40 NFL Players with Something to Prove in 2012
More than any other sport in the world, the National Football League is a “What have you done for me lately?” league. Contracts aren’t guaranteed, as they are in baseball, and a team can void a player’s deal at virtually any point.
Football players are judged harshly on a game to game basis, and several poor games in a row can put a player on the metaphorical hot seat. Whether it is because of inconsistent play, injuries, off the field issues, or contract situations, the following 40 players have something to prove to the rest of the NFL in 2012.
40. Matt Ryan, QB, Atlanta Falcons
Nick Laham/Getty Images
I almost didn’t put Matt Ryan on this list. After all, he’s been fantastic ever since the Atlanta Falcons selected him with the third overall pick in the 2008 NFL draft, and he’s coming off a 29-touchdown season.
But quarterbacks—fair or not—are judged on their postseason success, and Ryan hasn’t had any postseason success yet. It’s ironic that Matty Ice is 0-3 in the playoffs, but following last season’s debacle against the New York Giants, Ryan has something to prove. In that game, the Falcons lost 24-2 and Ryan threw for just 199 yards; he now has three touchdowns, four interceptions, and a 71.2 lifetime passer rating in three playoff starts.
What Ryan does in the regular season in 2012 really won’t matter too much. He has a talented team with Roddy White, Julio Jones, Tony Gonzalez, and Michael Turner. The Falcons should win football games, and they probably will win at least 10. But if they don’t win a playoff game, the season will be viewed as a failure.
The list of Hall of Fame quarterbacks that have started their careers 0-3 in the playoffs includes just Y.A. Tittle and Peyton Manning (ok, he’s not in the Hall yet, but come on). Ryan is 0-3 right now. That in no way means he can’t make the Hall of Fame, but it just gives you a comparison. If Ryan wants to be considered one of the all-time best—which I believe he has the skills to be—he better start improving his January resume.
39. Donovan McNabb, QB, Free Agent
Hannah Foslien/Getty Images
But if McNabb does come back, he will come back with a chip on his shoulder for sure. I still believe McNabb can be a quality NFL quarterback, but that’s if he is surrounded with a good offensive line, a good cast of wide receivers, and a good head coach. And realistically the only way in which McNabb gets back into the league is as a backup, probably for a poor team.
McNabb is a class act and had a terrific football career. He is still just 35 years old, virtually the same age as Tom Brady or Peyton Manning. And if he does come back to the NFL in 2012, he better prove to the rest of the league that he’s not just a washed up, out of shape, has-been—because that’s what most people think he is.
38. Jermichael Finley, TE, Green Bay Packers
Jamie Squire/Getty Images
It’s surprising that the Year of the Tight End didn’t include a spectacular performance from Green Bay Packers tight end Jermichael Finley. Finley led all tight ends with 12 drops, and he’s a an awful blocker both in the running game and passing game.
Finley hits free agency this offseason. The Packers very likely will franchise Finley, which means he enters the following season again as a free agent. And he has a lot to prove if he wants a big contract from the Packers or another team.
37. Ryan Clady, OT, Denver Broncos
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
In just four NFL seasons, Ryan Clady has started every game at left tackle and been named to the Pro Bowl twice. That’s pretty impressive, right? Yes, but Clady is also coming off by far his worst season as a pro, one in which he definitely didn’t deserve to be named to the Pro Bowl.
Clady rated as a -23.6, according to Pro Football Focus, which puts him as the 11th worst offensive tackle in the NFL. After giving up just half a sack as a rookie in 2008, Clady gave up six sacks plus 32 quarterback pressures in 2011. He also graded as the third-worst run-blocking tackle in the NFL. That doesn’t seem like a Pro Bowl player, but I guess voters recognized the name Ryan Clady on their ballots, and decided to cast their vote for him.
Clady is entering the final season of his contract, and Pro Bowl or not, he can’t turn in another season like he did in 2011.
36. Demaryius Thomas, WR, Denver Broncos
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
The Denver Broncos hadn’t seen much progress from 2010 first round-pick Demaryius Thomas until he exploded for four receptions and 202 yards in the playoff win over the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Thomas had just a 32/551/4 stat line during the 2011 regular season, and while much of that can be attributed to the inept passing from quarterback Tim Tebow, Thomas still better have a breakout season in 2012.
