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The NFL Players Returning From Injury Who Could Swing the 2019 Season

From Earl Thomas to Cooper Kupp, Jimmy Garoppolo to A.J. Green, there are plenty of stars that could make or break teams this season

Getty/AP Images/Ringer illustration

If this Adam Schefter tweet from last week sent a brief bolt of terror through your body, you’re probably not alone:

Schefter’s horrifying sentence structure aside (maybe next time start with, “One year ago …”), the news that Chargers tight end Hunter Henry is on track for a full return from his ACL tear got me thinking about all the other major difference-makers whose seasons were cut short by injury last year. Let’s take a quick tour around the league and break down a few of the most high-impact players set to return to the field in 2019.

TE Hunter Henry, Chargers

Let’s just start with Henry. The Chargers’ dynamic tight end looked poised for a major breakout in 2018 but tore his ACL late in May at the team’s OTAs. That injury effectively robbed Henry of the entire season (he did end up returning to the active roster for L.A.’s playoff loss to the Patriots in the divisional round), but now fully healthy, he’s set up once again for a giant leap forward in 2019.

The 24-year-old has played in 29 career games thus far, notching 81 catches for 1,057 yards and 12 touchdowns. He’s a combo tight end who’s capable of blocking in the run game or creating mismatches in the passing attack; he brings physicality, athleticism, and toughness to the Chargers offense—and with Tyrell Williams (65 targets, 41 catches, five touchdowns) and Antonio Gates (45 targets, 333 yards, two touchdowns) both gone from the team’s passing attack, there’s going to be no shortage of opportunity for the soon-to-be fourth-year pro. I expect that Philip Rivers will look for him early and often this year.

QB Jimmy Garoppolo, 49ers

The first season of Garoppolo’s five-year, $137.5 million deal—in which he carried a massive $37 million cap hit—didn’t exactly go as planned. The 27-year-old passer got off to a slow start, completing just 59 percent of his passes while tossing five touchdowns and three interceptions, before tearing his ACL in Week 3. But Garoppolo has a chance to bounce back in a big way in 2019, and the team has added a few weapons to help him—signing running back Tevin Coleman in free agency and taking receivers Deebo Samuel and Jalen Hurd in the draft. Jimmy G. may get a boost from the return of running back Jerrick McKinnon, too, who missed last year with a torn ACL as well.

Garoppolo’s knee should be good to go for 49ers training camp, but the team needs the handsomely paid quarterback to do more than just get back onto the field; it needs him to prove that his 2018 performance was just a small-sample-size anomaly if they’re going to challenge for the playoffs.

C Travis Frederick, Cowboys

Frederick missed all of last season after being diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome, an unpredictable auto-immune disorder that attacks the body’s nervous system. The four-time Pro Bowler is reportedly on track to get back out on the field in 2019, though, and has taken part in all of the Cowboys’ offseason activities. If Frederick, who also had offseason shoulder surgery, can get through training camp and the preseason and hit the ground running again as the linchpin of a fearsome Dallas offensive line, he could provide a major boost to not just the team’s smashmouth run game, but to its entire offense.

WR Cooper Kupp, Rams

Kupp spent the first half of the 2018 season cementing himself as an integral piece of the Rams’ passing offense, which uses the same three receivers on nearly every snap. He caught 40 passes for 566 yards and six touchdowns in eight games—easily eclipsing his five touchdowns as a rookie—before a torn ACL in the team’s November matchup with the Seahawks prematurely ended his sophomore campaign.

Now about six months out from the injury, Kupp looks to be on track for Week 1. That’s potentially huge news for quarterback Jared Goff, whose chemistry with Kupp was apparent in those eight games: Goff posted a near-perfect passer rating of 145.9 when targeting the pass catcher out of Eastern Washington.

FS Earl Thomas, Ravens

The lasting image of Thomas’s final game as a Seahawk will always be the injured safety riding off in a cart, flipping off his own sideline.

Thomas, who held out during the preseason in hopes of getting the security a long-term deal would provide, didn’t bother hiding his frustration with his soon-to-be-former team. The broken leg ended his season, and effectively ended his tenure with Seattle. Now, after getting the big-money extension that he wanted from Baltimore, Thomas has a chance to get back onto the field and make Seattle regret their decision. Even at 30 years old, a healthy Thomas remains one of the best free safeties in the game, combining speed, instincts, and ball skills with a tenacious playing style. He’s a more-than-capable replacement for the recently departed Eric Weddle in the middle of the Ravens defense.

