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NFL Stars with the Most to Prove in 2014

Nick KostosContributor IMay 22, 2014

NFL Stars with the Most to Prove in 2014

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    While we're almost four months removed from the conclusion of the 2013 NFL season, the failures and lackluster campaigns of certain teams and players still linger and remain fresh in the public consciousness. And as a result, a number of NFL stars have a lot to prove in 2014.

    The players who made this list did so for a multitude of reasons. Some had their work ethic and love for the game called into question, which means a sterling 2014 will be needed to eradicate those doubts. Others put forth their worst campaign in years and missed the playoffs as a result. And in the case of two stars, perceived "down" seasons have led to others challenging their titles as best in the league at their position.

    The good news for those listed here is that 2014 provides a fresh opportunity to either bounce back or once again show the world why they were considered the best in the league at what they do.

    Here are the NFL stars with the most to prove in 2014.

Bengals QB Andy Dalton

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    David Kohl/Associated Press

    Sometimes, statistics don't tell the entire story.

    The case of Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton exemplifies that fact.

    Last season, he set franchise records with 4,293 passing yards and 33 touchdowns, but he was atrocious in the club's Wild Card Round loss to San Diego, turning the ball over three times in hideous fashion.

    In three career playoff starts (all losses), he has thrown only one touchdown pass against six interceptions and has been the albatross around the team's neck.

    In the months leading up to the draft, I advocated that the Bengals needed to select a quarterback in the early rounds to push and potentially replace Dalton if he continues to play hot potato with the football in critical moments. Instead, the team waited until the fifth round to add a passer, Alabama's A.J. McCarron, who likely won't be a threat to usurp Dalton for playing time.

    That means the team will ride or die with Dalton in 2014. With the other three teams in the AFC North (Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Cleveland) all improving this offseason, Cincinnati's decision to not add a viable backup option ranks as a curious one.

    Another ingredient in his pressure cooker is that he's entering the final year of his rookie contract, and if he wants to get paid like a true franchise passer ($18 million and above per year), he'll need to improve his play and carry the team past the opening round of the postseason.

    No quarterback in the AFC has more to prove in 2014 than Dalton.

Giants QB Eli Manning

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    Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

    Imagine, for a moment, that you had a friend who had never watched football before last season. 

    You would have had to explain to this person that New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning was actually a two-time Super Bowl MVP who had played brilliantly at points during his NFL career. Of course, the friend wouldn't have believed you, as Manning threw grotesque interceptions as they were essential to his continued breathing.

    Last year, he led the NFL with 27 interceptions and generally looked inept. While the offensive line was dreadful and didn't give him much to work with, there's no denying that he was awful and authored his worst season since his rookie campaign in 2004.

    Manning stands at a career crossroads. Following triumph in Super Bowl XLVI, he seemed destined for the Hall of Fame. But now, even his most ardent supporters would have to admit that Canton is currently a long shot for Big Blue's franchise quarterback, especially with the team having missed the playoffs in the last two seasons.

    This is a critical season for Manning, who must play better. General manager Jerry Reese spent money and draft picks to improve the offensive line and add weapons in the passing attack, and the team has a new offensive coordinator in former Packers quarterback coach Ben McAdoo. The onus will be on Manning to lead the team back to the postseason.

    In the past, he has played his best when the stakes have mattered the most. It's hard to imagine a season where there could be more on the line for his career and legacy, and the pressure will only be amplified under the bright lights of Broadway.

Rams QB Sam Bradford

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    Tom Gannam/Associated Press

    It's put-up or shut-up time for St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford.

    The former No. 1 overall pick of the 2010 draft has no more excuses. The offensive line is solid. He has weapons in the passing attack. The Rams should feature a strong running game. And there is continuity at offensive coordinator, where Brian Schottenheimer is entering his third year on the job.

    Bradford has shown flashes of brilliance but has mostly underwhelmed in his four seasons in St. Louis. He owns a career record of 18-30-1 and has missed 15 games due to injury, including the final nine of last season after suffering a torn ACL. 

    The Rams had an opportunity to potentially replace him in the draft, as they held the second and 13th overall selections in the first round. But coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead decided to roll with him for another season, eschewing the quarterback position and instead beefing up the offensive and defensive lines with Auburn's Greg Robinson and Pittsburgh's Aaron Donald, respectively.

    The talent level in St. Louis screams playoffs, but the club plays in the rough-and-tumble NFC West, the toughest division in football. If the Rams are to qualify for the postseason for the first time since 2004, they'll have to contend with the likes of Seattle, San Francisco and Arizona.

