As the NFL’s leading rusher, Ezekiel Elliot has the inside track on Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. Mike Zimmer — the only head coach who has yet to lose a game — is the front-runner for the Coach of the Year award. And Matt Ryan is beginning to put together a fairly convincing case for MVP.
The race for another prominent award, Comeback Player of the Year, is a lot trickier, and not just because a “comeback” is so hard to quantify.
There’s generally two different types of candidates for this award: those who have overcome major injuries from the previous year and those who had a grossly disappointing showing the previous year. The common thread, of course, is they have rebounded to put together a tremendous bounce-back campaign. And that label certainly fits each of these players, ranked from sixth to most likely to win the award, six weeks into the season.
6) Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Carolina Panthers:
The Panthers offense did not seem to miss Benjamin very much last season, reaching the Super Bowl despite the tremendous talent missing all 16 games and the playoffs because of a torn ACL. But this year, his presence hasn’t exactly spurred Carolina on to greater heights. At 1-5, the Panthers are redefining the phrase “Super Bowl hangover.”
Still, from an individual standpoint, Benjamin is having a fine year and is on pace to have the best season of his young career: 77 catches, 1,050 yards receiving and 10 touchdowns. Even if those aren’t top-tier or All-Pro numbers, for a receiver to post those numbers after a devastating knee injury is noteworthy.
5) Jordy Nelson, WR, Green Bay Packers
Nelson’s personal statistics (26 catches, 62 receiving yards per game, 5 touchdowns) aren’t much different than Benjamin’s, which is worth mentioning because they are returning from the same injury.
Nevertheless, Nelson is putting together a slightly more impressive season, and averaging a touchdown each week isn’t the only reason. Not only has Nelson been far more consistent than Benjamin (who was held without a catch in the loss to Minnesota, while Nelson caught 5 passes for 73 yards and a touchdown a week later against the same defense) but he’s been targeted more often, nearly 10 times per game.
Even at 31 and missing an entire season, Nelson is still Aaron Rodgers’ favorite target on a team that desperately needs him.
4) Maurkice Pouncey, C, Pittsburgh Steelers
Awarding an offensive lineman any individual award is a tough sell, and Comeback Player of the Year is no different. Indeed, no offensive lineman has ever won the award. And in all honesty, Pouncey is unlikely to break that streak. But Pouncey, who is so essential to the Steelers’ tremendously balanced offense — even with those two nightmarish performances against Philadelphia and Miami they’re still ninth in scoring and yardage — deserves special attention.
Not only has he returned from a broken leg that ultimately required seven different surgeries, but he is less than three years removed from another catastrophic injury, tearing an ACL in Week 1 of the 2013 season. Two major leg injuries in three years and he’s still one of the top centers in football.
3) Sam Bradford, QB, Minnesota Vikings
This may be the most contentious choice on the list. Bradford played 14 games last year for the Philadelphia Eagles and in the process put together arguably the finest season of his much-maligned career: individual bests in completion percentage (65), yards (3,725) and even winning percentage (.500).
Still, it wasn’t nearly enough to convince the Eagles he was their future, or even their present. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have traded a fortune to draft Carson Wentz.
That move proved to be Minnesota’s gain as Bradford has more than filled the shoes of injured Teddy Bridgewater. The Vikings are 4-0 with Bradford, who leads the league with a 70.4 completion percentage, hasn’t thrown an interception yet, and is doing it all with (statistically speaking) the worst running game in football.
2) Terrell Suggs, LB, Baltimore Ravens
One of the best-kept secrets of the 2016 NFL season is just how strong the Ravens defense has been, despite their pedestrian 3-3 record. And although there are a lot of reasons for Baltimore’s excellent team rankings (third in yards allowed, 11th in points surrendered, fifth in takeaways) the return of Terrell Suggs has to be tops.
Suggs missed nearly all of last year with a torn Achilles but has returned as the leader on the field and in the huddle. The 34-year-old is sixth in the NFL with 5 sacks and is the anchor of a unit that is tops in the NFL against the run, allowing less than 70 yards per game. Tearing a biceps in last week’s loss to the Giants is going to cost him at least one game, which would hurt his shot at one of the few individual awards he has yet to win, but if he returns in time for both of his much-hyped annual showdowns with Pittsburgh, he certainly will make his case.
1) DeMarco Murray, RB, Tennessee Titans
As impressive as it is for a player to recover from a physical injury, such as a torn knee or ruptured Achilles, it’s arguably more difficult to recover from a less tangible, less measurable trauma like a miserable season in which people all but write off your career.
And that’s exactly what Murray has done.
A year after leading the NFL in rushing yards, rushing touchdowns and carries, Murray joined the Eagles, and in Chip Kelly’s offense was a shell of himself. Despite missing just one game, Murray carried the ball 200 times less than he did the previous year, gaining more than 1,100 yards fewer. Given the drastic decline and the sterling reputation of the Dallas Cowboys offensive line, many pundits concluded Murray’s record totals in 2014 were more the result of the men who blocked for him, not his own skills.
Six games through the 2016 season, Murray has debunked that myth. Traded to Tennessee and running behind a much less-heralded group, Murray ranks fourth in the league in rushing yards, sixth in carries, and has, thus far, fended off impressive rookie Derrick Henry to be the clear-cut workhorse. He’s also added to his role as a pass catcher. By splitting out more as a wide receiver, Murray has already caught 24 passes (he’s on pace to break his personal-best of 57 receptions) and very well might lead the AFC in total yards per game.
For a player who acknowledged in March that he “took a year off last year” while in Philadelphia, that’s a tremendous comeback.