NFL 2011: 15 Third-Year Players Facing Make-or-Break Seasons
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This is a list, not a ranking.
A player's third year in the league is when most teams have an idea of whether or not that player lived up to the hype from the draft process.
Brian Orakpo of the Washington Redskins and Clay Matthews of the Green Bay Packers are examples of third-year players who have played at a high level since Day One. For this reason, they will not be on this slide show.
The following 15 players will never be viewed the same. Whether it's for better or worse depends on how they perform in this, their critical third year.
Let's see who they are.
1. Tyson Jackson, DE, Kansas City Chiefs
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Tyson Jackson was one of the few bright spots for the Kansas City Chiefs in their last game last season. However, even that isn't something Chiefs fans want to hear, since the Ravens took care of business at Arrowhead Stadium that day.
The third-overall pick of the 2009 draft has yet to validate his selection.
In a 3-4 defense, stats don't necessarily tell the story for defensive linemen. Sadly, stats aren't necessary to know that Jackson was underwhelming during his first two seasons.
If Jackson doesn't grab the third-year leap by the horns, his name will become synonymous with being a bust.
The Chiefs drafted two defensive linemen and may be looking to add another via free agency.
Aside from a need at nose tackle, these moves indicate the organization is ready to move on if Jackson doesn't step up his game in 2011.
2. Larry English, OLB, San Diego Chargers
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Larry English is a first-round pick that hasn't lived up to expectations for the San Diego Chargers.
He has been set back by injuries and already has two surgeries on his bad foot. The injury has kept him to a modest five sacks in 24 games, including four starts.
But English feels that once his foot fully heals he'll be able to live up to expectations.
His recovery is important for San Diego maintaining a top-five defense.
Apparently, the Chargers agree because they didn't acquire an impact player at his position.
If he doesn't perform well in year three, English and his injuries will have a tough time keeping a spot in the starting lineup.
3. Connor Barwin, OLB, Houston Texans
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Remember all the talk about Houston trying to convince Aaron Schobel to pull a Brett Favre and play for them?
Well, it's because somebody suffered a season-ending injury during the first quarter in Week 1.
Wondering who Connor Barwin is? The picture shows everything you need to know.
Nobody talks about how much the Texans missed him. That's probably because everyone is used to Houston's bad pass defense.
Regardless, Barwin's absence made a difference.
The Texans' coaching staff believed that Barwin was ready to break out in 2010. They still think he will this season. They also believe he will challenge Mario Williams for the team-lead in sacks.
Both will be outside linebackers in Wade Phillips' 3-4 scheme.
In 2009, Barwin led all rookie defensive ends with 4.5 sacks. Williams was once a rookie with 4.5 sacks, who followed that up with double-digits in his next season.
The Texans expect the same from Barwin, despite the injury, so it's time to live up to the hype.
4. Darrius Heyward-Bey, WR, Oakland Raiders
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Darrius Heyward-Bey and JaMarcus Russell were quite the tandem in 2009.
They hooked up a whopping six times for 96 yards and zero touchdowns.
The sad part is that although he improved in 2010, it was still not impressive.
Heyward-Bey deserves a bit of a break because the former seventh-overall pick was a big reach, especially with Jeremy Maclin and Michael Crabtree on the board. The Raiders also don't have the best quarterbacks.
But Louis Murphy was a fourth-round pick in the same draft and has shown the Raiders everything they expected to see from Heyward-Bey.
His performance has been awful in the first two years for a guy who was expected to be their top receiver.
Twenty-five receptions and only one touchdown in 15 games as a starter is unacceptable.
A couple of seasons down the line, I actually think Heyward-Bey's stat line will be respectable.
Until then, he needs to improve his hands and get more involved in the passing game.
5. Clint Sintim, OLB, New York Giants
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The only true weaknesses in 2010 was Ahmad Bradshaw's fumbling and performance at weakside linebacker.
Aside from that, everything else was the result of injury.
Inexperience at wide receiver? Pro Bowler Steve Smith, Eli's favorite target, missed half the season.
Awful return game? Domenik Hixon missed the whole season with a torn ACL.
So what about weakside linebacker?
