This year as with any year, there will be a great deal of pressure put on former first round picks. Whether it's to finally break out, fill the role of a lost starter, or just get over the brink to stardom, new seasons always bring with them high expectations. This is a list of ten such players who will need to fulfill their full potential. Note: These are not in any particular order, and I tried to pull players specifically from the 2007, 2008, and 2009 drafts.
The San Francisco 49ers selected Kentwan Balmer with the 29th overall pick in the 2008 draft, in hopes he would become a cornerstone of their pass rush. Originally drafted as a defensive tackle, the team moved him to play end in their 3-4 scheme. After two disappointing seasons in which he only accumulated 19 tackles and zero sacks, this may be Balmer's last chance to show his quality. To add insult to injury (literally), Balmer ended the 2009 season on injured reserve, which will make it even harder for him to win a starting job. Needless to say, this will be a pivotal training camp for Balmer, as he will have to beat out Isaac Sopoaga as well as impress Mike Singletary enough to crack the starting rotation. Balmer has not been given many reps during the regular season, so every play counts for him now.
Vernon Gholston has already been labeled a bust by many, but this is the season in which we will see if he can produce regardless of position. Drafted 6th overall in 2008, it was planned that Gholston would play outside linebacker in the Jets 3-4 scheme, as he has ideal speed and size for the position. However, playing DE at Ohio State lead to a rough transition, as well as a rough season in which he made little to no impact. In 2009 under new coach Rex Ryan, Gholston only saw the field predominantly on special teams, and finished the season with 17 tackles. This offseason, the Jets decided to move Gholston back to defensive end, essentially admitting he’s a bust, in hopes that he will be more comfortable and thus have greater production. This will be a true make or break season for Gholston, and it will ultimately determine his fate with New York.
Tyson Jackson was drafted by the Chiefs in 2009 with the 3rd overall pick, yet another first round pick spent on overhauling the defensive line. It was thought that, paired with former LSU teammate and roomie Glenn Dorsey, Jackson would become a sack machine for Todd Haley and Co. However, Jackson's rookie season yielded only 38 tackles and zero sacks, far below the expectations set for him. After playing in a 4-3 alignment at LSU, Jackson struggled in the 3-4 and looked lost for the better part of the season. In 2010, Jackson will need to get to the quarterback early and often to prevent himself from attaining "bust" status. Going into camp, the starting job will most likely be his to lose, so a good attitude and an open mind should help him at least improve as a player.
Darrius Heyward-Bey has a great chance to improving upon his poor rookie campaign, in which he only caught nine balls for 124 yards and one touchdown. This year, DHB has a new number (85), a new quarterback, and a new lease on football, and Al Davis is hoping he can be Jason Campbell's go-to deep threat. Heyward-Bey's paltry first season as a Raider was not entirely his fault however, as many thought he was overdrafted by Oakland to quench Davis' thirst for fast players. Most NFL people saw Heyward-Bey as the rawest rookie receiver last year, with great speed but undeveloped receiving skills. He has however reported to camp with a great attitude, and he seems to be willing to work hard to live up to his first-round pedigree.
Drafted 11th overall by the Bills in 2009, Aaron Maybin was an intimidating threat off the edge for Penn State in college, but thus far in the pros Maybin has yet to get a sack. Last season, Maybin saw little time on the field, playing mostly as an undersized defensive end. Maybin certainly has the height for the position, but his athleticism fits much better in the linebacker spot. New coach Chan Gailey brings with him the 3-4 defensive scheme, in which many expect Maybin to shine as a pass rushing outside linebacker. During training camp last year, Maybin appeared to be more of an athlete than a defensive end, with raw technique and defensive prowess. He was able to use his speed to overwhelm opponents at Penn State, but as he is learning, it takes more that that to succeed in the NFL.
Once thought to be the solution to Atlanta's pass rushing problems, Jamaal Anderson has only two sacks to show for three seasons of work. Drafted 8th overall in 2007, Anderson was expected to be a force off the edge for the Falcons to pair with John Abraham. However, Anderson's technical woes and lethargic production have him flirting with the "B" word. This season, Atlanta coaches plan to try him as a hybrid defensive end/tackle, in hopes of stronger performance. Last season, Anderson's production improved after being switched to DT against San Francisco, so it will be interesting to see how that plan plays out. When its all said and done, this may be Anderson's last chance.
After being thought of as one of the best defensive players in the 2007 draft, Glenn Dorsey has yet to make his mark on the NFL. Drafted to be a 4-3 defensive tackle, Glenn Dorsey has since switched to defensive end in the Chiefs' new 3-4 scheme alongside Tyson Jackson. However, Dorsey has never shown much playing at either position, racking up only 100 tackles and 2 sacks over three seasons. Now, Kansas City is considering moving him once again, this time from the edge to nose tackle. Dorsey has improved little by little each season, but this may be his last chance to fit into the 3-4, so another mediocre season will not be acceptable. Kansas City will not wait much longer for Dorsey to develop, as they are in desperate need of a strong presence on the line, and they have spent far too much money for him to only become an “average” lineman.
Former coach Pete Carroll and the rest of the Seahawks staff are expecting a big season from Lawrence Jackson, who is already in this third year. After two disappointing campaigns in 2008 and 2009, Jackson knows he has to improve if he wants to keep his job. At 6'4", 270 lbs, Jackson has prototypical size for a defensive end, with great quickness and burst to match. Former Pro Bowler Patrick Kerney has retired, and former starter Darryl Tapp has been shipped to Philly, setting Jackson up take a more dominant role on Seattle's line. Pete Carroll may invest extra time and effort into developing his former USC players, so I wouldn't expect an enormous amount of pressure on Jackson, but for the sake of his team, he needs to step it up.
Lawrence Maroney is probably the player that is farthest from the "bust" label of all the guys on this list, but this is most definitely a pivotal season for him. Drafted 21st overall in 2006 out of Minnesota, Maroney shared a backfield with Cowboys power runner Marion Barber. Considered more of a power runner himself, Maroney was expected to become the Patriots every-down back for years to come. However, Maroney has never really broken through to the upper echelons of NFL stardom as was once thought, and he has yet to achieve a 1,000 yard season. The one excuse for Maroney is that he plays in a system that utilizes a rotation of running backs, and he is forced to split carries with Fred Taylor, as well as Kevin Faulk and Sammy Morris. Also, he has fallen victim to a host of injuries. This season will most likely be one Maroney's last to show New England that he can carry the load, as the Patriots have Oakland's first round pick next year, and they will have a list of fine running backs to take if they deem L-Mo a lost cause.
Chris Williams has played well for Chicago in the few games he has appeared, but this season will be the most important of his young career. With the departure of Orlando Pace, Williams will have the keys to the left tackle job, which brings with it a host of responsibilities that will require the youngster’s best effort. The Bears are a team that could go places if they get consistent offensive production, and protecting Jay Cutler's blind side will be crucial to fulfilling that goal. In the few games he has played in, Williams has proved to be a reliable bookend, with solid outings against top pass-rushing teams such as the Vikings. I'm not saying that this is Williams' last chance to prove himself, but rather that this season just might define what type of football player he really is.