The NFL regular season officially kicks off on Thursday when Green Bay travels to Seattle to take on the defending Super Bowl champion Seahawks. Shutdown Corner will be previewing everything to come all week, capped off by our awards and Super Bowl predictions on Thursday.
The NFL isn't big on patience. You're not getting unlimited time to prove you can help the team, no matter your contract or draft status.
At some point a struggling player reaches a crossroads. He has one final season to either prove he can live up to expectations or the team is going to find someone new. This season, these 10 players (and a coach and general manager) are facing their make-or-break seasons:
Colts RB Trent Richardson
This list might as well be named after Trent Richardson. Sure, the Colts invested a first-round pick in Richardson via trade. And they have shown remarkable faith in him this offseason, although his benching late last season showed there won’t be unlimited patience. If the third overall pick of the 2012 draft isn’t good this year (and he wasn’t in the preseason), it doesn’t matter what the Colts gave up to get him. They’re going to move on. They can’t afford to waste time with a running back who can’t even average 3 yards per carry, which was the case last season. If you believe in Richardson, it’s because of the talent he showed coming out of college and the excuse that it was tough to adjust to the Colts offense in the middle of last season. There will be no more excuses if he struggles again this year.
Bears QB Jay Cutler
Cutler has two top 10 receivers, one of the league’s top backs, a good tight end and a head coach who is a marvelous offensive mind. His line is far upgraded over what he played behind early in his Bears career. With Cutler, people have chosen to gush about his skill set and not his production, because his production has never been anything to gush about. He has one Pro Bowl selection, one playoff appearance and has never had a rating over 90 in his eight-year NFL career. If he can’t have a great season this year, with everything he has around him, it’s never going to happen.
Packers OLB Julius Peppers
Not make or break in the classic sense, because Peppers could retire tomorrow and be a great Hall of Fame candidate. But after mostly disappearing last year with the Bears at age 33, there have to be serious questions about what he has left. The move to the Packers, and a new position standing up as an outside linebacker, could help. But if it doesn’t, does that mean Peppers’ great career is essentially over?
Titans QB Jake Locker
Locker has improved in each of his three seasons. But what good does that do if he can’t stay healthy? That’s step one this year, getting through 16 games (or close). Then it’s proving to Tennessee that he can be its starting quarterback for the foreseeable future. If Locker falters at all, the new coaching staff might not have a ton of patience. And they might be itchy to see what rookie and preseason star Zach Mettenberger can do in the regular season.
Lions DT Nick Fairley
Fairley was demoted during the preseason because he was overweight. He hired a personal chef, dropped weight and will start the opener, according to MLive.com, but the fact is that the former first-round pick is at a crossroads. He’s in a contract year, and he hasn’t given the Lions much reason to think about re-signing him. He has not lived up to his draft status for various reasons, and this might be his last chance before he cements a reputation as a bust.
Raiders GM Reggie McKenzie and coach Dennis Allen
You have to think the Raiders’ general manager and coach are tied at the hip. If the Raiders don’t make progress, sweeping changes will likely be made. A lot will be tied to their top two 2014 draft picks, Khalil Mack and Derek Carr. If those two play well, at least there’s something to build on. A 2013 draft that looks worse every day and a strange approach to free agency this year with a record amount of cap room might doom McKenzie, and Allen will probably get fired too if Oakland doesn’t look more competitive.
Dolphins WR Mike Wallace
When former general manager Jeff Ireland was spending like a crazy man to save his job last year (that didn’t work … shocking, I know), the main acquisition was Wallace. And Wallace was just decent last season, with 930 yards and five touchdowns. His five-year, $60 million deal breaks down so that the Dolphins are probably tied to him for three years, but another mediocre season might get Miami’s new front office crunching the numbers a little closer.
Jets QB Geno Smith and Bills QB EJ Manuel
We’ll lump together the first two quarterbacks drafted last year. Each had shaky rookie seasons, albeit with moments that reminded us why they were high draft picks. Both were given a boost at receiver this offseason, Smith and the Jets with Eric Decker in free agency, and Manuel and the Bills with fourth overall pick Sammy Watkins. Smith had a good preseason for the Jets, although Manuel did not. Each have veteran backups: Kyle Orton in Buffalo and Michael Vick in New York, so the leashes might not be too long. Would either team give their young quarterback a third season if progress isn’t made in 2014? We’ll see where they stand after this season.
Cowboys CB Morris Claiborne
Remember when Claiborne was the sixth pick of the draft out of LSU? It was 2012. Seems like a long time ago. Claiborne has battled injuries, including this preseason, and hasn’t lived up to his draft billing. Not even close. He was benched during last season. If he doesn’t show he can be at least an average starting cornerback this season, what would the Cowboys do then?
Redskins QB Robert Griffin III
For the record, I think Griffin will be fine. And I don’t think the Redskins can realistically move on from him anytime soon, not after what they gave up to get him. And I think anyone who is clamoring for Kirk Cousins to play is fooling themselves, and is that guy who always thinks the backup is better than the starter. Cousins showed last season what he is. But it will be interesting to see what Griffin does this year, and how much patience the new coaching staff has with him if he struggles a bit. If Cousins replaces Griffin at any point this year, it would not be because Cousins can be an above-average NFL quarterback. It would be because the new Redskins staff thinks Griffin is a lost cause. I don’t think that will happen. But this season seems to be a pretty big turning point in Griffin’s career.
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