QB Andy Dalton and WR A.J. Green, Bengals

Injuries derailed a promising start for the Bengals last year, who jumped to a 4-1 record before finishing the season 6-10. No two injuries were more devastating to the team’s playoff hopes than those to Dalton—who missed the final five weeks with a thumb injury—and Green, who tore a ligament in his toe and played in just nine games. That dynamic duo make up the foundation of the team’s passing attack: Green has long been Dalton’s favorite target and his security blanket; he’s an elite route runner and touchdown-maker who can get open underneath or threaten downfield. Getting both Dalton and Green back in 2019 gives the new-look Bengals under first-time head coach Zac Taylor a shot to contend in the tough AFC North.

It wouldn’t hurt, either, if tight end Tyler Eifert can get back onto the field and produce like he did earlier in this career. Eifert caught 13 touchdowns in his breakout season in 2015, but has been plagued by multiple major injuries that have limited him to just 14 games in the past three seasons. Now back in Cincy on a one-year deal, Eifert is “doing pretty much everything” in team workouts while trying to get his career back on track. Defensively, the team should get a nice pick-me-up with the return of promising edge rusher Carl Lawson.

WR Will Fuller, Texans

Fuller is one of the most explosive pass catchers in the NFL, and his blazing speed makes him a threat to score every time he takes the field. Unfortunately for the Texans, he’s struggled to stay healthy during his three-year career; Fuller missed six games in 2017 with collarbone and rib injuries and had his 2018 season cut short when he tore his ACL in Week 8. Houston recently showed confidence in Fuller’s ability to bounce back both this year and beyond, though, picking up his fifth-year option for the 2020 season. And there’s a good reason they’re willing to make that gamble: He’s a game-changing target for quarterback Deshaun Watson.

Fuller’s speed changes how defenses have to line up against the Texans. If he can get back to full health and full speed in 2019, he’ll give Houston a tilt-the-field presence that makes everyone around him better.

TE Greg Olsen, Panthers

Olsen flirted with retirement and the broadcasting booth over the offseason, but decided to return to the field in 2019 after fighting a plantar fascia injury for most of last year. Olsen ruptured that ligament and hit the injured reserve for good in early December, but was limited throughout most of the season because of the injury, catching just 27 passes for 291 yards and four touchdowns in nine games. Now “cleared for everything” ahead of Panthers OTAs, the mismatch-creating playmaker looks poised to return to his normal standing as one of the best tight ends in the game. Olsen went over 1,000 yards in each of the 2014, 2015, and 2016 seasons and has a shot at doing that again if he can stay healthy this year. His presence on the field should be a boon for Cam Newton, who’s still rehabbing (and not throwing) after undergoing shoulder surgery in January.

OLs Andrew Norwell, Cam Robinson, and Brandon Linder, Jaguars

The foundation of the Jaguars’ smashmouth ground game is supposed to be its punishing offensive line, but that unit suffered from a handful of devastating injuries to key starters last year. Left tackle Cam Robinson played in just two games before tearing his ACL; center Brandon Linder played in nine games before hitting the injured reserve with a knee injury; and left guard Andrew Norwell, who’d signed a five-year, $66.5 million deal prior to the year, missed the final five games with an ankle injury. The team should get that trio back in 2019, providing a major boost to Leonard Fournette and the team’s underperforming ground game while giving new quarterback Nick Foles a clean pocket from which to throw.

Receiver Marqise Lee, who suffered a torn ACL in the preseason last year, is due back as well, as is 2018 fourth-rounder Will Richardson, who could provide some much-needed depth on the offensive line.

RB Devonta Freeman, Falcons

The Falcons run game took a step back in efficiency last year in large part because the team lost its starter, Freeman, to a groin injury after just two games. The veteran runner, who was never really healthy even in the two games he played, carried the ball just 14 times for 68 yards and zero touchdowns before hitting the injured reserve. Now he’s healthy and “having fun,” and ready to get back to his role as a dynamic tackle-breaking creator on the ground. The Falcons will need him to do just that; with former backfield mate Tevin Coleman now in San Francisco, the team’s depth chart is thin (with second-year pro Ito Smith, third-year pro Brian Hill, and rookie Qadree Ollison providing support). Freeman should carry a heavy load.

The team gets back a pair of defensive backs, too. Safety Keanu Neal played in just one game last year before tearing his ACL, and secondary mate Ricardo Allen tore his Achilles tendon two weeks later. Along with now fully healthy linebacker Deion Jones, that duo gives the Falcons defense a chance to make a big jump in 2019.