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Three Cowboys who could push for NFL Comeback Player of the Year

The Dallas Cowboys potentially have a trio of returning players with the talent to have big years in their comeback seasons in 2020.
Credit: AP
Dallas Cowboys outside linebacker Leighton Vander Esch (55) drops into coverage against the New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley (26) during a NFL football game in Arlington, Texas, Sunday, Sept. 8, 2019. (AP Photo/Ron Jenkins)

The Dallas Cowboys have plenty of talent to contend for the NFL's coveted honors such as MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, and Rookie of the Year. However, the club also has a few candidates for Comeback Player of the Year.

The Associated Press has awarded the Comeback Player of the Year Award since 1998 after a 33-year hiatus. The honor typically goes to players who were injured the year prior or have been out of football for so long that their elevated play warrants consideration.

For example, Cowboys defensive end Greg Ellis tore his Achilles in 2006 after nine games. The former 1998 first-round pick rebounded with a 12.5-sack season and earned his first career Pro Bowl en route to collecting the Comeback Player of the Year.

In 2010, quarterback Michael Vick, after spending 2009 as Donovan McNabb's backup with the Philadelphia Eagles as he got his career back on track after serving prison time for his involvement with a dogfighting ring won the Comeback Player of the Year award for leading the Eagles to an NFC East title with a 10-6 record.

Here are three Cowboys who could have a shot at winning Comeback Player of the Year.

1. LB Leighton Vander Esch — The former 2018 first-round pick from Boise State had an impressive rookie season with 140 tackles in 16 games, 11 of which he started. 2019 was supposed to be another gigantic step for the 6-4, 256-pound linebacker. Instead, Vander Esch battled neck injuries throughout the season and was finished after nine games. 

If Vander Esch returns to his rookie season form, which earned him a Pro Bowl nod, it should be enough to punch his ticket to Tampa for the NFL Honors in February.

2. DE/OLB Aldon Smith — The former All-Pro hasn't played a down of football since 2015, appearing in nine games for the Oakland Raiders and starting in seven of them. Smith would have to play at a level that at least warrants double-digit sacks or generates other splash plays such as forced fumbles, fumble recoveries, and interceptions. 

In the case of Ellis, not just the last Cowboy but last edge defender who won the award, his 12.5 sacks were tied for the sixth-most in the NFL. Green Bay linebacker Za'Darius Smith collected 13.5 for sixth place in 2019. Smith would have to reach that threshold to be strongly considered.

3. DE Randy Gregory — 2018 was the year the former 2015 second-round pick played the most games of his career with 14, and Gregory produced 6.0 sacks, 15 quarterback hits, and seven tackles for loss. The 27-year-old has been disruptive off the edge, but his availability issues have always held him back. 

Gregory is working through the process of being reinstated after missing all of the 2019 season due to violations of the league's substance-abuse policy. Like with Smith, Gregory would have to get in the double-digit sack category to generate consideration. 

Even though Gregory has played in just 28 career games, he still has enough knowledge and athleticism to take advantage of the double-teams defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence will attract.

 Which returnee Cowboy do you think has the best shot at becoming a Comeback Player of the Year? Share your pick with Mark on Twitter @therealmarklane.

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