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Top 10 Comeback Player candidates: Darren Waller sits at No. 1

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With six weeks remaining in the 2019 NFL regular season, which players are generating the most buzz for the Comeback Player of the Year award? Around the NFL's Chris Wesseling examines the league's best candidates heading into Week 12:

1
Darren Waller
TE
Raiders

More than a mere creation of the drama machine at HBO, Waller was on the radar of fantasy football's dynasty league owners long before the summer 2019 edition of Hard Knocks captured him rattling off the list of drugs he abused while wasting the first few years of a promising pro career. Not long before the Raiders signed him off the Ravens' practice squad last November, Waller conceded he had given up hope and felt like he was going to die at his lowest point while serving out a second lengthy NFL suspension. A year later, Waller is a newly minted multi-millionaire and a breakout star for Jon Gruden's surprising 6-4 Raiders. The great-grandson of New Orleans jazz legend Fats Waller, this converted wideout is on pace for 90 receptions, 1,066 yards and a well-deserved Pro Bowl appearance as Derek Carr's go-to receiver.

2
Cooper Kupp
WR
Rams

The reports were astonishing. By the time the season started, Kupp was said to be running faster and cutting quicker than he ever did prior to the ACL tear that ultimately sabotaged a heretofore prolific Rams offense back in November of 2018. Eight games into his comeback, Kupp was rampaging through opposing secondaries, on pace for 1,584 yards, 10 touchdowns and 116 receptions -- single-season numbers matched by fewer than 10 receivers in NFL history. Those stats were admittedly bolstered by a 220-yard romp in London, when Kupp and Jared Goff took advantage of an overmatched, undisciplined, injury-depleted Bengals defense. Kupp has come back to earth the past two weeks, shut out completely by the Minkah Fitzpatrick-led Steelers in Week 10 before managing just 53 yards on three receptions against the Bears. He's going to need help from his slumping quarterback to emerge from a strong field of non-traditional candidates the rest of the way.

3
Everson Griffen
DE
Vikings

Griffen's nightmarish 2018 season was waylaid by a serious mental health issue that forced the Vikings to ban him from the practice facility in late September. Although he returned at midseason, Griffen was a shadow of his former self down the stretch, managing just three sacks and 14 QB hurries in the final seven games. It would have been understandable had the Vikings opted to release their oldest position player, using the savings to sign younger stars in need of new deals. Instead, they restructured Griffen's contract and welcomed him back to the fold as Danielle Hunter's bookend edge-rushing partner. Through 11 weeks this year, Pro Football Focus credits the 31-year-old Griffen with 58 disruptions (sacks, hits and hurries) -- second only to Hunter's 71 among all NFL pass rushers. At a time when mental health awareness is gaining overdue support across the professional sports landscape, Griffen's comeback story merits more attention.

4
Brandon Brooks
OG
Eagles

One of the most prescient free-agent acquisitions of the past decade, Brooks was a key cog in the Eagles' Super Bowl LII victory and earned back-to-back Pro Bowl selections before rupturing his Achilles tendon in the playoff loss to the Saints last January. It's impressive enough that he rushed back to the lineup for the 2019 season opener, not missing a single start due to the injury. After 10 games with his repaired Achilles, Brooks looks stronger than ever. "I think he's the best lineman in the NFL right now, if we're being honest," Eagles right tackle Lane Johnson told The Philadelphia Inquirer earlier this month. Anchored by Brooks and Johnson, the right side of the Eagles' line is keeping the otherwise desultory offense afloat this year (though Johnson is currently dealing with a concussion that might make him miss time).

5
Jimmy Garoppolo
QB
49ers

After trading for Garoppolo at the 2017 deadline, the 49ers became the first NFL team to start a season 1-10 and finish 5-0. The key to that historic turnaround, Garoppolo was expected to lead San Francisco's return to glory last season, only to go down with a torn ACL in Week 3. Healthy once again this summer, he jumped out to a league-best 8-0 start with a chain-moving ground attack and a dominant defense doing the heavy lifting. The onus has been on his shoulders the past three weeks, with the running game stymied, record-breaking tight end George Kittle banged-up and the defense starting to spring leaks. The results have been mixed, with a disappointing outing versus the Seahawks sandwiched by a pair of spectacular performances in narrow victories over the plucky Cardinals. Due to the position in which he plays, Garoppolo will fly up the voting list if the 49ers finish the season with the NFL's best record.

6
Travis Frederick
C
Cowboys

At this time a year ago, no one knew if Frederick would ever play football again. Arguably the NFL's premier center for a half-decade, Frederick had contracted Guillain-Barre syndrome, a disorder in which the immune system attacks the body's nervous system in response to illness. Although Frederick has yet to recapture All-Pro form in his return to action this year, he's the crucial pivot man for an offense that leads the league in Football Outsiders' efficiency rankings. It's amazing that he's playing at all, much less contributing to Dak Prescott's surprising run at the MVP award.

7
Hunter Henry
TE
Chargers

Give Henry credit for a rare double comeback. After missing all of last season with an ACL injury, Henry caught four of five targets for 60 yards in the 2019 season opener only to be diagnosed with a tibia plateau fracture to his other knee. To his credit, he raced through rehab to make it back into the lineup just a month later. Henry has been one of the most productive tight ends in the league ever since, averaging six receptions and 71 yards in six games. Those numbers project to more than 90 catches and 1,130 yards over a full 16-game season.

8
Jacoby Brissett
QB
Colts

Brissett may have been banished to the bench during Andrew Luck's 2018 Comeback Player of the Year campaign, but the Colts still appreciated his value as "the best backup quarterback in football." Thrust into the starting role upon Luck's shocking retirement, Brissett has survived a litany of injuries to his receiving corps, leading the Colts to a first-place showdown with the 6-4 Texans on Thursday Night Football. While Frank Reich's offense has transitioned to a run-oriented attack this season, Brissett deserves praise for a host of fourth-quarter scoring drives in addition to a superb 15:4 TD-to-INT ratio.

9
Earl Thomas
S
Ravens

Thomas' final season in Seattle ended prematurely when he suffered a broken leg in late September. Signed along with Mark Ingram in an impressive foray into free agency, Thomas got off to a slow start with Baltimore, chugging behind ball carriers as the secondary allowed too many yards after the catch in a disheartening September performance. Once the calendar flipped to October, those big plays disappeared. Now that Thomas has found his groove, Marcus Peters has arrived from Los Angeles and Jimmy Smith is back in the lineup, the Ravens' secondary is once again among the deepest and stingiest in the league.

10
Teddy Bridgewater
QB
Saints

Timing is working against Teddy. Last year marked his true comeback from one of the most gruesome knee injuries in recent memory, yet he served as Drew Brees' caddy leading up to an underwhelming performance in the meaningless regular-season finale. It wasn't until Brees went down with a thumb injury this September that Bridgewater received a true audition, keeping a Super Bowl contender on track as the practically perfect backup quarterback in five consecutive victories. If the season ended in late October, Bridgewater would have momentum in his favor. Barring another Brees absence, though, he might be an afterthought for this award by the time voting commences in January.

Follow Chris Wesseling on Twitter @ChrisWesseling.

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