It can happen to any NFL player at any time. Whether it be age, a new offensive or defensive system or simply a change in finances that snuffs out the fire, statistical drop offs happen every single season. Injuries can be a huge hamper to performance, but so can additions to the depth chart. A starter can suddenly be marginalized by a younger, better player that usually costs a lot less to keep on the roster
It certainly happened last season, with Adrian Peterson finally wearing out his welcome with the Minnesota Vikings, Ryan Fitzpatrick fitzing up his future with the New York Jets and Tony Romo barely play a few downs of regular season NFL football at all. Did you take Jeremy Langford early in your fantasy draft only to see his carries go to rookie Jordan Howard? Cam Newton came into the 2016 season as Superman and ended it as Bizarro.
It's why depth at every position is so important. It's also why teams that don't plan ahead to that next era are usually so quick to fall to Earth. A team not only needs the guy at a particular position, they also need the next guy in case the star goes down, flubs up or just gets fat, old and lazy. So, with that, here are my picks for 15 NFL players who will definitely decline this season.
15 CARSON PALMER, QB, ARIZONA CARDINALS
Carson Palmer is entering his 14th year in the league and his fifth season with the Arizona Cardinals. Just three seasons ago he tore up his knee in game six and missed the rest of the season. A year later he had Arizona on the cusp of a Super Bowl berth, only to choke away their chances in the NFC Championship. If not for the heroics of Larry Fitzgerald, one of the best postseason players in NFL history and a first ballot Hall of Famer, Palmer wouldn't have even made it that far.
The truth is, playoff Carson Palmer is the real Carson Palmer. Not counting his first postseason start, where he got knocked out of the game with a knee injury on his first pass attempt, Palmer is 1-2. Last season the Cardinals, who many pundits picked to make Super Bowl LI, instead finished 6-8-1. Palmer still had solid statistics, but his touchdowns were down and his interceptions were up. Expect more of the same this season.
14 EZEKIEL ELLIOTT, RB, DALLAS COWBOYS
Ezekiel Elliott was nothing short of phenomenal his rookie season. Elliott led the league in carries with 322 and yards with 1,631, adding 15 touchdowns to earn himself an Offensive Rookie of the Year trophy. He was electric, exciting and superb. There's no way it's going to happen again.
First off, history is against Elliott. Not since LaDainian Tomlinson did it in 2006 and 2007 has a player led the league in rushing yards in back-to-back seasons. In fact, since Barry Sanders and Emmett Smith retired, it's only happened twice. Tomlinson did it once and former Indianapolis Colts running back Edgerrin James did it in 1999 and 2000. There have been guys that have led the league multiple times, but never in consecutive seasons.
But there's another reason Elliott probably won't pile up 1,600 yards in 2017. It looks like he probably won't be playing 16 games. Regardless of how Elliott's legal issues and domestic violence allegations have played out in the courts, the NFL has run its own "investigation" and the word is they're planning a suspension for the superstar back. He could miss anywhere from one to four games.
13 KIRK COUSINS, QB, WASHINGTON REDSKINS
Kirk Cousins has put together two consecutive elite seasons as the quarterback of the Washington Redskins. There's a good chance it's all about to fall apart.
First off, the offense Cousins ran so well has taken its talents to Hollywood. Former offensive coordinator Sean McVay is now the head coach of the Los Angeles Rams, trying to turn Jared Goff into the next Kirk Cousins. Back in Washington, the Redskins have replaced one of the most innovative offensive minds in the game with former quarterbacks coach Matt Cavanaugh. Cavanaugh has been an offensive coordinator three times before at the NFL level. Cavanaugh did win a Super Bowl ring as the offensive coordinator for the 2000 Baltimore Ravens, but that was hardly an offensive powerhouse. The truth is, Cavanaugh has been fired or forced to resign from his last two OC positions.
