10 NFL Players Facing Most Pressure in 2014
We're right in the middle of the offseason, as the 2014 NFL season won't start for more than three months. It's going to be a long and painful 14 weeks, as the media will look for any sort of story to create news (see Johnny Manziel: Las Vegas).
But OTAs (organized team activities) have started and for diehard NFL fans, this is as good as it gets right now. Rosters are taking shape and coaches, both new and old, will look for the 53 men who can help put their team into the postseason this year.
For a number of players around the league, the pressure has to be taking its toll. I'm not talking about the great ones like Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. Yes, those future Hall of Famers would love to add another Super Bowl ring to their collection. But history likely isn't going to remember Manning or Brady for any potential positive or negative they do in the 2014 season.
The following 10 players, however, have the weight of their entire team on their shoulders this fall. They are players fighting for a new contract or fighting for their job. They will be remembered, solely for some of them, by what they do in the 2014 season alone.
10. Julio Jones, WR, Atlanta Falcons
In the 2011 draft, the Atlanta Falcons gave up five draft picks, including two in the first round, to move up to the sixth overall pick, where they selected wide receiver Julio Jones. Count me among the few who doesn't think the trade has been worth it for Atlanta... not yet, anyway.
There's no denying Jones's talent. He's a top 10 wide receiver in the National Football League, a player good enough to completely take over a game, like he did against the San Francisco 49ers in the 2012 NFC Championship Game.
But he's been inconsistent. I think a lot of casual football fans would be stunned to learn that Jones' career-high in receiving yards is 1,198. He was on pace for a breakout season in 2013, recording 582 yards in just five games, before he suffered a season-ending foot injury.
Although the Falcons picked up his option for the 2014 season, Jones really needs to put it all together this year and become the team's best offensive weapon. Roddy White is an aging player, now 32, and likely only has a few years left in his career. Tony Gonzalez, arguably the greatest tight end in NFL history, just retired. And the Falcons as a team just suffered through a dismal 4-12 year, their first losing season during the Matt Ryan era.
To me, Ryan is one of 10 to 12 quarterbacks in this league capable of leading their team to a Super Bowl, but he's not going to get there by himself, unlike a Brady or Manning. He needs to be surrounded by weapons. The loss of Gonzalez only makes Jones that much more important this season.
However, of all the players on this list, I'm most confident in Jones meeting expectations.
9. Darrelle Revis, CB, New England Patriots
One day, there's going to be an NFL player who spends his entire career rotating between teams, primarily to earn as much money as possible. His inspiration will have been Darrelle Revis.
The game's best cornerback for the last seven seasons, Revis will enter the 2014 season playing for his third team in as many seasons. He could very well be on a new team again in 2015, as the former All-Pro signed a one-year deal with the New England Patriots this offseason.
Revis's deal includes an option worth $20 million for another year ($25 million against the salary cap, per Spotrac) but it's highly likely that the 29-year-old enters free agency again next season.
Nobody knows whether Revis will be seeking another one-year deal from the highest bidder, or the team that offers the best chance to win the Super Bowl, or both. Or he could be attempting to collect as much money as possible in what will undoubtedly be the final large contract of his career.
Either way, Revis's performance in 2014 will make-or-break his next contract. He successfully rebounded from a torn ACL in 2012 to rate as the league's best cornerback in 2013, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Now his goal is on staying healthy again and turning in another dominant season.
If he plays a major role in a Super Bowl champion, he'll have a chance to bring home the largest contract by a defensive player in league history next offseason, even as he enters his age-30 season. But if he plays poorly in New England, he could be looking at another one-year deal, this time not by choice, and likely one worth just six or eight million dollars.
8. CJ Spiller, RB, Buffalo Bills
The Buffalo Bills are a talented football team, especially on the offensive side of the ball. They're loaded at wide receiver in particular after trading up in the first round to select wide receiver Sammy Watkins.
By forfeiting their 2015 first-round pick to acquire Watkins, the Bills essentially took a little bit of the pressure off EJ Manuel in 2014. Even if last year's first-round pick struggles again, the Bills likely won't look to replace him in the 2015 draft since they don't have a first-round pick.
That means running back CJ Spiller is now the player on the Bills with the most pressure on him in 2014. It's up to him to make this offense go. And based on his first four seasons, nobody should have a clue what to expect.
Spiller broke out in 2012, averaging more than six yards a carry. The former top-10 pick finally looked like he had blossomed into a star. But everything fell apart in 2013, as Spiller averaged 4.6 yards per carry and scored just two touchdowns on 202 carries.
He's supposed to be the best player on the team, the guy who makes everything work. Instead, he's been limited to just 13 or 14 carries per game. So far, he hasn't been worth a first-round pick, let alone the ninth overall draft pick.
Spiller is playing for a new contract in 2014. He's also turning 27 before the start of the season. If he plays up to his potential, he'll earn a big deal in free agency. But if he misses time or turns in another subpar season, he's going to walk in free agency. And his new team may not even sign him as a starter.
