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Players with most to prove on each NFL team

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The Sports Xchange

In an NFL where the so-called skill players receive most of the credit and a lot of the money, it will be the offensive linemen who are under the most scrutiny this season.

Looking at the player with most to prove on each NFL team, offensive linemen had the most with eight, including former draft stars Luke Joeckel in Jacksonville, Eric Fisher in Kansas City and, once again, the storied (literally) Michael Oher, with Carolina, for now.

The prime victims of a sport that continues to go pass-crazy, cornerbacks stand next in line with seven who must prove themselves or else this year, including DJ Hayden, a surprise first-round pick by the Oakland Raiders in 2013, and well-paid Brandon Carr of the Dallas Cowboys.

As usual, the focus of fan attention will be on quarterbacks and five of them figure to be at a critical stage of their careers, headed by Washington’s Robert Griffin III, San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick, Detroit’s Matthew Stafford and New York Jet Geno Smith. Not listed is EJ Manuel on a Buffalo team with a lot to prove everywhere, but he certainly will be under close scrutiny.

Based on input from correspondents from The Sports Xchange who cover each team, here is a closer look at the player with the most to prove on each roster in 2015 as they head into this week’s round of organized team activities, with six teams beginning mandatory minicamps — Arizona, Denver, Indianapolis, New York Jets, Oakland, and San Francisco.

Teams are listed in alphabetical order:

ARIZONA CARDINALS

–Player with most to prove: Jonathan Cooper, right guard. The seventh overall pick in 2013, Cooper missed his entire rookie season after suffering a broken leg in a preseason game. That injury affected him in training camp in 2014 and Cooper also missed time with turf toe and a broken wrist.

In two years, he played 10 games and started only two. The team signed Mike Iupati (formerly 49ers) in free agency, so Cooper is moving from the left side to the right.

Coaches say he looks like the player the Cardinals drafted two years ago. Back then, head coach Bruce Arians and general manager Steve Keim compared Cooper with some of the great guards in recent history, including Randall McDaniel and Alan Faneca. If Cooper plays anywhere close to that level, the Cardinals should have their best offensive line in years. If he doesn’t, however, it’s going to fuel criticism that Arians and Keim blew the first draft pick of their regime.

ATLANTA FALCONS

–Player with most to prove: Antone Smith, running back. He broke his leg on Nov. 16 against Carolina, and returned to practice last Tuesday in OTAs (June 2).

The Falcons are revamping the running back position this season after releasing Steven Jackson and not re-signing Jacquizz Rodgers. They drafted Devonta Freeman in the fourth round in 2014 and picked up Tevin Coleman in the third round of the 2015 draft.

While most of the talk has centered on Freeman and Coleman, Smith believes that he’s a fit for the team’s new outside zone blocking scheme.

“It’s a fit for my skill set, but it’s a fit for anybody that wants to run the ball,” Smith said. “They want to run the ball here and that’s the biggest thing. They want to run the ball.”

BALTIMORE RAVENS

–Player with most to prove: Eugene Monroe, offensive tackle.

Monroe had a rough 2014, hampered by a knee that eventually forced him to miss time to undergo arthroscopic surgery. He struggled on the field at times and didn’t live up to the five-year, $37.5 million contract he signed in 2013.

BUFFALO BILLS

–Player with most to prove: Charles Clay, tight end. Yes, instead of quarterback EJ Manuel, who is just another young, over-drafted quarterback under a magnifying glass, or running back LeSean McCoy, who just needs his feet to run as fast as his mouth and he will be fine.

The Bills paid a hefty sum to pry Clay away from Miami as a transition player, a contract so prohibitive — five years, $38 million, $24 million guaranteed — that the Dolphins just couldn’t justify matching despite wanting to keep him. So the pressure will be on Clay to produce at a position where the Bills have long lacked explosiveness.

