There are certain players teams will be relying on this NFL season. They aren’t necessarily star performers or franchise quarterbacks. Rather, players that teams have invested in to step up in a big way.
Some might be entering contract years or coming off injury-plagued seasons. Meanwhile, others are on new teams or are going to be tasked with taking on larger roles.
From a quarterback in Jacksonville that must improve to help the Jaguars become top-end Super Bowl contenders to a rookie running back in New Jersey with loads of pressure on him, here is one player each NFL team needs to see step up this season.
Arizona Cardinals: David Johnson, running back
Whether it’s Sam Bradford or rookie Josh Rosen under center, Arizona must get Johnson back at 100 percent and contributing to turn in a decent 2018 season. The running back missed all but one game last season to injury and could potentially be a training camp holdout. Back in 2016, he gained 2,118 total yards and 20 touchdowns en route to helping Arizona put up the sixth-most points in the NFL. With him sidelined last season, the Cards finished 25th in scoring.
Atlanta Falcons: Takkarist McKinley, EDGE
Fellow pass rusher Vic Beasley gets the most hype in Atlanta, but he must get help moving forward if the Falcons are going to rebound from a down 2017 campaign. That’s one of the primary reasons they exausted a first-round pick on McKinley last year. Team him up with Beasley, and form one of the best pass-rushing tandems in the league. The UCLA product recorded six sacks in a part-time role last season. He now needs to become more of a three-down player. Should this come to fruition, an already talented Falcons defense will be that much better.
Baltimore Ravens: Joe Flacco, quarterback
It seems like a broken record. Every year since leading Baltimore to the Super Bowl title back in 2012, a debate has raged during the summer about Flacco’s ability to turn his career round. That’s taken to a whole new level this year now that the Ravens added Lamar Jackson in the first round of April’s draft. Flacco is no longer guaranteed to start. And for good reason. The veteran is averaging 17 touchdowns and 13 interceptions over the past three seasons. Should he fail to perform at a much larger clip this coming season, the Ravens will miss out on playoff football once again. And in reality, it would likely mean the end of his career in Baltimore.
Buffalo Bills: Kelvin Benjamin, wide receiver
It doesn’t matter who is under center in Buffalo this coming season, said quarterback must get more production from the wide receiver position. That’s magnified if either Josh Allen or Nathan Peterman earns the starting job over veteran A.J. McCarron. Last season saw the likes of Benjamin and Zay Jones combine for a 43 percent catch rate. There’s expletives we could use to describe that futility. Instead, we’re just going to call a spade a spade. After Buffalo gave up valuable draft pick compensation to Carolina for Benjamin last season, it’s high time this big-bodied receiver actually do something of substance.
Carolina Panthers: Curtis Samuel, wide receiver
It’s all about how Carolina plans on using this second-year player moving forward. Dealing with injury and an overall lack of production last season, Samuel recorded just 15 receptions for 115 yards. We knew he’d be more of a gimmick player coming out of Ohio State, but the former second-round pick now needs to step up behind Devin Funchess at wide receiver. His opportunities are simply not going to be there with fellow second-year player Christian McCaffrey and veteran C.J. Anderson at running back.
Chicago Bears: Mitchell Trubisky, quarterback
All signs are pointing in the direction of Trubisky elevating his game following a miserable rookie campaign under then head coach John Fox. Having an offensive-minded Matt Nagy leading the charge helps here, as do the additions of Allen Robinson and Taylor Gabriel in free agency. It’s now all about this former No. 2 pick doing his thing to help a talented but inexperienced Bears team improve in 2018. Remember, Trubisky averaged less than 183 passing yards with seven touchdowns in 12 starts last season. That’s just not sustainable moving forward.
Cincinnati Bengals: Tyler Boyd, wide receiver
We were going to go with Andy Dalton here, but that ship certainly has sailed. In order for Dalton to be anywhere near an average quarterback, he must get more production from pass catchers not named A.J. Green. Given that Brandon LaFell’s production has pretty much tapped out and 2017 first-round pick John Ross is seemingly nothing more than a depth option, the onus is on Boyd to step up. After tallying 54 receptions for 603 yards as a rookie in 2016, Boyd recorded a 22-225 split in 10 games last season. That just won’t cut it for Cincinnati in 2018.
Cleveland Browns: Myles Garrett, defensive end
Cleveland seemingly has a decent quarterback situation for the first time since Derek Anderson’s Pro Bowl performance back in 2007. In fact, this team’s offense is absolutely stacked. That’s why we’re looking to the other side of the ball, where Garrett could be one of the primary reasons these Browns surprise the masses in 2018. After being selected No. 1 overall last year, Garrett went on to record a solid seven sacks in part-time duties as a rookie. The former Aggie now must prove himself to be completely healthy while taking on a larger role. Should that happen, the Browns’ defense will be darn good this season.