35. Santonio Holmes, WR, New York Jets
Rich Schultz/Getty Images
Santonio Holmes certainly wasn’t worth the five-year, $50 million deal he signed prior to the 2011 season. He had caught just 52 passes for 746 yards and six touchdowns in 2010, numbers that aren’t worth a mammoth contract. His numbers in ’11 were very similar: 51/654/8, but he made headlines when teammates said Holmes quit on them at the end of the season.
Holmes—a team captain of the New York Jets—had better show he is willing to play in 2012, or the Jets will be sure to part ways with him.
34. Jeff Otah, OT, Carolina Panthers
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
The Carolina Panthers selected offensive tackle Jeff Otah with their first round pick in the 2008 NFL draft, and while he’s been a good lineman when he’s played, Otah has suited up for just 29 of a possible 64 games.
He missed four games as a rookie due to knee problems, three more in 2009, the entire 2010 season, and then 12 games in 2011. Simply put, he just hasn’t been able to stay healthy, and he is entering the final season of the five-year deal he signed as a rookie.
Otah is very talented when he does play. He graded very well in ’08, according to Pro Football Focus, but the key has just been staying healthy. The Panthers can’t afford to pay Otah for an average of seven games per season.
33. Donald Brown, RB, Indianapolis Colts
Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Joseph Addai wasn’t quite worth the first round pick the Indianapolis Colts used on him in 2006 and so far, Donald Brown hasn’t proven his worth of the 2009 first round pick the Colts used on him.
Brown started to come on a little at the end of 2011, rushing for 161 yards and a touchdown in the late-season contest against the Tennessee Titans. The Colts extended Addai for three years in the summer of 2011, and if Brown doesn’t produce, there is no way the team will want to keep him around.
32. Rashard Mendenhall, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images
If you’ve read my articles before, you know how I feel about running backs. They’re overrated, too often interchangeable with one another, and they’re not worth the money that most teams pay them. Rashard Mendenhall is a free agent after the 2012 season, and while he is playing for a new contract, I don’t think the Pittsburgh Steelers will pay him regardless.
Mendenhall has plenty of mileage on him even after just four NFL seasons, and after tearing his ACL late in 2011, he probably won’t even be at one hundred percent for most of next year. That means backup Isaac Redman will get more touches, and the Steelers didn’t really seem to miss a beat when Redman took over for Mendenhall late in ’11.
Realistically, Mendenhall is probably playing for a contract with a future team because with the way the Steelers use running backs to death, they would have to be foolish to give Mendenhall a new contract, especially considering he already has over 800 carries on him.
31. Jason Smith, OT, St. Louis Rams
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images
The St. Louis Rams have to be kicking themselves at this point for grabbing offensive tackle Jason Smith with the second pick in the 2009 NFL draft. Smith has been a colossal bust in three seasons, failing to solidify the Rams’ line, and actually bringing his status with the team in 2012 into question.
Smith is due a sizable bonus and if the Rams can’t restructure his contract, he could be playing elsewhere in 2012. Even if they do restructure his deal and bring him back, there is a chance the team moves Smith to left guard, moves Rodger Saffold to right tackle, and puts new draft pick Matt Kalil at left tackle.
Smith has the physical tools to be a stud in this league, but he has been criticized for playing at less than one hundred percent too often. He is said to lack the passion of playing, and that is something that a good coach should be able to bring out in him. Either way, the Rams have an immensely talented player in Smith, but they need to be able to get all they can out of him.
30. Ndamukong Suh, DT, Detroit Lions
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Ndamukong Suh battled both on the field and off the field issues in 2011. On the field, he simply wasn’t the same player as the rookie in 2010 that electrified the league, terrorized opposing quarterbacks, and recorded 10 sacks. Suh dropped off to just four sacks and was at times downright blockable.
Off the field, Suh was suspended for two games for stomping on Green Bay Packers guard Evan Dietrich-Smith. Suh had to meet with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, and Goodell said he hopes Suh can become the type of player that can be a role model on and off the field.
