A year ago at this time not many people were ruminating on Ryan Tannehill, and what a rebound season might look like.
Sure, he might unseat Marcus Mariota, but you would have had a hard time convincing me that Tannehill would end up signing the biggest quarterback contract of the 2020 offseason, by far, given how star-studded that free agent class would be. Every season there are players who manage to curb their slide and return to prominence, while others struggle to get back to where they once were.
Given this bizarre offseason, and what could be a highly-unusual training camp and preseason as well, there are even more variables and factors in play. There haven't been any of the spring NFL staple reading materials – Player X is in the best shape of his life and is dominating the OTAs! – and no one dominates Zoom in a virtual world. Just doesn't work that way.
Still, I thought I'd take a shot at trying to identify some players I believe are in store for serious bounce back seasons, and some whom I have a little more concern about getting back to the heights they once attained.
Bounce back: JuJu Smith-Schuster
He gets to play with an NFL level QB this year, and even an aging Ben Roethlisberger is a massive upgrade over the service this receiver could rely on a year ago. Are there some reasons to worry about a 38-year old QB coming off season-ending elbow surgery? You betcha. But the additions at tight end will force teams to roll off of JuJu a bit and we know this guy has great chemistry with Ben and I expect him to post numbers in line with a No. 1 WR in 2020.
Fall back: James Conner
The Steelers offensive line ain't what is used to be. Will Maurkice Pouncey stay healthy and play at an All-Pro level anchoring that unit? For the first time in a while there is open competition at multiple spots. The run game was a big problem last year, Conner is in tremendous shape but runs upright and takes on a lot of hits and durability has always been a concern there. He is in a prove it year to get paid and Big Ben's return will force some defenders out of the box but this offensive attack ain't what it once was and the days of piling up the yards and points with Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell are long gone. This is a defense-led squad now and I don't see an explosive season for Conner.
Bounce back: Baker Mayfield
Few players regressed more from their rookie seasons in 2019 than Mayfield did. It was staggering at times; he looked on the cusp of joining the elite passers in the NFL, then lacked poise, became a turnover machine and seemed to lose his swagger a year ago. He was dangerous alright – as is in a pick six waiting to happen. But Freddie Kitchens is gone and tremendous talent remains around this QB. I believe rookie coach Kevin Stefanski will keep things simple, emphasize a quick passing game, get Mayfield back to getting it out fast and utilize a lot of heavy and jumbo personnel to try to smash the opposition. Think of Mayfield as a nimble point guard, not a long-range, three-point bomber with the ball in hands all day running around to try to make something happen 50 yards downfield. Simplicity and structure are in order with this offense and I expect that to rule the day, especially in a truncated offseason. Stefanski will get him back on track.
Fall back: Derek Carr
Carr is in a similar position as Mayfield with this being something of a defining season, particularly as it pertains to his long-term future in Vegas. This has become a year-to-year proposition and it remains to be seen if Carr will evolve into more of a risk-taker and big-play maker for Jon Gruden. Carr favors the check down and safe throws to running backs and tight ends. Will he extend more plays with his legs? He has the athleticism to do it and it's something his new backup, Mariota (who knows a thing or two about being Wally Pipped) can do quite well. Will this more competitive environment at the QB position bring out the best in Carr? I tend to think he is who he is at this stage of his career, which means a super high completion percentage but not enough points.
Bounce back: Odell Beckham Jr.
I don't think OBJ is going to get 120 targets. The days of him in New York, with Eli Manning throwing it up to him all over the field, are gone. That's not coming back in terms of volume and opportunity, but don't sleep on this guy. He is too young and driven to let an injury-marred 2019 become the norm. With so much going on in Cleveland's offense, and an emphasis on the run game, Beckham's value will be in maximizing opportunity. With Mayfield straightened out, and Stefanski scheming it up, I see a lot of TDs in Beckham's future and some serious YAC and yards per catch. I don't think he's in the top 10 in receptions, but this man will be hitting paydirt with regularity.
