NFL Picks: 2020 AP Comeback Player of the Year Award

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This is the second in a five-part series picking the winners of each AP season-long award. Check back soon for the next piece. The first article:

Continuing this week’s NFL Picks series with predictions for the Associated Press season-long awards, we move today to Comeback Player of the Year.

As noted previously, I’ve reviewed the past winners looking for trends that can help us make smarter picks for the upcoming season, specifically using the past decade’s winners. Obligatory disclaimer that COVID-19 makes predicting these awards particularly difficult this season.

For each of these award picks, I’m noting the odds-on favorite, the “trendy pick,” my “best bet” pick, and my “best longshot” pick. My “best bet” is who I think is most likely to win, while “best longshot” is the higher-payout option that may be worth sprinkling a little additional Monopoly money on if you feel so inclined.

Without further ado, let’s get into it, continuing today with my picks for the AP Comeback Player of the Year Award.

Comeback Player of the Year

Favorite: Ben Roethlisberger / Rob Gronkowski (+400)

Trendy Picks: Cam Newton (+450) / Alex Smith (+450)

Last Decade:

Trends we can identify:

  • While technically a player can “come back” from anything, 70% of the past 10 winners returned from an injury.
  • 60% of winners are quarterbacks.
  • 100% of winners led their teams to 9+ wins on the season
  • 40% of winners helped improve their team’s record by 4 or more wins from the previous season.

So we’re looking for a quarterback returning from injury on a team that can win 9+ games while improving their win total by at least 4 from last season.

Before I get into which players meet this criteria, I want to point out the power of a unique situation to uproot these trends for this award specifically. Eric Berry won after beating Hodgkin’s lymphoma and returning to football. Michael Vick won after he was arrested, imprisoned, reformed his public image, and returned to lead the Eagles to the playoffs. Even Peyton Manning’s return from neck surgery in 2012 was considered a major physical achievement.

And this particular offseason presents a multitude of unique situations, any of which could potentially overtake one of our more “likely” scenarios:

  • Rob Gronkowski (+400) returns in a high-profile position after a year of early retirement.
  • Myles Garrett (+2500) returns from an indefinite suspension for swinging his helmet at Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph.
  • Alex Smith (+450) returns from one of the most gruesome and devastating injuries we’ve ever seen in the NFL.
  • Cam Newton (+450), a former MVP, looks for a potential career resurgence in New England as Belichick looks to prove himself without Tom Brady.
  • Trent Williams (+5000) had a cancerous growth removed from his head in April 2019 and didn’t play last season after reportedly demanding to be released or traded over how the team’s medical staff handled his situation. He now takes over for Joe Staley as the left tackle for the Niners with a chance to be part of one of the NFL’s best offenses.
  • Aldon Smith (+2000) hasn’t played a down in the NFL since 2015 after dealing with a mess of legal issues, but he’s been reinstated and could be seen as a potential key cog in helping right the Cowboys’ ship.

These scenarios are easy to see right now, just as Eric Berry’s was easy to predict in 2015. That makes me wary of betting on what would be a typical Comeback Player situation, such as:

  • Ben Roethlisberger (+400), a quarterback who missed most of last season due to injury.
  • Matthew Stafford (+1000), another quarterback who missed most of last season due to injury.
  • Nick Foles (+1500), yet another quarterback who missed most of last season due to injury, who has also changed teams and stands to pull a potential “Ryan Tannehill” on Mitch Trubisky in Chicago
  • J.J. Watt (+600), a former three-time DPOY winner and media darling who missed most of last season due to injury.
  • A.J. Green (+800), an all-time underrated receiver who missed all of last season due to injury.

There’s so many potential narratives that dominate this award depending on how the season unfolds. Alex Smith may get the award if he plays even one snap just because of what he’s returning from. Gronk, A.J. Green and J.J. Watt may get consideration as way to give them a de facto “Lifetime Achievement” award.

You also have players who could simply bounce back from a down year, like Baker Mayfield (+3300) or Jared Goff (+4000). There are a bunch of other non-quarterbacks also returning from a serious injury: DeSean Jackson (+3300), Bradley Chubb (+4000), and David Johnson (+4000), and more!

All of that makes this award particularly difficult to pick this year. We don’t usually have so many big name quarterbacks returning from injury, nor do we typically have so many unique situations that other players are returning from.

Ryan Tannehill took home this award last year in a combination of unique circumstances–turning a team completely around after being relegated to a backup role–in addition to recovering from an injury the season before. But he wasn’t up against the huge slate of competition we expect to see in 2020.

All that said, I always come back to what’s most likely to happen. Especially in such an uncertain award category, my “best bet” has to be someone who meets the most likely criteria for the winners: a quarterback returning from injury who’s team should improve by at least four wins to win nine or more games. That makes Ben Roethlisberger and Matthew Stafford the top two candidates.

If Big Ben plays 16 games, there’s little doubt in my mind the Steelers offense will bounce back. 2018’s Pittsburgh team was 6th in offensive DVOA. Granted, that team had Antonio Brown, but it did not have Le’Veon Bell.

The reason I shy away from Roethlisberger for this award is that the +400 line, which is tied for most likely odds to win with Gronk. Big Ben’s injury history scares me here; he can’t win this award if he gets hurt again, and that risk does not seem to be baked into the price.

Matthew Stafford is different at +1000. That is a line worth betting, but the main reason I lean towards Stafford is actually because of what he accomplished last season. On pace last year for 5000 yards and 38 touchdowns, if he manages even 75% of that output in 2020, he’ll be one of the top producers in the league. The Lions sit 29th in terms of strength of schedule (by projected win totals), so improving by 4 wins over their 3-12-1 record last year shouldn’t be too difficult. Reaching 9 wins with Matt Patricia in charge might be the bigger challenge.

Best Bet: Matthew Stafford (+1000)

When it comes to a longshot, that’s where I’m looking at the unique situations. Alex Smith and Trent Williams stand out as players overcoming tremendously unique circumstances, but I like Myles Garrett for this award in the longshot category. Garrett had 10 sacks in 10 games last year before his suspension, and he is a strong candidate to lead the league in sacks this season.

As you’ll see in Thursday’s article, one of the key trends for Defensive Player of the Year is to be on a team that wins 12 or more games, and I don’t expect the Browns to get there. That means voters may rule out Garrett from their DPOY consideration but, wanting to recognize a tremendous season, could hit him with this award instead.

If Alex Smith doesn’t get on the field as a starter for any point (and not sure why he would, to be quite honest), he likely won’t win the award. Offensive lineman are often overshadowed when it comes to media coverage, so I wouldn’t bet on Trent Williams. Gronk and Newton are not longshots based on their odds (though I can’t fault you for sprinkling some lottery tickets on any of these four guys).

Best Longshot: Myles Garrett (+2500)

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