Ranking the Top 9 NFL Players Returning from Injuries, Suspensions in 2020

Maurice Moton@@MoeMotonFeatured ColumnistMay 16, 2020

Ranking the Top 9 NFL Players Returning from Injuries, Suspensions in 2020

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    One awkward body tweak or poor decision can derail a season. After an extended period of rehab and time to gather their thoughts, the best NFL players bounce back stronger than ever.

    We may forget about a player's ability during a long absence. Does that wide receiver still have the speed to stretch defenses? Is a top quarterback in his late 30s on a sharp decline? How does a rising star respond to injury or a lengthy suspension?

    Battle-tested veterans on the comeback trail have opportunities to answer all those questions and re-establish themselves among the top playmakers in the league.

    We'll rank nine players who missed at least eight games and finished the 2019 campaign on injured reserve or saw their year cut short because of a multigame ban.

    The selection order is based on each player's short-term outlook and, more importantly, who's primed for the most productive 2020 season.

9. LB Avery Williamson, New York Jets

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    Avery Williamson cracks the list because of his every-down capability. In 2018, he logged a team-leading 120 tackles, six for loss, three sacks, six pass breakups and an interception.

    Williamson possesses the quickness to patrol the field from one end to the other and pick up on shallow coverage assignments. He tore his ACL during the 2019 preseason.

    Despite Williamson's skill set, his future with the New York Jets seems uncertain. According to Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News, the team put the veteran linebacker on the trade block in April.

    Last year, the Jets saw James Burgess and Neville Hewitt play well in the absence of Williamson and C.J. Mosley. The linebackers recorded a combined 155 tackles, 14 for loss, 3.5 sacks, 10 pass breakups and three interceptions. As well, the club signed Patrick Onwuasor this offseason, which adds more competition for snaps at the position.

    The Jets could trade Williamson because of depth at the position. He should start somewhere even if it's not for Gang Green in 2020. Based on his recent production, the veteran linebacker has the tools to serve as a versatile centerpiece of a defense.

8. C David Andrews, New England Patriots

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    After going undrafted out of Georgia in 2015, David Andrews worked his way into a starting role and became a model of consistency on the New England Patriots offensive line, missing just four contests through the 2018 campaign.

    But last August, Andrews was hospitalized with blood clots in his lungs and ended up missing the entire season.

    This offseason, though, he has received good news about his condition and is ready to focus on football.

    "I'm cleared to play football," Andrews told reporters earlier this month. "I want to move forward with that and talk about football. What happened happened. You can't live your life in fear if it's going to happen again or not."

    In 2018, Andrews only allowed two sacks, per Pro Football Focus, which highlights his solid pass protection. He won't snap the ball to Tom Brady, who signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but the 27-year-old center said he has built a bond with Jarrett Stidham.

    According to ESPN's Mike Reiss, Stidham is the "leading candidate" to replace Brady. Andrews' head start in getting to know the young signal-caller could pay off on the field.

    Unlike Williamson at No. 9, Andrews has a clear-cut pathway back to a starting role. If healthy, he can be a stabilizer for the offensive line.

7. TE Chris Herndon, New York Jets

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    Tight end Ryan Griffin had a strong showing in the second half of the 2019 term and finished the season with 34 receptions for 320 yards and five touchdowns. The Jets signed him to a three-year extension and exercised his 2021 option, per ESPN's Field Yates.

    Griffin's recent contributions made some people forget about Chris Herndon, who recorded 39 catches for 502 yards and four touchdowns in an impressive 2018 rookie campaign.

    Herndon didn't have a chance to build on that momentum in his second season. He served a four-game suspension for violating the league's substance-abuse policy. The tight end was reinstated in October, but a hamstring injury kept him on the sideline until Week 10. In that game, he suffered a season-ending rib injury.

    Although Herndon only caught one pass for seven yards, the Jets still have high hopes for the 24-year-old alongside quarterback Sam Darnold, per The Athletic's Connor Hughes.

