Last year was one of the most injury-plagued seasons in the NFL in over a decade.
There was around a 14% increase due to several causes, whether it was wonky scheduling from the 2020 COVID season, lack of on-field preparation before the year, or simply just a rise in the number of teams playing on turf fields now, which have a 28% higher rate for potential non-contact injuries than natural grass.
It wasn’t just that more injuries were happening- it was that they all felt like they were happening to some of the biggest, most impactful players in the game, changing the outlook on teams’ ceilings.
We often look ahead to evaluate the difference-makers on the upcoming seasons based on new additions through the draft and free agency. Still, some of the most impactful additions are the players that were already on the roster and are poised to make a comeback.
These are a few of the most significant comebacks in 2021 as if these teams added an extra free agent.
DE Danielle Hunter, Minnesota Vikings
Danielle Hunter is a First-Team All-Pro player with 14.5 sacks and over 70 tackles in 2018 and 2019. He didn’t play a single snap for the Vikings in 2020 after needing surgery to repair a herniated disc in his neck.
In 2020, Minnesota was 5th-worst in overall team defense, and they allowed 7.65 yards per pass attempt, 30th in the league. Mike Zimmer, their hard-nosed defensive guru head coach, literally said to the media, “Yeah, this is a bad defense. Worst I’ve ever had.”
The Vikings were coming off a playoff appearance in 2019 before the wheels came off on their defense. Not only did they add a ton of veterans from free agency, but Danielle Hunter will be back after a year of recovery at only 26 years old, not even in his prime yet, and has a restructured contract now that will keep him happy. Hunter’s pass pressure on the line creating chaos for other quarterbacks that had so much time to throw the ball 7.65 yards per play last year will make life a lot more difficult for the opposition and be the difference to giving back Zimmer his beloved grinding defense.
S Derwin James, Los Angeles Chargers
James has a lot to prove this year. He hasn’t played a single snap since 2019 after needing two different season-ending surgeries, but the Chargers still exercised his fifth-year option on his contract and put their faith in him because he was a First-Team All-Pro one year he was on the field.
The Chargers are a team that can really maximize their window now if they can put together a roster with depth because they have Justin Herbert, a quarterback that looks like a star on a cheap rookie contract, which is arguably the most valuable asset to team-building. The offense will put up points with Herbert- they ranked 9th in total offense last season even with one of the worst offensive lines, which they addressed in free agency and the draft.
The defense, however, was in the bottom 10 in points allowed per game. If he were to come back and be even close to what he was his rookie year, that would be massive for the Chargers secondary to get a defense that can hold their own against the pass-heavy offenses they’ll be facing (like the Chiefs twice a year..). When healthy, James piles up tackles and makes his “all-over” presence something for the opposition to be mindful of by getting into their heads. He could be the key for LA to rise and become an AFC powerhouse.
OTs Tyron Smith and La’el Collins, Dallas Cowboys
Obviously, Dak Prescott’s back from his broken ankle will be the defining return of the league this year, but last season the Cowboys’ offensive line was made of glass bones and paper skin. Dallas used a total of 15 different offensive line combinations due to injuries. Travis Frederick unexpectedly retired, La’el Collins didn’t play a snap, Tyron Smith played two games, and Zack Martin missed 6 games. It didn’t matter who was under center for Dak, Andy Dalton or Ben DiNucci; they were thrown into the lions’ den to die after running for their lives.
Dak will need protection if he loses some mobility coming off surgery, but the key will be run-blocking for Ezekiel Elliott. Dak is a different quarterback when Zeke gets it going, and they have a more balanced offense with a run game; the Cowboys are 24-4 when he rushes for over 100 yards.
Behind that offensive line that was torn apart last year, he only did it twice. Smith and Collins are considered two of the most talented tackles in the league. The offensive line is the glue holding this offense together.
OT Taylor Lewan, Tennessee Titans
Taylor Lewan is a 3-time Pro Bowl Offensive Tackle who was rewarded with a massive 5-year extension in 2018 for his reliability when blocking for the most ball-dominant running back in the league, Derrick Henry. Lewan suffered a torn ACL in week 6 last year, but that didn’t stop Derrick Henry from winning Offensive Player of the Year and rushing for over 2,000 yards. However, the Titans lost their offensive mastermind, Arthur Smith, who is now the head coach of the Falcons. Smith was responsible for a lot of the game planning that allowed Tennessee to run the methodical ship that netted them first in red-zone efficiency (75.6%) and third in total offense per game.
If their offense takes a step back with Smith’s departure and they need to control the clock even more by handing it to Henry, Lewan’s protection is going to be essential for the Titans to be able to win their division in consecutive seasons for the first time ever.
DE Nick Bosa, San Francisco 49ers
The 2019 Defensive Rookie of the Year tore his ACL in Week 2 of his sophomore campaign last season. Bosa was just one of the major injuries that gave the Niners a year from Hell, where they were the 2nd-most injured team in the last 20 years and also were up-and-moved from their home stadium mid-year with nowhere to go due to COVID restrictions in their county.
The revenge tour didn’t go as planned last year in their 6-10 season, but Bosa coming back healthy and building up one of the scariest pass-rushes in the league next to Dee Ford and Javon Kinlaw is enough to make San Francisco a Super Bowl contender.
The offense is inevitably going to put up points because of Kyle Shanahan’s offensive system- he’s only had one full season with a healthy quarterback, and that year they went to the Super Bowl. The defense with a healthy Bosa was elite in 2019, ranking 9th in the league, and a dominant pass rush is a missing piece for them to go right back in 2021.
WR Odell Beckham Jr., Cleveland Browns
There are already trade rumors swirling around Odell after the Browns passing offense performed BETTER after his season-ending injury in week 7; Baker Mayfield’s passer rating went from 26th in weeks 1-6 to 9th the rest of the year, and their pass yards per play went from 24th to 4th. You don’t typically expect that type of improvement when you lose a superstar wide receiver.
However, the Browns’ improvement in the absence of Odell has caused us to forget how truly special he really is when he’s healthy. Baker Mayfield was in the midst of learning his third offense in three years under a new head coach with a complex playbook when Odell was on the field; it would be very easy to feel challenged with not only learning a new system but also feel the pressure of keeping a star and, let’s face it, diva, #1 wide receiver happy with his amount of targets. It took him time to learn Kevin Stefanski’s offense, and when he got it, boy, did he get it.
Assuming Odell comes back from injury and Cleveland doesn’t, in fact, trade him, Baker will have another weapon in his arsenal, having a year under his belt in that offense.
We might be living in the Twilight Zone, but the Browns could very well have one of the scariest offenses in football in 2021.
Featured Image: AP Photo/Andy Clayton-King