When it comes to talking about a "Comeback Player of the Year", there are a couple different uses of criteria for nominees. A lot of times, it's an award given out to a player who suffered an injury in the prior season, causing them to miss significant time. Other times, as was the case with then-Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna back in 2003, it's simply coming back from a poor statistical season to have a great year.
This year's group of Bengals players embodies both, but more of the latter than the former. Cast your vote and sound off on your winner for Cincinnati's 2016 Comeback Player of the Year!
Jeremy Hill, Running Back: Look, many will scoff at this nomination and that's fine, but the truth of the matter is that Hill greatly improved on one huge statistic this year: fumbles. After fumbling the ball (and losing it) four times last year, including the playoffs, Hill didn't let the football leave his hands once this season. Aside from that, he increased his yards per carry average from 3.6 to 3.8 this year, while also having five runs of 20-plus yards and three of 40-plus in 2016. He only had one 20-plus yard run and zero of 40-plus in the regular season last year, and he also maintained his status as an effective goal line runner with nine rushing touchdowns.
Brandon LaFell, Wide Receiver: Cynical Bengals fans and ardent New England homers laughed at the bargain-bin deal Cincinnati struck with the veteran receiver this spring. Injuries and drops plagued LaFell in 2015 with the Patriots, but neither was an issue in 2016 for LaFell with Cincinnati. He stepped in admirably for the Bengals when A.J. Green went down and logged 64 catches for 862 yards and six touchdowns this year. Compare that to his 2015 stat line of 37 catches for 515 yards and zero scores with New England.
Dre Kirkpatrick, Cornerback: After Kirkpatrick failed to grab an interception last year in his first full year as a starting NFL corner, fans were wary about his ability to become a true, solid boundary player. Kirkpatrick settled in nicely this year, grabbing three picks and 10 total passes defended. He had a dip in total tackles, but was a key factor in the Bengals' 11th-ranked passing defense in 2016.
Will Clarke, Defensive End: It may seem odd to put big No. 93 on here, given his limited role on the defense, but he ended up being a pretty decent rotational pass-rusher for the Bengals this year. he played in 16 games for the first time in his career and had four sacks in 2016, along with 15 total tackles. Though three of the four sacks came early, in his previous two seasons, Clarke had just seven total tackles and 0.5 sacks combined.
Vontaze Burfict, Linebacker: Burfict's path to a nomination here has to do with both injury and time missed because of a suspension this year. If you remember, Burfict was on the PUP list to start the 2015 season, as he rehabbed a knee procedure he had in 2014. While he stormed back late last season, his stats were less than that of previous seasons because of his rehab process. This year, Burfict sat out the first three games, but still managed 101 total tackles in 11 games played. He also added two quarterback sacks and two interceptions, proving he is still one of the most feared and well-rounded linebackers in the game.