The NFL has an award for Comeback Player of the Year, usually for a player who returns from an injury.
But the NFL doesn’t have an award for players who simply rebound from a poor performance. Let’s take a look at the best bounce-back candidates for the 2023 season:
▪ Giants TE Darren Waller: He had a tough couple of years in Las Vegas, combining for 1,053 yards in 2021-22 after going over 1,100 yards in 2019 and 2020. But Waller has been thriving in Giants training camp, connecting with Daniel Jones for touchdowns seemingly every practice. Waller also has taken on a leadership role, chewing out the offense after a recent subpar practice, and impressing the coaching staff by racing downfield for a block. The 6-foot-6-inch Waller is going to be a huge weapon for Jones in the red zone and could be in line for a career renaissance at 31.
▪ 49ers WR Deebo Samuel: He was the best multidimensional weapon in the NFL in 2021, going for 1,405 yards through the air (at 18.2 yards per catch), adding 365 yards on the ground, and scoring 14 total touchdowns. Last year, those numbers dropped precipitously — 632 receiving yards (at 11.3 per catch), 232 rushing yards, and 5 total touchdowns. Samuel has talked all camp about how disappointed he was in himself last year, and sent shirtless pictures to coach Kyle Shanahan all offseason to show how dedicated he was to training. Samuel may not find it easy to replicate his 2021 numbers, but he looks focused and angry.
▪ Buccaneers QB Baker Mayfield: This opportunity with the Buccaneers is probably Mayfield’s last shot to be a starter after being dumped by the Browns and Panthers last year. It’s not the worst spot for him. No one is expecting much from the Buccaneers in their first post-Tom Brady season, but Mayfield has two talented receivers in Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, and the Buccaneers still have a disruptive defense led by Devin White, Vita Vea, Shaq Barrett, and Carlton Davis. If Mayfield can limit his interceptions, he could make a little noise.
▪ Cowboys WR Brandin Cooks: The man who has gone for 1,000 yards for four teams had just 699 yards and three touchdowns last year for the woeful Texans. But now Cooks, who turns 30 in September, has a real quarterback in Dak Prescott, and should see a lot of single coverage with CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup lining up next to him.
▪ Patriots QB Mac Jones: His numbers dropped across the board last year as he struggled to adapt to Matt Patricia’s offense. But now Jones has an experienced coordinator in Bill O’Brien, and a better slot receiver in JuJu Smith-Schuster. The Patriots’ offensive line is a question, but the pieces are lined up for Jones to perform closer to his promising 2021 campaign than his disappointing 2022 one.
▪ Raiders WR Hunter Renfrow: After being selected to the Pro Bowl in 2021, Renfrow caught just 36 passes for 330 yards and two touchdowns in 10 games last year as he dealt with a concussion and other injuries. Like Samuel, Renfrow has spoken all training camp about how disappointed he was in himself and how hard he is working this year. With teammates Davante Adams and Jakobi Meyers expected to draw a lot of attention, Renfrow has a chance to reestablish himself as one of the game’s best slot receivers.
▪ Browns QB Deshaun Watson: He sat out all of 2021 and was terrible last year in his six-game stretch. But Watson has had a full offseason to work with his teammates and master the Browns’ offense. Coach Kevin Stefanski also runs a QB-friendly system that helped Kirk Cousins put up big numbers in Minnesota, and helped Mayfield improve his completion percentage and passer rating significantly in Stefanski’s first season (2020). Watson was a superstar before his legal issues and has the opportunity to become one again.
▪ Cowboys CB Stephon Gilmore: He didn’t have a bad 2022 season for the Colts, securing two interceptions and 11 pass breakups in 16 games. But Gilmore didn’t make the Pro Bowl and was a bit of a forgotten man thanks to playing for an irrelevant team. Now Gilmore is a Cowboy, and though he’ll be 33 in September, he should still be an excellent lockdown corner opposite Trevon Diggs.
▪ Titans WR DeAndre Hopkins: He hasn’t cracked 750 yards in the past two seasons, but mostly because he missed 15 games to injury and suspension. Hopkins still went for 79.7 yards per game last year, in line with his career averages. An 11-year veteran but only 31 years old, Hopkins is the clear No. 1 receiver for the Titans, whose play-action-heavy offense creates a lot of big plays, as Ryan Tannehill ranks fourth in the NFL in yards per attempt (7.91) over the last four seasons. Tannehill-to-Hopkins could be a nice connection in 2023.
