NFL Players with the Most to Prove in Offseason Workouts
There are far better places to prove yourself than in an offseason workout in shorts and shells. No player can truly prove anything until the regular season begins on September 4.
For some NFL veterans, though, there may be no other choice than to start hot and stay hot as minicamps and organized team activities begin over the next couple weeks.
There are any number of reasons a player could need to prove himself in offseason workouts:
- a season-ending injury and the recovery from said injury
- a free-agent signing or draft selection at his position
- a down year in 2013
- a contract year in 2014
- a change of scenery
There are others, but those are the kinds of players we will be exploring here.
Stephen Hill (New York Jets)
Stephen Hill was a second-round pick for his outstanding measurables (6'4", 215 lbs, 4.36 40-yard dash) and the high ceiling that is often linked to immense physical ability.
As of yet, Hill has yet to hone his abilities into on-field production. He continues to struggle with fundamentals such as running crisp routes and the all-important job description of a pass-catcher: catching passes (dropped 17.3 percent of catchable balls first two years).
The Jets have had some of the league's worst quarterback play over the past two seasons. Hill's production (45 receptions, 594 yards, four touchdowns in 23 games) may partly be a reflection of that, but New York wasn't willing to sit idly by and hope that his career would take a turn for the better.
Instead, they went out and bolstered the offense with a big-splash free-agent signing in wide receiver Eric Decker, then added tight end Jace Amaro in the second round and three wide receivers on Day 3 of the 2014 NFL draft: Jalen Saunders, Shaq Evans and Quincy Enunwa.
If Hill wants to avoid speculation over his job security, he is going to have to prove that he is well ahead of the rookies with his knowledge of the offense and that he is making progress in the fundamental aspects of being a receiver.
Mohamed Sanu (Cincinnati Bengals)
Out with Jay Gruden, in with Hue Jackson. New offensive coordinators means a new offensive philosophy. Thus, while Mohamed Sanu was the Cincinnati Bengals' No. 2 wide receiver last year, nothing is guaranteed in 2014.
Marvin Jones came on like gangbusters and he’s got to go chase A.J. Why not knock A.J. off the pedestal? When you have the friendly competition among your teammates, that’s when things get really, really good, in my opinion. (Mohamed) Sanu and (Brandon) Tate and (Dane) Sanzenbacher, those guys at receiver, everybody has to raise their level of play.
After being outperformed last season and being held in lower regard than his teammate by his coaches, Sanu needs to come on strong this offseason and in training camp to prove he is still worthy of the No. 2 role in the offense.
Steven Jackson (Atlanta Falcons)
If the Falcons are going to rebound after an awful 4-12 season, their running game will have to perform better—although it's hard to do much worse than being the league's worst rush attack.
Jackson averaged 1,183 rushing yards and 1,575 scrimmage yards per season in an eight-year stretch from 2005-2012 with the Rams where he rushed for over 1,000 yards each season. He didn't even get halfway to those yearly averages in 2013 (543 rushing yards, 734 scrimmage yards) as the Falcons offense wholly underperformed.
The Falcons offensive line should get a boost with the addition of mauling guard Jon Asamoah, the selection of highly touted Texas A&M tackle Jake Matthews and the return of left tackle Sam Baker. With fourth-round running back Devonta Freeman coming on board as well, the Falcons have also ensured that they still have a one-two punch with the retirement of Jason Snelling.
Unless the Falcons are expecting big things from Freeman as a rookie, though, they will need much bigger things from Jackson than what they got from him in 2013.
Marcus Lattimore (San Francisco 49ers)
The San Francisco 49ers posted that very simple phrase to their Vine account, accompanied by a video of Marcus Lattimore running a circle route out of the backfield.
We won't get into a full-blown analysis of a six-second looping video, but a strong performance by Lattimore in offseason programs would go a long way in proving to his coaches and to the NFL that it's possible to recover from one of the most gruesome knee injuries ever seen on TV.
With the selection of Ohio State running back Carlos Hyde in the second round, it doesn't look like the 49ers are content to stand by and see if Lattimore has recovered fully—or at least enough to contribute in a meaningful way to the offense.
