By this point in the offseason, you've heard plenty about the big-ticket free-agent signings and enticing draft choices spicing up the 2020 picture for teams across the NFL. But don't overlook another category of players whose presence on the field can make a major difference: those who are poised to return to form after a significant absence in 2019. While their names might not be fresh, a returning superstar-caliber quarterback or game-wrecking pass rusher can provide as much of a boost as any jazzy newcomer.
Below, I've identified the 12 players returning from a significant absence in 2019 who are primed to make the biggest impact in 2020:
After suffering a season-ending elbow injury in Week 2 of last season, Roethlisberger said he wouldn't cut his hair or beard until he was able to throw again. Then, earlier this month, a video clip appeared of Big Ben winging the football to some of his teammates -- and sitting down in a barber's chair. A shave and a haircut never felt so good. Roethlisberger will return to a team whose No. 1 RB (James Conner) and No. 1 WR (JuJu Smith-Schuster) are still unproven commodities -- but the Steelers' defense is also in much better shape than it was when he first landed on injured reserve, having coalesced after the midseason acquisition of safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. Even with Roethlisberger at the advanced age of 38, having him on the field immediately elevates Pittsburgh to playoff-contender status.
Stafford and Hall of Famer Bobby Layne both went to the same high school in Dallas (Highland Park), which makes it particularly eerie to see Stafford become the latest QB to feel the effects of The Curse of Bobby Layne, which appears to be continuing long past its original 50-year lifespan. Stafford has gone the entirety of his 11-season career thus far without a playoff victory. Last year was particularly disheartening, with one of Stafford's best professional campaigns brought to a premature end in November by a back injury. His return this year, along with the addition of rookie running back D'Andre Swift, should put Detroit in position to sweep aside bad memories of 2019 (and before) -- and help cool the hot seats of coach Matt Patricia and general manager Bob Quinn.
The NFL just wasn't the same without the fun-loving Gronkowski last season. The impact of his roughly yearlong retirement was felt particularly strongly in New England, which failed miserably in its attempts to find another tight end to help pick up the slack in 2019. No one suffered more than Tom Brady, whose difficulties last season stemmed partially from a lack of skill-position help. Reunited with Brady in Tampa, Gronk will create mismatch problems for opposing defenses with his physical presence, and he poses a serious threat both as a pass-catcher and run-blocker. Brady, meanwhile, no longer has to worry about the Patriots' tight end issues as he resumes one of the most prolific working relationships of his career.
Green will be 32 years old entering the season and has missed 23 of 32 games while dealing with injuries over the past two years, including all of 2019 -- but I can see the logic in keeping Green in the fold via the franchise tag. First and foremost, Cincinnati believes Green can regain the form that made him the second-leading receiver in the franchise's 52-year history. Second, he should help No. 1 overall pick Joe Burrow establish his NFL footing as a rookie quarterback more quickly. And he and young receivers Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins should be able to feed off each other, with Green providing veteran leadership and Boyd and Higgins opening up opportunities for Green.
In addition to the retirement of Rob Gronkowski, another factor in the Patriots' struggles in 2019 was the offensive line's inability to meet the high standards set in previous years, thanks in part to the absence of Andrews, who was forced to miss the season as he dealt with blood clots in his lungs. Andrews' return is great news for second-year pro Jarrett Stidham, who can rely on the veteran center to help set pass protection as he embarks on the monstrous task of replacing Tom Brady in New England. Andrews will also help strengthen the rushing attack, which should make life a bit easier for Stidham.
It's a shame that the Redskins tenure of a tackle whose career may ultimately garner Hall of Fame consideration ended in acrimony. On the bright side, Williams has the best chance in his 11 NFL seasons to win a Super Bowl ring now that he's part of the 49ers. Kudos to the San Francisco front office for swinging the deal that brought the 31-year-old seven-time Pro Bowl selection to town after Joe Staley told the team he was retiring. Bonus points for the Niners' confidence in being able to get a trade done on Day 3 of the 2020 NFL Draft, which allowed them to use the 14th overall pick on Javon Kinlaw to replace DeForest Buckner rather than feeling compelled to address the left tackle spot.
The rookie debut of Cincinnati's 2019 first-round pick never came to pass, thanks to the torn labrum that required Williams to undergo surgery last June. He is set up to play a very important role with the Bengals in Year 2, given that their weak offensive line last season contributed to their league-worst 2-14 record. Cincinnati is now counting on Williams to fortify the group and protect No. 1 overall pick Joe Burrow's blind side.
Unfortunately, getting a full season out of Watt has become an exception rather than the rule at this point in his career, with the three-time Defensive Player of the Year able to appear in all 16 games in just one of his past four seasons. After suffering a torn pectoral muscle in Week 8, Watt returned for the 2019 playoffs, sacking Josh Allen in Houston's comeback wild-card win, but he was blanked against the Chiefs. A strong 2020 season would go a long way toward determining whether he sees the $17.5 million he is set to earn in the final year of his current contract in 2021 -- and, with Watt deciding not to seek an extension yet, what else happens with his career going forward.
The performance of fellow edge rusher Von Miller and the entire Broncos' defense took a hit last year when Chubb suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 4. Without another pass-rushing force to draw attention from opposing offenses, Miller finished with his lowest sack total (8) since 2013, when he only played in nine games. A strong Year 3 from Chubb could provide a major boost to a Broncos team on the verge of potentially turning things around in 2020 -- and if he proves better than Miller, he could even allow the Broncos to move on from the decorated but pricy veteran next offseason.
Jackson tried to rehabilitate the groin injury he suffered in Week 2 last season rather than immediately having corrective surgery, but he lasted three snaps in his attempted Week 9 return before ultimately going under the knife -- and losing the rest of his season -- anyway. His presence was sorely missed by the Eagles, who lacked a comparable deep threat to run out there. Jackson is getting older, but Philadelphia clearly still believes he can play a significant role, based on a look at their depth chart, with just first-rounder Jalen Reagor and trade acquisition Marquise Goodwin standing out as significant offseason additions at the receiver position.
After becoming one of the highest-paid inside linebackers in the NFL last offseason, Mosley started off the 2019 season on fire, making five tackles and returning an interception for a touchdown in the first half alone of the Jets' Week 1 game against Buffalo. But then disaster struck -- a groin injury knocked Mosley out later in the game, and he only appeared in one more contest last season before having corrective surgery. His return in 2020 should make the Jets' strong defense even stingier.
The rookie season of the 2019 NFL Draft's 27th overall pick lasted all of one game, with Abram tearing his rotator cuff against the Broncos in the Raiders' Week 1 opener. His hard-hitting style raises questions about his long-term longevity, but if he reduces some unnecessary contact risks, Abram has all the ingredients needed to flourish in the NFL -- and become a team leader, to boot.