Clay comes to the Bills after accumulating 61 receptions for 1,809 yards and 14 touchdowns during four years with the Dolphins. His numbers aren’t quite as good over those four years as departed Scott Chandler, but he will make about $5 million per season more than Chandler. Clay has a more dynamic skill set, and a higher ceiling, and he must live up to it.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

–Player with most to prove: Michael Oher, offensive tackle. A change of scenery was supposed to help Oher rebound from a disappointing season with the Ravens in 2013. Instead, he was terrible last season in Tennessee, finishing on injured reserve.

The Panthers signed Oher in March to be their left tackle, and it’s easy to understand why many are skeptical of the plan. If Oher is the same guy he was the last two years, quarterback Cam Newton is in trouble. But Oher and the Panthers believe a surgically repaired toe and a reunion with offensive line coach John Matsko can help resurrect his career.

CHICAGO BEARS

–Player with most to prove: Shea McClellin, linebacker. All those Jay Cutler critics — you know who you are — will have to let it go because he still makes millions without proving a thing this year, with $10 million guaranteed in 2016, regardless of what he proves in 2015.

McClellin, on the other hand, knows the importance of 2015 because the team did not pick up his option. He moved from defensive end to outside linebacker and now to inside linebacker. The 2012 first-round draft pick benefited greatly with playing time in OTAS, getting most of the snaps with the starters, alongside Christian Jones or Mason Foster. McClellin’s ability to read and react was always questioned and that trait is even more crucial inside.

Speed was reportedly his plus when he was drafted, but that was as a pass rusher. McClellin has not shown ability on the outside as a great pass rusher so now he must show he can read, react and be tough on the inside. If not, his next move will be outside the roster.

CINCINNATI BENGALS

–Player with most to prove: Leon Hall, cornerback. Going into the last year of his deal, Hall counts $9.6 million against the salary cap.

An elite corner before tearing an Achilles in 2013 for the second time in three years, he is trying to show he still has the speed to play outside. If not, he is a top slot corner, but he has to show what it takes to play outside, which is the only way he can be worth his current pay.

CLEVELAND BROWNS

–Player with most to prove: Mitchell Schwartz, right tackle. He is in the fourth and final year of his rookie contract. He never missed a snap in his first three years, but he might need the best year of his career to get a new contact.

Coaches do not speak in the same glowing terms as they do when they talk about left tackle Joe Thomas, left guard Joel Bitonio or center Alex Mack. The Browns want to be a run-dominant team in 2015, so Schwartz’ skill as a run blocker will go far to determine his future with the Browns.

DALLAS COWBOYS

–Player with most to prove: Brandon Carr, cornerback. Because of his $8 million base salary for 2015, Carr is a constant topic of conversation among Cowboys fans (when they aren’t conversing about quarterback Tony Romo or wide receiver Dez Bryant).

The Cowboys have maintained they wanted to address his deal because they didn’t feel he played up to the five-year, $50.2 million contract he signed in 2012. Carr was surpassed by Orlando Scandrick as the team’s best cornerback, but Carr’s agent rebuffed team overtures for a salary reduction and the threat of a post-June 1 release.

Short on depth at cornerback, the Cowboys couldn’t chance cutting Carr so he remains on the team with his $8 million salary. To Carr’s credit, he has not let the speculation about his status and contract impact his approach to the offseason practice and has looked good in OTAs.

DENVER BRONCOS

–Player with most to prove: Chris Clark, right tackle. After delivering a solid 2013 season at left tackle in place of Ryan Clady, Clark struggled last year after moving to right tackle, and was out of the starting lineup by the sixth game.

Now with Clady out for the season and rookie Ty Sambrailo receiving the first look as a replacement left tackle, Clark gets another chance on the right side. Head coach Gary Kubiak said that Clark’s slate is wiped clean after his sub-par 2014, but there are questions as to whether Clark’s skill set fits a scheme more focused on zone blocking than the one used in previous years.

