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Who Will Be the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year?

The candidate list is more star-studded than ever

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

America loves a good comeback story.

OK, fine, we can exclude a few people — Red Viper enthusiasts, the Cleveland Indians’ faithful, and any and all current Atlanta Falcons fans — from that cliché. But for just about everyone else, it’s true. Whether it’s a team erasing a 25-point third-quarter deficit to win the Super Bowl or a player overcoming major adversity or injury to reach new heights, there aren’t many things in sports more exhilarating than watching an underdog achieve the improbable — or damn-near unbelievable.

That’s why one of my favorite preseason watch lists is for the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year award, an honor presented by the Associated Press to the player that demonstrated the most perseverance in the face of adversity. Recent winners have been both masterful on the field and inspirational in their journeys: In the 2014 season, Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski returned from a torn ACL and MCL to catch 12 touchdowns and help win the Super Bowl; Chiefs safety Eric Berry recovered from Hodgkin lymphoma to win first-team All-Pro honors in 2015; and last year, Jordy Nelson came back from a torn ACL to lead the league with 14 touchdown catches.

This season, the list of potential Comeback Player of the Year award winners is star-studded. Here are a few of the favorites.

DE J.J. Watt, Houston Texans

Watt racked up 69 sacks and won the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year Award three times from 2012 to 2015, but fell (mostly) out of sight and out of mind last season after he aggravated a back injury in Week 3 and went to the injured reserve. During that long absence, a host of other pass rushers took the spotlight — whether it was Vic Beasley’s rise to the top of the NFL’s sack list, Von Miller’s continued dominance, Khalil Mack’s speed off the edge, Aaron Donald’s unblockable first step, or even Jadeveon Clowney’s emergence as a star — and made it easy to forget that Watt is still the most dominant defensive presence in the league when healthy. But now that he’s reportedly ready to go for 2017, it shouldn’t be too long before memories of the disruptive, sack-making, touchdown-catching game-wrecker come flooding back.

If Watt can stay healthy, and if he’s anywhere near the player that he was prior to that injury, he’ll give Houston the chance to be the best defense in the NFL — after all, it’s a group that finished seventh in DVOA last season mostly without him.

RB Marshawn Lynch, Oakland Raiders

Beast Mode is one of a sizable group of running backs that could challenge for the Comeback Player of the Year award this season — joining New Orleans’s Adrian Peterson (who was runner-up to Peyton Manning in the AP vote tally for the 2012 season and won CPOY honors from PFWA and Sporting News), Denver’s C.J. Anderson and Jamaal Charles, Seattle’s Eddie Lacy, Detroit’s Ameer Abdullah, and Baltimore’s Danny Woodhead. But Lynch’s situation (coming out of retirement) and his role with the Raiders (as the primary ballcarrier in Oakland, running behind one of the most talented offensive lines in the league) puts him a length or two ahead of his cohorts in this category.

The major question with Lynch, though, is this: After a year traveling the world and appearing on reality TV shows, which version of the five-time Pro Bowler will we get? Will the unnaturally physical and unbelievably elusive runner that missed just one game from 2010 to 2014 return? Or will he look more like the ineffective, injury-riddled back that sustained hamstring, calf, and hernia injuries in 2015 and missed all but seven games?

I’d put my money on the first option; Lynch, who has always maintained a rigorous offseason training regimen, has had plenty of time to get his body right for this year, and his track record suggests that his injury-plagued season was the outlier. At 31 years old, you may worry that he’s lost a step, but speed has never been the hallmark of his game; rather, that’s always been a combination of balance through contact, vision, and his pass-catching chops — all of which should still be intact. Lynch could still be a major producer in Oakland’s offense.

TE Tyler Eifert, Cincinnati Bengals

Sure, if Gronk can stay healthy, the Patriots’ big tight end has a chance to be the first two-time winner of the Comeback Player of the Year award since Chad Pennington took AP and PFWA honors in 2006 and 2008. But in the interest of keeping this list stocked with fresh names, let’s focus on another big-time playmaking tight end who has a great shot of winning it instead.

Like Gronkowski, Eifert missed eight games in 2016 and, also like Gronk, spent the spring rehabbing from back surgery. But with the dynamic pass catcher on track to take part in Cincinnati’s training camp when it kicks off Friday, the team’s about to fold one of the game’s top touchdown catchers back into its offense. When healthy, he’s a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses and has been on the receiving end of a touchdown pass 18 times in his past 21 games — a pace that’d put him on track for 14 touchdowns in 2017. With the size to box out defenders and the athleticism to leap over them to come down with the ball, the fifth-year pro should be a frequent red zone target for Andy Dalton again this season.

LB Luke Kuechly, Carolina Panthers

Kuechly missed the final six games last year with a concussion — the second time in two seasons that he’s missed extended time due to a head injury. But the three-time All-Pro has vowed that his most recent injury scare won’t change the way he plays, a style defined by incredible play-recognition skills, top-tier athleticism, and elite coverage ability.

Kuechly’s a rare talent, the prototypical three-down middle linebacker with the size to play the run and the range to play the pass. If he can stay healthy in 2017, he might not be up for only the comeback player honors; he could win his second Defensive Player of the Year award.

WR Keenan Allen, Los Angeles Chargers

Allen is one of a few comeback receivers to keep an eye on this season — Eric Decker returns from shoulder surgery and could be frequently targeted in the Titans offense, and if Sammy Watkins’s foot has healed, he could have a big year in Buffalo — but the injury-cursed Chargers pass catcher could outshine them all.

The 6-foot-2, 211-pound playmaker played for a little less than two quarters for the Chargers last season before suffering a season-ending ACL tear. Prior to that, he’d racked up six catches for 63 yards, consistently getting the best of Chiefs All-Pro corner Marcus Peters. If we extrapolate that per-game average to a full season, Allen would’ve caught 96 balls for 1,008 yards; and if we’re feeling especially generous and do the math on a per-half basis, he started the season on a 192-reception, 2,000-plus-yard pace. That rate likely wouldn’t have held up, but the point is: When Allen’s on the field, he is an incredible route runner and Philip Rivers’s most trusted target, and he could be in line for huge numbers in 2017.

OLB Justin Houston, Kansas City Chiefs

Houston landed on the PUP list at the beginning of last season after he was slow to recover from a knee injury sustained in late 2015. Once he did return to Kansas City’s lineup in Week 11, he never appeared to be fully healthy and went back to the bench for the final two weeks of the regular season after experiencing swelling in that knee. Even still, the explosive outside linebacker managed four sacks in his five appearances, a pace that would put him at nearly 13 over a full season and a performance that stirred memories of his 22-sack season in 2014. That output is still tied for second all time on the single-season sacks list.

Now back to full speed, Houston can resume his role as the Chiefs’ primary quarterback harasser. If he can stay on the field, he’ll have a good chance at another season of double-digit sacks and the Comeback Player of the Year honors.