6 NFL Comeback Player of the Year candidates

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The NFL Comeback Player of the Year award race is shaping up to be a very different kind of competition than we anticipated back in August.

RGIII isn't even in the discussion, barring some sort of Peyton Manning-esque performance down the stretch of the season to lift Washington back into the playoff picture. Instead, it's been a talented collection of pass-catchers leading the way, with one surprise defensive standout.

Here are the six leading candidates for the 2014 NFL Comeback Player of the Year award:

1. Rob Gronkowski

After being handicapped by some early season rust and a limited snap count, Gronk is back to being the focal point of the New England Patriots offense, and not surprisingly his re-emergence has coincided with a five-game win streak.

Gronkowski is 12th in the NFL and first among tight ends in receiving this season, having hauled in 49 passes for 663 and eight touchdowns. Coming off multiple injuries to his forearm, then a knee injury that required ACL/MCL surgery - which forced him to miss 21 regular-season gams over the past two years - Gronkowski has made major hurdles to jump over in order to come back at 100 percent. He defied those odds, re-establishing himself as the NFL's top tight ned.

2. Arian Foster

Foster missed eight games in 2013, and not surprisingly the Houston Texans managed a 2-14 record without him anchoring the backfield. But back in the fold for eight of the team's nine games so far this season, Foster sits second in the league in rushing with 822 yards on 161 yards and seven touchdowns.

With the likes of Ryan Fitzpatrick, Ryan Mallett and possibly even Tom Savage starting under center in Houston this season, Foster is the only building block this offense has. When healthy, he's been the team's driving force as both a runner and pass-catcher out of the backfield.

3. Jeremy Maclin

After missing all of 2013 with a torn ACL, Maclin entered 2014 in a very pressure-filled situation. Not only did he settle for a one-year prove-me sort of contract with the Philadelphia Eagles, but he was forced to take on the production left behind by the recently released DeSean Jackson.

Well, Maclin answered the call. His 790 receiving yards is good for fifth in the NFL, and his eight touchdown receptions is two shy of his career-high set back 2010.

Maclin is far and away the most reliable and talented wide receiver right now on the Philadelphia roster, and is deserving of a more long-term, lucrative deal in the offseason.

4. Steve Smith

Smith didn't miss much time due to injury in 2013 with the Carolina Panthers, but it was surely a down year in terms of statistical production for the 14-year pro. Smith managed 64 receptions, 745 receiving yards and four touchdowns, his lowest since playing in only 14 games in 2010.

Now with the Baltimore Ravens, Smith has re-established himself as a true No. 1 wide receiver along with Joe Flacco as his quarterback. Through nine games, Smith has hauled in 46 passes for 711 yards and matched his touchdown total from a year ago.

5. Rolando McClain

Back in April, we featured McClain in a story titled "How to Fail a Job Interview." Oh, how McClain proved us (mostly me) all wrong.

McClain, a former first-round pick by the Oakland Raiders, has been released by the Black and Silver only to fail a tryout offered to him by the Ravens, whose general manager Ozzie Newsome is a proud Alabama alum. After the tryout, McClain retired a second time from professional football, all but putting the nail into his own NFL coffin.

However, the depleted Dallas Cowboys defense was in need of help at linebacker after Sean Lee went down with yet another season-ending injury. In came McClain, who through nine games has produced 33 tackles, two interceptions, three pass defenses and a sack.

McClain is a key reason as to why the Cowboys' defense has fared surprisingly well in 2014, and a major part of the equation that has led them to a 6-2 record and in play for an NFC East crown.

6. Julio Jones

Jones broke his foot five games into the 2013 season, ending what was supposed to be a promising year for the Atlanta Falcons. Jones' absence in the lineup took a toll on the injury riddled Falcons to the tune of them drafting sixth overall in May's draft.

But Jones proved to be one of the NFL's premier wide receivers yet again in 2014. He's hauled in 53 passes for 734 yards and three touchdowns, eye-popping numbers for a team with two wins through early November.

Still, Jones ranks ninth in the league in receiving despite his quarterback Matt Ryan playing wildly inconsistent behind a patchwork offensive line.

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