DETROIT LIONS

–Player with most to prove: Matthew Stafford, quarterback. Going into year seven of his NFL career, Stafford remains an enigma, looking like a top-tier quarterback in some games and inefficient and lost in others.

Last year, Stafford was average in just about every phase, and with the Lions surrounding him with talented pieces like wide receiver Golden Tate and tight end Eric Ebron the past couple years, he must take a step forward for the offense to reach its potential.

GREEN BAY PACKERS

–Player with most to prove: Casey Hayward, cornerback. The starting job opposite Pro Bowl corner Sam Shields is Hayward’s to lose. But Hayward is still recovering from a foot injury sustained early in offseason workouts and he is being held out of OTAs and is expected to miss the mandatory minicamp June 16-18.

Hayward expects to be ready for training camp July 30 and recently stated his goal is to displace Shields as the team’s No. 1 cornerback. Hayward has as many interceptions as starts – nine – his first three years, but was snake-bit by injuries since. The Packers invested their first two draft picks this year on cornerbacks — converted safety Damarious Randall from Arizona State and former basketball player Quinten Rollins out of Miami (Ohio).

HOUSTON TEXANS

–Player with most to prove: Tom Savage, quarterback. Texans head coach Bill O’Brien is a firm believer in the leap between years one and two for NFL players. Savage is already making the jump. The third-stringer has looked, sounded and played more confident during OTAs. He fully understands that Year Two is critical for his development and his tenure in pro football.

With Ryan Mallett and Brian Hoyer battling for the team’s No. 1 spot, Savage is expected to be the third-stringer. But the 2014 fourth-round pick received heavy reps during the initial portion of OTAs and isn’t settling for a backup spot two months away from training camp.

“Not a lot of teams keep three quarterbacks. You’ve really got to earn your spot in this league,” said Savage.

“He’s made a lot of progress,” O’Brien said. “From the end of the season to where we are now, the guy’s done a good job. As a coaching staff, we’re encouraged with how we’ve seen Tom progress.”

INDIANAPOLIS COLTS

–Player with most to prove: Bjoern Werner, outside linebacker. He is under the most pressure to put together a productive season. The Colts’ first-round draft pick in 2013 and former Florida State All-America hasn’t played up to the level that most expected.

A string of injuries slowed his progress over the last two years. Werner has struggled with foot, knee and shoulder issues. During the early portion of last season, Werner recorded four sacks in the Colts’ first seven games. That included a two-sack, six-tackle outing against Baltimore on Oct. 5. But he went the last eight games of 2014 without a sack. Werner did not play in the team’s AFC Championship Game at New England.

“A lot of guys out there have had lows,” he explained. “But then they come back and turn it around. As long as I’m here with the Colts, I promise you, I’m going to giving it my all. I love the game so much that I’m not going to take my foot off the pedal.”

JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS

–Player with most to prove: Luke Joeckel, left tackle. He has been watched closely since the Jaguars selected him as the No. 2 player in the 2013 draft. The reviews, including his own harsh self-analysis, have not been kind. Joeckel says he didn’t play as well in 2014 as he hoped after coming off an ankle injury as a rookie.

An offseason scooter accident limited his preparation for the 2014 season and he had weight issues in-season while quarterback Blake Bortles was sacked a league-high 71 times.

This year Joeckel gained 10-to-12 pounds of muscle that will enable him to play the 2015 season between 315 and 320 pounds. He knows he’s bigger and stronger right now during the team’s OTAs and he plans to add to that by the time training camp starts.

“To be at that 310-to-315, I really have to focus on the diet, the training, the weight room,” Joeckel said. “I don’t think I’m a natural 310-to-315 guy. I have to work to get there.”

KANSAS CITY CHIEFS

–Player with most to prove: Eric Fisher, left tackle. Entering a third season after being the NFL’s first choice in the 2013 draft, Fisher is preparing for the 2015 season without injury and is settled on the left side of the Chiefs’ line.

