Last Chance Watch: 10 Players Fighting for Their Football Lives in 2017
The end is nigh.
Eventually, every player's career comes to a close. Most won't go without a fight.
Age, injuries and extenuating circumstances often signal a player's decline and eventual departure from the league.
Rare exceptions exist. There are those who seem impervious to the effects of Father Time and find a way to excel far longer than expected. The New England Patriots' Tom Brady and Pittsburgh Steelers' James Harrison are both playing well as they near 40 years old, but even they will eventually be forced into retirement.
Other notable names like Colin Kaepernick, Nick Mangold and Dwight Freeney are already on the outside looking in without suitors knocking on their doors.
When a player finds himself in a new uniform after being identified with another team for an extended period of time, it's a good indication their time in drawing near. Very few remember Emmitt Smith as a member of the Arizona Cardinals or Joe Montana with the Kansas City Chiefs.
QB Carson Palmer, Arizona Cardinals
Retirement looms over the Arizona Cardinals organization, especially at the game's most important position. Quarterback Carson Palmer considered calling its quits after the 2016 campaign but decided to return for his 15th season.
His status and waning play will define the team's 2017 season.
Palmer's performance already experienced a downturn. After an exceptional 2015 effort, last year's team faltered to 7-8-1, and the veteran signal-caller provided his lowest completion percentage (61.0) since 2011 and average yards per attempt (7.09) since 2010.
The quarterback's 23 turnovers were the most since his first season in the desert when he suffered through 28 miscues.
Palmer turns 38 years old in December. His career has almost run its course. There's a potential out in his contract next offseason, too, per Spotrac. The Heisman Trophy winner already made it clear he won't play for another team.
"That's why I'm so happy to finish my career and know that this is where it ends," Palmer said in August, per ESPN.com's Josh Weinfuss.
He has this season to prove whether he can still play at previous expected levels. The Cardinals already considered their quarterback options during the draft before passing on the position. The three-time Pro Bowl performer's play in 2017 will determine whether he can play another year or be forced into retirement.
New York Jets RB Matt Forte
Matt Forte was counted among the NFL's top running backs for a long time, but he no longer resides among the league's best. After rushing for 8,602 yards in eight seasons with the Chicago Bears, Forte signed with the New York Jets and subsequently posted his worst statistical season with career lows in rushing and receiving yardage.
"I'm not really trying to outrun Father Time, because nobody wins that race," the 31 year-old back told NJ.com's Darryl Slater. "I look back at the Miami game last year, the first one, and I can still outrun some guys."
As backs age and hit the dreaded 30-year plateau, they're viewed far differently than when they're young bucks terrorizing the league. NFL organizations understand the position has a shorter shelf life than any other. An older runner's value plummets. Only rare talents sign contracts beyond that point as Adrian Peterson and LeGarrette Blount did this offseason.
Once the league's best dual-threat back, Forte isn't that type of player anymore. Instead, he'll likely give way to Bilal Powell as the Jets starter.
"Next year is not guaranteed, so who knows what happens after that?" Forte said. "I think every year is a prove-it year, no matter what."
Since the Jets have started a genuine rebuild, the offense should lean heavily on the younger Powell. After all, an opt-out clause exists within Forte's contract after this season, per Spotrac.
Running backs don't usually age gracefully; they fall off the cliff. Forte is currently standing on the edge of oblivion.
Minnesota Vikings WR Michael Floyd
For wide receiver Michael Floyd, there's no place like home, because it'll be the last opportunity he'll get to prove himself.
The St. Paul, Minnesota, native has the ability to play in the league, and he couldn't find a better place to resurrect his career. However, a failure to contribute for the Vikings will likely be Floyd's last chance after a tumultuous sixth months.
Floyd was arrested on Dec. 12 for DUI. The video went viral. The Arizona Cardinals released the wide receiver two days later. Even so, the New England Patriots claimed him off waivers but didn't re-sign him after the 2016 campaign ended.
Instead, the Vikings waited until May 10 to sign the troubled yet talented target.
"Them taking a chance on me, that was the last straw," Floyd said, per ESPN.com's Ben Goessling. "You want to accomplish all your goals, you've got to have your head on straight. They know that. That's what I'm doing right now. I'm focused on helping this club win ballgames, and learning."
The former 13th overall pick in the 2012 draft can crack the Vikings lineup, but he'll have to earn his spot since the team's two leading receivers, Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen, are still on the roster, and last year's first-round pick, Laquon Treadwell, should see more playing time.
Floyd is a former 1,000-yard receiver. He's now four years removed from his career year, but the 6'2", 220-pound receiver has the ability to become a top option in Minnesota's offense.
If he doesn't, the Vikings organization rolled the dice on a hometown kid but didn't lose much since his one-year contract doesn't include any guaranteed money, per Spotrac.
