While the entire NFL world has been fixated on every detail and development in his year-plus battle with his neck issues, Peyton Manning wasn't the only player who had his 2011 ruined by injury. His lost season just happened to generate more media coverage than the plight of all other injured players combined, given that his absence set off a chain of events that rendered it the most impactful injury in league history.
But while Manning's return and fresh start in Denver will again command the spotlight like no other topic, there are plenty of other good comeback stories on tap in 2012. Here are 12 of the most intriguing, by players who barely saw the field last year:
• Jamaal Charles, RB, Kansas City -- With the likes of Adrian Peterson, Tim Hightower, Peyton Hillis, Knowshon Moreno, Rashard Mendenhall, DeMarco Murray, Fred Jackson, Matt Forte and other running backs taking to the comeback trail this season, there's no shortage of rushers on the rebound to keep track of in 2012. But Charles is one of the game's elite runners, and he's reportedly "80 percent'' of the way recovered from tearing the ACL in his left knee in Week 2 of last season.
The Chiefs added Hillis this offseason, but their AFC West title hopes still depend in large part on Charles being the same explosive playmaker who has averaged 6.1 yards per carry in his four-year NFL career, with nearly 3,300 combined rushing and receiving yards in 2009-2010. His confidence certainly hasn't diminished any, with him recently telling the media: "If you're worried about me not being the same, just look for this year, look out for me and you'll see.'' We probably won't see much of Charles in the preseason, but Week 1 at home against Atlanta seems well within reach.
• Andre Johnson, WR, Houston -- Though he finished on a high note, with two strong games in the playoffs (a combined 13 catches for 201 yards and one touchdown), it was painful to watch Johnson battle through injuries to both hamstrings last season. All told, he missed nine regular season games, and had minimal impact in three others, putting up a career-low 33 catches for 492 yards and just two scores. Those stats were a long way from the 1,200-yard seasons the five-time Pro Bowl selection routinely produced in Houston, but the Texans still managed to finally break through and win the weakened AFC South title with Johnson at less than full strength.
The Texans without Johnson being Johnson last season featured an offense led by running back Arian Foster. Houston tried to rectify that imbalance in the draft, taking Ohio State's DeVier Posey in the third round and Michigan State's Keshawn Martin in the fourth round. But the addition that will matter most is getting Johnson's legs healthy and again making him quarterback Matt Schaub's primary target on game days.
• Jon Beason, LB, Carolina -- The Panthers last July awarded Beason a six-year, $51 million contract extension for his three Pro Bowl trips and 64 consecutive games started, and then promptly lost their star middle linebacker and defensive team leader when he ruptured his left Achilles tendon in Carolina's season-opening loss at Arizona. Beason is on his way back and the Panthers are holding his old position open for him, deciding to shift this year's first-round pick, Luke Kuechly, from middle linebacker to the weakside slot in deference to the well-respected veteran.
Beason is a proven tackling machine, and his ability to chase down the ballcarrier and play sideline to sideline is a signature component of his game. Though quarterback Cam Newton's arrival last season overshadowed all else in Carolina, the Panthers' emerging defense might lead the way this year if Beason returns to form and teams with Kuechly to comprise one of the most productive and gifted linebacking tandems in the league.
• Gabe Carimi, OT, Chicago -- Despite their well-chronicled issues at offensive line the past two years, the Bears surprisingly opted to not spend any more draft picks on that patchwork unit this spring, or sign any help during free agency. That's a clear indication they're confident in Carimi's return to health. Chicago's first-round pick in 2011, Carimi suffered a dislocated right knee cap in Week 2, and the injury eventually led to him being shelved for the remainder of his rookie year.
Carimi is expected to help solidify a Bears offensive line that has given up a whopping 110 sacks in the 41 regular-season games played by quarterback Jay Cutler in 2009-11, and he'll slide right back into the right tackle slot once he fully proves his surgically repaired knee is up to the test. With Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery and Michael Bush acquired this offseason, both Chicago's receiving game and running game have been improved. But if the offensive line doesn't finally tighten up in 2012, the skill-player upgrades won't be enough to help close the gap between the Bears and the two NFC North playoff qualifiers they're chasing, Green Bay and Detroit.
• Mario Williams, DE, Buffalo -- The Houston Texans finally made the playoffs last season, but Williams didn't. His year was cut short in Week 5, when a torn pectoral muscle ended what was shaping up to be a monster first season (five sacks in five games) at outside linebacker in the 3-4 formation that Wade Phillips brought to town.
Williams didn't get the reward of playing in the postseason for the team that drafted him first overall in 2006, but he did get rewarded, becoming the highest-paid defensive player in the history of the league when the Bills, during free agency, gave him a six-year contract worth a potential $100 million. Shifted back to defensive end in a 4-3 front, Williams is now being counted on to help end a 12-season Buffalo playoff drought that has stretched even longer than Houston's lasted.
• Danny Amendola, WR, St. Louis -- Of all the depressing dominoes to fall in what was a forgettable year for the Rams in 2011, I'm not sure any of them hurt more than the loss of Amendola, who dislocated his elbow in the Rams' season-opening loss to the Eagles and never played again. Without his security-blanket receiver to look for whenever he was in trouble, St. Louis quarterback Sam Bradford simply didn't look like the same passer, and the Rams' already thin receiving corps slid into full-blown mediocrity.
St. Louis didn't come remotely close to replacing Amendola's 85 catches from the slot in 2010, and with the Rams' pass protection issues, those chains-moving, quick-hitting connections between he and Bradford were glaringly missed. No wonder the Rams tendered him at a second-round level in restricted free agency, moving to effectively ensure that Bradford has his favorite receiver back at his disposal this season. The Rams stocked up at receiver in the draft, but getting Amendola to return to the lineup is where the upgrade at the position begins.
