It seems like yesterday that we witnessed Frank Gore rush for over 1,600 yards and average 5.4 yards per carry. That was back in 2006. Remember when Chris Johnson ran for 2,000 yards? How about when Matt Cassel led the Patriots to an improbable 11-5 season in the wake of Tom Brady’s frightening knee injury? The fate of NFL players change fast. One day they are the future of their franchises and the next they are meandering down a semi-dark street searching for any glimmer of hope to resurrect their careers.
The players listed here sit uneasily on the 2014 hot seat. And by hot seat, I mean they could be cut next offseason, be demoted this season, or find themselves in a contract year hoping their current team signs them to long-term extensions. We once considered these players “locks” at their positions or with their teams. We thought of the following quarterbacks as “cornerstones” of their franchises, the receivers “threats,” and the defensive players “lockdown” athletes. As time wore on, teams relegated some of these players to back-up roles, but they later resurrected their careers when opportunity struck (e.g., Matt Cassel in Minnesota). The funny thing about time is, it doesn't stop. The same players now struggle to hold onto their newfound opportunity. Others listed here battle to keep their starting gigs and even play on an NFL gridiron. And one player on this list is even fighting for his right to be called the best in the game.
Some of these players may be on your favorite team, and if that’s the case, how do you feel about them holding a place on this list? Sound off below!
10 Jake Locker, QB, Tennessee Titans
It’s a make or break season for Jake Locker, the Titans’ 2011 first-round selection. In fact, every season so far has been make or break for the inept quarterback. Locker has missed almost half of his possible starts since joining Tennessee, and he holds an average 8-10 record with 22 career touchdowns and 15 interceptions. That is not the type of statistics you want to see from a top 10 draft pick, so it’s easy to see why the Titans chose not to pick up Locker’s fifth-year option.
The Titans are in transition, which does not bode well for Locker. If he fails to impress, Tennessee could turn to rookie quarterback Zach Mettenberger early in the season so he can earn reps. The sixth-round pick is still a long shot to win the starting job outright, but bottom-dwelling teams will try anything to win. Mettenberger also put up some nice numbers at LSU. He threw for over 5,000 yards and 22 touchdowns and only tossed eight interceptions.
9 Danny Amendola, WR, New England Patriots
Amendola is a sleeper selection mainly because of the cap hit he carries if the Patriots released or traded him anytime during 2014. Coming into this offseason, reports indicated the Patriots could release Amendola before his $3 million salary was guaranteed. While that didn’t happen, he could still be optioned as a post-June 1 cut. Due to financial consequences, the latter seems less likely.
While I wouldn’t put anything past the Patriots—they willingly took a hefty salary-cap hit to rid themselves of Aaron Hernandez—it’s more likely they keep Amendola on the 2014 roster and pray he rebounds from his disappointing 2013 campaign. How disappointing was his season last year? In a nutshell it was like this: Amendola made zero catches in the AFC Championship game. If he fails to kick start his career with the Patriots this season, expect Amendola to be looking for a new employer next season.
8 8. Matt Cassel, QB, Minnesota Vikings
This past offseason, Cassel decided correctly to test free agency and then return to the Vikings on a two-year deal worth $10 million. His original deal with the Vikings allowed him to opt out of his contract within five days of the Super Bowl. He did, and then resigned with the team on a more lucrative deal than he would have originally received. Last season, Cassel led the Vikings in passing yards and touchdowns with 1,807 and 11 respectively.
The problem is this: The Vikings just drafted Terry Bridgewater, the quarterback they hope will become their signal-caller of the future. Prior to signing, Cassel likely knew the Vikings would try to draft a quarterback, but it’s a hard pill to swallow for a quarterback who recently rebounded from a disastrous honeymoon in Kansas City. Cassel is now a bridge quarterback, and if he fails to perform well early in the season, he’ll likely see that bridge constructed a lot faster than he may have hoped.
7 7. Brian Hoyer, QB, Cleveland Browns
Prior to his devastating injury, Brian Hoyer was a savior for Cleveland Browns’ fans. As starter Brandon Weeden nursed his sprained thumb from the sideline, Hoyer propelled the Browns to three straight wins. However, a torn ACL prematurely ended Hoyer’s season and deflated the then 3-2 Browns. Almost as soon as the team placed him on injured reserve, most prognosticators began to look toward their 2014 draft. The Browns held a multitude of first-round picks, and as the draft neared, the question became, not if they would select a “franchise” quarterback, but when.
Enter Johnny “Football” Manziel who the Browns drafted in the first round. Hoyer is a journeyman, but a capable starter who has shown decent skill and technique on the field. The problem is this: Browns fans will want to see Manziel, and Hoyer will not let go of his starting job without a fight. Further, Cleveland’s unstable front office will want to keep their fans happy. What party will give in first?
6 Derek Cox, CB, Minnesota Vikings
Just last March, most considered Cox one of the league’s most coveted free agents. On the second day of the 2013 free agency period, he signed a four-year, $20 million deal with the Chargers who expected Cox to slide easily into their starting rotation.
