NFL Players with the Most to Prove in 2021 Preseason

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistAugust 8, 2021

NFL Players with the Most to Prove in 2021 Preseason

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    Aaron Doster/Associated Press

    The 2021 NFL preseason kicked off Thursday night with the Pittsburgh Steelers defeating the Dallas Cowboys 16-3 in the annual Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio. While the year's first contest was short on star power, many projected starters and key role players are likely to make their way into lineups as the preseason progresses.

    Many of these players are going to have a lot to prove between now and the start of the regular season.

    Obviously, it's what a player does after Week 1 that really matters. However, some players will spend the next few weeks battling for starting jobs, to justify contracts or to showcase their health. Here, we'll examine players in these categories who have the most to prove this preseason.

    We're not examining players on the roster bubble here—we'll get to that in the coming days. Instead, we're focusing on veterans and high-profile rookies who should have secure roster spots but perhaps very insecure situations.

    Let's dig in.

Krys Barnes, LB, Green Bay Packers

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    Green Bay Packers linebacker Krys Barnes was an undrafted rookie who shined in 2020. The UCLA product finished his inaugural campaign with 80 tackles, a sack and a forced fumble in 13 games with 10 starts. Barnes has already proven that he belongs, and he isn't in danger of being cast aside.

    However, Barnes struggled in coverage as a rookie, as many first-year players do, allowing an opposing passer rating of 118.4 on the season. What Barnes needs to prove is that he can be a solid coverage linebacker and a true leader in the middle of Green Bay's linebacker corps.

    Green Bay has a relatively complete roster—especially with Aaron Rodgers back in the fold—but they have lacked elite talent at the second level for some time. Barnes is looking to help address the issue by becoming a lighter, quicker defender.

    "I lost about 10 pounds. I still feel powerful," Barnes said, per Zach Kruse of Packers Wire. "I still have all my power. Feel a little bit faster."

    If Barnes cannot prove that he is the playmaking off-ball linebacker that Green Bay has lacked, the Packers may have to bolster their linebacker corps before Week 1.

Cameron Erving, LT, Carolina Panthers

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    The Carolina Panthers took a flier on quarterback Sam Darnold this offseason, and while Darnold will have plenty to prove during the preseason, he's likely to get all of 2021 to show whether he can be the team's franchise quarterback.

    However, Darnold could have a difficult time ahead of him if free-agent addition Cameron Erving cannot lock down the left tackle position. Erving was signed to a two-year, $10 million deal despite playing in only 19 games over the last two seasons.

    A former draft bust of the Cleveland Browns, Erving has struggled to maintain a starting role since being taken 19th overall in 2015. If he cannot answer Carolina's question mark at left tackle, the Panthers will be forced to consider other options—possibly including right tackle Taylor Moton, who recently signed a four-year extension.

    "Taylor is a great player, we all know that," Erving said, per Schuyler Callihan of FanNation. "He takes reps wherever coach tells him to take reps, as do I."

    The Panthers at least need Erving to prove that he is good enough to keep Moton in his natural spot at right tackle. Otherwise, Darnold may frequently be running from pressure as he often did with the New York Jets.

Clelin Ferrell, Edge, Las Vegas Raiders

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    The Las Vegas Raiders surprised plenty of folks when they selected former Clemson pass-rusher Clelin Ferrell fourth overall in the 2019 draft. Unfortunately, Ferrell hasn't rewarded Las Vegas' risky decision with stellar on-field work since.

    In his two seasons, Ferrell has notched a mere 6.5 sacks and 36 quarterback pressures.

    The problem for Ferrell is this: He has at least two years remaining on his rookie contract—three if the Raiders exercise his fifth-year option—but he may already be falling out of the team's long-term plans. Las Vegas added Yannick Ngakoue and Solomon Thomas in free agency this offseason.

    Ferrell has already fallen to the second-team defense behind Ngakoue, according to Michael Silver of NFL Network.

    If Ferrell has any hope of retaining a significant role, he's going to have to showcase himself during the preseason. He'll need to show new defensive coordinator Gus Bradley that he can at least be a valuable member of the pass-rushing rotation.

    A flat preseason could result in Ferrell being buried on the depth chart and on a direct path to not having his fifth-year option exercised.

Taysom Hill, QB, New Orleans Saints

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    The New Orleans Saints are staging a full-on quarterback competition between Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill. Both players are vying to replace future Hall of Famer Drew Brees, but Hill will have a bit more to prove during the preseason.

    Hill won't only have to outplay Winston; he'll have to do so decisively. The reason? If Winston wins the starting job, Hill can still contribute as a change-of-pace quarterback, tight end and gadget player, just as he did with Brees under center. If Hill wins the starting job, New Orleans won't have that extra weapon in Winston.

    The challenge is a steep one for Hill. While a dangerous dual-threat quarterback, he lacks the polish on passes that Winston possesses. According to Luke Johnson of, he has continued to struggle with deep-ball accuracy in camp.

    "Hill has consistently shown great touch when he puts some loft on intermediate throws, but he's had trouble zeroing in on the right depth for his longer, lofted throws," Johnson wrote.

