Rankings: Mario Williams, Peyton Manning and several other NFL stars looking to regain form

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Mario Williams doesn't let much get to him, a 6-foot-6, 290-pound vision of stoicism. Ask him about being the top paid defensive player and he's nonchalant. Ask him about the need to provide pass rush and he talks about helping his teammates, pushing aside the notion that he's the straw that stirs the drink.

But where Williams gets a tad frustrated is when he talks about missing so much of last season, his final year in Houston when the Texans defense started to come together and gave Williams a chance to shine and the team an opportunity to win.

Williams had five sacks in the first five games of the season, putting him on pace for a career high. The Texans made the playoffs for the first time in franchise history, but Williams wasn't around to be part of the party.

"You watch that after all we've been through and it's something you want to be part of it so badly," said Williams, who signed with the Buffalo Bills this offseason. "I was happy for my teammates and the organization, but, man, it hurt not to be out there. It really hurt."

In a way, the pain was worse than the torn biceps muscle that cost Williams the 2011 campaign. These days, as he makes the transition to the Bills, Williams uses that as motivation.

He and several other players are looking for redemption.

Along with quarterback Peyton Manning, running back Adrian Peterson and wide receiver Randy Moss, one of the biggest themes for the 2012 NFL season figures to be players looking to regain their previous form.

Manning is obviously at the top of that list after a neck injury not only cost him last season, but pushed the Indianapolis Colts to part ways with him. Manning is off to Denver to prove that he's not only healthy, but still great.

"I think you're going to see a very driven guy, a little chip on his shoulder," said John Elway, Denver's Hall of Fame quarterback and now the vice president of football operations. Elway was the man who convinced Manning to join the Broncos.

In San Francisco, Moss is returning after opting to sit out the '11 season. At 35, Moss may no longer be the greatest deep threat the NFL has ever seen, but he was good enough in the offseason that coach John Harbaugh called him the best receiver on the roster.

If that holds up, the battle for comeback player of the year figures to be very interesting. Here's a look at the 20 most important players coming back from serious injury or, in Moss' case, retirement:

1. QB Peyton Manning

– Of all the players on this list, Manning's comeback is the most important. Not just because of the impact on the Denver Broncos and the AFC West, but in the grand scheme of the league and football history. This move is along the lines of Joe Montana going to Kansas City and all the issues that were associated with that. Manning's play and Indianapolis' decision to let him go will be analyzed repeatedly this season.

2. RB Adrian Peterson – Much of the Vikings' development, from young quarterback Christian Ponder to the team's transitioning defense, revolves around whether Peterson can make it back from his knee injury sooner than later. While the Vikings are a ways from being a contender in the NFC North, Peterson makes them a legitimate threat.

3. DE Mario Williams – The Bills haven't had a defensive player of Williams' caliber since Bruce Smith. That's not to say that Williams is the equal of Smith, a first-ballot Hall of Famer. But if Williams and the other additions to the defense work out, the Bills are a serious playoff contender. Williams had five sacks in five games last season and averaged about 12 per season in the four years prior to that with Houston.

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4. QB Matt Schaub – Before Schaub got hurt last season, there were doubts about his ability to lead a contender. After Houston fans got to see what the team looked like without him, suddenly there was a much greater appreciation of his skills. The Texans could make a Super Bowl run if he's healthy. Beyond that, he has one year left on his contract.

5. WR Randy Moss

– At 35, Moss isn't coming back from injury, but he's coming back from a lack of desire to play. For the majority of players, returning after a year away is nearly impossible. But Moss, who is the greatest deep threat in the history of the game, is a special talent. Normal rules didn't apply to him for most of his career and might not again this year with the 49ers.

6. RB Darren McFadden – McFadden was off to a great start in 2011 before he injured his foot. The Raiders were 4-2 in the six full games he played and 4-6 after that. It's hard to call him a star because he's rarely done it for long stretches. He has yet to play a full season. He could be dominant if he's healthy.

7. QB Jay Cutler – The Bears were 7-3 when Cutler suffered a broken thumb last year. The team proceeded to lose five straight and drop from contention, further proof of how important this guy is to a team that hasn't had a great quarterback since Sid Luckman.

8. QB Sam Bradford – Injuries and inconsistency on St. Louis' offensive line led to the same theme for Bradford last season. There have been brief moments when Bradford has looked like a young version of Joe Montana or Peyton Manning. However, there were too many episodes last season when he resembled a shell-shocked David Carr.

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9. LB Brian Urlacher – One of the greatest linebackers in NFL history ended last season in a crumpled heap with a knee injury. The fortunate part is that Urlacher, 34, didn't require surgery to repair the MCL and PCL damage. The bad part is PCL injuries never completely heal and Urlacher is of an age when all the nicks and bruises start to add up. He should be fine, for now.

