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This year’s MVP race between Drew Brees and Patrick Mahomes had turned heads, especially considering some of the big numbers those quarterbacks have been able to put up. But the MVP race isn’t even the most interesting or necessarily star-studded award race this year. Do you remember when All-Pros were dropping like flies last year and the injury epidemic was at its height? Well a lot of those stars have come roaring back with a vengeance and are shaping what has turned into one heck of a competition for the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year award.
I am going to give you my pick for Comeback Player of the Year, but I want to run through the seven or so best candidates for the award. All stats are accurate as of the end of Week 15.
Watt had one of the most dominant four-year stretches in NFL history from 2012-2015. He won three Defensive Player of the Year Awards and never missed a game. Things went south in 2016 when he played in just three games before needing surgery for a herniated disc. He missed the rest of the season. He came back with high hopes in 2016 and only played in five games before being sent to IR again thanks to a tibial plateau fracture. He didn’t record a sack during those five games. After those two lost seasons, fans and experts were wondering if Watt could return to the level he was at before or if he would even be a viable starter again. But oh man he’s come back with a vengeance. Sure, he probably isn’t the same guy we saw during that four-year run, but he’s recorded 14.5 sacks, 54 tackles, and a league-leading 6 forced fumbles so far. As a fan, it’s nice to see the most exciting defensive player of my lifetime up and running again.
In Week 6 of the 2017 season, Rodgers was hit by Anthony Barr and the two fell awkwardly to the ground. The collision fractured Rodgers’ collarbone, an injury he’d previously suffered in 2013. Rodgers came back for Week 15 but sat out the final two weeks after he threw three interceptions and the team lost. The two-time MVP has come back and had a quality season despite his team struggling. Rodgers has thrown for 3,974 yards, 23 touchdowns, and just two interceptions. He’s posted his best interception percentage (0.4) since he became a starter and is averaging his most passing yards per game (283.9) since 2011. The only reasons he isn’t in the MVP conversation is because the Packers have a losing record and Rodgers’ completion percentage is 61.8, the lowest it’s been since 2015.
Luck’s shoulder surgery in January 2017 and his long, setback marked recovery is a long story, so I won’t get into every detail. Basically he tried to return to practice and throw in October of 2017 but he started to feel pain in his shoulder and was eventually placed on IR. He was advised to not throw for up to three months and just focus on rehab. During this whole process Luck even visited Europe to get more opinions on his shoulder. It’s clear the whole process was very mentally trying on the star quarterback, but he managed to persevere through it. When he played in a preseason game on August 9, 2018, it was his first action on an NFL field in 585 days. Despite the long recovery, Luck is on his way to his fourth Pro Bowl and has the Colts in position to challenge for a Wild Card spot. This season he’s thrown for 3,951 yards, 34 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions on a 67.3 completion percentage. His 98.4 rating is the highest of his career.
Watson lit the NFL on fire last season in a similar fashion to what Mahomes is doing right now. Watson was an MVP candidate before he tore his ACL in practice before Week 9. He was coming off the finest game of his career in a jaw-dropping 41-38 loss against Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks. In the game, Watson threw for 402 yards and four touchdowns. Through just seven games he had 19 passing touchdowns and two more on the ground. The ACL injury cut his phenomenal run short though and he began the recovery process. In 2018 Watson has the Texans in first place in their division with a 10-4 record and has thrown for 3,592 yards, 24 touchdowns, and nine interceptions with a 67.7 completion percentage. He’s done all this while being sacked an NFL leading 52 times.
The Comeback Player of the Year award isn’t just won by players coming back from injuries, it can be won by players bouncing back from bad seasons. Philip Rivers won the award that way back in 2013. Peterson played in ten games for two teams in 2016 and the former MVP looked like he was on his last legs. Peterson posted just 529 rushing yards, two rushing touchdowns, and two 80-yard performances on 3.4 yards per carry. Now with the Redskins, things have been very different. Peterson has 923 rushing yards, seven rushing touchdowns, six games with over 80 rushing yards, and over 1,100 yards from scrimmage on 4.2 yards per carry. It’ll be interesting to see if the 33-year-old workhorse can reach 1,000 rushing yards for the eighth time in his career.
David Johnson RB Arizona Cardinals
Johnson caught fire in 2016, just his second year in the league. The former third-round pick led the league in yards from scrimmage with 2,118 and rushing and receiving touchdowns with 20. He made the Pro Bowl and was selected as a First Team All-Pro. People expected big things from him in 2017, but he went down in Week 1 with a dislocated wrist. The injury required surgery and took Johnson a couple of months to recover from fully. While the dual-threat runner is now healthy, he hasn’t had the season many people hoped he would. Johnson is averaging 60.2 rushing yards and 29.1 receiving yards per game in 2018. For reference, he averaged 77.4 rushing and 54.9 receiving yards per game in 2016. It’s worth noting though that Johnson is on a bad team and his 843 rushing yards, seven rushing touchdowns, 408 receiving yards, and two receiving touchdowns are pretty good for a player who basically missed a whole season.
