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Former High Draft Picks on Thin Ice

These six players need to realize their potential immediately or risk being run out of the league.

Michael Lombardo

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The 2015 season will be a make-or-break campaign for several marquee players. While there are easily 30-plus players who fall into that category, we have decided to highlight a half-dozen former high draft picks who need to reach their potential right now or risk losing their jobs.

QB Robert Griffin III, Washington Redskins

Griffin’s first season under head coach Jay Gruden was nothing short of disastrous. He missed two months due to an ankle injury and was benched due to poor play just three weeks after his return. Gruden was not shy to call out Griffin for his lack of progress and sloppy technique. The two sides have made nice this offseason, with Gruden naming RGIII his starter, but that order came from the owner’s box, not the bench.

If Griffin struggles again, count on Gruden having a quick hook. Griffin’s 2016 salary ($16.1) million is guaranteed for injury only, so if he fails to show marked progress, the team will get him off the field quickly to make sure he doesn’t get hurt.

“You’re not really thinking about who’s where, what’s my footwork,” Gruden said. “Everything should come a lot more natural for you, and hopefully, we see that transition from year one to year two in this system with the terminology and knowing where to go with your footwork and anticipation of getting the ball out quicker.”

OT Luke Joeckel, Jacksonville Jaguars

The hope was that the No. 2 overall pick in 2013 would show significant progress during his second season. It never happened. Joeckel allowed eight sacks, seven QB hits and 29 hurries, according to Pro Football Focus. He had only one game in which he earned a significantly positive grade as a pass protector (Week 7 against the Browns).

The hope is that upgrades elsewhere on the offensive line (namely Jermey Parnell, Stephen Wisniewski and A.J. Cann) will make Joeckel’s job easier. Also, if Blake Bortles can get the ball out faster with quick passes to newcomers Julius Thomas and Rashad Greene, the entire offensive line will look more capable. But if all those improvements are not enough to pull a better performance from Joeckel, his time in teal will be short.

“I see great progress, I really do,” offensive line coach Doug Marrone told ESPN.com. “Not just out of him but out of everyone. He’s put on some extra weight which has been good weight, some lean muscle mass. Obviously it’s a challenge for all of us learning a new system, but I see him progressing and getting better each day.”

OG Jonathan Cooper, Arizona Cardinals

The No. 7 overall pick in 2013 missed his entire rookie season with a broken leg. He never seemed fully recovered last season, with wrist and toe injuries also slowing his progress. Those issues are in the past now, as Cooper is healthy, well conditioned and ready to take over the right guard position.

Cooper appeared in seven games last season, allowing one sack and one QB hurry. He faired better in pass protection than run blocking, which explains why Arizona brought in road grader Mike Iupati to man the other guard position. If both of those two play up to their potential, the Cardinals will have one of the most stout interior lines in the game. If not, Cooper will be on thin ice, which is not where you want to be in the desert.

RB Doug Martin, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

After a monster rookie season (1,926 yards from scrimmage and 12 touchdowns), Martin has been plagued by injuries and conditioning issues. However, he has slimmed back down to 210 lbs. and appears primed to return to the form that made his so effective in his debut campaign.

“We talked about being able to establish the run,” said head coach Lovie Smith. “Doug will be the lead guy doing that, so it’s very important that we open up some holes and let him do his thing.”

Martin was dangled in trade talks last season, so it’s clear his role is a tenuous one. He already comes off the field on third downs in favor of Charles Sims, which explains how he averaged only 12 carries per game last season. If he can get back to his rookie production, that number could very well double. If not, he’ll be forced to walk the plank.

DE Margus Hunt, Cincinnati Bengals 

The 2013 second-round pick has been a major disappointment. He has appeared in just 22 games due to injuries and slow development, recording 10 tackles and 1.5 sacks. Head coach Marvin Lewis is optimistic Hunt is set to take a significant step forward in 2015, but he felt the same way last offseason and look how that turned out.

Since selecting Hunt, the Bengals have drafted Will Clarke and re-signed Michael Johnson, meaning the SMU product is no lock to make the roster. He battled a back injury this offseason and began training camp on the PUP list, but he has since been activated and is ready to make one last run at realizing his potential in the Queen City.

CB Kyle Wilson, New Orleans Saints

Apparently, Wilson got out of New York just in time. A 2010 first-round pick who was outstanding as a rookie, Wilson’s career has been a roller coaster ever since. For example, last season he posted negative grades in coverage in exactly eight of his 16 games. Part of that is due to Wilson’s limitations — he struggles with larger receivers and fails to get his head turned around quickly in man coverage, which explains his three career interceptions — but part of it can be blamed of the exodus of talent from New York’s secondary.

Wilson joined the Saints this offseason as part of a three-team swap of disappointing draft picks (Wilson went from New York to New Orleans, Patrick Robinson went from New Orleans to San Diego, Marcus Gilchrist went from San Diego to New York). He should benefit from the pressure created by Rob Ryan’s exotic blitz packages, although he was surely sad to see Junior Gallette leave town.

Wilson worked as the first-team slot cornerback during OTAs, but has since been passed on the depth chart by Delvin Breaux. That leaves Wilson to battle 2014 second-round pick Stanley Jean-Baptiste for a spot in the rotation. And although Jean-Baptiste has shown little to this point, he is a project the Saints are not ready to give up on as of yet.

Which other players are on their last chance? Join the conversation with Michael Lombardo in his weekly NFL Chat on Friday at 2pm EST. But you don’t have to wait until then … you can ask your question now

Michael Lombardo has spent more than 10 years as a team expert at Scout.com, primarily covering the Chargers, Cardinals and Panthers. He has been published by the NFL Network, Fox Sports and other venues.

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