The Redskins did nothing to help Cousins in the passing game this off-season. With the exception of Jamison Crowder, Cousins will be working with a new or young and inexperienced receiver corps and there's a good chance All-Universe tight end Jordan Reed won't be healthy to start the season.
12 JONATHAN STEWART, RB, CAROLINA PANTHERS
On draft night back in April Jonathan Stewart watched his team pick his eventual replacement in rookie Christian McCaffrey. McCaffrey seems to be every Caucasian sportswriters favorite off-season story and you can see the joy bubbling out of their puffy faces as they list all the ways the running back out of Stanford will win offensive rookie of the year in 2017.
Meanwhile, Jonathan Stewart is still listed as the starter and there's no reason to believe he won't still hold that job at the beginning of the season. He just probably won't have it at the end. Stewart has just one 1,000 yard season to his credit back in 2009. Since then, when he's healthy, he hovers around 800 yards a season, but with his size he's still the touchdown man when the Panthers get into the red zone. He scored nine last season. McCaffrey is a completely different kind of back than Stewart and the Panthers have made it clear they plan to modernize the offense in order to protect Cam Newton this season. That means less touches for Stewart and, if McCaffrey stays healthy himself, an eventual phase out.
11 MARK INGRAM, RB, NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
For whatever reason, it took the Saints years to hand the starting job to Mark Ingram since picking him in the first round of the 2011 NFL Draft. Last year he rewarded them with his first 1,000 yard season, gaining 1,043 on just 205 carries and averaging 5.1 yards a carry. They then rewarded him by bringing in free agent Adrian Peterson.
As of today, Peterson is listed as the back up, but if the Saints can get 85 percent of what Peterson used to be, Ingram's carries are going to plummet. Just two years ago Peterson led the NFL with 1,485 yards and 11 touchdowns. The Saints even drafted rookie Alvin Kamara to use in the passing game, so there just may not be enough footballs for Ingram to do much more than watch all the excitement from the sidelines.
10 THOMAS RAWLS, RB, SEATTLE SEAHAWKS
Back in 2015 it looked like Thomas Rawls was the heir apparent to Marshawn Lynch, but an injury-riddled 2016 put that in doubt. So much doubt, in fact, that the Seahawks brought in free agent Eddie Lacy to take his job.
Rawls averaged 5.6 yards a carry back in 2015 and gained 830 yards and scored four touchdowns in seven starts. He appeared to be on that same trajectory last season before leg injuries ruined his year. Lacy's previous seasons were destroyed by too many trips to CiCi's Pizza Buffet, but the former rotund back has renewed his dedication to his waistline thanks to multiple contract incentives. Lacy had back-to-back 1,000-plus yard seasons to begin his career and it's a safe bet the Seahawks are counting on a third this year. Rawls looks like he's returning to his back up duties.
9 DEMARCO MURRAY, RB, TENNESSEE TITANS
DeMarco Murray bounced back last season with the Tennessee Titans, regaining his old form by averaging 4.4 yards per carry on his way to 1,287 yards and nine touchdowns. He added 53 catches for 377 yards and three scores through the air. Murray is still a young guy and there's every reason to believe he's physically capable of the same kinds of numbers, especially if the Titans make a playoff push. There's just one problem; Murray isn't in the Titans' long term plans.
The future in Tennessee belongs to Derek Henry, the second-year runner out of Alabama. The Titans took Henry in the second round of last year's draft and used him plenty. He piled up 490 yards and five touchdowns, averaging 4.5 yards per carry as a rookie. This year, Henry will likely get even more of the workload and Murray will see his touches drop. When Murray signed his four-year, $25.25 million contract with the Titans last season it came with an out for the Tennessee team. They can cut him after this season with no cap penalty at all, saving $13 million over the 2018 and 2019 seasons. It's in their best financial interests to lean on Henry and prepare him for the starting role. He'll likely be the lone back next season and Murray will be back looking for a job.