Dallas Cowboys: Taco Charlton, defensive end
Dallas is going to need to get a pass rush behind Demarcus Lawrence to be taken seriously in the NFC East this season. Unfortunately, off-field issues continue to play a role here. David Irving (seven sacks) is suspended for the first four games. Meanwhile, there’s no telling when the suspended Randy Gregory will return to the field. It’s in this that Charlton — a first-round pick of the Cowboys last year — must step up. He recorded just three sacks and a handful of quarterback pressures in a part-time role as a rookie. That’s just not going to cut it for a Cowboys team that has playoff expectations heading into 2018.
Denver Broncos: Royce Freeman, running back
The ship has sailed as it relates to any real production from Devontae Booker. Sure the Broncos are still hoping for the best, but the former fourth-round pick is averaging just 3.6 yards in his first two seasons. That’s a large enough sample size to realize what he brings to the table. Instead, Denver should be pumped up about Freeman falling to the team in the third round of this year’s draft. All the 6-foot, 231-pound back did in four seasons with Oregon is record 5,621 rushing yards and 60 touchdowns. He could immediately become a three-down player, helping the recently signed Case Keenum succeed under center.
Detroit Lions: Jalen Tabor, cornerback
Tabor played an extremely limited role for the Lions as a rookie, recording just 11 tackles in 10 games. The former second-round pick is now expected to take on a larger role as a sophomore for a defense that struggled against the pass, sans Pro Bowler Darius Slay. While Slay was out there picking off an NFL-high eight passes last season, the Lions defense as a whole yielded the sixth-most passing yards in the league. Now that this squad has more balance on offense and an elite-level defensive front seven, getting another corner to step up opposite Slay would be huge.
Green Bay Packers: Randall Cobb, wide receiver
Clearly a product of Aaron Rodgers, the 27-year-old Cobb struggled something fierce with his quarterback sidelined last season. All said, Cobb recorded just 66 receptions for 653 yards in 2017. It was his second consecutive sub 700-yard season. Following the release of Jordy Nelson and without much proven talent behind Davante Adams, it’s time for Cobb to once again prove his worth for the Packers. Should that not happen, he’ll be given a one-way ticket out of title town.
Houston Texans: Julie’n Davenport, offensive tackle
Between Davenport, Seantrel Henderson and Martinas Rankin, the Texans’ offensive tackle situation is going to be something to watch during training camp. Someone must step up at left tackle to protect young quarterback Deshaun Watson after he suffered a torn ACL as a rookie last season. We’re going to go with a player in Davenport who started four games as a rookie last season and showed some promise. He’s the leader in the clubhouse to replace the departed Duane Brown on a full-time basis. If so, Davenport needs to play like a starter-caliber left tackle.
Indianapolis Colts: Quenton Nelson, guard
It would be too easy to go with Andrew Luck here. If healthy, there’s little doubting what the quarterback brings to the table. But in order to keep him healthy, Indianapolis’ offensive line must be much better. That’s why GM Chris Ballard went out there and selected Nelson with the sixth pick in April’s draft. A dominating performer at guard, Nelson is among the best offensive line prospects to enter the league in some time. He must perform like an All-Pro player out of the gate in order to help Luck recover from a shoulder injury that could derail the quarterback’s career if it pops up once again.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Blake Bortles, quarterback
Jacksonville certainly had an opportunity to upgrade from Bortles during free agency. Instead, the team decided to hand him an extension that commits to the quarterback for pretty much just one more season. This is it for Bortles. It’s either time he puts up or shuts up for a team that has realistic Super Bowl aspirations. Everything else is in place for the Jaguars to hoist that Lombardi next February in Atlanta. Being a mistake-prone pick-six machine must be a thing of the past. That’s about as clear as day. Now, whether Bortles can take that next drastic step in his development remains to be seen. But the Jags are relying on it.
Kansas City Chiefs: Kendall Fuller, cornerback
The obvious choice here is second-year quarterback Patrick Mahomes. But these Chiefs can still head to the playoffs without him acting the part of a Pro Bowl performer in his first season as a starter. It’s the other pieces that must step up in order for this team to avoid taking a step back. That includes a corner in Kendall Fuller who was acquired from Washington in the Alex Smith deal. He’ll now be tasked with replacing Marcus Peters as Kansas City’s top cover guy. A third-round pick of the Redskins back in 2013, Fuller recorded 54 tackles, 10 passes defended and four picks last season. According to Pro Football Focus, he also yielded a 55.0 passer rating when targeted. Kansas City will need much of the same in 2018.
