Favorites and Sleepers for Comeback Player of the Year

The NFL Comeback Player of the Year award doesn’t have any exact criteria. Instead, it goes to the player who displayed the most perseverance and improvement in the face of adversity. Generally, the winner missed significant time in the season before, so for 2022 we are looking at players who missed games in 2021. While the award has gone to players who have battled off the field difficulties or simply poor performance, it often goes to someone who was sidelined with injury.

The good news is that injuries are what we specialize in. There are a handful of stars that missed time in 2021 that we can’t wait to see return to the field. Here are the ones that are likely to have the biggest impact, and have the best odds to win Comeback Player of the Year:

Favorites

Injury Risk – Elevated (22%)
Health Performance Factor – Above Average (78%)

The easy bet and odds-on favorite. Derrick Henry has been one of the best running backs in the league for the past four years. Last season he missed nine games with a Jones fracture in his right foot, a notoriously difficult injury to deal with.

Defined as a transverse fracture at the base of the 5th metatarsal (pinky toe), the injury itself is fairly common and is often associated with plantar flexion and inversion of the foot – think stepping down off something and rolling your ankle. While Jones fractures can heal well on their own, Henry underwent surgery because his fracture was displaced (the bones were no longer aligned).

For him, the fracture occurred in Week 8 against the Colts. He was expected to be out until the offseason, but Henry underwent a rigorous recovery program that allowed him to return in Week 20 against the Bengals. He ran the ball 20 times for 62 yards which – despite the loss and underwhelming performance by his standards – was an impressive sign of both his work ethic and fortitude.

Heading into 2022, he’s still a Top 5 RB in the league. Sure, the Titans o-line isn’t perfect and was ranked as the 5th worst by PFF, but Henry is still a strong runner who drives through contact with ease. In 2021, Henry tallied 487 yards after contact, which ranked #7 among RBs at the end of the year. Just to remind you, he played in only eight games.

Why He’ll Win CPOY – The Titans are eager to get him back, and know exactly how they want to use him. Trading away A.J. Brown also opens the door for him to receive more carries. It all boils down to the workload he’s going to receive. If his numbers from last season are any indication – 219 A / 937 Y / 10 TD in eight games – it would require a herculean effort by any of the other candidates to win.

Injury Risk – High (25.5%)
Health Performance Factor – Below Average (45.7%)

Saints QB Jameis Winston was off to a stellar start last season before tearing his ACL in Week 7. In his first season as the starter after sitting behind Drew Brees through 2020, Winston led New Orleans to a 5-2 record while tossing for 1,170 yards and 14 touchdowns. He also showed improved decision making skills by limiting his turnovers (three interceptions and one lost fumble in seven games).

So when he went down early in the second quarter of New Orleans’ Week 7 win over Tampa Bay, Saints fans held their breaths. The mechanism of the injury was pretty brutal. Winston’s shoulders were being dragged down and to the left by LB Devin White while his left knee bent inwards and to the right. Shortly after the game, the team confirmed the worst, announcing that Winson tore his ACL while suffering additional damage to his MCL.

ACL tears are one of the most notorious injuries across all of professional sports. There’s really no way around it once it happens either; your season is over and you have to undergo surgery. What made Winston’s even worse was the additional damage to the MCL.

Both ligaments reside with the knee, offering support and flexibility to the joint. The ACL – short for anterior cruciate ligament – is a small, yet very important, ligament that resides in the middle of the knee. It holds up the upper thigh bone (femur) from coming over the top of the lower shin bone (tibia). The MCL – short for medial collateral ligament – is located on the medial (inside) side of the knee and stabilizes it against valgus forces and lateral rotation of the tibia.

For Winson, he was able to participate in OTA’s earlier this summer with a brace but has since shedded it as he ramps up activity with three weeks until the regular season starts. He managed to participate in team drills in the first week of August, but a rolled ankle has kept him out since.

Why He’ll Win OPOY – Another potential candidate, WR Michael Thomas, is coming back to New Orleans this year after missing all of last season and significant time in 2020. He’s an elite receiver when healthy, which means he should make healthy contributions to Winston’s CPOTY campaign.

Winston is also a gunslinger, and the Saints reigned him in as much as possible last year, but he was starting to let loose in the weeks leading up to his ACL tear. New Orleans is likely to draw up a lot more passing plays this time around, especially with Alvin Kamara’s status being up in the air. If he can show the same discipline that he did last year, there’s no reason to bet against him.

Injury Risk – High (26%)
Health Performance Factor – Peak (88%)

Panthers RB Christian McCaffrey is a human highlight reel, the issue is that reel tends to have a lot of intermissions. Since dazzling the league in 2019 with 2,392 yards from scrimmage (3rd most all-time), McCaffrey has played in just 10 games. In 2020 he battled a high ankle sprain, as well as an AC joint sprain, which limited him to three games. Then in 2021 he missed time with a hamstring strain and second ankle sprain, appearing in only seven games for Carolina.

Now, heading into 2022, NFL fans are cautiously optimistic he will return to his old self again. The good news is that no specific injury of his is overwhelmingly concerning, rather it’s his overall health that is. For example, ankle sprains – the injuries that have limited him the most – are exceedingly common and not all that serious in the grand scheme of things. However, having two sprains in the same ankle in two seasons isn’t exactly a good sign.

