NFL Starters Facing Make-or-Break Seasons in 2014

Nick Kostos@@thekostosContributor IJune 6, 2014

NFL Starters Facing Make-or-Break Seasons in 2014

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    While every NFL player experiences varying degrees of pressure heading into each campaign, there are certain individuals who have the weight of the world on their shoulders. It's time to examine the starters who are facing make-or-break seasons in 2014.

    Some of the players who made this list did so because of financial reasons; namely, that they're in the final year of their contract and must perform well to either secure further employment at their club or to assure themselves a big-money deal.

    Others have failed to play their best when it matters the most, and the spotlight on them will be shining brighter than ever in 2014.

    And there are those who must dazzle or risk being replaced in the starting lineup by qualified backups.

    Here are the NFL starters facing make-or-break seasons in 2014.

St. Louis Rams QB Sam Bradford

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    It's time for St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford to put up or shut up.

    The former No. 1 overall pick of the 2010 NFL draft has shown flashes of brilliance but has mostly underwhelmed in four seasons as the starter in St. Louis, compiling a record of 18-30-1 and never leading the team to the postseason. He's also missed 15 games with various maladies, including nine contests last year after tearing his ACL.

    Excuses could easily have been made for Bradford in his first few seasons. He joined an absolutely horrendous Rams team bereft of talent and had to endure a different offensive coordinator in each of his first three campaigns (Pat Shurmur in 2010, Josh McDaniels in 2011 and Brian Schottenheimer in 2012).

    But now he has some continuity on the coaching staff, with head coach Jeff Fisher and Schottenheimer entering their third year on the job, and the front office, spearheaded by general manager Les Snead, has finally surrounded Bradford with enough talent to get the job done.

    The offensive line is solid, buoyed by the selection of Auburn's Greg Robinson with the second overall pick in last month's draft. The run game should be solid, and the receiving corps is as good as it's been in Bradford's four seasons.

    Plus, the Rams neglected to take a quarterback (Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel?) in the early rounds of the draft when they could have easily done so, which was a major vote of confidence in Bradford.

    Now, it'll be up to Bradford to get the job done. The talent level on the Rams screams playoffs, but the team plays in the rough-and-tumble NFC West, the best division in football. If the Rams are to qualify for the postseason for the first time since 2004, they'll have to contend with the likes of the Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers and Arizona Cardinals.

    And if Bradford can't get the job done, it's hard to imagine he'll be under center for St. Louis in 2015 and beyond.

Cincinnati Bengals QB Andy Dalton

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    David Kohl/Associated Press

    To paraphrase the Grateful Dead, the three seasons that Andy Dalton has been starting quarterback of the Cincinnati Bengals have already been a long, strange trip.

    Dalton has been a living, breathing example of a mixed bag, having taken the Bengals to the playoffs in each of his three campaigns only to play atrocious football in every postseason encounter, resulting in the club being bounced out in the Wild Card Round in all three tries.

    While Dalton set franchise records last year for passing yards (4,293) and touchdown passes (33), he also played his worst when it mattered the most, turning the ball over three times (two interceptions) in the club's Wild Card loss to San Diego. In three postseason games, he's thrown only one touchdown pass against six interceptions.

    The Bengals have a Super Bowl-caliber roster, but Dalton has too long been the albatross slung around the team's collective neck, playing hot potato with the football in critical moments. 

    This season, all eyes in the Queen City will be fixated on Dalton. This is the year Dalton must elevate his level of play and carry the Bengals past the opening round of the postseason. 

    And if that wasn't enough pressure, Dalton is entering the final year of his rookie contract. And if he wants to be paid like a true franchise passer ($18 million and above per year), he'll need to reach the level of consistency that has hitherto not been achieved.

    If Dalton fails again when it matters most, the Bengals could be looking to add a new starting signal-caller next offseason.

Tennessee Titans QB Jake Locker

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    Wade Payne/Associated Press

    There is no question that 2014 represents the final opportunity for Tennessee Titans quarterback Jake Locker in Music City.

    Since being selected with the eighth overall pick of the 2011 draft, Locker has failed to dazzle, garnering an 8-10 record as the team's starter and missing 14 games over the past two seasons due to various injuries. 

    The Titans have a new head coach in Ken Whisenhunt, and the team's current general manager (Ruston Webster) is not the one who drafted Locker, so the regime doesn't have any extra impetus to keep Locker in the starting lineup if he doesn't perform up to expectation. They also selected LSU signal-caller Zach Mettenberger in the sixth round of last month's draft.

    Earlier this offseason, Whisenhunt stressed just how important a season this is for Locker, telling Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean that this is a "make-or-break" campaign for the former University of Washington product.

    Plus, the club failed to pick up Locker's fifth-year option, turning 2014 into even more of a referendum on his career in Tennessee.

    If Locker doesn't sparkle and lead the team on a run toward the postseason, this will surely be his final season as a Titan.

New York Jets QB Geno Smith

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    Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    While it might appear odd to list a second-year quarterback as one facing a make-or-break season, it's absolutely true in the case of New York Jets passer Geno Smith.

    While Smith led the Jets to an 8-8 record last season as a neophyte, he didn't exactly dazzle, throwing only 12 touchdown passes against 21 interceptions. He played poorly enough that the club signed free-agent quarterback Michael Vick this offseason, presumably to compete for the starting job.

    An argument could easily be constructed that Smith wasn't put in a position to succeed last season, as Gang Green's lack of talent at the skill positions was startling.