As a rookie he played right tackle and had to deal with a shoulder injury and a sports hernia. Last year at this time, Fisher was still rehabbing from surgery on both physical problems. Still, he started all 16 games at left tackle and improved as the season went on.

Now, Fisher must prove he can take his performance to another level. Last year, the Chiefs’ offense had problems protecting quarterback Alex Smith, allowing 46 sacks overall and Fisher gave up seven of those, more than any blocker on the team.

MIAMI DOLPHINS

–Player with most to prove: Lamar Miller, running back. Although he rushed for 1,099 yards last season, Miller has not shown he is a capable three-down back. With Miami drafting running back Jay Ajayi (Boise State, fifth round), there is a good chance the Dolphins are leaning toward a two-back system for the second consecutive season.

Last year, it didn’t work because Knowshon Moreno only played four games due to injuries. But if Ajayi, who showed he could catch the ball in college, can be the short-yardage and red-zone threat the Dolphins lack, he could become the fulltime starter next season. That could force Miller, who is entering his fourth season, to take a smaller contract offer, and maybe a smaller role, from Miami for 2016, or test the free-agency market.

MINNESOTA VIKINGS

–Player with most to prove: Cordarrelle Patterson, wide receiver. He came to Minnesota at a high price in the 2013 draft. The Vikings traded picks in the second, third, fourth and seventh rounds to move back into the first round to select Patterson 29th overall.

Patterson had a horrific 2014 season after earning All-Pro first-team honors as a rookie kickoff returner. The assumption was Patterson would blossom from raw route runner to fine receiver under new offensive coordinator Norv Turner. But the season ended with Patterson benched, barely used and warned by the coaching staff to start taking the details of his job more seriously. Turner said it appears Patterson has done just that, but we’ll see. Patterson is still running with the second team in OTAs.

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

–Player with most to prove: Bradley Fletcher, cornerback. It’s rare that a mid-level free-agent signing would find himself as one of the real keys for his new team, especially a perennial Super Bowl contender. But after a horrible year with the Eagles in 2014, Fletcher comes to a New England secondary that lost former starters Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner, Kyle Arrington and Alfonzo Dennard this offseason.

If Fletcher can return to form and be even just a solid No. 1 corner, it would be huge for a patchwork secondary whose best-known member is Malcolm Butler, who began last year as a rookie free agent and ended with an interception that clinched the Super Bowl championship.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

–Player with most to prove: Stanley Jean-Baptiste, cornerback. The former Nebraska star is trying to make an impression this offseason after what amounted to a redshirt season as a rookie in 2014. A second-round draft pick, the 6-foot-3, 218-pounder played in only four games — mostly on special teams — and wasn’t an option when the team was ravaged by injuries at cornerback late in the season.

When the Saints thought about upgrading the position this offseason, Jean-Baptiste was almost an afterthought as they signed veteran Brandon Browner to pair with Keenan Lewis, drafted P.J. Williams and Damian Swann in the third and fifth rounds, respectively, and signed another veteran in Kyle Wilson. But Jean-Baptiste has played with more confidence this spring and seems ready to at least make a bit of a jump and prove the Saints didn’t waste the 58th overall pick of the 2014 draft.

NEW YORK GIANTS

–Player with most to prove: Adrien Robinson, tight end. Even before he stepped onto an NFL field, the expectations were high for Robinson, a fourth-round pick in 2012. He was compared to defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul in terms of his physical attributes by general manager Jerry Reese.

After fighting off injuries in his first two seasons, Robinson finally made it through a 16-game season last year, although he was used sparingly. In 77 snaps last season, Robinson caught five passes for 50 yards and one touchdown. He also started to show ability as an in-line blocker.

With starter Larry Donnell sidelined with Achilles tendinitis, Robinson is working with the first-team offense in OTAs and has an opportunity to grab a larger role if he keeps showing improvement.

