The NFL is a funny place. When guys are playing well, millions of fans cheer for them, owners pay them a lot of money, and talk show hosts talk highly of them at every turn. Some guys start out red hot right out of college, while other guys need to develop and hit their stride a few years in. It might be a change in scenery through free agency. Maybe it’s a change in coaching staff or an injury to the guy ahead of them on the depth chart that creates the opportunity for stardom. Either way, once they hit that elite status everyone requires that they stay an elite player.
Injuries are the number one reason for a player’s skills to decline. Whether it’s because of injury or maybe a change in schemes, not everyone can perform at an elite status all the time. When their play starts to fade things can go south in a hurry. All of a sudden terms like “over paid” “over rated” “over the hill” become much more common. In all reality sometimes those things are true. Sometimes a guy doesn’t have the work ethic or the ability to learn at the next level. They can have a couple solid years but then the really smart guys on the other side of the field figure them out and they can’t adjust. They become “over paid”, “over rated” and “over the hill.”
But then there are the guys who are phenomenal athletes. Guys that have a bad year or two but outside circumstances are the reason for their decline. A freak season-ending injury, nagging injuries, a coaching change because the team as a whole isn’t living up to expectations. Or it may be that a guy signed as a free agent or was drafted by a team that really just didn’t know how to use him. These guys are the ones who are set up to have a spectacular season. Let’s look at the top 15 NFL players who are poised to come back in a big way in 2016.
15. Mario Williams
As a number one overall draft pick by the Texans, Mario lived up to the hype. He set team records (since passed by J.J. Watt) for sacks and forced fumbles. After a season-ending injury the Texans let him test the free agent market. The Bills gave him a lot of money and he continued to be a stud there too. His first three years in Buffalo he registered 38 sacks, but then the coaching change happened. Rex Ryan came in to turn around the franchise. Rex and Mario just could never get on the same page and after a very unremarkable 2015 season he was released. Mario has signed with the Miami Dolphins and is looking forward to getting back to all-pro form.
14. Andrew Luck
Andrew Luck has been a superstar in the NFL since the day he was drafted. 2014 was the best season of his young career, leading the league with 40 touchdowns. He also led the Colts to the AFC championship game in 2014 only to lose to Tom Brady and a deflated football. 2015 started out rough for Luck, who missed week four and five with a shoulder injury. After playing five more games he missed the remainder of the season due to a lacerated kidney and a torn abdominal muscle.
13. Colin Kaepernick
The whole situation surrounding Colin is puzzling at best. It is possible that he is a system quarterback who flourished with Jim Harbaugh. However, it is probably more likely that the majority of his issues were due to a nagging shoulder injury. Colin was fantastic in 2014, blending a great running game with an okay passing game. Not saying he was horrible by any stretch last year but a nagging shoulder injury and adjusting to a new system definitely could have led to some early season struggles. We fully expect Colin to regain his form this year, whether it be with the 49ers or not.
12. Victor Cruz
Victor Cruz is proof that a draft based on talent alone doesn’t always get a team the best guy. Sometimes chemistry and work ethic play the bigger part in a player’s overall success in the NFL. Cruz was passed over by 32 teams not once but SEVEN times before signing as an unrestricted free agent with the Giants. Instant chemistry with Eli Manning made Victor a superstar while he posted close to 4,000 yards in less than four seasons worth of games. He missed the entire 2015 season and half of the 2014 season due to injuries. His absence was surely felt by the Giants who struggled to get just 6 wins in 2015.
11. Jordy Nelson
It took Jordy a little while to heat up in the NFL but when he did get going he quickly became the favorite “go to guy” of Aaron Rogers. Nelson really had a breakout game in the Superbowl for the Packers in 2010 and he never looked back. 2014 was a phenomenal year for him as he posted 1,519 yards receiving and 13 touchdowns. Becoming an elite receiver has helped the Packers stay a team to beat in the NFL and helped Rodgers win two league MVPs. In the second preseason game of 2015 Nelson tore his ACL and missed the entire season. The Packers struggled all season to find someone to help pick up some of the production that was missing while he recovered.
10. Joe Flacco
While he may not be an elite quarterback, Joe does catch a lot of undeserved criticism. He is a clutch performer and a classic example of a big game quarterback. The 2015 season was not kind to the Ravens, who went through a plethora of injuries. They lost their top two running backs, Justin Forsett and Lorenzo Taliaferro; they lost there top three wide receivers, Steve Smith Sr., Marlon Brown, and Breshad Permian; and they lost their top tight end, Crockett Gilmore. Despite all that Flacco was on the verge of having his best season as a pro. That is until he himself was injured and missed the last six games of the season.
