NFL Players We Can't Wait to See Return from Injury as Midseason Nears
Believe it or not, we're rapidly approaching the halfway point of the 2021 NFL season. Week 7 kicked off Thursday night, and injuries were a major storyline in the Cleveland Browns and Denver Broncos tilt.
The NFL is a game of attrition, and that was at the forefront for the Browns. Cleveland was without starters Baker Mayfield, Jack Conklin, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and top two running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. Thanks in no small part to strong contributions from backups like quarterback Case Keenum and running back D'Ernest Johnson, the Browns eked out a win.
With 168 scrimmage yards and a touchdown, Johnson was nothing short of fantastic.
While it was definitely fun to see a player like Johnson get his time in the limelight, that doesn't mean we didn't miss seeing Chubb and Hunt do their thing. Chubb is one of the best pure runners in the NFL, and Hunt is a true dual-threat playmaker. The Browns, and football fans everywhere, will be excited to see them return.
Similar situations can be found across the NFL. Here, we'll examine 10 other players we can't wait to see back on the field in 2021. These are standout players who have missed significant game action and should be back before the end of the regular season.
Players are listed in alphabetical order.
Jaire Alexander, CB, Green Bay Packers
The Green Bay Packers have the look and feel of a title contender. Since getting blown out in Week 1, the Packers have rattled off five straight wins and have been getting MVP-level play from quarterback and reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers.
However, injuries have the potential to derail even the most promising of seasons, and the Packers are dealing with several. Two very significant ones are on defense.
Standout pass-rusher Za'Darius Smith recently underwent back surgery and could be out for the season. Pro Bowl cornerback Jaire Alexander has missed two games with a shoulder injury but could return in the near future.
"I can't 100 percent rule [surgery] out, but we feel like it is progressing nicely," coach Matt LaFleur said of the injury, per Zach Kruse of Packers Wire.
Alexander has developed into one of the game's best cover corners, and he allowed an opposing passer rating of just 67.4 last season. Green Bay has been winning without him, but we can't wait to see Alexander back on the field facing the opposition's best pass-catchers.
David Bakhtiari, OT, Green Bay Packers
The Packers have also endured injuries along the offensive line, where the left tackle spot has been in flux. Longtime starter David Bakhtiari is still recovering from a torn ACL, and his replacement, Elgton Jenkins missed three games with an ankle injury.
Jenkins returned in Week 6, and Bakhtiari may be approaching his 2021 debut.
Bakhtiari recently returned to practice, which according to LaFleur, has helped energize the offense.
"I think he leads that room as good as anybody, and he’s a great talent," LaFleur said, per Ryan Wood of Packers News. "So I think it definitely gives everybody a shot in the arm."
Green Bay's offensive line has been serviceable without Bakhtiari. The Packers rank 16th in rushing, while Rodgers has been sacked roughly twice per game. However, it will be even better with Bakhtiari protecting Rodgers' blind side.
According to Pro Football Focus, Bakhtiari allowed just one sack last season.
Ryan Fitzpatrick, QB, Washington Football Team
The Washington Football Team lost starting quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick to a hip injury mere plays into the season opener. Backup Taylor Heinicke has done a fine job of replacing Fitzpatrick and has been far from the team's biggest issue through the first six weeks.
Heinicke has thrown for 1,390 yards with nine touchdowns, six interceptions and a passer rating of 86.9. Those aren't great numbers, but they're numbers Washington could live with if its defense wasn't inexplicably bad.
After ranking second in total defense and fourth in points allowed last season, the Football Team ranks 31st in total defense and last in points allowed.
While Heinicke has been serviceable, we'd still love to see what Fitzpatrick could accomplish with this group. A boom-or-bust gunslinger, the bearded wonder has often brought an explosive element to his offenses. In nine games and seven starts for the Miami Dolphins last season, Fitzpatrick threw for 2,091 yards with 13 touchdowns, eight interceptions and a 95.6 rating.
Would the Football Team be faring better with Fitzpatrick under center? It's impossible to know, but it would be fun watching him chuck the ball to the likes of Terry McLaurin, Dyami Brown and former Tampa Bay Buccaneers teammate Adam Humphries.
Rob Gronkowski, TE, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The NFL is just more fun when Rob Gronkowski is playing in it. The Buccaneers tight end brings an unrivaled energy and enthusiasm to the field, and he remains one of the game's most dangerous pass-catchers.
Tom Brady's longtime target started the season with 184 receiving yards and four touchdowns in three games.
But Gronkowski has been out since Week 4 with a rib injury. The injury originally didn't appear to be serious, but MRI testing revealed hairline fractures that weren't found on the initial X-rays, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter.
Tampa has gotten plenty of production from tight ends O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate—they've combined for 21 catches, 210 yards and a touchdown—so there's no need to rush Gronkowski back before he is ready.
However, there's just something special in the Brady-to-Gronk connection, and we can't wait to see the two Hall of Famers pick things back up this season.
George Kittle, TE, San Francisco 49ers
Gronkowski will one day be enshrined in Canton as perhaps the best tight end to ever play the game. San Francisco 49ers tight end George Kittle isn't quite on that level just yet, but he is one of the NFL's most dangerous weapons when he's healthy.
The two-time Pro Bowler had 48 receptions for 634 yards and two touchdowns last season despite playing in only eight games. He had 227 yards in the first four games of 2021 before landing on injured reserve with a calf injury.
Kittle will have to sit out at least two more games before he is eligible to return.
Kittle's injury has been all the more unfortunate because he wasn't on the field to help rookie quarterback Trey Lance in his first career start in Week 5. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo (calf) is off the injury report and expected to start against the Indianapolis Colts this week, but he too would benefit from Kittle's presence.
