The NFL has always been a cutthroat league that is short on second chances. It is not uncommon for a career to last just a couple of years or less, and a spot on any given team, except for the game's elite, is never guaranteed. With every new season, there is always a plethora of players that are on the brink of becoming consistent, reliable starters but need one more season of productivity to prove it.
The situation is the same for the upcoming 2016 campaign. There are a host of players who will be looking to establish continuity with their current team and need some statistical marvels to plead their case. In most cases, these players had one good year or so, showing flashes of brilliance, but more of a sample size is needed to determine whether they will be able to produce consistently, year in and year out. Different coaches, schemes and teammates may make each of them slightly different, but they're all vying for the same goal: to become a perennial starter in the NFL, ensuring that they belong with the best the sport has to offer.
Ranked below are 15 NFL players who will need to prove themselves this upcoming season.
29 Lamar Miller
Miller put together some solid seasons in Miami, but he'll be looking to establish himself as an elite RB in Houston this upcoming season. He was given a hefty contract, and figures to be taking the lions share of the carries in the Texans' backfield. Even with all the turmoil going on with the Dolphins coaching staff last season, he still managed an impressive 4.5 YPC, with a total of nearly 900 yards on the ground. Perhaps the biggest improvement to his game, was his pass-catching ability; with 397 yards receiving on 47 receptions. If he can forge both of these skills in Houston, he will provide them with a reliable RB, that could end up as one of the game's best. At this point, it's about establishing consistency. Together with Pro Bowl-level WR DeAndre Hopkins, Miller could give the Texans are true dual threat in both the running and passing game, which could spearhead one of the best offenses in the league next season.
27 T.J. Yeldon
Though only entering his second season in the NFL, Yeldon needs to make an impression this year. With the frenzy of an offseason the Jaguars just had, there are now a lot of weapons on the offensive side of the ball, including the addition of RB Chris Ivory, who could push Yeldon back to a RB2 position. Yeldon showed flashes of excellence last season, but at 702 yards rushing, on just 4.1 YPC, his job is far from safe, and a slow start to the 2016 campaign could leave him in the just in Jacksonville's backfield. The Alabama product is going to need to show a great leap to fend off Ivory, and the amount of quality passing options (Allen Robinson, Allen Hurns), may not give head coach Gus Bradley the incentive to run the ball much in the first place. Look for Yeldon to make his mark in the first half of the year, or be relegated to a "change of pace" role.
25 Tyrod Taylor
In what was one of the most intriguing stories of the 2015 season, Taylor established himself as a quality starting QB for the Bills, after four seasons backing up Joe Flacco in Baltimore. Even more impressive, he did so in a Rex Ryan, run-based offense that usually mitigates QB play in general. Taylor's numbers--just over 3,000 yards, 20 TDs and six INTs--were hardly awe-inspiring, but consistent enough to pencil him in as the confirmed starter for this season. His ability to run the ball increases his value, and at a still-young 26, he very much has a chance to become a perennial starter in the league for years to come. While the Bills may not have a well-rounded passing offense, they do have an elite WR in Sammy Watkins, who could be a prime target for Taylor if he can stay healthy. This year will tell us a lot about Taylor, and how he fits in to the current spectrum of NFL QBs.
23 Melvin Gordon
Gordon was decidedly one of the league's biggest disappointments during his rookie season. The Wisconsin product only tallied, 641 yards at a poor 3.5 YPC clip, and registered zero TDs, despite playing in 14 games. That simply isn't good enough to remain an NFL starter. His saving grace may just be the fact that the Chargers don't have much in the way of a better option, and Gordon will likely be seeing the bulk of the carries in the backfield in the 2016 campaign. He should have plenty of space to make a mark, as the San Diego passing offense led by Philip Rivers should be effective as always, with multiple reliable receiving targets. They also have a pass-catching RB in Danny Woodhead, so Gordon just needs to be able to gut out the tough yards on the ground. He'll have his opportunity, but if he produces poorly again, the Chargers will be looking for other options.
