Every year, the NFL season produces standout performances and miracle seasons. Thanks to a variety of reasons, professional football also provides the year with unpredictable outcomes. It's one of the main reasons why fans love the NFL so much. They never know what "Any Given Sunday," Monday or Thursday will present.
For example, the 2015 Dallas Cowboys were the odds on favorite to represent the NFC in Super Bowl 50. However, injuries to their two most explosive offensive playmakers caused the Cowboys look like a shell of the 2014 team. Basically, the season was over before it got started.
As for the individual players, they all believe it's time to have a breakout season. Some players are coming off of career years, and feel they are ready recreate the prior season. Unfortunately, the NFL doesn't work that way. Between injuries, suspensions, system changes and a lack of commitment to excellence, players won't have the same impact. Sometimes, playing for a new contract is a motivating factor, while receiving that new contract is the reason for a down year. Although stats hardly tell the whole story of a players' season, lack of production will jump off the page at season's end.
Here are 15 star players that most certainly will have down years in the NFL.
14 Martellus Bennett
After a slow start to his career, Martellus Bennett has taken the NFL by storm the past four seasons. In 2014, Bennett caught a career high 90 passes for the Chicago Bears. He only caught 53 passes last season. However, the decreased production was due to the 11 games Bennett played. Otherwise, he would have been a bigger part of the offense. With a change of scenery, comes a change in philosophy.
Bennett joined the New England Patriots via trade. The possibilities with Rob Gronkowski are endless, but there may be some pitfalls during the "Bennett experiment." Since joining the New York Giants in 2012, Bennett has been targeted at least 80 times in each season. His 53 receptions were the lowest total. Unfortunately, the Patriots haven't always utilized both tight ends to the fullest extent.
The last two seasons, the second string tight end for the New England Patriots have combined to catch 49 passes. That means there is a better chance for Bennett to catch 25 passes than there is for him to reach 53 receptions in 2016. In addition, Tom Brady will be suspended for the first four games.
13 Doug Martin
How great was Doug Martin in 2015? Well, the former Boise State standout had his best season in his four-year career. Martin, affectionately known as the "Muscle Hamster," rushed for 1,402 yards and six touchdowns. He was second in the NFL behind Adrian Peterson. His ability to back up his stellar season will be the key to the rest of his career.
As a rookie, Martin ran for a career high 1,454 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2012. However, Martin didn't combine for a thousand rushing yards during the 2013-14 seasons. In addition, he averaged below 4.0 yards per carry in those seasons. During his productive years, Martin averaged over 4.6 yards per carry. Conveniently, Martin returned to form in a contract year. He was rewarded with a five-year $35.75 million contract, with $15 million guaranteed. But will Martin continue to show the Tampa Bay Buccaneers a motivated running back? We should know early on if he's ready to be a superior NFL running back. Injuries may also play a factor. Martin only played in 17 games during those down years. However, he started all 32 games in his two best seasons.
12 Brandon Marshall
When you mention the top receivers in the NFL, players like Julio Jones, Antonio Brown and DeAndre Hopkins come to mind. However, Brandon Marshall is well within is right to be named as one of the best receivers in the NFL. During his first season with the New York Jets, Marshall caught 109 passes for 1,502 yards. He averaged 13.8 yards per reception just like Jones. Despite not being known as a deep threat, Marshall's 69 yard catch was longer than Hopkins' and Brown's season high. He also tied for the NFL lead with 14 touchdowns receptions.
Now all Marshall has to do is repeat this performance. This will be easier said than done. First of all, Marshall plays for the Jets. Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick had a career season in 2015, and will be hard pressed to repeat that performance. Even if the Jets are running through opponents, they might spread the ball around more than last season. So far, the preseason has displayed quite a few offensive weapons for gang green. Certainly, Marshall will take a playoff berth over a historic performance. Maybe he can have his cake and eat it too. In three of the last four seasons, Marshall has surpassed the 100-catch mark.
11 Matt Ryan
Matt Ryan was in line to be the next great quarterback in the NFL. From 2008-12, Ryan grew into greatness. He finished that 2012 season with 32 touchdowns as 14 interceptions. Ryan also led the Atlanta Falcons to a 13-3 season, and they seemed like NFC contenders for years to come. Since then, Ryan and the Falcons have regressed. On the surface, it looks like the franchise hit rock bottom in 2013 with a 4-8 record. However, last season's 8-8 record is demoralizing. The Falcons started the season with five straight wins. They only won two more games after Halloween.
Ryan threw 21 touchdowns and 16 interceptions in 2015. Yet, he was fifth in passing yards with 4,591. Interestingly enough, three of the top five passers didn't make the playoffs. If Ryan is able to curtail the interceptions, he would get back on the right track. But that's a big if. Ryan has one NFL season with single digit interceptions.