Clint Sintim has dealt with multiple injuries and is recovering from ACL surgery. Before his season-ending injury in Week 13, Sintim was outplayed by a washed-up Keith Bulluck in training camp. Had Sintim been what the Giants hoped for, they would've never signed Bulluck.
In two seasons, Sintim only has one start under his belt, and the majority of his playing time has come on special teams.
The Giants drafted two linebackers in April, showing they are ready to move on if Sintim goes through another setback in 2011.
6. Alphonso Smith, CB, Detroit Lions
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The picture shows why the Detroit Lions had no problem trading tight end Dan Gronkowski (former seventh-round pick) for Alphonso Smith (former second-round pick) prior to the start of last season.
His playmaking ability and potential to be a good coverage corner are what make Smith an attractive option in the secondary. He has shown flashes of his potential throughout the 2010 season.
Unfortunately, Smith has also shown Detroit the ugly. During the team's only nationally televised game last season, Smith got torched by Tom Brady and the Patriots as he gave up three touchdown passes before getting benched.
As a team that needs all the secondary help it can get, the Lions hope Smith can be a good No. 2 corner capable of playing at the No. 1 spot when necessary.
The key for Smith is to cut down on taking chances and focusing more on his craft. Luckily for him, Detroit's impressive defensive front only helps his chances.
Otherwise, the secondary situation will get even uglier in Detroit.
7. Chris "Beanie" Wells, RB, Arizona Cardinals
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Beanie Wells was supposed to be the feature power running back for Ken Whisenhunt.
He only has two career starts.
Since joining the Arizona Cardinals, Wells hasn't separated himself from the pack. As a result, he's been splitting carries with Tim Hightower.
With rookie Ryan Williams now in the picture, the running back situation just got more crowded. Barring any injuries, Williams has to be the favorite to become the primary runner.
The former first-round pick will cement his status as an injury-prone complementary back if his performance doesn't ascend in 2011.
Maybe Wells just needs to remain healthy for 16 games to break out.
8. Robert Ayers, DE, Denver Broncos
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Robert Ayers was supposed to be the Denver Broncos' bookend to Elvis Dumervil.
When Dumervil tore his pectoral muscle and was declared out for the season, many looked to Ayers as the player that needed to step up in his absence.
In 26 career games, Ayers has proven to be good against the run. He also plays with a lot of effort and passion.
But, he only has 1.5 career sacks.
With Von Miller, D.J. Williams, and Mario Haggan set to take the linebacker spots in 2011, Ayers will move to defensive end under John Fox's 4-3 scheme. He may be off the field on third-downs until he can prove he can provide a pass rush.
Ayers won't rotate with Dumervil, who has excelled in the 4-3 before and John Fox sees as an every-down player.
If Ayers doesn't improve his pass rush in 2011, he'll be playing only on special teams and in obvious running situations.
9. Brian Cushing, ILB, Houston Texans
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Brian Cushing, another former-USC linebacker, was the 2009 Associated Press NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year and earned a spot on the All-Pro second team.
However, Cushing was suspended for the first four games of 2010 for violating the NFL's drug policy.
A re-vote took place and Cushing kept his Rookie of the Year honor, but lost his All-Pro selection.
In his second season, fans witnessed a slight drop off in Cushing's production. He also moved from outside to inside linebacker in DeMeco Ryan's absence.
Both will be inside linebackers in Wade Phillips' 3-4 scheme.
If Cushing can't perform like he did as a rookie in his third season, people will start to think Cushing's success was the direct result of performance-enhancing drugs.
10. Mike Goodson, RB, Carolina Panthers
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Mike Goodson is in a very good position for the Carolina Panthers.
He spent the second half of his second season as Jonathan Stewart's backup.
DeAngelo Williams got injured and didn't play after Week 7.
Stewart also missed two games after Williams went down. Goodson took over the workload and broke the century mark in both games.
Goodson's third year is all about opportunity.
Although Stewart is the favorite to start, there is a chance Goodson can jump from third-stringer to starter. This would be similar to what happened with Ahmad Bradshaw in New York.
Even if Goodson is the second-string tailback all year, he's in a good position to break out.
The only obstacle would be Williams' return to Carolina if he chooses to re-sign.
11. Louis Delmas, FS, Detroit Lions
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It shouldn't be too surprising to see the Detroit Lions' best player in the secondary on this list.