    But general manager John Idzik has done a nice job of advancing the unit into the 21st century with the signings of wide receiver Eric Decker and running back Chris Johnson and the drafting of Texas Tech tight end Jace Amaro in the second round of last month's draft.

    With the team buoyed by a potentially excellent defense and now possessing talent on offense, the onus will be on Smith to put forth a better performance than he did as a rookie and help lead the club to its first postseason appearance since 2010.

    If Smith falters, coach Rex Ryan likely won't hesitate to pull him for Vick, and if that happens, it could signal the beginning of the end of Smith's time in Gotham. 

Buffalo Bills RB C.J. Spiller

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    Gary Wiepert/Associated Press

    Buffalo Bills running back C.J. Spiller is entering the final year of his rookie contract and has one more season to prove that he's deserving of a megabucks deal that would keep him in Western New York.

    Since being selected with the ninth overall pick of the 2010 draft, Spiller has shown flashes of brilliance but has ultimately been too inconsistent to be mentioned in the same breath as the league's top running backs. He possesses breathtaking speed and playmaking ability, which makes it all the more maddening that he hasn't yet figured out how to truly dominate.

    After a fantastic 2012 campaign in which he averaged an outstanding 6.0 yards per carry, Spiller's effectiveness in 2013 was sapped by a nagging ankle injury. But Bills fans should be happy to hear that Spiller is feeling well, having recently told Chris Brown of buffalobills.com:

    I don’t feel nothing, I feel great. This is the best I’ve felt since 2012 when I had that great year. The ankle feels wonderful.  I just have to keep doing what I need to do to stay healthy this whole season and try to go out there and make plays.

    With another electrifying campaign, Spiller can firmly establish himself both as one of the game's top rushers and a player worthy of a major contract next offseason.

New England Patriots WR Aaron Dobson

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    Steven Senne/Associated Press

    The New England Patriots selected receiver Aaron Dobson in the second round of the 2013 NFL draft, and he played decent football as a neophyte, hauling in 37 passes and four touchdown catches in 12 games (nine starts).

    But Dobson will surely be counted on to play a much larger role in 2014, and if he doesn't, he could find himself buried on the team's depth chart moving forward.

    The Patriots are a team with Super Bowl aspirations, and Dobson needs to take a leap forward in Year 2 to help the team achieve those goals. While fellow receiver Julian Edelman provides a security blanket for quarterback Tom Brady, the rest of the pass-catchers all have question marks surrounding them.

    Receiver Danny Amendola is constantly battling injuries, and the same can be said of star tight end Rob Gronkowski. If either man (or both) gets hurt, Dobson will have to play a better brand of football than he did in his rookie campaign.

    It's entirely feasible this will be Dobson's last chance to truly impress coach Bill Belichick, who has never been known to spend oodles of time waiting for a player to reach his potential. If Dobson fails to get the job done and the offense suffers as a result, Belichick won't hesitate to add more weaponry next offseason and bury Dobson on the depth chart.

New York Giants DE Jason Pierre-Paul

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    Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

    In 2011, his second season in the NFL, New York Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul put forth a dominant campaign, accruing 16.5 sacks and helping Big Blue win the Lombardi Trophy.

    After the dust settled on Super Bowl XLVI, it appeared that Pierre-Paul was ascending to the level of the NFL's next great pass-rusher.

    But as Dickens said, the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry, and Pierre-Paul has struggled mightily since, only accumulating 8.5 sacks over the past two seasons. In 2013, he only managed to take down the opposing quarterback twice as he battled a nagging shoulder malady.

    The Giants desperately need Pierre-Paul to regain his past form in order to return to the postseason for the first time since 2011, especially with the lack of proven pass-rushers around him on the defensive line. For more on that topic, check out this column from Bleacher Report's Brad Gagnon.

    But this is also a critical campaign for Pierre-Paul himself, as he enters the final year of his rookie contract. He's still only 25 years old, and a monster season similar to 2011 would surely earn him an enormous payday next offseason.

    But if Pierre-Paul fails to get the job done and struggles once more, not only will the team suffer mightily, but Pierre-Paul's wallet and reputation will also take a major hit.

Dallas Cowboys CB Morris Claiborne

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    Brandon Wade/Associated Press

    Dallas Cowboys cornerback Morris Claiborne has been a titanic disappointment since the club traded up to take him with the sixth overall pick of the 2012 draft.

    Claiborne finished 2014 as Pro Football Focus' (subscription required) 90th-ranked cornerback, which surely doesn't fit his high draft status. He's only managed two interceptions in two seasons and has failed to impress.

    He's also been unable to stay healthy, suffering a variety of maladies that read like a MASH unit: a concussion, left shoulder, wrist, right MCL, left knee, hamstring and pinkie. It's almost incredible that the man is still walking.

    To his credit, Claiborne has remained positive, having recently told Tim MacMahon of ESPNDallas.com, "The sky is the limit. I’ve got big dreams. Where my mind is for this season, it’s really unbelievable. I’d rather not talk about it. I’d rather just show.” 

    The Cowboys would rather Claiborne show it too. Their already suspect defense took a major hit with the torn ACL suffered by star linebacker Sean Lee, and the team will be counting on Claiborne to play like the guy it thought it was getting when it traded up to draft him.

    For more on Claiborne's big season in Dallas, read this piece from Bleacher Report's Brad Gagnon.