It’s no secret that there are quite a few injuries in the NFL. It’s great to have the best players, but sometimes winning and losing comes down to injury luck just as much as anything else. With all those injuries, careers are shorter than ever, and players are always attempting comebacks.
The Associated Press established the NFL Comeback Player of the Year award in 1998 to recognize just that sort of player, one who has worked hard to overcome a significant obstacle to return to greatness in their career.
And just like anything else, we can bet on a winner . Let’s see if we can crack the code on this season’s most likely winners…
What sort of players wins Comeback Player of the Year?
So who exactly wins the Associated Press Comeback Player of the Year? Well, it won’t surprise you to know that many of the winners are quarterbacks. After all, quarterbacks make the NFL world go round. Quarterbacks remain among the most important and most recognizable players in the league, and a good quarterback comeback is just about the easiest media story to latch onto.
Sure enough, the reigning AP Comeback Player of the Year is Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck for his monster season of 4593 yards and 39 TDs just one year removed from missing the entire 2017 season to injury. Luck would have been an even bigger story were it not for Patrick Mahomes and his silly numbers; he may have even been MVP.
Luck isn’t the only quarterback to win a recent Comeback Player of the Year. In fact, 7 of the last 11 Comeback winners have been quarterbacks. Peyton Manning won it with the Broncos after moving on from his long, storied career with the Colts and a career-threatening series of neck injuries. Tom Brady won it with the Patriots after missing most of the season injured. Other quarterback winners include Philip Rivers with the Chargers, Matthew Stafford with the Lions, Michael Vick with the Eagles, and Chad Pennington with the Dolphins. In almost every case, the winning Comeback quarterback was returning from injury. The only real exception is Philip Rivers, an odd winner looking back at 2013.
But wait! It’s not only quarterbacks that win the award. Though quarterbacks have won 7 of the last 11 Comeback Player of the Year awards, they’ve also won only 1 of the last 5. Yes, Luck was the first quarterback to win the award since that weird Rivers pick in 2013.
So who else won it in that stretch? A little bit of everyone, in fact. Wide receiver Keenan Allen won it for the Chargers in 2017 after returning from a season lost to injury. Another wideout, Jordy Nelson, put up a huge season for the Packers to win the award in 2016. The year before that, the award went to Chiefs safety Eric Berry, who feels like he’s always attempting some comeback from his latest injury. And then in 2015 it was Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, another player coming back from a major injury.
So what have we learned?
Well… the Comeback winners need to be… coming back… from something.
Shocking, right? But still, it’s helpful to note that this is not typically just a comeback from a tough season or a dip in a career. These are players that are coming back from major career-threatening injuries, injuries that shortened or took away an entire season.
Beyond that, it helps to be a quarterback or at least a very visible player. Only one defender has won, and 10 of the 11 most recent winners were the guys throwing or catching the ball. Interestingly, no running back has won Comeback Player of the Year since San Francisco’s Garrison Hearst in 2001, the only RB to win the award, created in 1998.
If you want the full tally, out of 22 Comeback winners so far, 12 of them have been quarterbacks, just over half. With them are four pass-catchers, five defenders, and one running back.
There’s no real particular statistical level players need to hit, unlike other awards, and no real winning level that needs to happen either, other than that there need to be some actionable stats rather than just “being a good football player.’ Even the defenders that won racked up sacks or turnovers, game-changing plays. Don’t expect a tough offensive lineman to catch the public’s eye suddenly, but don’t worry about finding a winning team. We’re just looking for a flashy individual.
Okay, so we need someone recovering from major injury, and all the better if they’re a quarterback. We’re looking for narrative and arc. Got it?
Let’s take a look at the top candidates, in order of …
San Francisco 49ers QB Jimmy Garoppolo +325
Jimmy Garoppolo is the Comeback Player of the Year favorite, and it makes a lot of sense. The 49ers were last year’s version of the Browns, the hot sleeper everyone was picking to break out with a flashy young-ish offensive coordinator and the “it’ young quarterback. But everything went sideways in Week 3 when Garoppolo tore his ACL and was lost for the season. The 49ers season was derailed, and Garoppolo’s presumed breakout campaign was over before it even got started.
Garoppolo is finally back, having made his return to the bright lights on Monday Night Football against the Broncos. It was a pretty rough outing. His first five passes were incompletions, including one interception and another ball that could well have been a pick-6. He completed only one pass and finished with 0 yards and a 0.0 QB rating. Still, Garoppolo is playing for QB guru Kyle Shanahan, and his 16-game 49ers pace would be over 4000 yards and nearly 25 TDs.
The 49ers have won 6 and 4 games the last two years, so even a return to .500 football would be a big national story, and Garoppolo would probably get a lot of the credit. And remember, this award typically goes to a quarterback, and he’s the QB with by far the best odds. If you’re a believer in San Francisco playing well this year and believe in Handsome Jimmy G, why bother betting them to make the playoffs +215? If they do that, Garoppolo will be a shoo-in for Comeback Player of the Year. It’s his race to lose.
