The NFL is not a patient business.
Generally, players get only a few years to prove themselves. For some, it’s less than that. Even top draft picks are going to be forgotten about quickly if they don’t produce. It’s an unrelenting league.
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Most players operate on a year-to-year basis. But for some, there’s extra pressure as they enter what seems to be a make-or-break season in their careers:
Tampa Bay Buccaneers QB Jameis Winston and Tennessee Titans QB Marcus Mariota
Both are entering the final year of their rookie deals, waiting on a big long-term extension. Winston’s problems have been off-field missteps and turnovers. Mariota has dealt with injuries and mediocrity. For either, a big season could mean a nine-figure extension. Or, they might play themselves out of their respective teams’ plans altogether.
The path of two different franchises rests on what these two young quarterbacks show this season.
San Francisco 49ers QB Jimmy Garoppolo
How quickly the shine came off Garoppolo. Last year the hype machine was out of control. Then Garoppolo tore his ACL, missed most of last season and has been up and down in his return. What we have is a player with 10 career starts and 361 attempts, and the 49ers can get out of his $137.5 million deal with a relatively small salary-cap hit after this season because they front-loaded the contract. That’s not the most likely outcome, but the possibility will loom if Garoppolo struggles. There’s plenty of questions over how good Garoppolo is entering this crucial season.
Indianapolis Colts QB Jacoby Brissett
Andrew Luck’s retirement opened up a huge opportunity for Brissett. Brissett looked OK in 2017 when Luck was out. This time, Luck won’t be returning (right?). If Brissett has a big season — and there’s a lot of talent around him, with an elite offensive line and some good receivers — the Colts could go forward with Brissett as their quarterback of the future. There’s a lot on the line for him this season.
Tennessee Titans WR Corey Davis
After becoming the FBS all-time leader in receiving yards at Western Michigan, Davis was the fifth pick of the 2017 draft. His first season was slow because of injuries and his second season was inconsistent. There have been moments — two touchdowns against the Patriots in the playoffs as a rookie, 161 yards in a win over the Eagles last season — but if Davis can’t post a 1,000-yard season in Year 3 we’ll have to start wondering if he’s a bust.
San Francisco 49ers DL Solomon Thomas
Remember when so much was made of the Bears trading up one spot to take Mitchell Trubisky at No. 2 overall? Everyone congratulated the 49ers for trading down and still getting Thomas third overall. But Thomas hasn’t had much of an impact. He has just four sacks in two seasons. He was reportedly on the trade block at draft time but the 49ers never dealt him. Thomas dealt with a lot of personal issues last season including the suicide of his sister. Perhaps this is his breakout season.
Jacksonville Jaguars RB Leonard Fournette
There are two competing themes with Fournette after a disappointing second season: The team seems to be running out of patience, though is still all-in on featuring him this season. That makes this a classic make-or-break season; the Jaguars are giving the oft-injured and frustrating Fournette a big chance to change the story of his career. A Bleacher Report story detailed that he’s in great shape coming into his third season, and Fournette seems to understand what’s on the line. If it doesn’t happen this year, it might never happen for him in Jacksonville.
Miami Dolphins QB Josh Rosen
The Dolphins aren’t going anywhere this season, and need to figure out their future at quarterback. That’s why it’s troubling Rosen, the 10th pick of last year’s draft, couldn’t beat out journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick for the Week 1 start. If Rosen can’t establish himself by the end of the season then the Dolphins will make other plans, and Rosen will have failed with two teams in two years and it’ll be hard to imagine a third team invests much in him. And it’ll be even harder for Rosen to make an impression, if he gets a chance to start, because the Dolphins’ supporting cast will be awful.
Atlanta Falcons edge rusher Vic Beasley
In 2016 Beasley led the NFL with 15.5 sacks. He has five sacks each of the past two seasons. The Falcons hedged their bets and picked up the $12.8 million fifth-year option on Beasley.
Beasley, the eighth pick of the 2015 draft, could make himself a ton of money as a potential 2020 free agent if he plays like he did in 2016. That’s no sure thing anymore.
Dallas Cowboys DB Byron Jones
Jones has established himself as a top NFL player. He was a Pro Bowler last season and can play safety or cornerback. He’ll turn 27 in September. But this is an enormous year for him. Jones can become a free agent in 2020, and the Cowboys can’t pay everyone. Jones is also coming back from hip surgery in March. If he rebounds and plays like he did last season, he could be among the highest-paid free agents on the market next season. In terms of dollars, Jones has as much to gain or lose as anyone.
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