High-profile players under pressure even before the 2017 NFL season begins

From rookies being thrown into the fire to veterans running out of time and backups getting their big shot at a leading role, there's no shortage of pressure being felt around the NFL right now.
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Be it due to contract or circumstance, some players find themselves more under the gun than others at this time of the NFL year. The pressure may not ratchet up on established veterans until the games count in September, but it’s there nonetheless.

As OTAs continue and summer lurks, we glance at 20 players “under pressure”, for a variety of reasons.

Alex Smith, QB, Chiefs: To assume that rookie Patrick Mahomes will be ready for a starting role this season, or even next, may be jumping the gun. Everything sets up for him to do just that, though, including Smith’s contract—the veteran’s current deal expires after 2018, and Kansas City can save $17 million off its ’18 cap by cutting or trading him. So, the immediate future is all about finding out if the Chiefs have hit their ceiling with Smith at the helm. Last year he was once again the player he essentially has been since ’11: a quarterback who wins games, makes some plays with his feet, takes care of the football ... and is rather limited as a passer. Smith’s 10.7 yards per completion in ’16 ranked among the lowest numbers for all NFL starters.

Carson Palmer, QB, Cardinals: Unlike the Chiefs, the Cardinals don’t have their ascension plan in place. If this season does mark the end of the line for Palmer, who turns 38 in December and carries a cap hit of $20 million-plus for 2018, who’s on deck? But that’s a discussion for down the line. The topic for right now is how Arizona can rebound from its 7-8-1 finish of a year ago, and Palmer’s play will be central to that goal. During that ’16 season, Palmer (like his team) was completely different on the road compared to at home. His stats in Arizona: 63.6% completion rate, 288.7 yards passing per game, 7.5 yards per attempt, 12 TDs and three INTs. In road games: 58.0% completion rate, 269.9 YPG, 6.6 YPA, 14 TDs and 11 interceptions.

Tyrod Taylor, QB, Bills: When the off-season began, it looked for all the world like Taylor and the Bills were headed for a divorce. Instead, Taylor agreed to a restructured deal that could keep him around through 2018—the final three years (2019–21) all will be voided, at a ’19 dead-money penalty of around $5.6 million. He’s penciled in atop the depth chart again, but the Bills have been hesitant to go all on him as QB1. Earlier this month, inan interview with The MMQB’s Peter King, new GM Brandon Beane promised “open competition” under center. Taylor, 28 in August, is fighting to keep his jobandtrying to pin down enough value to buoy his post-’18 contract demands.

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Blake Bortles, QB, Jaguars: Obviously. He’s 11–34 as a starter in Jacksonville, and the Jaguars can still bail on his $19 million fifth-year contract option before the 2018 season.

Ameer Abdullah, RB, Lions: In a minor upset, the Lions did not draft a running back this year (they did sign UDFA Tion Green). They also sat out the initial RB free-agent frenzy, just this weekend coming to terms with short-yardage grinder/touchdown vulture Matt Asiata. Whether it was the plan all along or not, Detroit’s 2017 run game will hinge on the combo of Abdullah and Theo Riddick—ideally with a lean toward the former, since Riddick is more dangerous creating mismatches as a pass catcher than as a back. Step one for Abdullah: staying healthy. He played just two games last season before being shut down by foot surgery.

Jeremy Hill, RB, Bengals: Hill rushed for 1,100 yards as a rookie in 2014, then led the league in rushing touchdowns (11) the following season. Will he even make it to Week 1 on the Bengals’ roster? Probably, but the writing appears to be on the wall for him after Cincinnati drafted Joe Mixon in the second round. Hill averaged a shade under 3.7 yards per carry over the past two seasons, and his contract expires after this year. He’s playing for both a spot on the depth chart and his value as a free agent.

Doug Martin, RB, Buccaneers: Tampa Bay continues to talk up Martin’s effort this off-season following a PED-related suspension (he’ll sit the first three weeks of 2017) and a stint in rehab. That’s a good start to what is a make-or-break year for the 28-year-old back. He has surrounded two Pro Bowl seasons (’12 and ’15) with three frustrating, injury-plagued efforts. The Bucs have him under contract through 2020 but owe him no additional guaranteed money.

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Alshon Jeffery, WR, Eagles: Jeffery will feel the pressure of being the presumed No. 1 receiver for second-year QB Carson Wentz as the Eagles look to push into NFC East contention. He’ll also feel it on a personal level, after signing a one-year deal on what turned out to be a rather chilly free-agent market. Not that long ago, Jeffery was seen as one of the game’s bright young stars at his position. Can he reestablish himself as a dominant playmaker?

Breshad Perriman, WR, Ravens: Is Year Three the one in which Perriman makes the leap to stardom? His rookie season vanished due to a knee injury and he posted just 33 receptions for 499 yards last year. The Ravens bypassed the WR position during the draft, so Perriman is the de facto No. 1 headed into the summer.

