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Top Comeback Player of the Year candidates for 2016

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Last season, Kansas City Chiefs safety Eric Berry became just the fifth defensive player to win The Associated Press Comeback Player of the Year award -- one year after Rob Gronkowski broke ground as the first tight end to capture the award.

Since 1998, quarterbacks have won the honor, which is handed out for overcoming adversity, more than half of the time. Running backs must excel in returning from a debilitating knee injury (Garrison Hearst) to earn strong consideration. Wide receivers must produce a career year (Steve Smith) on the heels of a disappointing season.

With that background in mind, let's examine the top candidates for Comeback Player of the Year in 2016:

1) Andrew Luck, QB, Indianapolis Colts: Going all the way back to Week 1, Luck was never quite right last season. A quarterback with picture-perfect pocket presence and the confidence to stick any throw -- standing still or on the move -- was suddenly timid in the pocket and gun-shy when his receivers weren't open. We remember the lacerated kidney, but it's easy to forget the early-season throwing shoulder injury that sidelined him for two games and the rib-cartilage damage that hampered his play in October. The Colts believed Luck was finally healthy and ready to hit his stride under new coordinator Rob Chudzinski when he led Indianapolis to an upset victory over the previously undefeated Broncos in Week 9. Luck never played another snap the rest of the season.

This is the same quarterback who led the NFL with 40 touchdown passes in 2014, carried a flawed team to the AFC Championship Game and had grizzled veterans such as Frank Gore and Andre Johnson raving that he was the best in the league as a "football god" with coach-like powers of perception.

This is the same precocious superstar who inspired superlatives such as the most impressive young quarterback in 40 years, the quarterback who will go down in history as the greatest ever and a fourth-quarter marvel with Michael Jordan traits.

"You want to talk about a guy who makes the team? He is Michael Jordan," one general manager told ESPN's Mike Sando last summer. "Their defense sucks. Every game, he has to outscore everybody. He is the epitome of a 1. If I was to draft tomorrow any player in the NFL, it would be Andrew Luck one, Aaron Rodgers two."

"You have to understand," NFL Media analyst Brian Billick wrote last offseason. "Football people don't talk this way about young players."

As long as he's fully recovered from last year's injuries, there's no reason to believe Luck won't recapture the form that led to a No. 7 ranking in the 2015 edition of NFL Network's "Top 100 Players."

2-3) Dez Bryant and Tony Romo, WR/QB, Dallas Cowboys: The Cowboys' Triplets were the talk of the league in 2014, as Romo finished third in the MVP race, Bryant led the NFL in touchdown receptions and DeMarco Murray earned the Offensive Player of the Year award. Murray proceeded to sign with Philadelphia, Bryant injured his foot in the season opener and Romo fractured his collarbone the next week, effectively sinking Dallas' hopes in 2015. Now that Romo and Bryant are healthy and No. 4 overall draft pick Ezekiel Elliott is the prohibitive Offensive Rookie of the Year favorite behind the game's dominant offensive line, the Triplets should be back in full effect to lift the Cowboys back to the top of the NFC East.

4) Jordy Nelson, WR, Green Bay Packers: The wrong-headed notion that Nelson's skyrocketing production was merely a byproduct of Aaron Rodgers' excellence was put to rest last season when the Packers' offense disintegrated without its go-to receiver. Nelson is a premier route-runner, a dangerous deep threat and a clutch possession receiver. From 2012 through 2014, Rodgers' passer rating on throws intended for Nelson has been 150.2, 130.3 and 111.6, per Pro Football Focus. The two clearly make beautiful music together, in large part because Rodgers has made a science out of the back-shoulder throw while Nelson rivals DeAndre Hopkins as the NFL's most acrobatic boundary receiver.

5) Jamaal Charles, RB, Kansas City Chiefs: The only running back with a higher career yards-per-carry average than Charles' 5.5 is a fullback who last played two decades before the 1970 NFL merger. Charles rivals Adrian Peterson not only as the best running back of his generation, but also for the most spectacular return from ACL surgery (2012). Can he do it again?

6) Le'Veon Bell, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers: Bell has a strong argument as the game's most complete running back when healthy, but narrative sells in Comeback Player of the Year consideration. Recovering from a second ACL surgery at age 29, Charles offers a better story for the voters even if Bell outproduces him.

7) Keenan Allen, WR, San Diego Chargers: Prior to a season-ending kidney laceration last November, Allen had compiled 67 catches -- tied for third-most through eight games in NFL history. It wasn't just the numbers. Allen was routinely pulling off spectacular catches and out-muscling defensive backs in heavy traffic, as evidenced by his monstrous Week 6 performance at Green Bay -- one of the best by a wide receiver all season. He's one of the NFL's most underappreciated stars entering the 2016 season.

Stream the Amazon Original Series "All or Nothing: A Season with the Arizona Cardinals" on Prime Video.

8) Tyrann Mathieu, DB, Arizona Cardinals: The league's most versatile defensive star was making a serious run at the Defensive Player of the Year award when he tore his ACL in Week 15 while reeling in his fifth interception. Unlike his problematic 2013 knee reconstruction, which included a torn LCL, this tear was clean. Because the injury occurred in mid-December, though, Mathieu will be racing against the clock to recapture his disruptive 2015 form by the season opener.

9) Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Carolina Panthers: One of the biggest stars in a historically great rookie receiver class, Benjamin beat a string of the NFL's stingiest cornerbacks for 73 receptions, 1,008 yards and nine touchdowns in his first season. Assuming the No. 1 role from the get-go, Benjamin quickly earned Cam Newton's trust -- even on plays when he wasn't open. As long as he's healthy following last August's ACL tear, he'll be the top receiving threat on a Super Bowl contender.

10) DeMarco Murray, RB, Tennessee Titans: In the span of one calendar year, Murray devolved from Offensive Player of the Year to one of the least effective starters in the league and, finally, to roster afterthought in Philly behind Ryan Mathews and Darren Sproles. Granted a fresh start in Nashville, Murray is being billed as a star attraction in a "Thunder and Thunder" backfield. Can Murray regain 85 percent of his 2014 form as the Titans transition to a smashmouth attack with the goal of shoving today's smaller, quicker defenses around?

More candidates: Justin Houston, Dion Lewis, Arian Foster, Steve Smith, Joe Flacco, Terrell Suggs, Justin Forsett, Jimmy Graham, Julius Thomas, Colin Kaepernick, Robert Griffin III, Joe Haden, C.J. Spiller, Kevin White, Victor Cruz.

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