    Winston has had turnover issues (30 interceptions in 2019), but he also has 70 starts on his NFL resume. If Hill has any hope of becoming a full-time quarterback, he's going to have to outperform Winston by a wide margin in the coming weeks.

Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Denver Broncos

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    The Denver Broncos are also holding a quarterback competition in camp, theirs between incumbent Drew Lock and trade acquisition Teddy Bridgewater. So far, the battle has been pretty neck-and-neck.

    "During the first seven camp practices, Lock has had good days, the same with Bridgewater. Lock has had sub-par days, the same with Bridgewater," Ryan O'Halloran of the Denver Post wrote. "Translation: Nothing much, if anything, has been settled."

    This competition is likely to run through the preseason, and Bridgewater is going to have more on the line in exhibition games.

    Theoretically, it would make sense for Denver to stick with the incumbent if both quarterbacks are on even ground after three weeks of the preseason. Lock knows the system and the players, and he has two years left on his rookie contract.

    If Bridgewater isn't an obvious upgrade, the Broncos are likely to give Lock one last look before starting over at the quarterback position.

    Bridgewater, while only 28, may be running out of legitimate starting opportunities in the NFL. He was merely serviceable in Carolina—which is likely why the Panthers were comfortable trading him—and flaming out in Denver would certainly hurt Bridgewater's market value.

    Losing out to Lock would likely leave few franchises clamoring for Bridgewater's services next offseason.

Players Returning from Injuries

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    This offseason, the Tennessee Titans signed edge-rusher Bud Dupree to a massive five-year, $82.5 million contract. Dupree produced 19.5 sacks in 27 games over the last two seasons, but he's also making his way back from a torn ACL suffered in December.

    Dupree was only recently activated from the physically unable to perform (PUP) list. The Titans need to get Dupree some reps during the preseason, and Dupree needs to prove that he can be a functional contributor in 2021. Otherwise, it could be back to the drawing board as the Titans look to fix their woeful pass rush.

    Dupree is far from the only player returning from injury who needs to prove his health this preseason. Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow (ACL, MCL) is in the same boat, as is Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott (ankle), who is also dealing with a recent shoulder injury.

    "Now it's just about getting the shoulder [injury] behind me," Prescott said, per The Athletic's Jon Machota.

    Browns wideout Odell Beckham Jr. is returning from a torn ACL. Denver Broncos pass-rusher Von Miller is returning after missing a year due to ankle surgery.

    The list goes on, and fans can take their pick of marquee players who are returning from significant 2020 injuries. The reality is the same for all of them, however. If these players cannot show that they are at least close to 100 percent, their respective teams may have to alter their plans for the 2021 season.

Rookie Quarterbacks and Their Veteran Counterparts

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    Five rookie quarterbacks were drafted in the first round this year. All five have something to prove during the 2021 preseason.

    Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence and Jets signal-caller Zach Wilson are both expected to be Week 1 starters—the Jets don't even have a veteran with regular-season experience on the roster. Both will have to show that they are up to the challenge before their season openers.

    New England Patriots quarterback Mac Jones appears to be in a very real quarterback competition with Cam Newton. Meanwhile, Justin Fields of the Chicago Bears and Trey Lance of the San Francisco 49ers are playing the understudy role but could make for some tough decisions with strong preseasons.

    In Jacksonville and New York, it's rookie or bust. Lawrence and Wilson must prove that they are ready to start right away, while Jones, Fields and Lance must, at a minimum, show that they are progressing well enough to fill backup roles.

    If, for example, Fields cannot beat out Nick Foles for Chicago's backup job, it's a problem. Foles wasn't drafted to be the Bears' quarterback of the future. Fields was.

    Meanwhile, projected starting veterans in Chicago, New England and San Francisco—Andy Dalton, Cam Newton and Jimmy Garoppolo, respectively—must do enough to hold off their rookie counterparts.

    Dalton, Newton and Garoppolo will all be playing for their futures in 2021. Their first step toward finding 2022 employment will be securing the starting roles for Week 1 of this season.

Tua Tagovailoa, QB, Miami Dolphins

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    Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa showed some promise as a rookie in 2020, going 6-3 as a starter. However, he was benched twice and too often struggled to push the ball downfield. He averaged just 6.3 yards per attempt, 30th among qualifying quarterbacks.

    The additions of speedy receivers Will Fuller and Jaylen Waddle should help the vertical passing game, but Tagovailoa must still prove himself capable of attacking defenses deep. He'll have to do so while learning a new offense under co-coordinators George Godsey and Eric Studesville.

    So far, Tagovailoa seems to be absorbing the new system well.

    "Very comfortable," Tagovailoa said when asked how he felt in the offense, per Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald.

    Still, being comfortable in class and in camp isn't the same as confidently dissecting a defense in-game. Tagovailoa needs to show that he is a more versatile and consistent passer than he was last season. Otherwise, the Dolphins may have to rethink their offensive strategy entering the regular season.

    That may require utilizing a more run-oriented attack and strengthening a backfield headlined by the likes of Malcolm Brown and Myles Gaskin.


    Advanced Statistics from Pro Football Reference. Contract information via Spotrac.