Rob Gronkowski leads comeback player candidates

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Every week, Chris Wesseling will roll out the power rankings for one specific NFL position or attribute.

So far, we have covered running backs, safeties, red-zone threats, throwing arms, quarter-pole surprises, quarter-pole disappointments, franchise cornerstones, players deserving of Pro Bowl consideration, best free-agent pickups, biggest free-agent flops and top rookie classes.

This week, we turn our attention to Comeback Player of the Year candidates. As evidenced by Philip Rivers' award last season, the qualifications for consideration have become increasingly nebulous. Of the 10 players ranked below, seven are returning from major injuries in 2013.

Without further ado, here is the list:

1. Rob Gronkowski, Patriots tight end: Gronkowski has gone from dragging his surgically repaired knee around in August and struggling to separate from defenders in September to dominating the NFL over the past eight weeks. The Patriots are averaging a league-best 40 points per game and haven't lost since Gronkowski recaptured pre-injury form in Week 4. Over the past three years, Tom Brady's production hinges almost entirely on his go-to receiver's health. That's MVP material. If Gronkowski wins the award, he will become the first tight end in history to do so.

2. Von Miller, Broncos linebacker: Miller underwent ACL surgery the same week as Gronkowski last January. Like Gronk, he was been on an absolute tear since the start of October. Miller's 57 combined sacks, hits and hurries are 37 more than the next-closest 4-3 outside linebacker (Anthony Barr), per Pro Football Focus' metrics. As usual, he has been just as strong against the run. Outside of J.J. Watt, there hasn't been a more dominant defensive player.

3. Arian Foster, Texans running back: Outside of MVP candidate DeMarco Murray, there hasn't been a more impressive running back this season. He has recaptured 2010-2012 form in which he averaged 1,900 yards from scrimmage and 16 touchdowns. Returning from back surgery after playing just eight games in 2013, Foster ranks fifth in rushing yards (822) despite missing three games with hamstring and groin injuries. If he can't return to action this week or next, he will slide down to the bottom of this list.

4. Jeremy Maclin, Eagles wide receiver: Maclin has already surpassed his career-high in receiving yards (991) while ranking in the top 10 in both receptions and touchdowns. Not bad for a player who gambled on himself with a one-year contract coming off of reconstructive knee surgery. His production has waned a bit since rookie Jordan Matthews bypassed him as Mark Sanchez's go-to receiver the past three weeks.

5. Steve Smith, Ravens wide receiver: Smith was written off as a declining player by the Panthers after 135 players caught more passes of at least 20 yards last season. Enjoying one of the best age-35 seasons in history, he carried the Ravens' offense through September and October as one of the NFL's most dangerous deep threats. He would be higher on the list if not for a three-game span averaging less than 30 yards in Weeks 8-10. Smith is on pace for 77 receptions, 1,188 yards and seven touchdowns on the heels of last year's 64/745/4 slash line.

6. Rolando McClain, Cowboys linebacker: McClain topped our early-season surprises list after twice retiring from football by the age of 24. He has arguably been the best player on a defense that has surpassed expectations, even if his play has fallen off a bit since mid-October.

7. DeMarcus Ware, Broncos defensive end: Hindered by quadriceps, back and elbow injuries last season, Ware essentially played on one leg en route to a career-low six sacks. After being dumped by the Cowboys in March, he's on pace to equal the production of his 2007-2011 prime in which he averaged a sack per game.

8. Brian Hoyer, Browns quarterback: Returning from ACL surgery, Hoyer looked like a cooked goose in the preseason. Although he's ranked just 37th in completion percentage (56.0) among passers to have played at least 25 percent of the snaps this season, he's done something no other Cleveland quarterback has done in two decades: consistently win games -- with a suboptimal wide receiver corps.

9. Julio Jones, Falcons wide receiver: Jones started out the season higher on this proverbial list, but has dropped too many passes over the past month. He's eighth in the league in receiving yards after missing the majority of last season following October foot surgery.

10. Justin Forsett, Ravens running back: NFL Media's Adam Schein nominated Forsett for the award early this week, but I can't figure out what the Gary Kubiak favorite is coming back from other than obscurity. A career backup and special teamer, Forsett had started just seven of 87 career games over six seasons before 2014. To his credit, he's leading the NFL in yards per carry (5.8) and runs of at least 20 yards (12) and is third in rushing yards (903). He's more of an improbable late-career breakout star than a comeback player.

Honorable mention: Chris Harris, Malcom Floyd, Brandon Flowers, Jason Pierre-Paul, Reggie Wayne, Dwayne Allen, Kyle Orton, Rahim Moore, Henry Melton, Vince Wilfork, Tyrann Mathieu, Antonio Cromartie, Larry Foote, Tommy Kelly

The latest Around The NFL Podcast previews Thanksgiving Thursday's three games and recaps Monday night's Week 12 doubleheader. Find more Around The NFL content on NFL NOW.

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