The top NFL players returning from injury in 2021

Several Pro Bowl-caliber players or quality starters missed all or most of the 2020 season due to injury. Here are the top players who did not factor prominently into last season but are expected to make a significant impact in 2021. 


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At his best, Barkley looks like one of the most talented players to carry the ball in NFL history. But since his historic rookie season, that version has shown up infrequently. Its only relevant appearance in the past two seasons came in a late-2019 stretch that won certain fantasy GMs championships but cost the Giants Chase Young. Barkley enters his fourth season coming off multiple knee ligament tears, and a meniscus tear, and is likely to be eased back into action. The Giants have him on a cheap fifth-year option ($7.2 million) in 2022, but the 24-year-old back needs this comeback to secure a monster extension. 


Anthony Barr

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Barr went down in Week 3, stripping the long-reliable Vikings defense of a veteran starter. Defender unavailability largely defined Minnesota’s season — a fourth straight even-year playoff no-show — but the Vikes have effectively reloaded for 2021. This includes Barr, who is returning from a torn pectoral muscle to begin his eighth season as an outside linebacker in Mike Zimmer‘s defense. Minnesota’s longest-tenured starter agreed to a pay cut that puts him on track for free agency in 2022. This season will play a big role in determining if a notable contract awaits the 29-year-old ‘backer next year.


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Odell Beckham Jr.

Odell Beckham Jr.

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It feels like this year may be Beckham’s last chance to return to the career track he established in New York. Injuries have derailed him since his last Pro Bowl — back in 2016 when he carried a flawed Giants offense to the playoffs — and he suffered his worst setback in 2020. OBJ, however, is nearly through with ACL rehab and is now acclimated in Kevin Stefanski‘s offense. If Beckham cannot make it work in Cleveland this year, the Browns will jettison him in 2022. While that could be for the best, Beckham suddenly has a key role to play on the best Browns roster in nearly 35 years.


Nick Bosa

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There was no salvaging San Francisco’s 2020 season, with Bosa’s Week 2 ACL tear one of many immovable obstacles. The top piece on a still-talented 49ers defense will certainly be critical in re-establishing the team as a Super Bowl contender — in a conference that suddenly looks thinner on those. The 49ers ranked 23rd in defensive DVOA in 2018. Bosa’s 2019 arrival made the biggest difference in the NFC champion 49er iteration ranking second in the metric. A healthy or healthy-ish season will place the Ohio State product on track for an extension that would top his brother’s among defenders.


Brandon Brooks

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Brooks last played on a team with Super Bowl aspirations, suiting up for the Eagles’ wild-card playoff game two seasons ago. A lot has happened in the time since. The large guard missed a full season because of a second Achilles tear. The three-time Pro Bowler will return to a rebuilding team. The post-Doug Pederson/Carson Wentz Eagles have three thirtysomething O-linemen locked into top-market contracts, yet the rebooted squad may not be ready to contend for a while. Brooks, 32, could become a trade candidate as soon as this year’s deadline.


Devin Bush

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Bush went down with an ACL tear in Week 5. While the Steelers still moseyed to 11-0, they certainly missed him as their Super Bowl hopes began to fade. Bush returns to a team essentially forced to go younger due to the pandemic-reduced salary cap. This season will help determine the third-year defender’s long-term value in Pittsburgh. The inside linebacker profiles as the long-term solution Ryan Shazier‘s injury prevented him from becoming. He will be vital to a Steelers team that will depend on its defense to stop their Ben Roethlisberger-opened Super Bowl window from slamming shut.


La'el Collins

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Collins put together his best season in 2019, becoming one of the NFL’s best at the oft-overlooked right tackle position. A hip injury sidelined Collins for all of Dallas’ miserable 2020 season, but the Cowboys will count on their once-dominant O-line to reform this year. The team used a fourth-round pick on a tackle and signed journeyman Ty Nsekhe, but the Collins-Tyron Smith duo remains in place. Collins has, however, had zero- and three-game seasons (2020 and 2016) in his career. Fortunately for the ex-undrafted talent, his long-term contract is not especially easy to shed in 2022.


Grant Delpit and Greedy Williams

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The Browns loaded up on defense this offseason, which makes sense after a 25th-place DVOA finish. They added three DBs — ex-Rams Troy Hill and John Johnson and first-rounder Greg Newsome — to what was an unstable secondary. Cleveland could suddenly be deep here. Both Williams and Delpit — LSU teammates who went in the 2019 and ’20 second rounds, respectively — are nearly back to full strength after missing all of last year. Williams, who encountered shoulder nerve damage, started 12 games in 2019. Delpit (Achilles) won the Thorpe Award during LSU’s unbeaten 2019 slate. 


