Top 10 Comeback Player candidates: J.J. Watt No. 2

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The 2017 NFL season was unfortunately marred by a litany of injuries to established superstars and promising newcomers, too often leaving viewers pining for excitement and excellence. Now that the majority of those players are not only healthy but also thriving, we have experienced a more entertaining, higher caliber of football in 2018.

One byproduct of that phenomenon is a crowded race for Comeback Player of the Year. I've been writing iterations of this article for several years, and this is clearly the most impressive collection of stars vying for a nebulous honor.

Since 1972, when Pro Football Weekly began handing out the award, quarterbacks have won roughly half of the time. As a general rule, running backs must beat the odds to turn in an especially productive campaign after overcoming a debilitating knee injury (Adrian Peterson, Willis McGahee, Garrison Hearst). Wide receivers and tight ends are typically afterthoughts barring a career year (Randy Moss, Steve Smith, Keenan Allen) on the heels of a disappointing season. Every decade or so, a defensive luminary crashes the party.

The triad of Andrew Luck, J.J. Watt and Peterson have distanced themselves from the pack in the first 10 weeks of the 2018 season. My personal rankings shift by the week, with each marquee player taking a starring turn. The final results will likely come down to late December, with voters waiting to see which player helps catapult his team into the postseason.

Without further ado, let's examine the top 10 candidates for Comeback Player of the Year honors.

1) Andrew Luck, quarterback, Indianapolis Colts

Now that Luck is on pace for the fifth-most passing touchdowns (46) in a single season, it's easy to forget the legitimate concern that he would return from shoulder surgery as a shadow of his former playmaking self -- if at all. Rather than trying in vain to overcome a popgun throwing arm, he's coming off his sixth straight game with three or more touchdown tosses, the fourth-longest streak since 1950 behind Tom Brady (10), Peyton Manning (eight) and Dan Marino (seven). Carrying an offense with its top tackle, running back, wide receiver and tight end in and out of the lineup for the season's first two months, Luck has the Colts averaging 12.5 more points, 95.2 more yards and 85.4 more passing yards this season than last.

With the help of Frank Reich's brilliant play designs, Luck is finally fulfilling his vast potential. We are witnessing a different quarterback, a more decisive and accurate passer with adequate protection and the first stirrings of a reliable ground game -- and it's beautiful. Luck has an uncanny knack for taking a new receiver off the scrap heap and featuring him in a quick-passing, chain-moving attack good for 30 points per week. Don't be surprised if we're still watching this offense in January. There isn't a team left on Indianapolis' schedule that is unequivocally superior.

2) J.J. Watt, defensive end, Houston Texans

Watt missed 24 of a possible 32 games due to back surgery and a tibial plateau fracture in 2016 and 2017, respectively. The procedure to repair his leg last October was so complicated that doctors wondered if he would ever run full speed again. After going nearly two calendar years without a sack, Watt exploded for three takedowns of Eli Manning in Week 3. He's been a force ever since, leading the NFL with the fastest average time to sack at 3.54 seconds, per Next Gen Stats. Although Watt may never again reach the pre-injury heights that forced his name into MVP debates and made him the perennial favorite for Defensive Player of the Year honors, he's still producing at an elite level. The 29-year-old ranks first in forced fumbles (4), third in sacks (9.0), fourth in tackles for loss (11) and seventh in QB hits (16), per NFL Research.

3) Adrian Peterson, running back, Washington Redskins

Peterson averaged career-lows in yards per carry (3.4) and rushing yards per game (52.9) before a serious neck injury ended his 2017 season in Arizona. Although a closer inspection suggested he still possessed the patience, vision, explosive burst, mid-career jump cuts and breakaway speed to succeed as a lead back, those traits were obscured by a turnstile offensive line and little respect from defenses for the Cardinals' second- and third-string quarterbacks. The seven-time Pro Bowl selection languished on the free-agent market all offseason, drawing nary a nibble until the desperate Redskins came calling in August.

Far from washed up, Peterson wasted no time claiming the starting job and establishing himself as the focal point of a first-place Redskins attack. Despite losing several long runs to penalties, Peterson is averaging more yards from scrimmage than any running back age 33 or older since the 1970 NFL merger. It's fitting that he's spending his twilight years in Washington, making a run at Hall of Famer John Riggins' claim as the greatest ever "over-the-hill" back.

