NFL Players Entering Make-or-Break Seasons in 2019

Chris Roling@@Chris_RolingFeatured ColumnistJune 10, 2019

NFL Players Entering Make-or-Break Seasons in 2019

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    Technically, every year is a make-or-break season in the NFL, at least to a certain degree.  

    Look at the free-agent class that hit the open market this offseason. Contractual underperformers like linebacker Nick Perry were cut loose, prove-it deal winners such as safety Tyrann Mathieu made bank, and solid performers like cornerback Darqueze Dennard found miserable markets anyway. 

    The NFL is hard to predict, to say the least, especially when it comes to roster turnover. But one wrinkle that isn't hard to anticipate is a number of players facing contractual crossroads that could mean changing teams sooner rather than later. 

    These players aren't in danger of falling out of the league outright, but a change of scenery might be in order if they don't at least match expectations, nudging their respective front offices to extend the relationship, backed by big dollars. 

    The following players are facing make-or-break years in this regard during the NFL's 100th season. 


Solomon Thomas, DE, San Francisco 49ers

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    Josie Lepe/Associated Press

    The San Francisco 49ers are ready to slam the pedal this year after a strong offseason and franchise quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo's return from injury. 

    Whether Solomon Thomas seizes a big role in this potential turnaround is completely up to him. 

    The 2017 third overall pick has failed to meet expectations, securing just three sacks as a rookie before struggling to just one as a sophomore. Sacks aren't the only metric that matters, but it's a good way of pointing out Thomas wasn't the unit-changing presence the 49ers thought he would be. 

    On-field struggles and off-field events played a part in Thomas' 2018 campaign. His older sister Ella died by suicide in January 2018.

    "Last year I just wasn't me," Thomas said, according to Matt Maiocco of NBC Sports. "I'm not making excuses. I didn't play well, and that's on me. I should've played better. But I'm not making excuses for any of that. But what I'm saying that I wasn't me last year. I put pressure on myself. But that's over."

    The silver lining? Thomas now figures to kick outside on early downs and inside on a versatile front featuring names like Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner. The schematic tweaks and improved talent could converge with Thomas' development curve to produce a breakout year. 

    If not, it might be a situation where the 49ers start thinking about a cut if they can't find a trade partner who buys into the idea new scenery might be the key to unlocking Thomas' upside. 

Sammy Watkins, WR, Kansas City Chiefs

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    David Richard/Associated Press

    Sammy Watkins is all over the place in good and bad ways. 

    On one hand, it is easy to forget the 2014 No. 4 pick will only be 26 years old by the time the 2019 season starts. On the other, he often hasn't lived up to that billing, catching 60-plus passes just twice and never scoring more than nine touchdowns in a season.

    Oddly enough, Watkins landed in what would seem like a brilliant position with the Kansas City Chiefs. As hindsight shows, he finally got to play with an elite talent under center in Patrick Mahomes, who tossed 50 touchdowns in 2018—of which Watkins caught three. 

    While Watkins was an important piece of the offense in the way he helped work guys open elsewhere, that isn't doing much to justify his $19.2 million cap hit in 2019. There's a potential out built into his contract after this season; otherwise, the Chiefs are on the hook for a cap hit of $21 million in 2020. 

    With receiver Tyreek Hill an unknown, running back Kareem Hunt gone and NFL defenses likely to better adapt to Mahomes, more pressure than usual is on Watkins. He has a shot at massive extension money down the road if he can seize the moment. If not, he might head to free agency instead. 

Melvin Gordon, RB, Los Angeles Chargers

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    Gail Burton/Associated Press

    The knee-jerk reaction to suggesting Melvin Gordon has a lot riding on his 2019 season might be that the idea is controversial. 

    But thank the position. 

    Gordon has been productive over his four seasons in the league, yes. But he's averaged north of 3.9 yards per carry in only one of those and has scored a total of 28 rushing touchdowns in the process. Now he's heading into a critical fifth year with an extension on the mind. 

    But the Los Angeles Chargers don't have to look very far to see how much the Los Angeles Rams might be regretting the four-year, $57.5 million deal they gave Todd Gurley as a reaction to his years of massive production—before the injury drama started in the playoffs. 

    Remember, this isn't an indictment of Gordon's skill or value as a player. He's a fun runner and versatile enough to handle every-down roles. But there are quality role players behind him on the depth chart already. Another season of sub-4.0 yards per carry and contractual differences could put Gordon in the tough spot of slipping to an open market that hit a talent like Le'Veon Bell with $52.5 million, but with only two years guaranteed considering the potential out in 2021.

Josh Doctson, WR, Washington Redskins

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    James Kenney/Associated Press

    Josh Doctson isn't getting the benefit of a fifth year from the Washington Redskins—at least not in the form of the extra year baked into first-round contracts. 

    The Redskins balked at the idea because Doctson has yet to meet expectations, catching just 81 passes over three seasons and scoring just eight times, with six of those coming in 2017. He's missed 15 games due to injury, too. 

    Granted, the situation hasn't always been great for Doctson given quarterback play from Kirk Cousins, which transitioned to Alex Smith and then the backups who replaced Smith after he broke his leg in November. But the Redskins have clearly been trying to boost the wideout depth chart, adding Paul Richardson in free agency in 2018 and drafting Terry McLaurin in the third round this year. 

