Cam Newton’s newly signed deal with New England could create ripple effects across the NFL, giving the former MVP a chance to not only jump-start his career, but keep the post–Tom Brady Patriots in contention in 2020. The veteran signal-caller is reportedly healthy after battling shoulder and foot injuries in the past two seasons, and he’s one of a handful of big-name difference-makers looking to bounce back from injuries in 2019. Starting with Newton, let’s take a quick tour around the league and look at a few of the most high-impact players set to return to the field.
QB Cam Newton, Patriots
We’d have to go back to the Panthers’ Week 10 loss to the Steelers in 2018 to see a fully healthy Newton on the field. Prior to suffering a shoulder injury in the second quarter in that game, the then-Carolina quarterback was playing some of the most efficient football of his career: In his first nine games, Newton completed 68.5 percent of his throws with a 17-to-5 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a 101.2 passer rating while chipping in 352 yards and four scores on the ground. The injury clearly affected Newton’s performance down the stretch, though, and the team ultimately shut him down for the final two games of the year. He elected to have offseason shoulder surgery to repair the issue.
Heading into 2019, Newton had hoped to build on the strong first-half performance from the year prior, but that went out the window when he aggravated a preseason Lisfranc injury in the Panthers’ Week 2 loss to the Buccaneers. Newton was again shelved the rest of the year and his time in Carolina ended when the team released him in March.
Newton’s health remains a massive wild card, but it’s worth noting that he did pass a physical in March and looked strong in recent Instagram posts. Josh McDaniels’s scheme is sure to feature Newton’s talents in a smart way―both by getting the ball out quickly to get him into a rhythm in the passing game, and by using him in high-leverage situations as a runner―and it won’t be too surprising if the 31-year old quarterback picks up where he left off midway through the 2018 season.
QB Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers
Like Newton, Roethlisberger’s 2019 season ended before it really started, with the veteran quarterback suffering a season-ending elbow injury in the team’s Week 2 loss to the Seahawks. The Steelers were more competitive than expected without their longtime starter, but their final 8-8 record was a testament mostly to an incredible performance from the team’s defense. With a rotation of Mason Rudolph and Duck Hodges under center, the Steelers ranked dead last in offensive DVOA after finishing sixth in the same category the year before. That unit clearly missed Roethlisberger, who’s almost a de facto player-coach at this point in his career, running the offense from the line of scrimmage.
With Roethlisberger now fully healthy―at least according to JuJu Smith-Schuster, who told NFL.com that Big Ben “is back”―Pittsburgh looks primed to get back to its high-flying ways on offense. Roethlisberger, who led the NFL in attempts (675), completions (452), and passing yards (5,129) in 2018 while throwing 34 touchdowns (fifth most), should benefit from playing behind a strong offensive line and he will have a talented group of young pass catchers to throw to downfield. Smith-Schuster is a strong bounce-back candidate, and will be joined by second-year receiver Diontae Johnson, James Washington, rookie Chase Claypool, and free-agent addition Eric Ebron.
QB Matthew Stafford, Lions
Stafford was in the middle of a renaissance year when he suffered a serious back injury in early November. The longtime Lions quarterback broke several bones in his back attempting to dive into the end zone, and the injury cut short one of the best statistical starts of his career. Stafford had eschewed the conservative, short-pass-oriented style the team had employed the previous few years under Jim Bob Cooter and had gotten back to attacking aggressively downfield under new offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell. That new focus fit Stafford’s skill set perfectly, and the veteran QB threw deep (20-plus yards downfield) on 19.2 percent of his throws, most among regular starters in the first eight games of the season. He finished the year with a 19-to-5 touchdown-to-interception ratio and notched a career-best 106.0 passer rating.
That injury smashed the Lions’ already thin playoff hopes, and after starting the year 3-4-1 with Stafford under center, Detroit lost its final eight games. With Stafford healthy heading into 2020, the Lions will hope he can hit the ground running and put the team back into contention. There’s a chance Stafford regresses slightly this year―it will be tough to match the career-best pace he set in yards per attempt (8.6) and touchdown rate (6.5 percent) last season―but with ascending star Kenny Golladay and reliable vet Marvin Jones taking up the mantle as two of the most effective deep threats in the league, I’m bullish on what Stafford and this underrated Lions offense can do.
DL J.J. Watt, Texans
Watt heads into 2020 as a Comeback Player of the Year candidate for the third time in four seasons. The three-time Defensive Player of the Year, who missed all but three games in 2016 and all but five games in 2017, had his season derailed again in 2019 when he suffered a torn pectoral muscle in the Texans’ Week 8 win against the Raiders. That injury forced Watt to miss the rest of the regular season, and while he did return for the team’s two playoff games (recording one sack and two QB hits in the team’s two games), he’ll look to put together a healthy and productive campaign for Houston this year.
Watt, who finished 2019 with four sacks, 21 quarterback hits, and a forced fumble in eight games, is now 31 and likely on the downslope of his career. But with three injury-shortened seasons in the past four years, it’s easy to forget just how dominant he can be when he’s on the field; as Pro Football Focus’s Ben Linsey wrote this week, a healthy Watt is still Aaron Donald’s best competition for the title of the league’s most dominant defensive player.