It’s time for Suh to make that happen.
29. DeSean Jackson, WR, Philadelphia Eagles
Rob Carr/Getty Images
The Philadelphia Eagles’ disgruntled wide receiver suffered through arguably his worst season as a pro in 2011, failing to top 1,000 yards and scoring just four touchdowns. He missed the Arizona game when he slept through his alarm clock and was subsequently benched for missing a mandatory team meeting.
Jackson is entering free agency, and the Eagles may or may not use the franchise tag on him. He is simply irreplaceable as a football player, and has straight line speed that is virtually unmatched by any wide receiver in the NFL. As much as Jackson acted like an immature little child for much of last season, teams around the league know what his capabilities are as a receiver.
But he can’t do it again. If the Eagles franchise Jackson and he spends the entire season whining and underperforming again, it’s going to vastly affect his next contract. And for a man who wants his money, that’s not his ideal option.
28. Blaine Gabbert, QB, Jacksonville Jaguars
Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Blaine Gabbert had one of the worst rookie seasons by any quarterback in the last decade. He actually played bad enough that sources are saying the Jacksonville Jaguars may draft another quarterback in the 2012 NFL draft.
Realistically, that very likely won’t happen, and the Jaguars would be foolish to move on from Gabbert after one season. After all, Eli Manning and Terry Bradshaw each had miserable rookie seasons and rebounded to become multiple Super Bowl winners. Gabbert did look like a rookie though, playing like a deer in headlights for most of the season.
He threw 12 touchdowns to 11 interceptions, barely completed half of his passes, and posted a 65.4 passer rating. Gabbert doesn’t have any receivers and the Jaguars need to do something to upgrade that position for 2012, but a lot is also on Gabbert to start showing some significant improvement.
27. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, CB, Philadelphia Eagles
Rob Carr/Getty Images
When the Philadelphia Eagles sent Kevin Kolb to Arizona for a second-round pick and cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, it was expected that DRC would have a great impact on the Eagles. After all, he is still just 25 years old and a former Pro Bowler. Then the Eagles went out and acquired Nnamdi Asomugha in free agency, pushing DRC to the nickel spot.
DRC struggled in 2011, both in the system and in staying healthy. He missed three games due to a high ankle sprain and didn’t record a single interception in the snaps in which he did play. There have been reports saying the Eagles may trade Asante Samuel this offseason, and if they do, Asomugha and Rodgers-Cromartie will enter 2012 as the starters.
That means DRC will have a lot to prove, as he’s a free agent after ’12 and playing for a new contract.
26. Sidney Rice, WR, Seattle Seahawks
Stephen Brashear/Getty Images
At this point in his career, Sidney Rice is a one-year wonder with four mediocre seasons to go with a 1,382-yard performance in 2009. That year came with Brett Favre as his quarterback, so Rice needs to prove that he can play with a quarterback other than Favre.
Rice endured hip surgery before last season and then struggled with a concussion, shoulder injury, and unproductiveness. He totaled just 32 catches for 484 yards and two touchdowns in nine games, and that was after signing a five-year, $43 million contract with the Seattle Seahawks before the 2011 season.
Rice needs to start playing like the No. 1 receiver he’s being paid like. He wasn’t helped at quarterback in 2011, especially with Charlie Whitehurst and Tarvaris Jackson, but he also needs to stay healthy.
25. Michael Crabtree, WR, San Francisco 49ers
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Michael Crabtree is a bust through three NFL seasons. He was drafted 10th overall out of Texas Tech after a stellar collegiate career. Crabtree had a lengthy holdout as a rookie and still struggled to make an impact in his second season. He somewhat broke out with a 72/874/4 line in 2011, but was a no-show for the San Francisco 49ers’ playoff run.
Crabtree may never develop into the impact wide receiver the team thought he would be. They were hoping for a Calvin Johnson or Andre Johnson type of receiver, and Crabtree probably isn’t that type of receiver. But he could still develop into a Pro Bowler, and he better start proving his worth to the team soon.
