Skip to main content

Tony Romo heads most impactful players returning from injury

One of the hardest tasks of the NFL offseason is determining just how well some players have recovered from injuries. You see them moving around in jerseys and shorts, but that's a far cry from how they'll operate come fall. Some injured players have few issues hitting their stride once they return, as Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson once proved by rushing for 2,097 yards the season after sustaining a torn ACL. Others have a much tougher time rebounding.

Ultimately, all these recovering players share the same burden: They have to overcome the mental and physical challenges that result from their bodies breaking down and help their teams as soon as possible. That being said, here are 10 players who could make the biggest impact on the 2016 season after being sidelined at some point last year:

1) Tony Romo, QB, Dallas Cowboys: There's a cruel irony in knowing that Romo followed the best season of his career in 2014 with an injury-plagued 2015 campaign. He missed 12 games as a result of two separate collarbone fractures and his absence haunted this team all year. It's fair to say the Cowboys would've run away with the mediocre NFC East had they not been forced to use three different quarterbacks to replace their fallen star. That revolving door of signal callers resulted in the Dallas averaging just 17.2 points a game and finishing 4-12. That's why Romo tops this list right now. Bring him back to an offense with highly accomplished pass catchers (Dez Bryant and Jason Witten), an exciting rookie running back (Ezekiel Elliott) and the best offensive line in football, and it's hard to not see the Cowboys returning to the postseason. All Romo has to do is stay healthy.

2) Jordy Nelson, WR, Green Bay Packers: Many people suspected that Green Bay's offense was in trouble when its best receiver tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee last August. Still, it was stunning to see just how much the Packers ultimately missed Nelson. Perennial Pro Bowl quarterback Aaron Rodgers literally had nobody else on the roster who could create separation and big plays as consistently as Nelson could. The end result was an offense that sputtered far too often as defenses stacked up on the run and dared Rodgers to beat them deep. (Green Bay finished 15th in scoring and 23rd in total yards, which were both lows since Rodgers became that team's starting quarterback in 2008.) With Nelson back at full strength, the Packers should once again have an explosive element in their passing game.

3) Le'Veon Bell, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers: After a monster season in 2014 -- when he amassed 1,361 rushing yards, 854 receiving yards and 11 total touchdowns -- Bell only appeared in six games for Pittsburgh last year. He lost the first two to a suspension and the final eight to a torn MCL. The good news was that DeAngelo Williams was able to blossom as a super sub in his absence. The bad news is that Williams is now 33 years old and the Steelers also lost speedy wide receiver Martavis Bryant for the entire season due to suspension. The Steelers still have plenty of talent on offense, but Bell's versatility allows them to play at a different level when he's healthy. They will need him more than ever this fall and he's likely to come back with a vengeance.

4) Andrew Luck, QB, Indianapolis Colts: No star quarterback in the NFL has more to prove than Luck does this season. He missed nine games in 2015 -- because of shoulder, kidney and abdominal injuries -- and the Colts finished 8-8, snapping their run of three consecutive 11-5 playoff campaigns with him under center. What also can't be ignored is the way Luck played before he was knocked out of the lineup. (Just ask Luck, himself.) He completed only 55.3 percent of his passes and accounted for 13 total turnovers (12 off interceptions) in his seven starts. Indianapolis is hoping that a fully healed body and a full offseason with offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski can return Luck to Pro Bowl form. In a division that will be as dramatically improved as the AFC South, Luck's performance obviously will be the biggest determinant of whether the Colts return to the playoffs.

5) Jimmy Graham, TE, Seattle Seahawks: No offense to Seahawks wide receiver Doug Baldwin, but Graham was supposed to be the pass catcher who helped elevate the play of star quarterback Russell Wilson last year. Instead, Graham disappointed during the first half of 2015 and ultimately wound up on injured reserve with a ruptured patellar tendon in Week 12. He finished the year with just 48 receptions and two touchdowns after averaging 89 catches and nearly 12 scores in his previous four seasons with the Saints. In his defense, he was starting to hit his stride before that injury. That also happens to be the version of Graham the Seahawks hope to see when this season begins. Baldwin's emergence -- coupled with Wilson's spectacular maturation in the second half of last season -- means there will be more room for Graham to operate. If he takes advantage of that, Graham should look every bit like the player who was supposed to arrive in Seattle after that blockbuster trade with New Orleans last offseason.

