NFL Betting: Comeback Player of the Year Picks
Compared to the NFL's other annual player awards, the AP Comeback Player of the Year tends to be more of an afterthought, but that doesn't mean we mean we need to ignore it from a betting perspective.
Since the 1998 season, the Associated Press has selected 23 winners (co-winners in 2005). If we split up the winners by position, the results are telling:
|Position||Number of Winners||Percentage of Winners|
Like other awards, it isn't surprising to see quarterbacks come out on top, and there was a period from 2008-2013 where quarterbacks won six years in a row. They're clearly the safest position to target.
Wide receiver is the only other offensive position with multiple winners, but two of them have come in the past four seasons. Keenan Allen won in 2017, and Jordy Nelson did so in 2016. Given the pass-heavy nature of today's game, that probably isn't a coincidence.
The number of defensive players who have won may come as a surprise, though it does come with some caveats. Eric Berry is the only defensive player to win the award in the past 12 years, and that was a unique situation, as he was returning from Hodgkin's lymphoma. Similarly, Tedy Bruschi won in 2005 after returning from a mild stroke. It's not the safest position to target, but with five total winners, we shouldn't necessarily write off that side of the ball entirely, either. Of the five, three have been defensive linemen.
Betting on either a tight end or running back is a risky proposition. Rob Gronkowski is the only tight end to ever win -- you know, one of the most dominant tight ends of all time -- and the only running back to ever win was Garrison Hearst... in 2001.
In addition to looking at positions, we must also consider the circumstances the winners bounced back from, including unique situations like Berry's and Bruschi's. After all, a player needs to "come back" from something to be a contender.
Whether due to injury or other circumstances, 17 winners played single-digit NFL games the prior season, and 13 of that group played three or fewer. Winners of the award are much more likely to be coming off a season in which they barely played. Prior to 2019, the previous three winners (Andrew Luck, Keenan Allen, and Jordy Nelson) all came back from serious injuries that held them out for most or all of the previous season.
This past season's winner, Ryan Tannehill, is in some ways more the exception than the rule, as he appeared in 11 games the prior season. However, it's worth noting that his path to the award -- dramatically improving his team and helping them get to the playoffs -- is something we have seen from other past winners. Chad Pennington is the only two-time winner (2006 and 2008), and his second win had more to do with turning a 1-15 Miami Dolphins bottom-feeder into an 11-5 playoff team than his individual stats. It's something to consider but isn't necessarily easy to predict this far out.
With all of this in mind, let's check out the odds on FanDuel Sportsbook, and see which names stand out for the upcoming season. Player projections are courtesy of numberFire's Editor-in-Chief, JJ Zachariason.
Ben Roethlisberger (+250)
Ben Roethlisberger is the favorite to win Comeback Player of the Year, and he checks a lot of the boxes, being both a quarterback and a player coming off a lost season due to injury. Big Ben played in just two games last year, ultimately undergoing season-ending elbow surgery following Week 2.
But in 2018, he started all 16 games and accumulated 5,129 passing yards with 34 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. He performed well by numberFire's advanced metrics, too, producing 0.21 Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) per drop back and a 50.36% Passing Success Rate.
NEP is designed to show how efficient a player is at helping (or hurting) his team score points based around the number of "expected points" he adds or subtracts on a given play. In the case of Passing NEP per drop back, that might mean adding expected points by completing a pass for a first down versus subtracting for an incompletion or sack. Passing Success Rate is the percentage of drop backs where a quarterback added expected points.
For context, not only were Roethlisberger's Passing NEP per drop back and Passing Success Rate well above the league average in 2018 (0.11 and 47.57%), but they ranked 9th and 12th, respectively, among quarterbacks (minimum 100 drop backs). Those numbers aren't an outlier, either, as he produced at least 0.23 Passing NEP per drop back and a 49% Passing Success Rate in each of the four seasons prior.
JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner might be downgrades from the heyday of the Killer B's era with Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell, but Roethlisberger didn't miss a beat without Bell in 2018, the Pittsburgh Steelers' middling 2019 offense likely had more to do with poor quarterback play than anything else. Expectations were high for Smith-Schuster and Conner last offseason, so a healthy Big Ben could be a rising tide that lifts all boats. Adding tight end Eric Ebron to the mix can't hurt as well.
At age 38, durability and natural decline can't be ruled out for Roethlisberger, but a return to form is entirely possible, and it's not like he has to necessarily duplicate his 2018 numbers to have a shot. While a few quarterbacks have put up eye-popping numbers to win the award -- like Luck in 2018 (39 touchdowns), Peyton Manning in 2012 (37), and Matthew Stafford in 2011 (41) -- most haven't needed such gaudy stats to get there.
Roethlisberger's projections puts in him well in the range of prior winners, making him a solid choice as the favorite.
JJ's projection: 4174.9 passing yards, 26.2 passing touchdowns, and 12.7 interceptions
A.J. Green (+600)
A.J. Green's odds have already gone from +750 to +600 since FanDuel Sportsbook released them, and the seven-time Pro Bowler is a wise choice if you want a non-quarterback.
For starters, Green missed all of 2019 and only played in nine games the previous season. That's a solid recipe for a comeback story, and not so different to how Keenan Allen and Jordy Nelson returned from torn ACLs to win their respective awards.
While Green didn't tear his ACL, separate ankle and toe injuries have held him out all this time. There's no guarantee Green is the same player dominant player we've seen in the past, and he'll be 32 years old by the start of the 2020 season.