Odell Beckham Jr. WR New York Giants
The NFL’s one-handed catching wonder appeared in just four games in 2017 and started only two of them before fracturing his ankle in a loss to the chargers. Beckham had been on a tear for his first three seasons in the NFL. He recorded at least 90 receptions, 1,300 receiving yards, and 10 receiving touchdowns in each of those seasons, but gained only 302 receiving yards in 2017 before the injury ended the year for him. Beckham has dealt with injuries this season too, missing the last two games with injured quadriceps. He’s still put up good numbers though. Right now he has 77 receptions, 1,052 receiving yards, and six receiving touchdowns. That might not seem so impressive, but he’s averaging 6.4 receptions per game, which is equal to his 2015 total, and 87.7 receiving yards per game which is more than his 2016 average. It’s good to see a record-setting receiver like Beckham back in action.
Honorable mention- Julian Edelman WR New England Patriots
Edelman has had it rough for the last year and a half or so. He tore his ACL in August of 2017 and missed the entire season. It was a tough blow for Edelman who was coming off of the second 1,000-yard season of his career. Going into his age 32 season, Edelman had some questions to answer when he was slapped with a four-game suspension for violating the league’s performance enhancing substances policy. But he’s been money since returning from the suspension. Through ten games, Edelman has 63 receptions, 711 receiving yards, and four receiving touchdowns. He’s averaging 71.1 receiving yards per game which is the second most of his career only behind his 2015 season, which was cut short because of a foot injury.
Honorable mention- Marshal Yanda OG Baltimore Ravens
Yanda fractured his ankle just two games into the season last year and missed the remaining 14 contests. There were some questions as to whether the now 34-year-old guard would be able to recover, but Yanda has started every game this season so far. Before being injured, Yanda had made six consecutive Pro Bowls and was the most accomplished guard in the league. He was a Second Team All-Pro in 2011, 2012, and 2016 and a First Team All-Pro in 2014 and 2015.
1- J.J. Watt
2- Andrew Luck
3- Aaron Rodgers
4- Adrian Peterson
5- Deshaun Watson
What can I say? I’m a defensive kind of guy. There hasn’t been a player I’ve enjoyed watching more this season than Watt. I know Aaron Donald is the best defender in the league, but it’s still incredible to see that same old Watt magic strike every now and then. I think Luck deserves the award over Rodgers because he had to overcome more, has his team in potential playoff position, and still has a great stat line. What Peterson has accomplished as a 33-year-old bruising power back is impressive. There are so few backs in the league’s history with his capabilities, I’m really going to miss him when he retires (I wonder how much longer he’ll play). Watson hasn’t had the best year statistically, but I put him on the list ahead of Beckham because he has his team in position to earn a first-round bye in the playoffs.
Now I just wanted to give you a quick look ahead at how the Comeback Player of the Year race could shape up next season. All of the following players missed significant time or had down seasons and could have big bounce-back campaigns in 2019. Players are broken down by position and organized alphabetically within that position. Super-star caliber players have asterisks next to their names.
Jimmy Garoppolo QB San Francisco 49ers
Joe Flacco QB Baltimore Ravens
Ryan Tannehill QB Miami Dolphins
Jay Ajayi RB Philadelphia Eagles
Leonard Fournette RB Jacksonville Jaguars
LeSean McCoy RB Buffalo Bills
Le’Veon Bell RB Pittsburgh Steelers*
Marshawn Lynch RB Oakland Raiders
Brandon Scherff OG Washington Redskins
Greg Olsen TE Carolina Panthers
Rob Gronkowski TE New England Patriots*
A.J. Green WR Cincinnati Bengals*
Amari Cooper WR Dallas Cowboys
Cooper Kupp WR Los Angeles Rams
Everson Griffen DE Minnesota Vikings
Ezekiel Ansah DE Detroit Lions
Joey Bosa DE Los Angeles Chargers*
Deion Jones LB Atlanta Falcons
Kwon Alexander LB Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Sean Lee LB Dallas Cowboys
Aqib Talib CB Los Angeles Rams
Chris Harris Jr. CB Denver Broncos*
Earl Thomas S Seattle Seahawks*
Eric Berry S Kansas City Chiefs*
Keanu Neal S Atlanta Falcons
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