Chicago Bears WR Victor Cruz
Victor Cruz once danced into our collective hearts. Now, he needs to prove he can still play. According to the veteran receiver, the New York Giants' play-calling, not diminishing skills, held him back in 2016.
"I felt it all year long. Halfway through the year I'm ballin', the other half I'm not getting the ball. And you're just like, 'what's going on?'" Cruz said, per New York Daily News' Jake Becker. "It was like, 'OK, I see what's happening. They don't want me here anymore.'"
Prior to injuring his knee during the 2014 campaign and missing all of the '15 season, Cruz averaged 80 receptions and 1,209 yards per season. In 2016, he caught 39 passes for 586 yards in 15 games.
The 30-year-old wide receiver struggled to find a home this offseason until the Chicago Bears offered a one-year, $2 million deal. Obviously, it's a minimal investment by a team in need of help among its skill positions. The contract signals little to no commitment in Cruz if the Bears don't feel he can contribute this season.
Cruz must show he still has a little salsa-shake left in him since the Bears threw plenty of numbers at their problem.
Prior to the veteran's arrival, the team already signed free agents Kendall Wright and Markus Wheaton. Each of these targets will add to a group that already featured Cameron Meredith, Deonte Thompson and former seventh overall pick Kevin White, who's ready to "turn it up" in his third year, per the Chicago Tribune's Rich Campbell.
Since the Bears waited until May 25 to sign Cruz, one can assume this is the receiver's last opportunity due to a lack of interest from other teams around the league.
Carolina Panthers OT Michael Oher
Michael Oher's story has been well documented due to Michael Lewis' book entitled The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game and subsequent film that garnered a best actress nomination and victory at the Academy Awards for Sandra Bullock.
The final chapter of Oher's football career is close to being written, though.
The 31-year-old blocker has experienced a rough patch in recent months after suffering a concussion that forced him to miss 13 games last season and being accused of assault against an Uber driver in April, per USA Today's Kevin Spain.
Oher missed all of the team's voluntary activities this spring, and he's not expected back until the team's first mandatory minicamp in June, per ESPN.com's David Newton.
The off-field incident is a concern, and he's yet to be cleared by the NFL concussion protocol. But the biggest issue may be his play. In his last four contests—which includes Super Bowl 50—Oher surrendered four quarterback sacks and nine more hurries, per Pro Football Focus. Ironically, he struggled to protect Cam Newton's blindside.
As a result, the organization signed left tackle Matt Kalil to a five-year, $55 million contract. Kalil will now be tasked with protecting Newton's backside, while Oher gets a shot to start at right tackle. However, the former first-round pick will have competition there as well.
General manager Dave Gettleman selected Western Michigan's Taylor Moton in the second round of April's draft. Moton is a tailor-made NFL right tackle, who can easily win the job. Former fourth-round pick Daryl Williams is also in the mix.
Since the Panthers have built depth at offensive tackle, Oher isn't needed if he can't earn a roster spot.
New Orleans Saints OT Zach Strief
The New Orleans Saints' Zach Strief remains one of the game's premier right tackles, yet the organization already drafted his replacement.
With the team's second first-round selection in April's draft, the Saints chose Wisconsin offensive lineman Ryan Ramczyk.
"We look at him as a right tackle," head coach Sean Payton confirmed after the selection, per the Times-Picayune's Herbie Teope.
This can be construed as a slap in the face to Strief. After all, he graded among the NFL's top five right tackles for four straight seasons, per Pro Football Focus. He's been as consistent as any lineman found in the league. Yet he'll need to prove himself again during training camp when the veteran is pressed by the rookie for the starting spot.
"That will take care of itself, it always does," Payton said. "There will be competition, a lot of competition not just at the tackle position, but other positions, so it will handle itself."
Two factors are working against Strief retaining his job, aside from Ramcyzk's presence on the roster.
First, the veteran turns 34 years old in September. He's didn't become a full-time starter until late into his 20s and signed a five-year deal after turning 30. Two years remain on the contract, but the franchise can release him this year and save $2.4 million or do the same after the campaign and recoup $4 million against the salary cap, per Spotrac.
Strief may start one more season in the Big Easy, but it's Ramczyk's job to lose.
Cleveland Browns DL Desmond Bryant
Four years ago, Desmond Bryant signed a five-year, $34 million contract with the Cleveland Browns after being one of the most sought-after free agents on the market.
But the organization he joined in 2013 is vastly different than the one where he remains employed. Hue Jackson is now Bryant's third Browns head coach, and the front office has been completely overhauled.
Usually, this type of change signals the end of a veteran's time in that city. Bryant has stuck around, but he's coming off a devastating season-ending pectoral tear, and his role within Gregg Williams' scheme has yet to be defined.