21 Travis Benjamin
Moving over to the Chargers passing game, they added a quality free agent signing in Benjamin during the offseason. The 26-year-old WR had a breakout year for the Browns, tallying nearly 1,000 receiving yards, and snagging five TD passes. On top of that, he did it with anemically bad Cleveland QBs throwing to him, which only predicts to improve next season, with Philip Rivers slinging to him. Benjamin will have to establish consistency however, as the three seasons prior to 2015, he never had more than 314 receiving yards. He'll be competing with Keenan Allen and Stevie Johnson for targets, and while they aren't elite receivers, they have a more defined rapport with Rivers, and Benjamin will have to work his way into that mix. If he fails in San Diego, Benjamin may have run his course as an effective NFL receiver. This is his best chance to make it work, and he'll be an interesting player to watch as next season unfolds.
19 Andre Williams
There is a prime opportunity for Williams to take advantage of a shaky Giants backfield, that only currently includes the likes of aging veteran Rashad Jennings, pass-catching specialist Shane Vereen and rookie Paul Perkins. Williams hardly had a spectacular statistical season last year--3.3 YPC and 721 yards on the ground--but he did register seven TDs, and showed flashes of brilliance here and there. He's definitely the best RB option as it stands now, and the Giants will be able to stretch the field with an impressive corps of receivers featuring elite talent Odell Beckham, and the returning Victor Cruz. All in all, Williams has a chance to succeed here, and the Giants would be wise to adapt a power-running game that suits his style of play, in contrast to the high-flying, speed-based style of their current passing game. Williams will be able to get his licks, it's just a matter of putting it all together for the third-year pro.
17 Jamison Crowder
Crowder's efforts in his rookie campaign went largely unnoticed on a talented Redskins offense that featured the emergence of QB Kirk Cousins, but the Duke product certainly showed that he has real ability. He only totaled 604 receiving yards, but he had to compete with WRs Desean Jackson and Pierre Garcon, along with TE Jordan Reed, who also had a breakout season. Now, with rookie first-round pick Josh Doctson added into the mix, it's a bit difficult to see where Crowder fits in. He's likely to get his fair share of targets, as the Redskins running game is in question, and with Cousins' recent quality play, it is likely that head coach Jay Gruden will operate in a passing-minded system this year. It's likely that Crowder will be used in the slot, and if he can catch a nickel CB napping here and there, he could put up some big plays this season. He'll need to play well to prove he belongs in a talented Redskins receiving corps.
15 Carlos Hyde
Though Hyde has been somewhat of an enigma in the 49ers backfield, he's proven in sporadic games that he could be an elite RB. He's had a lackluster first two seasons overall, but given the whirlwind that has been the San Francisco coaching staff in that time, there's at least a somewhat legitimate reason for that. While new head coach Chip Kelly has shown his shortcomings, he at least provides some level of stability for the franchise, and will have his system firmly entrenched. Despite the talk about his system being an off-the-wall, progressive strategy, in reality it's really just to some degree, a run-first offense. Current Bills RB LeSean McCoy put up monster numbers in the same system, and Hyde has the raw ability to be able to replicate a similar performance. Particularly with a shaky QB situation, the 49ers will rely heavily on Hyde, who needs to show that he can cut it with the game's best in the backfield.
13 Marvin Jones
Signed to effectively replace the departed Calvin Johnson, Jones showed WR1 capabilities during his time with the Bengals. The trouble was, that he played in an offensethat had certified weapons such as A.J. Green, the burgeoning Tyler Eifert, as well as a pair of quality RBs in Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill. Because of the cluster of talent, Jones was essentially pigeonholed as the deep threat in the passing game for Cincinnati, and didn't really get to display all that he had to offer. In Detroit, he figures to be able to have a wider role in the offense, and though Matt Stafford is questionable at times, he definitely has the arm to deliver him the ball. This is Jones' chance to define himself as a true number one receiver, and put his mark on the Lions. He has big shoes to fill in Johnson's, but he's probably the best free agent option to do so, and could thrive in this passing offense.
11 Eddie Lacy
While he dominated in Green Bay during his first two seasons, scoring a combined 20 TDs and running for at least 1,000 yards in each, Lacy had a noted down year in 2015. Despite playing in 15 games, he notched only 758 yards, and his role seemed to give way to fellow RB James Starks midway through the season. Of course, the Packers also lost their best pass-catching threat in Jordy Nelson, and opposing defenses were more likely to stack the box against Lacy, with the perception that he was the next-most useful weapons on the offense. Lacy needs to have a rebound season to keep his starting job in the Packers' backfield, or else head coach Mike McCarthy will likely look for other options. Lacy's already proved that he can put up productive seasons, but this is undoubtedly his make-or-break season when it comes to his longevity in the league. Playing in a pass-heavy offense should help, but he can't afford a repeat of last season's deficiencies.