10 Chandler Jones
Chandler Jones had a career season with the New England Patriots in 2015. He posted 12.5 sacks and an interception, while helping lead the Patriots to the AFC East title. However, the Patriots traded the standout linebacker to the Arizona Cardinals in the offseason. Jones is a much needed addition to the Cardinals' front seven. In 2015, the Cardinals were the no. 5 defense, giving up 321 yards per game. They were also in the top 10 of scoring defense at 19.6 points per game. However, they lacked some explosive plays from the outside pass rush last season. For example, Dwight Freeney led the defense with eight sacks in only 11 appearances. As a team, the Cardinals only created 35 sacks. Yet, they were in position to make plays most of the season.
How big will Jones' impact be on a defense that makes solid plays? Jones will be critical to their pass rush. However, he has the ability to play in space. Jones' production comes down to how the coaching staff uses him. Therefore, Jones may only reach double digit sacks and not surpass his career high.
9 Darren McFadden
In eight NFL seasons, Darren McFadden has reached double digit touchdowns once. Despite only scoring three touchdowns last season, McFadden resurrected his career with the Dallas Cowboys. He ran for 1,089 yards in 10 starts. More importantly, McFadden averaged 4.6 yards per carry in 2015. Yet, the veteran running back could become the odd man out in the Cowboys' backfield. McFadden suffered an injured elbow over Memorial Day Weekend, leaving the start of his season in jeopardy.
Fortunately, the Cowboys selected Ezekiel Elliott with the no. 4 pick in the first round. After a smidgen of action in the third preseason game, the Cowboys are truly enamored with what Elliott can do on the field. In fact, Elliott has as much promise as McFadden did when he was drafted in 2008. The Cowboys also have Alfred Morris in the backfield. Right now, the Cowboys' backfield looks solidified with the two backs, but they'll be the deepest unit in the NFL when McFadden returns from injury. Barring some unforeseen circumstances, McFadden will be the last of the three running backs to reach the 1,000 yard mark in 2016.
8 Josh Norman
The super hero junkie has talked a great game over the last two seasons. Although many people didn't notice Josh Norman's performance in 2014, he made sure to let the NFL know of his continued emergence in 2015. The fifth year cornerback signed a huge deal with the Washington Redskins after a stellar tenure in Carolina. Norman amassed a career high four interceptions last season and ran two back for touchdowns. He also forced three fumbles during the Panthers Super Bowl losing season. Yet, Norman wasn't part of the Panthers' plans going forward. It could be a move that backfires for both parties. Norman signed a five-year $75 million deal.
As the no. 1 corner in Washington, Norman has to contend with Dez Bryant, and Odell Beckham Jr. twice a year. His performance will be heavily scrutinized by opponents and media alike. Certainly, Norman won't have to worry about quarterbacks shying away from his side of the field.
7 Le'Veon Bell
First of all, players need to be on the field to make a difference. Between injuries and suspensions, Le'Veon Bell has missed the most critical moments for the Pittsburgh Steelers. The last two seasons, the Steelers seemed like Super Bowl contenders, yet Bell was missed the postseason with knee injuries. Otherwise, he's been the best running back in the world.
Unfortunately, the Steelers have to wait on Bell to return to the field. The fourth year running back made his first appearance since the season-ending injury. He felt great, but there will be more time to rest his legs. Bell must serve a three game suspension at the start of the season. Originally, he received a four-game ban, but the reduction will have Bell back for the instate rivalry against the Philadelphia Eagles. If he's able to return to form quickly, Bell should be in contention for NFL MVP. However, Bell's greatness will only be measured by what he can do in the postseason. Hopefully, the three game suspension won't cost the Steelers a playoff spot.
6 Ryan Tannehill
Ryan Tannehill looks the part. His mobility and arm strength look the part. Even his durability looks the part. He hasn't missed a start in four NFL seasons. So, why is it so difficult for Tannehill to lead the Miami Dolphins to a postseason berth? Maybe it's because Tannehill is still a young quarterback mentally. Remember, Tannehill started his college career at Texas A&M as a wide receiver. During his first two seasons with the Aggies, Tannehill threw nine passes. Meanwhile, he caught 99 passes for 1,449 yards and nine touchdowns.
Yet, once Tannehill became a full time quarterback, he showed enough promise to become an NFL prospect. Overall, his numbers aren't bad. In four seasons, he has 80 touchdown passes and 54 interceptions. In addition, Tannehill has thrown for over 4,000 yards the past two seasons. However, his stats haven't amounted to elite seasons. So far, Tannehill is 29-35 as a starting quarterback with zero playoff appearances. Still, each year is supposed to the be year for the Dolphins. With Tom Brady serving a four-game suspension to start the season, Tannehill and the Dolphins have their best chance to earn a playoff spot. Or else those numbers mean nothing.
5 Carson Palmer
For the past three seasons, Carson Palmer has been playing the best football of his career. He's posted a 29-9 record with the Cardinals, while winning 19 of his last 22 regular season starts. However, Palmer and the Cardinals imploded during the 2016 NFC Championship game. He threw four interceptions, leaving the Cardinals stunned in a 49-15 loss to the Carolina Panthers. Now Palmer is looking to get the Cardinals back to the top of the NFC West, but it won't be easy.
