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9 NFL comeback player of year candidates

Touchdown Wire logo Touchdown Wire 5/25/2019 Doug Farrar
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The Associated Press has given an NFL Comeback Player of the Year award since 1963, and the combined Pro Football Weekly/Pro Football Writers has done so since 1972, with the PFWA coming on board in 1992. The award has been given to players who have overcome everything from jail time (Michael Vick, 2010) to Hodgkins' lymphoma (Eric Berry, 2015), but it's generally given to a player who has overcome injury to return to form at the highest level.

Andrew Luck won both the AP and the PFW/PFWA awards last year by completing 67.3% of his passes for 4,593 yards, 39 touchdowns and 15 interceptions after he missed the entire 2017 season following shoulder surgery.

Here are nine players primed to win the award after the 2019 season. Many are coming back from injury; a few others are overcoming bad coaching and scheme fits and may finally have the situations their talents require for optimal success.

Jimmy Garoppolo, QB, San Francisco 49ers

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Tom Brady's former backup signed a five-year, $137.5 million contract with the 49ers in February of 2018, and lasted just three games before a torn ACL ended his season. Things weren't perfect when Garoppolo was on the field because he was still getting the hang of Kyle Shanahan's offense-he completed 59.6% of his passes for 718 yards, five touchdowns and three interceptions before the injury-but as long as he nails that complex playbook and learns to be a bit more judicious with his downfield reads, Garoppolo has a pretty good shot at becoming one of the NFL's best quarterbacks over time. Making serious strides in that direction in 2019 would all but guarantee him the Comeback Player of the Year award.

David Johnson, RB, Arizona Cardinals

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Johnson wasn't injured in 2018-he played all 16 games for the Cardinals after losing all but one game the season before to a dislocated wrist-but his production declined severely in an offense "designed" by former offensive coordinator Mike McCoy and carried out by replacement Byron Leftwich after McCoy was fired halfway into the 2018 season. One of the most versatile and dynamic backs in the NFL, Johnson was used more as a between-the-guards power back and nominal receiver, completely negating his unique outside speed and comprehensive route-running abilities. New head coach Kliff Kingsbury is too smart to put Johnson on the shelf like that, and you can expect a serious uptick from his 1,386 yards from scrimmage in 2018-after all, he led the NFL in yards from scrimmage with 2,118 in 2016, the last time he was healthy and in the care of a competent offensive coaching staff.

Derrius Guice, RB, Washington Redskins

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(Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports)

The Redskins selected Guice with the 59 th overall pick in the 2018 draft, and never got to see him on the field in the regular season. The former LSU star, who ran for 2,638 yards and 26 touchdowns in his two full seasons as a starter for the Tigers, suffered a torn ACL in his first preseason game, and he was shut down for the season. If Guice is able to hit the field again with the combination of speed and power he showed in college, he'll be a key part of Jay Gruden's offense all season, and we'll all be able to see what we missed from perhaps the best running back in his draft class.

Earl Thomas, S, Baltimore Ravens

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Thomas didn't miss a single game for the Seahawks over his first six seasons, but he managed to play just 29 games in his final three years. Thomas wanted a new contract or a trade from Seattle, got neither, was injured in the fourth game of the season against the Cardinals, and flipped off his own sideline as he was carted off the field. Needless to say, Thomas' time with the Seahawks was over. The 30-year-old Thomas signed a four-year, $55 million contract with the Ravens in March, and though he's lost a little of his formerly unreal top-end speed, he's still one of the smartest, most intense, and most aggressive safeties in the business. A full healthy season could be a revelation.

Cooper Kupp, WR, Los Angeles Rams

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In his second NFL season, Kupp had become Jared Goff's primary first read, catching 40 passes on 55 targets for 566 yards and six touchdowns in eight games before suffering a torn ACL against Seattle in Week 10. This fundamentally changed the balance of Sean McVay's passing game-though Goff is a good quarterback on the rise, he clearly missed his chemistry with Kupp, and he's a player who needs as much receiver chemistry as possible. If Kupp is able to come back at full strength in Week 1 (and at this point, the signs are good), the Rams should be considered once again to be one of the NFC's best teams, and a possibility to return to the Super Bowl.

Travis Frederick, C, Dallas Cowboys

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(Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports)

Frederick was placed on injured reserve in September of 2018 after he was diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome, a muscle weakness caused by the immune system damaging the peripheral nervous system. The four-time Pro Bowler missed the entire 2018 season, but per recent reports, he's on the mend in a good way.

"He's been able to go through our entire offseason program up to this point," head coach Jason Garrett told the team's official site in early May. "He was on the field with the guys last week. It was good to see him out there in a stance, running football plays. He looks really good. He's an outstanding player and an outstanding person for us. He's been a great leader for us. Excited to get him back."

As good as Frederick is-he's the best center in the game when healthy-and given what he's trying to overcome, a full return to form would make him a more than deserving candidate.

Keanu Neal, S, Atlanta Falcons

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(Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

The Falcons dropped from 10-6 in 2017 to 7-9 in 2018, and a primary reason for that was a formerly great defense that was injury-ravaged last season. Losing Neal 37 snaps into the 2018 campaign to a torn ACL was perhaps the biggest hit, as the Falcons had nobody who could replace Neal's range and controlled aggression.

Deion Jones, LB, Atlanta Falcons

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If losing Keanu Neal wasn't the biggest hit to Atlanta's defense in 2018, it's only because losing Jones for all but six games to a fractured foot was an even bigger issue. Jones, who is one of the best coverage linebackers In the NFL, could single-handedly make a decisive impact on Dan Quinn's defense in 2019, and forwarding that comeback would certainly put him in the running for this award.

Deone Bucannon, S/LB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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(Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports)

Like David Johnson, Bucannon wasn't injured last season-he was just lost at the mercy of a coaching staff that frequently had no clue what to do with its most talented players. Head coach Steve Wilks and defensive coordinator Al Holcomb didn't share their predecessors' enthusiasm for Bucannon's versatility, preferring players with more fixed roles. He signed a one-year, $2.5 million deal with the Buccaneers this offseason, and Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Todd Bowles has historically had a better idea what to do with hybrid players. In the right system, Bucannon can really make a difference, especially if he's designated to replace speed linebacker Kwon Alexander, signed by the 49ers.


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