NFL Rookies with the Most to Prove in 2013
Now that the NFL draft is over, players are starting to report to rookie minicamps to begin the journey that hopefully results in a spot on their respective teams' final 53-man roster later in the summer.
Some, however, are fighting for more than a roster spot. They are looking for respect, hoping to defy expectations or to transcend what may have been a disappointing college career or draft position.
Here are the top 10 2013 NFL rookies who have the most to prove in their first season in the league.
QB Geno Smith, New York Jets
Once considered the draft's top quarterback prospect, Geno Smith ended up falling all the way to the Round 2 as the second quarterback selected, going 39th overall to the New York Jets.
To say that Smith has something to prove this year is an understatement.
First, he'll need to practice through what must be an enormous chip on his shoulder, a result of his draft dip. Second, he'll need to do so while navigating the shark-infested waters of the New York media. Third, he'll have to handle all of that pressure while trying to unseat incumbent starter Mark Sanchez and beat out the rest of his competition.
Smith must do all this while being part of a Jets roster that is trying to bail water out of a sinking ship. The Jets need a savior, and Smith may be it—but he has a longer way to go to prove it, with so much competition for the job and a draft slide that cannot be ignored.
S Tyrann Mathieu, Arizona Cardinals
Former LSU cornerback Tyrann Mathieu's campaign to turn around his public image prior to the NFL draft was apparently a success, as his past off-field problems didn't scare away the Arizona Cardinals, who drafted him in Round 3.
But now, Mathieu needs to prove that his past issues will remain just that and he was worth such a valuable pick. Further, he'll need to do it while switching from cornerback to free safety.
Troubled college players can certainly come into the NFL and turn their lives around, but Mathieu will be under close scrutiny in his rookie season until he has proved he's changed.
DE Ziggy Ansah, Detroit Lions
The Detroit Lions didn't mind that defensive end Ziggy Ansah had very minimal football experience when they drafted him in the first round, but the fact that he's so green when it comes to football and was drafted so high means that all eyes will be on him in his rookie season.
Ansah was a walk-on for BYU's football team in his sophomore year and didn't assume starting duties until 2012. He was impressive once he did, notching 62 combined tackles, 13 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks and nine pass breakups.
The sample size is small and the learning curve from college to the NFL steep, so Ansah will need to prove that he was worthy of being a first-round pick.
CB D.J. Hayden, Oakland Raiders
D.J. Hayden was an excellent college cornerback who suffered a freak, near-fatal injury when his interior vena cava was torn away from his heart as a result of a collision during practice. The injury is beyond rare in the sports world, and while his recovery is nothing short of miraculous, it doesn't diminish how much Hayden will have to prove this year.
Hayden went from the serious injury to the NFL draft, being taken in the first round by the Oakland Raiders. The scrutiny on Hayden will be more about his ability to stay healthy; he'll need to prove that the injury won't have any bearing on his play in Oakland.
LB Arthur Brown, Baltimore Ravens
Former Kansas State inside linebacker Arthur Brown walked into a seemingly great situation when the Baltimore Ravens drafted him in the second round this year—they're reigning Super Bowl champions and perennial postseason players, and they have a vacant starting spot on the inside of their linebacking corps with his name on it.
Why is that spot vacant, though? Because Ray Lewis retired. Lewis, the heart and soul of not just the Ravens defense, but their entire team, the future Hall of Famer, the face and name that most defines the Ravens' years of success.
While no one expects Brown to fill Lewis' shoes, especially as a rookie, that doesn't diminish how much pressure is on him as Lewis' apparent successor. He'll need to prove that he can make the job his own.
QB E.J. Manuel, Buffalo Bills
Though quarterback EJ Manuel may not win the Buffalo Bills' starting job in his rookie season, the expectation is that he'll be starting at some point in the near future, considering he was drafted 16th overall in the first round.
Should Kevin Kolb be Buffalo's starter come Week 1, every mistake he makes will be yet another rallying cry for Bills fans who want to see Manuel take the field. And once he does, his every flaw and success will be magnified. He is a quarterback, after all.
At some point, Manuel will have to prove that he's a first-round quarterback. That pressure will remain even if his rookie year is spent on the bench.
RB Eddie Lacy, Green Bay Packers
The Green Bay Packers needed to upgrade their run game this year, so it wasn't particularly surprising when they selected running back Eddie Lacy in the second round. What was surprising, however, is that the Packers took another running back, Johnathan Franklin, in Round 4.
The pressure is on Lacy to prove that he can out-perform the dynamic Franklin and be the Packers' lead running back. Further, the rumors that Lacy dropped past the running back-needy Pittsburgh Steelers based on injury concerns means he must also prove that he's not a medical liability.
Lacy went from being considered the top running back in the draft to a potential bust based on how well he ran behind Alabama's stellar offensive line that could have boosted his stats and his disappointing pro day. He'll need to play well this year to shake off the doubters.
CB Dee Milliner, New York Jets
The New York Jets had no choice but to trade away star cornerback Darrelle Revis this offseason, which left them with a major roster hole to fill. To do so, they selected Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner with their first-round, ninth overall draft pick.
Milliner was considered by many to be the best corner in this year's draft, but that's a far cry from being a perfect replacement for Revis, the NFL's top corner (pending his return from a torn ACL). Milliner's five surgeries—including one on each shoulder—don't help shield him from doubt either.
To come into the Jets—a team in turmoil under intense media scrutiny—and take over a job vacated by one of the best corners to have ever played the game is a tough introduction to the NFL, but that's what Milliner will have to do. To say he has a lot to prove this year is an understatement.
LB Manti Te'o, San Diego Chargers
No matter where linebacker Manti Te'o ended up, there'd be eyes on him in his rookie season. Though the San Diego Chargers provide him with a bit of a shield from the inevitable media scrutiny, it still doesn't mean he has any less to prove in 2013.
The Chargers selected Te'o with the 38th overall pick in Round 2. In the NFL, he'll have to show that he didn't simply become a household name because of a tragedy that proved to be a hoax and that his down performance against Alabama in the BCS title game was just a fluke.
If Te'o can be a three-down linebacker, he'll help quiet his critics. Anything less—and too many missed tackles—and the Chargers won't be treated politely for taking him in the draft. Te'o must prove that he's a talented player to make his bizarre backstory a footnote to his football career.
OT Eric Fisher, Kansas City Chiefs
If there's any rookie under serious scrutiny, it's the one taken with the first overall pick of the draft. This year, that's offensive tackle Eric Fisher of the Kansas City Chiefs.
Initially, Fisher was drafted with the hopes that the Chiefs could trade incumbent left tackle Branden Albert to the Miami Dolphins or some other team. The trade possibility fell through, and now Fisher will be lining up at right tackle with Albert on the left.
The Chiefs need to get their offensive house in order. They made one significant step in doing so by bringing on Alex Smith to be their new starting quarterback. Next, he must be protected and the run game must also be effective, which is where Albert and, of course, Fisher come in.
While it's a rush to be drafted first overall, the pressure to prove you're worth it can become overwhelming. A lot is being asked of Fisher and he'll need to meet expectations.