Predicting NFL's Biggest Comeback Players in 2020

Chris Roling@@Chris_RolingFeatured ColumnistJuly 26, 2020

Predicting NFL's Biggest Comeback Players in 2020

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    Chuck Burton/Associated Press

    It sure seems like 2020 could be the year of the comeback in the NFL.

    "Comeback" is versatile, of course. For example, a struggling franchise like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers is poised for a comeback via one Tom Brady.

    Some of the NFL's biggest names are massive comeback contenders in the wake of missing a significant portion of last season. These players left a sizable gap in the NFL landscape given their prior seasons and reputations.

    Knowing the following players, good health will mean a massive return to form, both individually and for their respective teams. These are the top comeback players to focus on during the 2020 season.

Matthew Stafford, QB, Detroit Lions

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    It is entirely too easy to sleep on Matthew Stafford.

    While the Detroit Lions' franchise passer only got in eight games last year, he completed 64.3 percent of his passes with 19 touchdowns and five interceptions, going for 300-plus yards four times.

    Stafford was on track for another elite season, which qualifies as par for the course given he's a career 62.5 percent passer with 41,000-plus yards.

    But Stafford is far from just a statistical monster. He's endured bad surroundings often (347 career sacks, for example), yet he's authored 28 fourth-quarter comebacks and 34 game-winning drives. He checked in with an 82.6 Pro Football Focus grade last season over limited appearances.

    Still only 32 years old, Stafford links back up with a Lions team that upgraded the offensive line in free agency with Halapoulivaati Vaitai and added interesting weapons such as second-round running back D'Andre Swift. He should get right back to his usual self and standing as one of the league's best.

A.J. Green, WR, Cincinnati Bengals

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    Matt Dunham/Associated Press

    A.J. Green's recent injury history hasn't done him any favors in the public recognition department.

    A shame, really, as the Cincinnati Bengals still roster one of the NFL's top weapons via the franchise tag. The 31-year-old has piled up 8,907 yards and 63 touchdowns with 33 instances of 100-plus yards over 111 games since 2011. He averages a gaudy 14.8 yards per catch and 80.2 yards per game.

    But he missed all of last season, sat out seven games in 2018 and missed six more in 2016.

    Green showed what he can still do between those injury-riddled seasons, putting in 16 games of work in 2017 and registering 1,078 yards and eight touchdowns, again doing so with spotty quarterback and offensive line play.

    Green returns to an encouraging, high-upside situation thanks to the arrival of No. 1 pick Joe Burrow. Projected better quarterback and O-line performance, as well as an offensive-minded head coach in Zac Taylor, could equate to a massive comeback season.

    It all hinges on whether he stays healthy, of course. But his reputation paired with the improving surroundings makes him an appealing watch.

J.J. Watt, DL, Houston Texans

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    Reed Hoffmann/Associated Press

    Before names like Aaron Donald, Houston Texans defensive lineman J.J. Watt struck the most fear into opposing passers and offensive coordinators.

    Watt only got in eight games last season, which made it three of his last four seasons with eight games as the high mark for attendance.

    The 2018 season was a big outlier to recent trends, though. Watt played all 16 games and put up 16 sacks with 60 pressures, 32 hurries and 11 quarterback knockdowns. That earned him a 90.6 PFF grade. Call it the expected Watt performance considering he's sitting on 96 sacks over 112 games since 2011.

    While the injury trends for a 31-year-old defensive lineman are concerning, Watt is a special talent who looks poised to get after the likes of Philip Rivers in the AFC South and put up his usual massive numbers.

Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger played in just two games last season, fading from the spotlight.

    But prior to that, Big Ben spent 2018 attempting a gaudy 675 passes, completing 67.0 percent of them with 5,129 yards and 34 touchdowns against 16 interceptions, averaging 320.6 yards per game. That made it six seasons in a row with 3,800-plus yards and at least 21 touchdown passes for a guy with 56,545 and 363, respectively, on the career resume.

    Now, the Steelers no longer sport a prime Antonio Brown, and Roethlisberger probably won't flirt with 700 attempts again. But he has a 144-71-1 record for a reason—he finds a way to make it work.

    He returns to a team with a strong defense and running game, plus an offense with a budding cast of weapons like Diontae Johnson and James Washington. And he's dominated an AFC North in which only one team (Baltimore) looks like a threat.

    Health provided, Big Ben should get right back to looking like Big Ben in 2020.

Rob Gronkowski, TE, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Richard Shotwell/Associated Press

    Rob Gronkowski's emergence from retirement to rejoin old running mate Tom Brady on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was one of the offseason's most predictable storylines.

    It also happens to be one of the most entertaining—and likely productive.

    Playing with Brady in New England, Gronkowski won three Super Bowls and was a four-time first-team All-Pro. He tallied 7,861 yards and 79 touchdowns over 115 games, averaging 15.1 yards per catch and 68.4 yards per game.

    Now 31 years old and likely refreshed after a season away from football, Gronk joins a Buccaneers squad loaded with talent. He'll have the carryover rapport with Brady, plus defenses can only throw so much attention at him while also accounting for an elite cast of weapons that features Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and a host of others.

    While Gronkowski's target share is hard to project, he's going to produce when given the chance, making for one of the league's biggest comeback bids.

Cam Newton, QB, New England Patriots

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    Ben Margot/Associated Press

    Cam Newton's eventual arrival in New England was only second in predictability to Gronk's return from retirement.

    Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots were unable to pass on a bargain of a former MVP. Newton himself wants to contend and prove himself over the short term for long-term gains.

    That shouldn't be too hard considering Newton has 29,041 career passing yards and 182 touchdowns, as well as 4,806 rushing yards and 58 scores on a 5.1 per-carry average.

    Newton, who holds a 68-55-1 record, put up 3,395 yards and 24 scores with another 488 rushing yards and four scores over 14 games in 2018. That was his last healthy season before he only played twice in 2019, which marked the first time he missed more than two games in a season.

    Based on his career trajectory, guided by Belichick and surrounded by weapons like Julian Edelman, Newton is poised for a massive comeback season that could make the AFC East—and his future free agency—a can't-miss spectacle.