Spiller has elite talent. If there was ever a time to put it all together, it's now.
7. Trent Richardson, RB, Indianapolis Colts
After he was traded by the Cleveland Browns to the Indianapolis Colts, there's no excuse for Richardson's struggles. None.
The former No. 3 overall draft pick carried 157 times at a clip of just 2.9 yards per carry during the second half of the 2013 season. His best game with the Colts came in Week 14, when he carried 19 times for 64 yards (3.5 per carry) and a touchdown.
Yet, the Colts still managed to make the postseason, and there's just one reason why: Andrew Luck. The former No. 1 overall pick established himself as the top young quarterback in the game, managing to lead Indianapolis and their brutal roster to 11 victories, plus one more in the postseason.
Imagine what Luck could do if he had a solid running attack. Donald Brown is gone and Ahmad Bradshaw and Vick Ballard really aren't that good. Despite his brutal year in 2013, Richardson will still be the guy in the Colts' backfield in 2014.
He's still young. He's only 22 years old. His career has been a disaster so far but there's plenty of time to turn it around. He has a lot of talent. I picked this guy to lead the NFL in rushing in 2013 (not one of my better predictions). If he plays anywhere close to that level in 2014, he'll be a major asset to a Colts team that is looking to take the next step and become one of the league's elite teams.
6. Jake Locker, QB, Tennessee Titans
Put Jake Locker in the same category as quarterbacks like Sam Bradford and Andy Dalton. All three are fighting for their job, with the 2014 season as their final chance to remain a starter for their respective teams at the NFL level.
Locker's situation is unique. He's playing under a new head coach, Ken Whisenhunt. But he's still in a do-or-die situation this year.
Three years into his career, nobody really knows what type of quarterback Locker will become. The Titans obviously like him. They passed on Johnny Manziel and Teddy Bridgewater to grab another weapon for the offense. But they could be in the market for a quarterback in the 2015 draft if Locker plays poorly or can't stay healthy again this season. Like usual.
5. Johnny Manziel, QB, Cleveland Browns
How can a rookie quarterback playing for a perennial loser be facing so much pressure in 2014?
Easy. This isn't just your average first-round rookie. This is Johnny Manziel. Johnny Football.
The most polarizing NFL prospect in decades, Manziel is expected to be the savior in Cleveland. He's expected to do it immediately, too.
Rookie head coach. Unproven running game. No Josh Gordon at receiver. Doesn't matter. Get it done, Manziel.
We're in an era where rookie quarterbacks are expected to come in and produce immediately. Look at Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson in 2012. Cam Newton in 2011. Sam Bradford in 2010.
All played at a Rookie of the Year level. That's the pressure Manziel is facing in 2014. This is a quarterback who could literally revolutionize the sport if he plays well. He's an undersized, daring player who treats every play like it's the final minute of the Super Bowl.
Nobody, and I mean nobody, knows what to expect from Manziel in 2014. But succeed or fail, he's going to be the focal point of every ESPN article, every First Take episode and every tweet all season long.
4. Nick Foles, QB, Philadelphia Eagles
If the NFL awarded Breakout Player of the Year, Nick Foles would have won in 2013. Easily.
After a mediocre rookie season in which he led the Eagles to just one victory in six starts, Foles lost the job for starting quarterback to veteran Michael Vick during training camp. But injuries to Vick (shockingly) opened the door for Foles, who turned in one of the most impressive statistical seasons in the history of the National Football League.
Foles' numbers in 2013 look like something out of a video game. I'm convinced that NFL fans witnessed a season that will never happen again. The sophomore quarterback threw for 27 touchdowns and just two interceptions (29 and two if the playoffs count). That 13.5-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio shattered the single-season record. Foles' 119.2 passer rating ranked third in NFL history. He also led the league in yards per attempt and yards per completion. Oh, and he threw for seven touchdowns in less than three quarters in a blowout win against the Oakland Raiders.
Quite simply, Foles couldn't do anything wrong. As an Eagles fan who watched every play, it seemed like Foles couldn't do anything wrong. He made major strides from his rookie season. He almost played as if he knew he was incapable of throwing an interception, despite throwing more deep passes than any other quarterback in the league.
But there's no denying that Foles had a lot of luck. A lot. You can't end a season with two interceptions in 317 passes without a significant amount of luck. Whether it was a potentially game-losing interception against the Arizona Cardinals overturned by a penalty or a pass thrown into double coverage tipped for a touchdown, everything Foles touched turned into gold.
Expect regression in 2014. He's going to throw more interceptions. He's not going to get as lucky.
He still has Chip Kelly as his coach. I would argue that Kelly helps Foles more than Calvin Johnson helps Matthew Stafford. It's almost like a .350 hitter in baseball who plays in Coors Field. You just can't compare him to a normal .350 hitter.
Whether Foles stays an elite quarterback in 2014 remains to be seen. He's playing for a new contract this season. If he plays 16 games and throws 35 touchdowns against just eight interceptions, he's going to get PAID next offseason. But if he misses four or five games with injuries and finishes with a good but not great 21-11 touchdown-to-interception ratio, everybody will claim that his breakout season in 2013 was the result of Chip Kelly and his regression in 2014 was because of the loss of DeSean Jackson.
