The Schein Nine

2021 NFL season: I can't wait to watch these nine players returning from injury

The NBA playoffs have been unpredictable and amazing. Only one problem: a devastating rash of injuries to superstars and key players.

Pandemic domino effect? Condensed calendar? The nature of sports?

In a related vein, we saw a lot of significant injuries early in the 2020 NFL campaign, taking away some of the game's elite. Many big-name players missed most of last season, with injuries sidelining them for at least nine games. But now, these guys are well on the road to recovery, and I can't wait to see them back on the field of play. That's the topic of this edition of The Schein Nine.

Here are the nine studs I am most looking forward to watching after injuries robbed football fans of their exploits for the majority of last season:

1
Saquon Barkley
New York Giants · RB

2020 injury: ACL tear | Games missed: 14


Saquon burst on the scene as a rookie in 2018, posting an NFL-high 2,028 scrimmage yards (1,307 rushing, 721 receiving) while scoring 15 touchdowns. In 2019, Barkley suffered a high ankle sprain in Week 3 and was never really the same afterward, yet he still eclipsed 1,000 yards rushing in 13 games. But in 2020, a torn ACL in Barkley's sixth quarter of the season shelved him before he even reached 100 scrimmage yards or scored a single touchdown.


I miss Saquon's dynamic skill set. I miss the speed. I miss the cuts. I miss the hands. Barkley had 91 catches as a rookie. It feels like a lifetime ago. The game is just better when Barkley is doing mind-bending stuff. Kids love him. Adults fawn over him. He's a marketing dream in Market No. 1.


Barkley wouldn't offer a firm timetable for return last month, but the man's beach training vids have me champing at the bit. I can't wait to watch a healthy Barkley again. I'm putting him first on this list because of how electric he was -- and how long it's been since we've witnessed that electricity.

2
Derwin James
Los Angeles Chargers · S

2020 injury: Meniscus tear | Games missed: Entire season


Speaking of transcendent 2018 first-rounders who've been missing from Sundays for too long ... Derwin earned first-team All-Pro honors as a rookie, filling the stat sheet with 105 tackles, 13 passes defensed, six QB hits, 3.5 sacks and three interceptions. But practice injuries in consecutive Augusts have limited him to five games in 2019 and zero in 2020. Brutal for anyone who enjoys watching pure playmakers on the defensive side of the ball.


When James is healthy, he's a positionless weapon, a rare chess piece in the back seven that every NFL team would kill for. When James is healthy, the Chargers are a totally different team with a totally different defense. He impacts the game with turnovers, tackles, leadership and an undeniable knack for making things happen in crunch time. Derwin James is special. He's a dog. And I can't wait to see how new Chargers coach Brandon Staley puts him to use in 2021.

3
Dak Prescott
Dallas Cowboys · QB

2020 injury: Ankle compound fracture/dislocation | Games missed: 11


Whether you like it or not, the Cowboys are America's Team, consistently commanding the nation's eyeballs in plush programming slots. So, for general football-watching enjoyment, America needs Dak back under center in Dallas.


Over the first four weeks of last season, Prescott set off fireworks at Fourth of July levels, averaging 422.5(!) passing yards per game. Sure, Dallas prevailed in just one of those four contests -- thanks to a historically bad defense -- but the 'Boys were highly watchable, with Dak playing pitch-and-catch with Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup. After Prescott's gruesome injury, Andy Dalton, Ben DiNucci and Garrett Gilbert didn't exactly produce the most attractive product.


Now healthy -- and finally PAID -- Prescott will shine in Year 2 under Mike McCarthy, with the benefit of a real offseason to prepare. I cannot wait to watch Dak dazzle, lead Dallas to a division title and hit the postseason as a dangerous foe.

4
Nick Bosa
San Francisco 49ers · DE

2020 injury: ACL tear | Games missed: 14


The 2019 Defensive Rookie of the Year was absolutely crucial to the 49ers' Super Bowl run that season, shattering Pro Football Focus' rookie record for pressures with 80 during the regular season and then piling up 12 more pressures in the Super Bowl alone. The guy was a force of nature, and I had him as a top five defensive player entering his second NFL season. He was that special. But early in Week 2, Bosa was lost for the season. In related news: San Francisco fell from Super Bowl Sunday into the NFC West cellar at 6-10.


Sure, the 49ers had a spate of additional injuries, but none bigger than Bosa's. The defense just isn't the same without him setting the tone off the edge. Ageless wonder and NFC West foe Andrew Whitworth knows what I'm talking about. Appearing on Chris Long's podcast this week, the Rams left tackle was asked which young pass rusher stands out to him as a potential standard-setter in the coming years. He went right to the 23-year-old Niner.