    "To say the Jets can't wait to get Chris Herndon back in their lineup is a vast understatement," Hughes wrote. "They believed he had Pro Bowl potential before hamstring and rib injuries limited him to parts of just one game. Getting him back in the lineup will be massive for Darnold, team sources said."

    Pro Bowl potential seems highly optimistic for Herndon's 2020 outlook, though it's clear the Jets have big plans for him. If 2018 only showed a glimpse of his upside, the promising tight end could become a go-to option in the aerial attack.

    Because of wideout Robby Anderson's exit and rookie second-round receiver Denzel Mims' inexperience, Herndon should see a lot of targets and opportunities to blossom into a high-level pass-catcher.

6. WR DeSean Jackson, Philadelphia Eagles

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    Chris Herndon takes the No. 7 spot because of his potential. We know what DeSean Jackson can do to defenses when he's healthy. In four of his 12 seasons, the 33-year-old wide receiver has led the league in yards per reception.

    In his first game with quarterback Carson Wentz, Jackson burned the Washington Redskins pass defense for eight receptions, 154 yards and two touchdowns. Their rapport seemed to click from Day 1, but the wideout suffered a core muscle injury in Week 2 and landed on injured reserve in November after playing just one more game.

    During an interview with Thai Floyd of Bar None Media, Jackson said he feels "back at 100 percent" and has his sights set on wide receiver records. The speedy deep threat will have a shot to put up big numbers in 2020.

    Jackson could be Wentz's No. 2 pass-catching option behind tight end Zach Ertz. In December, wide receiver Alshon Jeffery suffered a Lisfranc injury, and he doesn't have a timetable for a return.

    The Philadelphia Eagles selected wideout Jalen Reagor with the 21st overall pick in April's draft. Although talented as a field-stretcher in the vertical passing game, he's still an unknown. J.J. Arcega-Whiteside has to take a big leap to become a factor after a nondescript rookie campaign in which he logged 10 catches for 169 yards and a touchdown.

    Wentz may rely on his chemistry with Jackson to move the ball through the air early, which gives the veteran wideout a chance at a strong start in 2020.

5. CB Xavien Howard, Miami Dolphins

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    Xavien Howard only has one Pro Bowl season compared to three for wide receiver DeSean Jackson. However, the four-year cornerback broke out during the 2018 term, registering a league-leading seven interceptions in addition to 12 pass breakups.

    In 2019, Howard only suited up for five outings. Late in October, he aggravated a knee injury, and the Miami Dolphins placed him on injured reserve.

    The Dolphins signed cornerback Byron Jones during free agency. He'll line up opposite Howard. Opposing quarterbacks can't pick on a weak link between the two Pro Bowl cover men.

    Jones and Howard should make a strong tandem, but the latter has stickier hands, snagging 12 interceptions for his career compared to two for the former. With his tendency to flip the field on a takeaway, the 26-year-old cornerback could continue to reach for a higher ceiling next season.

    Although Broward County prosecutors have dropped a domestic violence case against Howard, per Adam H. Beasley of the Miami Herald, the NFL could suspend him. For now, he's available to take the field for Week 1.

    As an ascending cornerback, Howard ranks higher than Jackson, who's at the tail end of his career.

4. WR A.J. Green, Cincinnati Bengals

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    No. 4 is where we begin to go through the big-name players around the league. Heading into his age-32 term, A.J. Green is slightly past his prime, but he's a No. 1 wide receiver when healthy.

    In 2018, Green suffered a season-ending toe injury, and he missed the 2019 campaign because of a setback on the mend from an ankle issue that required surgery.

    Two weeks before the draft, head coach Zac Taylor told reporters Green is "fully healthy." If so, the star wideout could eclipse 1,000 receiving yards for the seventh time in his career. At 6'4", 210 pounds, he's an all-around threat, especially on third downs and in the red zone.

    Green will have to build a rapport with rookie quarterback Joe Burrow. The Bengals' new starting signal-caller is coming off a tremendous senior campaign at LSU, throwing for 5,671 yards, 60 touchdowns and six interceptions with a 76.3 percent completion rate.

