The time has come for games that actually matter, and there are a ton of juicy storylines leading up to the action in NFL Week 1.
There are also high-profile players on every squad who have a lot to prove heading into the first games of the season. Those are the players we’ll focus on here.
A good dozen quarterbacks made our list heading into Week 1, some of whom are normally pretty good and some who are not. We’re also looking at a ton of other skill-position players, along with some defensive linemen and even one offensive lineman.
These are the players with the most to prove heading into NFL Week 1.
Arizona Cardinals: Justin Bethel, cornerback
Bruce Arians named Bethel the starter heading into the season because “he just outplayed everybody.” But this is a guy who has started seven games in five seasons, and the rest of Arizona’s cornerbacks not named Patrick Peterson weren’t that good this summer. The former sixth-round pick out of Presbyterian is potentially the weakest link on a very strong Cardinals defense. It will be interesting to see if Matthew Stafford goes to work on him early and often on Sunday.
Atlanta Falcons: Dontari Poe, defensive tackle
The Chicago Bears are going to try to establish the run early at home against Atlanta Sunday. Poe was brought in as a free agent to give the team an added presence inside. He was very inconsistent the past two years in Kansas City and took a one-year prove-it deal that included a significant weight clause because of it. Now it’s time to prove he’s going to be a big-time asset to his new team.
Baltimore Ravens: Joe Flacco, quarterback
Flacco missed all of training camp due to a back injury and only just started practicing again on Saturday. He’s going to be playing behind a porous offensive line and has very little in the way of run support to lean on. He’s got a brand new receiver in Jeremy Maclin with whom he’s had little chance to build chemistry. He’s also coming off a couple of very mediocre seasons in which he has thrown 34 touchdowns and 27 interceptions and is set to earn $24.5 million. No pressure, Joe.
Buffalo Bills: LeSean McCoy, running back
Tyrod Taylor remains in the NFL’s concussion protocol and could miss the season opener, or he’d clearly be the guy here. Assuming he’s out, this puts immense pressure on McCoy to carry an offense that will likely be quarterbacked by fifth-round rookie, Nathan Peterman. McCoy will be the focal point of the offense all year, regardless of who is under center. He’s coming off a terrific season but is approaching the dreaded age of 30. Buffalo’s passing game figures to be anemic in 2017, and defenses will be loading up the box to stop him. Can he thrive under these conditions? We’re not so sure he can.
Carolina Panthers: Cam Newton, quarterback
Is Newton really ready to take big hits and play an entire game? He’s coming off shoulder surgery and had to miss a couple of weeks when his shoulder flared up a bit during camp. He attempted just two passes this preseason as the team smartly took the cautious approach to his recovery. Head coach Ron Rivera said Sunday that he thinks Newton will be ready. He better be, because the San Francisco 49ers feature a hungry, physical front seven that will be looking to inflict pain.
Chicago Bears: Mike Glennon, quarterback
Glennon is the unquestioned starter in Chicago…until he screws up. Rookie Mitchell Trubisky opened up eyes nationally with his stellar play throughout the preseason. The Bears would still rather keep him on the shelf in 2017 so that he can ease into the pro game and not get eaten alive. But if Glennon comes out flat or flat-out plays awful (like he did at times this summer), there will be a lot of pressure for Chicago to go ahead and start the rookie.
Cincinnati Bengals: Jeremy Hill, running back
The Bengals have stubbornly continued to insist that Hill is the starting running back. But should they? The power back out of LSU averaged just 3.8 yards per carry last year, and wouldn’t you know it, he did the same this preseason. Meanwhile, rookie Joe Mixon is a very explosive player who is also a threat as a receiver. Hill is going to have to prove every week he’s the guy for the starting job or he’ll be replaced.
