Ten NFL players facing career-defining seasons

Nov 6, 2016; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Rams running back Todd Gurley (30) walks to the field prior to the game against the Carolina Panthers at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports NFL
Jesse Reed
Written by Jesse Reed

Each season brings a test for every single player in the NFL. Jobs are always on the line.

But for some, this is amplified all the more heading into 2017.

Some guys are in a contract year and have a lot to prove. Others are young players upon whom the mantle of cornerstone weighs heavy — sometimes too heavy. Then there are the quarterbacks who have a lot to gain, and to lose, this upcoming season.

These 10 players are all facing career-defining campaigns in 2017.

Mike Glennon, quarterback, Chicago Bears

Nobody is going to bat an eyelash if Glennon fails to do anything of consequence in Chicago this season. The Bears drafted his replacement already, and if he stinks, they’ll just hand the keys of the offense to Mitch Trubisky — ready or not.

But if Glennon manages to do some positive stuff and looks like a starting-caliber quarterback, then things get interesting. Not only for the Bears and the rest of the quarterback-needy teams around the league, but also for Glennon himself.

Looking at his contract with the Bears, Glennon will be hauling in almost all his guaranteed cash this upcoming season. Chicago has a built-in out after the 2017 season in which he’ll still cost them money, but not a crushing amount.  So if Trubisky is starting next year (he almost certainly will be unless Glennon is too darn good not to start), then cutting Glennon or trading him is cheaper than keeping him on the roster only to stroll the sidelines with a headset and notepad.

Either he’ll keep his job as the starter in Chicago (not likely at all), will play poorly and end up as a career journeyman backup or he’ll make the case for himself as a legitimate starter for another team.

Sheldon Richardson, defensive tackle, New York Jets

Sheldon Richardson

This is an interesting one. Richardson appeared to be the next big deal in the Big Apple his first couple of seasons. He looked every bit as impressive as you’d expect from a No. 13 overall pick.

Then he was suspended before the 2015 season and hasn’t been the same dominating force since then. After making 143 tackles and 13 sacks in his first two seasons, Richardson tallied just 97 tackles and six sacks the past couple of years.

Now, Richardson is doing some stuff right. He was very solid against the run last year but really didn’t get much going in terms of pressuring opposing quarterbacks.

As a defensive end, that’s not good.

Richardson has a lot of work ahead of him to prove he’s still capable of owning the line of scrimmage. He is also playing out the fifth-year option of his rookie deal. He’ll be a free agent next year, which means this really is a humongous season for the young man.

If Richardson can get back to the dominant form we saw early in his career, he’ll be in line for a big payday. If not? Well, you don’t have to be a salary cap expert to know the answer to that question.

Ameer Abdullah, running back, Detroit Lions

It seems like ages ago that Abdullah was being compared to Barry Sanders. In reality, that was just a couple years back.

Since then, Abdullah has struggled to stay on the field due to injuries. Last year, he missed all but two games, suffering a foot injury that landed him on IR.

Abdullah is extremely talented. He’s quick. He’s fast. He can make huge plays on the ground and through the air. The Lions are absolutely better when he’s able to play.

Originally a second-round pick out of Nebraska, Abdullah needs to prove he’s durable enough to play through an entire season. If he suffers another injury or ends up getting worn down by a heavy workload, then the Lions will absolutely need to find more reliable production next season.

In terms of the overall salary cap, cutting Abdullah during the offseason won’t hardly amount to anything, as he’ll count just $320,600 in dead cap in that case. Needless to say, he has a lot to gain with a big season, and a lot to lose.

Dontari Poe, defensive tackle, Atlanta Falcons

For a couple of seasons, it sure looked like Poe was going to be a juggernaut. Between 2014-15, he racked up 98 total tackles and 10.5 sacks — really stellar numbers for a nose tackle.

Then all the concerns some scouts expressed about Poe not giving 100 percent on every play started to show up. From 2015-16, he took a nosedive in production — 66 tackles and just 2.5 sacks.

Not surprisingly, Poe didn’t land on a gold mine this past offseason during free agency. Instead, he signed an incentive-laden one-year contract with the Falcons that might as well had the words “prove it” emblazoned underneath his signature. Included in this contract was a massive weight clause, as staying in shape had become an issue for him.

So far, so good for Poe making weight. But his play on the field is what matters most.

Kevin White, wide receiver, Chicago Bears

If he’s not already there yet, White is darn close to being a legitimate first-round bust. Originally selected No. 7 overall out of West Virginia by Chicago in 2015, White has not been able to stay healthy since Day 1.

He suffered a shin injury during OTAs as a rookie and ended up missing the entire season. Then last season, White ended up on IR again with a foot injury. He ended up playing just four games in 2016, catching about 53 percent of his targets to the tune of 19 receptions for just 187 yards and no touchdowns.

While he’s extremely talented, White appears to be made out of glass, by NFL standards.

Having said all that, it’s of great import that White stay healthy and produces on the field. If neither of those things happen, the Bears might be forced to strongly consider biting the bullet and just letting him go, eating his dead cap hit of $5.27 million.

