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Top Comeback Player of the Year candidates for '14

What constitutes a comeback? It's the NFL's most nebulous award, as most fans remain confused about the qualifications.

Take last season's Comeback Player of the Year voting as an example.

The winner, Philip Rivers, came back from nothing more than poor play and a lack of surrounding talent. The second-place finisher, Knowshon Moreno, returned from obscurity as a banished former first-round draft pick. The third- through fifth-place finishers were injured the previous season. The sixth-place finisher, Alex Smith, lost his job and was promptly traded.

The criteria shift to suit the whims of the voters, often leaving production as the decisive factor.

A study of previous Comeback Player of the Year winners suggests the following trends:

Quarterbacks have won 10 of the past 20 awards. Since 1972, when the Pro Football Weekly began handing out the award, quarterbacks have won roughly half of the time. Whereas other positions often require a dominant statistical campaign, quarterbacks can win simply by exceeding expectations on the heels of a disappointing season (i.e. Rivers, Chad Pennington, Jon Kitna).

Running backs must excel in returning from a debilitating knee injury (Adrian Peterson, Willis McGahee, Garrison Hearst) or get back on the national radar with a new team (Jerome Bettis). That would seem to rule out Arian Foster, Ray Rice, Maurice Jones-Drew, Darren McFadden, C.J. Spiller, Trent Richardson and Jonathan Stewart.

Wide receivers must produce a career year (Randy Moss, Steve Smith) on the heels of a disappointing season or take advantage of weak competition for the award (Robert Brooks). That is a high bar for Reggie Wayne, Randall Cobb, Michael Crabtree and Larry Fitzgerald to clear.

The only defensive players to win the award are Lyle Alzado (1982), Bryant Young (1999) and Joe Johnson (2000).

Without further ado, here are our top 10 Comeback Player of the Year candidates for 2014:

1. Robert Griffin III, Redskins quarterback: I've had Griffin penciled in for this award ever since Mike Shanahan became the first NFL head coach to shut down a healthy franchise quarterback. Multiple reports suggest RGIII has already regained the form that took the league by storm as the Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2012. As a household name and one of the NFL's most exciting players, Griffin has a built-in advantage over the rest of the field. With an upgraded offensive line and one of the league's premier receiver corps, Griffin will be the frontrunner entering the season.

2. Rob Gronkowski, New England Patriots tight end: History is working against Gronkowski on one hand: The award has never been won by a tight end. On the other hand, Gronkowski has rewritten the early-career expectations for the position by being borderline unguardable. Are you telling me Gronk can't make history while catching passes from a Hall of Fame quarterback?

3. Julio Jones, Atlanta Falcons wide receiver: Gil Brandt's choice for the best receiver in the game was on pace for 130 receptions and 1,850 yards when his early October foot injury put a nail in the Falcons' coffin last season. He might have to flirt with those numbers over 16 games to beat out RGIII and Gronk.

4. DeMarcus Ware, Denver Broncos defensive end: Ware averaged a monstrous 15.5 sacks from 2008-2012. Prior to last season's nagging quadriceps injury, he still exhibited the same explosive first step that has given left tackles fits for a decade. Now that he's joined a Super Bowl contender, Ware will be back in the spotlight on a weekly basis.

5. Michael Vick, New York Jets quarterback: The bar will be set lower for Vick as a high-profile quarterback operating out of the nation's media capital. Early indications suggest Vick will have to come to the rescue in the event of a Geno Smith faceplant to take the reins of the Jets offense.

6. Jeremy Maclin, Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver: Maclin can't match the freakish talent of Jones, but he has a 1,400-yard season in him if everything breaks his way. He already has a couple of things in his favor: He has looked "fantastic" in OTAs and is lining up as the "Z" receiver on the right side of the field, a position in Chip Kelly's offense that helped DeSean Jackson to a career year in 2013.

7. Clay Matthews, Green Bay Packers linebacker: Matthews only missed six games, but he was never the same player after breaking his thumb in early October and re-breaking it in December. If he can bounce back with a third 13-sack season in Dom Capers' revamped defense, he will join the comeback discussion.

8. Von Miller, Denver Broncos linebacker: Unless Miller has Adrian Peterson's alien DNA, the late-season timing of his ACL tear is going to be too much of a hurdle to overcome. He won't be back to terrorizing quarterbacks until midseason.

9. Percy Harvin, Seattle Seahawks wide receiver: Harvin would be among the top three candidates had he not returned from hip surgery to explode past Broncos tacklers for 137 yards on four touches in Super Bowl XLVIII. Will the sentiment that his successful comeback already occurred persist?

10. Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers quarterback: I wonder if Rodgers will have to better his ridiculous MVP season of 2011 to sway voters. Similar to Harvin, Rodgers returned to lineup in time to help the Packers clinch the NFC North. Will those late-December heroics be held against him for comeback consideration?

More players coming back: Eli Manning, Jake Locker, Larry Fitzgerald, Reggie Wayne, Randall Cobb, Michael Crabtree, Jermichael Finley, Jason Pierre-Paul, Geno Atkins, Leon Hall, Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo, Dwight Freeney, Champ Bailey, LaMarr Woodley, Tyrann Mathieu

The latest "Around The League Podcast" breaks down the news and examines developments from the first week of OTAs.

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