What was 2019's loss could be the gain for the 2020 regular season, which is just weeks away from kicking off. Last year we saw a number of the NFL's brightest miss substantial time due to injury or other outside circumstances and are now looking to make their way back onto the field and return to their elite form. This, in turn, creates quite the who's who list when you start looking at potential Comeback Player of the Year candidates.
Our friends at William Hill Sportsbook have a massive list of candidates to wager on, but even upon first glance, there will be near a dozen stars that jump off the page. For our little thought experiment today, we'll be looking at 10 players who have a rather strong chance of adding this award to their résumé, rank them, and explain how they can get there.
Some names that you won't see on this list who are included in William Hill's odds are Antonio Brown (+2500), Myles Garrett (+2500), Baker Mayfield (+3300), and Jared Goff (+4000). The reason why they aren't getting much mention here comes down to them either playing in all 16 games last season (like Mayfield and Goff) or found their way off the field because of non-injury reasons (like Brown and Garrett). With that in mind, it'd seem silly that they'd get any serious consideration for the award.
As I mentioned, this group of 10 players is really a star-studded bunch that combined have 41 Pro Bowl appearances, six Super Bowl titles, and even two Comeback Player of the Year awards. Given that track record, it's not out of the realm of possibility that any of these guys end up with this hardware following a strong comeback season.
Note: All odds are from William Hill Sportsbook as of 8/19/2020
1. Alex Smith, Washington
Odds to win CPOY: +450
I'm personally surprised that Alex Smith isn't the betting favorite to win this award at the moment. The storyline is unfolding perfectly for the Washington quarterback and if the season ended today, he'd be a lock for the accolade. He was just recently cleared for football activities, 21 months after suffering a compound leg fracture that nearly cost him his life. Smith is taking part in training camp and looks to be a factor in the quarterback room in 2020, which already makes this a fantastic story of mental and physical fortitude regardless if he wins the award or not.
Of course, what may keep him from winning could simply come down to playing time. Second-year quarterback Dwayne Haskins will be the starter as Washington begins the 2020 season and if other players around the league have more on-field production, it could take Smith out of the running. That said, if the players on this list have seasons that don't necessarily jump off the page and Smith somehow finds himself playing at any point (Week 17?), you can just give him the award on the spot.
Odds to win CPOY: +400
Big Ben missed the bulk of the 2019 season after undergoing surgery on his throwing elbow. That a less-than-ideal injury for any quarterback, especially one who'll be entering 2020 at 38 years old. So far, however, Roethlisberger has been clearing all the hurdles in his recovery and has been getting rave reviews over the course of Steelers training camp. Tight end Vance McDonald even noted on Tuesday that Roethlisberger is "all the way back, for sure."
If that's the case, it's no surprise to see him as the co-favorite currently to win CPOY at +400. Roethlisberger plays a premium position (which does have value in these sorts of award races) and is in an offense that isn't afraid to chuck it. During his last full season in 2018, Roethlisberger threw a career-high 675 times for 5,129 yards, which was also a career-best and led the entire NFL.
Of course, he doesn't need to put up those totals -- and likely won't given the loss of Antiono Brown and Pittsburgh having a more stout defense -- but if he keeps his completion percentage around 67% (where it was in 2017 and 2018), has a healthy amount of passing yards and helps Pittsburgh win the AFC North, he'll be right in the thick of the race. It also doesn't hurt that the Steelers have the second-easiest schedule in the NFL for 2020.
3. Cam Newton, Patriots
Odds to win CPOY: +450
Cam Newton to New England is one of the more polarizing storylines as we begin the 2020 season. How he meshes in the Patriots system and with head coach Bill Belichick will be fascinating to watch unfold. First, however, the former MVP will need to separate himself in the quarterback competition between himself, Jarrett Stidham, and Brian Hoyer. When looking at sheer talent, Newton has that in spades, but he'll need to quickly become well-versed in New England's offensive terminology and the playbook, which he admitted is like learning calculus.