    If Bradford can't get it together and push the team into the postseason, 2014 will likely be his swan song in St. Louis.

    And no apologist will be left to make excuses for him.

Redskins QB Robert Griffin III

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    Evan Vucci/Associated Press

    Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III was the talk of the NFL after his remarkable rookie campaign in 2012. But a torn ACL suffered in the club's Wild Card Round loss to Seattle in January 2013 clearly set him back, and he ended up authoring a substandard sophomore season.

    He went 3-10 as the starter last year and threw only 16 touchdown passes against 12 interceptions. He wasn't as accurate as he was as a neophyte and didn't look as fluid when rushing the football.

    Now, the Redskins have a new head coach in Jay Gruden, and Griffin's continued development is the key to the team's potential success. 

    In an interview with Mike Jones of The Washington Post, Griffin both acknowledged that fact and seemed to revel in it:

    As a quarterback, my identity is I am the leader of this team, I am the guy that everybody looks to when things are going bad. I am the guy that delivers. I am the guy that everyone on the team offense, defense, special teams — when it’s crunch time, they’re not looking at Trent Williams, they’re not looking at Alfred Morris. They’re looking at Robert Griffin III and that is an identity and position I accept. You have to believe in yourself. If you don’t believe, nobody else will, and that’s what I do for the guys around me, for my family. I give them that belief that at the end of the day, things are going to work out, and I don’t think their belief is misplaced, even with us being 3-13 last year. We will be a better football team this year. That is my identity.

    With more time to recover from the torn ACL and a full offseason in Gruden's offense, it shouldn't surprise anyone if Griffin bounces back in a major way.

    But if he doesn't, questions will be raised about his ability to lead the Redskins back to championship glory.

Colts RB Trent Richardson

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    Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    To say that Indianapolis Colts running back Trent Richardson didn't enjoy an ideal start with his new club would be like saying Jennifer Lopez didn't put forth a solid acting performance in Gigli.

    After he was acquired by the Colts in a September trade with the Browns, Richardson averaged a horrendous 2.9 yards per carry. Often, it seemed as if he was trying to earn a roster bonus for running repeatedly into the line of scrimmage.

    He hit rock bottom in the postseason, where he carried the ball a grand total of four times for one yard in two games. 

    That's right. There's no need to rub your eyes. You read that correctly. Four carries, one yard. In two postseason games. 

    Heading into 2014, not only is Richardson under an inordinate amount of pressure to perform, but the general manager who acquired him is likely facing sleepless nights as well. If Richardson puts forth another lackluster campaign, Ryan Grigson could end up on the chopping block.

    There will be no excuse if Richardson doesn't step up his game. The third overall pick of the 2012 draft is bursting with talent, and he'll have a full offseason to further his education in coordinator Pep Hamilton's system. 

    If Richardson doesn't dazzle, it will be fair to question if he'll ever be a big-time NFL running back.

Vikings RB Adrian Peterson

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    Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press

    Given the fact that Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson rushed for 2,097 yards in 2012, it's hard to believe that a debate is raging as to who is the NFL's best rusher.

    But that's what happens when Peterson has a down year (by his standards) in 2013, rushing for 1,266 yards in 14 games, while Eagles running back LeSean McCoy goes for 1,607 yards in 16 games and wins the rushing title.

    McCoy threw gas on that fire this past Monday when he said this on ESPN's First Take:

    My brother always rips me all the time, trying to make me play harder. I say, 'I'm the best,' and he'll say, 'Did Adrian Peterson retire?' I look at the last three years and everything. I think AP has been the best back for so long, and he's been doing it for so long, that's why he automatically gets the best running back [title]. But the last three years? I've been All-Pro, first-team, twice. I never leave the field. I block. I catch. I never leave the field. I don't have anybody do my job; I do it myself. Tons of credit goes out to Adrian Peterson. I'm a big fan of his, for sure. But I feel I'm the best.

    Wow.

    While McCoy shouldn't be criticized for voicing his opinion and believing he's better than Peterson (for more on that debate, check out this piece from Bleacher Report's Brad Gagnon), it should serve as an excellent motivational tool for Peterson.

    In order for him to reclaim his status as the unquestioned king of NFL running backs, he'll need to author an exemplary 2014 campaign.

Packers DE Julius Peppers

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    Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press

    2013 was not the best season for former Bears pass-rusher Julius Peppers.

    He accumulated just eight sacks and finished the campaign ranked as Pro Football Focus' (subscription required) 36th-best 4-3 defensive end. The low point of his season likely came in its most critical moment, when he failed to wrap up Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers on the play that would knock the Bears out of the postseason.