24. Jake Long, OT, Miami Dolphins
Winslow Townson/Getty Images
I don’t blame you if you’re surprised to see Jake Long on this list. He was drafted first overall by the Miami Dolphins in the 2008 NFL draft, and he’s made four Pro Bowls in four seasons in the league. Long is a quarterback’s dream—a big left tackle that can protect his blind side for the next decade or more.
So why is Long on this list?
Because he’s slowly declined since entering the NFL, and it may be simply that he overachieved as a rookie and set the standard too high or that he peaked early and isn’t the same player. Long gave up two sacks in 2008, four in 2009, six in 2010, and four in the first three games this year before settling down. He ended 2011 on Injured Reserve with a torn right biceps, and Long enters the final season of his contract in 2012.
If the Dolphins extend Long long-term before next season, he no longer has as much to prove. But if the Dolphins make him play in ’12 to see if he is still the same player, then he has a lot to prove. And I think he will rebound with a strong season and get a much-deserved extension.
23. Reggie Wayne, WR, Indianapolis Colts
Bob Levey/Getty Images
Reggie Wayne will be hitting the free agency market, and he likely won’t be back with the Indianapolis Colts. That means Wayne will go somewhere in which he will play without Peyton Manning for the first time in his NFL career.
Wayne is a five-time Pro Bowler and three-time All-Pro, and he has accumulated nearly 12,000 receiving yards in his 11 years. He is 33 years old but he can probably still be a productive No. 1 or No. 2 receiver for several more seasons.
22. Mark Sanchez, QB, New York Jets
Rich Schultz/Getty Images
Maybe it’s too late for Mark Sanchez. Maybe the New York Jets will move on this offseason. But if they stick with Sanchez, he had better show some improvement and fast, because he’s the lone weak spot on a team with the talent to challenge the New England Patriots for supremacy in the AFC East.
Sanchez accounted for 32 total touchdowns in 2011, an impressive total, but he had some glaring holes in his game: his 56.3 completion percentage, his career-worst 6.4 yards per attempt, his 18 interceptions and 10 fumbles, and just a 78.2 passer rating.
Rex Ryan has publicly said that Sanchez will be with the Jets as long as Ryan is with the Jets. That’s great for Sanchez that he has the support of his outspoken head coach—but that doesn’t mean he can continue to underachieve.
21. Russell Okung, OT, Seattle Seahawks
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images
Offensive tackles generally have a strong transition rate from college football to the NFL, and Russell Okung so far has been an exception. He was picked fourth overall in the 2010 draft and has struggled mightily in 22 career games.
He gave up four sacks in 10 games as a rookie and five more in 12 games in 2011 before tearing his pectoral muscle late in the season against the Philadelphia Eagles. Okung—who was thought by some to be the best player available in the 2010 draft—has done nothing so far to make him seem like he has a future in the NFL. He better shed his bust label and fast, or the Seattle Seahawks will have made a $58 million mistake by drafting Okung.
20. Adrian Peterson, RB, Minnesota Vikings
Patrick Smith/Getty Images
The Minnesota Vikings gave Adrian Peterson a seven-year, $100 million contract before the 2011 season and then he tore both his ACL and MCL in a December game. Peterson’s injury could easily keep him out for part of the 2012 season and with five years of mileage on him already, Peterson may struggle to regain the form he displayed since the Vikings drafted him seventh overall in the 2007 NFL draft.
Peterson failed to top 1,000 rushing yards in 2011 because of his injury, and he very easily could fail to do it again as he struggles to regain his form in ’12. By the time 2013 rolls around, Peterson will be 28 years old and he won’t have too many years left. Simply put, the injuries he sustained were absolutely debilitating, and it’s not out of the question that he is never the same player again.
19. Jamaal Charles, RB, Kansas City Chiefs
Dave Reginek/Getty Images
Jamaal Charles earned a five-year, $32.5 million contract extension in December of 2010, but then promptly tore his ACL in week two of the 2011 season. Charles was coming off a 1,467-yard season in ’10 in which he averaged an unbelievable 6.4 yards per carry, while also totaling 468 receiving yards and three touchdowns out of the backfield.
