12 NFL players who need to step up big time

Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Now that we’re able to start sorting through contenders and pretenders after five weeks of the NFL season, it’s time to focus on players that must step up moving forward.

Of those who have legitimate playoff aspirations, certain teams are missing elite-level production from proven stars. That includes a tight end in New England that’s in the midst of the worst stretch of his career. It also includes a dynamic young receiver in Kansas City who has struggled in recent weeks.

Over in the NFC, a quarterback in Texas has not proven himself to be the guy. Short of that happening, the Cowboys are going to continue being mediocre. These are among 12 NFL players that need to step up big time.

Rob Gronkowski, tight end, New England Patriots

Statistically, Gronkowski is in the midst of the toughest stretch of his career. The five-time Pro Bowler is averaging just four receptions for 46 yards over the past four games. Even in an NFL that doesn’t feature tight ends a whole lot, that’s mediocre. For Gronkowski, it’s really bad.

The issue here is that defenses have bracketed coverage to his side with multiple players. Whether that changes now that Julian Edelman is back from suspension and the recently-acquired Josh Gordon is worked into the offense more remains to be seen. But this is a major problem for a Patriots team that heads into Week 6 with a mediocre 3-2 record.

Dak Prescott, quarterback, Dallas Cowboys

Can the Cowboys continue to rely on Ezekiel Elliott to be a dominating force moving forward? The answer to that question is a resounding yes. This doesn’t mean that Prescott’s struggles are any less significant. Elliott will be contained at times. And in those situations, Prescott needs to improve in the passing game. Up to this point in the season, that has not happened.

Last week was a prime example. With Elliott having put up just 54 yards on 20 attempts, Prescott struggled to do anything of substance through the air. He tossed two interceptions and threw for a bit over 200 yards in an overtime loss to the Texans. That’s simply not going to cut it moving forward.

Carl Lawson, defensive end, Cincinnati Bengals

After having put up 8.5 sacks as a rookie last season, most expected Lawson to take the next step to elite status as a sophomore. Partly due to a nagging ankle injury and other factors, that just has not happened. Through the first five games of the season, the Auburn product has racked up just five tackles and one sack.

With Cincinnati being one of the biggest surprises in the NFL, a resurgence of sorts from Lawson to team up with Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap would make this team even better. The good news? While Lawson has not recorded the sacks, he has put up seven quarterback hits. That leads us to believe the sacks will come in due time.

Ryan Tannehill, quarterback Miami Dolphins

In a quarterback-driven league, it’s all about how players at this position perform. That’s no different in South Beach, where Tannehill’s 2018 season has been defined by two different stories. During Miami’s 3-0 start to the season, the veteran completed 73 percent of his passes with seven touchdowns and just two interceptions. Now in the midst of a two-game losing streak, Tannehill has put up one touchdown and three interceptions during that span.

Needless to say, Tannehill’s performance moving forward this season will be a huge factor in whether Miami can stay in the AFC Playoff race. With games coming up against Chicago, Detroit and Houston, the pressure is on him to deliver right now.

Tyreek Hill, wide receiver, Kansas City Chiefs

If Hill is performing like his usual elite self, the Chiefs’ offense is nearly unstoppable. I take that back. It is unstoppable. While Kansas City continues to put up points at will, Hill has struggled making a huge impact over the past three games. It’s a span of action that’s seen him record a combined 15 receptions for just 166 yards. Not bad. But not the Tyreek we’ve become accustomed to.

As the NFL season moves towards the “dog days,” defenses are going to scheme better against the Chiefs’ offense. Opponents now have ample game tape on record-breaking second-year quarterback Patrick Mahomes. That should lead to a downtick in production. If so, the undefeated Chiefs need to see last season’s version of Tyreek Hill.

Marcus Mariota, quarterback, Tennessee Titans

It’s pretty clear. The sample size is large enough. Super Mario has been everything but that since the start of the 2017 season. In 19 games (18 starts), the former No. 2 pick has thrown just 15 touchdowns compared to 19 interceptions. He’s also averaging less than 210 passing yards per outing.