    The writing is clearly on the wall at this point. But Doctson is in an eyebrow-raising spot: Should he ascend his level of play, which coincides with him helping along rookie Dwayne Haskins under center, the Redskins aren't likely to blink at forgetting the rest and doling out a big extension. 

    If not, Doctson might end up being one of those struggling offensive players who has to settle for a prove-it deal somewhere else. 

DeVante Parker, WR, Miami Dolphins

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    It says quite a bit about the importance of a player's upcoming season when he wasn't necessarily expecting to stick around in the first place. 

    So seems to be the vibe around Miami Dolphins wideout DeVante Parker, who looked like a cut candidate this offseason before getting a two-year extension, with a club option after this year. He's since told Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald that it is "a fresh start. New coaches, just another opportunity for me."

    At one point, Parker was "all but gone," according to Jackson's colleague Adam Beasley. In other words, a new coaching staff is taking a flier on a former first-round pick. 

    That about paints the full picture for Parker. He's sitting on just nine touchdowns over four years and has missed 10 games in that span. It was presumed Parker would step up after Jarvis Landry was traded to the Cleveland Browns last offseason, yet he scored just one touchdown last year and accumulated 309 yards in 11 games. 

    At this point, the current extension looks like a one-year prove-it deal for Parker under new coaching. 

Laquon Treadwell, WR, Minnesota Vikings

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    Jim Mone/Associated Press

    Suggesting wideouts have a harder time than most other positions when it comes to adapting to the NFL would be an understatement. 

    Laquon Treadwell, the 23rd overall pick in 2016, is another good example. 

    The Minnesota Vikings declined his fifth-year option, and at this point, a little dead money against the cap might be the only thing keeping him on the roster. 

    That might sound like an exaggeration given the fact Treadwell is still a first-round product and coaches love upside. But the former Ole Miss star has caught just 56 passes over three seasons and 40 games, going for 517 yards and one touchdown. 

    On paper, circumstances should have been better than ever for a Treadwell breakout in 2018 given the performances of fellow receivers Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen. Quarterback Kirk Cousins arrived and slung it around to the tune of a 70.1 percent completion rate with 4,298 yards and 30 touchdowns. 

    But Treadwell only caught 35 passes on 53 targets for 302 yards and one score, all career highs. If he's not bumping those numbers next season, he might have a hard time convincing other teams to take the plunge. 

Marcus Mariota, QB, Tennessee Titans

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota is trending toward becoming one of the more notable "what could've been" stories in modern NFL history. 

    Mariota was the second overall pick in 2015 and had been understandably hyped as worthy of the top slot. He spent his rookie year getting sacked 38 times but throwing nine more touchdowns than interceptions. His sophomore year was even better, as he threw 26 touchdowns against nine picks. 

    Unfortunately, Mariota has dealt with a litany of injuries since entering the league, including a broken fibula and a nerve issue in his throwing elbow. He also threw more picks than scores in 2017 and totaled just 11 touchdowns to eight interceptions last year.

    Where the story goes from here is hard to say. Mariota is 25 and presumably healthy after it was revealed in December he won't need surgery to correct the nerve problem. To top it all off, he's on an absolutely loaded roster. The Titans are equipped with a strong running game that averaged 4.4 yards per carry with 15 touchdowns last year and have an elite set of receiving weapons led by Delanie Walker, Adam Humphries and Corey Davis. 

    But there is the matter of his contract. Mariota's in the fifth year of his, and even a decent season could coerce the Titans into a market-resetting type of deal given the quarterback market right now. But the addition of Ryan Tannehill speaks volumes, too. The Titans front office wanted an insurance policy and now has it—another injury or failure to trend upward could mean a split is possible. 

Andy Dalton, QB, Cincinnati Bengals

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    John Minchillo/Associated Press

    For a moment, it seemed like the Cincinnati Bengals might go ahead and pull the trigger on a first-round quarterback to pair with first-year head coach Zac Taylor. 

    It wouldn't have been too surprising after another down year in Cincinnati and a stunner of a change at head coach after 16 years of Marvin Lewis. 

    Adding to the pressure Andy Dalton faces now is the fact that normally quiet team owner Mike Brown openly said the front office wouldn't extend their franchise passer this offseason. Dalton has two years left on his deal, but the Bengals don't usually hesitate to get these things done, nor does ownership often admit this is something of a prove-it year for a key player. 

    Dalton was just fine through the Bengals' first four games in 2018, leading the team to a 3-1 mark while tossing nine touchdowns in the three victories. But he fell apart once tight end Tyler Eifert went down in Week 4, and then he eventually suffered a season-ending injury of his own behind a bad line. 

    The Bengals aren't offering any excuses in 2019. Taylor is an offensive-minded Sean McVay understudy, the first-round pick was used on left tackle Jonah Williams, and a deep cast of weapons with Eifert, A.J. Green, Tyler Boyd, Joe Mixon and Giovani Bernard returns. 

    Should Dalton struggle again if everything else around him seems steady, there isn't any guaranteed money left on his deal, and the new head coach might convince the front office it's time to let him go out so Taylor can get his own guy.