Ryan Tannehill won the NFL Comeback Player of the Year award for the 2019 season. He dethroned Marcus Mariota as Tennessee’s starting quarterback and led the team to the AFC Championship game. While the Comeback Player of the Year award is somewhat difficult to predict, there’s never a shortage of potential candidates. This year, 15 players stand out as particularly strong candidates.
15. Adam Thielen, WR Minnesota Vikings
Thielen joins a group of wide receivers who are trying to bounce back from poor seasons. He, Houston’s Brandin Cooks, Indianapolis’ T.Y. Hilton, and Pittsburgh’s JuJu Smith-Schuster all recorded fewer than 600 receiving yards in 2019. Of the four receivers, Thielen reached the highest peak in previous seasons, which gives him an advantage.
14. C.J. Mosley, ILB New York Jets
The former Raven only appeared in two games for the Jets before he needed season-ending groin surgery. During the first five seasons of his career, Mosley made four Pro Bowls and earned four Second-Team All-Pro selections.
13. DeSean Jackson, WR Philadelphia Eagles
Even at 33 years old, Jackson is still one of the best deep threats in the NFL. According to Philly Sports Network’s Thomas Petersen, Jackson has 24 touchdowns of 60 or more yards during his career and 31 touchdowns of 50 or more yards. Before undergoing season-ending surgery on a core muscle, Jackson averaged 17.7 yards per reception with the Eagles in 2019.
12. Baker Mayfield, QB Cleveland Browns
Instead of bouncing back from an injury, Mayfield wants to erase the memories of his atrocious second season. After nearly winning offensive rookie of the year in 2018, he threw 22 touchdowns and 21 interceptions last year. The Browns went 6-10, severely underachieving.
11. Bradley Chubb, OLB Denver Broncos
As a rookie, Chubb compiled 12 sacks, two forced fumbles, and 21 quarterback hits. Unfortunately, the NC State product tore his ACL a quarter of the way through the 2019 season. Recently, Broncos defensive coordinator Ed Donatell told NFL.com that Chubb is “full speed and ready to go.”
10. David Johnson, RB Houston Texans
Johnson led the NFL in yards from scrimmage back in 2016, and he’s never come close to reaching that level since. Johnson played one game in 2017 before a wrist injury sidelined him for the entire season. Last year, the Arizona Cardinals benched Johnson in favor of Kenyan Drake. The Texans recently acquired Johnson from Arizona for DeAndre Hopkins and draft picks. Maybe the fresh start can rejuvenate Johnson’s career.
9. A.J. Green, WR Cincinnati Bengals
Green made the Pro Bowl in each of his first seven seasons. During that time, he produced 8,213 receiving yards and 57 receiving touchdowns. However, the former fourth overall pick hasn’t played a game since Week 12 of the 2018 season. Now, Green gets a chance to play with Joe Burrow.
8. Le’Veon Bell, RB New York Jets
Bell appears as a Comeback Player of the Year candidate for the second season in a row. After sitting out all of 2018 to avoid playing under the franchise tag, Bell performed poorly with the Jets. In 15 games, he only totaled 789 rushing yards. Maybe New York’s offseason additions along the offensive line can propel Bell back into stardom.
7. Matthew Stafford, QB Detroit Lions
Stafford only played eight weeks last season because of fractured bones in his back. Midway through the season, Stafford was pacing 38 touchdowns and 4,998 yards. He posted a career-high 106.0 passer rating. If Stafford returns at full strength this coming season, the Lions could surprise some teams in the NFC North.
6. J.J. Watt, DE Houston Texans
Injuries continue hounding one of the NFL’s best defenders. Watt suffered a torn pectoral muscle last year, which limited him to eight regular season games. However, Watt did return for Houston’s two playoff games and forced a clutch stop in the team’s Wild Card Round victory. Watt also lost most of his 2016 and 2017 seasons to injuries but earned a First-Team All-Pro selection in 2018.
5. Ben Roethlisberger, QB Pittsburgh Steelers
A game and a half into the 2019 season, Roethlisberger went to Pittsburgh’s locker room. His season was over. The former Super Bowl champion required season-ending elbow surgery. Roethlisberger led the NFL with 5,129 passing yards and set a career-high with 34 passing touchdowns in 2018. Even without Roethlisberger, the Steelers went 8-8 this past season. Imagine what the team will do if he’s fully healthy.
4. Rob Gronkowski, TE Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The injury-prone tight end retired following the 2018 season. At the point of his retirement, Gronkowski was already one of the best tight ends in history. After Gronk sat out the 2019 season, Tom Brady lured him out of retirement with the promise of Super Bowl glory in Tampa Bay.
3. Todd Gurley, RB Atlanta Falcons
Supposedly, Gurley has arthritis in his previously injured knee. The condition limited him to 857 yards in 15 games played last year. While he still scored 12 rushing touchdowns, Gurley played below the level of his contract, and the Los Angeles Rams cut him in March. Less than a month later, Gurley signed with the Falcons.
2. Derwin James, S Los Angeles Chargers
When healthy, James is the best safety in the NFL. As a rookie, he earned a First-Team All-Pro selection and filled up the stat sheet. James missed most of last season as he recovered from a stress fracture in his right foot.
1. Alex Smith, QB Washington Redskins
If Smith gets back on the field, it would be one of the longest, most miraculous comebacks in NFL history. Smith broke his leg in 2018. He endured over a dozen surgeries, an infection, and possible talk of amputation. In May, a video emerged of Smith working out and throwing, but he still faces a grueling climb to get back on the gridiron.
Several players have outside shots that I didn’t include in the top-15. Teddy Bridgewater has a case, but I don’t know how many people consider him a candidate after he played five games last year before returning to the bench in favor of Drew Brees.
Cam Newton also has an outside shot at the Comeback Player of the Year award, but he’s not even on a roster right now. I can say the same thing for Jadeveon Clowney. The former Pro Bowler battled inconsistency and injuries with Seattle last season. If we want to get crazy, Antonio Brown is also still on the market.