Which NFL Players Are on the Hot Seat Entering the Regular Season?

Stephen WhiteFeatured ColumnistSeptember 3, 2012

Which NFL Players Are on the Hot Seat Entering the Regular Season?

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    Everyone is excited about the impending start of the 2012 NFL regular season. For some players, however, this year could be a turning point in their careers.

    There a guys trying to come back off of injury and prove they belong in the league.

    There are others who are trying to bounce back from unproductive seasons a year ago.

    Whatever the case may be, these players are now on the hot seat. If something doesn't change for the better for them this season, then they are likely going to have to be moving on and trying to start over with a new team next year.

Gerald McCoy

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    Right or wrong, Gerald McCoy is always going to be judged against Ndamukong Suh because he was drafted right behind him at No. 3 overall in the 2010 draft. 

    Their rookie year, Suh bagged 10 sacks and made the Pro Bowl, while McCoy notched only three sacks and ended the year on injured reserved with a torn biceps muscle.

    Having had such an impressive rookie season, people were so excited about Suh that few noticed he only had four sacks last season. This was the perfect opportunity for McCoy to close the gap, but after starting the season looking much improved, he again found himself on injured reserve after tearing the biceps muscle in his other arm after only six games. 

    For a guy drafted so high, McCoy needs to be producing at a much higher level. The problem has largely been his inability to stay healthy. In the NFL, however, there is no room for excuses—even legitimate ones. This year, his third in the NFL, will be crucial for the Buccaneers' evaluation process.

    Still just 24, if the former Oklahoma Sooner can stay healthy, McCoy has a chance to be a special player at defensive tackle. If he once again can't finish the season, the Buccaneers will likely start looking for his replacement.

     

    Hot seat temperature: High

Darren McFadden

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    Darren McFadden has teased Oakland Raiders fans with his ability for each of his four seasons in the NFL, but he still hasn't played a full 16 games.

    Two years ago in 2010 he started 13 games and ran for 1,157 yards while averaging over five yards a carry. That's the kind of production Oakland needs out of him the whole season, and if they ever get it, there's no telling what kind of statistics he could put up.

    McFadden will never live up to his full potential if he cannot get past his health issues, however. 

     

    Hot seat temperature: Medium

Michael Vick

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    I think we can all agree that a healthy Michael Vick is one of the hardest players—not quarterbacks, but players—to defend against in the NFL. In nine pro seasons he has only started a full 16 games once, however.

    Health isn't the only issue at this point with Vick. He has much better offensive weapons around him now with the Philadelphia Eagles than he ever had with the Atlanta Falcons. He has to make better decisions with the ball to take advantage of that fact. He was able to do that in 2010, completing over 60 percent of his passes and throwing only six interceptions against 21 touchdowns.

    Last season, however, he threw 14 interceptions against only 18 touchdowns.

    The Eagles have brought in a lot of free agents and high draft picks as they are thinking Super Bowl right now. They don't have time to wait for Vick to get over injuries or for him to find his rhythm—he needs to be available and playing at a high level all season, because their window will close fast.

    If one or both of those don't happen this year, then the team may be forced to go a different direction behind center much sooner than expected, as his contract may dictate.

     

    Hot seat temperature: High

Anthony Spencer

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    One of the bigger head-scratching moves of the offseason was when the Dallas Cowboys decided to retain Anthony Spencer with the franchise tag. It's not that Spencer is a bad player—he is a decent starter, in fact. However, most 3-4 outside linebackers don't get paid almost $9 million without having first had at least one year with double-digit sacks.

    Spencer's case is even weaker when you consider the fact that he plays opposite All-Pro OLB DeMarcus Ware. It's hard to understand how Spencer hasn't been more productive as a pass-rusher with Ware drawing so much attention.

    The Cowboys may be paying him a lot of money this season, but that doesn't necessarily guarantee him field time on pass-rushing opportunities. His teammate, Victor Butler, has shown a much better knack for rushing the passer and figures to get plenty of playing time on 3rd-and-long situations. 

    That means Spencer will likely have to try to improve his statistics while playing fewer reps. While that is possible for him to do, it's not likely he can pull it off. And that means this season is probably going to be Anthony Spencer's last in a Cowboys uniform should Butler be able to deliver.