Laquon Treadwell, WR, Vikings: The needle is hovering around “bust” range on the Treadwell scale after the receiver’s miserable rookie year—he caught one pass through all of 2016. He started OTAs strong, but he’ll have to maintain that momentum. Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen are fixtures in the Vikings’ passing attack, Michael Floyd signed as a free agent this off-season and Minnesota used two draft picks on receivers (Rodney Adams and Stacy Coley).

Coby Fleener, TE, Saints: After signing a five-year, $36 million contract with New Orleans, Fleener produced 50 catches for 631 yards and three TDs. Maybe it’s time to stop expecting more—his past four seasons have produced between 50 and 54 receptions. If there isn’t a breakout coming, Fleener won’t come close to seeing the finish line on his lucrative deal.

Ereck Flowers, OT, Giants: In sprucing up their offense with first-round TE Evan Engram and using a third-round pick on QB Davis Webb, the Giants opted to stick with the status quo at tackle. Good news for Flowers and RT Bobby Hart; potentially bad news for Eli Manning, who was under constant pressure last season.

Luke Joeckel, G/T, Seahawks: Where does Seattle plan to play Joeckel? Some answers may come this week as the Seahawks open OTAs—the NFL stripped them of their first three practices for violating the league’s off-season workout rules last year. Whether he slots in at guard or left tackle, he’ll need to deliver. The Seahawks’ odds of improvement up front depend largely on the 25-year-old Joeckel and rookie Ethan Pocic, and Joeckel is on just a one-year deal.

The Broncos’ defensive line: Apologies for not narrowing it down to a single player here, but this is going to require across-the-board improvements. For as lackluster as Denver’s offense was last season, the defense also ranked 28th against the run (and 18th in yards per attempt). Free-agent signee Domata Peko and rookie DeMarcus Walker will join the likes of Derek Wolfe, Jared Crick and Adam Gotsis in trying to remedy the situation. The 2015 Broncos’ D-line—Malik Jackson’s interior pressure, in particular—set the tone for their Super Bowl 50 run. Denver needs to be better in the trenches.

Mario Edwards, DE, Raiders: A hip injury torpedoed Edwards’s second NFL season—he played just two regular-season games in 2016, recording one tackle and no sacks. He’s healthy for the moment, though, and the Raiders again have him penciled in as a starting DE, opposite Khalil Mack. However, this is a team with Super Bowl aspirations. If Edwards can’t regain his rookie form of 2015, the leash won’t be all that long.

Kamalei Correa, LB, Ravens: The unexpected (and unfortunate) early retirement by LB Zach Orr due to a neck ailment accelerated Correa’s timeline. The 2016 second-rounder now stands to start for Baltimore this season, alongside C.J. Mosley. Is he ready for that level of responsibility? Orr leaves big shoes to fill—he led the Ravens in tackles last season.

Kyler Fackrell, OLB, Packers: No team in the league banks on in-house development quite like the Packers. That strategy has to pay off for them at outside linebacker in 2017, or their pass rush will fall woefully short of where they need it to be. Gone are Julius Peppers and Datone Jones, leaving Fackrell as the primary OLB backup behind Nick Perry and Clay Matthews—the latter coming off arguably his worst season as a pro. Jay Elliott and rookie Vince Biegel will be part of the plan, too, but Fackrell has the inside track on playing time. Can he help replace the production lost?

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Adoree' Jackson, CB, Titans: A lot of rookies will feel the weight of early expectations—Leonard Fournette, Jamal Adams, Mike Williams, of course Myles Garrett, etc. Jackson could find himself playing as substantial a role as any of them, on a team that should battle for a division title. The Titans added Jackson and free agent Logan Ryan at CB this off-season, but bid farewell to veteran Jason McCourty. The result: a starting job is wide open for Jackson, who could be thrown into the fire.

Byron Maxwell and Xavien Howard, CBs, Dolphins: Miami added another rookie, third-round pick Cordrea Tankersley, to its fledgling cornerback depth chart. In time, all the pieces could fit to form an outstanding unit. For any significant improvement to happen in 2017, Maxwell and Howard likely will have to lead the way. Howard, a '16 second-round pick, was limited by injury to just seven games as a rookie; Maxwell has no guaranteed money left on his contract after this season, so he has to show he still belongs.

Jimmie Ward, S, 49ers: The 49ers did pick up Ward’s fifth-year contract option, as they should have, but ... now it gets interesting. While Ward has developed into a solid cornerback for San Francisco, the plan as of late May has him shifting to free safety in new defensive coordinator Robert Saleh’s scheme. He also missed time to injury in both 2014 and ’16, so how well he performs in his new role and how healthy he remains will determine the 49ers’ level of commitment here.