Last season, in a week 12 match up versus Kansas City, San Diego benched Cox for the third time in four games. Fast forward a little more than a year after he originally signed his four-year deal and Cox sits restlessly on the hot seat. Maybe the multi-year deal and lofty expectations weighed too heavily on the young cornerback. Maybe the Chargers’ defensive schemes were a poor fit for his style of play. In any case, he was released and will get a fresh start in Minnesota where he’ll have the chance to redeem himself on a modest $780,000 contract.
Cox’s reputation is also on the hot seat. He flashed number one ability with the Jaguars, but he’s now in a prove-it type year with the Vikings.
5 B.J. Raji, DL, Green Bay Packers
Just last year, the Packers offered Raji a multi-year deal worth up to $8 million a season. He and agent David Dunn regrettably rejected the offer, and Raji now finds himself in uncertain territory amongst the Frozen Tundra. If he fails to deliver in his second-consecutive contract year, he’ll either continue to play on one-year deals with Green Bay, or more likely, he’ll be on the street searching for a new team.
The Packers will do everything they can to help Raji succeed. Head coach Mike McCarthy will put the bulky defensive lineman back over center and have Datone Jones and Mike Neal flank him. The presence of recently signed Julius Peppers and veteran Clay Matthews should help Raji find himself.
Interesting note: Only $500,000 of his $4 million is guaranteed this season. That's a far cry from $8 million.
4 Sam Bradford, QB, St. Louis Rams
One glaring issue stands out with Sam Bradford: Since they drafted him, he has failed to lead the Rams to a winning season. While Bradford could once hide behind his number one overall status, it has now begun to expose the quarterback for who he really is. An average quarterback.
His overall statistics aren’t great either. While a better supporting cast and overall team would certainly help Bradford put up more consistent numbers, great quarterbacks make their teams better, and Bradford has failed to do that. During the past four years, he holds a paltry QBR of 40.7 and a completion percentage of 58.6.
It might be time to move on St. Louis. If he has another stinker of a season, they probably will.
3 Andy Dalton, QB, Cincinnati Bengals
In the fifth round of this year’s draft, the Bengals drafted quarterback A.J. McCarron out of Alabama to develop behind incumbent starter Andy Dalton and back up Jason Campbell. However, if Dalton quickly slides, the coaches may give McCarron a hard look to take some reps. At Alabama, McCarron posted a 34-6 record with three National Championship appearances. He’s no stranger to the spotlight and pressure.
There is little reason to believe Dalton won’t be the starter for the foreseeable future, but his natural ability to fold under the game’s hottest and brightest lights—the playoffs—has put a new type of spotlight on the quarterback: Doubt.
2 Frank Gore, RB, San Francisco 49ers
For over nine years, Gore has manned the 49ers’ backfield, running over opponents and eating up clock. Yet, at the ancient age of 31, he may be on his last legs. In this year’s draft, San Francisco prepared for the inevitable day Gore hangs up his cleats when they selected running back Carlos Hyde, 57th overall. A combination of Hyde with last year’s fourth-round selection Marcus Lattimore could be dangerous, if Lattimore is able to fully recover from his torn ACL.
A running back’s NFL life is short. They take a beating, especially running backs like Gore who drive through 300-plus pound lineman. However, last season, Gore failed to show any signs of wearing down. He surpassed 1,100 yards, scored nine touchdowns, and averaged 4.1 yards per carry. So why prepare for life without Gore? The production of older running backs drop off quickly, and the 49ers want to prepare for the day, week, month, or year Gore's falls off completely. To prevent such a quick decline, they will likely limit his workload.
If his legs still show signs of life at the end of this season, the 49ers could offer him another, smaller deal. He is in the last year of his contract.
1 Darrelle Revis, CB, New England Patriots
Yes, that Darrelle Revis. How could arguably the best cornerback be placed on a list full of has-beens and wannabes? Simple. Revis is in a contract year with the Patriots (even though it’s kind of a two-year deal), and while he chose this path of uncertainty, he also took on an astronomical amount of risk considering his recent ACL injury.
Prior to the Patriots signing Revis, it was reported that nearly every team in the league desired Revis’ services. In fact, according to sources, as many as 26 teams inquired to take a vacation on Revis Island, and there were plenty of teams that had a wealth of cap space to put towards that get-away. Revis could have held out, after the Buccaneers released him, and taken the best free-agent offer. Instead, he joined the Patriots on essentially a one-year deal that might, maybe, possibly, turn into a multi-year deal if he meets New England’s expectations.
“He could have gotten considerably more money going to other teams,” said Patriots’ owner Robert Kraft. “He still came to us and I think he knows we’re committed to winning as an organization. I really believe his priority is trying to win.”
While I believe Revis wants to win, I find it hard that he wants to continue his career on a series of one-year deals, no matter how lucrative they may be. Based on league history—and its injury history—few players, if any, spend their prime years on one-year contracts. Will Revis really buck the trend? Let’s not play games here. He will not. Players desire security, and while NFL contracts are hardly stable, a multi-year deal is still mentally comforting.
Further, we have to remember Revis is not a young, up-and-coming all-star. At the age of 28, he’ll likely receive one, last long-term deal before he, once again, ends his career on a series of one-year contracts. Revis must prove he has fully recovered from his ACL injury and can return to his legendary status as the game’s top-corner. Revis and the Patriots are banking on a full recovery. In fact, his bank account also depends on it.
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