     

    Hot seat temperature: Super-high

Ryan Mathews

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    Ryan Mathews had some huge shoes to fill when he essential replaced future Hall of Famer LaDainian Tomlinson in San Diego. So far in his first two seasons, the returns have been mixed.

    While he has missed a total of six games, he has played pretty well when healthy. Last season he quietly surpassed the 1,000-yard rushing mark and averaged just under five yards a carry in 14 starts. 

    Still, as the No. 12 overall pick in the 2010 draft, the expectations are for Mathews to produce at more of a Pro Bowl level. Heading into his third season, it's time for Mathews to show that he is ready and able to carry the team on his back.

    He isn't off to such a good start so far, as he broke his collarbone in the first preseason game. He has vowed to be back for the first regular-season game, however, so he still has a shot to make it happen this year.

     

    Hot seat temperature: Medium

Kyle Vanden Bosch

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    Kyle Vanden Bosch is the kind of guy you always want to have on your team. He has a motor that just won't quit and is relentless every single play trying to get to whomever has the ball.

    He couldn't set a greater example for the young talent on the Detroit Lions defensive line, showing them how an NFL player should give everything they've got on every single play.

    Having said that, the reality is Vanden Bosch hasn't cracked double digits in sacks since 2007, and he's only done it one other time in his 11-year career. He did come close last year with eight sacks, but with teammates like Ciff Avril and Ndamukong Suh drawing a lot of attention on passing downs, you would think Vanden Bosch would be more productive.

    As good as he is as a leader and hard worker, Vanden Bosch still has to feel teammate Willie Young breathing down his neck. Heading into his third season, Young has had a dominant preseason and looks primed for a breakout. 

    I imagine if Vanden Bosch wasn't so respected in the locker room, he might have already been replaced by Young at this point. How long can coaches afford to continue leaving the more productive Young on the bench? 

    The answer to that question will coincide with Vanden Bosch's seat going up in flames.

     

    Hot seat temperature: Three-alarm Fire

Jay Cutler

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    Jay Cutler took a lot of unwarranted criticism in 2010 for not reentering the NFC Championship Game with a knee injury. Then, last season, he missed six games with a thumb injury and the Bears' playoff hopes went down the drain. 

    Much of the problem with keeping Cutler healthy was former offensive coordinator Mike Martz's obsession with sending all five eligible receivers out on routes, leaving an average offensive line (at best) as the only protection for Cutler on passing plays.

    Now with Mike Tice assuming offensive coordinator duties, you can expect to see more maximum protection, which should do well for Cutler's health and production. 

    The Bears also upgraded the talent around their QB by trading for Brandon Marshall, signing free agent running back Michael Bush, and investing a second-round pick on talented wideout Alshon Jeffery.

    You add it all together and there are no more excuses for Cutler. He is now in position to lead his team to an NFC North title and maybe even more. If he can't get it done with all the changes and upgrades, the Bears will have to try to go out and find someone who can.

    That Bears defense isn't getting any younger, so if the organization wants to win a title, they need to do it sooner rather than later. 

     

    Hot seat temperature: High

Bart Scott

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    While Bart Scott is still good for a sound bite, his play fell off precipitously last season. He notched the lowest tackle total since becoming a full-time starter for the Baltimore Ravens in 2005. There was even heavy speculation that he wouldn't be back with the Jets this year . 

    Scott didn't end up getting traded or released and the Jets have reportedly been impressed with his play this preseason. But his standing is still a bit tenuous, so he can't get comfortable at all. 

    The Jets spent a third-round pick on linebacker Demario Davis, and he has drawn Ray Lewis comparisons from head coach Rex Ryan. Davis, though, was hampered early on in training camp after pulling a hamstring in a conditioning test, and he didn't really make an impact in the preseason games.

    However, it's likely the Jets will be pushing to ready the rookie for significant playing time in case Scott's play drops off again. Scott better play like a man possessed, especially if he is going to keep making wild predictions.

     

    Hot seat temperature: Medium-high

Michael Crabtree

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    Michael Crabtree's production has increased every year, but heading into his fourth season in the NFL, he still hasn't put up the numbers expected of a top-10 draft pick. He has never had a season with 1,000 yards receiving and his career high for touchdowns is just six.

    Obviously, it's still early in his career, but the San Francisco 49ers need Crabtree to be the dominant No. 1 receiver they drafted him to be. They have Super Bowl aspirations, and it's going to be hard to do that without maximum production from Crabtree.