4) Odell Beckham, wide receiver, New York Giants

The Giants boast more skill-position talent than any bad team in recent memory. Rookie Saquon Barkley is averaging the fifth-most yards of any rookie since the merger, Sterling Shepard is a strong No. 2 receiver and Evan Engram is one of the league's most physically gifted pass-catching tight ends. It all starts with Beckham, though, who has returned to dynamic form after breaking his ankle early last October. The game's most freakishly athletic wideout is averaging 95.3 receiving yards per game, good for fifth in the league. If not for the glaring struggles of Eli Manning and the offensive line, it's fair to wonder if he'd be topping that list -- as well as this one.

5) Aaron Rodgers, quarterback, Green Bay Packers

Rodgers returned from a fractured clavicle only to suffer a knee injury in the Packers' thrilling comeback victory to open the 2018 season. Playing through that injury and initiating a greenhorn receiving corps into Green Bay's offense, Rodgers still owns the NFL's longest active streak without an interception (228 attempts). Now that rookie Marquez Valdes-Scantling is emerging as a second fiddle to Davante Adams and Aaron Jones is finally being featured in the running game, perhaps Rodgers can muster yet another magical R-E-L-A-X, run-the-table season-saving second half.

6) Richard Sherman, cornerback, San Francisco 49ers

Looking down the barrel of age 30 and recovering from surgery to both Achilles tendons, Sherman faced heavy skepticism and criticism (for negotiating his own contract with the 49ers) throughout the offseason. After leaving the comfort of Seattle's "Legion of Boom" defense for the first time in his career, Sherman remains one of the stingiest covermen in football. Bolstering his already strong Hall of Fame case, the three-time All-Pro leads all cornerbacks in cover snaps per target and cover snaps per reception, per Pro Football Focus. Translation: The rare passes into Sherman's primary coverage are likely to result in a negative outcome.

7) Deshaun Watson, quarterback, Houston Texans

Watson was tied for the NFL lead in touchdown passes when his 2017 Offensive Rookie of the Year hopes were dashed by a torn ACL last November. On the heels of a disappointing performance this September, he has completed 68.2 percent of his passes at 8.5 yards per attempt for a 107.3 passer rating over the past six games -- a stretch that has generated the second-longest winning streak in franchise history. For three hours versus the Dolphins in Week 8, we saw how dynamic Watson's offense could be with healthy receivers and an offensive line that finally kept him upright. If the surrounding talent cooperates down the stretch, Watson will lead the Texans back to their third AFC South title in four years.

8) Chris Carson, running back, Seattle Seahawks

The Seahawks endured similar September doldrums, only to spin out of a lost season thanks to the seventh round of the 2017 draft, which brought not only Carson but also playmaking wideout David Moore. Russell Wilson's offense had lost its identity in the aftermath of Marshawn Lynch's exodus, ranking 21st in run-play percentage, 22nd in rushing yards per game and 23rd in carries per game from 2016 to 2017. Chewing up yards with long, powerful strides, Carson has been a godsend in his return from a broken leg that prematurely ended his rookie season. Behind Mike Solari's improved offensive line, Carson has reached the century mark in three of his last five games, leading the league's most ruthless and relentless ground attack. With Carson as the focal point, the Seahawks are averaging a league-best 152.2 rushing yards per game, their most since the 2014 season, which culminated in their second straight Super Bowl berth.

9) Carson Wentz, quarterback, Philadelphia Eagles

The Eagles have topped 24 points only once all season after doing so 12 times in 16 games en route to the Super Bowl a year ago. Wentz has also been the recipient of good luck with seven dropped interceptions since returning from surgery to repair a torn ACL and LCL. So why is he on this list? Philadelphia's offensive output is down through little fault of his own. The highest-rated passer under pressure (118.3, per Next Gen Stats), Wentz has actually increased his completion percentage (60.2 to 71.0), passing yards per game (253.5 to 306.9) and passer rating (101.9 to 108.5) from last year's campaign, which had him in the thick of the MVP race. The Eagles are scoring fewer points primarily due to factors beyond Wentz's control: fewer possessions, worse field position, less of a contribution from the defense and special teams, a dramatic dropoff in the run game and injuries to the offensive line and receiving corps.

10) Jaylon Smith, linebacker, Dallas Cowboys

Smith played a full season in 2017, but as I alluded in the intro, there are no hard-and-fast rules for this rather nebulous honor. If Philip Rivers can take home the 2013 award simply for bouncing back from a subpar season, Smith merits consideration for overcoming a devastating injury, which included a lingering, career-threatening case of drop-foot. A liability in his first taste of the NFL, Smith has turned it around this season, reviving his career as one of football's most active off-ball linebackers. His play, along with the emergence of Defensive Player of the Week Leighton Vander Esch, has enabled Dallas' front seven to thrive in the absence of defensive leader and former "Jenga" piece Sean Lee.

Follow Chris Wesseling on Twitter @ChrisWesseling.

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