Cleveland Browns: DeShone Kizer, quarterback
Hue Jackson loves Kizer’s game, and there’s a lot to like. But this young man is facing a ton of pressure to prove he’s the long-term starter for Cleveland. If he has an awful season, ends up getting benched and the Browns are looking at the top pick of the draft next year, it will be hard not to pick a quarterback. Nobody’s expecting Kizer to lead the Browns to the playoffs this year. But he does need to show continued development and prove he can handle the speed of the NFL game on a week-in, week-out basis. It all starts at home against Pittsburgh this Sunday.
Dallas Cowboys: Taco Charlton, defensive end
The only team to beat the Cowboys twice last year was the New York Giants. It just so happens they’ll be in Dallas for Week 1, and it’ll be up to the defense to step up. In particular, it’ll be up to Dallas’ pass rushers to bring the heat against Eli Manning. Charlton was selected in the first round this past April because the Cowboys haven’t had a reliable pass rusher in years. The rookie out of Michigan registered two sacks this preseason, and now he’ll have a chance to make them count.
Denver Broncos: Trevor Siemian, quarterback
The playoff hopes of the Broncos rest on the shoulders of Siemian, who beat out Paxton Lynch for the second summer in a row to remain the starting quarterback. Siemian wasn’t bad last year, but he also wasn’t great in terms of giving his receivers a chance to score touchdowns. Last year Demaryius Thomas got vocally frustrated with this, and Denver’s offense generally struggled to score, ranking 22nd in the NFL. A low-scoring output Monday night in Los Angeles against the Chargers might just lead to an opening-week loss.
Detroit Lions: Ameer Abdullah, running back
There is absolutely no doubting Abdullah’s talent. But this young man has a lot to prove. He needs to prove he can stay healthy and be the long-sought, long-term answer at running back for the Lions. Matthew Stafford throws the ball a ton, but Detroit has suffered offensively in years past without a reliable running game to balance out the equation. Abdullah faces an early test against a very tough Cardinals defense that loves to punish running backs.
Green Bay Packers: Ty Montgomery, running back
Entering his first season as a full-time running back, Montgomery has a lot to prove. The Packers drafted Jamaal Williams in the fourth round and have been high on him this summer. Ultimately he failed to impress during the preseason, but Montgomery didn’t exactly wow, either. He gained 30 yards on two carries but just one yard on his remaining four preseason attempts. Green Bay will live an die on the right arm of Aaron Rodgers but must get something consistent out of the running game. It’ll be tough against Seattle in Week 1, but Montgomery needs to come through anyway.
Houston Texans: Tom Savage, quarterback
Unlike the situation in Chicago, Savage is entrenched as the starting quarterback for Houston. This is partly because he has a mastery of Bill O’Brien’s offensive system and partly because Deshaun Watson showed he’s nowhere near ready to play full time barring an emergency situation. That said, Houston is a championship-caliber team if Savage plays like O’Brien thinks he can play. But to this point in his career, Savage has struggled to stay healthy and hasn’t done anything to impress.
Indianapolis Colts: Scott Tolzien, quarterback
Andrew Luck has already been ruled out of Week 1, and there is alarmingly still no timetable for him to practice. Indy’s defense has been awful this preseason, meaning it’s pretty much Scott Tolzien or bust right now for the Colts. That’s not a happy thought based on his career thus far and based on what we saw from the journeyman backup this summer. Indianapolis opens the season on the road against the Los Angeles Rams, who feature a tough defense that could eat Tolzien alive.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Blake Bortles, quarterback
If you look at Jacksonville’s roster, it’s a playoff team. Minus one very critical aspect — the quarterback position. Bortles was so bad this summer he was benched in favor of Chad Henne, who then gave the job right back with a tepid performance of his own in the third preseason game. Things could get ugly fast. The Jaguars open the season in Houston, where J.J. Watt and the Texans are looking to inspire their city in the wake of the devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey.
