NFL Stars with the Most on the Line in 2019
The NFL isn't the place for complacency. Teams sign players to huge deals and expect high-level production in return. What you've done lately drives offseason decisions.
Front offices look to upgrade just about every position on their rosters through free agency and the draft. The former method allows them to add immediate impact; the latter to provide cheap replacements for underperforming talent.
For established veterans on the roster, crucial contract years will dictate their values in the ensuing offseason. Former first-round picks on rookie deals must produce so that clubs feel encouraged to exercise a contractual fifth-year option, which is fully guaranteed for injury. Other players coming off subpar campaigns go into a season with something to prove since the next draft pick or signing could become their replacement.
Going into the 2019 campaign, multiple signal-callers must have solid seasons or show significant improvement to impress new coaching staffs. Three signal-callers have to justify their "franchise quarterback" title.
A six-time Pro Bowler on the trade block has something to prove to his current club or possibly another coaching staff at a new destination. One team may already have buyer's remorse on a costly acquisition from last year.
The star players below are top-five picks from their draft classes, Pro Bowlers or All-Pros under the most pressure to elevate their play in the coming season.
QB Derek Carr, Oakland Raiders
When Jon Gruden took over as head coaching for the Oakland Raiders, questions swirled about how he'd handle the quarterback position. Is Derek Carr his guy or would the former QB camp maestro grow restless and swap in different passers? There's reason to believe the lead skipper may have wandering eyes for another quarterback in the near future.
Gruden went through five primary starters under center during his seven-year tenure with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Brad Johnson, Brian Griese, Chris Simms, Bruce Gradkowski and Jeff Garcia—all with different ages and quarterback styles. He's not afraid of change if the offense isn't up to par.
Carr had his best season during the 2016 campaign before Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock's arrivals. While it's easy for them to look back at old clips of the 28-year-old in peak form, the NFL focuses on what you've done lately.
In 2017, the Raiders passing offense ranked 16th in touchdowns and dropped to 24th last year. This offseason, team brass traded for Antonio Brown and signed Tyrell Williams, Ryan Grant and J.J. Nelson. With a completely new wide receiver corps, Carr must show significant improvement.
The front office has publicly supported Carr as the franchise quarterback amid trade speculation, but Oakland scheduled private workouts with Kyler Murray and Dwayne Haskins. Perhaps it's due diligence, but it's hard to believe Gruden would keep the current starter around after two inconsistent seasons, especially with a pair of first-round picks in the 2020 draft.
Carr signed a five-year, $125 million deal during the 2017 offseason. If he's not traded, the sixth-year veteran will have arguably the best wide receiver in the game on the perimeter. A mediocre passing attack just won't suffice in 2019. The three-time Pro Bowler has to move the offense downfield or potentially lose his place as the face of the franchise.
QB Jameis Winston, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Bruce Arians accepted the Tampa Bay Buccaneers head-coaching job and pledged his faith in quarterback Jameis Winston on The Rich Eisen Show (h/t The Athletic's Greg Auman). "I think he can win it all," he said. "I mean, he has the intelligence, the toughness and obviously the arm, ability to lead a team. We have to put the right pieces around him."
Winston started his career with a Pro Bowl year in 2015, but has shown inconsistency with 38 touchdown passes and 25 picks since 2017. Last season, he split starts with Ryan Fitzpatrick and served a three-game suspension for violating the NFL's personal-conduct policy after allegedly groping an Uber driver in 2016. In four seasons, the 25-year-old has thrown 58 interceptions, the third-most in the league.
Arians will attempt to clean up or mask Winston's flaws, but he may only have a small window of time to do so. The fourth-year signal-caller goes into a contract year. If he struggles and the team lands a top-10 pick in the 2020 draft, the front office could consider pairing the new coaching staff with a quarterback from next year's class.
Tua Tagovailoa, Justin Herbert and Jake Fromm headline an intriguing group of quarterback prospects in 2020.
QB Marcus Mariota, Tennessee Titans
Marcus Mariota went No. 2 overall after Winston in 2015 and faces similar pressures with a potentially loaded quarterback class on the way in 2020.
The Tennessee Titans haven't provided much stability around Mariota in terms of coaching staffs; he's played under three head coaches in four years, and new regimes bring in fresh systems.