Kony Ealy, defensive end, New England Patriots

Ealy landed in what could be the perfect situation for him when the Carolina Panthers traded him to the New England Patriots. Already penciled in as the likely starting left defensive end, Ealy finally has a chance to prove he’s more than just a rotational guy.

In three years as a member of the Panthers, he started just 15 games. While he was marginally successful (14 sacks), it was tough to get a foothold as a starter on a team with such a deep defensive line.

Now it’s up to Ealy to prove he’s a legitimate starting-caliber defensive end. If he can’t do that, then he’ll likely find himself giving way to rookie Derek Rivers.

Furthermore, Ealy is entering a contract year. A second-round pick in 2014, he has no fifth-year option. So he’s going to be setting the mark for his worth as a free agent, which makes the opportunity he has in New England priceless.

Blake Bortles, quarterback, Jacksonville Jaguars

Blake Bortles Jaguars

Talk about a make-or-break season coming up for Bortles. Nobody can dispute the fact that this young quarterback can sling the ball anywhere he wants. The problem is that he’s far too often slinging it to the other team.

In 46 career games, Bortles has throw 51 interceptions. That’s awful. And while he has a ton of yardage and touchdowns to show for his efforts during his first three years in the league, far too much of that has come when games were already lost.

This is seen in Bortles’ 11-34 record as a starter.

Jaguars head coach Doug Marrone has already put Bortles on notice — keep throwing interceptions and we’re pulling you out of the lineup.

So, his starting job is very much in jeopardy even before training camp. If Bortles can cut down on his turnovers while continuing to make big plays through the air, then he’ll have a chance to remain in place as the team’s quarterback of the future. If he continues to throw interceptions, then he’ll likely end up becoming a career backup.

Darron Lee, linebacker, New York Jets

Darron Lee New York Jets

It might be unfair to place a guy who was just a rookie last year on this list. However, there are a couple of valid reasons Lee was chosen.

First, his 2016 season was a huge disappointment. As a first-round pick who was highly touted coming into the draft, Lee failed to make a good impression. He made just 73 tackles and registered one sack in 13 games. If you’re into this sort of thing, Lee had a Pro Footballl Focus grade of 38.3 — 84th among inside linebackers.

Worse still, the Jets lost 11 games, which really got under Lee’s skin.

“It pisses me off,” Lee told NJ Advance Media. “I don’t like to lose. I wasn’t born on this planet to lose.”

So, we know both Lee and the Jets weren’t good last year.

Now comes the second big reason Lee is on this list. The Jets need to know if this kid is legit. If he’ll be able to be a big part of their future. We all saw what happened this offseason. The Jets had no qualms about cutting their losses and stripping the roster bare. They’re starting the whole shebang all over again.

So Lee needs to prove he’s everything he was supposed to be coming out of Ohio State. And he needs to do it now.

Todd Gurley, running back, Los Angeles Rams

Courtesy of Matt Kartozian, USA Today Sports

Anyone who watched a fair amount of Rams football last year knows Gurley oftentimes did not have a chance to make anything happen on the ground due to poor blocking. However, there were plenty of missed opportunities by him as well. He simply had an awful 2016 campaign, rushing for 885 yards and a pathetic 3.2 yards per carry.

It was a far cry from Gurley’s rookie season in which he averaged 4.8 yards per carry and rushed for 1,106 yards in just 13 games.

The Rams have done some work to solidify the offensive line. They brought in Pro Bowl left tackle Andrew Whitworth and center John Sullivan, both of whom should immediately help improve the offensive line as a whole.

The franchise also ditched Jeff Fisher and replaced him with former Washington offensive coordinator Sean McVay. Players are already saying McVay’s offense is easier to learn and execute than the one Rob Boras ran in 2016.

It’s likely the offense will still struggle a bit at times. Jared Goff is still very young, and the Rams play in a division that features behemoth defenses on every team. Still, Gurley has a chance to prove last year was just a fluke. Or, he could continue to struggle, proving that his rookie campaign was the aberration.

Shane Ray, outside linebacker, Denver Broncos

Nov 27, 2016; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Broncos outside linebacker Von Miller (58) and outside linebacker Shane Ray (56) react to a defensive stop in the first quarter against the Kansas City Chiefs at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

The 2017 season is a pivotal one for Ray. He’ll be playing out the third year of his rookie deal and is finally getting a chance to start opposite Von Miller now that DeMarcus Ware is out of the picture.

In his first two seasons, Ray flashed some impressive abilities. He started eight games last year when Ware went down with an injury and acquitted himself well. Appearing in all 16 games, he tallied 48 tackles, eight sacks and one forced fumble.

Ray has some seriously high hopes for himself, aiming to rack up one sack per game. If he does that, then the Broncos are going to be in a tough spot, because Ray might choose to hold out for a new deal heading into the 2018 season, even if Denver opts into his fifth-year option. Top pass rushers are worth nearly as much as quarterbacks these days, and Ray will be looking at under $3 million for the 2018 season without a new contract.

However, if Ray peters out and isn’t able to consistently produce as a starter, then the Broncos will have to look for someone else who can heading into 2018.

About the author

Jesse Reed

Jesse Reed

Managing Editor here at Sportsnaut. Featured on Yardbarker, and, and formerly was a breaking news writer/NFL analyst for Bleacher Report.