Trey Flowers

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A forearm fracture sidelined Flowers for most of last season. The Lions have changed considerably since their highly paid edge defender last suited up. Matt Patricia, who helped bring Flowers over from the Patriots, is gone. So are several veterans from a 2020 Detroit squad that was far more interested in competing than the ’21 edition will be. Flowers’ guarantee-heavy deal becomes easier to move in 2022, but for now, the defensive end-turned-linebacker enters his age-27 as a veteran on a rebuilding team. 


Jimmy Garoppolo

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Drew Brees retired, and Aaron Rodgers is adamant about leaving Green Bay. Two NFC powers may be crumbling/regrouping, leaving the Buccaneers a smoother path to another Super Bowl. The 49ers are one of the teams equipped, at their best, to interfere with that plan. This makes Garoppolo’s 2021 one of the most important bridge-QB seasons in memory. As Trey Lance goes from one Division I-FCS season to the NFL, Garoppolo may be needed to keep the 49ers afloat this season. A big responsibility for a player who has missed 23 games over the past three seasons, but Jimmy G is likely auditioning for a 2022 starting gig elsewhere too.


Kenny Golladay

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Hamstring and hip injuries capped Golladay’s Detroit finale at five games. After avoiding a setback ahead of free agency, Golladay cashed in on an $18 million-per-year deal from a Giants team coming off a 31st-ranked offensive finish. The Giants boast a slew of playmakers, but Golladay will play the lead role in helping Daniel Jones justify the team’s investment. The 27-year-old target posted two 1,000-yard seasons as a Lion, snaring their WR1 role from Marvin Jones and now-ex-Giant Golden Tate, and his contested-catch prowess may be relied upon with Jones throwing him passes.


O.J. Howard

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Comically deep at the skill positions, the Buccaneers will welcome back another starter-caliber player into the fold. Howard played four games last season, before an Achilles injury stalled him, and has not proved a fit in Bruce Arians‘ offense. Formerly a rising talent in Dirk Koetter’s scheme, Howard enters a contract year as a prospect yet to fulfill his promise. While 2022 free agency riches may await, the former first-rounder is part of a historically good tight end stable — with Rob Gronkowski and Cam Brate. It will be interesting how Tampa Bay divvies up work for Howard, given its pass-catcher surplus.


Danielle Hunter

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By the end of last season, only three defensive starters from Minnesota’s 2019 playoff outfit were in uniform. Hunter’s neck injury, which shelved him for the season, represented the biggest blow to a decimated unit. Thanks to some bonus money coming his way via June restructure, Hunter is prepared to reprise his role as the Vikings’ top sack artist. No one has reached 50 career sacks quicker than Hunter, who will now team with an imposing Michael Pierce-Dalvin Tomlinson-Sheldon Richardson defensive tackle trio. Hunter now has a high-stakes prove-it year, with a 2022 roster bonus determining his Minnesota future.


Matt Ioannidis

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Ioannidis shined on a 2019 Washington defense that largely operated in obscurity. But the veteran interior D-lineman suffered a torn bicep in Week 3 of last year, missing out on a role with a suddenly relevant Washington team. The defending NFC East champs have a D-tackle armada, with Ioaniddis rejoining Jonathan Allen, Daron Payne, and emerging backup Tim Settle. It will be interesting to see how Washington integrates Ioaniddis, who was a three-year starter prior to Ron Rivera‘s arrival. He of 16 sacks from 2018-19, Ioaniddis adds to the NFL’s premier defensive front.


Derwin James

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The Chargers continue to wait for the rookie-year version of James to resurface. The wait is going on for two years. James is back after missing a full season with a knee injury, a development that followed his missing 11 games in 2019 with a foot fracture. The Bolts have the look of a playoff sleeper. Though they have disappointed under similar circumstances, having James at or close to his 2018 form will make a big impact in the AFC wild-card race. James is the only safety to earn first-team All-Pro acclaim as a rookie in the past 55 years.


Chandler Jones

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Jones posted 50 sacks from 2017 through his Week 5 biceps tear last season and is set to have by far the best complementary rushers of his career, with J.J. Watt signed on to join Jones and Markus Golden. Going into his sixth Cardinals season, Jones has seen the pass-rusher market change dramatically. The 31-year-old sack master is the 13th-highest-paid edge rusher. To realize this vision of pairing Watt and Jones, the Cards probably need to take care of their longtime stalwart. It would represent poor management during Kyler Murray‘s rookie-contract window to sign Watt only to part ways with Jones.


Marlon Mack

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Expected to spearhead Indianapolis’ backfield last year, Mack went down with an Achilles tear in Week 1. Surprisingly, the Colts re-signed him and will try to run it back — with an obvious catch. Jonathan Taylor will lead this year’s Colts committee, which also includes passing-down threat, Nyheim Hines. Mack, though, rushed for 1,091 yards in 14 games two years ago and could help a Colts team light on high-octane aerial weaponry. Carson Wentz’s team figures to lean on the run game; Mack as an RB2 could make Indy more dangerous on the ground this year.