▪ Raiders DE Chandler Jones: He signed a three-year, $51 million contract last year, then played like one of the biggest busts in the NFL, securing just 4.5 sacks in 15 games. But Jones is more comfortable in Patrick Graham’s defense and should see plenty of one-on-one matchups working opposite Maxx Crosby.
▪ Broncos QB Russell Wilson: In just one year he has gone from the talk of the NFL to an afterthought this training camp. With declining numbers for two straight years, Wilson’s career is perhaps on the line as he seeks to prove that at 34 he still has plenty of good football left. Working in his favor is the fact he has a proven offensive coach in Sean Payton, who once took a struggling youngster in Drew Brees and turned him into one of the most prolific passers in NFL history.
make some noise
A few leftover thoughts from attending the Buccaneers-Jets joint practice Wednesday in New Jersey, at which Bill Cowher, Mark Sanchez, and Eric Decker were in attendance:
▪ The Buccaneers are having a quiet camp now that Tom Brady is gone, and Todd Bowles’s team seems to be in a good spot entering the season with low expectations. The offense is obviously a major question mark, between Baker Mayfield’s inconsistent play, a first-year offensive coordinator in Dave Canales, and an injury for center Ryan Jensen. But they still have an aggressive defense that wreaked havoc on Aaron Rodgers and the Jets’ offensive line on Wednesday. The Buccaneers may not have Brady, but they aren’t totally rebuilding, either, and won’t be a fun opponent.
▪ Wednesday’s practice was a mess, with at least seven fights breaking out and the HBO “Hard Knocks” cameras there to document every punch and shove. “That was the most fights I’ve ever seen,” 10-year Buccaneers receiver Mike Evans said.
One fight took out Jets cornerbacks coach Tony Oden, who was down for several moments and then carted off and taken to a hospital for precaution. “I think he caught some friendly fire,” Jets coach Robert Saleh said.
Fights were seemingly more prevalent than ever at joint practices across the NFL this training camp. But teams still find the practices to be mostly productive. As Bill Belichick pointed out Friday in Green Bay, the Patriots and Packers may have fought a number of times over two days, but they also practiced about 150 snaps of offense and defense and another 50 snaps of special teams.
▪ From the moment he came to New York, Rodgers hasn’t stopped raving about second-year receiver Garrett Wilson, the 2022 Offensive Rookie of the Year. Rodgers openly compares Wilson to his former teammate Davante Adams, both of whom wear No. 17. Wilson returned to practice against the Buccaneers after missing the previous joint practices with the Panthers, and Rodgers couldn’t stop praising him.
“Seventeen being out there just changes the dynamics of the whole thing because he’s so special,” Rodgers said. “He’s so eager to learn and he’s so talented with the football. I told him I used to have a rule with Davante where I’d give Davante a little extra tick, because I know if I did that, he’s going to get open, because he is really difficult to cover. I have to give that to Garrett, too, because sometimes you give him just a little extra tick, where you’re sitting on him, he’s going to be really open.”
▪ New Jets running back Dalvin Cook watched Wednesday’s practice in street clothes and did some agility drills on Thursday, but won’t join the team until this coming week, as he is going home this weekend for the birth of his child.
work in progress
The NFL has been tinkering with kickoff rules for the last several years, as the kickoff has double the rate of concussions as a regular play from scrimmage.
The kicking team can no longer take a running start. Players have to be evenly spaced across the line. The touchback was moved from the 20-yard line to the 25. And this year, a kickoff can be fair caught in the field of play and placed on the 25.
Coaches and players are especially opposed to the fair catch rule. There was just one squib kick and no fair catches on kickoffs in the first week of the preseason, an NFL spokesman said. Even NFL vice president of communications Jeff Miller acknowledged this past week, “I don’t think anyone’s satisfied with where we are on the kickoff play.”
“We want a play where there’s more kicks returned, yet we want to limit some of the risks associated with it,” Miller added. “Is it possible to do both of those things? I think the answer is yes, but we need some creative solutions as to how.”
