Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Award Predictions: Comeback Player of Year

This week, Buccaneers.com contributors Scott Smith, Joe Kania and Andrew Norton look ahead to the 2016 season and predict who might win the major awards around the NFL and in Tampa.

Take a look at the best photos from the Buccaneers' 2016 offseason.

Last year, Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton won the NFL's MVP award after leading his team to a 15-1 regular-season record and accounting for 45 passing and rushing touchdowns combined. Given his four previous seasons in Carolina, all of them quite productive, Newton would have been a reasonable prediction for that MVP award last summer, though very few analysts made that pick.

In fact, NFL.com invited 13 of its contributors to predict the league MVP award just before the start of the 2015 season, and none of them tabbed Newton. Twelve more analysts at SI.com tried the same thing, none going with Newton. CBSSports.com? Zero-for-eight. ESPN.com polled a whopping 48 of its experts; did any of them predict a Newton MVP run? Nope. The overwhelming favorites across the board on all sources was Indy's Andrew Luck, followed by Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers. Luck and Rodgers were fine and obvious choices, though each ended up having, arguably, their worst seasons as starters.

In other words, this ain't as easy as it seems. But that's not going to stop us. Last week, Joe Kania, Andrew Norton and I got together to make some bold predictions regarding what the Buccaneers might accomplish in 2016. We pushed the limit a bit and thus don't necessarily expect to hit on all of those prognostications. This is different. This week, each of us is going to make our predictions for five major NFL player awards in 2016, and we're going to do our best to get it right, even if we're upping the difficulty level another notch by doing it two months before the season begins.

Now, we'd love nothing better than to tab Tampa Bay players for each of these awards, but we also don't want to be hopeless homers. We all expect Jameis Winston to take another big step forward this year (right, guys?) but predicting him to win league MVP honors would probably be a bit too aggressive. Therefore, each of us is going to make two predictions regarding these five awards: Who will win it league-wide, and who would be the choice for the Buccaneers only.

A couple notes. This isn't a draft, so we are allowed to duplicate choices (though hopefully that won't happen often). Also, we're going to combine the Offensive and Defensive Rookie awards and just give out one overall rookie trophy.

Here's our schedule for the week:

  • Monday: Comeback Player of the Year
  • Tuesday: Rookie of the Year
  • Wednesday: Offensive Player of the Year
  • Thursday: Defensive Player of the Year
  • Friday: Most Valuable Player

So, let's get started. I'll choose first to get the ball rolling as we contemplate this year's top Comeback Player options.

Comeback Player of the Year

Scott Smith's NFL Prediction: Indianapolis QB Andrew Luck
Scott Smith's Buccaneers Prediction: T Demar Dotson

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Did I mention Andrew Luck and that worst-season-yet thing? Well, after leading the Colts to consecutive 11-5 finishes in his first three seasons and averaging 4,319 passing yards and 29 touchdown passes in that span, Luck saw it all come crashing down last year. Injuries were the main problem, as he played in just seven games, but he recently admitted that he didn't play particularly well in 2016 even when healthy. Indeed, the Colts were just 2-5 in the games he started, and his passer rating dipped to 74.9 thanks to a noticeable drop in his completion percentage and a rise in his interception rate.

Some of this, of course, can be pinned on the team-builders in Indy, who have not to this point succeeded in putting a particularly strong offensive line in front of Luck. The former number-one overall draft pick is very tough and he plays with abandon, but a quarterback can only take so much punishment before it starts to affect his production, and of course his availability. So it's worth noting that the Colts used their first, third and fifth and seventh-round picks on offensive linemen this year. They also hired Joe Philbin, who has a strong track record coaching offensive linemen, to oversee that unit. Attention has been paid.

Give Luck time to throw and a better rushing game as a complement and I have little doubt that the superstar-caliber passer we saw from 2012-14 will re-emerge. He was the hot MVP pick a year ago; I think he will be again next summer after a Comeback Player of the Year effort in 2016.

