Which NFL Players Have the Most to Lose in 2014?

Nick KostosContributor IJuly 7, 2014

Which NFL Players Have the Most to Lose in 2014?

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    David Kohl/Associated Press

    For a certain select group of NFL players, more than just wins and losses is on the line in 2014. A lot will end up riding on these players' on-field performance, as their bank accounts and reputations are at stake. It's time to evaluate the NFL players with the most to lose in 2014.

    Three quarterbacks made this list, and if they don't play up to snuff, they all stand to lose either significant money or their starting job. 

    Three running backs also qualified, with two needing stellar seasons to salvage their damaged careers and one hoping to secure a big-money contract.

    One wide receiver, a defensive end and a cornerback round out the list, and whether it's greenbacks or playing time, they stand on the precipice of either success or ruin.

    Here are the NFL players with the most to lose in 2014.

Cincinnati Bengals QB Andy Dalton

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    Al Behrman/Associated Press

    Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton has led the team to the playoffs in each of his three seasons in the Queen City, and he is coming off a campaign in which he set franchise records for passing yards (4,293) and touchdown passes (33).

    But don't let the numbers fool you: Dalton has saved his worst football for when it matters the most, tossing only one touchdown pass against six interceptions in the three postseason contests (all losses). He too often plays hot potato with the football in the biggest moments and has been the albatross slung around the team's collective neck once the calendar turns to January.

    The mixed bag of results has left Dalton in contract purgatory, as his rookie deal is set to expire at the end of this season. While his supporters will point to the playoff appearances and gaudy statistics, the detractors can just as easily bring up his postseason foibles. The Bengals clearly don't want to pay Dalton like a franchise passer ($18-plus million per season) unless he can improve and win a game or more in the playoffs.

    The Bengals enter the 2014 season with a Super Bowl-quality roster, and it should be considered a disappointment if they fail to qualify for at least the divisional round of the postseason. It'll be up to Dalton to get them there.

    If he does, there will be no legitimate argument standing in his way of a big-money contract. But if Dalton struggles once more when the lights are brightest and fails to advance the Bengals in the postseason, he could end up losing a significant sum of cash.

St. Louis Rams QB Sam Bradford

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    Bob Leverone/Associated Press

    St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford enters the 2014 season at a career crossroads.

    Since the Rams made Bradford the No. 1 overall pick of the 2010 draft, he has ultimately disappointed, 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.

    But despite those facts, Rams coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead gave Bradford a tremendous vote of confidence when they declined to bring in competition for his starting job. In what's a gigantic season for the up-and-coming Rams, Bradford is unquestionably "The Guy" and will be counted on to lead them to the postseason.

    In order for that to happen, he will have to show significant improvement and stay healthy. If he doesn't, he runs the risk of being cut loose by the Rams at season's end.

    2010 was the last draft class under the old rookie wage scale, and Bradford's absurd contract numbers reflect that, as he's slated to count for $17.6 million against this year's cap and $16.5 million against 2015's. If he doesn't put it all together this year, why would the Rams pay him that astronomical sum of money next season?

    It's time to put up or shut up for Bradford. If he wants to live up to his lofty draft status and earn the exorbitant sum he's due in 2015, his play must ascend to the next level this season.

Tennessee Titans QB Jake Locker

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    Mark Zaleski/Associated Press

    There is no middle ground for Tennessee Titans quarterback Jake Locker.

    The Titans declined to pick up the fifth-year option on Locker, their first-round selection in the 2011 draft, meaning the 2014 season is his last chance to make an impact and remain the club's starter. His Music City career rides on his performance this year.

    If the past is any indication, Locker should pack his bags now. He's failed to dazzle in his four years in Tennessee, garnering an 8-10 record as the team's starter and missing 14 games over the past two seasons due to various injuries. 

    But he's put together a stellar offseason, impressing coaches and teammates alike as he seeks to put forth his best season as a professional.

    Locker will need his practice performance to translate onto the field, or he'll be done in Tennessee. It's important to remember that the current regime of coach Ken Whisenhunt and general manager Ruston Webster didn't draft him, so they won't feel beholden to him once the season concludes. 

    Make no mistake about it: Once the season kicks off, Locker will be playing for his job. And if he falters once more and cannot stay healthy, it would be hard to imagine any team—including the Titans—making him its starting quarterback. 

Atlanta Falcons RB Steven Jackson

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    David Goldman/Associated Press

    When the Atlanta Falcons signed running back Steven Jackson to a three-year, $12 million contract prior to last season, the expectation was that he'd bring toughness and reliability to the club's ground game.

    But things didn't go according to plan, as Jackson struggled to stay healthy (missing four games) and only rushed for 3.5 yards per carry. He finished the season ranked as Pro Football Focus' (subscription required) 35th-best running back.

    While Jackson currently remains atop the Falcons depth chart, it wouldn't be a surprise to see his job usurped by fourth-round rookie Devonta Freeman, who has turned heads in OTAs. That would surely spell the end of Jackson's time in Atlanta.

    But more importantly for Jackson, 2014 could represent his last legitimate shot at being the starting running back for an NFL team. He will turn 31 later this month and has clearly lost a step, so if he cannot reach his old level of play, this could prove to be his NFL swan song.

    This season, Jackson is not only playing to extend his career in Atlanta but his NFL employment as a whole. 

Buffalo Bills RB C.J. Spiller

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    Brian Blanco/Associated Press

    Earlier this offseason, I wrote that Buffalo Bills running back C.J. Spiller could potentially be the next running back to receive a big-money contract.