9. Kiko Alonso
He was a second round pick by the Buffalo Bills in 2013 and all he did was go out and record a jaw-dropping 159 total tackles while winning the Defensive Rookie of the Year award. A torn ACL wiped out his entire 2014 season and he was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles for running back LeSean McCoy. Much like the majority of the Eagles team he really struggled to get things going in 2015. He was hampered by nagging injuries including a partial tear in the same ACL that made him lose all of 2014. During the off season he was traded to the Miami Dolphins where he’s looking to be a part of what could be a scary defense.
8. DeAndre Levy
All we can say when it comes to DeAndre Levy is “Respect the Beard.” He may look like he belongs with the cast of Duck Dynasty but he can flat out ball. One of the better 3-4 linebackers in the NFL, DeAndre put himself on the map while recording 151 total tackles in 2014. He followed that remarkable season by tearing the labrum in his hip midway through the first game of the season. The injury resulted in landing on the injured reserve list and missing the remainder of 2015. Reports out of Michigan say that he is recovering nicely and should be ready to go for the start on 2016.
7. Jason Pierre-Paul
JPP learned a valuable lesson when it comes to firework safety last year on the 4th of July. Unfortunately he learned the lesson after the firework exploded and he had to amputate his finger. Due to the injury he missed half of the 2015 season and only recorded one sack. To say he was underwhelming is an understatement since he was well off his 2014 campaign in which he recorded 12.5 sacks. In the off season Paul turned down a contract offer from the Arizona Cardinals so he could stay in New York. Hopefully he learned that holding on to fireworks is a bad idea and he can reward the Giants for investing $10 million dollars in him with a performance closer to 2014.
6. Cameron Wake
Cameron Wake has become one of the most feared defensive ends in the NFL. He was a linebacker in college and in 2005 signed with the New York Giants. They released him before training camp even started so he went to the CFL. While in Canada he switched to defensive end and became an absolute beast. In 2009 he drew interest from 17 teams in the NFL but ultimately decided to go to Miami. Sadly, his 2015 season ended after seven games due to an Achilles injury. Cameron has been absolutely amazing with horrible defensive coaches so the Dolphin fans are drooling with anticipation for him to play with a new coach and a revamped defense.
5. Tony Romo
Like Joe Flacco, Tony Romo is another guy who gets an awful lot of unnecessary criticism. Unlike Joe Flacco, Tony is an elite quarterback. Also unlike Joe Flacco, who gets incredibly hot in the postseason and can will his team to a championship, Tony tends to not play his best during playoff games. He does, however, hold a number of records, including most consecutive games played with a touchdown pass (currently at 41 and counting). After a couple of injuries limited his play to only four games in 2015, you can bet that he is itching to get back on the field.
4. DeMarco Murray
Murray had a break out season in 2014 for the Dallas Cowboys. He led the league in rushing and parlayed that into rich free agent contract with the Eagles. Much like most of the Philadelphia Eagles in 2015, DeMarco really didn’t fit with the system that Chip Kelly ran. He flourished in Dallas because they played him to his strengths. He is a guy who gets better as the game goes on and Philadelphia never gave him the kind of carries he needs to play his best. In the off season he was traded to the Titans and should help take the pressure off second year quarterback Marcus Mariota.
3. Jamaal Charles
Jamaal is one of the premier running backs in the league. In less than 7 years he passed Priest Holmes to become the Chiefs all-time leading rusher and has rushed for 7,220 yards in only eight years. Five games into the 2015 season Jamaal tore the ACL in his right knee. This isn’t the first comeback season that Jamaal has had to endure. In 2011, he battled back from a season-ending injury where he only played in two games before injuring is ACL. 2012 saw Jamaal rush for 1,509 yards, so we know he has it in him to have a huge season following this latest setback.
2. Jimmy Graham
It was a tough year in 2015 for Jimmy Graham. He became the richest tight end in the history of the league, and he went from being the number one target for a hall of fame quarterback to one of many options for the best team in the NFC. All sarcasm aside, Jimmy did have trouble adapting to the new scheme in Seattle. He struggled not being the focal point of an offense that required him to stay back and block more often. If any other tight end in the NFL had 605 receiving yards that would be called a great season but by Jimmy Graham’s standards it was subpar. Another year to adapt to the system should do wonders for him.
1. Dion Jordan
A word that gets thrown around a lot about Dion is “bust.” That is a very unfair assessment of a young kid who was the central figure of a power struggle in Miami. Third overall pick by Jeff Ireland, he was never really a Joe Philbin guy. In his rookie season he appeared in less than a third of the Dolphins’ total defensive snaps for the entire season. Feeling he needed to bulk up to get playing time, Dion made a few poor choices and ended up suspended. The Adam Gase regime has already stated that Dion has a place with the team if he wants it. Here’s hoping that Dion gets his off the field act together and finally lives up to all that potential. With all that is happening in Miami, this writer feels he is in for a huge season.
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