Charles enters 2012 trying to prove the Kansas City Chiefs didn’t make a mistake extending him. The injury was a fluke, but Charles needs to regain the form that made him one of the league’s top rushers.
18. Albert Haynesworth, DT, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images
Albert Haynesworth has more raw talent than any defensive tackle since Warren Sapp, but he’s a clubhouse cancer if there ever was one. Whether he’s lying on the ground watching Michael Vick run around and put up 59 points on his team or stomping on the head of opponents, Haynesworth is a disaster.
The New England Patriots with three-time Super Bowl champ head coach Bill Belichick didn’t want him, and Haynesworth was fortunate that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers even gave him a chance. Haynesworth probably won’t be back with the Bucs in 2012, but he is just 30 years old and still has the physical skills to play several more years.
Pro Football Focus rated Haynesworth as an above-average defensive tackle in 2011, both against the run and at rushing the quarterback. If he wanted to, he could be a superb nose tackle, but he seems to lack the desire of a competitor. Haynesworth has the 2012 season to prove he can still play, and that he wants to play, because if he gives away another season, he’s probably done getting chances.
17. Nnamdi Asomugha, CB, Philadelphia Eagles
Patrick McDermott/Getty Images
The Philadelphia Eagles gave Nnamdi Asomugha an enormous five-year, $60 million contract in the offseason that made him the highest-paid defensive back in NFL history. Asomugha struggled immensely in his first season, rating as a -7.2 according to Pro Football Focus.
The Eagles didn’t utilize Asomugha properly, especially with defensive coordinator Juan Castillo using Asomugha all over the field, rather than the man to man style of defense Asomugha was used to in Oakland. Since becoming a star around 2006, the Raiders had told Asomugha to simply cover the opponent’s top receiver, and that had worked. In Philly, Asomugha tried to use Asomugha against wide receivers, tight ends, in blitz, and in many different packages.
Despite Castillo’s refusal to use Asomugha correctly, there were times when the Eagles’ big-play corner was flat out beat. Victor Cruz outjumped Asomugha on a jump ball in Week 3, propelling Cruz into greatness, and Asomugha was burned badly on a pass to Brandon Marshall late in the season. The Eagles need Asomugha to revert back to the shutdown corner he’s been or the 2012 season could be a disappointment again.
16. Joe Flacco, QB, Baltimore Ravens
Jim Rogash/Getty Images
Two things are certain with Joe Flacco as the team enters the offseason: He is a free agent at the end of 2012 and he has underachieved since being selected with the first round pick in 2008. Flacco has had some playoff success, but then again, he’s also been on some great teams. Flacco threw 20 touchdowns to just 12 interceptions although his passer rating dropped 13 points to 80.9, his lowest total since his rookie year.
The Baltimore Ravens have made it clear they plan to extend Flacco during this offseason, which will give Flacco financial security heading into ’12. However, what that will do is increase the pressure Flacco will have on him to produce next season.
He has a good young receiver in Torrey Smith, a great running back in Ray Rice (assuming Rice comes back), and a very solid offensive line, not to mention a pair of great tight ends and a stellar defense. The ingredients are there for Flacco to be successful in 2012; he just needs to make it happen.
15. Reggie Bush, RB, Miami Dolphins
Winslow Townson/Getty Images
After five underproductive seasons in New Orleans, Reggie Bush broke out in Miami in 2011, rushing for 1,086 yards and six touchdowns on 5.0 yards per carry. It was his first true season as the feature back and his success was a pleasant surprise for the Dolphins, especially considering how much Daniel Thomas struggled as a rookie.
Bush rushed for 100 yards in each of the team’s final four games, scoring two touchdowns. He topped 203 yards against the Buffalo Bills, setting single-game bests in both carries (25) and yards. If he can continue his success in 2012, the Dolphins should have a strong 1-2 punch with both Bush and Thomas.
14. Alex Smith, QB, San Francisco 49ers
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
New head coach Jim Harbaugh worked wonders with Alex Smith in 2011, turning the career bust into a very serviceable quarterback for a 13-3 team. Smith threw 17 touchdowns to just five interceptions and set career highs in passing yards (3,144) and completion percentage (61.3). He was at his best in the NFC Divisional Playoffs against the New Orleans Saints, throwing two late touchdown passes in a 36-32 win.
