Cardinals lead Comeback Player of the Year candidates

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

So far, we have covered Offensive Rookie of the Year candidates, defensive front sevens, satellite backs, wide receivers, the Around The NFL quarter-season All-Pro team and best offseason bargains.

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With a cool half-dozen Comeback Player of the Year candidates fueling Arizona's rise to the top of the NFC West, it's a good time to review the top comeback players.

As this is the most nebulous NFL award, let's quickly examine its history.

Since 1972, when Pro Football Weekly began handing out the award, quarterbacks have won roughly half of the time. If there is no obvious choice at the other positions, voters typically default to the quarterback who exceeded expectations (i.e. Philip Rivers in 2013). It will be interesting to see if Andy Dalton is considered under that precedent even though he was simply a league-average starter in 2014.

Running backs must excel in returning from a debilitating knee injury (Adrian Peterson, Willis McGahee, Garrison Hearst).

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).

Rob Gronkowski became the first tight end to win the award last year.

The criteria shift to suit the whims of the voters, often leaving production as the decisive factor. Since breakout stars such as Tyler Eifert, Dion Lewis and Travis Benjamin were never established as NFL starters prior to this season, they are not convincing candidates for the award. Since James Jones led the Raiders in receiving last year, he's not a compelling choice.

On to the list:

1. Eric Berry, Kansas City Chiefs safety: The only defensive players to win are Lyle Alzado (1982), Bryant Young (1999) and Joe Johnson (2000). After beating Hodgkin's Lymphoma, Berry will have a strong case to join that trio. He has not only returned to the field, but has also assumed his rightful place as one of the NFL's best safeties.

2. Carson Palmer, Arizona Cardinals quarterback: Recently described as a "godsend" to the organization by general manager Steve Keim, Palmer should remain in the MVP hunt all season long. Against all odds, a 35-year-old quarterback written off as a washed-up journeyman two years ago is currently exhibiting more arm talent, better footwork and a higher understanding of the game than his career year of 2005. Bruce Arians believes Palmer is playing as well as any quarterback ever has under his watch, high praise coming from a coach who has worked with Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger and Andrew Luck.

3. Chris Johnson, Arizona Cardinals running back: Johnson merits legitimate consideration simply because he had fallen so far from his 2,000-yard heights of 2009. He was signed as an afterthought in mid-August, five months after taking a bullet to the shoulder. With Johnson leading the way as the NFL's fifth-leading rusher, the Cardinals are averaging 4.7 yards per carry, a dramatic improvement from their league-low 3.3 yards per carry last season.

4. Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona Cardinals wide receiver: Fitzgerald's disappointing production from 2012 through 2014 was due to a confluence of injuries, poor quarterback play and an adjustment to the slot in Arians' offense after playing the outside "X" position his entire career. That didn't stop the football world from jumping to the conclusion that the eight-time Pro Bowler was not just past his prime, but also bordering on liability status.

That couldn't be further from the truth. Palmer has a league-best 148.7 passer rating on throws to Fitzgerald, who leads all receivers in touchdowns, yards per route run and receptions of 20-plus yards. In his 12th season, he's on pace for career highs in receptions (108), yards (1,458) and touchdowns (15).

Every game, all season

And now for a not-so-random anecdote: "It's a funny thing," World Golf Hall of Famer Gary Player said last week. "I met Fitzgerald yesterday and he reminded me so much of [Nelson] Mandela. He had such love in his heart and warmth ... I know he's a real superstar, but he really made an imprint on me."

5. Tyrann Mathieu, Arizona Cardinals defensive back: "Honey Badger" is a litmus-test player, just as Jordy Nelson was early in 2013 and DeAndre Hopkins in 2014. Their week-to-week excellence is so obvious that the only skeptics remaining are those not watching the games. The best all-around defensive back in football this year, Mathieu was one of a handful of no-brainer picks for our quarter-season All-Pro team two weeks ago.

6. Brandon Marshall, New York Jets wide receiver: Acquired on the cheap after playing through a high-ankle sprain and fomenting dissent in the Bears locker room last season, Marshall is the first Jets wide receiver since Don Maynard in 1968 to generate four consecutive games of 100-plus yards. One of the NFL's most effective red-zone threats, Marshall is averaging 102 yards and nearly a touchdown per game.

7. Doug Martin, Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back: This year's version of the Mark Ingram career renaissance, Martin is a former first-round pick running with renewed purpose and elusiveness after the organization declined to pick up his fifth-year option in the offseason. His tackle-breaking three-touchdown performance versus the Jaguars in Week 5 was one of the most impressive by a running back this year.

8. Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings running back: Peterson's per-game average of 86.4 rushing yards ranks first among running backs who have started all of their team's games. With flashes of 2012 MVP form, Peterson has bounced back in resounding fashion after missing the final 15 games last year.

9. Sean Lee, Dallas Cowboys linebacker: Entering this season, Lee had appeared in just 11 of 32 regular-season games since signing a seven-year, $42 million contract in August of 2013. After missing the entire 2014 campaign with a torn ACL, the Cowboys shifted him from the middle to the weakside. The transition has been an unqualified success as Lee has been Dallas' best defensive player, highlighted by Defensive Player of the Week honors in Week 2.

10. NaVorro Bowman, San Francisco 49ers linebacker: Whereas Lee is playing as well as ever, Bowman is still working his way back to dominant pre-injury form. Although he racked up 15 tackles versus the Ravens in Week 6, he doesn't move quite as well in coverage as he did when he was a Defensive Player of the Year candidate in 2013.

"Laterally and some of the man coverage type things ... you might be able to see the fact he's coming back, a little bit," Joe Flacco said last week. "In terms of being a leader and coming down hill and being able to tackle and straight-line things, he's himself and still playing at a high level."

Honorable mention: Geno Atkins, James Jones, Dion Lewis, Travis Benjamin, Tyler Eifert, Richie Incognito, B.J. Raji, Brian Orakpo, Derrick Johnson, Patrick Peterson, Jonathan Cooper, Michael Crabtree

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