Palmer threw a career high 35 touchdowns last season. It was only the second time he surpassed the 30 touchdown mark in a single season. Palmer also only threw 11 interceptions in 2015. He was also the no. 4 in NFL passing yards. Will he be able to duplicate this performance? Maybe. But he doesn't have to for the Cardinals to be successful. Second-year running back David Johnson should be able to take some of the load off of Palmer in the regular season. Johnson amassed 581 rushing yards and eight touchdowns in five starts, so the offense may look to rely on the young running back. As for Palmer, his numbers might look disappointing, but there's no reason for the season to be a mess. The Cardinals look like Super Bowl contenders. They also look like a team that can beat opponents in a variety of ways.
4 Kirk Cousins
Kirk Cousins' three touchdown performance in Week 3 of the 2016 NFL preseason has me rethinking this position. However, opponents of the Washington Redskins might be screaming "you like that" more often this season. Is Cousins going to complete a high percentage? Certainly. Last year, Cousins led all starting quarterbacks, completing 69.8 percent of his passes. He added 29 touchdowns passes and only 11 interceptions. But the schedule is unrelenting in 2016.
The Redskins play games against the NFC North and AFC North. They also have a road date against the Arizona Cardinals. However, the schedule just got a little easier with the back injury to Tony Romo. The Redskins made the playoffs with a 9-7 record in 2015, and it doesn't seem like a record that will win the NFC East in 2016. Therefore, Cousins has to be on his game. Otherwise, the Redskins maybe looking for a new quarterback next season.
3 Tom Brady
Conventional wisdom states that Tom Brady and the New England Patriots are going to decimate the NFL in 2016. First of all, Brady is upset about his four-game suspension. Second, the Patriots play in the historically weak AFC East, so winning the division hasn't been tough at all. However, the season won't be easy this year. Since 2009, the Patriots have lost three or more games in six of the last seven seasons. In fact, Brady has finished with a 12-4 record over the last four years. If people are expecting Brady to take a month off at the beginning of the season and win the final 12 games of the regular season, good luck.
Brady completed 64 percent of his passes last season. He also threw 36 touchdown passes and seven interceptions. Will the rust cause Brady's numbers to plummet? He will need three touchdown passes per game to reach 36. Brady will be lucky if he throws 28 touchdown passes in 2016.
2 Sam Bradford
The Philadelphia Eagles selected their future quarterback with the second pick of the 2016 NFL draft. As soon as the move was made, Sam Bradford was already looking elsewhere to play. After every NFL franchise passed on trading for Bradford, he was stuck in Philadelphia for his second his. However, Bradford still has a chance to win the starting quarterback job. Due to Carson Wentz' inability to remain healthy, Bradford has a chance to solidify the quarterback position in the preseason. Depending on how he plays, Bradford can become the hottest commodity. However, injuries have always been the main culprit. Bradford has not been able to play full 16 game seasons in consecutive years.
Last season, he played in 14 games, and ended the year on a high note. Bradford managed a career high in completion percentage (65) and yards (3725). But what will he do for an encore season in Philadelphia? The NFC East can be up for grabs with another solid season. However, history tells us that Bradford won't last in 2016.
2. J.J. Watt
There's only one reason why J.J. Watt is on this list. The injury concerns are the real deal. Watt had back surgery in July, and hasn't returned to the practice field yet. With only two preseason games left on the schedule, the Houston Texans plan to have Watt on the field next week. However, there's a chance he still doesn't see game action until Week 2. If that's the case, Watt will have to work into game shape on the fly.
The Texans are expected to have a dynamite defense with or without Watt. Yet, he is still the player that jumps off the page on the defensive line. In 2015, he led the NFL with 17.5 sacks, while forcing three fumbles. Surprisingly, Watt didn't record a sack in six games. He also accounted for 76 tackles. In five seasons, Watt already has 74.5 sacks, including 20.5 sacks in the 2012 and 2014 seasons respectively. It will be a miracle if he reaches those numbers this season. However, Watt doesn't have to be a stat sheet monster for the Texans. It's more important for him to be ready for the stretch run and NFL playoffs. The Texans still have Whitney Mercilus and an emerging Jadeveon Clowney to fill the void.
1 Tony Romo
Tony Romo's career might be over with the Dallas Cowboys. After missing the majority of the 2015 season, Romo was eager to get back to action this season. He lasted three plays in the preseason. Romo broke a bone in his back and will miss the next 6-10 weeks to start the season. The Cowboys were already excited about Dak Prescott's progress as a rookie, but they didn't have him starting the season opener. If Prescott flourishes in the first month of the season, it may be time to move on from the Romo era. Keep in mind, Romo is 15-4 in his last 19 starts. Unfortunately, only four of those starts came last season. Has America's Team become Dak Prescott's team? At least Romo is scheduled to come back by mid-season at the latest. However, his return to the lineup in 2015, didn't pan out. If you were wondering, Romo was on this list prior to the back injury.
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