His health, meanwhile, doesn't appear to be a major issue to this point as he does seem to be recovered from previous shoulder and foot injuries after passing the team's physical and performing well at training camp. Staying healthy over 16 games, however, is what could make or break Newton's chance of being the starter for the Patriots and, in turn, put him in the running for CPOY. In 14 games played in 2018, Newton completed 67.9% of his passes for 3,395 yards, 24 touchdowns, and 13 picks while rushing for additional 101 yards and four scores. If he's able to secure the starting job, put up similar numbers, and New England wins the AFC East, that would be quite the comeback for Newton and likely land him a lucrative contract next offseason.
Odds to win CPOY: +1000
Matthew Stafford is being slept on heading into 2020. Prior to going down with a season-ending back injury last year, the Lions quarterback was playing himself into MVP conversations. In eight games played, he averaged 312.4 passing yards per game (second-best in the NFL), 8.6 yards per attempt (second-best in the NFL), and his 106.0 passer rating that was just outside the top-five in the league. Stafford was also ranked fourth in DVOA, according to Football Outsider, only behind Drew Brees, Lamar Jackson, and Patrick Mahomes. Now that he's healthy, he has to chance to pick up right where he left off.
Stafford has a nice collection of talent around him at the skill positions, starting with receivers Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones. Detroit also drafted running back D'Andre Swift to strengthen its ground game. If 2019 first-round pick T.J. Hockenson can take a jump in his second season, it's enough weapons for Stafford to put up numbers. Factoring in at +1000 is also tremendous value here.
Odds to win CPOY: +400
Rob Gronkowski, who won Comeback Player of the Year in 2014, is in a different spot than some of the players on this list. The All-Pro tight end, who is the current co-favorite alongside Roethlisberger, is not coming off a debilitating injury but is instead coming out of retirement to join Tom Brady on his new venture down in Tampa Bay. Head coach Bruce Arians told reporters recently that Gronk is "more than ready" to play, indicating that there is not much rust to shake off, which was evident in practice on Tuesday as he extended for a deep pass from Brady.
That said, the tight end may have a difficult road at winning this award. Tampa Bay is deep at the tight end position as they also boast O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate. Even as the Bucs move to 12-personnel as their base offense, Gronkowski will be fighting for snaps with Howard and Brate at times. That's also not mentioning that receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin will also see plenty of targets from Brady over the season, possibly cutting into Gronk's stats.
It also depends on what version of Gronkowski the Bucs are getting. If he's the type of player he was during his final year with the Patriots, they'll be looking at a tight end who seemed to lose a step or two (which may have been injury related). If he's back to true Gronkowski form, he's an elite tight end who Brady has a 123.9 passer rating average when targeting him. It really depends on how you see his role developing and what kind of shape he's in.
6. Trent Williams, 49ers
Odds to win CPOY: +5000
Let's be honest, it's tough for offensive linemen to even get an "attaboy" let alone be considered for an award, but Trent Williams could be an exception to that and has tremendous value in this CPOY race at +5000 (!). The seven-time Pro Bowl tackle held out of the 2019 season due to disputes with the Washington front office/medical staff regarding the misdiagnosis of a cancerous growth in his head that has since been removed.
Williams was traded to the San Francisco 49ers during the 2020 draft and is now primed to take the place of left tackle Joe Staley, who announced his retirement this offseason. Because he hasn't been on the field for a substantial period of time, you may forget that Williams is arguably the best offensive tackle in all of football. So far, it seems like he's getting back to that form as reports out of Santa Clara note that Williams recently dominated Pro Bowl pass rusher Nick Bosa at training camp.
If Williams continues that trend and proves to be an All-Pro caliber protector to Jimmy Garoppolo on the blindside and the 49ers continue to contend for a Super Bowl, he'll definitely be in the conversation.
7. J.J. Watt, Texans
Odds to win CPOY: +600
When I was doing research on these players, I found myself a bit shocked that J.J. Watt hadn't already won a Comeback Player of the Year award. The Texans All-Pro defensive end has unfortunately been bit by the injury bug a number of times throughout his career but has consistently returned to being an impact player in Houston's defense.