Despite the constant turnover, Mariota has a twofold mountain to climb in the upcoming season. He lost offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur, who became the head coach of the Green Bay Packers, and the 25-year-old must stay healthy.
Mariota missed eight contests in four seasons, but his on-field play is often affected by injuries he decides to play through. Last year, the 6'4", 222-pounder stood on the sideline with a stinger during an essential postseason play-in game against the Indianapolis Colts for an AFC wild-card spot.
Like Winston, Mariota goes into a contract year, meaning subpar production could lead the front office to look elsewhere for a franchise quarterback. As a mobile signal-caller who's played through multiple rush-heavy offenses, Mariota's arm remains unproven. He's never thrown for 3,500 passing yards in a single season and has tossed more than 19 touchdown passes just once, in 2016.
RB Leonard Fournette, Jacksonville Jaguars
Leonard Fournette rubbed Jacksonville Jaguars executive vice president of team operations Tom Coughlin the wrong way at the end of the 2018 season. He served a suspension for violating unsportsmanlike conduct and unnecessary roughness policies in an altercation with Buffalo Bills defensive end Shaq Lawson during a Week 12 contest. Because of the one-game ban, team brass voided the existing guarantees in his contract.
In Week 17, Fournette didn't suit up for action, but he and fellow running back T.J. Yeldon drew Coughlin's ire for their lack of attentiveness on the sidelines, per First Coast News' Phillip Heilman. "I am disappointed in the behavior today from T.J. Yeldon and Leonard Fournette,” Coughlin said in a statement released by the team. “They were disrespectful, selfish and their behavior was unbecoming of a professional football player."
Yeldon hit the open market and remains a free agent. Although Fournette and team brass have mended fences, his production will likely go under a microscope in the upcoming season. He was arrested for driving without a license and speeding in Jacksonville, per the Sheriff's Office arrest report (h/t Florida-Union Times' John Reid).
In the last two years, Fournette has missed 11 games because of quadriceps, ankle, hamstring and foot ailments. On top of that, the LSU product averages just 3.7 yards per carry.
While one can argue a poor passing attack leads to a crowded box for ball-carriers, Fournette's brush with the league office and injury history should put him on notice. Next offseason, the Jaguars have to decide on whether to exercise the fifth-year option on his contract. If they don't, it's likely because he didn't play up to expectations.
TE Jimmy Graham, Green Bay Packers
Jimmy Graham expressed dissatisfaction with his production, per ESPN.com's Rob Demovsky. "My numbers suck," the tight end said in December. He also acknowledged his duties went beyond receptions in the aerial attack. "It's just in this offense, the tight end does a lot of stuff," Graham said. "I've got a lot of responsibilities—just not running routes and out here catching the ball like a receiver. That's just how it is."
In 2018, Graham finished with 636 receiving yards and two touchdowns. Typically known for his pass-catching and red-zone talents, the All-Pro tight end didn't fully showcase his skill set with the Packers last year. Green Bay signed him to a three-year, $30 million deal last March, but the investment fell short in a disappointing season.
Next offseason, Green Bay can release Graham and save $8 million, per Over the Cap. He's headed into his age-33 campaign and there's a possibility the front office drafts a player at the position in April. With quarterback Aaron Rodgers at the helm, the ninth-year veteran must provide more on offense to avoid a potential early-contract termination.
DE Vic Beasley, Atlanta Falcons
The Atlanta Falcons refused to trade defensive end Vic Beasley last year, per NFL Network's Ian Rapoport. Now, the fourth-year veteran goes into a contract year after two unexceptional terms, logging 10 sacks since 2017.
In 2016, Beasley led the league with 15.5 sacks and seemed like a special pass-rusher on the rise. The Falcons probably held on to him in hopes that breakout player would reappear on the edge again. Head coach Dan Quinn emphasized consistency when talking about Beasley's 2019 campaign, per ESPN.com's Vaughn McClure.
"I'm very excited about where I think he can go to, and we've had good conversations about the impact that he can make," Quinn said of Beasley, the No. 8 overall pick in the 2015 NFL draft. "The biggest impact that he can make is doing it really consistently."
Barring an offseason trade, Beasley will have at least one more season to flash his All-Pro form in a Falcons uniform. If he doesn't, the 26-year-old will likely hit the open market in 2020.
