You can't keep a good man down.
I think I read that in a fortune cookie once. But, seriously, in the NFL, much as in other walks of life, we tend to appreciate a good redemption story. And as Fantasy football addicts can tell you, there were no shortage of individuals who didn't quite live up to expectations in the 2016 season.
Football is a tricky game, with injuries always possibly lurking on that next snap, health difficult to predict and age something that tends to suddenly leap forth all at once in many cases, rather than become the slow-and-steady succubus it is in other sports. It's a true team sport, so it's easy for a player to be undermined by a position group entirely outside his own -- a quarterback felled by his offensive line; a receiver left out to hang by his quarterback -- and that inter-connectivity can take its toll on productivity from one year to the next.
There will be no shortage of players who respond to adversity from 2016 and get back to an elite level. Some are trying to overcome self-inflicted wounds from suspensions or off-field issues. Some are recovering from injury. Some just need to shake off a slump.
With that out of the way, here's a look at 10 candidates who I expect to do just that in 2017:
Cam Newton, QB, Panthers
It all started unraveling in Super Bowl 50, then Newton got his brains beat in in the 2016-opening loss to Denver again, and he never quite got up. He didn't even complete 53 percent of his passes, was rarely healthy and finished with far and away the worst season of his career (75.8 rating).
He was the 2015 MVP for a reason, however, and while I still have concerns about the offensive line, the Panthers will be able to run the ball this season. Christian McCaffrey will be a vital check down/escape plan guy, and I expect Newton to be back to form. I also anticipate his maturity and leadership trending in the right direction after taking quite a hit dating back to his antics during and after that Super Bowl defeat. The Panthers will be a little more under the radar in the upcoming season, as well, which should help.
Muhammad Wilkerson, DL, Jets
It was a painful 2016 for Wilkerson and the Jets. After finally getting paid like the kind of contributor he has been, Wilkerson was never right last season. His recovery from a broken lower leg dragged through the season, going to see specialists and looking for explanations for his lingering issues and lack of explosion.
The tabloids -- at least one particular tabloid -- played him up as a selfish dude stealing money, but the reality was he was never right. At 6-foot-4 and 315 pounds, anything in the ankle region can sink you, and a hobbled Wilkerson accounted for only 4.5 sacks. He's feeling much better now, underwent new rehab and recovery procedures this offseason, and I wouldn't be shocked if he tripled that sack output in the upcoming season, and got back to the run-stuffing demon he has been in the past as well.
Eddie Lacy, RB, Seahawks
Put the weight jokes aside. He's heard them all. As has Seahawks GM John Schneider, who frankly wants this guy to be a beefy, physical, imposing runner. They aren't looking for a svelte speed back; they've got those guys. They want a tone setter with Marshawn Lynch long gone.
Lacy will be motivated. Lacy fits the scheme. Lacy can get help in run action from an elusive QB like Russell Wilson. Lacy was limited to only five games last season, but and will be in position to succeed in Seattle. They bought low on him, and, I'd point out, for as much as he got bashed last season, he was averaging 5.2 yards per carry. In his three seasons other than 2015 (when the weight starting becoming the big thing), Lacy has carried 601 times for 2,677 yards for a robust 4.5 per carry. He also scored 20 rushing TDs in his first two seasons, and I suspect he gets to double digits in that category this time around.
Rob Gronkowski, TE, Patriots
At this stage of his career, it's year to year with Gronk. And obviously he is coming off a 2016 that was marred by injury, again, and repeated back/spine issues are quite serious. He's had far too many surgical procedures for there not be concerns.
But I'll say this, the dude hasn't really suffered major injuries in back-to-back seasons, and the Pats have the luxury of easing him back in. With Martellus Bennett gone, they don't have to force or feature the two-tight end stuff anymore (and Dwayne Allen can be more of a blocking tight end for them). They reinvent themselves every season, and with a diverse cast in the backfield and Brandin Cooks joining the outside receivers as a bona fide burner, Gronk can be more of a complimentary part. Hell, they just won the Super Bowl again without him.
He isn't going to get 120 targets, but I bet they ease him through the season, and he ends up with 70 catches for 1,000 yards and remains a red-zone beast, catching 12 TDs or more. He doesn't need a career year to still be one of the best in the NFL at his position.
NaVorro Bowman, LB, 49ers
Few players have had worse injury luck the past three seasons, but don't discount this guy's will to persevere. His fire burns bright, and after losing almost all of last season to an Achilles injury -- on top of losing all of 2014 to a grizzly knee injury suffered the previous season -- he is making good progress this spring. I wouldn't write him off.
