For NFL players, every year represents a prove-it season. But looking ahead to the 2019 campaign there are some who stand out.
Some of them are looking at one more chance to prove they belong. Some are set to take on expanded roles. All of them need to step up.
Vic Beasley, EDGE, Atlanta Falcons
Beasley was the eighth overall pick of the 2015 NFL Draft. He broke through with 15.5 sacks in his sophomore campaign, but more often than not he’s been in the doghouse during his tenure in Atlanta. The past two years, Beasley has a total of 10 sacks and has been shuffled around as the Falcons attempt to find a role that fits him full-time.
The Falcons picked up his fifth-year option, but another mediocre campaign would be devastating to his value going forward. Needless to say, there is a lot riding on his 2019 season.
Lamar Jackson, quarterback, Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens have poured a ton of resources into giving this former Heisman winner what he needs to succeed at the NFL level. The entire offense is being tailored to suit his unique skill set, and of course longtime veteran Joe Flacco was shipped off in a trade with Denver. Talk about pressure.
The early reviews this offseason haven’t been great. Yet if Jackson can absorb the new offense quickly this summer, then Baltimore has a chance to feature one of the more dynamic, entertaining offenses in the NFL this year.
Dante Fowler, outside linebacker, Los Angeles Rams
Fowler entered the NFL with a ton of hype and was the third overall pick of the 2015 NFL Draft. The former Florida Gators star ended up tearing his ACL almost immediately and missed his rookie season. Since then, he has struggled with consistency on the field, and trouble with the law off it.
Last season, however, he showed up big for the Rams in the playoffs and earned a one-year, $12 million deal in the offseason. Can he continue to build off of that success, or will it prove to be a flash in the pan?
Mike Davis, running back, Chicago Bears
Davis broke out last year as a member of the Seattle Seahawks, averaging 4.6 yards per carry and scoring five touchdowns as a role player. He parlayed that success into a two-year deal with the Bears in free agency. Now he has a chance to carve out a significant role in one of the NFL’s most explosive offenses.
However, Davis has serious competition, as the Bears drafted David Montgomery out of Iowa State. If he can’t win the battle in training camp, then it stands to reason Davis will be seen as a backup for the rest of his career.
Michael Pierce, nose tackle, Baltimore Ravens
Pierce’s story is fascinating. He was an undrafted rookie out of Samford in 2016 but immediately became a stalwart on Baltimore’s defensive line. Since then, he has played in all but two games, racking up 116 tackles and three sacks as the team’s nose tackle. All positive stuff.
Entering the final year of his rookie contract, however, he showed up to minicamp seriously out of shape and was publicly chastised by his head coach. That’s exactly what he did not want to do. Now Pierce has some work in front of him to make up for his poor judgement.
Matt Kalil, left tackle, Houston Texans
Kalil has continued to get chances in the NFL despite playing poorly for most of his career. A former fourth overall pick, Kalil showed up well as a rookie in 2012 earning All-Rookie honors, along with a Pro Bowl bid. It’s all been downhill since then. Last year, Kalil ended up on injured reserve with a recurring knee issue and didn’t play a single game.
Now with Houston, he has a chance to start on the blind side protecting Deshaun Watson. If he stinks it up, or if his knees once again cause him to miss time, it could mean the end of the road for Kalil’s career.
Darron Lee, linebacker, Kansas City Chiefs
The first chance he got, Adam Gase shipped Lee off to Kansas City in a trade, garnering a sixth-round pick in return. That had to sting the former first-round pick out of Ohio State.
He’s entering the final year of his rookie deal after the Jets declined his fifth-year option, and it’s clear Lee has a lot to prove. The Chiefs have a weak overall linebacker group, however, and he has a prime opportunity to reset his career with a solid 2019 season. If he fails to do that, then Lee will likely finish his career as a first-round bust.
JuJu Smith-Schuster, wide receiver, Pittsburgh Steelers
Smith-Schuster finds himself on this list for significantly different reasons than everyone else. All he’s done since entering the NFL as a second-rounder two years ago is torch opposing secondaries on a regular basis.
The big reason that the 2019 campaign is a prove-it year for Smith-Schuster is that, following the Antonio Brown trade with Oakland, he is now the man in Pittsburgh. Many believe Smith-Schuster was a beneficiary of Brown’s dominance, and that he will struggle to put up gaudy numbers as the No. 1 guy in Pittsburgh. Now he has a chance to prove them wrong.
Eli Apple, cornerback, New Orleans Saints
The Saints surprised many last year when they engineered a trade for Apple, who had never been able to live up to his first-round billing in New York. The former Ohio State star had a solid second half in 2018 with New Orleans, both in the regular season and playoffs.
However, the team declined to pick up his fifth-year option. That puts quite a bit of pressure on Apple to put forth a quality season in 2019. Mike Triplett of ESPN recently wrote that, “Apple is ascending” as both a person and a player with the Saints. So, it sounds like he is on the right track.
Jameis Winston, quarterback, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
This is a prove-it or lose-it (starting job in the NFL) season for the former No. 1 overall pick of the 2015 NFL Draft. He slogged through the 2018 season, starting off on suspension and then being benched multiple times due to poor play.
Through his first four seasons, Winston has been a turnover machine who tends to play his worst during key moments. Head coach Bruce Arians and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich should give him the help he needs. Yet it will come down to whether Winston himself can change the way he plays.