The NFL’s second half is getting underway this week, and it’s not too early to point to specific games as crucial for playoff positioning, as teams jockey for divisions and Wild Card openings. Last night’s contest between the Saints and Panthers, for instance, could ultimately have a real impact on which team wins the NFC South.
As we near the home stretch of the 2014 season, several teams could get a boost from returning players who have been sidelined for most or all of the year. These players won’t necessarily swing playoff races, but their teams will certainly welcome them back with open arms as a way of fortifying rosters that may be plagued by various injuries and ailments.
Listed below are a handful of players worth keeping an eye on during the season’s second half. These players are on track to return from longer-term injuries or suspensions, and could have an impact down the stretch, perhaps helping to buoy their respective teams into postseason berths. While the returns of other players, like Cincinnati’s A.J. Green, will also obviously be massive for their respective teams, shorter-term absences like Green’s aren’t noted here.
Cincinnati Bengals: Tyler Eifert (TE)
Green’s return may have a more significant impact on the Bengals’ offense, but Eifert shouldn’t be overlooked. The young tight end was expected to take on a larger role this season, and had already caught three balls in the team’s Week 1 contest before he suffered a dislocated elbow. Since he received the designation to return when he was placed on IR, Eifert is eligible to practice now and is expected to be activated for the club’s Week 11 game against the Saints.
Cleveland Browns: Josh Gordon (WR)
The Browns currently sit in last place in the competitive AFC North, so it’s fair to question whether they’re a legit contender. Still, at 4-3, they’re right on the heels of the division-leading 4-2-1 Bengals, and with a soft schedule and the 2013’s leading receiver due back soon, there’s reason for optimism in Cleveland. Taking into account the Browns’ bye, Gordon’s 10-game ban means he’s eligible to return for Week 12, and it’ll be interesting to see what Brian Hoyer – or, perhaps, Johnny Manziel – can do during the season’s final six weeks with a weapon like Gordon at his disposal.
Dallas Cowboys: Demarcus Lawrence (DE/OLB)
We’ve yet to see what Lawrence is capable of at the NFL level, since the first half of his rookie season has been wiped out by a broken foot. But this is a player for whom the Cowboys traded up to No. 34 in May’s draft, and the team is looking forward to getting him back this weekend. Dallas’ defense has been surprisingly effective so far, but it certainly hasn’t been infallible, and a player like Lawrence will help fortify the team’s pass rush. It’s also worth monitoring defensive tackle Josh Brent, whose 10-game ban will soon expire — Brent may not see a ton of snaps right away, but the fact that the Cowboys have stuck with him indicates he remains very much in the team’s plans.
Detroit Lions: Kyle Van Noy (LB)
Like Lawrence, Van Noy is an early second-round pick who we’ve yet to see play in a regular season game. Of course, the Lions’ defense has been so effective that the team can afford to ease Van Noy in slowly if it so chooses, but this is a player who was initially penciled in as a three-down starter during the preseason. While he may not receive that kind of workload when he returns this weekend, I expect he’ll become a bigger part of Detroit’s D by December.
Philadelphia Eagles: Jason Kelce (C), Evan Mathis (G)
Eagles fans and LeSean McCoy‘s fantasy owners alike will welcome the return of this standout duo of interior offensive linemen. Kelce appears ready to return to action this weekend, while Mathis is expected to be activated for the following week, which is great news for an offensive line that has been shorthanded virtually all season. Assuming Kelce and Mathis are both healthy and remain as effective as ever, McCoy should start finding a few more holes and Nick Foles may be a little more comfortable in the pocket.
San Diego Chargers: Melvin Ingram (LB), Ryan Mathews (RB), Manti Te’o (LB)
Few – if any – teams have been hit harder this season by injuries than the Chargers, but reinforcements are on the way. In addition to players like Brandon Flowers and Jeremiah Attaochu being on the mend, the trio noted here is recovering well from longer-term injuries. Ingram, Mathews, and Te’o have each been sidelined since at least Week 3, but if all goes well, all three players could be back in action again following the club’s Week 10 bye.
San Francisco 49ers: NaVorro Bowman (LB), Aldon Smith (LB)
Heading into the season, many pundits viewed the Niners as a candidate to fall out of the postseason this year in large part due to the extended absences of Bowman and Smith. The team has hung in there so far though, and should finally be getting their standout linebackers back in November. Even if Smith’s nine-game ban isn’t reduced by a game or two, a rumor which appears increasingly unlikely, he’ll be eligible to return for the Niners’ Week 11 contest against the Giants, and I’d expect Bowman to be back a week or two after that. With December showdowns against the Seahawks, Chargers, and Cardinals on tap, San Francisco could be getting two of its best defenders back just in time to affect the playoff picture.