will return to post career-high numbers or match the production from their breakout years.
As teams go through the early stages of organized team activities (OTAs), we put the spotlight on eight players who should rebound from an injury-riddled 2022 campaign.
All eight selections listed below played in fewer than 10 games or landed on injured reserve for at least the final five weeks of the 2022 term.
In order to whittle down a long list to a group of prestige, we chose players who could earn a spot on the 2023 Pro Bowl or All-Pro roster and lead major statistical categories. We've also excluded anyone who made the 2022 Pro Bowl roster despite missing several games. Think of these guys as Comeback Player of the Year candidates.
Edge Rashan Gary, Green Bay Packers
Rashan Gary came out strong to start the 2022 season, recording five sacks within the first four weeks and seemed well on his way to a breakout campaign with a double-digit sack count. In Week 9 against the Detroit Lions, he tore his ACL, finishing the term with 32 tackles, seven for loss, six sacks and 17 pressures.
Gary has one year left on his deal and could cash in on an extension if he picks up from a dominant start to the previous season. The 25-year-old has a little extra motivation to help jump-start his motor and keep it running through the 2023 term.
The Athletic's Matt Schneidman spotted Gary working with Packers trainers on the sideline during OTAs, which is a good sign for the fifth-year pro only six months removed from a major knee injury.
Even though the Packers selected edge-rusher Lukas Van Ness in the first round of this year's draft, Gary will likely maintain a full-time starting workload after a couple of impressive seasons in defensive coordinator Joe Barry's scheme. Also, keep in mind that Van Ness didn't start in a single game in two active collegiate terms at Iowa.
RB Breece Hall, New York Jets
The New York Jets' revamped offensive attack with Aaron Rodgers under center could get another lift in the backfield early in the 2023 term.
Jets running back Breece Hall performed at the level of a prime Offensive Rookie of the Year candidate before he tore his ACL and suffered a minor meniscus injury back in October. Through seven outings, he recorded 80 carries for 463 yards and four touchdowns and tacked on 19 receptions for 218 yards and a score.
Typically, teams exercise caution with running backs coming off serious knee injuries, but the Jets may not have to restrict Hall upon his return.
A couple of weeks ago, general manager Joe Douglas shared an update on Hall's recovery that sounds like the team will give him a shot to play Week 1.
"He's in a great place right now. I would say he's ahead of schedule from where he's supposed to be and he's hitting unbelievable top-end speeds already on our GPS and his rehab.
"So I know he's going to be chomping at the bit to get on the field early. So we're gonna have to do a good job of protecting him against himself a little bit because he's so motivated, so hungry, and attacking rehab the way he is. So we're gonna see. We have very detailed checkpoints for Breece to hit in his rehab and we're gonna follow that to a 'T' because I think we all saw last year the weapon that he can be with the ball in his hands."
The Jets can divvy up backfield touches between Michael Carter and Zonovan Knight if Hall needs more time to recuperate, but his impressive small sample size and three-down playmaking ability should propel him to the top of the depth chart when healthy.
QB Lamar Jackson, Baltimore Ravens
In 2022, Lamar Jackson missed the last five games of the regular season and the Baltimore Ravens' wild-card playoff matchup with the Cincinnati Bengals because of a sprained PCL. Skeptics wondered about the severity of the injury as Jackson prepared to head into contract negotiations with the team, but he provided an update via Twitter that cleared up speculation about his condition.
In April, the Ravens signed Jackson to a five-year, $260 million extension. On Tuesday, he reported to OTAs, per The Athletic's Jeff Zrebiec. So, the All-Pro quarterback moved on from the contract rift with the club and seems ready to learn a new offense with incoming play-caller Todd Monken set to replace former offensive coordinator Greg Roman.
Moreover, Jackson has to build a rapport with a revamped wide receiver group that includes Odell Beckham Jr., Nelson Agholor and rookie first-rounder Zay Flowers.
While Jackson may need a few weeks to develop a connection with his new pass-catching targets in a different offense, he's still a dynamic playmaker with his arm and legs when healthy.
Over the last two years, Jackson saw his completion rate drop by 2.1 percent, and he hasn't thrown for more than 17 touchdowns in a single season since 2020, but Beckham, Flowers and Agholor will help boost his passing numbers. Also of note, in five seasons, Jackson has rushed for 4,437 yards and 24 touchdowns.
If wideout Rashod Bateman makes a speedy recovery from Lisfranc surgery, Jackson will have multiple solid secondary targets behind All-Pro tight end Mark Andrews.
WR Cooper Kupp, Los Angeles Rams
After Cooper Kupp won the 2021 triple crown in receiving numbers, leading the league in catches, receiving yards and touchdowns, he continued to beat defenders on the field in the first half of the 2022 season.
Last year, Kupp recorded five 108-yard performances through Week 9. In Week 10, he suffered a high ankle sprain and then underwent surgery. Despite a shortened term, Kupp still ranked third in receiving yards per game (90.2).