    In order for that to happen, he'll have to fulfill his massive potential and dazzle this upcoming season.

    Spiller has shown flashes of brilliance in his four years in Western New York, averaging 5.1 yards per carry. He dominated in 2012, averaging 6.0 yards per carry, but a nagging ankle injury sapped his speed and playmaking ability last season, as he only gained 933 yards on the ground.

    Even if Spiller doesn't reach his 2012 level of play, he'll still be signed by an NFL team and play a role in 2015 and beyond. He possesses electrifying speed and is a threat to score every time he touches the football.

    But if Spiller can finally put it all together and author a monster campaign, he stands to break the bank in a major way next offseason. A lot of money rides on his ability to put it all together and reach his potential.

Indianapolis Colts RB Trent Richardson

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    AJ Mast/Associated Press

    It's hard to believe that just two years ago, running back Trent Richardson was selected by the Cleveland Browns with the third overall selection of the 2012 draft. It's almost unheard of for a player's stock to drop in such a precipitous manner, but that's exactly what's happened to Richardson.

    After being traded to the Indianapolis Colts following only two games last season, Richardson was atrocious at best and cut-worthy at worst, averaging only 2.9 yards per carry. He would run straight into opposing defenders with the vigor of an overmatched teen chasing the prom queen, drawing the ire of Colts fans and fantasy football players across the nation.

    He hit rock bottom in the postseason, where he carried the ball a grand total of four times for one yard in two games. 

    Ask yourself this question: If you were given four carries behind an NFL offensive line, could you have done better than Richardson's one yard?

    Now, Richardson enters the 2014 season needing a sterling performance to resuscitate his faltering career. He's under contract for the next two seasons, and the club did give up a first-round selection in this past May's draft to acquire him, so it's unlikely that he'll be cut even if he plays poorly, but don't get it twisted: If Richardson is to have any type of significant role in 2015, he must play better this fall.

    If he doesn't, there's a very good chance he'll be labeled a bust and won't ever get another legitimate shot to prove that he can succeed at the NFL level.

Indianapolis Colts WR Hakeem Nicks

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    Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

    Thanks to a horrendous 2013 season, former New York Giants and current Indianapolis Colts receiver Hakeem Nicks lost out on a significant amount of greenbacks.

    A similar performance in 2014 would ensure he never receives the type of payday he surely desires.

    Nicks was an abject disaster last year for the Giants. He failed to develop any type of chemistry with quarterback Eli Manning, an astounding feat when you consider that 2013 was their fifth season together, and he failed to haul in a single touchdown reception.

    Nicks finished the campaign ranked as Pro Football Focus' 69th-best receiver, coming in behind luminaries such as the Minnesota Vikings' Jarius Wright, Oakland Raiders' Andre Holmes and Atlanta Falcons' Drew Davis.

    Because 2013 was so putrid, Nicks only received a one-year, $3.5 million contract in free agency and signed with the Colts. But he has a major opportunity to put himself back on the market next year in better standing.

    If Nicks can establish a rapport with Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, it's feasible that he could flash the form that made him one of the NFL's best young receivers. A sterling 2014 would surely earn Nicks a sizable contract next offseason.

    But if he lays another Humpty Dumpty-sized egg, Nicks can forget about cashing in.

New York Giants DE Jason Pierre-Paul

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    Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

    A few years ago, it seemed inevitable that New York Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul would be the recipient of a massive contract extension that would keep him in Gotham for the foreseeable future.

    But a few lackluster seasons have dulled that train of thought, and Pierre-Paul's economic future largely rests on his 2014 performance.

    In 2011, Pierre-Paul's second season, he accrued 16.5 sacks and was dominant in Big Blue's run to the Lombardi Trophy. And when the dust settled on Super Bowl XLVI, he appeared earmarked for the title of best young pass-rusher in the NFL.

    2012 (6.5 sacks) and 2013 (two sacks) were a different story, though, as Pierre-Paul didn't look like the same player. And last season was a calamity, as he battled a shoulder malady and only managed the two quarterback takedowns.

    Despite the two rough seasons, Pierre-Paul still has a major opportunity to cash in. If he returns to his 2011 level of form, he will break the bank next offseason. He's only 25 years old, and there's a lot of football still in front of him.

    But if he fails to sparkle, his Giants career could be over, and he won't find the money he's hoping for.

Dallas Cowboys CB Morris Claiborne

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    When the Dallas Cowboys traded up in the 2012 draft to select cornerback Morris Claiborne, it appeared all but certain that he would be the NFL's next great player at the position.

    Fast-forward two years, and not only has Claiborne not ascended into the rarefied air occupied by players like the Seattle Seahawks' Richard Sherman and New England Patriots' Darrelle Revis, but he's failed to make much of an impact at all. He finished 2013 as Pro Football Focus' 90th-ranked cornerback and has managed only two interceptions in his two seasons. 

    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. Just typing that made my body ache.

    2014 could (and should) be Claiborne's last shot to prove to the Cowboys that he's worthy of his draft status. Dallas is coming off a season in which it possessed the league's worst defense, and if the unit is to be improved, it stands to reason that Claiborne must play better.

    If Claiborne continues to struggle, his stock and reputation will take an enormous nosedive, and he'll move much closer to the dreaded "bust" distinction. And it's possible that the Cowboys won't be willing to wait any longer for him to realize the potential that made him the sixth overall pick in 2012's draft.