The Comeback Player of the Year award is always a fun one to watch. Players who are coming off of down seasons for whatever reason – usually missed time due to injuries – come back with a vengeance and light up the league. 2020 was a wacky year with the COVID-19 pandemic and a number of elite players suffered major injuries, so there are a number of candidates for the Comeback Player of the Year award this season. The best value on this future bet can often come prior to the start of the season, so let’s take a look at some of the players who have the best shot for a terrific comeback year.
2020 CPOY Recap
Alex Smith won the NFL 2020 Comeback Player of the Year award following a Hollywood-esque return to the gridiron. Smith’s devastating leg injury in 2018 led to necrotizing fasciitis which threatened his life, and of course his ability to ever play football again. However, Smith made a triumphant return for the ages as he started 6 games and appeared in 8 for Washington. If Smith had even been made active for a single game last year, he would have been a top candidate for this award, but his ability to play meaningful games as a starter made him a lock to earn this honor. Smith received 49 of 50 votes for the award with Ben Roethlisberger receiving the 50th.
CPOY Historical Analysis
The NFL Comeback Player of the Year award has an interesting past. From 1963-1966, the Associated Press awarded a Comeback Player of the Year to one player each from the NFL and AFL. The award was then dissipated before being reinstated in 1998. On one occasion, the award was split between linebacker Tedy Bruschi and wide receiver Steve Smith. Since 1998, a quarterback has won the award 13 of the 24 times (54.1%). That includes the past three years when Andrew Luck, Ryan Tannehill, and Alex Smith have won. A wide receiver has won 3 of the 24 times (12.5%), a defensive lineman has won 3 times, and a safety, tight end, running back, and linebacker have each won once. Since 2008, an offensive player has won 12 of 13 times (92.3%).
How to Approach 2021 CPOY Betting
In past years, we have seen players like Alex Smith come back from devastating injuries that have dominated national media storylines. Eric Berry was a Hodgkin Lymphoma survivor who was able to return to the NFL field. It may seem obvious, but the best media narrative is likely the one that will drive a player to win CPOY. However, this season doesn’t have one standout player with a, particularly inspiring storyline. Dak Prescott, Saquon Barkley, Christian McCaffrey, Joe Burrow, and Nick Bosa, among others, are all coming back from significant injuries, none of which are unique enough to warrant constant headlines like Alex Smith’s was.
With the quarterback position winning 54.1% of the last 24 Comeback Player of the Year awards, I have a lot of interest in the quarterbacks at the top of the odds list. Dak Prescott and Joe Burrow are the two standouts who missed significant time last year, but Carson Wentz and Sam Darnold could be in the running for this award if they elevate their play with their new teams. Saquon Barkley and Christian McCaffrey are the standout running backs, but Barkley is still working his way back from injury and is questionable for Week 1. CMC is a fine bet but at +600 I’d rather go with a quarterback. A few defensive players stand out this year as potential CPOY winners including Nick Bosa, Von Miller, Derwin James, and Devin Bush, but there’s an inherent risk with betting on a defensive player given how much rarer it is for them to win this award.
Dak Prescott ()
The clear favorite to win the award this season, Dak Prescott was on pace for just under 6,000 passing yards and 29 touchdowns to 13 interceptions through the first five games last year prior to his season-ending ankle injury. Prescott was one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL before the injury and the Cowboys gave him a massive 4-year, $160 million contract over the offseason so they clearly believe he’ll return to that elite level of play. Prescott is reportedly dealing with a minor shoulder issue in training camp, but if that depresses his odds a bit I’d jump at the chance to get value on him to win CPOY. A potential league MVP candidate, Prescott has the benefit of being featured on Hard Knocks and getting his comeback story televised prior to the start of the season. The pieces are all in place for an inspiring Comeback Player of the Year award win for Prescott.
Joe Burrow ()
The LSU product was the number one overall pick in the draft last year and he threw for 2,688 yards and 13 touchdowns to 5 interceptions prior to a freak knee injury that cut his season short after 10 games. Burrow isn’t very accustomed to playing against top-level NFL talent as he was just a rookie last season and he’s already dealing with some mental issues in camp which is always a concern for a young player coming back from a major injury. The Bengals will hope a healthy Jonah Williams and a veteran Riley Reiff can make their offensive line passable, but there are still concerns about this team’s ability to keep the pressure off of Burrow. The Bengals are also likely going to be among the league’s worst teams, so the factors don’t play into Burrow winning the CPOY award.
Carson Wentz ()
Most of the players on this list are coming back from a major injury. Carson Wentz was healthy last year, but he’s coming off some absolutely atrocious play. He completed just 57.4% of his passes and threw for 16 touchdowns to 15 interceptions before the Eagles finally pulled the plug after 12 games. Wentz now joins his former offensive coordinator Frank Reich in Indianapolis – Reich coaxed near-league MVP play out of Wentz previously in 2017 when the young quarterback threw for 33 touchdowns to 7 interceptions in 13 games. Wentz is already dealing with a foot surgery that could hamper his play this season, and while there’s a chance he could be ready for Week 1, I’m not going to be betting on him until his injury status is further cleared up.
Sam Darnold ()
Like Wentz, Sam Darnold is a quarterback who should benefit greatly. Like Wentz, it got ugly for Darnold last season. He completed just 59.6% of his passes for 2,208 yards and 9 touchdowns to 11 interceptions in 12 games. However, he now gets the benefit of working with Matt Rhule and Joe Brady instead of Adam Gase. The former #3 overall pick still has the pedigree of a great quarterback and is still just 24 years old. If he can counteract some of the bad habits he picked up in New York, the upside is there for a big season. He also gets the benefit of working with some great offensive talent in Christian McCaffrey, D.J. Moore, and Robby Anderson. In this case for Darnold, the grass is greener on the other side as we’ve seen some offensive players vastly improve their games after leaving Gase (including a former CPOY winner in Ryan Tannehill).
Odell Beckham Jr. (+2500)
NFL media seems to have straight up given up on the idea of Odell Beckham Jr. being an elite wide receiver, which is very odd to me. Skip Bayless even said on a show late last season that he would rather have Scotty Miller on his team than OBJ – not kidding. It wasn’t pretty for OBJ last season as he caught just 23 balls for 319 yards and 3 touchdowns through 7 games prior to his season-ending injury, but this is a guy who has registered over 1,000 receiving yards in every full season he’s ever played. He also started his career with 1,300+ yards and 10+ touchdowns in three straight seasons. OBJ is still an elite talent at the wide receiver position and the complete 180 degree pivot in the national media could be a sight to behold this season if he can recover his early-career elite play in the second year of Kevin Stefanski’s offense in Cleveland.
C.J. Mosley (+10000)
It feels like ages ago, but C.J. Mosley was once considered to be one of the best inside linebackers in the NFL as he was a Pro Bowler in four of five seasons with the Ravens. Since signing with the Jets in 2019, things have not gone swimmingly for Mosley. He suffered a groin injury early in the season opener in 2019 and returned for one more game later in the year before getting surgery in December. With no timetable to return, things were looking iffy last offseason before the linebacker opted out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19 concerns. So, since signing a 5-year, $85 million deal in New York, Mosley has played two games in two seasons. However, I have high hopes for him this year as he enters what is essentially a contract year – it’s very likely the Jets could release him next year or at least force him to take a pay cut. Mosley should shine in Robert Saleh’s defense that helped morph Fred Warner into one of the best linebackers in football, and he’s worth a shot at such long odds to win the CPOY.