Kansas City Chiefs: Tyreek Hill, wide receiver
There is a ton of pressure on Hill to evolve from game-breaking playmaker to No. 1 receiver in 2017. After the Chiefs shockingly released Maclin this spring, Hill immediately got promoted. But is he worthy? Talent-wise that’s not a question anyone is asking. He’s blessed with the skills to pay the bills. But based on some serious butterfingers in the team’s third preseason game, Hill has plenty of work to do in order to live up to his potential.
Los Angeles Chargers: Russell Okung, left tackle
Okung bet on himself last year when he signed a deal with Denver that included no guaranteed money. He played well but was released this offseason due to salary-cap issues, landing on his feet with a big-time contract to join the Chargers. Now tasked with protecting Phillip Rivers’ blind side, the pressure is on for this veteran, who has a history of injury, to live up to the big money-deal.
Los Angeles Rams: Jared Goff, quarterback
To say that Goff’s first season as the face of the Rams was bad would be to understate the issue. He was awful. Even when he wasn’t facing pressure Goff was highly erratic and made big mistakes. Those mistakes haven’t left him, either. He turned the ball over two times against the Chargers in the third preseason game in less than one half of play. It’s too early to say Goff isn’t going to pan out, but after the Rams gave up so much to land him last year his clock is ticking.
Miami Dolphins: Jay Cutler, quarterback
A playoff team last year, Miami was seen as a team on the come in 2017. Then Ryan Tannehill injured the same knee that knocked him out last year and was lost for the season. It’s pretty much up to Jay Cutler now to make sure the Dolphins have a shot to make it back to the postseason. He looked pretty good this preseason and gives the offense an added dimension because of his big arm. But his penchant for turnovers could also lead to some frustrating losses.
Minnesota Vikings: Laquon Treadwell, wide receiver
Treadwell’s rookie season was a waste. The first-round pick was injured for half the season. Then when he played he managed to catch just one pass all year. Treadwell played in two preseason games this summer, catching four passes, and he’ll be the team’s third receiver heading into Week 1. The former Ole Miss star needs to prove he’s no bust with a breakout campaign in 2017 that needs to start Sunday against the New Orleans Saints.
New England Patriots: Brandin Cooks, wide receiver
The Patriots gave up a first-round pick to acquire Cooks in a trade with New Orleans this spring, and they’ll need him now more than ever. Julian Edelman’s season-ending injury dictates that. Cooks gives Tom Brady a consistent deep threat the likes he hasn’t had since Randy Moss — something Robert Kraft has alluded to already. But we know from history that not all talented receivers can integrate into New England’s complicated offensive scheme. His first test is a big one on Thursday night, as Kansas City’s defensive secondary is one of the league’s very best.
New Orleans Saints: Adrian Peterson, running back
Peterson is 32 years old and is coming off a season-ending knee injury that was the second of his career. He played in the team’s third preseason game and quite honestly didn’t look that great. Though the offensive line didn’t do him any favors, Peterson averaged just 2.5 yards per carry and had a long run of just three yards on six attempts. He also caught one pass for minus-one yard. Needless to say, given his lack of burst even before his injury last year, All Day has something to prove in the opener. Also, the opener is against none other than the Vikings, his former team, which will be one of the major storylines of the first week.
New York Giants: Paul Perkins, running back
The Giants have featured a mediocre running game (or worse) for years now. And while the passing game is entertaining, it’s worth pointing out that Eli Manning is almost as likely to throw a touchdown as an interception these days. Not to mention the team’s offensive line isn’t so great at protecting him from big hits. So the Giants have to get that running game going. Perkins needs to make the most out of all his opportunities so that the offense isn’t so one-dimensional.
New York Jets: Darron Lee, linebacker
There’s no way to sugarcoat how truly awful Lee was last year as a first-round rookie out of Ohio State. He started nine games, managing to tally 70 tackles and a sack. But the undersized speedster was far too often tackling guys who were falling forward, was playing catch-up rather than attacking far too often and was pitifully inept playing in coverage. The Jets need to see significant improvements from Lee in his second season or it will be time to move on.