Sure the Titans are 3-2 on the season and have posted a 10-8 mark in Mariota’s past 18 starts. But the team is not going to be considered top-end contenders unless this fourth-year quarterback turns it around. Unfortunately, time is running out on that possibility.

Marcus Peters, cornerback, Los Angeles Rams

Peters has an excuse for being on this list. The Pro Bowler suffered a calf injury back in Week 3 and was expected to miss multiple games. However, he started the Rams’ next game on a short week. The issue here is that Peters’ injury has impacted his overall performance thus far this season.

Acquired to be a shutdown corner during the spring, Peters has been everything but that through five games. He’s allowed 14 catches on 17 passes thrown in his direction over the past three games. That includes 255 yards and five touchdowns. Either the Rams need to shut Peters down for a bit or he needs to improve big time. There’s no in between here.

Brandon Graham, defensive end, Philadelphia Eagles

Part of the Eagles’ struggles this season has been a lack of production from high-paid players. That includes a player in Graham who is in a contract year and not doing anything to justify a big pay day when March comes calling.

Having recorded a career-high 9.5 sacks last season, most figured the 30-year-old defensive end would continue this high level of play. Through five games, that has not been anywhere near the case. Graham has recorded a grand total of one sack with just three quarterback hits. It’s certainly a black eye for an Eagles defense that’s recorded 12 sacks in five games. Short of Graham turning this around, it’s going to be a season-long issue for the defending champs.

Jamison Crowder, wide receiver, Washington Redskins

It’s by now well known that Alex Smith likes to target his running backs and tight ends. Through the first quarter of Washington’s season, only 45 percent of his passes have gone to wide receivers. Of that, Crowder has been targeted just 20 times in four games. That’s not sustainable if the Redskins want to come out on top in the NFC East.

The issue here is that Crowder is now dealing with an ankle injury and is questionable to go for Sunday’s game against the Carolina Panthers. This leads us to believe that he’s not going to come close to duplicating last season’s 66-catch performance. And in reality, that will be a big issue in the nation’s capital moving forward.

Clay Matthews, linebacker, Green Bay Packers

This ship seems to have sailed. It’s been a good four years since Matthews was a top-end pass rusher. This season alone, he’s only relevant because of some ridiculous personal foul calls against the former Pro Bowler. Through five games, Matthews has recorded a grand total of 0.5 sacks and two quarterback hits.

This lack of a pass rush hasn’t been an issue for a Packers defense that is on pace to record 51 sacks on the season. Even then, games against New England and Minnesota over the next month could magnify Matthews’ lack of production. If so, an improved Packers secondary will be tested in a big way. That goes without saying.

Blake Bortles, quarterback, Jacksonville Jaguars

The harsh reality in Jacksonville is that these Jaguars will not meet their expectations and hoist the Lombardi in February without drastic improvements from Bortles under center. Last week was the perfect example of this. Taking on a red-hot Kansas City Chiefs squad, Jacksonville had an opportunity to make a major statement. Instead, Bortles tossed four interceptions and was a walking comedy show.

It’s pretty disheartening to think about. Jacksonville handed Bortles an extension this past offseason with hopes that he’d turn around a fledgling career. Through five games, that seems to have been a fool’s bet. Unless these issues are fixed or Bortles turns into a player we have yet to see in his career, it’s going to be another lost season in Duval.

Dalvin Cook, running back, Minnesota Vikings

We’re not ready to call this second-year back injury plagued, but it’s certainly getting to that point. After missing all but four games of his rookie season to a torn ACL, Cook has already been sidelined for two of Minnesota’s first five outings this year with a hamstring injury.

While the Vikings are expecting to get him back in time for Sunday’s game against the Arizona Cardinals, it remains to be seen how healthy Cook is. When on the field, he’s averaging just 2.7 yards per attempt this season. That’s not the type of balance Kirk Cousins needs to continue playing at a high level under center. It’s time for Cook to prove he’s not injury plagued and step up big time.