8 DEANDRE HOPKINS, WR, HOUSTON TEXANS
DeAndre Hopkins was already coming off a down year, so it almost seems unfair that the Houston Texans are cursing him with another one. Last season Hopkins caught 78 passes for 954 yards and four touchdowns. Contrast that to 2015, where Hopkins had 111 grabs for 1,521 yards and 11 touchdowns. And that was all with Ryan Mallett and Bryan Hoyer trying to throw the ball.
Regardless of what head coach Bill O'Brien or anyone coming out of the Texans organization says, Tom Savage is not an NFL starting quarterback. Yet, O'Brien seems determined to plug him in there and sit first round pick Desean Watson. As long as Savage plays, and I figure it'll be around six games, Hopkins numbers will be down and stay down.
7 ALEX SMITH, QB, KANSAS CITY CHIEFS
Alex Smith has had an odd career. He's practically an old-school feel good movie waiting to happen if he ever wins a championship. Unfortunately, the Chiefs just moved that a litter further out of reach.
Smith will open this season with probably the worst starting group of wide receivers in his career. His best weapon will be, unquestionably, tight end Travis Kelce. As much love as your fantasy draft may have for Tyreek Hill, last season he was a slot and gadget player. There's nothing he did that proves he can replace Jeremy Maclin as a true, outside, every down wideout. Smith, who has never been a touchdown machine anyway, will have to find a way to move the ball with Hill, Chris Conley and Albert Wilson as his primary wide receiver targets and not one of them has been in the league longer than three years.
6 JEREMY HILL, RB, CINCINNATI BENGALS
Jeremy Hill has been the featured back in Cincinnati since the team drafted him in the second round out of LSU back in 2014. He's been a touchdown factory, scoring 29 in just three seasons, but over the last two his average per carry has been 3.8 yards a touch or worse.
Enter rookie Joe Mixon out of Oklahoma who will probably steal Hill's job before October. The Bengals have run a two-back rotation with Hill and Geovani Bernard for the last few years, with Bernard serving as the pass-catching and third-down back. Mixon can do both jobs better than Hill or Bernard. As soon as he gets the pass protections down, he'll be handed the keys. Hill is already slated to be a free agent at the end of the season, so there's no incentive not to feature Mixon sooner rather than later.
5 LORENZO ALEXANDER, OLB, BUFFALO BILLS
Lorenzo Alexander came out of nowhere last season to record 64 tackles and 12.5 sacks for the Bills. When I say nowhere, I'm not kidding. Alexander has been a journeyman linebacker since the Washington Redskins signed him as an undrafted free agent in 2007. He wasn't even linebacker then. He was a tight end.
Alexander spent six seasons in Washington and started a total of 13 games, one as a tight end and 12 as an outside linebacker. After that he floated around with the Arizona Cardinals and Oakland Raiders before landing as a free agent with the Bills last season. To call 2016 a career year for Alexander would be an understatement. He matched his total career starts in one season and surpassed his career sack total by 4.5 sacks. All this happened in Alexander's 10th year in the league.
There were plenty of off-season shake ups in Buffalo, with a new head coach, Sean McDermott, that will be switching the team from the Rex Ryan 3-4 defense that Alexander flourished in, to a standard 4-3 like McDermott ran in Carolina. Alexander is 6-2 and 275 and will now be expected to cover running backs out of the backfield and tight ends down the seam. It's going to get ugly.
4 CALAIS CAMPBELL, DE, JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS
Calais Campbell has spent his entire career in Arizona before switching it up here in his 10th season. He joined the Jacksonville Jaguars as a free agent and will be lined up at defensive end. That's right, the Jaguars are putting a 6-foot-8, 282-pound guy at defensive end.
Like Alexander, Campbell is going to be the victim of a bad scheme fit. For most of the elite years of his career he's been a 3-4 defensive tackle. If the Jagaurs were keeping him on the inside, everything would be fine, but they're already loaded at defensive tackle with Malik Jackson and Sheldon day. Converting a power inside guy like Campbell to an edge rusher seems like a move that's not going to work out for anybody.