    As proof that the 49ers are seeking more production out of their wide receivers, you can look at the fact that they went out and signed Mario Manningham and Randy Moss and drafted A. J. Jenkins in the first round of this year's draft.

    They may has well have hung a neon sign in front of Crabtree's locker putting him on notice.

    In past years Crabtree's lack of high-level production could be blamed on a revolving door of offensive coordinators and the poor play of quarterback Alex Smith. The days of excuses appear to be over, however, and he is going to have to fight every game to keep his starting position.

     

    Hot seat temperature: High

Matt Cassel

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    Matt Cassel was pretty impressive for the Chiefs in 2010, passing for over 3,000 yards with 27 touchdowns and only seven interceptions. The NFL is a "what have you done for me lately?" league, however, and his injury-plagued 2011 has some people, including some in his own organization, questioning if he is the right man for the job.

    Even before Cassel hurt his hand after nine games and had to go on injured reserve, his statistics were pretty bad. Nine interceptions against only 10 touchdowns, along with five fumbles, is simply not winning football. There were solid explanations for some of it, like the fact that several of his offensive weapons also went down to injury.

    Nobody wants to hear explanations or excuses, however—they want checks in the win column.

    Now Cassel gets a somewhat fresh start with a new head coach in Romeo Crennel and a new offensive coordinator in Brian Daboll. With Jamaal Charles back healthy after tearing his ACL last season, and the addition of Peyton Hillis in free agency, Cassel should also have a good running game to help take some of the pressure off his shoulders. 

    He also has some amazingly talented wide receivers in Dwayne Bowe, Jon Baldwin, Steve Breaston and Dexter McCluster.  

    If he can't succeed with this much talent around him, then he can only blame himself. 

    The Chiefs have assembled a roster with enough talent to win right now. I can't see them giving Cassel much more time to prove he's the man.

     

    Hot seat temperature: medium high

Ray Edwards

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    After a couple very solid seasons with the Minnesota Vikings, the Atlanta Falcons brought in DE Ray Edwards on a five-year, $30 million deal to take some of the load off of their Pro Bowl defensive end, John Abraham.

    In his first season with the Falcons, Edwards didn't do much to live up to such lofty expectations and a large contract, notching only three-and-a-half sacks in 16 games.

    The Falcons have designs on getting to the Super Bowl, and to get there they are going to need Edwards to play a lot better. There is no reason why he shouldn't be more productive playing opposite of Abraham. 

    Edwards is going to need to find a way to bounce back and be a lot more productive this season, or there is no way he will come close to seeing the end of his contract. 

     

    Hot seat temperature: High

Josh Freeman

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    Will the real Josh Freeman please stand up?

    Is he the guy who led his team to 10 wins in 2010, throwing for almost 3,500 yards with 25 touchdowns and only six interceptions? 

    Or is he the guy who threw 22 interceptions against only 16 touchdowns in 2011 while his team suffered through a 10-game losing streak to end the season?

    The answer to that question will shape the future of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers franchise. Tampa's first-round pick in the '09 draft, Freeman is entering his fourth season in the pros. How he performs this year will determine whether the Bucs give him a rich contract extension, or force them to look elsewhere.

    Recognizing this, the Buccaneers went out and invested heavily on the offensive side of the ball. They signed wide receiver Vincent Jackson and guard Carl Nicks to big contracts in free agency, and added veteran tight end Dallas Clark to replace Kellen Winslow Jr., who they traded to Seattle.

    Then the Bucs drafted running back Doug Martin in the first round this year to give Freeman a potent weapon out of the backfield. 

    Even with the loss of Pro Bowl guard Davin Joseph for the year to injury, expectations are high for this reshaped Buccaneer offense. Freeman is going to have to have a big year to come close to living up to those expectations.

    He has shown that the ability is there, but last season was a major letdown. His footwork was bad and he locked in on receivers instead of reading the coverage and throwing to the open man. And when things started to go bad, his play followed suit—not what you're looking for in a franchise quarterback.

    With the rookie cap, the cost of drafting quarterbacks so high is a lot lower than it used to be. If Freeman can't get back on track this season, I would expect the Buccaneers to try to draft his successor next year.

     

    Hot seat temperature: Super-high