2018 NFL All Comeback Player Team: Andrew Luck edges out Aaron Rodgers at quarterback – CBSSports.com

The 2017 NFL season was not a good one for people who love seeing players stay healthy. One after another, we saw big-name NFL stars suffer injuries. Midway through the season you could easily piece together a loaded team of Pro Bowl players. Even guys who were healthy, like Ezekiel Elliott, missed tons of times because of … other reasons. 

With that in mind, let’s figure out an entire team full of possible Comeback Player of the Year candidates. 

The goal here is to figure out not which player is necessarily BEST at each position, but to figure out which player at each position would be most likely to win Comeback Player of the Year. For most of these scenarios, it’s simply whoever is coming back from the worst injury/most time off/etc.

But several of these positions are loaded with multiple high-end players who would get consideration for this award. Quarterback, for instance, features two young guys coming off torn ACL injuries (Carson Wentz, Deshaun Watson) who probably won’t sniff the award because they’re too young and the other stars battling injuries at the position have bigger injury concerns and/or their initial injury was more devastating to their team.

Let’s dive in and find someone for every position on both sides of the ball. If I missed someone or you think there’s a better candidate at a given position, let me know on Twitter @WillBrinson

And if you want to hear this thing in podcast form, subscribe to the Pick Six Podcast via iTunes | via Stitcher | via TuneIn | via Google Play.

All Comeback Team Offense

QB – Andrew LuckColtsThe toughest pick here because Aaron Rodgers would be the obvious answer, given the Packers quarterback missed most of the season with a busted collarbone on his throwing shoulder. However, I tilted in favor of Luck at the last minute because the Colts quarterback is at least a comparable quarterback (top five when healthy) and because he’s returning from a much more serious situation. Luck hasn’t thrown a pass in a professional football game in roughly two years. 

RB – David Johnson, Cardinals Running back is a tough one to pick, too, because there are several very viable candidates. Johnson is the most obvious, having lost essentially his entire season to a Week 1 wrist injury. His stated goal the last two years has been to top 1,000 rushing and 1,000 receiving yards in the same season. Hitting those goals would make him a slam dunk to win some kind of award, whether it’s MVP, Offensive Player of the Year or even the comeback nod. Dalvin Cook of the Vikings is a very good candidate as well, given how strong he started last year and his return from an ACL injury.

If you want to think outside the box on this award, Ezekiel Elliott deserves consideration, even though it’s in a less traditional comeback sense. Elliott battled the NFL‘s convoluted approach to meting out discipline and fighting against players in the court system. He was never hurt, but it’s clear the whole thing hurt his performance. A 2,000-yard rushing season could put Elliott in the conversation here, although he’s starting behind Johnson and Cook to win comeback honors because of how the award works. 

WR: Odell Beckham Jr., Giants A fluke ankle injury in the preseason last year carried over into the regular season and the enigmatic wide receiver never really got off the ground thanks to a gruesome ankle injury. Beckham still managed 300+ yards and three touchdowns in his limited action, but it was hardly up to expectations for the young receiver. Beckham has been a good soldier for the Giants ever since he butted heads with the team over his contract, and now he’s in training camp being a leader, etc. If he has a monster season, he’ll be rewarded financially (and might get a new deal before then) and stands a very good chance of earning a CPOY award as well. 

WR: Allen RobinsonBears Robinson’s returning from two bad years. After having led the league in receiving touchdowns in 2015 as a 22-year-old, Robinson had a bad season in 2016 as Blake Bortles really struggled. Last year in Week 1 he tore his ACL, which led to the Jaguars letting him walk into free agency. Robinson’s latched on with the Bears as the hopeful No. 1 receiver for sophomore quarterback Mitchell Trubisky and could easily blossom in Matt Nagy’s system. There’s a lot of time for him to bounce back in terms of his career path.

WR: Julian EdelmanPatriots Multiple comebacks here, as well, with Edelman suffering a torn ACL in the preseason for the Patriots and missing all of last season, undoubtedly believing he could have helped put them over the top on the Eagles for a title had he played. Now Edelman has to wait for a four-game PED suspension before returning to the field. That would make his comeback award chances pretty slim, but we’ve seen one of Tom Brady’s favorite targets (Rob Gronkowski) come back from a torn ACL and win the award before. Edelman in the slot makes this an absurd receiving corps.

TE: Greg OlsenPanthers For the first time since coming over in a trade from Chicago back in 2011, Olsen didn’t play in all 16 games for the Panthers. It’s remarkable how consistent and durable he’s been before a foot injury cost him most of 2017. This year Carolina needs all the help it can get on offense, with Cam Newton transitioning to a new system under Norv Turner. Having Olsen — who went to three straight Pro Bowls before last year — back as a security blanket would be a massive help.

OT: Jason Peters, Eagles — It’s a testament to how deep the Eagles are that they won a Super Bowl without their starting left tackle, who’s been a stalwart for the franchise since being acquired in a trade back in 2009. It’s also a testament to Peters that we expect him to step right into the starting lineup at age 36 after tearing his ACL last season. He’s a remarkable combination of size and athleticism, and with Carson Wentz returning from an ACL injury as well, Philly will want to make sure it has maximum protection for its young franchise quarterback.

OG: Marshal YandaRavens The big guard is coming off a season where he played just three games, which came after a stretch of seasons where he made the Pro Bowl six straight times (with two All Pro nods mixed in as well). He’ll turn 34 in September, so there is concern (as there is with Peters) about age being an issue in his comeback attempt, but he suffered his season-ending ankle injury in September, so he (like Peters) has had plenty of time to heal and get ready. There should also be motivation to win in Ozzie Newsome’s final year as GM, plus the goal of protecting Joe Flacco enough to keep Lamar Jackson at bay.

