15 NFL stars facing intense pressure in 2018

an 27, 2017; Kissimmee, FL, USA; NFC quarterback Kirk Cousins of the Washington Redskins (8) throws a pass during practice for the 2017 Pro Bowl at ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Pressure accompanies every player that competes at the highest level, but some NFL stars will enter the upcoming 2018 NFL season with almost crushing pressure to succeed.

A certain duo in Dallas is among them, as are two quarterbacks who just set the new market with brand new mega-deals. A new duo of defenders make this list after their new team made bold moves to land them, too.

Whether due to massive new contracts that carry certain expectations, or simply due to previous failures to live up to them, it’s time to put up or shut up for these NFL big shots.

Dak Prescott, quarterback, Dallas Cowboys

Prescott was incredible as a fourth-round pick out of Mississippi State in 2016. But after an unbelievable rookie campaign, nobody will argue against the notion that Prescott took a step (or three) backward in 2017.

Statistically, his completion percentage was way down (4.9 percent), as was his passing yardage and touchdowns thrown, while his interceptions went way up (from just four in 2016 to 13 last season). Even more than that, however, is the simple fact that — fair or not — Prescott was already facing intense pressure as the heir apparent to Tony Romo. Prescott heaped plenty of pressure on his own shoulders after his rookie season, and so did the team’s brass.

Then came the sophomore slump for the quarterback of America’s Team, which has made the playoffs just twice in the past eight seasons, and that pressure becomes stifling. Especially if he struggles out of the gate this year.

Allen Robinson, wide receiver, Chicago Bears

Robinson has a lot to live up to as the new No. 1 receiver in Chicago. He was brought on board because young quarterback Mitch Trubisky desperately needed weapons after suffering through a difficult rookie season.

History tells us Robinson could make a huge, positive impact. He caught 80 passes for 1,400 yards and 14 touchdowns in his second NFL season with Jacksonville.

However, he wasn’t as effective in 2016, catching 77 passes for 883 yards and six touchdowns. And then he suffered the season-ending injury early last season. So, in four seasons, he’s had one amazing campaign, two that could be considered average and one that was lost to injury.

The Bears were super aggressive about going after Robinson, who is expected to be a huge part of their offense going forward. He was guaranteed $18 million immediately when he signed his new contract and $25.5 million guaranteed overall on the three-year, $42 million deal. That’s hefty, especially considering Robinson missed almost the entire 2017 season with a torn ACL.

Malcolm Butler, cornerback, Tennessee Titans

Malcolm Butler

Everyone knows who Butler is because he was the hero of Super Bowl XLIX. Then he followed the interception of Russell Wilson in that game with two pretty solid campaigns in 2015-16. Still a main cog in New England’s defense last year, he wasn’t exactly at his best and then was famously benched by Bill Belichick (for reasons we still aren’t clear about) in Super Bowl LII.

So, Butler has had some shining moments, to be sure. But he wasn’t exactly a shooting star heading into free agency. Which is why it was so strange that the Titans ponied up big time to bring him in and team him up with his old running mate from New England, Logan Ryan. Butler landed a five-year, $61.25 million contract that includes $30 million guaranteed.

That’s a ton of money to invest in a player who isn’t coming off his best season and who has just eight interceptions in his four-year career. Needless to say, he’s facing plenty of pressure to live up to that contract.

Jerick McKinnon, running back, San Francisco 49ers

On a per-year average, McKinnon is now the fourth highest-paid running back in the NFL ($7.5 million per year). That’s truly staggering when you consider he’s never been a starter before, having spent his first four seasons as a third-down specialist with the Minnesota Vikings (much to his chagrin).

Now, those who study football for a living are optimistic that McKinnon can prove himself worthy of his contract. He’s incredibly strong, quick and has blazing speed. Furthermore, his ability to catch passes (142 receptions in four seasons) makes him an ideal candidate to thrive in Kyle Shanahan’s system.

All that said, now it’s time for McKinnon to prove he’s worthy of being “the guy” in San Francisco. Shanahan already made it clear McKinnon is the team’s starter heading into 2018, so the pressure is most certainly on for him to live up to these gaudy expectations.