"I think he's a special rusher," Whitworth said. "I think feeling him as a rookie, he's one of the most powerful kids I've ever felt that young. Really, in the run game, pass game, everything, he's got some serious pop. And so I think there's youth strength and then there's like, Man, when this guy kind of hits his stride, if he's that powerful now ... wow."

5
Chandler Jones
Arizona Cardinals · OLB

2020 injury: Bicep tear | Games missed: 11


In his last healthy season, Jones earned my AP vote for Defensive Player of the Year, racking up 19 sacks and an NFL-high eight forced fumbles. He's a game-wrecking edge rusher. And now that he's teamed up with a highly motivated J.J. Watt, Jones could enjoy his most disruptive season yet. If, of course, the Cardinals can get him back in the building.


Man, I sure hope Jones and the Cardinals get on the same page, because this Arizona team has exciting potential. This could be a special season for Jones, Vance Joseph's defense and the Cards as a whole. With the Suns now in the NBA Finals for the first time since 1993, let's keep the good times rolling in the Valley right on into the fall!

6
Christian McCaffrey
Carolina Panthers · RB

2020 injury: High ankle/shoulder/quad ailments | Games missed: 13


Whenever McCaffrey touches the ball, it's a showstopper. We saw that in 2019, when he became just the third member of the 1,000/1,000 club, joining Marshall Faulk and Roger Craig. But last year, the injury bug just wouldn't stop biting, limiting him to just three games. (Even so, he still scored six touchdowns.)


Now I'm dreaming of a full season of McCaffrey as a runner/receiver in Joe Brady's offense. I'm dreaming of McCaffrey with a major upgrade at quarterback in Sam Darnold. (Don't let Darnold's ill-fated Jets tenure fool you; this cat's talented.) The 25-year-old is a prototypical modern running back and a joy to watch every time he takes the field.

7
Devin Bush
Pittsburgh Steelers · LB

2020 injury: ACL tear | Games missed: 11


It might surprise you, but Devin Bush is one of my favorite players in the NFL. He was put on Earth to play linebacker for the Steelers. When he got hurt in mid-October last season, Pittsburgh lost its man in the middle, a critical cog in Mike Tomlin's defense. Bush is a leader. He's brilliant. He's physical. He's nasty. He's instinctual. And he flies around the field making plays.


Bud Dupree's free agency relocation to Tennessee took some bite out of the Steelers' defense, but Bush will be a real difference-maker once again on the second level. And with Ben Roethlisberger closing in on 40, the Steelers will heavily rely on their defense to set the tone.

8
Brandon Brooks
Philadelphia Eagles · OG

2020 injury: Achilles tear | Games missed: Entire season


When the Pro Bowl guard suffered his Achilles tear in June, I legitimately thought the Eagles' season was over before it started. OK, maybe I'm being a bit melodramatic, but do not dismiss the general sentiment because Brooks is "only a guard." Eagles fans know how valuable this cat is.


Brooks is a mauler and a road grader. He's a force in the run game and a rock in pass protection. Shoot, in 2019, Pro Football Focus graded him as the best guard in football -- yes, ahead of Quenton Nelson and Zack Martin. There's a lot of newness to the 2021 Eagles. They need this stalwart back at right guard.

9
Von Miller
Denver Broncos · OLB

2020 injury: Ankle tendon dislocation | Games missed: Entire season


Miller is carving out a Hall of Fame career. In his first nine years, he reached double-digit sacks seven times. 2020 was a washout due to injury, which set up a contract year for Miller in 2021. Is there a shelf life on Miller's time in Denver? Perhaps, when you factor in age (32) and salary cap (he carries a $22.225 million hit this season). There is no doubt in my mind Miller will be highly motivated and highly productive in the fall. Get ready for a vintage Von Miller season, especially given all the talent around him in Vic Fangio's defense.


Miller and Bradley Chubb are about to feast on opposing quarterbacks. Lining up between them, Shelby Harris remains criminally underrated. And then the secondary looks like one of the very best units in football, with Pro Bowl safety Justin Simmons flanked by established cover men Kyle Fuller and Ronald Darby, as well as polished first-round CB Patrick Surtain II. This could be the best defense in Denver since the unit that fueled the Broncos' win in Super Bowl 50, in which Miller earned game MVP honors.

Follow Adam Schein on Twitter.

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