By Sam Monson
In many ways, every NFL season is a “prove-it year” for players. Job security is rare in this league. Some players are under more pressure entering 2020 than others.
Whether it’s young underachievers who need to show they belong in the NFL or more established veterans justifying a contract, trade or even a roster spot, there are plenty of players with points to prove this upcoming season.
There may be no player under more intense focus than Baker Mayfield heading into Year 3. After finishing his rookie season with an 83.2 overall PFF grade (11th), he sank to 73.5 (19th) in his second year as everything in Cleveland unraveled. This offseason for the Browns has been about fixing the pieces around Mayfield, but now he needs to prove he’s the player we saw in Year 1, rather than part of the problem. The talent is there, but a once-deadly-accurate college passer slipped to 27th in adjusted completion percentage last season, and the flaws in his game were magnified, leaving him with a lot of work to do to reverse course.
Though the Browns have resolved many issues this offseason, one of the few caveats trusting Odell Beckham Jr. to become the devastating receiver he was earlier in his career. Year 1 of the Mayfield-to-Beckham connection was little short of disastrous, but Beckham was playing through a sports hernia and wasn’t healthy all season. Throwing in Beckham’s direction in 2019 yielded a passer rating of just 70.5, but at his best, he’s capable of surpassing the elite 90 barrier in PFF grading (which he’s done twice in his career), breaking tackles for fun (88 since he came into the league) and making circus catches look routine. Beckham needs to show that Cleveland’s faith has not been misplaced.
EDGE Jadeveon Clowney, free agent
The jewel of the 2020 free agency class remains unsigned. Jadeveon Clowney began free agency looking for a market-resetting contract, which has yet to materialize. He’ll likely have to accept something far more modest and prove he is worth the future investment. Clowney has had the best two seasons of his career by PFF grade (87.6 and 80.8) over the past two years, but has never ranked higher than eighth among edge rushers. As such, he has done little to suggest he is worth being among the highest-paid edge defenders in the league. Clowney’s market has been justifiably soft, so he’ll need to step up his game in 2020 to get the money he wants.
Josh Allen isn’t under the same degree of pressure as some of the other players on this list, but even his most ardent supporters acknowledge he still has a ways to go in his development. Allen’s box score numbers looked dramatically better in Year 2, but his PFF passing grade showed only a marginal improvement (58 to 61.4). Allen ranked 31st in the league in adjusted completion rate and was arguably the worst deep passer in football. Yet his baseline of perception skews positive because the team has improved around him and he ranked top-five in terms of perfect ball-location throws up to 20 yards downfield. Allen needs to show more significant improvement in 2020 if he is to match the optimism that last year created.
Cast aside by the Panthers, Cam Newton kept his starting chances alive by agreeing to a one-year, incentive-laden contract with the Patriots. Newton’s health has become a significant question mark, as has his overall play, with the MVP season of 2015 looking more like an outlier than a realistic goal to target. Newton is still one of the most talented quarterbacks in the league and should have an opportunity on a contending roster to show he is worth significantly more than the deal he just signed. No passer has broken more tackles than Newton since he came into the league, and as long as he makes use of that threat, his size and speed will scare NFL defenses.
EDGE Marcus Davenport, New Orleans Saints
The manner in which New Orleans drafted Marcus Davenport put more pressure on his success than the typical draft selection. He was taken 14th overall in 2018, as the Saints traded their 2019 first-round selection to make it happen. Davenport has developed well so far — improving in overall PFF grade, pass-rushing grade and total pressures in his second season — but needs to take another step forward to justify the trade to acquire him. Last season, Davenport ranked just 29th in pass-rushing grade among edge defenders, 25th in terms of total pressures and 18th in overall grade. To live up to the potential the Saints saw when they drafted him, he needs to emerge as a top-10 player in Year 3.
WR JuJu Smith-Schuster, Pittsburgh Steelers
The 2018 season saw JuJu Smith-Schuster rack up 111 receptions, 1,426 yards (both more than Antonio Brown) and seven scores. When Brown’s time in Pittsburgh came to an end, Smith-Schuster was supposed to step up as the team’s top receiver, but 2019 was a disaster. He missed time due to injury, and with no Ben Roethlisberger throwing the football, he ended the season with barely over 500 receiving yards and an overall PFF grade almost 20 points lower than his 2018 mark. The questions remain over whether Smith-Schuster can thrive on the outside as the No. 1 target without Brown taking the focus away from him, and now he has to fight off competition from Diontae Johnson, who impressed despite the awful quarterback situation last season.
