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10 NFL players under the most pressure in the 2nd half of the season, including Deshaun Watson

Vincent Frank

As the second half of the NFL season continues, there’s numerous players who are going to find themselves under pressure.

From a micro perspective, soon-to-be free agents will want to prove their worth before they hit the open market next March. Other players are being relied on to step up for Super Bowl contenders.

Now that we’re in Week 11, let’s check in on 10 NFL players who are under the most pressure including a certain signal caller in Ohio.

Related: Sportsnaut’s NFL QB rankings

Daniel Jones, quarterback, New York Giants

nfl players under the most pressure: daniel jones
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

After three average seasons to open his NFL career, this former first-round pick from Duke has turned it around big time. In fact, Jones is in the midst of an historic stretch that has seen him go six consecutive games without an interception.

Leading a surprising 7-2 Giants team, there’s still limits to what Jones can do on the field. New York relies a great deal more on Saquon Barkley and the run game. Even then, the impending free agent has a chance to prove himself as a capable starter for the Giants or another team in the second half of the season.

Orlando Brown, offensive tackle, Kansas City Chiefs

nfl players under the most pressure: orlando brown
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Playing under the franchise tag again this season, Brown is earning a cool $16.66 million. However, the All-Pro performer wants some long-term security. That’s why there was some talk about a holdout during training camp.

The question here is whether teams will view Brown as a franchise left tackle once NFL free agency opens in March. That could be the difference between setting the market (currently held by Trent Williams at $23 million annually) or finding himself somewhat lower on the totem pole. Continued elite protection of Patrick Mahomes would likely find Brown closer to that Williams figure.

Related: Updated NFL power rankings

Devin Duvernay, wide receiver, Baltimore Ravens

nfl players under the most pressure: devin duvernay
Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

Baltimore’s decision to trade Marquise Brown during the 2022 NFL Draft could have wide-ranging ramifications moving forward on the season. Star tight end Mark Andrews has been banged up thus far in 2022. MVP candidate Lamar Jackson doesn’t have a whole lot behind him in terms of pass-catchers.

Put it this way. Demarcus Robinson is second among Ravens wide receivers with 16 catches in nine games. A first-round pick in 2021, Rashod Bateman is sidelined for the remainder of the season.

It’s time for this former third-round pick from Texas to step up and be more consistent. He’s recorded two catches or fewer five times on the season and is coming of a one-catch outing against the New Orleans Saints. If Baltimore is going to have any chance to come out of the AFC, this youngster simply needs to play better.

James Bradberry, cornerback, Philadelphia Eagles

nfl players under the most pressure james bradberry
Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Bradberry and fellow cornerback Darius Slay are two of the reasons that it took until Week 10 for Philadelphia to lose its first game. Opposing quarterbacks have thrown 10 touchdowns against 13 interceptions against this unit in 2022.

  • James Bradberry stats (2022): 24 tackles, 11 passes defended, 3 INT, 1 TD, 43.9% completion allowed, 39.4 QB rating

As you can tell, Bradberry is playing elite-level football. The question here is whether this has more to do with Slay on the other side and NFL interception leader Chauncey Gardner-Johnson playing safety behind him. Set to hit free agency this coming March, further elite-level play from Bradberry will help him cash in after he struggled with the Giants a season ago.

Related: Minnesota Vikings schedule and game-by-game predictions

Kirk Cousins, quarterback, Minnesota Vikings

nfl players under the most pressure: kirk cousins, minnesota vikings
Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

The narrative surrounding Cousins has changed big time under first-year head coach Kevin O’Connell. They said he can’t win big games or step up when it counts the most. He loved padding stats. Nothing more.

Well, about that? Cousins has his Vikings at an NFL-best 8-1 on the season. They rank eighth in the league in scoring. The Vikings are playing absolutely great all-around football as a team.

The interesting dynamic here is that Cousins’ numbers are down from last season. He’s thrown more interceptions (eight) in nine games than he did all of 2021 (seven). In fact, Cousins is on pace for his worst QB rating since back in 2014 with Washington.

Should Minnesota struggle late in the season or fail to make a deep playoff run, Cousins will receive most of the blame. On the other hand, Super Bowl contention will continue to change the narrative surrounding the enigmatic signal caller. It’s that simple.