WR A.J. Green, Bengals
A training camp ankle injury ended Green’s season before it started in 2019, and the seven-time Pro Bowler was forced to stand on the sidelines and watch as the Bengals put together the worst record in the NFL. That 2-14 campaign may end up as a net positive for the franchise, though, considering it landed the team one of the best quarterback prospects in years in LSU’s Joe Burrow.
All rookie quarterbacks go through some growing pains, but Burrow would benefit greatly in year one from a vintage Green performance. The longtime Bengals receiver posted 75 catches for 1,078 yards and eight touchdowns in his last full season in the league (2017), and he should be the team’s biggest X-factor going into the year. Green has missed 29 games in the past four seasons due to various injuries, but he was told by his doctor that the ankle injury shouldn’t be a factor going forward. Green will headline what should be an underrated receiving unit in Cincinnati, which also features Tyler Boyd, John Ross, Auden Tate, and rookie Tee Higgins.
RB Derrius Guice, Washington
Guice has struggled to get on and stay on the field in his first two seasons after suffering multiple serious knee injuries. The former second-rounder missed his entire rookie year after tearing his left ACL in the team’s 2018 preseason opener, and played just five games last season due to multiple injuries. The hard-charging runner tore his right meniscus in Week 1, forcing him to miss eight games, then sprained his left MCL in Week 14, an injury that effectively ended his season. But while Guice has been unable to stay on the field for Washington, the good news is that he’s looked every bit a tackle-breaking, Marshawn Lynch clone in the few games he’s played.
From Week 11 through 14 last year, Guice notched 227 yards and two touchdowns and averaged 7.1 yards per carry on 32 totes, adding four catches for 59 yards and a score through the air. Guice led all qualifying running backs (at least 15 carries) in that four-game stretch in PFF’s elusive rating (169.3), breaking nine tackles while averaging 6.09 yards after contact per attempt (also best). He ran with a physical, tone-setting style and created yardage on his own―and if he can stay healthy, I won’t be surprised if Guice is one of this season’s most exciting breakout stars.
DT Akiem Hicks, Bears
An elbow injury landed Hicks on the injured reserve following the Bears’ Week 5 loss to Oakland last season, cutting short what was shaping up to be yet another impressive performance from the underrated defensive lineman.
Hicks doesn’t get as much hype as his superstar teammate, Khalil Mack, but he’s a critical piece of Chicago’s front line. The 6-foot-4, 352-pound interior lineman tallied one sack and five QB hits in five games last year, but in the three seasons prior (2016 to 2018), he notched 38 tackles for a loss (11th among all pass rushers), 53 quarterback hits (24th), and 23 sacks (26th) while adding five forced fumbles and seven pass knockdowns. With a fully healthy season in 2020, Hicks should start getting more of the praise he deserves.
DE Bradley Chubb, Broncos
Chubb’s promising sophomore campaign came to an abrupt halt when the former no. 5 pick suffered a torn ACL in Denver’s Week 4 loss to the Jaguars. To that point, the dynamic edge rusher looked well on his way toward the Pro Bowl, notching one sack, five tackles for a loss, six quarterback hits, and a forced fumble in four games.
Now healthy―he’s “full speed and ready to go,” per Broncos defensive coordinator Ed Donatell―Chubb should have the chance to pick up where he left off. Chubb has already shown that he can make opposing quarterbacks’ lives miserable playing opposite Von Miller, and as a rookie, the former NC State star racked up 12 sacks and 21 QB hits and made both the Pro Football Focus’ and PFWA’s All-Rookie teams.
LB C.J. Mosley, Jets
Mosley didn’t get the chance in 2019 to show Jets fans he was worth the five-year, $85 million deal he landed with New York. The 28-year-old free-agency headliner played in just two games in 2019. He missed four weeks after injuring his groin in the regular-season opener and made his only other appearance in Week 7 against the Patriots. He aggravated the injury in that matchup and missed the rest of the season after having surgery in December.
The four-time All Pro linebacker was cleared for all activities in June and will be a full-go for the team’s training camp. Mosley will provide a nice boost for the Jets, whose defense quietly finished 10th in Football Outsiders DVOA in 2019. The former Raven racked up 100-plus tackles in four of his five seasons before arriving in New York, and has always had good instincts in coverage, tallying 10 interceptions and 37 passes defensed in his career.
S Derwin James, Chargers
James suffered a stress fracture in his foot last August and missed the first 12 weeks of the season after having surgery to repair his fifth metatarsal. James is slightly different than most of the players on this list in that he returned late in the year and played the final five weeks, but I’m already looking forward to what the hyper-versatile defensive back can do in a full 16-game slate. James won All-Pro honors as a rookie for the Chargers, and showcased the ability to play multiple roles for the team while lining up all over the formation. The former Seminoles star racked up 105 tackles, 3.5 sacks, six quarterback hits, three interceptions, and 13 passes defensed in just his first year in the league. I expect big things in 2020.