The Panthers are aware of this, but don’t seem too concerned, with head coach Matt Rhule telling reporters in mid-August “I’m not spending my time worrying about, ‘Hey, will Christian get hurt?’ We are thinking about Christian in one way only – and that’s attack.”

There’s no doubt the Panthers need McCaffrey to be on the field if they want to compete for a playoff spot this year, and Rhule’s statements point to a scenario in which CMC is used early and often.

Why He’ll Win CPOTY – McCaffrey possesses a unique blend of elite athleticism and brute strength. Going back to his 2019 season, he had 1,000 yards rushing and receiving, becoming just the third player in NFL history to do that. He is guaranteed to play a major role in the Panthers offense this season, which means he will see ample opportunity to produce.

Carolina also grabbed Baker Mayfield to fill their hole at QB. While it may not be the flashiest move, Mayfield has proven he can be a Top 10 quarterback when he isn’t getting marched out onto the field while injured. If he can figure it out in Carolina, and McCaffrey can stay healthy, he’ll get a crack at another 1000-1000 season. If that happens, he’s the easy choice for Comeback Player of the Year.

Sleepers

Injury Risk – Elevated (22%)
Health Performance Factor – Above Average (68%)

Ravens RB J.K. Dobbins averaged an insane 5.97 yards per attempt over the final nine games of 2020. On the year, he averaged 6.01, but that was more thanks to a few outlier games early in the season where he got one or two carries that he broke off for 24+ yards.

That wasn’t the case over those final nine games, though. In those games he averaged 12.1 attempts (he only saw less than 11 carries (5) in Week 10). He finished his rookie season with 805 rushing yards and nine touchdowns on 134 attempts, putting the rest of the league on notice.

Unfortunately he wouldn’t get a chance to carry that momentum into 2021. Dobbins suffered a torn ACL in the final preseason game against Washington on August 28, 2021, and was placed on injured reserve a few days later. It was a heartbreaking injury that he spent the entire season recovering and rehabbing from. The good news is that he was able to rejoin the team in early August 2022 after he was removed from the PUP list.

Dobbins was eager to get back as well, and reportedly was pressuring head coach John Harbaugh to bring him back. Harbaugh – who has seen his fair share of running backs in his tenure with the Ravens – said recently that Dobbins has looked solid at practice thus far.

“He’s kind of back on track, and I thought he looked a little better than he did before – last week. So, he continues to improve, and we’ll see where it goes.” He then added “The range of motion, quickness, extending it when he strides – those are the kind of things that will tell the story. He’s got to get in shape. His leg got real tired yesterday just through the individual period just because he’s been rehabbing.”

Why He’ll Win CPOTY – Dobbins proved he was ready and able to compete with the best running backs as a rookie in 2020. Still just 23 years old, he is young enough that the ACL tear won’t have the impact on him that it would have on, say, a 30 year old running back. He’s looked good in practice too, which bodes well for the season.

Baltimore was decimated by injuries in 2021, but still managed to contend for a playoff spot as the season winded down. Their offensive line is ranked #17 by PFF, offering “high-end potential” that is sure to benefit Dobbins. The Ravens are also likely to feed him as much as possible in an effort to set up play-action with their dual threat QB Lamar Jackson. Dobbins is a sleeper to win CPOTY for sure, but on paper he looks like an easy choice.

Injury Risk – Elevated (22%)
Health Performance Factor – Below Average (52%)

Guys who lead the league in receptions in back-to-back seasons tend to be pretty good players, and Saints WR Michael Thomas is one of those guys.

The Ohio State product won Offensive Player of the Year in 2019 thanks to 149 receptions for 1,725 yards and nine scores. It was an explosive followup to his 125 catch, 1,405 yard season in 2018. Those were the two seasons Thomas led the league in receptions, and unfortunately he hasn’t looked the same since.

Ankle injuries have plagued him throughout the past two years, limiting him to only seven games in 2020. He then missed all of 2021 after undergoing surgery in June to correct and repair his deltoid and other torn ligaments.

The deltoid ligament is also known as the medial collateral ligament of the ankle (not to be confused with the MCL in the knee). It plays a major role in ankle stabilization and reinforcement. For a guy like Thomas, losing any sort of that function is highly detrimental to success on the field.

He was supposed to return at some point in the second half of the 2021 season, but complications and setbacks stalled his recovery and he was ultimately deemed unfit.

Thomas would go on to spend the first half of 2022 rehabbing some more before he made his triumphant return to practice in late July. About it, he said:

“Man, I’m kind of lost for words. I didn’t want to come up here and get emotional or anything. But it was a blessing to be back out there with the guys.”

Why He’ll Win CPOTY – Since giving that interview, reports have been flying out about how good Thomas has looked in practice. Those close with the Saints believe he hasn’t missed a beat. He’s also shown incredible chemistry with both QBs Jameis Winston and Andy Dalton.

If this is true, there is no reason to think Thomas won’t explode for another 1,000+ yard season. But why stop there? Thomas is the best receiving option on the team, so 1,500 is well within the realm of possibility. That’s exactly what he needs to do to win CPOTY.

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