9 Jay Ajayi
There isn't much press currently on Ajayi, and rightfully so, given his lack of experience, but he seems to be the go-to option in a Dolphins backfield that doesn't really have any better options. With the absence of Lamar Miller, he has a golden opportunity to snag a perennial starting job, despite his lack of use last year, and become a reliable option to take some weight off of QB Ryan Tannehill and WR Jarvis Landry in the passing attack. He'll need to prove himself quickly however, as a head coach with an offensive mind like Adam Gase isn't likely to rest on a lack of productivity, just because it's the most convenient option. Overall, Ajayi is a real dark horse candidate to thrive in the spectrum of RBs this season. Gase's offensive prowess could give him an advantage, but it could just as easily limit his opportunity. All the chips are on the table for Ajayi to become a staple inthe Miami backfield this season.
7 Markus Wheaton
While the unfortunate news of WR Martavis Bryant's hiatus due to substance abuse is sad and troubling, it does undoubtedly give Wheaton a chance to overtake the role of the WR2 in Pittsburgh's offense. With opposing defenses needing to keep sharp watch on RB LeVeon Bell, and (attempt) to double up on receiving human-highlight-reel Antonio Brown, there will be plenty of chances for Wheaton to make his mark. He's had a couple of solid seasons in what was essentially a WR3 role, behind Brown and Bryant. It culminated into last year's efforts, where he snagged five TD receptions and average 17 yards per completion. Now, he's looking to prove that he's a quality compliment to one of the best receivers in the league, with the chance to expose plenty of single coverage in the upcoming season. One would think that head coach Mike Tomlin is aware of this, and will give Wheaton the opportunity to really have a breakout season. Without it, he may be relegated to the bottom end of any given receiving corps for the rest of his career.
5 Kelvin Benjamin
Benjamin was out of commission for all of last season, but a very impressive rookie campaign in 2014, signals real potential. Of course, he's rejoining a Panthers roster that nearly won the Super Bowl last season, featuring a career-defining season from one Cam Newton. The good news for Benjamin is that while the Panthers had a great offense last season as a whole, there wasn't a receiving option that stepped up to take away his presumed WR1 role in the offense. He's still far and away the best option that Carolina has in that regard, and now it's just a matter for Benjamin to stay healthy, and replicate his 2014 performance. With the elite player that Newton has turned into at QB, it shouldn't be too tall of an order, but the pressure is still on for Benjamin to become an elite passing option for the Panthers in the years to come.
3 Thomas Rawls
Rawls had an overlooked rookie season last year, averaging an absolutely stellar 5.6 YPC, and 830 yards in the 13 games he played in. With the retirement of RB Marshawn Lynch, Rawls has a golden opportunity to seal himself in as the go-to runner in the Seahawks offense. With the reliance that they had on Lynch, it puts Rawls in prime position to have a monster season this year, establishing himself as one of the best RBs in the game. He'll need to make the most of it however, as the Seahawks drafted C.J. Procise as well this year, and if Rawls has an unexpected poor start, he could be shifted in the backfield for more looks. As it stands now, Rawls is the bell cow RB, and will attempt to certify himself as the heir to Lynch's dominance in Seattle.
1 Brock Osweiler
In one of the most shocking free agent signings in the offseason, Osweiler inked a 4-year, $72 million deal with the Texans, in their attempt to put an end to the QB carousel that was beginning to become a burden on their franchise. There are a lot of questions surrounding this move, but in the current climate of the NFL, QB is king, and teams are rarely successful without a good one. Osweiler was solid in the eight games he played in Denver last season, though it's more than a little concerning that he wasn't able to unseat the ancient Peyton Manning, who had by far the worst season of his illustrious career in 2015. Yet, Osweiler was given ample opportunity, and couldn't come through with the starting job. Now, he's looking to keep a starting job with the Texans for the better part of the next ten years. Will he be able to do it? Well, a lot of it hinges on his performance next season. With a host of weapons such as DeAndre Hopkins at his disposal, there's really no excuse for failure.