General manager Thomas Dimitroff could add competition at the position during the draft, which likely suggests a smooth transition at defensive end. Then again, Beasley would force the front office to contemplate his return on a new deal with a strong 2019 performance.
DE Everson Griffen, Minnesota Vikings
Everson Griffen sought help for a mental health-related issue during the 2018 campaign and missed five contests. He finished the year with 5.5 sacks and restructured his contract in March, per Rapoport.
In the revised deal, Griffen would earn $4.3 million of his 2020 salary on the third day of the next league year. He can also void his contract if he plays 56 percent of the defensive snaps and logs at least six sacks, per Spotrac. That clause allows him some control over his future in case he wants out of Minnesota.
Griffen needs a bounce-back year in case the Vikings release him and consequently save $13.1 million, per Over the Cap. He'll turn 32 in December, and, coming off two middling seasons, teams may hesitate on signing him to a long-term contract with a good amount of guaranteed cash.
Despite the modified deal, the ninth-year veteran isn't guaranteed a roster spot next season, especially if his numbers fail to justify a $13.9 million cap hit in 2020.
DT Gerald McCoy, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Compared to his words concerning Winston, Arians seemed lukewarm about defensive tackle Gerald McCoy's future with the Buccaneers, per Rapoport. "From listening to Bucs coach Bruce Arians, it seems like Gerald McCoy’s roster status is in some doubt. 'If he’s here, he’s our starting' DT. Mentions he’s disruptive but not what he was four years ago. And there was a mention of if the price matches the productivity."
The 31-year-old's contract carries a $13 million cap hit, and the team won't owe him any dead money if he's released under the current deal, per Spotrac. The All-Pro defensive tackle opted not to show up for voluntary workouts.
If McCoy remains on the roster through the 2019 term, he would certainly play in front of watchful eyes with Arians already wary about his output. The Buccaneers could trade him before September, but he's still owed $12.5 and $12.9 million on the last two years of his contract.
At the next potential stop, the front office will likely assess McCoy's 2019 performance and cap number, which may lead to a restructured deal or another release. In 2017, he earned a Pro Bowl invite, but his big-money playing days could come to an end after this season.
CB Xavier Rhodes, Minnesota Vikings
Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer placed the spotlight on Xavier Rhodes, per Minneapolis Star Tribune's Ben Goessling. "I just don’t think he played as well as he can play,” Zimmer said. “He needs to play up to his ability level. We’re paying him a lot of money. He needs to play up to that contract."
Rhodes' contract holds a $13.3 million cap hit for the 2019 term. He's coming off a nondescript year, partially because of foot, groin and hamstring ailments that cost him two games and likely hindered his production throughout the season. Nevertheless, Zimmer isn't going to give the All-Pro cornerback sympathy—not with his price tag.
In his sixth season, Rhodes logged seven pass breakups and an interception in 14 appearances. Although he earned Pro Bowl honors in the 2016 and '17 campaigns, the Vikings have depth at the position.
In 2018, the front office selected Mike Hughes in the first round and signed Holton Hill as an undrafted free agent; both flashed in various moments last year. The latter should have a role after he serves a four-game suspension for violating the performance-enhancing drug policy. Minnesota will also have in-house free-agent decisions on Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander during the 2020 offseason.
With an abundance of assets at cornerback, Rhodes may have to restructure his deal if his play doesn't improve in 2019; a total face-plant could lead to trade talks.
CB Trumaine Johnson, New York Jets
The New York Jets inked Trumaine Johnson to a five-year, $72.5 million deal during the last offseason. Among cornerbacks, his contract lists third in practical guarantees with $45 million.
According to New York Daily News' Manish Mehta, the front office has second thoughts about the financial aspect of the signing. "The Jets have massive buyer’s remorse about Johnson’s five-year, $72.5 million deal, according to sources," he wrote.
Last season, Johnson picked off four passes. But he also committed a handful of head-scratching penalties, including a 33-yard pass interference, which allowed the Packers to score on a game-winning touchdown drive in overtime during Week 16. Former Jets head coach Todd Bowles had to discipline him for an "in-house matter" late in the year. The 29-year-old also logged a single-season low of five pass breakups.
General manager Mike Maccagnan probably expected more out of a costly long-term investment. Johnson's uneven showing isn't good enough at his pay grade. As the lead cornerback, he'll need to elevate his game before the front office begins to look for a contractual out.