Case Keenum, quarterback, Denver Broncos

Last season, Keenum was thrust into prominence as the starting quarterback for one of the top teams in football. And he did a fantastic job, going 11-3 during the regular season while putting up career-best stats in every meaningful category.

However, he was underwhelming in the playoffs, throwing three interceptions in two games, and Minnesota was blown out by the eventual Super Bowl champs. After the season, the Vikings didn’t really hide the fact that they had no intention of rewarding him with a new contract, and he ended up landing in Denver as a potential bridge (or a long-term answer) for an organization that has fallen on hard times the past two seasons.

So the real question here is, was Keenum’s 2017 season the exception, or was it the rule? He had previously struggled in his stints with the Houston Texans and Los Angeles Rams. Now he is likely facing the last real chance he’ll get to prove he’s a legitimate starting-caliber quarterback in the NFL. Should he fail to turn Denver’s offense into a formidable unit, then it’s likely Keenum will forever more be viewed as nothing more than a backup, sealing his fate.

Sammy Watkins, wide receiver, Kansas City Chiefs

Talent has never been the question when it comes to Watkins. He’s a special athlete and a guy who can get behind almost any NFL cornerback deep down the field.

That said, in his first four seasons as a professional, Watkins managed to eclipse 1,000 yards just once and has never hauled in double-digit touchdowns. On top of that, the young receiver has struggled to stay healthy, suffering numerous foot injuries, which sometimes ends up being the death knell of NFL receivers.

So when Kansas City opened up the vault for Watkins, paying him $48 million over three years with $30 million guaranteed, it really took me back. He’ll need to exceed his career bests for this deal to end up being worth it in my mind. And going into a situation where the Chiefs are rolling with an unproven starter in Patrick Mahomes, there’s a lot of uncertainty. It’s going to be fascinating to see how this offense pans out in the coming years.

Trumaine Johnson, cornerback, New York Jets

Johnson wanted to get paid like a top cornerback last year, but the best the Rams were able to do was retain him on the franchise tag. When it came time to revisit this following a decent 2017 campaign, the Rams ended up going aggressively after a couple of other players, allowing Johnson to hit the open market.

Now he’s getting paid more than any other cornerback in the league besides Josh Norman, which puts a ton of pressure on his shoulders to prove he’s actually worth that money.

For what it’s worth, I don’t see it. Johnson is a very good cornerback, but in no way is he one of the league’s elite at his position. He’s definitely capable of making splash plays and loves to aggressively go after interceptions (18 in five seasons). But last season he gave up 759 yards in the passing game, which ranked fifth-most among NFL cornerbacks, per Pro Football Focus.

New York has a tendency to overpay for players. It sure looks like the Jets did it again with Johnson.

Dez Bryant, wide receiver, Dallas Cowboys

Unlike most of the players on this list, Bryant hasn’t landed a new deal in a while. It’s his old one we’re worried about. Due to count $16.5 million against the cap, Bryant is nowhere near worth that kind of money any more. At least, he isn’t based on his recent production.

Bryant was one of the most dangerous receivers in all of football between 2011-2014. He caught 336 passes for 4,863 yards and 50 touchdowns in that four-year span. Since then, however, he’s managed to average just 50 catches for 678 yards and less than six touchdowns per year.

There’s been plenty of chatter that Dallas will try and work out a new deal with Bryant that doesn’t hurt the team as much. Whether that happens or not, he’s at a crossroads in 2018 — either he starts producing like an elite receiver again or it will be obvious he’s never going to get back to that level again. To that end, Bryant has employed a special coach to help him polish up his route-running skills, signaling he’s finally ready to stop resting on his laurels as a physical freak.

Jimmy Garoppolo, quarterback, San Francisco 49ers

Seven career starts. That’s a very small sample size. Yet out of necessity, the 49ers made Garoppolo one of the highest-paid players in NFL history, and they will ride or die with him leading the charge in the coming years.

There’s a lot to be excited about if you’re a 49ers fan. Garoppolo has never lost a game as a starter. He completed 67.4 percent of his passes last season for the 49ers, showing an affinity for receivers Marquise Goodwin and Trent Taylor while turning the team’s offense into one of the league’s most dominant juggernauts.