    And then, after the season, he was released by the Bears in order to alleviate salary-cap space.

    But Peppers will have new life in Green Bay, where he was signed to bookend the pass rush along with linebacker Clay Matthews.

    And his new teammates are already gushing about him. Speaking of Peppers, Packers linebacker Mike Neal said this to Tyler Dunne of the Journal Sentinel:

    When you’ve got Peppers, it’s hard to ignore him. I don’t know if you’ve had the opportunity to see him, to get on the field after a game or something. Oh my God. Wait until you see him in person when he comes in the locker room. It might scare you. That’s a big man. I can’t wait to get on the field with him. I can’t wait to learn from him professionally. He’s got it done. He knows what it takes. He’s done it the right way. I can’t wait to get working with him.

    Peppers is 34 years old and has never won a Super Bowl. This season could be his best chance. If he can provide a pass-rushing presence alongside Matthews, the Packers defense might be good enough to match the explosive offense and carry the team deep into January.

Texans DE Jadeveon Clowney

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    Craig Ruttle/Associated Press

    While he isn't a true NFL "star" just yet, Houston Texans defensive end Jadeveon Clowney is both the reigning No. 1 overall pick of the NFL draft and the subject of sky-high expectations, which qualify him for this list.

    Given the fact that he was selected first overall, it's easy to forget all the naysayers who criticized him in the weeks and months leading up to the draft for displaying a suspect work ethic at South Carolina.

    Clowney's propensity in college to take plays off bothered many, including NFL Media's Mike Mayock, who said after Clowney's pro day (via NFL.com's Mike Huguenin) that there are "red flags" about his work ethic and that "he turns it on, he turns it off." 

    Plus, NJ.com's Marc Eckel passed along this quote from an unnamed NFC personnel executive: "He’s spoiled, and he’s lazy. He’s never worked hard a day in his life, now all of a sudden you’re going to give him a bunch of money and expect him to work hard. I don’t see it."

    Given all the criticism that he faced before the draft and the enormity of the expectations at his feet after it, Clowney should be out to prove that he was worthy of the top selection and is capable of dominating at the NFL level.

Bears LB Lance Briggs

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    2013 was a dreadful season for the Chicago Bears defense, and stalwart linebacker Lance Briggs was powerless to stop it.

    He missed seven games due to a shoulder fracture, and his absence cost the team, which allowed a league-high 5.3 yards per carry. And when he was on the field, he was less effective than in past years, finishing the season as Pro Football Focus' 18th-ranked 4-3 outside linebacker, his lowest ranking since 2009.

    With former Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher in retirement, Briggs is the unquestioned leader of the revamped Chicago defense. General manager Phil Emery has stockpiled defensive talent this offseason, signing defensive ends Lamarr Houston, Jared Allen and Willie Young in free agency and drafting Virginia Tech cornerback Kyle Fuller in the first round of the draft. Briggs will be counted on to help the new pieces mesh and lead a unit that can bring the team back to the postseason for the first time since 2010.

    Chicago's offense is projected to be explosive, with quarterback Jay Cutler handing off to running back Matt Forte and throwing to receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, which means the onus will be on the defense to match its level of play.

    And that task will primarily fall on Briggs' shoulders. Not only must he play better but he must make sure the rest of the unit raises its game as well.

    If the Bears once again miss the postseason because their defense fails, all eyes will be on the 33-year-old. It's imperative that he has a big season, both on the field and in the locker room.

Patriots CB Darrelle Revis

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    If you were to ask the average NFL fan who the best cornerback in football is, the majority would likely answer with Seattle's Richard Sherman.

    And that's a problem. 

    Sherman is a fantastic player, but he's not the best cornerback in the NFL. That title still belongs to Darrelle Revis, now of the New England Patriots.

    Despite all the hype that Sherman received (and rightly so) in 2013, Revis was the superior player, finishing No. 1 in Pro Football Focus' (subscription required) cornerback rankings.

    He is a spectacular player on the field and the ultimate soldier of fortune off it. He's on his third team in three seasons and rivals Scrooge McDuck for the entity that is most motivated by money. Revis is on a one-year, $14 million contract in New England and knows he needs to sparkle if he's to receive a similar deal next offseason.

    He isn't in Tampa Bay anymore. He now plays for one of the highest-profile franchises in the NFL and one that is a legitimate Super Bowl contender. He has an opportunity to get it done on the game's grandest stage and playing for one of the best head coaches in history, Bill Belichick.

    With a spectacular season, Revis will both earn himself a boatload of cash and ascend back where he belongs—to the rarefied air of being the best cornerback in the NFL.

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