Regardless of who is under center, the 49ers offense is better with Kittle in the lineup. We all love to see great playmakers make plays, and Kittle is one of the greatest.
Christian McCaffrey, RB, Carolina Panthers
It's impossible to discuss great playmakers without mentioning Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey. When healthy, McCaffrey has been arguably the league's best all-around back, as evidenced by his 2019 campaign.
McCaffrey finished the 2019 season with 1,387 rushing yards, 1,005 receiving yards and 19 touchdowns.
But McCaffrey has been hampered by injuries over the past year-plus. He missed 13 games last season with shoulder and ankle injuries. He's been out since Week 3 of this season with a hamstring injury.
McCaffrey was originally considered week-to-week but was eventually placed on injured reserve a week ago. He will now have to miss a minimum of two more games before getting back on the field.
The Panthers have gotten quality production out of rookie fourth-round pick Chuba Hubbard in McCaffrey's stead. He has rushed for 281 yards, caught 13 passes for 82 yards and scored one touchdown. However, McCaffrey—who opened the season with 324 scrimmage yards and a touchdown in the first two games—is a truly special player. We can't wait to see him back on the field doing special things.
Jerry Jeudy, WR, Denver Broncos
We've already discussed the myriad of injuries the Browns brought into Thursday night. The Broncos, however, haven't been without their own injury concerns. Second-year receiver Jerry Jeudy, for example, has been out since Week 1 with an ankle injury.
Jeudy didn't return in Week 7, but he was medically cleared.
"Vic Fangio believes Jerry Jeudy will play the next game. He was medically cleared to play yesterday, but Fangio didn’t believe it was fair to put him out without any practice," Zac Stevens of DNVR Sports tweeted Friday.
It'll be exciting to see Jeudy return to the field because the Alabama product flashed a lot of potential before getting injured. Despite getting rocky play from quarterback Drew Lock as a rookie, Jeudy still finished 2020 with 52 receptions, 856 yards and three touchdowns. He caught six of seven targets for 72 yards in Week 1.
That Week 1 performance is all we've seen from Jeudy with Teddy Bridgewater under center. Bridgewater has been a bit up-and-down this season—and he was hindered by a foot injury on Thursday night—but he has brought some stability to the quarterback position in Denver.
Lock finished the 2020 season tied for the league lead in interceptions (15) and with a passer rating of just 75.4. Bridgewater has thrown five picks but has a much more respectable rating of 99.5 through seven games.
We'd love to see what Bridgewater can accomplish with Jeudy on the field and vice versa.
Tyrod Taylor, QB, Houston Texans
The 1-5 Houston Texans have not been good this season. There's no debating that. However, for six quarters at the start of the year, they looked like they could be surprisingly relevant in the AFC South.
With journeyman Tyrod Taylor under center, the Texans were dangerous. They beat the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 1 and were tied with the Browns heading into halftime of Week 2. That's when Taylor left with a hip injury.
In six quarters of action, Taylor passed for 416 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions. He also rushed for 55 yards and another score. Before Taylor was injured, Houston had outscored opponents by 16 points. He was exciting to watch, and opposing defenses couldn't find an answer for his dual-threat prowess.
The good news is we will see Taylor again at some point in 2021.
"Tyrod comes back and he's healthy, he's our starting quarterback," Culley said, per Aaron Wilson of SportsTalk 790.
The Texans might not push for the playoffs this season, but they'll be a whole lot more fun to watch with Taylor back under center. We're here for it.
Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle Seahawks
Seattle Seahawks signal-caller Russell Wilson is always among the most exciting quarterbacks to watch—both because he's damn good and because he regularly makes fourth-quarter magic.
To date, Wilson has engineered 24 fourth-quarter comebacks and 31 game-winning drives.
The seven-time Pro Bowler suffered a finger injury in Week 5 that required surgery. He's out indefinitely. Though he is expected to return this season, when he returns is still up in the air.
"We don't know that. The doctors can't tell you that. And Russ can't tell you that," head coach Pete Carroll said, per Bob Condotta of the Seattle Times "... Russ is making progress. He's definitely making progress."
Given Wilson's determination and toughness—he had never previously missed a start—it would be a surprise if he isn't back sooner than later. The Seahawks have gotten adequate production from backup Geno Smith—he's thrown for 340 yards, two touchdowns and an interception with 22 rushing yards since Wilson exited—but their offense is better with Wilson.
Antoine Winfield Jr., S, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Buccaneers have been plagued by injuries in the secondary. Cornerbacks Sean Murphy-Bunting (elbow), Carlton Davis III (quad) and Richard Sherman (hamstring) have all missed time, and we'll be happy to see each of them return to the field.
However, we're most excited to see second-year safety Antoine Winfield Jr. return after missing the past two games with a concussion—and it looks like he'll play this week against the Chicago Bears.
"Bucs safety Antoine Winfield not only practicing today but even fielding punts, so bodes well for him having a chance to clear concussion protocol if he’s symptom-free," Greg Auman of The Athletic tweeted.
Winfield was cleared from the protocol on Friday.
The Minnesota product emerged as a true playmaker and a do-it-all safety as a rookie last season. One of the most exciting players on Tampa's defense, he amassed 94 tackles, two forced fumbles, one fumble recovery, one interception and three sacks. He was off to a strong start in 2021 with 25 tackles, a forced fumble and an interception in four games.
The Buccaneers will be happy to have their corners back—along with linebacker Lavonte Davis (ankle)—but if Winfield is at 100 percent this week, it'll be huge.
Advanced statistics from Pro Football Reference unless otherwise noted.