NFL Players with the Most to Prove in 2012
There will be several players in 2012 facing what could be make-or-break seasons, while others will be returning from injury or joining a new team.
How each plays will be a key factor in his respective team's fortunes this season.
In the NFL, the quarterback often gets the credit when his team wins and the blame when it loses. As such, many of those signal-callers will appear in this article.
But there are other players who need to meet or exceed expectations, be it bouncing back from a bad season or coming to a new team after signing a lucrative contract.
What follows is a look at the players with the most to prove this season and my feelings on whether they will succeed or fail.
Mark Sanchez, Quarterback, New York Jets
This seems like a pretty obvious place to start.
Now, as much as the Jets want to say there's no quarterback controversy on this team, there is, or there most certainly will be.
That is, unless Sanchez can play well enough to make the world forget Tebow.
After leading his team to back-to-back appearances in the AFC Championship game, Sanchez seemed to regress in 2011, despite throwing for more yardage and having a higher QB rating than in his first two seasons.
He faced plenty of scrutiny following a disappointing 8-8 season, as he did in this interview with former Jets quarterback Boomer Esiason.
As long as Rex Ryan is around, the Jets are going to have high expectations despite missing the playoffs, and I can't think of a worse way to rattle an already shaky quarterback than by bringing in someone like Tebow.
I don't think Sanchez will be able to perform under the pressure of having Tebow lurking on the sideline, even if the season starts well. It will only take a few mistakes for the "Tebow" chants to start, and they will. Tebow will start games for the Jets this season.
Andrew Luck, Quarterback, Indianapolis
After being drafted No.1 in the 2012 NFL draft, it's clear the expectations for Andrew Luck are high. So high, in fact, that some have compared him to the guy who used to quarterback the Colts, Peyton Manning.
Luck was considered a "sure thing" coming out of Stanford and it was common knowledge he'd be the first pick of this draft. But no one imagined that the Colts would let go of Manning if that situation arose.
Luck has his work cut out for him and some very big shoes to fill.
The Colts are in an obvious rebuilding stage and are going to lose a lot. But Luck will have a smooth transition into the NFL and will post decent numbers in his rookie season, showing signs of the great quarterback he will one day turn into.
Chris Johnson, Running Back, Tennessee
"CJ2K" was barely "CJ1K" in 2011.
Yes, he ran for 2,000 yards in 2009, earning him his famous nickname. But last season, he only produced half of that while also gaining just 4.0 yards per carry, a career low.
Johnson's holdout prior to the start of last season seemed to be the catalyst for the shockingly bad year he had on the field. Reports even surfaced that that Titans might release him before the start of this season.
Johnson comes into this season needing to redeem himself and get back to his previous form.
Johnson is still one of the premier running backs in the NFL. While he may slip down some fantasy football draft boards, with the benefit of a full training camp, he will have a much better season than last year.
Blaine Gabbert, Quarterback, Jacksonville
Blaine Gabbert had a mostly forgettable rookie season and needs to bounce back to justify the team making him a first-round draft pick.
It's not all Gabbert's fault. He didn't have many weapons on offense last year as the Jags went 5-11.
He has a new head coach in Mike Mularkey as well as some new teammates who should help him get his career going in the right direction.
Justin Blackmon was taken fifth overall in the draft and they brought in free-agent wide receiver Laurent Robinson.
But they also signed quarterback Chad Henne, a veteran who has started for the Miami Dolphins. Will Gabbert be on a short leash?
Whether it's the team or Gabbert himself, things were really ugly last year. They have made some improvements, but the holdout of Maurice Jones-Drew and the DUI arrest of Blackmon are the two biggest headlines for this team this year. I think we will see Henne relieve Gabbert at some point during the season.
Peyton Manning, Quarterback, Denver
When you miss an entire season and you turn 36 years old, you're going to have something to prove.
Add that Peyton Manning will be playing for a new team and there's even more pressure.
But the Broncos made it clear they weren't worried about his age or his multiple neck surgeries. They feel he's still one of the game's best players and proved that by signing him to a five-year, $96 million contract.
So now it's up to Peyton to show what he can do in orange and blue. Will the Broncos be getting the Peyton of old?
Manning is going to be fine in Denver. Unlike with Tim Tebow, the entire organization is behind him and is building the team around him and what he can do. Manning will have a solid 2012 season and will show he still has the ability to be a Pro Bowl quarterback.
Philip Rivers, Quarterback, San Diego
The window certainly seems to be closing on Rivers and head coach Norv Turner, if it hasn't already.
Prior to the start of free agency, the Chargers were the fifth-oldest team in the league. Add that the Chargers lost Rivers' main deep threat in Vincent Jackson as well as bruising running back Mike Tolbert and the situation becomes even more dire.
The Chargers did sign Eddie Royal and Robert Meachem as free agents to shore up the receiver position. But will that give them the weapons they need to make a deep playoff run?
Rivers is coming off a career-worst 27 turnovers in 2011 and will have to be more careful with the ball. Those turnovers directly contributed to many of the Chargers' losses.
Prediction: Somewhere in the middle.