New York Jets RB Le’Veon Bell +450
Le’Veon Bell is the second favorite for Comeback POY by a wide margin, and he’s an interesting case in that he would be a pretty unique winner. Remember, only one running back has won the award previously. Maybe that’s a fluke, or maybe it’s because older running backs don’t typically bounce back. And then there’s that – what exactly is Le’Veon Bell “coming back’ from? He didn’t get hurt. He simply held out for contract reasons, eventually missing the whole season. He’s coming back from his self-imposed time away. He’s also 27, toward the older side for RBs, and has a lot of mileage on his wheels already. Does he have another big season in him?
Bell will be an interesting media test. He’s playing in New York now, so there will be plenty of attention if he has a big season, especially if the Jets break out and stay in the playoff race, though you have to imagine Sam Darnold would get a lot of the shine too in that scenario. But would enough media support Bell to vote for him in this award? Some may like his “comeback’ from holding out in the name of player empowerment, but others may be on the flipside of the argument and think Bell something of a prima donna. Bell just doesn’t fit the mold of a typical Comeback POY winner.
Atlanta Falcons RB Devonta Freeman +900
Our third favorite, Devonta Freeman, is another running back candidate, and a much more conventional one. Freeman only played two games last season after battling knee, foot, and groin injuries all year. The Falcons missed him. Freeman scored 35 touchdowns the three previous seasons combined, and he could get back into the end zone a lot this year, especially with fellow RB Tevin Coleman gone now.
Freeman could easily see double-digit touchdowns again for a high-scoring Falcons offense, but he’s not a particularly flashy player. Will Freeman or the Falcons do enough to capture the national media attention? It feels like he’d need to be more of a by-default choice if some of the other top candidates don’t come through, but as we’ll see, there are many better options here.
Washington Redskins RB Derrius Guice +1200
Guice is a third running back candidate for Comeback POY in the top four, and he’s another odd one. It’s going to be hard for Guice to “come back’ to NFL greatness considering he’s never actually played in it. Guice was drafted with the 59th pick in round 2 of last year’s draft, expected to be one of the top rookie running backs. But he tore his ACL in his very first preseason game and missed the entire season.
Guice is back now and expected to get a lot of the workload in Washington, though he’ll share the backfield with Chris Thompson, Adrian Peterson, and Samaje Perine. He’ll also be playing on a poor Washington team that doesn’t have a quarterback. It’s going to be hard for Guice to stand out on this team, and it’s also hard to think of him as a comeback player when he feels more like a rookie.
And just in case you’re wondering, no, Derrius Guice does not actually count as a rookie this season, so he cannot win Rookie of the Year. But you can bet him at +5000 to win the rushing title or +6500 to lead the league in rushing touchdowns. But he may already be dealing with another injury to start his new season.
Philadelphia Eagles QB Carson Wentz +1200
Wentz might be the best Comeback POY bet on the board. He checks off all the major criteria. Wentz is a quarterback, and we already know he puts up very good numbers when he’s healthy. Wentz paces to 4200 yards and 36 TDs over a 16-game season the last two years. He’s also on a very good Philadelphia Eagles team, one that could likely win double-digit games and maybe even compete for the top NFC seeds. Wentz will get a lot of media attention if he puts in a full season.
He’s also coming back from injury – in fact, he always seems to be. Wentz played through a broken rib as a rookie, then tore his ACL late in a breakout sophomore campaign and missed the Eagles Super Bowl run. Last year he had a late start recovering from the ACL tear, then played through a back injury and eventually was sidelined early and missed the playoffs again. Wentz is a possible MVP candidate if he ever stays healthy, so the narrative is all there.
That last sentence contains the two things that could stop Wentz from winning this award. One is the “if he ever stays healthy.’ Wentz is 3-for-3 on major season-affecting injuries so far and hasn’t even played in the preseason. Will he stay healthy enough to win the award? Second is the possibility that, if Wentz does play healthy all year, he might well win the MVP and then be somewhat overqualified for Comeback Player of the Year, which could be given to someone else in that case.
Carolina Panthers QB Cam Newton +1400
Cam Newton has much of the same pros and cons as Carson Wentz. On the plus side, he’s a quarterback and we already know he will likely put up huge numbers if he stays healthy. Newton already won an MVP a few years ago, and he was taking a real step forward as a passer last season before a shoulder injury derailed his season late.
But Newton has some of the same problems as Wentz, only worse. He’s even more injury-prone with his style of play, and we don’t even know if he’s fully healthy now after offseason shoulder surgery. He could also be an MVP candidate if he does stay healthy. But the biggest problem? Newton only missed two games last season since he mostly played through the shoulder injury, shutting it down only once the Panthers were out of contention. It’s going to be hard to feel like Newton is really “coming back’ from anything when he wasn’t really gone.
