7 NFL Players Entering Make-or-Break Seasons in 2021

Chris Roling@@Chris_RolingFeatured ColumnistJune 7, 2021

7 NFL Players Entering Make-or-Break Seasons in 2021

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    Emilee Chinn/Associated Press

    Some seasons are just more important than others for NFL players. 

    Look at last year, when Washington Football Team quarterback Dwayne Haskins was in an open audition for a new coaching staff. It was a similar story for veterans like Teddy Bridgewater and Yannick Ngakoue, who were on new teams and facing immense pressure. 

    Looking ahead to 2021, high-profile youngsters on their last chance, veterans seeking major contracts and even older veterans trying to keep careers going are all in critical situations that demand great performances. 

    With future playing time, earnings and reputations at stake, the following players across all different stages of their respective careers top the list of guys entering make-or-break years.

Sam Darnold, QB, Carolina Panthers

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    Nell Redmond/Associated Press

    Sam Darnold might only be heading into his age-24 season, but this feels like it for the third pick in the 2018 draft. 

    The New York Jets threw in the towel on Darnold after three seasons, and the quarterback-needy Carolina Panthers were more than happy to roll the proverbial dice. It was a low-risk move, to say the least, considering Darnold completed just 59.8 percent of his passes with 45 touchdowns and 39 interceptions in the Big Apple. 

    One would never go so far as to suggest the miserable Jets did a good enough job building around Darnold, but there's a certain level of expectations that come with being a top-three passer. On paper, the expectation was he would elevate those around him. 

    While somewhat free of such massive expectations, Darnold has one year to prove he can flourish in an offense orchestrated by coordinator Joe Brady while surrounded by weapons like DJ Moore, Terrace Marshall Jr. and Robby Anderson. 

    If Darnold struggles and the Panthers pick in the top 10 again, Matt Rhule will hit the draft looking to find a long-term gamble to attach their jobs statuses to while Darnold will find himself in a backup role for the long term. 

Daniel Jones, QB, New York Giants

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    Adam Hunger/Associated Press

    New York Giants quarterback Daniel Jones finds himself in a similar situation. 

    Jones, the sixth pick in 2019, was supposed to be the franchise savior who revived another New York franchise. Instead, he had a new head coach in Joe Judge for his second season and the clock continues to tick on whether that new staff will have a long leash to turn things in the right direction. 

    Over two seasons, and 27 appearances, Jones didn't do enough to silence doubters who pointed out he had inflated collegiate numbers while at Duke. He completed 62.2 percent of his passes with 35 touchdowns and 22 interceptions, averaging just 6.6 yards per attempt along the way. 

    New York has made moves over the last two seasons to help ensure Jones pans out, including heavy investments in the offensive line with names like Andrew Thomas, plus big money spent on free agents Kyle Rudolph and wide receiver Kenny Golladay. 

    If Jones doesn't flash an expected developmental upswing during his third season and the Giants don't get past the six-win mark for the first time since 2016, New York is bound to start over under center just like the Jets did with Darnold. 

Leighton Vander Esch, LB, Dallas Cowboys

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    Emilee Chinn/Associated Press

    It sure feels like Leighton Vander Esch has one foot out the door with the Dallas Cowboys already. 

    Those Cowboys have Jaylon Smith holding down one linebacker spot and used the 12th pick this year on Micah Parsons before adding Jabril Cox later in the draft. NFL Network's Jane Slater has since reported other teams might have interest in a trade, even if the Cowboys don't want to move him. 

    Vander Esch and the Cowboys wouldn't be in this position if it weren't for injury issues. He had a Pro Bowl season over 16 games in 2018 after being a first-round pick. But he played in just nine games in 2019 and 10 in 2020. 

    Dallas has since declined Vander Esch's fifth-year option, putting the proverbial writing on the wall. If he can't stay on the field, play up to expectations and keep talented rookies watching from the sidelines, he's bound to be done in Dallas and might not get another look as a starter in the league. 

A.J. Green, WR, Arizona Cardinals

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    Aaron Doster/Associated Press

    The 2021 season could serve as a send-off for wide receiver A.J. Green

    For the first time since 2011, Green will suit up for a team other than the Cincinnati Bengals after putting ink to paper this offseason with the upstart Arizona Cardinals. 

    After years of injury woes, Green played in all 16 games for the first time since 2017 last season, only to catch just 47 of his 104 targets for 523 yards and two touchdowns. The veteran was easily surpassed in the offense by rookie Tee Higgins. To describe his showing as underwhelming would be an understatement considering he was the team's most expensive player at north of $18 million in cap charges. 

    Arizona expects Green to get back on track and more in line with his career-long play in the interests of helping Kyler Murray in his development. But he'll have to spar with DeAndre Hopkins, rookie Rondale Moore and Andy Isabella for attention. If he can't prove last year was an anomaly and the result of poor surroundings, it could be his final season as a starter anywhere. 

JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    One could suggest JuJu Smith-Schuster was in this same category last year and flopped, which may have played a role in the way the market received him this offseason. 

    In what seemed like his last year with the Pittsburgh Steelers, JuJu had another chance to prove he could be a team's No. 1 wideout and struggled, catching 97 passes for 831 yards and nine scores on a brutal 8.6 yards per catch. 

    After finding a soft market amid a deep wideout and draft class, JuJu re-upped with the Steelers on a one-year deal worth just $8 million. 

    As it stands, JuJu has yet to shutter the narrative that his one elite season (2018) was a byproduct of playing on the same team as a prime Antonio Brown. Projecting into next offseason suggests the free-agent wideout class and draft class will be just as deep, so odd as it seems for a 24-year-old receiver, JuJu might have just one more chance to get that monster second contract. 

Jameis Winston, QB, New Orleans Saints

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    Gerry Broome/Associated Press

    The obvious happened in New Orleans, with Jameis Winston's one-year pact turning into a potential successor storyline when Drew Brees retired. 

    With Brees gone, Winston is rightfully penciled in as the starter. Penciled, though, because there's always a chance the Saints pull a stunner and give the gig to Taysom Hill. 

    But for the purposes here, let's presume the Saints go with the former No. 1 pick who is 27 years old and not the 30-year-old with 134 career attempts. 

    The last time we saw Winston starting in a full capacity, he was still in Tampa Bay back in 2019, completing 60.7 percent of his passes with 33 touchdowns and 30 interceptions—and 11 300-plus-yard games. Ideally, the Saints would like to see something along those lines, minus the interceptions, while Winston works with a supporting cast that boasts Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara. 

    If Winston can pull it off, he's likely in line to be the starter there for the foreseeable future on a solid deal. But one can safely presume this is his last chance at obtaining "franchise starter" status.

Cam Newton, QB, New England Patriots

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    Mary Schwalm/Associated Press

    It seems things are already off on the wrong foot for Cam Newton's second attempt at being the starting quarterback for the New England Patriots. The former MVP suffered a minor hand injury while working in OTAs. 

    If Newton is lucky, that isn't a sign of things to come.

    The Patriots left their conservative shell this offseason and spent a ton of money in free agency to bring in the surrounding pieces to complement Newton's skill set, such as tight ends Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry, plus wideout Nelson Agholor. But at the same time, Patriots brass hedged their bets a bit by taking Alabama quarterback Mac Jones with the 15th pick. 

    A year ago, Newton signed late, had some nagging injury issues and ultimately threw just eight touchdowns and 10 interceptions. But it's reasonable to believe the Patriots think another year in the system will work wonders for Newton and help lift the team to playoff contention. 

    But in an AFC East with other contenders already fully emerged, Newton won't have too long to prove the rookie should remain on the sidelines holding a clipboard.