6) Jamaal Charles, RB, Kansas City Chiefs: It's fair to say Chiefs outside linebacker Justin Houston would have a bigger impact on this team -- as he's recovering from his own ACL surgery -- but there's no way of knowing when he'll actually be on the field. It could be as late as November or December before that happens. Charles, on the other hand, should be ready after tearing the ACL in his right knee in a Week 5 loss to Chicago. The really nice aspect of his return is that the Chiefs can be more selective in how they use him this coming season. In 2013, Charles represented approximately 37 percent of this team's offensive production. Three years later, he'll be part of a backfield that benefitted from surprising production out of little-known backs Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware in Charles' absence. For a four-time Pro Bowler who turns 30 in December -- and is coming off the second ACL operation of his career -- Charles should do well with more rest and more help.

7) Terrell Suggs, OLB, Baltimore Ravens: Suggs may be long in the tooth (he turns 34 in October), but don't underestimate his value to Baltimore at this stage of his career. The torn Achilles that ended his season in a Week 1 loss to Denver last September was one of the major setbacks that led to such a frustrating year for the Ravens. Sure, they missed a six-time Pro Bowler who has 106.5 career sacks. But Suggs's absence also impacted fellow pass rusher Elvis Dumervil, who registered just six sacks after amassing 17 in 2015, along with a defense that ranked 24th in the NFL in points allowed. Dumervil already has been touting the potential of this duo once Suggs is back on the field. The entire Ravens team should be equally excited about those possibilities.

8) Tyrann Mathieu, FS, Arizona Cardinals: If not for Seattle's Earl Thomas, Mathieu might be the best safety in football today. The Cardinals were fortunate to have him for the majority of last season -- he tore the ACL in his right knee in Week 15 -- but that also means he'll need more time to find a comfort level this fall. Once that happens, look out. At 5-foot-9 and 186 pounds, Mathieu gets the absolute maximum out of his undersized body. He can cover, tackle, blitz and do just about anything the Cardinals defense asks of him. That team may have reached the NFC title game with him on the sideline, but you best believe the first-team All-Pro was missed. After star wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, Mathieu could very well be the heartbeat of that team.

9) Steve Smith Sr., WR, Baltimore Ravens: Even at 37 years old, it's difficult to bet against this guy. Smith was playing at an exceptionally high level before he sustained a season-ending torn Achilles tendon -- see: 46 receptions and 670 yards in seven games -- and he's likely to be just as dangerous this fall. The reason? Attitude. Smith initially had planned to retire following the 2015 campaign, but after the injury, he just couldn't go out like that. In many ways, he could continue finding the same fountain of youth in Baltimore that benefitted receivers like Anquan Boldin and Derrick Mason before him. That will be critical because this team sorely needs playmakers for quarterback Joe Flacco.

10) Andy Dalton, QB, Cincinnati Bengals: Talk about a player being dealt a tough blow. Dalton was enjoying his best pro season yet before injuring his right thumb in a Week 14 loss to Pittsburgh. Before that game, he had become exactly the kind of quarterback Cincinnati needed: Dalton had a league-best passer rating (107.4), a career-high in completion percentage (66.1) and 25 touchdown passes (against just six interceptions). After that contest, the Bengals relied on AJ McCarron for their final four games, including a wild-card loss to Pittsburgh. Sure, that Steelers defeat can be blamed entirely on a meltdown revolving around cornerback Adam Jones and linebacker Vontaze Burfict, but the Bengals also would've had a better chance of going deeper into the playoffs with a healthy Dalton. If the sixth-year QB avoids injury this year, look for this team to make up for all the heartache that came with last season's conclusion.

Follow Jeffri Chadiha on Twitter @jeffrichadiha.

This article has been reproduced in a new format and may be missing content or contain faulty links. Please use the Contact Us link in our site footer to report an issue.

Related Content