The hype surrounding the 49ers right now is unreal. Throw Richard Sherman and the aforementioned McKinnon into the mix and suddenly fans in the Bay Area are talking about Super Bowls again. Needless to say, there is a ton of pressure on Garoppolo’s shoulders right now.

Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters, cornerbacks, Los Angeles Rams

After turning the offense around in a major way last year in head coach Sean McVay’s first season at the helm, Los Angeles turned its focus on the defensive side of the ball this offseason. Obviously the thinking here is that, if the Rams can become a force defensively, they will have a legitimate shot at winning a title.

To that end, general manager Les Snead made two major trades to bring in cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters. Both of these players are exceedingly talented but bring some serious baggage, which is why the Rams were able to land them without giving up too much in return.

Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips has a history of being able to work with Talib and is one of the best in the business at getting the most out of his players. If Talib and Peters come in and play their best while staying out of trouble, then Los Angeles’ defense will be a nightmare for opposing teams on a weekly basis.

Nate Solder, offensive tackle, New York Giants

The Giants had to make a strong play for a top offensive lineman. They had no other choice. The draft this year is not stacked with top-level talent, and Eli Manning has been getting slaughtered in recent years behind a shabby line.

That said, Solder is now (by far) the highest-paid offensive lineman in the NFL. While he’s a serviceable left tackle, in no way has Solder been among the best at his position throughout his career, which has benefited from Josh McDaniels’ scheme and Tom Brady’s savvy. So, if Solder is going to come out of this looking like he didn’t rob Fort Knox, he has a lot of work in front of him to prove he’s worth his new deal.

Anthony Hitchens, inside linebacker, Kansas City Chiefs

When the Chiefs doled out $45.5 million over five years to Hitchens (with over $25 million guaranteed), my jaw hit the floor. He’s now the highest-paid 3-4 inside linebacker in the NFL, but to this point in his career he’s done absolutely nothing to justify that kind of money.

In four years with the Cowboys, Hitchens proved to be a capable run-stuffing linebacker. He’s tallied 312 tackles so far in his career. But this isn’t a player who excels at making big plays — just 3.5 sacks, one interception and one forced fumble. So, it just seems absurd that he’s getting paid like a top playmaker at his position.

Hitchens is still relatively young, however, and could potentially turn into a great addition to Kansas City’s defense. Time will tell if he’s an up-and-coming star or a guy who’s already hit his ceiling.

Jimmy Graham, tight end, Green Bay Packers

The Packers aren’t known for throwing around big-time money in free agency, but a new era has dawned under rookie general manager Brian Gutekunst. He put his stamp on the organization in a big way, hauling in one of this year’s biggest fishes in Graham, who is now the highest-paid tight end in the league on a per-year basis.

Now it’s up to Graham to prove he’s still capable of producing at the same levels he did playing with Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints. He wasn’t a great fit in Seattle, and his stats reflected that. But from 2011-2014, he averaged 89 receptions, 1,099 yards, and 12 touchdowns a season for the Saints.

Adding that type of production to Green Bay’s offense, with Aaron Rodgers as the trigger man, would turn the Packers into an unstoppable force. But at the age of 31, is Graham still an explosive down-field threat, or did lose a few steps in recent years?

Kirk Cousins, quarterback, Minnesota Vikings

Let’s be honest. No player in the league is facing more pressure than Cousins, who broke the mold signing a fully guaranteed three-year contract that makes him the highest-paid player in the NFL.

The Vikings pushed all their chips to the middle here investing in Cousins as the guy to win them a championship. But it’s worth wondering if it was a wise investment. After all, Cousins has never won a playoff game. And while he’s put up great stats over the course of his career he’s not a transcendent player like Peyton Manning, who made everyone around him great.  He needs his supporting cast to be great to have a high level of success.

If Cousins proves to be a significant upgrade over Keenum, then the Vikings will be in great shape to take advantage of a championship window. If he proves to be nothing more than an expensive parallel, then Minnesota will be screwed.