10 NFL players who must step up next season

NFL news: 49ers sign Josh Rosen
May 21, 2019; Davie, FL, USA; Miami Dolphins quarterback Josh Rosen (3) during organized team activities at Baptist Health Training Facility. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL is as much about individual performances as team-wide performances. That’s why the New England Patriots are coming off their sixth Super Bowl title under Tom Brady.

Brady himself has a youngster that must step up in 2019 for his team to repeat. Meanwhile, the Arizona Cardinals will be relying on David Johnson to help rookie No. 1 pick Kyler Murray.

Remaining in the NFC, the Green Bay Packers need Jimmy Graham to live up to his contract in order to become Super Bowl contenders.

It’s in this that we look at 10 NFL players who must step up next season.

N’Keal Harry, wide receiver, New England Patriots


The Patriots don’t normally exhaust early-round picks on wide receivers. Instead, the defending champs tend to rely on Tom Brady, who has boosted the production of players at the position. This changed in April. In selecting the 6-foot-2 Arizona State product in the first round, New England is relying on him to help replace the recently retired Rob Gronkowski. Harry’s rookie season won’t be one where he sits and learns. He’s going to be thrown into the fire. He also needs to perform at a veteran level. The pressure is on here.

Xavier Rhodes, cornerback, Minnesota Vikings

A two-time Pro Bowler, Rhodes is a player some expected the Vikings to move on from this offseason. The 28-year-old cornerback is slated to count for $54-plus million against the cap over the next four seasons. His 2018 performance doesn’t equate to that type of salary. In fact, Pro Football Focus graded him out as the Vikings’ fifth-best cornerback. Unfortunately, he’s still tasked with shadowing the opposing team’s No. 1 receiver. It’ll be interesting to see what happens in 2019. Rhodes remains key to the Vikings’ success.

David Johnson, running back, Arizona Cardinals

Johnson deserves a mulligan for his lackluster performance last season. Then-offensive coordinator Mike McCoy did not use the NFL’s former yardage leader to the best of his ability. It led to the Pro Bowler averaging a career low 3.6 yards per attempt in 2018. Now, with dual-threat quarterback Kyler Murray and an innovative offensive mind, Kliff Kingsbury, there are no excuses for Johnson in 2019. He simply must get back to dominating at 2017 levels if the Cardinals have any chance to become relevant next season.

Bud Dupree, EDGE, Pittsburgh Steelers

With Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell gone, the Steelers don’t have the same margin for error as we’ve seen in the past. This means the defense must step up. That starts with a former first-round pick in Bud Dupree who has failed to rack up more than six sacks in any of his first four seasons. The Steelers picked up Dupree’s $9-plus million option for the 2019 season. He now needs to start playing like the former top-25 pick that he is.

Dak Prescott, quarterback, Dallas Cowboys

It remains to be seen if Prescott will be the latest quarterback to reset the market at that position. But the Cowboys have options here. A former mid-round pick, the Pro Bowler is slated to become a free agent after the 2019 campaign. It has led to suggestions that Dallas could let Prescott play out next season and reevaluate his situation come March. Either way, the youngster must prove that he’s not a product of Ezekiel Elliott’s brilliance in Dallas’ backfield. This has been the case over the course of the quarterback’s three-year career. Can he change the narrative? A lot of money might be riding on it.

Leonard Fournette, running back, Jacksonville Jaguars

We already know that Fournette is in Tom Coughlin’s doghouse after an injury-plagued 2018 campaign that saw the former top-five pick suspended for an off-field incident. As such, we would not be surprised to see Jacksonville move on from Fournette if he continues to struggle with both maturity and consistency. The Jaguars have already voided the remainder of Fournette’s guarantees. This means the team can move on from him without a salary cap hit. Short of reverting back to early-career form, that could very well happen.

Solomon Thomas, defensive line, San Francisco 49ers

A former top-three pick, Thomas has done absolutely nothing to live up to that billing. In fact, he’s recorded a total of 17 quarterback hits and four sacks in two seasons. Some of that has to do with the way San Francisco has utilized the Stanford product. Even then, he shares in the blame. With new defensive line coach Kris Kocurek calling the shots, the hope is that Thomas breaks out in 2019. Given that San Francisco has Pro Bowler Dee Ford and rookie No. 2 pick Nick Bosa playing alongside Thomas in 2019, there are no excuses.

Josh Rosen, quarterback, Miami Dolphins


Let’s assume for a second that Rosen actually beats out Ryan Fitzpatrick for the Dolphins’ starting job. If that happens, the second-year quarterback is going to be under a microscope. The issues Rosen had in Arizona before being dealt to South Beach are well known. Yet it’s clear he didn’t have the coaching to succeed. That’s where offensive coordinator Chad O’Shea comes into play. The two must develop a strong relationship if this is going to succeed. We’ll find out early whether that’s the case.

Jimmy Graham, tight end, Green Bay Packers

It was somewhat of a surprise to see Green Bay retain Graham (and his $12.67 million cap hit) for the 2019 season. The 32-year-old former Pro Bowler recorded only 55 receptions for 636 yards in his first season with the Pack. It’s not the type of production we expected with Aaron Rodgers tossing him the rock. Now that the Packers added a potentially explosive tight end in Jace Sternberger in the draft, Graham is going to be facing a ton of pressure to perform next season.

Andy Dalton, quarterback, Cincinnati Bengals

Yet another player that we’re surprised to see back with his old team, Dalton is facing pretty much a do-or-die 2019 season. Cincinnati can get out from under Dalton’s contract next March without a single penny of a dead money hit. Given that the 31-year-old quarterback hasn’t even performed like a top-20 player at his position since 2015, the pressure is on Dalton. Does he have it in him under first-year head coach Zac Taylor? The answer to that question will weigh heavily on Dalton’s future in Ohio.