Devin Singletary, running back, Buffalo Bills

nfl players under the most pressure: devin singletary
Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Buffalo didn’t pull off a big deal for a running back ahead of the Nov. 2 NFL trade deadline. It was in on Christian McCaffrey before he was dealt to the San Francisco 49ers. The Bills also showed some interest in Alvin Kamara of the New Orleans Saints. Instead, Nyheim Hines headed to Western New York.

In the mdist of a two-game losing streak, finding balance on offense for quarterback Josh Allen is key. Buffalo ranks fourth in the NFL in rushing, but a lot of that has had to do with Allen’s performance on the ground. He’s on pace for 900 rushing yards.

The issue here with Singletary is the fact that he’s both inconsistent and doesn’t get the necessary touches to change that. During Buffalo’s current two-game losing streak, he’s put up just 71 rushing yards on 21 attempts. The Bills need to find more balance to offset recent struggles from Allen. There’s no player on the roster more equipped to do that than Singletary. The pressure is now on him to do just that.

Related: Top 2023 NFL free agents

Geno Smith, quarterback, Seattle Seahawks

nfl players under the most pressure
Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Geno Smith, MVP candidate. That sentence, as awkward as it reads, is legitimately the truth right now. Just imagine reading something of this ilk four months ago and believing it wasn’t satire. Heck, Smith has outplayed former Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson during the 2022 season.

As a pending free agent, there’s naturally going to be questions about whether Smith is a one-year wonder. After all, the former second-round pick from West Virginia had thrown all of nine regular-season touchdowns since the end of the 2014 campaign heading into this season.

But if Smith is able to continue playing at this high level while leading the first-place Seahawks to the playoffs, the free-agent market should open up big time for him. Nearly out of the NFL altogether a couple short years ago, this would net Smith a huge pay day. No pressure there.

Ezekiel Elliott, running back, Dallas Cowboys

nfl players under the most pressure: ezekiel elliott
Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

The performance of Tony Pollard this season leaves Elliott’s future in Big D up in the air. In fact, reports suggested ahead of the 2022 NFL season that the Cowboys would move off this former All-Pro regardless of how he performs.

About that? Elliott has missed the past two games due to injury. In his stead, Pollard has put up 246 rushing yards and four touchdowns. At this point, Elliott’s future with the Cowboys is pretty much settled. He’s now playing for a contract with another team, which will come once Dallas opts to release him ahead of free agency in March. The pressure is on this one-time franchise back to prove that he can be a RB1.

Related: Sportsnaut’s updated NFL Playoff and Super Bowl predictions

Jimmy Garoppolo, quarterback, San Francisco 49ers

nfl players under the most pressure: jimmy garoppolo
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Speaking of pressure. Not only is Garoppolo playing quarterback for a team that starred the likes of Joe Montana and Steve Young in the past, he’s QB1 ahead of injured “golden boy” Trey Lance. San Francisco made the decision to go with Lance ahead of the start of the season. Once the youngster went down in Week 2 and with Garoppolo surprisingly still on the roster, the 49ers turned back to Jimmy GQ.

Fast forward two months, and Garoppolo is now leading a Super Bowl contender as he prepares for free agency in less than six months. In the process, he continues to play at a high level.

How Garoppolo performs over the next seven weeks and during a likely playof run will dictate whether he’s seen as a QB1 during free agency or a mere backup. The difference there would be tens of millions annually. Yeah, no pressure.

Deshaun Watson, quarterback, Cleveland Browns

nfl players under the most pressure: deshaun watson
Jeff Lange / USA TODAY NETWORK

When Watson takes the field as Cleveland’s starter Week 13 against his former Houston Texans team, it will be nearly two full calendar years in between regular-season snaps for the embattled signal caller.

We already know the story here. Watson was dealt by Houston during the spring after grand juries in Texas opted against filing criminal charges against him stemming from over 20 allegations of sexual misconduct. He then signed an historic fully-guaranteed $230 million contract. This came on the heels of Cleveland yielding multiple first-round picks to the Texans in the blockbuster trade.

Obviously, there’s so many more backdrops here. That includes the PR hit Cleveland took by acquiring Watson amid the off-field scandal. He’s also facing new allegations of misconduct. Sure Watson’s return will coincide with his Browns being out of the playoff race. But that doesn’t change the fact that he’ll be under a ton of pressure.