It's possible that two of the top 10 picks of next year's NFL Draft missed much of the 2016 college football season, and thus expectations are high for UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen and Florida State safety Derwin James as they make their comebacks from injury-marred seasons and try to solidify themselves as top prospects this fall.
Rosen and James, of course, were not alone as key college players who were absent for much or all of last season. When evaluating teams for this season, who's gone to the NFL is a big story, but so are the players who return from lost seasons to bolster rosters, players who receded from the spotlight while dealing with injuries in 2016 but could now return to big roles for teams in need of a boost.
As the 2017 season nears, we've compiled the best players at every position bouncing back from seasons partially or totally lost to year-ending injuries (plus one ineligibility ruling) on our All-Comeback Team.
QB: Josh Rosen, UCLA. Massive hype has been attached to Rosen's name since he was a five-star recruit. While the outspoken quarterback delivered a promising freshman season in 2015, everything worked against him as a sophomore. The UCLA offensive line and running game broke down, giving Rosen little support as he took a beating from opposing defenses. He started UCLA's first six games, completing 59.3 percent for 1,915 yards, 10 touchdowns and five picks, with three close losses. He was then shut down the rest of the season with a shoulder injury. Rosen underwent surgery in early November, but he has made a full recovery and participated in spring practice. With the NFL waiting, this is likely to be Rosen's final college season, meaning that it's UCLA's last chance to capitalize on the presence of prized quarterback recruit who is still viewed as a potential early first-round draft pick. After last year's mess, coach Jim Mora hired Jedd Fisch from Michigan to be Rosen's third offensive coordinator in three seasons.
RB: Nick Wilson, Arizona. Back in 2014, Wilson was part of the star-studded freshman running back class that included Leonard Fournette, Dalvin Cook, Nick Chubb, Samaje Perine and others. He rushed for 1,375 yards as the Wildcats won the Pac-12 South. Since then, however, Wilson's career has been marred by injuries. He missed four games in 2015 and slipped to 725 yards, and last year he had 320 yards and missed seven games. With Wilson dealing with an ankle and then a knee injury, Arizona's leading rushers were QB Brandon Dawkins and receiver Samajie Grant. Now, there's hope that a healthy Wilson can return to form and at least show flashes of what we saw from him as a freshman.
RB: Chris Warren III, Texas. Entering last season, Warren and D'Onta Foreman were seemingly on relatively equal footing, and Warren rushed for at least 95 yards in three of the Longhorns' first four games. (He had 276 in the second-to-last game of 2015.) But Warren missed the rest of the season with a knee injury, and Foreman ended up rushing for 2,000 yards. Foreman subsequently vaulted to the NFL, meaning that a healthy Warren is the frontrunner for the starting tailback job this season.
WR: Marcell Ateman, Oklahoma State. The Cowboys will have an argument for best receiving corps in college football, and it's not only because star James Washington returned for his senior season. Ateman caught 45 passes for 766 yards and five TDs in 2015, averaging over 17 yards per reception, but he broke his foot last preseason and missed all of 2016. Quarterback Mason Rudolph has a wealth of targets, with the 6-foot-4, 215-pound Ateman joining Washington, Jalen McCleskey, Chris Lacy and LSU transfer Tyron Johnson in a loaded unit.
WR: Mike Dudek, Illinois. Let's try this again. Dudek was brilliant as a freshman back in 2014, catching 76 passes for 1,038 yards and six TDs. He looked like a future All-American. He tore his ACL in April 2015, though, causing him to miss that season. Set to return, Dudek tore the ACL in his right knee again almost exactly a year later, causing him to miss 2016, too. Coach Lovie Smith said that Dudek has been cleared, giving him a chance to provide a huge boost to what was a broken Illini passing game last year.
AP: Janarion Grant, Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights' 2016 season was made even worse by the unfortunate absence of the dynamic Grant, an explosive all-purpose weapon who broke his ankle in September, limiting him to four games. Even in that short amount of time, Grant caught 20 passes, rushed for three TDs and returned both a kick and a punt for a TD. Grant has eight career return TDs, and his decision to return with a medical redshirt is massive for a Rutgers team sorely in need of playmakers.
TE: Alize Mack, Notre Dame. The one player on this list who wasn't injured last year. Instead, Mack -- who went by Alize Jones until this spring -- missed all of the 2016 season because he was ruled academically ineligible. After catching 13 passes for 190 yards in 2015, Mack was primed for a breakout, which he'll now hope to have a year later than expected, with a new name.
OL: Tyrell Crosby, Oregon. Crosby has 23 career starts, playing both tackle spots. Slotted at left tackle as a junior last season, he missed 10 games with a foot injury. The Ducks had a young offensive line last year, and Crosby's return will make life easier for quarterback Justin Herbert and tailback Royce Freeman.
OL: Brendan Mahon and Andrew Nelson, Penn State. The Nittany Lions offensive line had been maligned for James Franklin's first two years, and when it finally began showing growth last year, injuries became a problem. Mahon started nine games but missed the final five after a breakout season in which he became a huge asset on the edge for running back Saquon Barkley. Nelson, also a tackle, missed the final eight games, also with an undisclosed leg injury. If they return healthy, Penn State suddenly has options on the line, where young players like Ryan Bates, Chasz Wright and Connor McGovern showed potential last season. Mahon and/or Nelson could be in line for position switches to guard, depending on how the competition shakes out.