NEW YORK JETS

–Player with most to prove: Geno Smith, quarterback. If it seems like Smith has been here before, well, he’s been in a position to prove himself from the moment he was drafted by the Jets in 2013. Unfortunately for the Jets, Smith has done nothing yet to disprove the notion that he was not a second-round talent and that he’s not a long-term starting quarterback in the NFL.

Spates of bad decisions on the field and moments of immaturity off it defined Smith’s first two NFL seasons. He gets one more chance to establish himself, but a new regime won’t wait nearly as long to pull the plug on Smith.

The early signs aren’t good for Smith, who has been outplayed by veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick in the first two weeks of voluntary OTAs. The clock really starts ticking at training camp, but it would behoove Smith to pick up the pace immediately.

OAKLAND RAIDERS

–Player with most to prove: DJ Hayden, cornerback. A surprise first-round draft pick in 2013, Hayden played in eight games as a rookie before going on injured reserve with a sports hernia and spent the first six games of the 2014 season on the physically unable to perform list because of a foot injury.

Hayden ended up tying for the team lead with 16 passes defensed, but needs to prove he can stay healthy, put good practices together and be worthy of the Raiders’ decision to install him as a starter after allowing 2014 starters Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers to leave in free agency.

PHILADELPHIA EAGLES

–Player with most to prove: Riley Cooper, wide receiver. After a breakout season in 2014 when he caught eight touchdown passes and had the league’s third highest yards-per-catch average (17.8), Cooper’s production dropped last season. He caught 55 passes, which was actually eight more than the previous season, bit his yards-per-catch average dropped to 10.5 and he had just three touchdown catches.

The 6-foot-3, 230-pound Cooper is one of the best blocking wideouts in the league. But he needs to be more productive in head coach Chip Kelly’s offense this year to be a part of the plans for the future.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

–Player with most to prove: Jarvis Jones, outside linebacker. His three sacks in two seasons is not the kind of production the Steelers hoped to get from the 17th overall pick in the 2013 draft. At Georgia, he had 28 sacks in two seasons. However, there were mitigating circumstances.

The Steelers started Jones right away as a rookie and he was in over his head. He became more productive toward the end of 2013 and was off to a good start with two sacks and one forced fumble before his 2014 season was ruined with a severe wrist injury in the third game. He went on the injured reserve/designated for return list and did not play much after missing nine games.

Nevertheless, as a first-rounder, Jones has much to prove entering his third season and the Steelers are counting on him to do so from their premier pass-rush position in their 3-4 defense, right outside linebacker.

ST. LOUIS RAMS

–Player with most to prove: Tavon Austin, wide receiver/returner. The Rams traded up to select Austin with the eighth overall pick in the 2013 draft, which was a high price to pay for a part-time player. Contrary to perception, Austin hasn’t been a bust, but he also hasn’t been a consistent contributor to the offense. He does have 1,035 yards and seven touchdowns from scrimmage in two seasons, while adding two scores as a punt returner, and has shown the ability to make big plays. He had more than his share of big plays called back by penalties.

With the offense now under new direction this year with coordinator Frank Cignetti, it is expected that more effort will be made to get the ball in Austin’s hands in space, and not with some of the up-the-middle running plays that didn’t fit what the 5-foot-8, 174-pound player does best.

SAN DIEGO CHARGERS

–Player with most to prove: Melvin Ingram, outside linebacker. He was a first-round pick in 2012, 18th overall, and it is time for him to show why the Chargers drafted him so high. To be fair, Ingram has been sidelined by knee and hip injuries for a big chunk of his Chargers career, missing 19 games over the past two seasons.

But it’s the NFL and staying healthy is part of the game. Ingram did have four sacks last year and played well on special teams. That his modest production was the second-highest among Chargers reveals how tepid their pass rush is. And how critical it is for Ingram to step up.