Oakland Raiders: Marquel Lee, linebacker
The Raiders have some amazingly talented defensive players, but last year the inside linebacker position was a huge detriment to the defense as a whole. Oakland is relying on a fifth-round rookie to man the middle this year. Lee, who struggled this preseason, will have his hands full going up against the Titans. Tennessee features one of the best running games in the business and a tight end in Delanie Walker who is a nightmare to defend. The Wake Forest product will have his hands full in Week 1, to be certain.
Philadelphia Eagles: Carson Wentz, quarterback
There were some positives to take away from Wentz’s first season in Philly. He had a lackluster receiving corps that dropped a ton of balls yet still completed 62.4 percent of his passes. But he also struggled when throwing balls that traveled past 15 yards in the air. The Eagles signed veterans Torrey Smith and Alshon Jeffery to help the young passer develop, and Smith came through huge on a long pass this preseason. It’s going to be interesting to see how Wentz performs in his second season.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Martavis Bryant, wide receiver
Bryant has a lot to prove. He’s finally back in the fold after receiving his full exemption following a year-long suspension and will be done in the NFL with another failed drug test. The Steelers drafted his potential replacement in Juju Smith-Schuster, so it’s got to be nothing but roses going forward for Bryant. If he can stay focused and out of trouble, then we have to believe Bryant is due for a big season. He’s one of the best deep threats in the NFL and is a dangerous target in the red zone. Now it’s time to prove to himself, his teammates and coaches he can be trusted.
San Francisco 49ers: Carlos Hyde, running back
Hyde had quite an interesting offseason. He went from reportedly being on the roster bubble to the unquestioned starter over the course of the summer. The scheme Kyle Shanahan runs is much different than what Hyde has experienced in the past, but he trimmed down, made the necessary adjustments and appears ready to be the guy once again in 2017. Health has been an issue for Hyde in the past as well, so for a couple of different reasons he’s got something to prove heading into Week 1 against the tough Panthers defense.
Seattle Seahawks: Eddie Lacy, running back
Lacy received $2.85 million guaranteed to come play for Seattle this year, and there is no doubt the Seahawks need him to play well in order to keep Russell Wilson healthy. The team’s offensive line isn’t very good, which means Lacy will need to earn yards after contact on a consistent basis. He’s done this in the past but hasn’t been the same since his first two campaigns. Green Bay’s front seven features some big bodies up front, so Lacy will need to be at his best to have a big game against his former team Sunday.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: T.J. Ward, safety
There’s no doubt that Ward can still play at a high level. But after being cut by the Broncos the weekend leading up to Week 1, there’s also no doubt he has something to prove. Ward will start immediately for Tampa Bay, which was happy to land him. So happy, in fact, that it traded J.J. Wilcox to the Steelers after acquiring him. It’s going to be interesting to watch this series of decisions play out over the course of the next few weeks and months. Ward is not happy about how the Broncos handled the situation and will have a huge chip on his shoulder in 2017.
Tennessee Titans: Corey Davis, wide receiver
The Titans will have Davis for this upcoming game, and he’s not going to be on a snap count. But he’s hardly been able to practice since being drafted in April. He had to recover from ankle surgery, then he suffered a hamstring injury at the start of camp. The No. 5 pick of the draft, Davis has a lot to prove this season, even without all that. It’s going to be fascinating to see how the Western Michigan product handles the pro game. He’ll need to stay healthy first.
Washington Redskins: Kirk Cousins, quarterback
Cousins’ preseason has been rough. He lost his top two receivers to free agency and is under immense pressure to prove he’s worth the long-term investment he seeks after his second-straight season under the franchise tag. Washington hosts Philadelphia this weekend, and the Eagles could be the perfect team to help Cousins ease into the season as they don’t feature a strong overall secondary. We’ll be keeping a close eye on the quarterback all year, as it’s a crossroads type campaign for Cousins.