• Mikel Leshoure, RB, Detroit -- The Lions and Matthew Stafford threw the heck out of the ball last year in their return to playoff form, but then, they really didn't have a choice, did they? With Jahvid Best's concussion issues and Leshoure tearing his Achilles tendon in August, even before the preseason games began, the Detroit running game never even had a chance to hit the ground running in 2011. If the Lions are going to achieve something approaching offensive balance this season, Leshoure has to be the power back they thought they were getting when they drafted him in the second round out of Illinois last year.
The Lions didn't draft a rusher this season, so they're clearly counting on Leshoure to come all the way back and make someone pay for the loss of his rookie season. Best is the complementary back in this rushing tandem, but Leshoure is the guy who can both push the pile and elude a tackler or two. He's an every-down back who can block, catch the ball out of the backfield and run with enough strength to help wear down a defense as the game unfolds. Detroit might still fill the air with footballs in plenty of games, but if all goes as planned this season, Leshoure will give the Lions more than one way to win a game.
• Kyle Williams, DT, Buffalo -- With Mario Williams and Mark Anderson at end, and promising 2011 first-rounder Marcell Dareus at one tackle slot, the Bills have the potential to field one of the league's most dominating defensive fronts. But it's the other Williams, Kyle Williams, the team's underrated seventh-year defensive tackle, who might be the most pivotal player to the line's success this season. Williams played just five games last season before succumbing to a foot injury that landed him on the IR, but his presence and ability to penetrate opposing backfields meant teams couldn't merely double-team Dareus and neutralize the No. 3 pick.
Williams is a disruptive force in the middle, and his 9.5 sacks in 2009-2010 registered as excellent pass-rush skills for a big man whose primary responsibility was to eat up blockers and stuff the run. Buffalo's defensive line should be able to dominate and take over games at times this season, giving opponents more problems to contend with than even a quality offensive line can handle. With Mario Williams and Anderson crashing the pass pocket from both ends, Dareus and Kyle Williams will be in position to make things happen in the middle.
• Kenny Britt, WR, Tennessee -- Turning in a pair of games with at least 135 yards receiving and three combined touchdown catches to start the season last year, Britt was well on his way to eye-popping numbers in 2011 when he blew out the ACL in his right knee in Week 3. If healthy, and the Titans expect to have him back by the regular-season opener, Britt is a legit No. 1 receiver who should make either Matt Hasselbeck or Jake Locker more productive as Tennessee's starting quarterback.
Britt underwent a clean-up arthroscopic procedure on his right knee this week, but it was done to address some swelling he has had in the area, and it's not expected to dramatically complicate his rehabilitation time table. It might wind up making the Titans treat him with kid gloves in the preseason, but with Tennessee using its No. 20 pick in the draft to select Baylor receiver Kendall Wright, getting the rookie even more playing time in August might be a smart way to accelerate his learning curve and quickly integrate him into the offense.
• Tony Moeaki, TE, Kansas City -- Kansas City probably started sensing that its ill-fated 2011 season was in trouble the second Moeaki went down with an ACL injury in the meaningless fourth preseason game at Green Bay, a game then-head coach Todd Haley unwisely opted to play his regulars in extensively. Moeaki looked like a young Tony Gonzalez clone as a rookie in 2010, grabbing 47 passes for 556 yards -- some in spectacular fashion -- and emerging as a go-to target of Chiefs quarterback Matt Cassel.
Without Moeaki in the lineup, Kansas City tight ends caught just 34 balls last season, and the entire Chiefs offense took a step back after breaking through with a surprise AFC West title in 2010. Moeaki's history of injuries was a concern coming out of college, and K.C. needs him to prove that last year's health issues were the aberration. Just in case they weren't, the Chiefs signed veteran tight end Kevin Boss in free agency as the insurance policy the position lacked last year.
• Luis Castillo, DE, San Diego -- What a huge boost for the Chargers defensive line rotation if Castillo can make a solid return from breaking his tibia in San Diego's 2011 season-opener against Minnesota. Castillo, 28, was released by the Chargers in March, but re-signed with the only team he has ever played for in the NFL in early April, with San Diego getting him back on a one-year deal at a much reduced salary figure.
San Diego has invested first- and second-round picks the past two years on 3-4 defensive ends Corey Liuget and Kendall Reyes, but Castillo, the Chargers' first-round selection in 2005, offers the team valuable experience on the defensive front. In 79 career starts, Castillo has produced 210 tackles and 19 sacks, and San Diego sorely missed the leadership he brings both on the field and in the locker room during his truncated 2011 season.
• Eric Berry, S, Kansas City -- We could probably do a Kansas City-only version of this list, because no team got hit harder by significant early-season injuries last year than the Chiefs, who lost Moeaki, Berry and Charles for the season in consecutive weeks in September. Berry went down with a blown ACL in Week 1, after being blocked low by Bills receiver Stevie Johnson, and it was a devastating blow for Kansas City's defense to absorb.
The good news is that with all their key injuries occurring so early in the year, the Chiefs should have all that young talent back in the lineup from day one this season. Berry is expected to be 100 percent by training camp, and he has experienced no setbacks during his rehabilitation. As a rookie in 2010, Berry was a playmaking sensation at strong safety, with four interceptions, two sacks, one forced fumble and a touchdown return. The team's first-round pick that season, Berry quickly emerged as a leader in one of the NFL's best secondaries.