Two years ago, Kupp reached the mountaintop as the top wide receiver in terms of production en route to a Super Bowl victory. Now, coming off ankle surgery, he could become the 2023 Comeback Player of the Year.
Based on his receiving numbers through nine outings last year, Kupp is still one of the league's top wideouts even though he didn't make the 2022 Pro Bowl roster. He just needs to avoid the injury bug with the hope that quarterback Matthew Stafford stays healthy as well.
LB Shaquille Leonard, Indianapolis Colts
In a short period of time, Shaquille Leonard has established himself as one of the league's best linebackers. He earned a Pro Bowl or an All-Pro nod in each of his first four seasons before an injury-riddled 2022 campaign.
Back in November, the Indianapolis Colts placed Leonard on injured reserve because he suffered a setback with a back injury, which required a second surgery.
While new Colts head coach Shane Steichen didn't share a projection for Leonard's return date, he said, "Shaq has been progressing well" about two weeks before the draft.
In April, Leonard provided an encouraging update on his condition.
"Feeling whole lot better than I did at any time last year," he said while at the podium in front of reporters.
Because Leonard has undergone multiple surgeries on his back, the Colts will likely take it easy on his offseason workload.
Nonetheless, Leonard has performed at a high level when available. He has four more months to heal before Week 1, which gives him a shot to play through a full season. If his recovery continues to trend in the right direction, we should see the same All-Pro-caliber playmaker from his pre-injury years.
TE Kyle Pitts, Atlanta Falcons
While healthy, Kyle Pitts had an underwhelming start to the 2022 season. After averaging 60.4 receiving yards per contest in his 2021 rookie campaign, he saw that number drop to 35.6 yards per outing in 10 games last year.
With that said, we cannot put the blame on Pitts. The Atlanta Falcons' passing attack struggled to move the ball with Marcus Mariota under center. The team didn't make the switch to Desmond Ridder until Week 15. At that point, Pitts had been on injured reserve with a torn MCL.
Though the Falcons haven't said much publicly about Pitts' rehab process, head coach Arthur Smith sounded optimistic about the tight end's recovery with an eye on the summer practices.
"It's an ongoing process every day," Smith said in February. "Ultimately, what matters is getting ready for training camp. Feel pretty good about where he's at."
Without any setbacks, Pitts could begin to build a connection with Ridder from training camp through the preseason.
Though Ridder only started in four games last season, he flashed his accuracy, completing 63.5 percent of his passes. The second-year quarterback will have a big target in Pitts, who's a tough coverage assignment at 6'6", 246 pounds. The pair should click right away.
OT Rashawn Slater, Los Angeles Chargers
As a rookie, Rashawn Slater proved that he could play in the pros at a high level. In his first season, the Northwestern product earned a Pro Bowl nod, made the second-team All-Pro roster and received a vote for Offensive Rookie of the Year, which is a big deal for a player who doesn't score touchdowns.
Slater didn't have a chance to build on an outstanding rookie term. In Week 3 of the 2022 season, he tore his biceps tendon. Though the Los Angeles Chargers designated him for return from injured reserve before their wild-card playoff matchup with the Jacksonville Jaguars, he didn't play in that game.
Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert certainly felt the difference in pass protection without Slater on his blind side. In 2022, he took seven more sacks than he did for the 2021 campaign and battled rib and shoulder injuries as a result of the wear and tear on the field behind a weakened offensive line.
According to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport, Slater faced a three-to-four-month recovery period from an October surgery on his bicep, which means he should be ready to go by Week 1.
Slater will have a new offensive coordinator in Kellen Moore, but the Chargers' new play-caller had a high-end offensive line that kept Dak Prescott's jersey clean in Dallas. We should expect him to bounce back in Pro Bowl form.
QB Matthew Stafford, Los Angeles Rams
Like his teammate Cooper Kupp, Matthew Stafford only suited up for nine games in the previous season. In a lost year without much hope for a playoff run, the Los Angeles Rams placed him on injured reserve before Week 13. He battled a neck injury, and the team made the move even though he cleared concussion protocol.
Stafford has battled a variety of injuries throughout his career, and he turned 35 years old in February. Though his aging body may impact his playmaking ability for the upcoming season, don't count him out of the running for a second Comeback Player of the Year award.
Two years ago, Stafford helped lead the Rams to a Super Bowl victory in one of his most productive passing seasons, throwing for 4,886 yards, 41 touchdowns and 17 interceptions.
Stafford's connection with Kupp will allow him to show flashes of his 2021 season performance when the Rams fielded an aerial attack that racked up the second-most touchdowns and the fifth-most yards.
Keep in mind that the Rams have finished within the top 10 in passing yards in four out of six years under head coach Sean McVay.
Maurice Moton covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @MoeMoton.