NFL Comeback Player of the Year Candidates

Photo: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

The regular season is winding down; and over the past 14 weeks, we’ve seen a number of players make their case for Comeback Player of the Year. 

Whether it is a previously injured quarterback charging toward the top seed in the NFC to defensive backs trying to shake off forgettable seasons, these three players (and then some) are standouts for this year’s honor. 

1. Jimmy Garoppolo, quarterback, San Francisco 49ers

I saw critics of quarterbacks getting credit for the big win when it was, in fact, the receiver, or in this case the tight end, doing the bulk of the work.

But what Jimmy Garoppolo has done this season is impressive. He’s not without faults including breaking down in the pocket, but the 48-46 win over the New Orleans Saints erased — at least in my mind — any doubt that he couldn’t get the job done. Garoppolo, who is paired with one of the league’s top defenses, could lead the 49ers to their first playoff appearance in five seasons — if he can keep winning.

His numbers last season are limited to just three games after he tore his ACL in Week 3, and he’s never played more than six games in a single season — until now — but his comeback year has helped revive the 49ers. Garoppolo has the fifth-best completion rate (69.5 percent) trailing the likes of Drew Brees and Ryan Tannehill. If his 8-0 start wasn’t enough, some more strong performances in the coming weeks and a top seed entering the postseason should be more than enough to bring this award home.

2. Earl Thomas, safety, Baltimore Ravens

There were few players who had a bigger chip on their shoulder than Earl Thomas. He entered his first season with the Baltimore Ravens after a memorable exit from the Seattle Seahawks, the only NFL team he had known to that point. Thomas helped established one of the best defensive units in league history but questions surrounding his health and production rose after he suffered a season-ending leg injury in Week 4. 

Thomas has answered those questions with a big, fat “that’s Earl Thomas.” We are seeing a Benjamin Button-type transformation with Thomas showing flashes of what he did during the 2013-14 seasons.

He had a slow start in Baltimore but is now paired with a dynamic secondary with the likes of Marcus Peters (by way of the Los Angeles Rams) and a healthy Jimmy Smith. Thomas plays some of his best ball when he has all the moving parts, and since October he’s been doing just that. He has already matched his interception total from 2017 — his last full season played — and is closing in on his 2017 mark for passes defended. If there are any lingering questions surrounding Thomas’ health and production, his career-high five quarterback hits should be the answer.

3. Cooper Kupp, wide receiver, Los Angeles Rams

Jared Goff hasn’t looked great this season. Thankfully the Los Angeles Rams have a healthy Cooper Kupp. In his return after a season-ending ACL tear suffered in November of last year, we were promised a faster, stealthier wide receiver than we previously saw.   

It is what we would have seen in 2018. Instead, Kupp finished with 40 catches for 566 and six touchdowns. 

While Kupp has seemingly simmered down after a red-hot start this season, his efforts — despite a struggling quarterback — put him in the running for this award.

Near the halfway point, Kupp was on pace to record 116 receptions for over 1,500 yards and 10 touchdowns. It would have been marks matched by less than 10 receivers in NFL history. He might not hit those numbers as the Rams fit to in the hunt for an NFC wild-card spot, he has reached impressive milestones. 

Kupp is 10 yards shy of his first 1,000-yard season. He also has a career-high 77 receptions and seven touchdowns. There’s still time but he’ll need to take advantage of each opportunity. Los Angeles will face the top passing defense in the San Fransisco 49ers and another formidable opponent in the Dallas Cowboys. Both Kupp and Goff were able to tear apart a depleted Bengals defense earlier in the season and will have a chance to go against another defensive unit that will be overmatched in the Arizona Cardinals. It’s unlikely Kupp will get the crown with the success of the other team’s mentioned

A number of other players should be mentioned when thinking of comeback performances.

While Teddy Bridgewater’s true comeback season came in 2017 when he returned from a horrible knee injury, he didn’t have the numbers — or opportunity — to back it up. However, Bridgewater became a fan favorite when he took over for an injured Drew Brees. He led the New Orleans Saints to five consecutive wins. Bridgewater was benched when Brees was healthy enough to return, but he more than deserves a nod.

Richard Sherman’s efforts didn’t show on paper in 2018, a disappointment for many who enjoyed his style of play in Seattle. This year, however, is a different story. In his second season with the 49ers, the four-time Pro Bowl cornerback has turned the clock back similar to former teammate Thomas. Sherman is producing numbers reminiscent to his 2016 season with the Seahawks; tallying three interceptions, 11 passes defended and 53 total tackles.

Brandon Brooks made a strikingly quick recovery after rupturing his Achilles in January. He hurried back into the starting lineup for the Philadelphia Eagles and played in 13 games before missing Week 14. However, his absence had nothing to do with the Achilles injury — he missed the game due to an illness related to anxiety. There have been no hiccups in Brooks’ return to the right side of the offensive line. 

Tennessee Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill, Oakland Raiders tight end Darren Waller, Minnesota Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen and Los Angeles Chargers TE Hunter Henry are among the other players all vying for the honor. Will they get it without postseason success and the guise of a flashy QB? I doubt it but we all love an underdog story.

Written By:

Alexis Mansanarez

Associate Editor and Feature Writer

Editor, Feature Writer for The Draft Network. University of Washington alum. Big believer in the Pac-12.