As for the Buccaneers, the O-Line remains the theme. From March of 2014 through training camp in 2015, the Bucs overhauled every spot on their offensive line except for right tackle, where Demar Dotson had quietly developed into one of the league's better players at that position. Unfortunately, Dotson suffered a knee injury in the 2015 preseason opener, was placed on short-term injured reserve and mostly had a lost season. He didn't immediately reclaim his starting job from Gosder Cherilus, who had helped the Bucs play surprisingly well up front. However, Dotson started the last two games of the season even with a healthy Cherilus and in March was named the starter for 2016 by new Head Coach Dirk Koetter. As the Bucs' offensive line continues to build on the promise it showed last fall, I think Dotson returns to his previous level of play and makes that group even strong.

Joe Kania's NFL Prediction: New York WR Victor Cruz
Joe Kania's Buccaneers Prediction: WR Vincent Jackson

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Both of my selections are at the wide receiver position and both of my picks missed time in 2015 with injuries. But I believe both will return to form in 2016 and pick up where they left off as some of the league's best.

For my league-wide Comeback Player of the Year I have Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz penciled in. If he were to complete the comeback he began nearly two years ago, it would be one of the most impressive returns in recent memory. Cruz tore his patellar muscle in a 2014 game against the Eagles and has not seen the field since, missing nearly a year and a half of action with the knee and eventually a calf injury. When healthy, he has proved to be one of the best slot receivers in the game. In three full seasons, he's fallen short of 1,000 yards just once, earning 998 in 2013.

Jackson has gone over 1,000 yards for four straight seasons heading into 2015, but that streak was snapped after he missed seven games with a knee injury. Just once in his career has Jackson started 16 games and finished with less than 1,000 yards. In short – if he can be healthy, opposing defensive backs are in trouble.

Andrew Norton's NFL Prediction: Dallas WR Dez BryantAndrew Norton's Buccaneers Prediction: WR Vincent Jackson

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Dang. What a loaded field this year NFL-wide for potential comeback players. Pittsburgh RB Le'Veon Bell has to be a popular pick as well as Kansas City RB Jamaal Charles, but I'm going to go with a star from one of 2015's most disappointing teams, the Dallas Cowboys.

In 2014, the Cowboys lost just four games and made it to the second round of the playoffs. Why? They had a healthy, consistent quarterback (yeah, I called Romo consistent and I have the stats to back it up), a dominant run game behind DeMarco Murray and perhaps the league's best offensive line (Murray's 115.3 rushing yards per game was 19.5 more than the next highest RB) and a career year from Dez Bryant (1,320 yards, 16 TDs, All-Pro selection).

Dramatic flash-forward to 2015… Romo played just four games, the Cowboys still have a solid run game without Murray, and Dez Bryant plays just 9 games due to injury to the tune of 44.6 yards per game. Cowboys only win four games.

This season, the Dallas Cowboys return with their all-star offensive line after drafting RB Ezekiel Elliott fourth overall to take over the running game and will start a healthy Tony Romo. It looks like all the pieces are back in place offensively for this team to return to its 2014 form. Assuming this group starts hitting on all cylinders again (and it may have to put plenty of points on the board to supplement a struggling defense), it is reasonable to predict big things from Bryant. If he can post 1,200+ receiving yards and 12+ touchdowns (a feat he accomplished in 2012, '13 and '14) and get selected as a 2016 All-Pro, and the Cowboys can return to the national spotlight for positive reason, I think the award is his.

After hemming and hawing about the Buccaneers Comeback Player, I have to ultimately agree with Joe and give it to the man who will put up points for the offense. Jackson narrowly edges out CB Alterraun Verner for me in this one. Last season was Jackson's first in a Buccaneers uniform that he failed to reach 1,000 yards and I think that he has what it takes to get to four figures again. The Buccaneers have proved the value of their rushing attack, which should open up some passing lanes. With defenses keying in on Mike Evans, and the Buccaneers returning to a healthy stable of supporting pass-catchers rounding out the WR and TE positions, Jackson can make some big plays to move this up-and-coming offense forward. 60 catches while maintaining his career average 17 yards per reception will be enough to get him back over the 1,000-yard mark.

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