Now Smith needs to prove he can do it again. Smith needs some serious help at wide receiver, with first round bust Michael Crabtree as his top target. If the Niners add a receiver that can make plays, Smith could be a solid quarterback for the 49ers for several more years. But he better be careful because if he looks back, he’ll see 2011 second round pick Colin Kaepernick waiting to take over the reigns.
13. Peyton Hillis, RB, Cleveland Browns
Rob Carr/Getty Images
Last year’s Madden cover boy fell victim to the classic Madden curse, appearing in just 10 games due to a hamstring injury. He rushed for just 587 yards and three touchdowns on 3.6 yards per carry, and with his contract expiring this offseason, it is likely he has played his final game with the Cleveland Browns.
Peyton Hillis will have to test the free agency market and he will get nowhere near the kind of deal he could have gotten had he simply hit free agency following the 2010 season. What makes matters worse was Hillis’ greed: He turned down a three-year, $16.5 million extension from the Browns midway through the season, and now he won’t get even close to that kind of a deal.
Hillis may go somewhere as a starter, and he may not. He may split time with another back, but Hillis will have to prove that he wasn’t a one-year wonder because at this point in his career, it’s looking like he was.
12. Colt McCoy, QB, Cleveland Browns
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images
The Cleveland Browns might not even give Colt McCoy a chance to start in 2012. If Robert Griffin III is still available when the fourth pick in the NFL draft rolls around, they’ll be hard-pressed to pass on him.
But if the Browns do go with McCoy for one more season, he’s on his last leash. The team only used a third round pick on him in 2009, so it’s not as if they have a lot invested in him. McCoy was an extremely successful college quarterback at the University of Texas, but his success has failed to translate to the pros in large part because of a lack of playmakers around him.
If the Browns add a receiver or tight end, McCoy better turn the corner in 2012 and make the team think he’s a franchise quarterback. Because as of now, he’s looking like a career backup in the NFL.
11. Carson Palmer, QB, Oakland Raiders
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Carson Palmer has been in the NFL long enough that he’s proven he’s a good player: He’s made two Pro Bowls, passed for 3,000 yards and 20 touchdowns five times, and led the Cincinnati Bengals to the playoffs twice. But he’s on the list because of the enormous expectations the Oakland Raiders gave him by trading two high draft picks for Palmer’s services.
Palmer struggled after the team acquired him in 2011, throwing 16 interceptions in just 10 games, and playing a major role in the Raiders’ collapse to end the season. The team gave up a ridiculous amount to acquire the then 32-year-old, and he need to validate their belief in him in 2012.
10. Tony Romo, QB, Dallas Cowboys
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images
After six seasons as the Dallas Cowboys starting quarterback, the book is all but written on Tony Romo. He’s a terrific regular season quarterback that peaks in November, he struggles in December, and he’s awful in the playoffs.
What does 2012 really mean for his future? Well, every season that goes by without the Cowboys making a deep playoff run just enhances the belief that Romo can’t get it done in Dallas. He is constantly linked to trade rumors and the team has won just one playoff game in his six seasons, despite a plethora of immensely talented offensive weapons.
With the New York Giants having just won the Super Bowl despite posting a 9-7 record—and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones going as far as to say that the difference between the two teams is the quarterback play—there is a lot of pressure on Romo for next season.
9. Ryan Fitzpatrick, QB, Buffalo Bills
Jim Rogash/Getty Images
The Buffalo Bills giving Ryan Fitzpatrick a six-year, $59 million contract midway through last season was one of the more shocking contracts in NFL history. Fitzpatrick bombed terribly after signing the deal, losing eight of nine down the stretch and throwing 10 touchdowns to 16 interceptions.
Fitzpatrick played poorly enough that the Bills may try to get out of his contract before 2012 even starts, which would mean Fitzpatrick really won’t have anything to prove since he won’t be starting. If they do stick with him though, Fitzpatrick has to show the Bills that they didn’t make a colossal mistake in signing him. Fitzpatrick also may need to do this without his best receiver if the team allows wide receiver Steve Johnson to walk in free agency.