Los Angeles Chargers: Derwin James, safety
Why did we opt for a rookie here? Well, it’s rather simple. If James performs at the level most anticipate after being a first-round pick back in April, the Chargers’ defense could very well find itself as the best in the game this coming season. That would automatically make Los Angeles top-end Super Bowl contenders in the AFC. Teaming James up with fellow safety Adrian Phillips as well as cornerbacks Jason Verrett, Casey Hayward and Desmond King forms one of the most-talented secondaries in the NFL. It’s up to him to perform at their level.
Los Angeles Rams: Brandin Cooks, wide receiver
Acquired from the Patriots for a first-round pick this past spring, Cooks essentially takes over for the underperforming Sammy Watkins on the outside in Los Angeles. Having put up an average of 1,128 yards and about eight touchdowns over the past three seasons, he’s certainly an upgrade from Watkins. The only real concern here is quarterback play. Sure Jared Goff performed well last season. But Cooks is accustomed to catching passes from Drew Brees and Tom Brady. Can he get out from under their shadow and provide Goff an elite receiving target for a championship contending Rams squad. That’s a huge question.
Miami Dolphins: Frank Gore, running back
Hasn’t Gore already proven himself to be a player that steps up at every possible occasion? Here’s a dude that’s still going strong at the advanced age of 35. He’s put up 1,200-plus total yards an NFL record 12 consecutive seasons and is a surefire Hall of Famer. The question here is whether Gore has lost a step now that he’s headed home to South Beach. That’s magnified even more now that he’s slated to be a starter ahead of a quarterback in Ryan Tannehill who is coming off multiple ACL injuries. Already known as one of the best pass-protecting running backs in league history, Gore must continue to perform at a high clip in that regard this coming season.
Minnesota Vikings: Dalvin Cook, running back
Essentially, this is all about Cook stepping up and proving himself capable of shouldering the load in Minnesota, because, when on the field, he’s been dynamite. A second-round pick out of Florida State last year, Cook put up 444 yards in four starts last season. At that point, he was a top-end Rookie of the Year candidate. Then, came a season-ending torn ACL. Now that Kirk Cousins is under center in Minnesota and the Vikings are serious championship contenders, they need Cook to provide balance on offense. Should that happen, there might be no stopping these Vikings.
New England Patriots: Chris Hogan, wide receiver
With Julian Edelman suspended the first four games and following the trade of Brandin Cooks, it’s high time other members of the Patriots’ receiving group step up for Tom Brady. That has to start with a player in Hogan who suffered through an injury-plagued 2017 campaign en route to recording 34 receptions for 439 yards and five touchdowns in nine games. He came on big time during New England’s Super Bowl run back in 2016, recording 17 receptions for 332 yards in three playoff games. Similar production will be needed through the first quarter of the 2018 campaign.
New Orleans Saints: Marcus Williams, safety
Williams’ rookie season will be defined by the massive blunder he made in the NFC Divisional Playoffs against Minnesota. That might not be fair, but it’s how they view him nationally. What most outside of New Orleans don’t realize is that he put up a tremendous initial campaign, recording 71 tackles and four interceptions. Should Williams take that next step as a sophomore, an already up-and-coming Saints defense will be taken to a whole new level. As of now, this team might boast one of the most underrated secondaries in the league. A strong performance from the former second-round pick will bring that to a whole new level. It’s going to be needed against Cam Newton and Matt Ryan in the division.
New York Giants: Saquon Barkley, running back
Even more so than the quarterbacks drafted at the top of this year’s class, Barkley is facing an enormous amount of pressure. Selected No. 2 overall, he’s the highest drafted running back since Reggie Bush back in 2006. Barkley is also going to be tasked with improving a rushing attack that finished in the bottom six last season for a Giants squad that put up its worst record in nearly a half century. If that weren’t enough, the rookie’s presence is meant to alleviate some of the pressure placed on an aging Eli Manning under center. If the Giants are going to have any real chance of contending for a playoff spot, Barkley must perform like a Rookie of the Year candidate. That’s a whole lot of pressure in the big apple.
New York Jets: Trumaine Johnson, cornerback
Despite recently signing an extension, Jets GM Mike Maccagnan’s job can’t be considered too safe. His future in New York is going to depend on the past two draft classes, rookie No. 3 pick Sam Darnold included. A lot will also hang on how well Johnson performs after the Jets made him one of the highest-paid cornerbacks in the NFL back in March. Coming off a 2017 campaign in which he earned a No. 68 ranking among cornerbacks according to Pro Football Focus data, Johnson needs to prove himself all over again. If not, the five-year, $72.5 million deal the Jets signed this veteran to will go down as an all-time failure. It’s that simple.
