Here are 10 players at various stages of their careers who are entering a prove-it season for their respective teams:
Quarterback Sam Bradford, Minnesota Vikings — He was on this list before his trade Saturday from the Philadelphia Eagles, and he’s most definitely staying here after the deal. The trade forces him to catch up and mesh with new players in a jiffy, which is no finger snap. But this is the most talented team Bradford has been on. He has the best workhorse back in the game in Adrian Peterson, some good targets to throw to, a great offensive mind in Norv Turner calling the shots and a first-class defense. Bradford has been mediocre and injury-prone most of his career. In a crucial prove-it season for the former No. 1 overall pick, the stakes have never been higher for him.
Running back Carlos Hyde, San Francisco 49ers — Everything is lined up for the soon-to-be 25-year-old back to break out this season. On the surface, there’s a concern that head coach Chip Kelly’s offense could do to Hyde what it did to DeMarco Murray in a lost season with the Philadelphia Eagles last year. But that’s unlikely. Hyde is a different style of back and has a more diverse game — he catches the ball very well — than Murray and is set to be the crown jewel of this offense that is thin at receiver and tight end, and has big question marks at quarterback. Hyde remains in the concussion protocol heading into Week 1, but Kelly made it sound like Hyde might be available against the Los Angeles Rams in the opener on Sept. 12.
Josh Gordon, Cleveland Browns — It’s now or never, right? Certainly in Cleveland, that’s the case. The incredibly talented Gordon must sit out the first four games of the season, and that means he’ll have missed 25 games over the past two-plus seasons. He’s eligible to return against the New England Patriots in Week 5. The Browns might not have a complete team, but head coach Hue Jackson has added excitement in a vertically based passing game that should suit Gordon ideally. That was on display when he caught passes of 43 and 44 yards in one preseason game. We know his past troubles, so everyone will be holding their collective breaths until Gordon proves accountable for the long haul. Gordon amazingly is only 25 and could dominate again. But if he fails now? He might never figure it out.
Offensive tackle Greg Robinson, Los Angeles Rams — We still don’t know what to make of Robinson, the former No. 2 overall pick who has some real road-grading potential in the run game but remains a serious work in progress overall entering his third NFL season. He doesn’t turn 24 until midseason, so it’s too soon to give up on him. But there’s a feeling that Robinson might never be close to the player he was projected to be coming out of Auburn. The Rams are limited offensively and need him in top form. Reporting to camp overweight was not a good jumping-off point for the season. Be dubious right now.
Tight end Jimmy Graham, Seattle Seahawks — He falls into a different category than some of the others on this list because Graham has reached some big heights in the NFL as a pass catcher. But his Seahawks career has been strange, and though he was starting to emerge last year before his season-ending knee injury, it’s almost as if he’s a forgotten man in the big picture. Seattle’s offense underwent a philosophical change last year with the development of the deep passing game, and it remains in flux in the first full season without Marshawn Lynch tenderizing defenses. Graham has the chance to emerge once more now that he appears to be getting healthy again, but it might not happen right away given that his Week 1 availability remains in question now. The Seahawks don’t have to rush him back, but they need to find out what he can do for them.
Pass rusher Dee Ford, Kansas City Chiefs — Ford was not a draft selection that was warmly embraced by Chiefs Nation. It happened right at the heights of the powers of Justin Houston and Tamba Hali as a pass-rushing duo. But with both of them now facing serious injury concern — namely Houston, who will miss a big chunk of the season — it’s time for Ford to warrant his first-round spot. A three-sack game against the San Diego Chargers last December (granted, it came against a player who was cut the next day) shows Ford has some pass-rush chops. It’s time to showcase that ability on a broader stage. The Chiefs face some talented quarterbacks, especially in the first half of the season. Ford must rise to the occasion and disrupt a few of them.
Outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney, Houston Texans — It’s almost too obvious a choice. No young defender with this much talent faces as much scrutiny and as high of expectations in the NFL than Clowney does coming off an injury-plagued first few seasons. Everything lines up for a monster season if he’s healthy with an excellent supporting cast (especially with the news J.J. Watt is progressing back to health quickly), better health for Clowney and the mounting pressure to perform commensurate with his former No. 1 overall status. There were eye-opening moments this preseason where his motor ran hot — even in the seconds halves of games — which is a terrific sign. Amazingly, the Texans face offensive lines that underwent notable changes this offseason in each of the first six games, and they don’t face a dominant unit up front until the Oakland Raiders come to down Nov. 21. Clowney must show that his injuries are behind him and that he’s ready to dominate like he did in stretches of college.
Outside linebacker Jarvis Jones, Pittsburgh Steelers — The team declined the fifth-year option on Jones this offseason, meaning this is a contract season for him. If he plays well, there’s a home for him in Pittsburgh; if not, he’s gone. Jones has shed a little weight, which should help make him more of the versatile playmaker he appeared to be coming out of Georgia in 2013. But he’s never put it together, and it could be an either-or proposition for him and fellow first-rounder Bud Dupree — even though James Harrison won’t play forever sadly. The team has hinted it will rotate its edge players less this season and employ more of a hot-hand approach. The clock for Jones is ticking quickly, whereas Dupree has more time to prove himself.
Cornerback D.J. Hayden, Oakland Raiders — His career never has taken off, and the team added more size on the outside at the starting spots with Sean Smith and David Amerson over the past year. That pushes Hayden inside to the nickel, and despite that demotion of sorts — and the fact the Raiders declined his fifth-year option for 2017 — he still could play an important role this season. He’ll be on the field up to two-third of the snaps this season if healthy and can disprove the reputation of being one of the least opportunistic playmakers at his position league-wide. With stronger pieces around him, Hayden can still turn his disappointing career into a success.
Safety Jairus Byrd, New Orleans Saints — Byrd has proclaimed himself healthy to start the season for the first time since coming to New Orleans. But the team has protected itself with the drafting of second-rounder Vonn Bell and the addition of Roman Harper as insurance policies. Byrd is a three-time Pro Bowler who had 22 interceptions in five seasons with the Buffalo Bills. But he hasn’t come close to fulfilling his $54 million deal he signed with the Saints and is entering a season at age 29 in which his future there hangs in the balance. With a productive year, Byrd can help a Saints defense that has struggled against the pass improve dramatically.
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