C: Ryan Kalil, Panthers — It’s technically back-to-back shortened seasons for Kalil, who has played in just 14 games the last two years. Carolina’s offense — both rushing and passing — is noticeably worse when Kalil isn’t in there to help out Newton. The former second-round pick has said this is going to be his final hurrah in Carolina, but Thomas Davis said the same thing, and the linebacker is already waffling on that claim. A full season out of Kalil would go a LONG way to helping Carolina make the playoffs in a pivotal season.

OG: Mike Iupati, Cardinals — Part of the injury meltdown that doomed the Cardinals in 2017, Iupati hit injured reserve in September and ended up just playing a single game because of a knee injury. Lose your starting quarterback, starting running back and one of your best offensive linemen and you might struggle! The Cards need Iupati playing up to his potential in order to rebound with a new group of quarterbacks (Sam Bradford, Josh Rosen) under center this year.

OT: Taylor Decker, Lions After an impressive rookie season in 2016, the Ohio State product was limited to just eight games last year with a labrum issue that ultimately was the catalyst for the Lions offensive line falling apart. Detroit invested even more in the offensive line this offseason, drafting Frank Ragnow out of Arkansas in the first round. Decker’s return is supposed to kickstart the first good Lions rushing attack in what feels like a decade.

All Comeback Team Defense

EDGE: Whitney MercilusTexans The previous two seasons (2015 and 2016) coupled with the stars around him (J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney) set the stage for an under-the-radar breakout year from Mercilus, who amassed 19.5 sacks for the Texans the two years leading into last season. But the pass rusher suffered a pec injury and was ruled out for the season in October, one of many brutal injuries to Houston’s group of stars last season that led to a four-win year. 

EDGE: Markus Golden, Cardinals — Again, Arizona got a really bad hand here in terms of injuries. Going into his third year and coming off a quiet 12.5-sack season, Golden was expected to explode alongside Chandler Jones for a tough Arizona defense. Instead, Golden went down with an ACL injury in Week 4. His timetable is coming along “slow” (read: normal?) and he hopes to be ready for the regular season. Having all hands on deck defensively is going to be big for Steve Wilks’ first season in Arizona.

DL: J.J. Watt, Texans — The multiple-time Defensive Player of the Year has been battling injuries the last few years, leading people to wonder if he might be heading onto the back nine of his career. From an age standpoint (29), the answer is probably yes, but no one wants to admit we might not be living in the prime of Justin James Watt’s career anymore. He’s too fun to watch. Last year it was a tibial plateau fracture — just as gruesome as it might sound — that knocked Watt out and left him believing he let the city of Houston down. Everyone is optimistic about Watt’s season, even if the player himself is baking in some caution.

A return to full form would make him the favorite to win the comeback award, in my opinion, after playing in only eight games the last two years.

LB: Jordan Hicks, Eagles — Again, another injury for Super Bowl champs. Hicks was in the middle of another excellent season last year when he suffered an Achilles tear in October. (Maybe we should have seen an injury coming when he hurt his hand on his honeymoon in the offseason.) He didn’t have the raw stats from the previous years (five picks in 2016) but he was clearly keying the middle of the Eagles defense and there was a void after. Achilles tears are tough recoveries for athletes, so his explosion early will be worth keeping an eye on.

LB: Dont’a Hightower, Patriots –– The multi-time Super Bowl hero (Hightower made huge plays against the Seahawks and Falcons that fly under the radar) was lost for the year after undergoing pectoral surgery in October. The Patriots defense wasn’t good while he was out there, but it definitely took time to round into form without him in the middle. New England’s got high hopes again this season and Hightower is a big part of the plans.

CB: Richard Sherman49ers Another GREAT candidate to win the award, should he play at full speed and at a high level for the 49ers in 2018. Sherman’s saga is well documented: he played with an Achilles he knew would pop at some point, eventually suffered the injury, was released by the Seahawks this offseason, signed with the 49ers and has spent most of the last few weeks and months taking a blowtorch to any Seattle-area bridges. He will be motivated this year. And probably glad he doesn’t have to play Marquise Goodwin.

CB: Tavon Young, Ravens —  A surprise breakout rookie season in 2016 portended big things for Young last year, but it might have been Young’s injury that predicted a rough season for the Ravens. He was one of many different Ravens players going down early last year, with bad luck hitting the Beltway hard. He’s the likely slot corner in Baltimore, and a healthy season for him would go a long way towards helping the Ravens defense remain dominant in the secondary.

CB: Jimmy Smith, Ravens — HMM. Lot of injuries for a potential bounce-back team here. Smith is recovering from an Achilles injury suffered last year and might actually be able to slow play it on coming back thanks to the depth of this Ravens secondary. Brandon Carr came over, Marlon Humphrey continues to develop and the aforementioned Young is there as well. A healthy, effective Smith would be a big, big plus for John Harbaugh’s defense though.

S: Eric Berry, ChiefsBerry already won the CPOY award thanks to his victory over cancer and returning to the field. He was superb in 2016 in that return, but lost for the season in Week 1 after he ruptured his Achilles against the Patriots last year. Despite that, the Chiefs had plenty of success, but when people bury this defense, they forget how important a healthy return of Berry to the backend can be. He’s a game changer.

S: Malik Hooker, Colts — There were issues with Hooker’s health coming out of Ohio State, so it’s possible injuries could linger into his second year. But if he puts together 16 games? Watch out. In seven games last year, Hooker managed three picks and four passes defensed. He’s a ballhawk of the highest degree, and the Colts are going to need playmakers BADLY on the back end of their defense, which sports maybe the worst secondary depth in the NFL.

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