"It was disappointing we didn't have him this past year," head coach Hue Jackson said, per SB Nation's Chris Pokorny. "I thought he was one of the missing links on our football team. He’s a veteran player, knows how to play, is extremely tough, extremely bright, and loves football. Having him back has been good."
Due to the injury and changes, Bryant renegotiated his previous deal with a $4 million cap hit this season, per Spotrac. The new contract provides the veteran defender with an opportunity to compete for a spot on the roster.
Cleveland isn't settled at 3-technique. Bryant, who predominantly played 5-technique among three-man fronts during his career, can slide inside if he continues to show the same type of interior pass-rush he did prior to the injury.
But the Browns invested in a pair of defensive tackles during the draft. Larry Ogunjobi and Caleb Brantley will be given every opportunity to push the 31-year-old Bryant off the roster.
Kansas City Chiefs LB Derrick Johnson
Derrick Johnson has roamed the middle of the Kansas City Chiefs defense for 12 seasons. He's been everything the organization could have asked for plus more when it selected him with the 15th overall pick in the 2005 NFL draft.
But the veteran linebacker is coming off his second torn Achilles tendon within a span of two years. The 34-year-old defender remains optimistic, though, about his recuperation and his ability to play this fall.
"I'm still on track," Johnson told the Kansas City Star's Blair Kerkhoff on May 13. "The goal is to be ready by camp."
"I'm just working my tail off," Johnson continued. "I'll go back Texas after we break OTAs, get my body right. That's the plan. Be ready for camp."
At this point, what does Johnson have left?
He registered 90 or more tackles in eight seasons, including the 2016 campaign. But his age coupled with another significant injury will almost surely have an effect on the four-time Pro Bowler's play. It's unreasonable to think Johnson will play 900 or more snaps as he's done in seven of his last 10 seasons, per Pro Football Focus.
Since Johnson's cap hit escalates to $10.25 million next season, per Spotrac, this season will prove whether he's worth keeping around even at a discounted/renegotiated price or if his career is complete.
San Francisco 49ers LB Ahmad Brooks
The San Francisco 49ers have too many talented linebackers with too few starting spots.
When looking at a group that features Ahmad Brooks, NaVorro Bowman, Malcolm Smith and incoming first-round pick Reuben Foster, Brooks is the most likely to fall out of favor due to his age, depth at the position, fit within a new system and contract status.
Even with those concerns, the 33-year-old linebacker is still taking first-team reps at strong-side linebacker in Robert Saleh's new defensive system after playing in a 3-4 scheme for most of his career.
"He's getting them because he deserves them," 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said, per CSN Bay Area's Matt Maiocco. "Watching how he played last year and then going into this offseason, you never know when a guy who has been around a bunch, if they're going to feel that they need the offseason like other people do. And Ahmad's been here every day and he's needed it just like everyone has anytime you're learning a new scheme."
How long Brooks continues to run with the 49ers' top unit remains in question, though. Right now, he's doing so, because there is very little competition among his specific position. But the coaching staff could decide to move one of the other talented linebackers.
The 49ers didn't sign Malcolm Smith to a five-year, $26.5 million contract in free agency only to see him sit on the bench. The front office absolutely loved Foster, which is why it traded back in the first round to select him. And Bowman is still the team's best linebacker even though he's coming off of a torn Achilles tendon.
Considering the fact Brooks will have to come off the field in certain sub-packages—which limits his effectiveness—and only has one year remaining on his contract, San Francisco should be expected to move beyond the veteran linebacker sooner or later.
Dallas Cowboys CB Nolan Carroll
The Dallas Cowboys needed a No. 1 cornerback. Even after failing to perform in the same role as a member of the Philadelphia Eagles, Nolan Carroll was Dallas' best free-agent option.
Jerry Jones hamstrung the organization by retaining Tony Romo and his contract until the quarterback retired. While it proved to be the right move over the long haul, the organization had very little cap space to sign actual free agents.
Carroll started 16 games for the Eagles last season and played 326 more snaps than any other corner on the team's roster, per Pro Football Focus. However, he graded among the league's worst cornerbacks.
On top of Carroll's suspect play, the 30-year-old defensive back was arrested on suspicion of driving while intoxicated Monday, per ESPN.com's Todd Archer.
Poor play, advanced age and off-field concerns usually form a lethal combination in regard to a player's career. However, Carroll just signed a three-year, $10 million contract. The deal boils down to a one-year agreement, though.
Plus, the Cowboys didn't avoid addressing their secondary during the draft. The organization added cornerbacks Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis and Marquez White in the second, third and sixth rounds, respectively.
Carroll will play for the Cowboys this fall, but his effectiveness and role may be limited before Dallas decides to move on from the veteran.