The 12 Players with the Most to Prove at NFL OTAs
Byron Hetzler-USA TODAY Sports
Every NFL player has something to prove every year. However, some people's jobs depend on it more than others.
No matter how safe a player seems, things change very quickly in the NFL. Very few players have a guaranteed roster spot, and thus, every season comes with an opportunity to win or lose a job.
Whether it's a rookie looking to surpass expectations, a veteran looking to prove his worth, or any player looking to prove he fits in a particular scheme, there are a number of reasons for players to continue looking over their shoulders.
Here's one man's opinion on the 12 players with the most to prove during OTAs.
All contract information via OverTheCap.com.
Jets QB Mark Sanchez
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Let's just get the obvious one out of the way.
It's been a tough two years for Mark Sanchez. He has turned the ball over 50 times in that span—more than any other player in the NFL. He wasn't setting the world on fire in his first two years in the NFL, either; his passer rating of 70.2 was the second-worst of any starting quarterback from 2009 to 2010 (min. 16 starts, 300 pass attempts). From that point, though, he took the word "futility" at the quarterback position to a new level.
Sanchez can't prove that the past two years were a complete fluke at OTAs, but he can start on that path.
One important first step will be to show he has a grasp of the offense. Marty Mornhinweg is Sanchez's third different offensive coordinator in five years. It may help that his roots are in the West Coast offense, having studied it at USC, but will it be like riding a bike or will he fall off the seat?
If he falls off, David Garrard and/or Geno Smith will have extra time to catch up, and if Sanchez wants to stick around beyond 2013 (his roster status for next year is all but certain with an $8.25 million base salary), he'll have to show significant improvement in all facets of his game.
Steelers DE Cameron Heyward
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The Steelers often like to develop their young players and let them earn playing time as they grow into their roles in the NFL. Cameron Heyward is entering his third year, though, and thus far has been little more than a rotational defensive lineman. He played 24.1 percent of defensive snaps as a rookie, and 26.3 percent in his second year.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), he logged just five quarterback hurries, one hit and two sacks on 151 pass-rush attempts last season.
It was always the plan for him not to play too much as a rookie, but in 2012 he didn't earn playing time over Ziggy Hood, who has been regarded as one of the Steelers' worst picks in recent years. Heyward will likely once again be in a battle for snaps with Hood, who is entering a contract year.
It's too early to put Heyward anywhere near that category, but the former first-round selection has to get off to a good start at OTAs if he wants to prove the arrow is, indeed, pointing upward on his career trajectory.
Broncos RB Willis McGahee
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In the days prior to this year's draft, Broncos GM John Elway gave Willis McGahee a vote of confidence, stating, "We look at Willis as being that big back for us right now, and then we'll see what happens in the draft."
After the team drafted Montee Ball, the team immediately began gushing over his Terrell Davis-like potential. Even perceived negatives, such as Ball's substantial workload of 924 collegiate carries at Wisconsin, have been spun as positives by the Broncos coaching staff.
McGahee is coming back from a torn MCL and fractured leg, and will need to look fresh to avoid falling down the depth chart, or worse—be cut. He accounts for a $3 million cap hit in 2013, but releasing him would result in just $1 million of dead money.
Packers LB Desmond Bishop
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Desmond Bishop has quickly gone from a key component of the Packers defense to having a questionable future with the team. His 2012 season ended before it began, with a ruptured right hamstring landing him on injured reserve.
The Packers were actively shopping Bishop during the draft, but the trade talk never got off the ground because of the asking price. Given his role on the team (25 starts, 76 percent of snaps from 2010-2011), it's not surprising they'd want to get a solid return, but given the uncertain nature of his post-injury status, it's not surprising teams were hesitant to share the Packers' value of Bishop.
Linebacker Brad Jones became a bigger part of the Packers defensive game plan with Bishop out, and they re-signed Jones to a three-year, $11.25 million contract this offseason. Meanwhile, the Packers are scheduled for a $4.764 million cap hit with Bishop on the roster, but they would still have to take a $1.6 million cap hit if they cut him.
Bills QB EJ Manuel
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There's little doubt that EJ Manuel was one of the bigger surprises of the first round of the draft. He has size (6'5", 237 pounds) and speed (4.65-second 40-yard dash), but he's seen as a developmental project as a passer. He wasn't asked to make multiple reads with great frequency at Florida State, and also didn't make a great deal of pre-snap checks at the line.
Thus, Manuel's scouting report gives him something to prove in and of itself. Can he come in and quickly learn an NFL offense? Can his feet and speed allow him to succeed while he continues to develop his throwing skills?
If Manuel comes out of OTAs with a good foundation in the West Coast offense—or whatever style of offense Doug Marrone and Nathaniel Hackett opt to run—he will have gotten off to a good start. He'll be battling embattled veteran quarterback Kevin Kolb for the starting job, so Manuel could even emerge as the starter for Week 1.
