10 best players back from injury

There were plenty of big names who lost a good portion of last season to injuries. Some were on teams that could've made postseason runs. Others were in positions to help their respective squads enjoy breakthrough years. All understand how critical this fall will be to their careers. Once you've been frustrated by injuries for an entire season, your appreciation for the game usually spikes the following year.

The bigger challenge in this space is deciding which injured players will have the most impact. Denver's Peyton Manning may be the odds-on favorite, but it's also hard to ignore his peers.

As many as 10 former Pro Bowlers had their seasons ruined by health issues in 2011. That's a lot of players with plenty to prove once they finally suit up in real games again.

So here are the 10 best players who had their seasons shortened last year, along with how they'll impact their respective teams this fall:

1. Matt Schaub, QB, Houston: Peyton Manning may have gotten more attention this offseason, but Schaub is poised to have a much better season for the Texans. Schaub went on injured reserve after sustaining a Lisfranc fracture in his right foot in a Week 10 win over Tampa Bay. It's an injury that can be debilitating for players who rely on explosiveness, but Schaub will never be confused with Michael Vick.

Schaub is on schedule to be ready for training camp and he'll be returning to a team that finished second in the league in both rushing and defense. We also shouldn't ignore how much his absence tested the Texans' heart in 2010. Houston reached the AFC Divisional Playoff round with third-string rookie quarterback T.J. Yates under center.

Impact: If Schaub stays healthy -- and Pro Bowl wide receiver Andre Johnson can shake his own injury issues -- Houston should make a strong Super Bowl run.

2. Fred Jackson, RB, Buffalo: Jackson was on his way to a Pro Bowl season until a fractured fibula ended his year after 10 games. His productivity was a big reason behind the Bills' early optimism (they started 5-2) and his absence was just as relevant when Buffalo lost five of its last six games.

Jackson had six 100-yard rushing games before the injury. He caught 39 passes to give the Bills a versatile weapon out of the backfield. It's obvious that Buffalo needs better defense to be a playoff contender, but you can't discount the importance of having this guy in the mix as well.

Impact: Jackson rushes for 1,200 yards, catches 50 passes and helps the Bills compete for a playoff spot.

3. Peyton Manning, QB, Denver: There has been plenty of predictable hype surrounding Manning's move from the Colts to the Broncos this offseason. Unfortunately, there hasn't been as much discussion about reality.

The Broncos don't have nearly the weapons that Manning was used to working with in Indianapolis -- even though wide receivers Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker had their moments last season -- and that's going to be issue No. 1. We also don't know if Manning's surgically repaired neck is going to be sturdy enough to keep him under center all season (and remember, he's had four operations to date). Let's also not discount the change factor. Any star athlete who's spent as much time in a place as Manning has is likely to feel a little unsettled in a new environment. It happens to the best of them.

Impact: It's worth being excited about the Broncos playing with a conventional quarterback under center, but red flags abound. At best, Manning leads them to 10 wins, which is two more than they had in winning the AFC West last year.

4. Eric Berry, S, Kansas City: The Chiefs' fortunes shifted dramatically when Berry's ACL snapped shortly after Buffalo Bills wide receiver Steve Johnson barreled into his left knee in the season opener. Berry made the Pro Bowl as a rookie in 2010 and he quickly established himself as a key leader in an up-and-coming defense. Without him, the Chiefs lacked a vital playmaker on the back end and a consistent performer who could make everybody else's job easier.

This year, Berry will be even more vital to the secondary. The Chiefs didn't get into a bidding war for departed free-agent cornerback Brandon Carr (who left for Dallas). They added cornerback Stanford Routt, who isn't exactly an upgrade at the position. The Chiefs also will be leaning more on their defense than ever, since that is where head coach Romeo Crennel made his name and where six first-round picks earn their living.

Impact: In Berry, Kansas City has the rare breed of safety, a player who can cover and be a presence in the run game. They'll be a better team the moment he steps back into the lineup.

5. Jay Cutler, QB, Chicago: It's likely that Bears fans still wonder what might have been if Cutler hadn't injured his right thumb in the 10th game of 2011. The Bears, then 7-3, were riding a five-game winning streak. After Cutler was lost to season-ending surgery, they won only once more and embattled offensive coordinator Mike Martz resigned at season's end.