3 MATT FORTE, RB, NEW YORK JETS
Matt Forte somehow survived the New York Jets' off-season purge, as of this writing. That could all change during the preseason and training camp as the Jets have made no secret of their desire to tank the 2017 season and play for the 2018 No. 1 pick. Forte isn't just the Jets' best weapon left on the team, he's the only weapon.
It's been two years since Forte posted a 1,000 yard rushing season, but he had a solid year with the Jets. He scored eight touchdowns and gained 1,076 yards from scrimmage. If you picked Forte late in your fantasy draft, like I did, you were probably pretty happy with him.
So why will Forte be worse this season? It's because I'm not sure how much the Jets will use him. They excuse they've given for their tank job is to go young. If they want to go young, they'll marginalize Forte go with Bilal Powell full time. They already started making that move last year. Powell started four games and averaged 5.5 yards per carry, tallying up 722 yards and three touchdowns.
2 MATT RYAN, QB, ATLANTA FALCONS
Last season Matt Ryan led one of the most prolific offenses in NFL history and if he and the team hadn't choked away a 28-3 lead in the Super Bowl, he wouldn't be on this list. But he did and they did and, whether you want to believe it or not, the Super Bowl hangover is real.
Not only will the Falcons be dealing with their own psychological issues, Ryan had his offensive coordinator stripped away from him by the San Francisco 49ers. Kyle Shanahan, the innovative playcaller who obviously suffered a head injury in the second half of the Super Bowl will be replaced by professional alcoholic Steve Sarkisian. If Sarkisian's name sounds familiar, he's the guy that lost the College Football Playoff National Championship game as Alabama's offensive coordinator. Before that, he was fired for showing up drunk for about a year as head coach at USC. Is there any way Sarkisian, between Jello shots, can design the same kind of plays that Shanahan did? Not unless they're written on the back of a Jagermeister bottle.
1 TOM BRADY, QB, NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
I know what you're thinking and you're exactly right. Tom Brady has ended the argument on who is currently the greatest quarterback to ever play the game and finally silenced all the DeflateGate and SpyGate talk for good. Why, then, would I put Brady on this list?
It's simple. He's turning 40 this season and as good as Brady has been, and as good as he's been to his body, he can't beat Father Time. Quarterbacks don't just gradually get bad like players at other positions. The quarterback has to do too much, process every piece of information on the field and have his body react accordingly. It's why it's the hardest job in all of sports and why, though there are 32 NFL teams, there are not 32 NFL-level starting quarterbacks.
Because of everything required for the position, quarterbacks just fall off a cliff. If a guy plays one extra year too long, his talent and capability just seems to evaporate. Look no further than Brady's old nemesis Peyton Manning. In 2014 Manning was his old self, completing 66.2 percent of his passes for 4,727 yards and 38 touchdowns with 17 picks. The year before that, Manning set a new NFL record, throwing 55 touchdowns in the regular season. In 2015, Manning was awful. He tossed just nine touchdowns and threw 17 interceptions. He completed just 59.8 percent of his passes, two things that hadn't happened since his rookie season. His body was gone and at one point he was even benched for Brock Osweiler. All it took was on extra off-season.
The same thing happened to Brett Favre. In 2009, he led the Minnesota Vikings to a 12-4 record, completed 68.4 percent of his passes for 4,202 yards, 33 touchdowns and a career low seven interceptions. It was arguably Favre's finest regular season. One year later he went 5-8 as a starter, completed 60.6 percent of his passes for 2,509 yards, 11 touchdowns and 19 interceptions. It was over.
Bill Belichick knows all this. It's why he didn't entertain any trade offers for back up quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. It's why he, for the first time, has pumped so much new talent into the team via free agency. Tom Brady is heading for a cliff. This could be the year he goes over it.