8. Kevin Kolb, QB, Arizona Cardinals
Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Kevin Kolb signed a five-year, $63 million contract with the Arizona Cardinals after just seven career NFL starts, and he did nothing in year one to make the Cardinals feel they had made the right decision.
Kolb missed seven games due to an ankle injury, and when John Skelton stepped in and won enough games, it causes a mini-quarterback controversy in Arizona. Kolb threw just nine touchdowns to eight interceptions, completed fewer than 60 percent of his passes, and won just three starts.
Kolb has a lot to prove in 2012. He has a big-name wide receiver in Larry Fitzgerald, arguably the best in the NFL. He has a good running back in Beanie Wells, and Kolb just needs to put it together or the Cardinals may look to get out of his contract.
7. Michael Vick, QB, Philadelphia Eagles
Rob Carr/Getty Images
Michael Vick followed up an MVP caliber season in 2010 by regressing to the quarterback he had been in Atlanta. Vick’s 2011 season was marked by inconsistencies, inaccurate passing, a high number of turnovers, and costly injuries.
In other words, he played much like the quarterback that made three Pro Bowls for the Falcons from 2002 to 2006. Vick may even be without his best weapon in 2012, as DeSean Jackson is set to hit free agency and might test the market with another team. The positives are there though: Vick is fully healthy, LeSean McCoy, Brent Celek, and Jeremy Maclin are still young and in their prime, and the defense should be significantly better than it was in 2011, thus taking more pressure off Vick to make plays and lead fourth quarter comebacks.
The Philadelphia Eagles should take part of the blame for giving Vick a $100 million contract that he clearly did not deserve, but Vick also hasn’t done his part thus far. The team can release him after the ’12 season at little to no penalty, and Vick better put forth a strong season to prove to the Eagles that he can still be effective.
6. Sam Bradford, QB, St. Louis Rams
Jay Drowns/Getty Images
Sam Bradford’s 2011 season wasn’t as bad as the numbers: 53.5 completion percentage, 6 TD, 6 INT, 70.5 passer rating, and a 1-9 record in his 10 starts. He suffered from arguably the worst offensive line play in the NFL, a subpar group of receivers, an underachieving group of tight ends, and a 26th ranked defense.
Bradford’s 2010 rookie campaign was good enough that the St. Louis Rams know his capabilities: In that season, Bradford threw for 3,512 yards, 18 touchdowns, and took every snap under center for the Rams. He is smart, efficient, and intelligent. Bradford knows how to lead the offense, and the Rams aren’t doing him any favors with Rodger Saffold or Jason Smith manning the tackle positions.
Bradford could easily bounce back in 2012, but it’s going to take more of a team effort in this case. Bradford was plagued with 31 drops in 358 pass attempts, the highest ratio of drops of any quarterback in the league. Yet for as bad as the rest of the team is, Bradford’s sharp decline in completion and touchdown percentage had to be alarming to Rams fans that though they had their quarterback for the next decade.
5. Chris Johnson, RB, Tennessee Titans
Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Chris Johnson finished the 2011 season with 1,053 rushing yards and a 4.0 yards per carry average on 262 carries. While those aren’t on par with his 2,000-yard season of ’09, it still put Johnson 13th in the NFL in rushing yards.
What was Johnson’s downfall was his inconsistency: He rushed for fewer than 30 yards on five different occasions, and he turned in some all-time awful performances: 10 carries for 18 yards, 12 carries for 13 yards, and 11 carries for 23 yards. Johnson had enough explosive games that his numbers still turned out ok in the long run, but the Titans didn’t give Johnson a four-year, $53 million contract for the kind of year he turned in.
Johnson was slow, lacked explosiveness, and often played like he didn’t want to be hit during the 2011 season. Simply put, he played like a man that wanted his money, got it, and didn’t want to play the game anymore. There were reports saying that the Titans might even cut Johnson this offseason.
They can still cut him before March and save a boatload of money, but they probably won’t do that at this point. This means Johnson must prove in 2012 that he is still one of the league’s elite rushers, and that his season of being CJ2YPC was a fluke.