Along with the rookie Hyde and the elder statesman, Frank Gore, Lattimore will also compete with Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James for reps in the backfield. There may not be enough room on the roster for all the backs. Lattimore will have to make himself stand out somehow if he wants to stay on the roster this season. The offseason program seems like a good place to start.
Cortland Finnegan (Miami Dolphins)
The Miami Dolphins seem wholly invested in Cortland Finnegan as a starting cornerback in their defense. Not only did they give him $5.5 million in guaranteed money over the course of his two-year deal, but they also had him in as the starter opposite Brent Grimes when the team opened up OTAs.
So what does he have to prove? That he actually deserves it.
There should be plenty of playing time to go around with the losses of Dimitri Patterson and Nolan Carroll this offseason, but young bucks Jamar Taylor and Will Davis are chomping at the bit after being short on playing time last year. The two combined for only 110 defensive snaps, dealing with injuries as they prepared for life in the NFL.
Finnegan dealt with injuries of his own (thigh) over the past two years and needs a healthy and productive year in a new system to hang on to the top spot the Dolphins have handed him.
That being said, Finnegan is hardly taking the selfish route; in fact, he is helping the younger players along. According to Armando Salguero of the Miami Herald, Finnegan stayed after practice to work with some of the younger players—including Taylor.
Christian Ponder/Matt Cassel (Minnesota Vikings)
The Minnesota Vikings put their quarterbacks on notice when they traded into the No. 32 pick of the draft and selected Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. As is always the case when a new coaching staff enters the fold, we could be seeing the rookies in action sooner than later.
Christian Ponder (a first-round pick) and Matt Cassel (a seventh-round pick) entered the NFL in very different ways, but they are competing for the same jobs in 2014. Whoever wins the starting job will leave the other two to compete for the No. 2 spot. Both battles will shape the Vikings' future.
Ponder may be the one with the most to prove. The Vikings re-signed Cassel to a two-year, $10 million deal earlier this offseason and chose not to pick up the fifth-year option for Ponder's rookie deal.
Those two events likely mean that unless Ponder convincingly wins the training camp competition at quarterback and then performs well during the season, he will not be re-signed following the 2014 season.
Mark Ingram (New Orleans Saints)
Mark Ingram's career has been a tumultuous three-year ride, but the former first-round pick finally began to justify the selection with a strong performance in the final eight games last season (57 carries, 336 yards, 5.89 YPA, 1 TD in eight games) and in two playoff games (28 carries, 146 yards, TD).
Still, the New Orleans Saints chose not to pick up the fifth-year option in his rookie contract, meaning he will become a free agent after the 2014 season.
According to ESPN's Mike Triplett, Saints general manager Mickey Loomis said it was a "financial decision" in that the Saints think they can find better value on the market than it would cost to pick up the option. It would have cost $5.2 million to pick up the option for 2015, which is 2.3 the average per year signed by running backs in the 2014 offseason ($2,236,735 per year, according to Spotrac).
Still, this could be an opportunity for Ingram to go out with a bang and prove to NFL teams exactly how valuable he can be. There will be more touches to go around now that running back Darren Sproles has been traded to the Eagles. Ingram will have to compete with Pierre Thomas and Khiry Robinson for those touches, though.
Rishard Matthews (Miami Dolphins)
The Miami Dolphins spent a second-round pick on LSU wide receiver Jarvis Landry, surprising many who thought the likes of Brandon Gibson and Rishard Matthews had found long-term homes in Miami.
Gibson is on the mend from a season-ending injury (patellar tendon), but he was on the field for the start of OTAs, according to Adam Beasley of the Miami Herald. Matthews, meanwhile, was the team's starting slot receiver, exactly where he finished the 2013 season, per Omar Kelly of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.
How long will he maintain that role, though? He finished a breakout 2013 season with 41 receptions for 448 yards and two touchdowns, but according to Andrew Abramson of The Palm Beach Post, the Dolphins have had internal discussions about replacing Matthews for quite some time.
If Landry comes on strong in offseason workouts and training camp, Matthews' days could be numbered, and his offensive snaps could be numbered as well.
Combine stats courtesy of NFL.com.
Advanced statistics provided by ProFootballFocus.com.