LB Roquan Smith, Chicago Bears
When he came into the league, Roquan Smith looked tailor-made for the modern NFL — a linebacker who excelled in coverage in college with the athleticism, instincts and feel for the game to be a difference-maker. The player we saw at Georgia has yet to really show up in the NFL. Smith has made a lot of tackles and missed relatively few (17 in 234 attempts), but his PFF grades reflect a player still trying to find consistency, particularly in coverage where he was so special in college. A top-10 draft pick in 2018, Smith enters Year 3 needing to show the Bears he can be a difference-maker, not just another body who is a relatively solid tackler.
CB Jaire Alexander, Green Bay Packers
Early in the 2019 season, it looked like Jaire Alexander might be the league’s next great shutdown cornerback. He wasn’t able to sustain that level of play. He still has all of the tools required to be the best corner in the league, but he needs to show in 2020 that he can be consistent, not just tease it. Alexander has a chance to earn himself a monster contract as the game’s next great young corner, and that will take a run of consistency he hasn’t put together yet.
CB Mike Hughes, Minnesota Vikings
Mike Hughes is another first-round cornerback from the 2018 draft heading into the 2020 season with something to prove. Staying healthy has been the biggest issue for Hughes, as he has played just 744 total snaps across two seasons including the playoffs. The Vikings saw their top three corners from 2018 all depart this offseason, so they will now rely on Hughes to not just be a full-time starter in 2020, but to also play well and keep that unit’s head above water. Over his NFL career, he has allowed a passer rating of 99 when targeted and given up a catch on 66.7 percent of the passes thrown his way, surrendering five touchdowns on 93 targets. Those numbers need to improve.
WR Breshad Perriman, New York Jets
A former first-round draft pick, Breshad Perriman had already attained bust status by the time he flashed the talent that made him an intriguing prospect. Last season, already on his third team in four years, Perriman catapulted up the depth chart late in the year due to injuries and responded with three straight 100-yard games to end the campaign, scoring four touchdowns on 26 targets in that time span. It wasn’t enough to earn him a long-term contract, and he signed with the Jets on a one-year, $6.5 million deal. Perriman will replace the deep threat of Robby Anderson, who had 92 targets in 2019, and have the chance to show it just took him awhile to rediscover his talent.
CB Desmond Trufant, Detroit Lions
At the start of his career, Desmond Trufant looked like the next great cornerback in the NFL. Injuries and decline in play have ended that talk. The 2013 first-round pick now heads to Detroit hoping to prove he can step into the role vacated by Darius Slay and at least not be a downgrade for the Lions. Trufant earned a PFF grade over 80 in each of his first two seasons, but hasn’t surpassed that mark since. Over his past two healthy seasons, Trufant notched 24 pass breakups but was also beaten for a passer rating of over 100 and saw more than 60 percent of the passes thrown his way go for completions. Trufant still has the ability to be a No. 1 corner, but is now under pressure to prove it.
OT Isaiah Wynn, New England Patriots
Isaiah Wynn enters Year 3 as a required starter along the offensive line in New England, but with barely 500 snaps of playing time under his belt. Wynn was a player we liked a lot at PFF as a prospect — he was 16th on our final big board that year. However, injuries limited his chance to make an impact early. Now, the Patriots need Wynn to be their starting left tackle with only seven games of starting experience. Those games produced an overall PFF grade of 70.7. He surrendered just two sacks across in that playing time. The pressure is on for him to step in and be a quality performer.
OG Austin Corbett, Los Angeles Rams
Another offensive lineman with a lot to prove, Austin Corbett was an intriguing prospect who was potentially overdrafted by the Browns in the second round. He played tackle in college but was always viewed as an interior lineman at the next level, and has been playing almost exclusively at left guard in the NFL. What’s glaring is how consistently below-average Corbett has been so far, with every start he had for the Rams last season earning an overall PFF grade in the 50s. Corbett enters 2020 needing to show improvement to save his future as a pro.
TE Hayden Hurst, Atlanta Falcons
Hayden Hurst was under pressure in the NFL from Day 1. Not just because many believed he was a reach in the first round, but because he was immediately outperformed by Mark Andrews, a third-round pick from the same draft. Andrews out-graded Hurst from the beginning, which led to the Ravens cutting their losses and flipping their former first-rounder to the Falcons. A healthy Hurst has shown flashes of big-play potential, and throwing the ball his way in the NFL has produced a passer rating of 117.3. He enters the 2020 season under pressure to show he can be that player full-time, and that he was just unfortunate Andrews made him expendable in Baltimore.
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