Don't get me wrong, Delmas is a good football player, and Detroit should be happy to have him. He will anchor that secondary for many years to come as the emotional leader of the defense.
But I'm concerned about his style of play. Let me explain.
From a mental standpoint, this can be a make-or-break year for Delmas. He is an aggressive, hard-hitting safety, which explains his high tackle numbers.
However, his aggressiveness has led to some poor decisions.
Delmas loves to play in the box, but he is prone to react to play-action and has often been caught out of position. This doesn't always hurt him, but it does hurt the cornerback who's getting beat deep in single coverage.
As the last line of defense, Delmas cannot afford to gamble much. The Lions don't have a shutdown corner so Delmas has to help as often as possible.
Part of the reason I believe he is so aggressive is to compensate for Detroit's bad run defense, a reflection on a linebacking core that needs help.
Delmas is good at what he does, but the Lions need him to be more of a playmaker in the secondary because that is where they need the most help.
12. Aaron Curry, OLB, Seattle Seahawks
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Aaron Curry is not a bad player. He just hasn't lived up to being the fourth-overall pick.
The Seattle Seahawks didn't use Curry much on third down last season. After being such a force off the edge at Wake Forest, his pass rush in the NFL has been marginal.
For a guy that was drafted to be that signature rusher, it's a bit alarming that Curry is mainly used as a traditional 4-3 outside linebacker.
Those type of players rarely, if ever, get drafted in the top-ten let alone the top-five.
For all the hype surrounding Curry, he should at least be stringing together seasons with close to triple-digit tackles totals. So far, Curry is averaging less than 70 tackles per season.
The Chiefs, Chargers, and Giants can live without Tyson Jackson, Larry English, and Clint Sintim. But the Seahawks need Curry to be everything he can be in order to be successful on defense.
13. Rey Maualuga, ILB, Cincinnati Bengals
Rey Maualuga was labeled the best inside linebacker in the 2009 draft coming out of USC. He spent his first two seasons playing outside linebacker for the Cincinnati Bengals.
That should explain why he's been underwhelming so far.
If Dhani Jones doesn't re-sign with the Bengals, Maualuga will move to the middle where he made a name for himself at USC.
There aren't many doubts about Maualuga's physical abilities or toughness. He is stout against the run.
The only concern is his consistency in pass coverage and during blitzing situations. The best middle linebackers are as good in pass coverage as they are stuffing the run.
The Bengals believe he can be a Pro Bowl middle linebacker for seasons to come.
Time to step up, Mr. Maualuga.
14. Shonn Greene, RB, New York Jets
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Corny jokes aside, the Jets rely on the run. They finished first in rushing during the 2009 season and fourth in 2010. Greene was the backup, first to Thomas Jones and then LaDainian Tomlinson.
With an aging Tomlinson and a second-year player that needs more development in Joe McKnight, the Jets will make Greene their workhorse in his third season.
LT got the bulk of the carries last season because he was the hot hand. Although it would be a pleasant surprise for LT to do it again, the Jets know they cannot expect another year like that from the veteran.
Looking at Greene's stats, the yardage numbers look good. However, his main issue is consistency during the regular season. Also, Green has only scored two touchdowns in each of his first two regular seasons.
Greene has some work to do if he wants to remain a featured back for the long haul.
If there is any reason you are wondering why the Jets have such high hopes for Greene, just think about what he's done in the postseason.
15. Matthew Stafford, QB, Detroit Lions
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The problem with Matthew Stafford is not arm strength. It's not accuracy. It's not poor decision making. It's not a lack of understanding the playbook. And it's not a lack of leadership.
However, nobody needs a successful third year more than he does.
The Lions need it to make noise in the NFC and to help convince Calvin Johnson (who's never played a full season with a single QB) to sign a long-term extension.
Stafford needs it for his own sake.
As the first-overall pick in 2009, Detroit invested a ton of money on a guy who has spent too much time without pads on.
But the Lions are glad Stafford has had successful shoulder surgery. He should be at 100 percent when the 2011 season kicks off. Luckily, every time Stafford goes through surgery, the repaired body part never bothers him again.
The only question with Stafford is: Can he play all 16 games in 2011?
If so, Stafford will validate being the No. 1 pick. If not, Detroit will formulate a Plan B.