5 early Comeback Player of the Year candidates

HOUSTON, TX - SEPTEMBER 18: J.J. Watt #99 of the Houston Texans during game action against the Kansas City Chiefs at NRG Stadium on September 18, 2016 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)

Pro Football Focus’ 2016 Comeback Player of the Year differed from the Associated Press award, as Miami Dolphins edge defender Cameron Wake was more dominant from start to finish than Packers WR Jordy Nelson, who had a great season himself. While the top three vote-getters in 2016 all returned from injuries of different natures, our 2015 award winner, Eric Berry, made his comeback from Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The comeback award can go to players who missed significant time due to injury, poor play, or in Berry’s case, a serious health issue.

The AP award was largely dominated by quarterbacks between 2002 and 2013, but no QB has claimed it since Philip Rivers took home the honor in 2013. While there were several QBs that struggled in 2016 after finding success in 2015, notably Jacksonville's Blake Bortles, no one at this early stage looks poised to change the non-QB trend.

With roughly four months still remaining until the start of the 2017 season, here is an early look at five players likely to make a run at the award.

1. J.J. Watt, DI, Houston Texans

The three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year came back from back surgery much too quickly and struggled before needing another surgery to fix his ailing back. There really isn’t much more to say about Watt, as he’s been a dominant force since entering the league in 2011. In his five fully healthy seasons, he amassed an impressive 85 sacks and 151 QB hits, as well as 316 defensive stops.

With an entire year to rehab his back, Watt should be the favorite to win this award if he can return to even 80 percent of his former on-field self. The Texans' defense, especially former No. 1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney, made tremendous strides without Watt in the lineup. With a healthy Watt back, though, the Houston defense has the potential to become the best in the NFL, and his disruptive nature will be a big reason for that climb.

2. Rob Gronkowski, TE, New England Patriots

A recipient of the 2014 award, Rob Gronkowski should be a heavy favorite in 2017 as he looks to return from back surgery on a herniated disk. In his active weeks of the 2016 season, Gronkowski graded as the best tight end in the NFL, while teammate Martellus Bennett earned the third-best grade among TEs in the same timeframe. As good as the Patriots are without him — obviously still able to win the Super Bowl — Gronk transforms the New England offense like no player in the league can.

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - NOVEMBER 15: (NEW YORK DAILIES OUT) Rob Gronkowski #87 of the New England Patriots in action against the New York Giants on November 15, 2015 at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. The Patriots defeated the Giants 27-26. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Averaging an astonishing 21.6 yards per reception, Gronkowski was having arguably the best receiving season of his career. After losing Bennett in free agency (signed with Green Bay), having a healthy Gronkowski for the entire 2017 will be vital for the Patriots, and if he can put up similar numbers to his award-winning 2014 season — 98 catches on 152 targets, 1328 yards, 15 TDs, 21 forced missed tackles — he will make a strong case for the Comeback Player of the Year award again.

3. Joel Bitonio, G, Cleveland Browns

While an offensive lineman has never won the award in the eyes of the AP, the big men up front are just as important as the quarterbacks, skill players, and sack artists. Bitonio graded as one of the best guards in the NFL in 2014 as a rookie, but injuries have plagued the former Nevada standout since then, with his 2016 season getting cut short after just five games with a foot injury.

With Bitonio paving the way, RB Isaiah Crowell was grading as one of the best runners in the NFL early last season, as he averaged 5.6 yards per carry and 3.8 yards per carry after contact; he forced 11 missed tackles in addition to rushing for over 100 yards in two games. In the final 11 games — without Bitonio on the line — Crowell broke 100 yards just twice, graded as the No. 47 of 54 RBs, averaged 4.3 yards per carry, 2.8 yards per carry after contact, and forced just 12 missed tackles. Bitonio was also grading as one of the better guards in pass protection, as he surrendered just one sack and eight total QB pressures. While Bitonio will almost assuredly not win the 2017 AP award, his ability and improved line around him will likely have the fourth-year veteran in the running for PFF's recognition.

4. Reshad Jones, S, Miami Dolphins

On his way to arguably the best season of his career, Reshad Jones tore his rotator cuff in Week 6 and was placed on injured reserve. A playoff team in 2016, Jones’ presence could have been vital down the stretch and in the postseason. Fresh off a five-year, $60 million contract extension this offseason, Jones will have a lot to prove post-injury. He’s never put up the gaudy coverage stats that defensive backs get recognized for, but is rarely out of position in coverage and is one of the best run-defending safeties in the NFL. If Jones can be a playmaker in 2017, he might win the AP award, but his excellent all-around play will get him recognition at PFF.

MIAMI GARDENS, FL - DECEMBER 27: Reshad Jones #20 of the Miami Dolphins reacts after a play during the game against the Indianapolis Colts at Sun Life Stadium on December 27, 2015 in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images)

5. Jason Verrett, CB, Los Angeles Chargers

A former first-round pick, Verrett has seen his career marred by injuries, but has played well when healthy and on the field. In fact, his only full season healthy (2015) was the best season in coverage of any cornerback in the NFL. With just five career interceptions and seven pass breakups, Verrett will likely need to replicate those numbers in just one season to get consideration for the AP award. What Verrett does well is play consistently with close coverage to prevent big plays and catches. If his first two seasons are any indication, he has the talent to be one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL, but just needs to stay healthy. The Chargers' defense is playoff capable, and a healthy Verrett can push them there.

Honorable mentions

  • Jamaal Charles, RB, Denver Broncos
  • Desmond Trufant, CB, Atlanta Falcons
  • Keenan Allen, WR, Los Angeles Chargers
  • Eric Decker, WR, New York Jets
  • Adrian Peterson, RB, New Orleans Saints

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