3. Eli Manning, QB, New York Giants
There is no player in the sport more inconsistent, more frustrating than Eli Manning. Nobody. He's as extreme as it gets.
When good Eli plays, everything is right in New York. Receivers are in perfect position to make miraculous catches. The defensive line collects sacks in bunches, mostly of Tom Brady, and the Giants win Super Bowls.
But when bad Eli plays, it's ugly. It's like watching Blaine Gabbert. Three times, Eli has led the league in interceptions. Last season, he threw 27 interceptions compared to just 16 touchdowns. Had he not been a former Super Bowl MVP, he would undoubtedly have been benched.
With Eli turning 33 this offseason, the Giants have to be thinking about his replacement. They reportedly expressed interest in drafting Johnny Manziel with their first-round pick in the draft, although they ended up passing on Manziel to grab a much-needed offensive weapon for Eli.
That doesn't mean they'll just stick with the league's top interception thrower if he continues to play the way he did last season.
Manning has led the Giants to the postseason just once in the past five seasons. The Super Bowl run of 2011 feels like ages ago.
Scheduled to make $19.75 million in 2015, the Giants could cut Eli with just $2.25 million in dead money after this season, per Spotrac. If he turns in another 25-interception season, there's absolutely no reason to continue playing him. He's probably on the decline anyway. if he doesn't step it up this season, he's gone.
2. Andy Dalton, QB, Cincinnati Bengals
Andy Dalton has played three seasons in the National Football League. He's improved his completions, attempts, yards, yards per attempt, touchdowns and passer rating each year. He's led the Cincinnati Bengals to the postseason all three years, with their win total increasing each season.
Yet despite his statistical success, Dalton is fighting for his job heading into the 2014 season. And he should be.
There are two main reasons why Dalton is in danger of either losing his starting job or walking as a free agent after this year. The first is his inconsistency. When Dalton is on, he's one of the best quarterbacks in the league. The combination of Dalton to A.J. Green is probably the most feared passing combination in the AFC. But when Dalton is off, he's as bad as it gets. And unfortunately for him and the Bengals, he's been bad in all three of his playoff games.
In fact, he's been about as bad as it gets. He's led Cincinnati to 33 points in three postseason games, throwing for one touchdown and seven interceptions. That's a combined 56.2 passer rating. That's unacceptable.
The Bengals are a talented football team and they just got even better this offseason, particularly with the addition of running back Jeremy Hill. What's been holding them back during the past few postseasons is the performance of their quarterback.
Dalton may be inconsistent on a game-by-game basis but he's managed to post pretty consistent stats in the regular season each year (the Eli Manning of the AFC). But if Dalton throws 25 to 30 touchdowns with a 90 passer rating in 2014, it won't matter if he turns in a dud during another postseason game.
If the Bengals make the playoffs and Dalton loses, again, there will be no fifth chance. That'll be the end of the Andy Dalton era in Cincinnati.
1. Sam Bradford, QB, St. Louis Rams
To say that Sam Bradford's career so far has been a disappointment would be a major understatement. Drafted first overall by the St. Louis Rams in 2010, Bradford earned NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors, while leading the Rams to the brink of the postseason.
Greatness appeared to be on the horizon for Bradford.
However, he's been anything but over the past three seasons, struggling with injuries and ineffectiveness. He hasn't displayed any of the accuracy or confidence he showed during a Heisman Trophy-winning career at Oklahoma. He's constantly among the worst in the league in yards per attempt. Quite simply, he's been a fringe starter.
Yet for some reason, the Rams remain strangely committed to Bradford. The team had the opportunity to draft the quarterback of their choosing with the No. 2 overall pick (or two of the three top options with the No. 13 pick). Consider Bradford's ridiculous $17.6 million salary in 2014 and it's absolutely ludicrous that the team has kept him as a starter.
We think this every year but this really is Bradford's last chance to prove his worth as a starter in the NFL. He signed a six-year deal as a rookie, which means he could sign a long-term contract extension as early as next offseason. Despite his mediocre performance during the last four seasons, I have no doubt in my mind that the Rams will lock up Bradford to a massive deal if he plays well in 2014.
The Rams have a talented football team. Jeff Fisher is a solid coach and he's built a defense that is probably the third-best in the league. If the Rams didn't play in the NFC West, they'd have playoff expectations for this year.
As it is, they're still a candidate to emerge as a wild-card playoff team, but only if Bradford returns fully healthy from his ACL injury and plays like he did in his rookie season.
The pressure on Sam Bradford this season is tremendous. Unlike Josh Freeman in 2013, he's undoubtedly going to have the entire year to show whether he deserves to be the long-term starter. Everything he's done right and wrong over the past four years will come down to the next 16 games.
No player in the National Football League has more pressure on him in 2014 than Sam Bradford. It's truly do or die for the Rams quarterback.