Benardrick McKinney

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A quiet absence, due to the Texans’ hard-to-watch 2020 season, McKinney missed 12 games last year due to a shoulder injury. The Texans subsequently traded him to the Dolphins. One of the league’s better off-ball linebackers, McKinney escaped a sinking Houston ship in his late 20s and will have a chance to take over as a key Dolphins piece. The Dolphins have lacked linebacker consistency for many years. The 77-game Texans starter and former Pro Bowler should help in the team’s quest to push its rebuild to the playoffs. 


Christian McCaffrey

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McCaffrey’s high ankle sprain costing him 13 games, fantasy implications aside, was probably for the best. The scrimmage-yards machine amassed a league-high 403 touches in 2019. Keeping McCaffrey off the field for most of 2020 — at the start of Matt Rhule‘s rebuild, when the playoffs were unrealistic — may help extend the dynamic back’s career. McCaffrey will be set for a second year in Joe Brady’s offense. His skill set should be foreign to Sam Darnold, whose Jets backs were unproductive. After a 59-carry season, a recharged Run CMC should be ready to reinsert himself into “best back alive” conversations.


Von Miller

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Miller ran into a less common season-ender last summer, tearing an ankle tendon. Although new Broncos GM George Paton went down to the wire, he picked up the franchise sack kingpin’s 2021 option. Miller will play out the six-year, $114.1 million deal he signed as a franchise player five summers ago. The stakes for Miller are simple: return to form as one of the best pass rushers in modern NFL history and sign another monster contract — via Denver extension or in free agency. Vic Fangio has seen Miller and Bradley Chubb play together in just four games in two years. The duo is crucial to his job security and the Broncos’ goals.


Joe Mixon

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The Bengals waited a while before placing Mixon on IR last year, going week to week on their RB1’s foot injury and drawing the ire of millions of fantasy GMs. Mixon landed on IR in late November, however, and ended up missing the final 10 games of last season. Mixon only missed four combined games over his first three seasons. While the Bengals gave the Oklahoma alum a $12 million-per-year deal, only $10M came guaranteed at signing. It would behoove the fifth-year back to stay healthy for all parties, with the Bengals having little — post-Giovani Bernard — behind their starter.


Dak Prescott

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Prescott was averaging 371.2 passing yards per game when his gruesome ankle injury occurred in Week 5. In 2018, Dallas’ last playoff season, he was at 242.8. Even if Dak could not sustain that 2020 pace, he was on track for a statistically dominant season. He should return to an even better offense in 2021, with Tyron Smith and La’el Collins back and CeeDee Lamb now in his second year. The Cowboys ended the Prescott extension saga ahead of the 1,000-day mark — but not by much — and loom as an interesting sleeper in an NFC that could lose Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers in one year.


Tyron Smith

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Smith played throughout Weeks 1 and 4, but a neck injury ended up shutting him down for Dallas’ other 14 games. They missed him in a season that went quite poorly. However, the Cowboys probably cannot count on the former Pro Bowl regular to play 17 games this season. From 2016-19, Smith missed 12 games — three in each season. Although that did not affect his Pro Bowl streak, which reached seven years, the 30-year-old left tackle’s absences hurt the Cowboys. Though the eight-year extension the agile blocker signed in 2014 runs through 2023, Smith may need a healthy season to stay in 2022.


Courtland Sutton

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Drew Lock‘s interception total soared last season, causing the Broncos to head to more pro days and trade for Teddy Bridgewater this year. But Lock’s top weapon played just 31 snaps in 2020. Sutton’s ACL tear wounded a Broncos team planning on breaking in Jerry Jeudy and K.J. Hamler as auxiliary targets, and Denver slogged through its fifth straight rough season on offense. The 6-foot-4 wideout showed elite high-point ability in 2019, eclipsing 1,100 yards with a per-usual bad Denver QB situation. The Pro Bowler is now in a contract year, set to play with one of the league’s deepest receiving groups.


Trae Waynes

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While no longer a Viking in 2020, Waynes joined some of his ex-teammates in being a non-factor. The Bengals’ high-priced cornerback signing missed all of last season with a pectoral tear. Entering the second season of a three-year, $42 million deal, the former first-round pick will be expected to work as Cincinnati’s top boundary corner. William Jackson signed with Washington, thrusting Waynes to the CB1 role. The Bengals were again strangely busy (for them) in free agency this year, giving Waynes Chidobe Awuzie and Mike Hilton to team within a make-or-break season for DC Lou Anarumo.

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