2019 saw Watt's season get cut in half after suffering a torn pectoral during a Week 8 contest against the Raiders. He eventually found his way back onto the field for the Texans' Wildcard game against the Bills, where Watt came up with a key sack against Buffalo quarterback Josh Allen, which helped the Houston mount a comeback and win in overtime.
Watt's last full season came back in 2018 where he totaled 16 sacks and a league-leading seven forced fumbles. Given that he's playing on the defensive side of the ball, Watt will need some of the offensive stars on this list to have mediocre returns to action, but if he's able to get to where he was just a few seasons ago, he's another solid value play heading into 2020.
8. A.J. Green, Bengals
Odds to win CPOY: +800
It feels like a lifetime ago that we've seen A.J. Green on the field for the Bengals. After a hot start to the 2018 season where he logged 694 yards through nine games, the star receiver was placed on injured reserve due to a toe injury. Then, in training camp last year, Green suffered torn ligaments in his ankle and missed the entire season. That brings us to 2020 and Cincinnati is entering a new chapter in the franchise's history after selecting quarterback Joe Burrow with the No. 1 overall pick at the 2020 draft.
If Green can stay healthy -- and that's a big if as he's already dealing with a hamstring injury-- he'll be playing with a wildly talented quarterback in an offensive system run by head coach Zac Taylor that should throw the ball a good amount. He's still the No. 1 pass-catching option and as long as he comes remotely close to the player he was prior to these injuries, he'll put up some impressive stats. Again, Green's durability makes him a very risky wager in my eyes, but if he plays all 16 games and Burrow is as-advertised, he'll have the stats worthy of consideration.
9. DeSean Jackson, Eagles
Odds to win CPOY: +3300
DeSean Jackson's return to Philly was cut short last season after the veteran receiver landed on IR with a core muscle injury. He started off his second stint with the Eagles with a bang, catching eight passes in the opener for 154 yards and two touchdowns, but that was essentially all we saw from him in 2019. So far in camp, Jackson not only looks like he's returned to full health but the speedster is flashing the ability to stretch the field vertically, something that Philadelphia is looking to add into its offense this season.
The Eagles did select receiver Jalen Reagor in the first round of the 2020 draft, but Jackson could be the No. 1 target at the position during Reagor's rookie season. If that's the case, Jackson could be looking at 60-plus targets this season, which is more than enough for him to put up some impressive numbers.
10. Nick Foles, Bears
Odds to win CPOY: +1500
Similar to Cam Newton, Foles needs to focus on winning the starting job over Mitch Trubisky before we can really solidify him as a serious CPOY candidate, but it is on the table for the former Super Bowl hero. Chicago traded for Foles this offseason for a reason and will give him an opportunity to seize the starting job from Trubisky. It's really just a matter of when and how long of a leash he'll be given once he's under center. The familiarity between Foles and head coach Matt Nagy is also well-documented so the quarterback shouldn't struggle too much getting up to speed in the system.
The bigger question surrounding Foles is what he actually is as a starting quarterback in the league. He was, of course, fantastic for Philadelphia after coming in for the injured Carson Wentz and leading the Eagles to a Super Bowl LII victory, but there have been other instances that have him coming back down to earth a bit. 2019 looked like we'd get a full season to evaluate Foles after signing with the Jacksonville Jaguars, but he suffered a broken left clavicle in the opener, which opened the door for rookie Gardner Minshew to claim the starting spot. Foles played in just four games for the Jags, was 0-4 as the starter while completing 65.6% of his passes for 736 yards, three touchdowns, and two picks.
If Foles wins the starting job and is more like the quarterback we've seen in Philly in the past, he has CPOY potential. If he continues his play from 2019, he'll have bigger problems to worry about. Also, injuries are a sneaky big concern for the 31-year-old too, making this wager something to shy away from.