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Top Comeback Player of the Year candidates for 2015

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

Rob Gronkowski was an obvious candidate last year as a unanimous All-Pro returning from an ACL injury.

Philip Rivers, by contrast, won the 2013 Comeback Player of the Year award after coming back from nothing more than poor play and a lack of surrounding talent.

The second-place finisher in 2013, 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.

That process will present a dilemma this year in the form of Adrian Peterson, who missed all but one game last season due to his own malfeasance and the shifting winds of public opinion and the NFL's disciplinary process.

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

Since 1972, when 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). LeSean McCoy, C.J. Spiller and Darren McFadden fall into the latter category.

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 Victor Cruz, Percy Harvin, Andre Johnson, Michael Crabtree and Marvin Jones to clear.

Gronkowski is the first tight end to win the award.

The only defensive players to win 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 2015:

1. Adrian Peterson, Vikings running back: History is instructive. Michael Vick and Ben Roethlisberger were given second chances, their alleged transgressions forgiven once they returned to the gridiron for an extended period of time. The same will likely hold true for Peterson, who is gearing up for another run at Eric Dickerson's single-season rushing record.

2. Carson Palmer, Cardinals quarterback: The recent history of quarterbacks returning from ACL injuries doesn't bode well for Palmer's chances, but he has already exceeded expectations in his speedy recovery. His surrounding talent is significantly better than conventional wisdom suggests, with a suddenly stout offensive line and a wide receiver corps featuring breakout candidate John Brown. Palmer is 13-2 with a 27:12 touchdown-to-interception ratio over his last 15 starts in Bruce Arians' offense.

3. C.J. Spiller, Saints running back: It's easy to forget that Spiller was one of the NFL's most explosive backs in 2012, flashing lateral agility and long speed reminiscent of the "CJ2K" version of Chris Johnson. Spiller topped 1,700 yards from scrimmage at an eye-popping 6.8 yards per touch with a play-caller who schemed open-field touches. His last two years were marred by a high-ankle sprain a broken collarbone and scheme ill-suited to his strengths. Spiller landed in a dream scenario this year, as Sean Payton excels at using scatbacks to create mismatches in the open field.

4. Sam Bradford, Eagles quarterback: Is Chip Kelly's offense truly quarterback-proof? Eagles passers have averaged roughly 4,500 yards and 30 touchdowns per season, placing them in the top six among NFL signal-callers over that two-year span. The key for Bradford, returning from back-to-back ACL tears, will be holding off Mark Sanchez to enter the season under center.

5. NaVorro Bowman, 49ers linebacker: After missing the entirety of the 2014 season, Bowman's status was the great unknown entering the 2015 offseason. His arrow is now pointing up after wrecking the backfield during June practices. Bowman was our pick for Defensive Player of the Year in 2013 prior to shredding his knee in the NFC Championship Game.

6. Darren McFadden, Cowboys running back: McFadden has shown no semblance of playmaking ability since averaging 5.2 yards per carry in Hue Jackson's scheme in 2010-2011. So why is he on this list? McFadden is one of the NFL's most blocking-dependent backs. If he can beat out Joseph Randle for the lead role in Dallas backfield, he'll be running through gaping holes behind a dominant offensive line.

7. Tyrann Mathieu, Cardinals defensive back: "Honey Badger" played 13 games in his return from reconstructive knee surgery, but clearly wasn't himself in a limited role. The Cardinals believe he has finally recaptured pre-injury form this offseason, which will allow him to channel the playmaking ability he flashed while making a run at Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2013.

8. Victor Cruz, Giants wide receiver: Cruz will be a trendy preseason pick for this award, but he has a couple of things working against him. Patellar tendon ruptures are notorious for sapping speed and cutting ability, making it one of the most challenging injuries for skill-position players to overcome. No matter how well he plays, he will be overshadowed by the unstoppable Odell Beckham.

9. Colin Kaepernick, 49ers quarterback: Kaepernick is too talented to suffer through another season like last year's, which featured severe growing pains as he was shoehorned into a pocket passer role. Vernon Davis is another comeback candidate in San Francisco after disappearing over the final three months of the 2014 season.

10. Jordan Cameron, Dolphins tight end: Cameron has reached a bit of a crossroads in his NFL career, suffering three concussions over the past two seasons. Specializing in acrobatic contested catches across the middle, down the sideline and in the end zone, Cameron was so impressive in a 2013 Pro Bowl campaign that we labeled him a poor man's Tony Gonzalez. He's going to be Ryan Tannehill's primary red-zone weapon in Miami.

Other candidates: Jay Cutler, Robert Griffin III, Nick Foles, LeSean McCoy, Andre Johnson, Percy Harvin, Michael Crabtree, Dennis Pitta, Robert Mathis, Jadeveon Clowney, Darnell Dockett, Derrick Johnson, Vontaze Burfict, Sean Lee, Jerod Mayo, Danny Trevathan, Brian Orakpo, Eric Berry, Jairus Byrd, Charles Tillman

The latest Around The NFL Podcast welcomes back Colleen Wolfe to discuss non-Super Bowl contenders, and an all-new 'Orr You Kidding Me.' Find more Around The NFL content on NFL NOW.

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