Injuries. They’re the worst consequence of every sport, and the injury bug always seems to strike several times a year just to ruin a player’s career/a team’s season/the fun level of an individual league.
Of course, the flip side of the pain and sadness that comes along with an injury is the joy and excitement from a player’s comeback from an injury. This season, we’ll get to see some of the NFL’s most dynamic players make their returns to the field after missing significant time with injuries.
We already saw Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott make his triumphant return to the field on Thursday night, putting up over 400 yards and three touchdowns in the air with a 72% completion rate against the reigning Super Bowl champions. On Sunday, we’ll get to see a few more (and hopefully just as successful) returners: New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley, Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey, and San Francisco 49ers defensive end Nick Bosa.
Boy, did the Giants miss having him in the backfield in 2020. In his first two years, the Penn State product surpassed the 1,000-yard mark on the ground, something no Giants running back had done (or even come close to doing) since Ahmad Bradshaw in 2012. You’d have to go back to Brandon Jacobs’ 2007 and 2008 seasons to find the last time a Giants player ran for more than 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons.
It’s easy to see that New York is a different team with Barkley healthy. Last year, it was clear the Giants didn’t see Wayne Gallman—thrust into the role of RB1 after Barkley tore his ACL—as the same kind of workhorse that Barkley is. Gallman finished the season with 147 rushes—Barkley had more than 215 in each of his first two seasons—for 682 yards. Without the ability to truly establish the run, the Giants instead heavily relied on short, quick passes for most of their offensive attack. As a result, Jones ended up finishing the 2020 season with fewer yards than he had in 2019, despite two additional starts.
With Barkley back, the Giants’ offense will likely look more dynamic and less predictable.
Since 2018, when McCaffrey became a full-time starter in the NFL, the Panthers’ offense has revolved around him. In 2018, the second-year running back was top 10 in rushing attempts AND receptions. In 2019, McCaffrey was top four in both categories—fourth in rushes, and second in receptions. Read that again. Two years ago, the Panthers’ running back had the second-most receptions in the NFL, trailing only New Orleans Saints receiver Michael Thomas. He was the third player in NFL history—and the first since Marshall Faulk in 1999—to finish with more than 1,000 receiving yards and 1,000 rushing yards.
It’s really no wonder at all that the Panthers struggled in their first season without Cam Newton since 2010 while also missing their highest producer on offense. It’s not only that McCaffrey is insanely productive for Carolina, it’s that he is also so gosh darn fun to watch. He’s got great hands, he’s fast, he has quick feet, and he makes good reads while he’s on the move. It really feels like every time McCaffrey gets the ball, he’s going to make something happen. If my words aren’t enough to prove it, how about the fact that his 2019 highlights video on NFL.com is 11 minutes long. For comparison, Patrick Mahomes—arguably one of the most exciting players to watch right now—had a highlight video that didn’t crack seven minutes.
Football, and especially Panthers football, is so much better with McCaffrey healthy.
Let’s review Bosa’s 2019 season and where he ranked among his peers. Among all defensive ends in 2019, Bosa finished 19th in combined tackles, tied for 10th in sacks, tied for third in tackles for loss—behind only his brother, Joey, and Aaron Donald—and tied for second in quarterback hits—behind only Joey. Keep in mind, all of this was as a rookie who turned 22 during the season. It’s no surprise then that Bosa was practically a shoo-in for the 2019 Defensive Rookie of the Year, earning all but seven of 50 votes.
It’s his speed and quickness off the snap that makes Bosa so successful. On many of his plays, he looks impossible to block. His jump beats most of his fellow defensive linemen, and when you pair that quickness with his ability to easily shed through single- and double-team blocks, you’ve got a dominant edge rusher.
What makes Bosa truly elite is his refusal to give up on a play. On this play, he gets blocked into the ground then gets up to follow the play and is rewarded with a fumble recovery. Later in the same game, he falls down getting through a block, then literally crawls forward to help finish a sack of Baker Mayfield.
The NFL is at its best when its top players can perform, and this Sunday we’ll get to see the return of three of those top players. Keep an eye out for them not only this weekend but for the rest of the season.