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Top 5 teams benefiting from return of injured players

Since the 2014 league year began in early March, Around The League has reset all 32 NFL rosters and declared the biggest winners and losers in free agency.

Another way to win the offseason? Welcome key players back from injuries that ruined their 2013 seasons -- or at least hampered their team's ability to compete.

Let's take a look at five teams with the most to gain from injured players returning to full health in 2014:

1. Green Bay Packers


Player
Position
Games missed
Offensive tackle
16
Running back
16
Defensive end
14
Cornerback
13
Wide receiver
10
Quarterback
7
Linebacker
5
Linebacker
5
Linebacker
4


The Packers have made this list for the second consecutive season, which explains why they have been bounced from the playoffs despite boasting the NFL's best player in Rodgers. Although the injuries to key starters such as Bulaga, Hayward and Matthews contributed to Green Bay's postseason demise, it was Rodgers' fractured collarbone that contributed most to the mediocre won-loss record.

With so many players returning, Mike McCarthy's club is one of the league's deepest even if Julius Peppers is the only significant addition.

2. New England Patriots


Player
Position
Games missed
Defensive tackle
12
Defensive tackle
11
Linebacker
10
Tight end
9
Offensive tackle
8
Running back
8
Wide receiver
4
Wide receiver
4


The Patriots have a strong claim for the top spot on this list. Four of the team's top eight players dropped within a one-month span.

In addition to losing the NFL's most dominant skill-position player in Gronkowski, they also entered the playoffs minus their two most important defensive stars (Wilfork, Mayo) as well as premier run-stuffer Brandon Spikes.

Even if Gronk and Wilfork are eased into the regular season, this roster should be considerably stronger by January.

3. Atlanta Falcons


Player
Position
Games missed
Offensive tackle
16
Defensive end
12
Offensive tackle
12
Wide receiver
11
Linebacker
9
Running back
4
Wide receiver
3


Jones is the engine that makes the Falcons' offense go. They were a competitive team with him and a pushover once his season ended in early October.

The offensive line and defensive front seven -- already areas of major concern -- were exposed on a weekly basis once Baker, Johnson, Biermann and Weatherspoon left the lineup.

The nucleus of Thomas Dimitroff's roster isn't much different than the one that averaged 12 wins from 2010 to 2012. If the general manager hits on a young pass rusher and a bulwark at left tackle early in next month's draft, the Falcons could reclaim the NFC South.

4. Denver Broncos


Player
Position
Games missed
Offensive tackle
14
Linebacker
7
Safety
6
Defensive end
5
Defensive tackle
5
Wide receiver
3


One of the reasons the AFC field was so weak in the playoffs was that its strongest teams were decimated by injuries. The Broncos made it to the Super Bowl without their best defensive player (Miller) and one of the league's premier blindside protectors (Clady).

Already the class of the conference, Denver will gain five starters returning from injury in addition to a trio of Pro Bowl-caliber free-agent additions.

If they meet the Seahawks in the Super Bowl again, the outcome will be different.

5. Indianapolis Colts


Player
Position
Games missed
Tight end
15
Running back
15
Guard
14
Running back
13
Wide receiver
9
Cornerback
7
Linebacker
5


It's a testament to Andrew Luck's brilliance that his team made it to the divisional round of the playoffs without his No. 1 receiver, top tight end, the two players atop the Week 1 running back depth chart and a starting guard.

With those players returning and Hakeem Nicks now on board, this could be one of the NFL's most improved offenses.

Even if the defense remains suspect, the AFC South is soft enough that the Colts should have little trouble coasting to another division title.

In the latest edition of the "Around The League Podcast," the guys talk Geno Smith's future in New York and pick the winners and losers of free agency.

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