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All-Prove It Team: Players under pressure to step up in 2014

All-Prove It Team: Players under pressure to step up in 2014 Photo:

Simply making a roster brings welcome relief for plenty of players this time of year. For others, the bar is set much higher.

Our All-Prove It Team focuses on those players who -- be it because of disappointing 2013 seasons, expiring contracts or untapped draft potential -- head into 2014 with something to prove. 

Quarterbacks

Eli Manning, Giants; Joe Flacco, Ravens

Flacco has one Super Bowl MVP award. Manning has two. Both ranged from mediocre to downright horrid last season, though the struggles were not always entirely on them.

The stronger defense case may belong to Flacco, who was held up as a piñata by his sieve of an offensive line. Not only was Flacco sacked 48 times (more than every QB not named Ryan Tannehill), but the run game behind him finished 30th in the league at a paltry 83 yards per game. Still, the Ravens did not hand Flacco a post-Super Bowl $120 million contract to be a role player. They want and need him to do more, which they believe he can in the play-action heavy scheme of new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak.

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Flacco has not hit the 60-percent completion mark since 2010 and last year had more interceptions (22) than touchdowns (19) for the first time in his career. Manning fired five more INTs and one less TD en route to his first sub-.500 season as the Giants' starter since posting a 1-6 mark as a rookie.

Was that all on Manning? Hardly. The Giants finished 2013 with all of four more yards rushing than the Ravens, and Manning was dropped on 39 sacks. But he also flailed in the face of pressure -- according to Pro Football Focus, Manning's passer rating was 57.0 against blitzes, with 10 interceptions and four touchdowns. A longtime veteran, Manning nonetheless looked flustered frequently.

For either the Ravens or Giants to get back to playoff form in 2014, these QBs must be better.

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Running backs

Trent Richardson, Colts; Ben Tate, Browns

Rare is the NFL player who shapes up as a massive bust for two separate teams. That's where we are with Richardson, though, after he averaged 2.9 yards per carry during a brutal debut with the Colts. At least the Browns were able to recoup a first-round pick for Richardson via trade (which they later used on QB Johnny Manziel).

While Richardson has had a couple of shots, Tate is about to get his with Richardson's old club. Now free of Arian Foster's shadow in Houston, Tate is penciled in as the Cleveland starter. Last season, Tate made seven starts in place of an injured Foster, highlighted by a 102-yard, three-touchdown showing versus New England. Anything shy of 1,000 yards on the ground would be a colossal disappointment.

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Wide receivers

Kenny Britt, Rams; Mohamed Sanu, Bengals

There was some sense this offseason that if anyone could revive Britt's career, it would be Jeff Fisher in St. Louis. So far, so good. Britt was in the Rams' starting lineup for the first two weeks of the preseason and there is little question he has the talent to stick there, if he can keep his head on straight.

Sanu, meanwhile, has been a popular talking point on our site this offseason. With Marvin Jones sidelined for several weeks by a foot injury, Sanu will reclaim a prominent role in the Bengals' attack, with A.J. Green drawing heavy attention on the other side of the field. The Bengals' coaching staff hinted earlier this offseason about moving Sanu around in a Swiss army knife-style role. Can he really tap into the versatility necessary for such a job?

Tight ends

Jared Cook, Rams; Coby Fleener, Colts

Cook is stuck in eternal prove-it land, despite finishing with career-highs in receptions (51) and touchdowns (five) last season. The Rams no doubt were expecting more after handing Cook a five-year deal worth more than $35 million. Ditto for Fleener, a second-round pick in 2012. He doubled his catches from Year 1 to Year 2 in the league (26 to 52), yet failed to turn the corner to elite status.  There's still time, obviously.

Offensive line

Eric Fisher, Chiefs and Luke Joeckel, Jaguars; Brian Schwenke, Titans

Fisher and Joeckel were the first two players off the board in the 2013 draft. Both likely would just as soon forget their rookie years. Joeckel played just five games before requiring ankle surgery; Fisher saw action in 14 games and was brutally overmatched, allowing 35 QB hurries and seven sacks from his right tackle spot. Fisher has to make the move to the left side this year, which is where Joeckel also is set to start.

Schwenke is another second-year starter -- he's at center in Tennessee. His first season left plenty to be desired, too, so the Titans' new staff will keep a close eye on him.

Defensive line

Nick Fairley, Lions; Jason Pierre-Paul, Giants

Fairley might be the most obvious inclusion on this list -- the Lions declined his fifth-year option and he's since been demoted to the second-team defense. Not quite a bang-up start to a contract year. Pierre-Paul could join Fairley in free agency next offseason, so he would love to rebound from a frustrating, injury-plagued 2013 that was light years from his 16.5-sack performance of 2011. The Giants are counting on Pierre-Paul more than ever with Justin Tuck out of the picture.

Linebackers

Kevin Minter, Cardinals; Jason Worilds, Steelers

The Cardinals' fearsome front seven has been ravaged over the past few months: Darnell Dockett just tore his ACL, Daryl Washington's suspended for the season and Karlos Dansby left via free agency. An inordinate amount of pressure could then fall on Minter, the No. 45 pick in last year's draft and one of the players expected to help lead the way for this year's defense.

There are far fewer questions about Worilds' capabilities, yet he faces a different sort of pressure. Namely that the cap-stressed Steelers used the franchise tag on him at nearly $10 million. For that price the Steelers will be expecting no less than the eight sacks Worilds provided last year and, in an ideal world, for him to form a dominant OLB pairing with Jarvis Jones.

Cornerbacks

Dee Milliner, Jets; Ike Taylor, Steelers

Since the Jets were unwilling or unable to dive too aggressively into the free-agent waters at cornerback, Milliner might be the No. 1 cornerback by default. Two problems with that: 1) He's currently ailing with an ankle injury that could keep him out beyond the start of the regular season; and 2) his rookie season was a roller-coaster ride, complete with multiple benchings due to inconsistent play.

The 34-year-old Taylor, now entering his 12th season with the Steelers, is in a far different position than the rising Milliner. Taylor has to show he still can get it done in a pass-happy league -- last season, he graded out as Pro Football Focus' 98th-ranked cornerback, and Pittsburgh then strong-armed him into taking a pay cut. Aside from Cortez Allen and William Gay, there are not any CBs exactly knocking down the door for more playing time in Pittsburgh's secondary but Taylor will feel the pressure nonetheless.

Safeties

Da'Norris Searcy, Bills; D.J. Swearinger, Texans

The Bills clearly need someone to help fill Jairus Byrd's shoes, and it was a Searcy-Duke Williams combo starting at safety in Week 2 of the preseason. Unfortunately for the Bills, Searcy also was one of the defenders victimized on an Antonio Brown touchdown reception. Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz will mix and match his safeties if he has to -- he likes to have interchangeable options back there. But Searcy delivered 3.5 sacks, 71 tackles and an interception last season, while seeing a few starts. Schwartz would be ecstatic if Searcy could nab a job and run with it. 

Swearinger talks a big game and, in his second season, could be on the verge of greatness in Houston's secondary. He finished with 83 tackles last season while making just 10 starts. His aggressive, hard-hitting, blitz-happy playmaking fits well on paper behind the Texans' strong front. 

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