The 49ers are young and finally free of constant dysfunction, it seems, and I like the young defensive tackles who will be playing in front of Bowman and occupying space and blockers. This defense ain't anything close to what it once was, and I don't anticipate Bowman being an All-Pro, but he's not yet 30 years old and can still play. His leadership and presence will be big for San Francisco. He'll be productive and assertive and help this franchise pick itself off the ground under a new regime.
Allen Robinson, WR, Jaguars
There may not have been another prominent player who despite avoiding major injury in 2016, and staying with his current team with familiar teammates, still regressed the way Robinson did. In 2015, he was flirting with joining the NFL's truly elite receivers, catching 80 balls for 1,400 yards and 14 TDs. Sure, some of it was in garbage time -- that's how Blake Bortles rolls -- but it was eye-popping stuff.
While Bortles was nothing short of awful in 2016 -- even in garbage time -- it's hard to fathom Robinson mustered 517 fewer receiving yards and eight fewer scores last season. Tom Coughlin knows how to develop receivers, though, and Bortles knows this is his last chance. The Jags will have a run game in the upcoming season and a more balanced offense. There is nowhere for Robinson to go but up, and I expect a return to something closer to his 2015 output.
DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Texans
The man has been set free. He got his career back. Brock Osweiler is no longer in Houston.
Look for Hopkins to be an impact receiver again. Sure, I expect raw rookie Deshaun Watson to struggle and be green and make mistakes … but that kid knows what a young stud receiver looks like from his time at Clemson, and he is smart enough to force feed Hopkins if need be. Just watch the film of what Brian Hoyer did with him a few years back.
Hopkins regressed like Robinson, catching 33 fewer balls for 567 fewer yards and seven fewer TDs than the season before, but he got "Brocked." Robinson did it with the same QB as the year before. Hopkins went from eight games of 90 yards or more to just two (Week 2 and Week 17). That'll change. It has to change. Even with a rookie, or Tom Savage, as his QB. In a contract year, the time is now for Hopkins.
Joe Flacco, QB, Ravens
I don't care if he is "elite." That's not the object. But Flacco must get back to being a functional, winning QB, and I expect that in 2017.
Last year was always going to be tough with him lacking talent around him, the line in transition and Flacco in his first year back from major knee surgery. Add in the fact that he got yet another offensive coordinator thrown at him -- yet again in midseason -- and that the Ravens, shockingly, decided to throw the ball more than any team in the league, and you have a recipe for total disaster. And while I still don't like the skill guys around him by and large, and the line is still transitioning, he'll be fine. Baltimore's defense should be all the way back, he'll get more short fields, some young pass catcher will emerge and they must, must, must stay balanced and run the ball. Or John Harbaugh will fire another OC and call the run plays himself!
Flacco also got much better, quietly, in the second half of the season (as is the norm coming back from that injury). In his first eight games, he threw 338 times, competing 61.2 percent of his passes for 6.15 per attempt with six TDs, seven INTs and a rating of 76. From then on he threw 334 times (staggering volume) at 68.9 percent for 6.7 per attempt with 14 TDs, eight INTs and a rating of 91.1.
Connor Barwin, LB, Rams
He's been moved all over the place, asked to do different things, toggled between 3-4 and 4-3 with the Eagles and fallen out of favor. And he registered only five sacks in Philadelphia last season on a middling-at-best unit. But he's back with coordinator Wade Phillips, who he knows well from their time together in Houston, including an 11.5-sack season in 2011. And he's only a few years removed from a career-best 14.5-sack campaign.
He's a scheme fit here and Phillips, with plenty of young and fast options around him, can keep Barwin on a pitch count and put him in position to succeed while probably asking him to do less in coverage, too. With Robert Quinn -- who needs to stay healthy and get back to his best as well -- on the opposite side, Barwin just has to be a complimentary guy. He's started 96 straight games and will help this team win third down.
Doug Martin, RB, Buccaneers
He seems to be putting his life back in order, and he has a decent line in front of him and what could emerge as one of the best passing attacks in the NFC. Teams can't stack the box, and if he can stay out of trouble this sets up nicely as a possible redemptive season. The draft fell in his favor as well, with Tampa having tight end O.J. Howard fall to them in the first round and them not taking a running back, which was strongly under consideration.
Martin knows this is his last shot. As recently as 2015 this guy averaged 4.9 yards per carry and went over 1,400 yards, and while I don't think he'll be that sort of force, this is one OTA feel-good story I am buying, and I don't buy many (former teammate Austin Sefarian-Jenkins, now with the Jets, is another I think could prove legit, too, FWIW).
You could go ahead and put Todd Gurley in this spot as well if you want -- new head coach Sean McVay will get that run game going even despite his woeful offensive line, I figure -- but the Rams have so much further to go on offense. Gurley is likely to still see a ton of nine-man boxes, and frankly more will be expected of him to shake off that sophomore slide.