Oakland Raiders: Amari Cooper, wide receiver
As poorly as Oakland’s defense performed last season, Cooper and the team’s offense was equally to blame for its struggles. Some will defend Cooper by saying he was playing through injury. That might be true. In no way does this mean he was good when healthy. After putting up 1,000-plus total yards and a Pro Bowl appearance in each of his first two seasons, Cooper tallied 48 receptions for just 680 yards last year. He also caught 48 percent of his targets and dropped a league-high percentage of the passes thrown in his direction. In no way is that going to cut it. And if the Raiders want to progress this coming season, Cooper simply has to perform better.
Philadelphia Eagles: Carson Wentz, quarterback
This is two-fold. Prior to going down with a season-ending torn ACL in December, Wentz was among the top MVP candidates last season. Once he took to the sideline, Nick Foles miraculously led Philadelphia to its first ever Super Bowl title. Now that Foles is returning to back Wentz up, there’s some sort of Philly-centric pressure that’s going to be placed on the third-year signal caller. Let’s say Wentz struggles early in the season or isn’t 100 percent, what’s to stop one of the most ruthless fanbases in sports for calling on Foles to get action under center? We’re not saying Wentz won’t be healthy. We’re not saying he’s going to struggle. But if one of those two things occur, watch the heck out.
Pittsburgh Steelers: JuJu Smith-Schuster, wide receiver
Smith-Schuster surpassed the recently traded Martavis Bryant on the depth chart as a rookie last season. In the process, this former USC star recorded 58 receptions for 917 yards and eight touchdowns. It was a brilliant debut for Smith-Schuster. But now that he’s being relied on as a full-time No. 2 behind Antonio Brown, the pressure is going to mount. Is Smith-Schuster up for the increased role? If not, how will it impact Ben Roethlisberger and Pittsburgh’s offense? Given that Le’Veon Bell is primed to be a holdout, the idea of this receiver stepping up into a larger role has been enhanced. That’s for sure.
San Francisco 49ers: Jerick McKinnon, running back
The fantasy football world is abuzz with that McKinnon might do in Kyle Shanahan’s offense this coming season. He seems to be a perfect fit with fellow youngster Jimmy Garoppolo under center. That’s fine. But in four seasons with the Vikings, McKinnon failed to prove that he can be that three-down back. In fact, he averaged less than 500 rushing yards per season. Last year alone, McKinnon averaged a pedestrian 3.8 yards per rush. Those numbers are not indicative of a running back set to make the second-largest salary at his position this season. Sure McKinnon might perform at an exceptional level. Given what San Francisco is paying him, anything less would be disappointing. There’s certainly pressure for McKinnon to step up in 2018.
Seattle Seahawks: Shaquill Griffin, cornerback
Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor are gone from Seattle’s former Legion of Boom defense. There’s a good chance fellow All-Pro Earl Thomas might not suit up in the Seahawks’ secondary this coming season. That means the onus is going to be on a plethora of youngsters to step up into larger roles, led by this second-year cornerback. As a rookie last season, Griffin recorded 58 tackles and 15 passes defended. He also yielded an opposing 65.5 passer rating over the course of the final seven games. In order for Seattle’s defense to avoid taking a major step back in 2018, Griffin will have to step up big time.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Ronald Jones, running back
Even if Jameis Winston weren’t suspended for the first three games of the season, Tampa Bay’s running back situation would be a major question mark. In what was a disappointing team-wide performance last season, the Buccaneers’ rushing attack finished in the bottom six and averaged just 3.6 yards per attempt. Doug Martin is gone. That’s good. But someone will need to fill the hole as a three-down back moving forward. In selecting Jones No. 38 overall back in April, Tampa is certainly expecting him to be that man.
Tennessee Titans: Marcus Mariota, quarterback
Super Mario might be a fan favorite. There are some within the NFL world who are casting aside his 2017 struggles as an outlier. That’s fine. But if he continues to struggle as a fourth-year signal caller this coming season, the narrative of Mariota somehow being a franchise quarterback can be thrown out the window. How can we explain away a performance that saw the former Heisman winner toss 13 touchdowns compared to 15 interceptions for a playoff team last season? We can’t. Simply put, Mariota needs to be a reason why Tennessee takes the next step as legit title contenders. Short of that happening, questions will raised about his future.
Washington Redskins: Josh Norman, cornerback
Has Josh Norman been bad in two seasons with the Redskins? No. He led a Redskins pass defense that ranked in the top 10 last season and yielded an 81.0 passer rating. Even then, Norman has not proven to be the ball hawk that made him an All-Pro performer in Carolina. He recorded just nine passes defended and zero interceptions last season. In fact, Norman forced a grand total of one turnover. That must change moving forward if Washington’s defense is going to take another step towards elite status.