Dolphins DE Jared Odrick
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When the Dolphins drafted Jared Odrick, it was part of a plan to build toward a 3-4 defense. Those plans went out the door with Tony Sparano and his coaching staff in 2011, and the Dolphins have been primarily a 4-3 defense under Kevin Coyle.
Odrick was played mainly at right defensive end for the Dolphins last year, but his playing time has been significantly compromised by the selection of defensive end Dion Jordan, who is much closer to a true fit as a pass-rushing 4-3 DE than Odrick.
Odrick's skill set makes him a better fit inside, but who knows if the Dolphins will be able to find him playing time there, with Paul Soliai and Randy Starks already taking up a bulk of the snaps in those spots.
The Dolphins might be building a more versatile defense with both 3-4 and 4-3 looks. But either way, Odrick figures to lose out on significant playing time as a result of both the selection of Jordan and the Dolphins' continued shift away from the 3-4 as their base defense.
Jaguars QB Blaine Gabbert
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Think Blaine Gabbert has something to prove this offseason?
It starts with him shedding "Blame" Gabbert, the nickname he earned around the team facility (according to a former Jaguars assistant via Yahoo! Sports). He needs to show up to practice, be accountable for learning the playbook, and earn the respect of his teammates and coaches.
Speaking of the playbook and coaches, those will both be brand new for Gabbert once again, as the Jaguars go through their third different coaching staff in the past three years.
A new coaching staff and regime does not struggle with residual attachment to a team's former first-round pick, and Gabbert is now on his third degree of separation in that regard. The top-to-bottom changes since Gabbert was drafted include the coaching staff, the general manager and the owner.
Gabbert and Chad Henne put up comparable stats (game logs for Gabbert and Henne for reference), and it wouldn't be surprising to see an open competition between the two. Either way, the team isn't likely to let go of Gabbert just yet; releasing him would result in roughly $3.8 million of dead money.
If he doesn't win the starting job this year, though, the team could move on from him next year and break even on the last year of his deal.
Bears KR/PR/WR Devin Hester
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Devin Hester is the most electric return man the NFL has ever seen, so what does he have to prove?
Well, he could start by answering the long-standing question of whether his physical gifts can translate into production at wide receiver. He's been phased in and out...and in and out of the offense. His numbers in 2012 (23 catches, 242 yards, one touchdown) were all his lowest season totals since 2007, his first year as a wideout.
That being said, he may not get the opportunity to prove himself on offense; head coach Marc Trestman has made it clear that Hester will strictly serve as a return specialist. Hester is entering the final year of his deal, and his $2.94 million cap hit is a heavy price for such a limited role. Likewise, it would only cost $833,335 in dead money to cut him.
Thus, not only does Hester have to prove he's substantially better than the next man up, but he may also have to take a paycut in the process.
Eagles OG Danny Watkins
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A sudden firestorm of circumstances have left Danny Watkins in danger of losing his job.
It started the day he was drafted. Watkins' biggest red flag coming out of Baylor was his age. He entered the 2011 draft at 26 years old, and he will turn 29 midway through the coming season.
It continued with what was deemed a "chronic" ankle injury, which kept him off the field in 2012. The injury was so chronic, in fact, that former head coach Andy Reid and the Eagles claimed to have known about the issue before even drafting him in the first round.
Now, he faces an uphill battle in not only proving he can stay healthy, but in proving he is a fit in the Eagles' new offense with Chip Kelly. He must also prove he is worth his $2.164 million cap hit, although with just $28,550 in cap savings, money would likely not be the deciding factor.
He simply hasn't played very well, and he gave up 16 combined pressures in the first six games of last season, according to Pro Football Focus.
Thus, the clock is already ticking for Watkins to show up and prove himself.
Cowboys C Phil Costa, RG Mackenzy Bernadeau and LG Nate Livings
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Three for the price of one, except this one could be costly for the Cowboys.
Phil Costa's 2012 season ended on injured reserve when he dislocated his ankle. The Cowboys recently signed him to a two-year, $2.7 million contract after owner Jerry Jones said in February that he could see Costa as the starting center for "several years." He'll need to come to camp at full health to ensure he keeps his job after the team drafted center Travis Frederick in the first round.
That being said, Frederick could be asked to play guard. After giving eight-figure contracts to guards Mackenzy Bernadeau and Nate Livings last offseason, the Cowboys aren't likely to ship either of them off. The two are signed through the 2015 and 2016 seasons, respectively, and each would result in a heavy cap hit if cut.
Heck, you could probably add Frederick to the list of Cowboys linemen with something to prove. He was considered anything from a third- to a seventh-round prospect leading up to the draft, and he will be under the microscope in his rookie season. Can he get acclimated to life in the NFL quickly and earn a starting job? Indeed, the entire Cowboys interior O-line needs to bring its A-game to OTAs.
Of the three listed, though, Costa has the most to prove by a long shot. At least Bernadeau and Livings have the added insurance of contracts that would be next to impossible to unload.