So, with outside linebacker Dwight Freeney gone, the time for Ingram to become a focal point of the defense is here. Ingram showed up at the OTAs with a new look after dropping 20 pounds. Playing at about 240 pounds should make Ingram quicker, but it remains to be seen if he will be better.

SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS

–Player with most to prove: Let’s see, who is left. Oh yes, Colin Kaepernick, quarterback. In only four seasons, he went to a Super Bowl while compiling the seventh-best winning percentage in regular-season games, trailing six guys who appear to be on a Hall of Fame path.

But Kaepernick had just the league’s 20th-best passer rating (86.4) last season and was second in sacks taken (52), the latter an alarming number when you consider his mobility. Kaepernick is seen as former coach Jim Harbaugh’s hand-picked man to lead his team. But Harbaugh isn’t around anymore.

When he began last year, critics said he wasn’t a pocket passer. When he ended last season they were able to say “I told you so,” as he looked dreadful on all too many calls that demanded this fleet-footed runner to stay in the pocket. It is unclear why the play-calling did not match his abilities rather than show off his liabilities.

Now, new head coach Jim Tomsula will be in charge of if, how and when Kaepernick plays.

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS

–Player with most to prove: Christine Michael, running back. Marshawn Lynch, aka Beast Mode, is under contract through 2017, but few will be surprised if this is his last season with the Seahawks. Lynch could retire, as he has threatened to do each of the last two years, or the team could also simply move on from him and release him prior to the 2016 season.

That puts a spotlight this offseason on Michael, a third-year veteran who was a surprise pick in the second round in 2013 and viewed then as a successor to Lynch.

But Michael has played few meaningful snaps so far, getting almost all of his 52 career snaps in mop-up duty. The team has said Michael needs to show more consistency and attention to detail, specifically in improving his pass blocking, an underrated aspect of Lynch’s game. But with Lynch again sitting out OTAs and the team’s other backup tailback, Robert Turbin, out after having had hip surgery, Michael will get a lot of work in the offseason, which should prepare him well for what could be a make-or-break season with the Seahawks.

TAMPA BAY BUCANNEERS

–Player with most to prove: Doug Martin, running back. He burst onto the scene as a rookie and was named to the Pro Bowl after rushing for 1,454 yards and 11 touchdowns. But he has missed 17 games in the past two seasons with injuries and the Bucs decided not to pick up his fifth-year option.

That puts Martin’s long-term future with the Bucs in doubt. In the short term, he is competing with Charles Sims for the starting job. This is the year Martin must prove he can be a factor in the NFL — or he will be regarded as a one-time flash in the pan.

TENNESSEE TITANS

–Player with most to prove: Justin Hunter, wide receiver. The Titans traded up to obtain Hunter in the second round of the 2013 draft (the cost was a 2014 third-round pick). Hunter had 18 catches as a rookie and reached the end zone four times. Last season, which was supposed to be his breakout year, resulted in just 28 receptions and three scores. He did average 17.8 yards per catch, but didn’t flash often enough to prevent the Titans from signing Harry Douglas and Hakeem Nicks and drafting Dorial Green-Beckham and Tre McBride.

Hunter’s high draft status probably locks him on the roster since he is still on his rookie deal, but how high he goes in the pecking order is certainly up for debate.

WASHINGTON REDSKINS

–Player with most to prove: Robert Griffin III, quarterback. Hardly a surprise choice. Coach Jay Gruden announced that Griffin was the starter in February after saying at the end of 2014 that there would be an open competition between Griffin, Kirk Cousins and Colt McCoy this summer. And the Redskins also picked up his $16.155 million option for 2016 on the eve of the draft.

“We think Robert is a starting quarterback: We’ve seen him win; we’ve seen him win big games,” Redskins president Bruce Allen said. “We know his talent. It really was a no-brainer. I think if you asked us six months before it would have been the same decision.”

This is a decision that will be continually questioned in 2015 unless Griffin returns to his rookie year form when he led the Redskins to their only NFC East title of the millennium.


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