So where does that leave Cutler? The Bears have taken a revolutionary approach to building a team: They're actually giving the guy a little more help. New general manager Phil Emery traded for wide receiver Brandon Marshall -- reuniting the quarterback with his favorite target from their days in Denver -- and spent a second-round pick on wide receiver Alshon Jeffery. The team also hired another familiar face from Denver, quarterbacks coach Jeremy Bates, to help Cutler grow in yet another new offensive system.

Impact: OK, the jury is still out on the offensive line, and the Bears still have a potential holdout in Pro Bowl running back Matt Forte. But if everything comes together, Cutler could produce his best season as a pro.

6. Andre Johnson, WR, Houston: Johnson is normally reliable in Houston, but the past 12 months have easily been the most frustrating of his career. First, he had lingering hamstring injuries that limited him to seven regular-season games and a career-low 33 receptions (although Johnson did catch 13 passes in two playoff games). More recently, Johnson underwent arthroscopic surgery on his left knee, an operation that will require three to four weeks of recovery time this offseason.

Normally, these types of injuries wouldn't be cause for any concern. But Johnson also is entering his 10th season and he's suddenly fighting through a lot of lower body problems (he played with a badly sprained ankle in 2010, one that required surgery and cost him the final two games of that season).

Impact: The good news here is that Johnson is a gamer; he clearly can play through the pain. That might be the case again this season, but he'll be good enough to help Houston compete for the AFC title.

7. Mario Williams, DE, Buffalo: The Bills signed the biggest defensive name on the free-agent market earlier this offseason. Now all they need is for him to play up to a $100 million contract that makes him the highest-paid defender in NFL history.

Williams missed 11 games in Houston last season after tearing a pectoral muscle in a Week 5 loss to Oakland. The only upside from that year is what Williams did when he was playing. He had five sacks in five games after moving from defensive end to outside linebacker in the Texans' 3-4 scheme. Now that he's moving back to end in a 4-3 system -- and his preferred spot on the left side -- he should give the Bills the intimidating edge presence they've coveted since Bruce Smith left.

Impact: Williams became a Pro Bowl-level pass-rusher in Houston without much help around him early in his career (he had a total of 26 sacks between 2007 and 2008). He'll be better on a Bills defensive line that also will feature sturdy tacklers Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus.

8. Jon Beason, LB, Carolina: Quarterback Cam Newton may have hearts a flutter in Carolina, but the return of Beason should have people excited as well. He made three Pro Bowls in his first four seasons. He's been the leader of the Panthers' defense since his arrival as the 25th overall pick in the 2007 draft.

And when he tore his left Achilles tendon in last year's season opener, his absence factored heavily into the Panthers' fielding a defense that ranked 28th in the league in total defense and 27th in points allowed. The addition of linebacker Luke Kuechly, the Panthers' first-round pick, will help that unit. The return of Beason will mean even more.

Impact: Beason returns to the Pro Bowl. Carolina's defense won't be dominant, but it won't be awful, either.

9. Jamaal Charles, RB, Kansas City: Many people are assuming that Charles won't have any problems recovering from the torn ACL he sustained in a Week 2 loss to Detroit last season. That's fair.

The bigger question is what that injury does to his overall game. If the 5-foot-11, 199-pound Charles were a stronger, more punishing back, this injury wouldn't be as much of a concern. Since he relied on speed, quickness and explosiveness to become the NFL's second-leading rusher in 2010, that setback could open the doors for other problems.

We don't know how much abuse Charles will have to absorb if he's not capable of displaying the shiftiness that made him so elusive two years ago. If he can't shake defenders as consistently -- and he'll be asked to do that often to keep the pressure off quarterback Matt Cassel -- he could be dealing with more ailments on other parts of his body.

Impact: Think of the last speed back who recovered so quickly from such a traumatic injury. It's likely that Charles needs two years, which is conventional for such an operation, to be his old self.

10. Adrian Peterson, RB, Minnesota: It's hard to see Peterson being the same player who has dominated the league since his arrival in 2007. He tore his ACL in a win over Washington on Dec. 24, which was the second to last week of the regular season.

Peterson once vowed to be ready for this year's season opener, but he was being more realistic when speaking to local reporters recently. He was talking about doing what's best for his body while acknowledging that his return by Week 1 is more like "50-50." That's not the kind of deflating news a rebuilding team like Minnesota wants to hear, but the Vikings had to know the challenges to a speedy recovery in this case.

Impact: As great as Peterson is -- and as hard as he runs -- the best-case scenario for the Vikings is that he returns when he really is ready. It's likelier that we may not see him until October.