OL: Reggie Bain, Florida Atlantic. A second-team All-Conference USA pick in 2015, Bain started 24 games in two years before a scooter accident last summer cost him the 2016 season. Bain broke his hip in the accident, but he returned to practice this spring ahead of schedule under new coach Lane Kiffin, who expects Bain to start at one of the tackle spots, according to the Sun-Sentinel.
OL: Toa Lobendahn, USC. The experienced and versatile Lobendahn has started multiple games at every position on the offensive line except right tackle. Injuries have cut short each of the past two seasons, including a knee injury in the first game against Alabama last year. With Damien Mama, Zach Banner and Chad Wheeler all gone, Lobendahn is likely to return to a starting position if healthy; it's just a matter of which position.
OL: Cody Ford, Oklahoma. Ford won a starting job at left guard as a redshirt freshman last season, but he broke his fibula in the Week 3 game against Ohio State and missed the rest of the season. He returns to a competition for playing time on a talented offensive line that has everybody back.
DL: Kylie Fitts, Utah. The UCLA transfer broke out in 2015, recording seven sacks, four forced fumbles and 10 pass breakups. He had three tackles for loss in Week 1 last year, only to be lost for the season thanks to a foot injury in the Utes' second game. Fitts' return is big for a line that returns star tackle Lowell Lotulelei but says goodbye to Hunter Dimick, Pita Taumoepenu and their combined 23 ½ sacks.
DL: Christian LaCouture, LSU. LaCouture was slated to start at defensive end under new coordinator Dave Aranda last season, only for him to tear his ACL in the preseason. LaCouture had 35 tackles as a key component of the defense at tackle in 2015, and after limited participation in spring practice, he'll be set to rejoin the starting line, which loses Davon Godchaux and Lewis Neal.
DL: Tracy Sprinkle, Ohio State. The Buckeyes' defensive line is always crowded, but Sprinkle earned an opportunity to start last season on a new-look unit. His season lasted one game, as he tore his patellar tendon in the opener. Sprinkle will return to be part of a deep rotation up front that will be the strength of the Ohio State defense.
DL/LB: Derek McCartney, Colorado. The grandson of legendary Colorado coach Bill McCartney, Derek McCartney had 11 ½ tackles for loss in 2015, but he tore his ACL last September, playing in only two games before missing the rest of Colorado's breakthrough season. With so many key players gone from the Buffaloes defense -- including tackle leader Kenneth Olugbode and sack leader Jimmie Gilbert -- McCartney, voted a team captain, could return as the leader of the unit.
LB: Skai Moore, South Carolina. An All-SEC pick with 111 tackles in 2015, Moore was going to be the centerpiece of Will Muschamp's first South Carolina defense, but a herniated disk in his neck last May caused him to miss the season. Moore has 260 career tackles, and his return is key for what has been a lackluster run defense.
LB: Jack Cichy and Chris Orr, Wisconsin. The Badgers' defense was outstanding last year, ranking third nationally against the run, and yet they did it while shorthanded. Cichy finished fourth on the team with 60 tackles despite missing the final seven games with a torn pectoral muscle. He had 37 tackles in his last three games before the injury. The Badgers also get back Orr, who had 46 tackles as a freshman in 2015 but missed all of last year with a torn ACL. With T.J. Edwards also back, this will still be an excellent unit despite the losses of Vince Biegel and T.J. Watt.
LB: Christian Sam, Arizona State. The Sun Devils' enormous problems on defense were made even worse by the absence of Sam, who played in only two games last year because of a foot injury. Sam had 98 tackles in 2015, and Arizona State ended up 123rd in scoring defense in 2016.
LB: Azeem Victor, Washington. Victor played enough to be named first-team All-Pac-12, but he missed the final four and a half games with a fracture in his leg, depriving the Huskies of their leading tackler down the stretch and in the playoff. Victor had 67 tackles before the injury and will return as one of the nation's top linebackers.
DB: Derwin James, Florida State. There may be no more talented player in college football at any position than James. His return from a torn meniscus last September is enormous for the Seminoles, as they get back their versatile superstar in the secondary, a multi-talented player who can line up in a variety of positions on defense. As a freshman in 2015, James had 91 tackles, 9 ½ tackles for loss, four pass breakups and two forced fumbles.
DB: Kendarius Webster, Ole Miss. Webster had high hopes last season after finishing 2015 with 11 pass breakups, but he injured his knee in the Labor Day game against Florida State and missed the rest of the season. The Rebels ended up 100th in yards per play allowed, so the return of Webster at cornerback -- if he's ready -- is a big story for Ole Miss this preseason.
DB: Keith Watkins, Northwestern. A key contributor with 41 tackles and six pass breakups as a sophomore in 2015, Watkins was slated for a full-time starting role at cornerback last season. Instead, he tore his ACL in August and missed the entire year. He'll rejoin a stellar, experienced secondary this fall.
DB: Tolando Cleveland, Mississippi State. Cleveland started 10 games in 2015, finishing with 42 tackles and 4 ½ tackles for loss. He tore his ACL in August and missed the season, and his absence was felt on a defense that allowed 281.5 passing yards per game. He's back in the mix for a starting cornerback job.