I feel Rivers will have a better season statistically, but I don't see the Chargers reaching their ultimate goal of a Super Bowl title. In fact, I predict they will miss the playoffs altogether.
Ryan Mathews, Running Back, San Diego
This is more a case of the team putting pressure on the player than anything else.
There isn't much depth behind Mathews, so he will be asked to carry a heavy load. He's only averaged 14 carries a game over the course of his career.
I don't say that because Mathews isn't a good player, I say that because I feel the Chargers are asking too much of a guy who has had injury issues. If the Chargers sign another veteran back or if Brown really surprises, it could work. But I don't see Mathews as a player who can carry the load over a 16-game stretch.
Jamaal Charles, Running Back, Kansas City
Jamaal Charles had a breakout season in 2010 after a strong 2009 campaign.
Going into 2011, everyone was excited about what he would do. Then he went down with a torn ACL in the second week of the season.
When everyone is healthy, the Chiefs have a stout rushing attack. Charles will be back to 100 percent, and I feel the addition of Hillis will only make him better. They could become a modern day thunder-and- lightning combination.
Mario Williams, Defensive End, Buffalo
Ah, the first defensive player on the list.
The Bills acquired the best defensive player on this year's free-agent market, signing him to a $100 million deal.
With 53 sacks already in his career, Williams has the Bills hoping he will be the type of player they used to have in Bruce Smith.
Prediction: Success, in terms of individual success.
The Bills are a sexy pick to make the playoffs, but I don't see it just yet. They will, however, be happy with the production they get out of ''Super Mario.''
Tony Romo, Quarterback, Dallas
How long will that go on in Big D?
Romo threw for 4,184 yards and 31 touchdowns last year, but the Cowboys still missed the playoffs.
The thing that has always stuck out for me about Romo is his play under pressure. When the Cowboys really need it, he doesn't have it.
Prediction: Somewhere in the middle.
Just like Rivers, Romo will have a good season in the numbers category, but he'll have the familiar zero in the column for playoff wins.
Robert Griffin III, Quarterback, Washington
The Redskins have had to deal with inconsistent quarterback play from Rex Grossman, John Beck, Donovan McNabb and Jason Campbell over the last several years, so they decided it was time to bring in someone who can be there for a long time.
Is ''RG3'' that guy? The Redskins sure hope so.
Last year's Heisman winner will be the opening day starter and will help usher in a new brand of Redskin football.
This guy is very talented and will acclimate well to the NFL. The question will be how long that will take. Griffin said it was "a dream" to be playing for head coach Mike Shanahan.
Cam Newton, Quarterback, Carolina
Cam Newton had the kind of season most rookies only dream of. Because of the way he did it, people are going to expect an encore.
Along with throwing for more than 4,000 yards and accounting for 35 touchdowns, Newton set all-time rookie marks for passing yards in a game, most touchdowns by a rookie, most rushing touchdowns by a rookie quarterback and was the first rookie to throw for 400 yards in back-to-back games.
The big question now? Can he win more games?
The Panthers went 6-10 in 2011 and they'll be expected to improve on that this year. Some people even like them as a dark-horse playoff team.
Newton is already one of the NFL's most dynamic players and that is going to continue. While it's hard to say if the team is ready to make a playoff leap, there will be no "sophomore slump" for Newton.
New Orleans Saints
With the offseason that the Saints have had, the whole team and organization are under pressure.
The Saints have more to prove than anyone on this list due to the sheer amount of negativity they've faced since the season ended.
It will be a roller-coaster year for them. But they are a good team that has great chemistry.
As I've stated before, I feel the Saints will overcome everything that has happened and will win the NFC South. They do need to do right by Brees, however, and come to terms on a new contract with him.
Sam Bradford, Quarterback, St. Louis
Much like Blaine Gabbert, much of Sam Bradford's struggles can be attributed to the team around him.
But this should be a different year for the Rams. The former No.1 overall pick is heading into the third year of his career and this time he'll have Jeff Fisher as his new head coach.
Bradford had a solid rookie campaign, but in 2011 he threw just six touchdown passes and played in only 10 games.
The Rams showed their commitment to Bradford when they passed on drafting Robert Griffin III. Now it's time for him to turn the corner.
The team signed Cortland Finnegan and Scott Wells through free agency and drafted Bradford a couple of new wide receivers in Brian Quick and Chris Givens.
Although maybe not immediately. Does Bradford have a true No.1 wide receiver? It's hard to say, but there are several guys with a chance to develop into that role. Bradford may still experience a few growing pains, but he's a great long-term player for this team.
Ndamukong Suh, Defensive Tackle, Detroit
Ndamukong Suh has a lot to prove this season.
Last season, Suh had his name in the news for negative reasons and quickly became one of the league's top "bad guys."
It was this stomp during a Thanksgiving Day game that drew the ire of most of his detractors.
But in the first two years of his career, the former Nebraska Cornhusker has 14 sacks from the defensive tackle position and can be the most dominant defensive player in the league at times.
Suh needs to get past his anger issues and calm down on the field a little, rather than penalize his team with these cheap shots and illegal hits. If he can do that, this is an easy one to predict. He is an incredible physical specimen on a team moving in the right direction.