Baltimore Ravens S Earl Thomas +1600
Earl Thomas is the best defensive player on the board, and he’s a pretty intriguing Comeback Player of the Year candidate. Thomas has long been one of the league’s elite playmakers on defense, and now he gets to join an always nasty Baltimore unit. The Ravens should be great on defense again, and if they are, Thomas will rightfully get a lot of attention.
He’s also got a real narrative to tell. Like Le’Veon Bell, Thomas had contract issues a year ago, but unlike Bell, he played through them and tried to show his worth and get the big extension he was looking for. That all ended quickly when Thomas broke his leg in Week 4, and thus ended his career in Seattle. Now with a new team, there’s a real built-in narrative about Thomas being done wrong by the Seahawks and the system, with a rebirth in Baltimore. He doesn’t exactly put up big stats, but he’s a name most football fans know and he would be a sneaky Comeback POY if the Ravens defense has a big season.
Arizona Cardinals RB David Johnson +1600
A lot of running backs are among the Comeback POY favorites, and Johnson is another one that doesn’t make a lot of sense. Last year, he would have made sense. Johnson got only 11 carries in Week 1 of 2017 before a dislocated wrist ended his season. But he played all 16 games last year and put up 1386 yards and 10 touchdowns. It wasn’t his most efficient year ever, but how can you reward a guy for “coming back’ from a full slate and 10 TDs? Johnson also has a terrible offensive line and a rookie quarterback, so he could have a tough time putting up big numbers. He’s an odd one to come in at +1600.
Dallas Cowboys TE Jason Witten +1600
Jason Witten is a sucker’s bet. Witten is coming back from his own self-imposed time away, and he wasn’t exactly away. Instead, Witten was on out television every week on Monday Night Football, and his boring, droll style didn’t exactly make a lot of fans. Now Witten is back with the Cowboys, and though he’ll get plenty of media attention there, he’s 37 years old, slow, and not likely to put up impressive numbers. He was under 10 yards per reception his last three seasons and hasn’t scored more than 5 TDs since 2013. Spend your money elsewhere.
Los Angeles Rams WR Cooper Kupp +1800
Kupp is an interesting wide receiver candidate. He was in the midst of a breakout season for the Rams a year ago, putting up huge numbers in the slot before an ACL tear ended his season after 8 games. Kupp was on pace for 80 catches, 1150 yards, and 12 TDs, so he can certainly put up big numbers in this Sean McVay offense. But it’s also hard to see him putting up eye-popping numbers or standing out with all the Rams weapons around him, so like Devonta Freeman, he might have to be a default winner if all the other quarterback candidates fail to come through.
Cincinnati Bengals WR A.J. Green +1800
Stay away from this one. A.J. Green is indeed coming back from a toe injury, playing only nine games last year, but he’s already injured and looks like a doubt to start the season. Green has not shown good ability to play through injury in the past, and the Bengals don’t have a ton to play for. Really, if you bet on Green, you’re hoping he gets traded and has a big season elsewhere, but that’s a lot of variables in play for someone at +1800 odds.
Other long-shots worth noting
We’re getting into the weeds now, as everyone else is at least +2000 odds or worse. There are a number of other quarterbacks that could be in play.
Tennessee’s Marcus Mariota is always coming back from some injury or another. He’s never really had a great season to “come back’ from, but if he finally stays healthy all year, he could be in play at +2500.
Josh Rosen had a miserable rookie season in Arizona, then was dumped to Miami after one year. If he resurrects his career immediately with the Dolphins, his +3000 odds could look good – but the Dolphins may be the worst team in the league, so Rosen might not be in any better situation this year than he was last season.
Eli Manning would be a different sort of Comeback winner for the Giants. He’s never had a major injury but faces a lot of pressure after a few poor seasons and the presence of Giants rookie QB Daniel Jones. If Manning staves off Jones and leads the G-Men to a big year, he could make good on his +3300 ticket.
The most intriguing long shot quarterback might be Denver’s Joe Flacco. Flacco was more or less replaced by rookie Lamar Jackson last season in Baltimore, sidelined with a hip injury and then never given his job back. Now he gets a fresh start in Denver, though another rookie, Drew Lock, is waiting behind him. The Broncos have the makings of a top-notch defense. If they make a playoff run with Flacco at the helm, his +3300 Comeback POY odds could look pretty good.
One other non-QB could be an intriguing long shot. Minnesota defensive end Everson Griffen missed five games in the middle of last season for undisclosed reasons that were later revealed as being related to mental health. Griffen is back this season and only a year removed from a 13-sack season. If he hits that number or higher for what could be one of the league’s top defenses, Griffen will get a lot of attention. Mental health has been a hot topic in the news lately, and the media could choose to reward a big Griffen year with Comeback Player of the Year. He comes in at +2200.
Carson Wentz +1200
Earl Thomas +1600
Joe Flacco +3300