Editor's Note: The NFL Comeback Player of the Year Award sponsored by Castrol EDGE will be presented at The NFL Honors Award Show on February 1 in New York.
One season ago, the top candidates for NFL Comeback Player of the Year doubled as two of the greatest players of all time.
Adrian Peterson returned from a torn ACL to break 2,097 rushing yards. Peyton Manning returned from multiple neck surgeries to help the Denver Broncos earn the No. 1 seed in the AFC. Peterson wound up winning the MVP, while Manning won Comeback Player of the Year at the NFL Honors Awards Show at the Super Bowl.
The Comeback Player of the Year field is less clear and star-studded this time around. There are a lot of great candidates, but no consensus pick. Here are my favorites:
1. Fred Jackson, Buffalo Bills running back: Jackson was ignored coming out of Coe College and wound up playing for the Rhein Fire in NFL Europe before earning his first NFL snap in 2007 in Buffalo. He was 26 at the time. He's been one of the league's most underrated players ever since.
Jackson was ignored again coming into 2013. He missed six games last season because of two knee injuries that limited his effectiveness. 32-year-old running backs coming off injury-plagued seasons are usually put out to pasture. Jackson wound up passing a top-ten pick on the depth chart.
C.J. Spiller was expected to carry the load for the Bills, with Jackson described as a "step slow" in the preseason. One prominent fantasy football website said Jackson wouldn't have "any fantasy impact" this year.
1,277 yards from scrimmage and ten touchdowns later, Jackson authored his most surprising season yet. He wound up playing 663 snaps to Spiller's 389 despite a seven-year age difference. The AP Comeback Player of the Year Award would be a fitting reward for a career spent out of the spotlight.
2. Brent Grimes, Miami Dolphins cornerback: No one wanted to sign Grimes to a big contract coming off a torn Achilles tendon. The hard-nosed 5-foot-10 cornerback took a cheap one-year deal from Miami, and turned it into a Pro Bowl season. He can cover and tackle well despite his size and is headed toward a huge payday.
3. Knowshon Moreno, Denver Broncos running back: Considered a first-round bust, Moreno began the last two training camps on the roster bubble. He wound up passing second-round pick Montee Ball and Ronnie Hillman on the depth chart and finished in the the top-five NFL players in yards from scrimmage and total touchdowns. Plus he is the most patriotic person of all time.
4. Terrell Thomas, New York Giants cornerback: After three ACL surgeries in as many seasons, it looked like Thomas' career was over. He wound up being a key part of the team's secondary, playing all 16 games. (With seven starts.)
5. Philip Rivers, San Diego Chargers quarterback: I've spoken to a few AP voters. Rivers appears to be the consensus pick for the award. While Rivers made a lot of bad throws last year, he quietly played well the second half of the season. Rivers was incredible in 2013, arguably the second best quarterback in football. But I'm not not sure what Rivers is coming back from other than a terrible offensive line and stale system. He's been here for years.
6. Alex Smith, Kansas City Chiefs quarterback: The 49ers benched Smith last season, and then went to the Super Bowl on the arm and legs of Colin Kaepernick. Smith was traded in the offseason, and he went on to set personal bests in yards and touchdowns. He improved dramatically in the second half of the season, and showed that he's a rare starting quarterback that can excel for multiple teams.
8. Ryan Mathews, San Diego Chargers running back: Mathews broke his collarbone twice in 2012, which led to a lot of nonsense about Mathews' lack of "toughness." No player ran harder between the tackles in 2013, with Mathews racking up 1,255 rushing yards. He's one of the best early-down runners in the league.