Fall back: A.J. Green
A year ago Green could not get through the first session of the first training camp practice without suffering what would end up being a season-ending injury. Injuries have become the norm and it's not farfetched to ask if we have seen the best from this superstar receiver. Given the issues along the Bengals offensive line, and with a do-everything back in Joe Mixon, and with a rookie QB who did not have a single offseason practice, I think it is fair to project this team is not going to be heavy vertical. Especially early on. They have to protect Joe Burrow above all else, and high-percentage passing will be everything. Green's big-play volume I suspect diminishes and I can't gamble on him getting through most of a season unscathed, let alone all of one, while facing free agency on a franchise tag.
Bounce back: Von Miller
This guy did not have a bad season by any stretch of the imagination. He can still bring it. But it was by no means his most productive season from a sack and pressure standpoint and there seemed to be a feeling-out process with him and then new coach Vic Fangio. But there is too much talent on this unit, and Bradley Chubb is a beast on the other side and Fangio's units have excelled at attacking the QB for decades. I wouldn't be shocked at all if Miller is flirting with the sack title at the end of 2020.
Fall back: Ryan Kerrigan
Kerrigan is one of the most accomplished Skins of the Dan Snyder era and the rarest of home grown talent to see out his entire long career in Washington. But the team has continued to load up on edge talent and potential pass rushers in recent years and they drafted the new face of the franchise with the first overall pick and there are only so many snaps to go around. Kerrigan is a workout warrior who has wrung every ounce of talent and production from his body but this is a young man's game and there is a changing of the guard taking place. Too much draft capital invested in that defensive front and Father Time is undefeated. Would think he transitions into a valuable rotation piece.
Bounce back: Hayden Hurst
Hurst has extreme quickness and athleticism but couldn't put it together in Baltimore. An immediate injury plagued his rookie year, Mark Andrews emerged as Lamar Jackson's go-to guy and Hurst was unable to get it going in 2019. But he was a first-round pick for a reason and the Falcons gave up a lot to get him and he will be given every opportunity to become Matt Ryan's go-to guy this year with Austin Hooper gone in free agency. Ryan loves him some tight ends. Hurst is due for some better luck. The Falcons will probably be trailing quite a bit – it's been the norm in recent years – and chasing points. Hurst will cash in.
Fall back: O.J. Howard
Man is that a crowded tight ends room in Tampa Bay now. Cam Brate was already a red zone feaster and now Gronk is there along with Tom Brady. And, sure, they'll keep Gronk on something of a pitch count, and, sure, they can get all three of these guys on the field at the same time in plenty of packages ... but come on. Brady and Gronk are boys. They have an innate feel for how they play the game. Howard has been the subject of trade rumors for years and I tend to think if things ever do click for the former first-round pick it's somewhere other than Tampa.
Bounce back: Matt Stafford
He was a legit MVP candidate before injury struck last year. And he was a legit MVP candidate before his season was shut down, despite playing through some painful injuries. He and Darrell Bevell had something special going and I like where this offense is headed. Stafford's arm remains among the best on the planet and he is as tough as they come and I like the pieces around him. At some point that rushing attack has to get at least a little better to help the QB out. He is still very much in his prime and I believe picks up right where he left off.
Fall back: Aaron Rodgers
Don't get me wrong – Rodgers is still a truly elite QB. But given the construct of this team and the way this offense operated in 2019, and who is in charge and the fact they just moved up in the first round to draft his replacement, I just don't think you can look at Rodgers as an MVP candidate anymore. Seems like the perfect Matt LeFleur stat line is like 17-for-22, 220 yards and 1 TD. Just win ugly, baby! They sat out a generational WR draft, and its hard to imagine the offense evolving all that much in a virtual offseason. It feels like what Seattle does to Russ. Last year, Rodgers didn't get to cook like he used to, and now closer to the end of his career than the start, in this offense, amid what could be a drama-filled season for this storied franchise, it's hard for me to project a Renaissance season here.