Still, if he's fully healthy, one can't help but wonder what a Joe Burrow-A.J. Green connection might look like. Green's odds figure to only rise once the Bengals pick Burrow (presumably), and even more so down the line if he has a good training camp.
JJ's projections reflect what a healthy Green might look like, and as a median outcome, it isn't outlandish to imagine a season where Green is able to flirt with the numbers Allen and Nelson put up in their comeback efforts.
JJ's projection: 83.8 receptions, 1083.4 receiving yards, and 5.8 touchdowns
Matthew Stafford (+750)
Quarterbacks are the most likely position to win this award, so if you're looking for more bang for your buck than Roethlisberger, prior winner Matthew Stafford is awfully intriguing at the fifth-best odds.
Stafford didn't succumb to injury as early as Roethlisberger, but he ultimately only played eight games, breaking a streak of 136 straight starts dating back to 2011 -- the year he won Comeback Player of the Year.
And it's easy to see why Stafford won that season. After two injury-marred campaigns to begin his NFL career -- appearing in just three games in 2010 and 10 in his 2009 -- he posted one of the best stat lines among winners of this award, posting 5,038 passing yards, 41 passing touchdowns, and 16 interceptions.
The yardage and touchdowns remain a high-water mark for Stafford, but he was possibly on his way towards matching those marks last season -- his first with offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell. Over eight games, Stafford had already accumulated 2,499 yards and 19 touchdowns with only 5 picks.
The raw stats were also backed up by numberFire's metrics. Before going down, Stafford was boasting 0.30 Passing NEP per play with a 51.78% Passing Success Rate, ranking fourth in both stats among quarterbacks (minimum 100 drop backs). And just so you know how good those numbers are, some guy named Patrick Mahomes produced marks of 0.31 and 51.30% last season.
Not only is the 32-year-old Stafford much younger than Roethlisberger, but he actually projects for more passing yards and similar touchdowns and interceptions. We also shouldn't shy away from Stafford for being a previous winner. Pennington won both his awards in a three-year span, so that's unlikely to factor into voters' minds.
At these odds, Stafford is one of my favorite picks for the award.
JJ's projection: 4,488.0 passing yards, 25.4 touchdowns, and 11.8 interceptions
T.Y. Hilton (+9000)
If you're looking to get crazy with a long shot, T.Y. Hilton is a guy who fits the bill.
Hilton appeared in 10 games last season, so he doesn't quite fit the "barely played" criteria we prefer to see, but he was never the same following a midseason calf injury, leading to a career-worst 501 yards and 45 receptions -- his lowest marks since his rookie season.
Also, JJ's projections actually place Hilton above A.J. Green, making it a bit curious that Hilton's odds are this low. Sure, Green is coming back from missing an entire season and then some, but as noted earlier, it's not like we know for certain that he can still play at a near-elite level. Additionally, it isn't a sure thing that Burrow excels at the NFL level immediately, either.
As for Hilton's quarterback situation, it's hard to say how much of an upgrade new Indianapolis Colts quarterback Philip Rivers will be over Jacoby Brissett. However, despite Rivers' disappointing 2019 effort, he remained above the league average in numberFire's efficiency metrics, giving some hope for a bounce-back campaign.
Hilton also remains the clear top dog in this offense, too, so volume shouldn't be any issue. It wouldn't be shocking to see Hilton outperform Green this season, and while that might not be enough to earn him the award, it could be worth the gamble in this range.
JJ's projection: 88.0 receptions, 1093.2 receiving yards, and 7.2 touchdowns
Others to Consider:
- J.J. Watt (+500): I wish we were getting better value here for a defensive player, but you could do worse than back a three-time Defensive Player of the Year. J.J. Watt is tied for the sixth-best odds for AP Defensive Player of the Year (+1800) and is one year removed from a 16-sack season (second-most in 2018). Injuries have plagued Watt in recent years, leading him to playing eight or fewer games in three of the last four campaigns.
- Nick Foles (+600): I'm not in love with Nick Foles at his odds, which are tied with A.J. Green for the third-best. We've seen flashes of brilliance over Foles' career, but he's never sustained it over a full season, and he still needs to compete with Mitchell Trubisky for the Chicago Bears starting job. Could a Tannehill-esque scenario play out? It wouldn't be the first time Foles has gone from backup-to-starter and thrived. If you're compelled to go here, perhaps see if the odds drop first.
- Cam Newton (+750): We don't know where Cam Newton is going to play in 2020, though he's expected to be released on Tuesday. You're probably better off waiting until there's more clarity, but as of this writing, the Dolphins are the favorites to land Newton on FanDuel Sportsbook, which isn't exactly an exciting destination. On the other hand, it's hard to not be at least a little intrigued if he wound up with Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots or headed west to the Los Angeles Chargers. Keep tabs on the rumor mill. He only played in two games last season, fitting the criteria we see in most winners.
- Antonio Brown (+6000): The controversial, outspoken, and sometimes downright bizarre wide receiver is a long shot for obvious reasons, seeing as there's no guarantee we ever see him play another NFL down. Furthermore, even if Antonio Brown does return and excel in 2020, all the baggage that came to light last season may make voters reluctant to hand him an award. Still, the talent isn't in question, so if he's eventually cleared to play and teams show any real interest, it might be worth rolling the dice.