10. RB Rashard Mendenhall – Lots of Steelers fans have a deep-seated dislike of Mendenhall, which is slightly reminiscent of how some Pittsburghers used to criticize Franco Harris for running out of bounds. Some were actually excited to see Isaac Redman, who had 36 carries for 213 yards in two starts (Week 17 and the playoffs). Mendenhall's odd comments about 9/11 last offseason and his pretty boy demeanor don't help. Still, the Steelers need Mendenhall (and Redman) if they're going to run the ball as much as new offensive coordinator Todd Haley is planning.

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11. FS Eric Berry – In 2010, Berry proved to be every bit the potential star people expected. That's why it was so deflating when the Chiefs lost him in last year's opener to a knee injury. The silver lining is that Berry has had the better part of a year to recover, so he should be OK. Cross your fingers if you're a fan of the game because Berry is fun to watch.

12. RB Jamaal Charles – Like Berry and Chiefs tight end Tony Moeaki, Charles missed almost all of last season with a torn ACL. Considering that trifecta of doom, it was impressive that Kansas City finished 7-9. If all three are healthy and quarterback Matt Cassel can be at least efficient, the Chiefs have a good chance to win the AFC West, as they did in 2010. Charles was one of the most explosive runners in the league before his injury (a 6.1 yards per carry average in 499 carries).

13. QB Matt Cassel – Cassel, who missed seven games last season, is entering his fourth season with the Chiefs. Yet the organization and the fans still aren't sure what he is. Wonderfully efficient, like in 2010, when he threw 27 TDs and seven interceptions? Or mediocre, like in 2009 and 2011 when he combined for 26 TDs and 25 interceptions in 24 games? This is a make or break year.



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14. RB Jahvid Best – Sadly, Best may end his career as the poster boy for the NFL's new focus on concussions. His problems date to a nasty spill he took in college and continue to this day. He missed 10 games last season and his injury problems have stunted his growth as a player. Best is one of the fastest backs in the NFL, but he has rarely been able to put it on display because he has never learned to read blocking schemes. Here's hoping Best can do it, but the odds aren't good.

15. DT Gerald McCoy – When Tampa Bay took McCoy with the No. 3 pick in the 2010 draft, he was supposed to be the centerpiece of the next great Bucs defensive line. Instead, he has missed 13 of 32 games in two years, including 10 in 2011. When he got hurt last year, then-coach Raheem Morris ripped him for not being in shape. The talent is there, but it better start to show up.

16. DT Kyle Williams – Unlike his wide receiver namesake in San Francisco, this Williams is a 6-foot-1, 300-pound block of humanity. Like his wide receiver namesake, this Williams is very quick … at least when his measurements are taken into account. In 2009 and 2010, Williams combined for 10 sacks and did a terrific job against the run because he learned to play with leverage. In 2011, he played in only five games and you saw how bad the Bills' defense was without him.

17. CB Leon Hall – The Bengals do a good job of running their defense from outside to inside. They depend on strong coverage from the likes of Hall to set up the rest of the defense. When Hall was healthy in the first eight games last season, the Bengals gave up 20 points or less in seven of eight games and got off to a 6-2 start. Over the second half of the season (Hall got injured in the ninth game), the Bengals allowed 20 points or more in six games.

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18.WR Kenny Britt – Over the first three games last season, Britt was dominant with 17 catches for 289 yards and three touchdowns. Within that, he was averaging a stunning 8.4 yards after the catch. Just as in 2010, the breakout was interrupted by injury. This time it was a torn ACL. If Britt, who reportedly had another surgery last month, comes back strong, the Titans have a great complement to RB Chris Johnson and someone for either young QB Jake Locker or veteran Matt Hasselbeck to lean on.

19. RB DeMarco Murray – In roughly half a season's work as a rookie, Murray ripped off 897 yards rushing before he broke his right ankle. It took all of about four games to realize that Murray might be one of the best third-round picks in Dallas history. He even made people forget about Felix Jones as the next star out of the backfield … as long as Murray is healthy.

20. FS/SS LaRon Landry – The Jets' decision to sign Landry wasn't a shock, even as he recovers from a torn Achilles tendon. Landry looks like Superman, particularly when compared to outgoing safety Jim Leonhard. However, Leonhard was the brains of the Jets' defense and was extraordinarily effective until his body broke down again last season. Over the past three years, the Jets were 28-15 (playoffs included) with Leonhard in the lineup and 4-7 without him. As big as Landry is, he's stepping into some big shoes.

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