    The Burrow-to-Green connection is something to watch in 2020. Tyler Boyd and rookie second-rounder Tee Higgins will garner some targets. With that said, Burrow will likely trust his most accomplished wide receiver, who served as Andy Dalton's top pass-catcher for most of the last nine seasons.

    Green's production comes down to his availability. The last time he played through a full term (2017), the star wideout hauled in 75 receptions for 1,078 yards and eight touchdowns. The seven-time Pro Bowler could bounce back with Burrow under center.

3. QB Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    A.J. Green will have to share targets with Tyler Boyd, Tee Higgins and even running back Joe Mixon out of the backfield. Ben Roethlisberger will have his hands on the ball after nearly every snap. He's also a massive upgrade over his backups Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges.

    In 2019, the Steelers struggled to move the ball through the air with Roethlisberger on the sideline for 14 outings. Pittsburgh accumulated the second-fewest yards through the air and ranked 28th in passing touchdowns.

    Roethlisberger won't have a lead wide receiver like Antonio Brown, but he has plenty of budding pass-catching options. Although JuJu Smith-Schuster battled toe, knee and head injuries and saw a drop-off in production during the 2019 season, James Washington and Diontae Johnson flashed, ranking first and second, respectively, on the team in receiving yards.

    In addition to Smith-Schuster, Washington and Johnson, the Steelers signed tight end Eric Ebron (6'4", 253 lbs) and selected Chase Claypool (6'4", 238 lbs) in the second round of the draft. Both are big-bodied pass-catchers who can threaten defenses in the red zone and use their size to pull down tough catches in traffic.

    Skeptics may question what Roethlisberger has left in the tank going into his age-38 term, coming off a significant elbow injury, but the six-time Pro Bowler is only two years removed from a league-leading 5,129 passing yards and a career-high 34 touchdown throws. With his stable of pass-catchers, expect him to post high-level numbers in 2020.

2. EDGE Myles Garrett, Cleveland Browns

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    The NFL suspended Myles Garrett indefinitely following an on-field melee between the Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers. He clubbed quarterback Mason Rudolph in the head with a helmet, which prompted the lengthy ban.

    In February, the league reinstated Garrett. The Browns have exercised the fifth-year option on his contract and still hold him in high regard.

    According to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport, Cleveland could offer Garrett a massive deal worth $25 million annually, which would reset the position market.

    He is a complete defensive end who takes down quarterbacks and sets the edge against the run. In 37 contests, he's recorded 104 tackles, 32 for loss and 30.5 sacks.

    If not for the suspension, Garrett may have added a second Pro Bowl season to his resume and perhaps an All-Pro year. He was on his way to a new high in sacks, logging 10 in as many games.

    Going into his fourth term, Garrett is still a budding talent, which sounds like trouble for the rest of the league. He's a rising star, propelling him over Ben Roethlisberger in the rankings.

1. QB Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions

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    Check the record. The last time Matthew Stafford missed eight or more games in a season, he bounced back and won Comeback Player of the Year in 2011.

    Almost a decade older, Stafford still has a strong arm and the supporting cast to come back strong again. Over the past few years, he's built a strong rapport with wideouts Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones Jr.

    In eight games last year, Stafford started to develop a connection with wideout Danny Amendola and rookie tight end T.J. Hockenson.

    In the second round of April's draft, the Detroit Lions added dual-threat running back D'Andre Swift, who hauled in 73 receptions for 666 yards and five touchdowns as a collegian at Georgia. He'll pair with Kerryon Johnson as a solid one-two combo out of the backfield.

    Before Stafford went down with back and hip injuries last season, he was on pace for 4,998 yards, 38 touchdowns and 10 interceptions with his best quarterback rating (106.0).

    If Stafford played through the 2019 term, he could've put up numbers similar to his comeback performance in 2011 (5,038 passing yards and 41 touchdowns). With the same offensive weapons plus another solid receiver out of the backfield, he can push for career highs in 2020.

    Stafford is the only player on this list who's previously bounced back from an injury-riddled campaign to produce monster numbers. Perhaps deja vu is in the works for him.