4. Tim Tebow, QB, Denver Broncos
He played well enough down the stretch in 2011 to earn the starting spot in 2012, although he may still be on a short leash. Tebow showed flashes of brilliance, like his heroic fourth-quarter comebacks and his historic performance against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC wild card game, but also struggled mightily at times, none more so than in the Week 17 game against the Kansas City Chiefs or the divisional playoffs loss to the New England Patriots.
Tebow still doesn’t have the playmakers a young quarterback needs, and the Denver Broncos would be smart to try to upgrade their interior offensive line and give Tebow a security blanket at tight end and maybe another big wide receiver to go with 2010 first round pick Demaryius Thomas.
Brady Quinn, Tebow’s backup, is a former first round pick himself, and GM John Elway may be tempted to see what Quinn can do if Tebow falters. After all, Quinn is a much more traditional pocket passing NFL quarterback, and Tebow doesn’t project as a long-term starter given his limited passing skills.
3. Josh Freeman, QB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Josh Freeman sandwiched an incredible 2010 season between a dreadful rookie campaign and an equally as awful third season.
Freeman was a first-round pick of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the 2009 draft, and he’s a dual threat to pass or run the football—when he’s effective. Freeman set the bar too high with an outstanding ’10 in which he threw 25 touchdowns to just six interceptions and led five fourth-quarter comebacks. He came back to earth in 2011, seeing his touchdown total drop to 16 and his interception total balloon to 22.
Remarkably, Freeman raised his completion percentage from 61.4 to 62.8, threw for over 100 more passing yards, improved his sack rate, and ran for four touchdowns a year after running for none. As a result, the signs indicate Freeman won’t be a bust; his ’10 season was probably just a career year followed by an unusually poor year.
Either way, Freeman must prove in 2012 that he can still be a quality quarterback or else the Buccaneers may start looking elsewhere.
2. Matt Flynn, QB, Green Bay Packers
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Matt Flynn won’t be on the Green Bay Packers next season, unless the team uses its franchise tag on him, and that’s highly unlikely.
Flynn has been linked to many teams, but it seems most plausible that he will go to either the Miami Dolphins or Seattle Seahawks. Chad Henne is a free agent for the Dolphins, and the team probably doesn’t want to go with Matt Moore again. Factor in that Miami’s new head coach is Joe Philbin, the former offensive coordinator of the Packers, and Flynn to the Dolphins seems like a high probability.
That means Flynn will be under a lot of pressure to produce in 2012. He played extremely well in his only start in 2011, throwing for an unbelievable 480 yards and six touchdowns in a Week 17 win over the Detroit Lions. If he can throw for 3,500 yards and 20-25 touchdowns, his new team will be happy. But if he turns into the next Kevin Kolb, he will be on a short leash.
1. Peyton Manning, QB, Indianapolis Colts
Joe Robbins/Getty Images
This may not even be an option because Peyton Manning's NFL career might be done. Every week or so, a different story breaks about Manning not being able to throw the ball to his left, Manning deciding to retire,or Manning and Andrew Luck not being a good fit on the same team.
If Manning plays in 2012, the top targets seem to be the New York Jets, Miami Dolphins, Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers, or Washington Redskins. If he is healthy, that team receives an immediate upgrade: Manning is a four-time NFL MVP, an 11-time Pro Bowler, and an eight-time All-Pro. He has a Super Bowl ring with the Indianapolis Colts following the 2006 season, and he has helped the Colts to the playoffs in 10 different seasons.
The last time he played, he threw for 4,700 yards and 33 touchdowns, while setting an NFL record with 450 completions. He has thrown for at least 4,000 yards and 27 touchdowns in each of the past five seasons, and assuming he is at full strength again in 2012, he should be a league MVP candidate.
Then again, maybe he won’t be very effective. Manning is 35 years old, he has had three neck surgeries in the past two years and just because he can play doesn’t mean he will still be good. If Manning comes back and isn’t very good, it will likely hurt his legacy. It shouldn’t, not after all Manning has done over the last 14 years, but it will be the last thing people remember about him. And that’s what makes Manning the player with the most to prove in 2012.