One solution that Miller said the league is studying is the XFL’s answer. While the ball is still kicked from the 35, the 10 other players on the kicking team line up on the opposing side of the field, just 5 yards from players on the receiving team. This eliminates full-speed collisions that are common on kickoffs, but allows for the excitement of kickoff returns.
Rich McKay, the chairman of the NFL’s competition committee, said in May that he initially hated the aesthetic look of the XFL’s kickoff, but it’s worth considering if it can keep the kickoff in the game.
“My first watch of it as a pure fan was, ‘Wow, I’m not all jacked up about this,’” McKay said. “I would say I’ve watched a lot of it now and I see the benefits, because you are clearly creating much more of an offense/defense play. By eliminating some of that space and speed, you’re definitely making it safer. There’s some cool alternatives coming down the path here. You’ve got to understand the injury implications before you do it, and we have a history as a league where if we’re not quite sure or ready to do it, we can do it in the preseason.”
A new beginning
One player certainly hoping for a bounce-back year is Chargers cornerback J.C. Jackson. He signed a five-year, $82.5 million deal last March, but little went right in his first season in Los Angeles. Jackson, who had 17 interceptions in 2020-21 for the Patriots, had none in five games with the Chargers and said he struggled adapting to a new defense.
Jackson missed two early-season games after having offseason ankle surgery, was benched in October after surrendering several big catches, then suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 7.
Although Jackson is still limited by his knee injury and isn’t a lock to play in Week 1, he feels better this year.
“Last year was my first year. I was still trying to understand the defense, still trying to understand my teammates, the coaches,” Jackson said this past week. “This year, I feel like I’m at home, and I’m playing way faster — you can tell that I’m on it. The coach says the call, I’m already on it. I get it this year.”
I’m starting to feel bad for Trey Lance, the third-year quarterback who is once again struggling in 49ers camp. Every misfire, poor read, and failed drive this preseason is being dissected and magnified because of the massive price the 49ers paid to get him (three first-round picks). Lance came into the NFL as a raw prospect who didn’t play much college football, and injuries have derailed his development, to the point that he’s now running third behind Brock Purdy and Sam Darnold, and may even be fourth behind Brandon Allen. Lance still has two years and $6.2 million fully guaranteed on his deal, so the 49ers probably wouldn’t get much in a trade. But it seems increasingly clear that the situation is too pressurized, and he and the 49ers need a divorce. Lance is only 23, and still has the raw athleticism that had scouts optimistic in 2021. The Vikings make sense — GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah came from the 49ers front office, and they only have Nick Mullens and rookie Jaren Hall behind Kirk Cousins . . . One of the best stories of training camp is Chargers rookie defensive end C.J. Okoye, a Nigerian native who was discovered last year as part of the NFL’s international pathway program. Okoye got a sack on the final play of the Chargers’ preseason win over the Rams, Okoye’s first football game. “Sometimes it hits me, ‘You’re in the states with the Chargers in the NFL. You need to make the most out of it,’ ” Okoye said. “I’m shocked every day, but I still need to go out and do my thing.” . . . Eagles center Jason Kelce, a five-time All-Pro and half of an entertaining podcast duo with his brother, Travis, has a documentary tracking his 2022 season appropriately entitled, “Kelce,” to be released Sept. 12 on Prime Video. The project began two years ago and was supposed to be about an NFL player’s final season and transition into retirement, but Jason Kelce keeps coming back for more. “You kind of get a good glimpse of what it’s like to be in the NFL from a lot of different perspectives,” he said . . . Remember that the Jets have full veto power, and nothing gets on “Hard Knocks” by accident. Last week’s episode showed a clip of coach Robert Saleh chewing out the offensive line, which came days after Saleh took heat in the local media for not being critical enough of his team. And the episode also heaped praise on rookie defensive end Will McDonald, whom the Jets took No. 15 overall. Jets GM Joe Douglas has been criticized this offseason for trading down from No. 13 to 15 and missing out on offensive tackle Broderick Jones, who went to the Steelers at No. 14 after they traded up with the Patriots. The criticism may be valid, as the Jets’ offensive tackle situation has been a mess in training camp.
Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.