Tomorrow is never promised today for players in the National Football League, no matter how big of a star a player is. One day a player can be on top of the world and the next he can be completely in the dumps. NFL starters have a huge amount of pressure on their shoulders to stay healthy and perform at a high level so they can keep their jobs and make a boatload of money.
But where there are starters there are backups who are hungry and willing to take whatever opportunity comes their way in order to get more playing time. It's what drives every single player in the NFL, day in and day out, making it a rat race to the top of the depth chart.
Injuries have always proven the biggest obstacle players face in keeping their respective jobs. Major injuries happen all the time and when a starting player is on the shelf for an extended period, the show must go on and the team is forced to find a replacement. Sometimes in those replacements there are quality players—or in more extreme cases, stars—that cost less to do the same job as well as the injured player can.
Whether it's a result of injuries, age or simply a lack of production, NFL players have multiple ways for their respective careers to take a nosedive as they walk the extremely thin line between being a star and a reserve. Let's take a look at some of the big names in the league today whose careers are on a downward trajectory.
15 Jamaal Charles, RB, Kansas City Chiefs
Charles has been the Chiefs' best offensive weapon for years now, but that has already begun to change. Charles suffered a torn ACL in 2015 and only played in five games, allowing running back Spencer Ware to emerge as a top back for KC.
In Charles' absence last season, Ware did a fantastic job filling the void with 403 yards rushing, six touchdowns and 5.6 yards per carry. Ware's great play has continued to start the 2016 campaign while Charles was unable to get healthy in time for the start of the season.
Even if Charles returns healthy and able, he will likely find himself in a committee with the younger back, ultimately leading to less touches and production than he has seen in quite some time. As long as Ware continues doing what he's doing, the 29-year-old back may find himself the odd man out.
14 Josh Norman, CB, Washington Redskins
Norman's elite play with the Panthers earned him the title as one of the league's best shutdown corners, but that still wasn't enough for Carolina to keep him after he hit free agency. Instead the Redskins signed Norman to bolster their ailing secondary and help make them a more well-rounded team. On the surface it looked like a good move; but Norman's success with Carolina was more a result of the system he was in.
While with the Panthers, Norman played with two of the better cover linebackers in Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, and a sensational defensive front as a whole. A combination like that would make any cornerback better, let alone one like Norman who had been a near non-factor in the league before 2015.
The Redskins don't have such luxuries on the defensive side of the ball and that fact will leave Norman vulnerable against the league's elite receivers. Need evidence? Just look at the much-anticipated Week 3 showdown with his arch-rival Odell Beckham Jr. of the New York Giants, who torched Norman for over 100 yards receiving when the two played head-to-head. It was a sign of things to come.
13 Darrelle Revis, CB, New York Jets
All the talk at the start of the 2016 season was about the downfall of Revis, who was routinely getting burnt by faster receiver for big plays. His former head coach, now Buffalo Bills head coach Rex Ryan, even suggested Revis was coming down from the top of the Mount Everest of cornerbacks in the league.
It's a far cry from the Revis Island we know and love. For years now we've seen Revis completely eliminating some of the leagues best receivers and he has certainly gotten his due credit for that ability from the football world.
However that isn't the same Revis we're seeing now and we shouldn't be surprised considering he's 31 years old and has had major knee surgery in his career. Revis is still better than your average corner out there, but that could also be a result of a solid defensive squad around him. We can only wonder how much worse it would be if his supporting cast wasn't as good.
12 Ryan Fitzpatrick, QB, New York Jets
Fitzpatrick and the Jets barely came to a contract agreement before the start of the 2016 season after the quarterback had a career year in 2015. Fitzpatrick took full advantage of all the offensive weapons around him after throwing for 3,905 yards and 31 touchdowns en route to a 10-win season.
Thanks to expectations running high following a 2015 campaign that saw Fitzpatrick post career-highs and a brutal schedule the first six weeks of 2016, Fitzpatrick and the Jets have nowhere to go but down from here. After all, the 33-year-old isn't getting any younger or better at this stage in his career. It's bad enough for the Jets to have the Patriots in their division and a tough schedule, but it's even worse if Fitzpatrick continues to play poorly like he has to start the season.
With his stock in the basement, Fitzpatrick will find himself back on the free agent market next offseason when the Jets succumb to their schedule and miss the playoffs again. With young quarterbacks like Bryce Petty and Christian Hackenberg sitting behind him, the Jets' future without Fitz is getting closer by the day.
11 Martavis Bryant, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers
There's no question Bryant is a talented young player who can make big plays with the best of them in the NFL. The only question is, can he stay out of trouble?
Bryant was suspended four games in 2015 for multiple violations of the league's substance abuse policy; however he was still able to record 765 yards and six touchdowns in 11 games. It's quite conceivable he could have broken 1,000 yards had he played a full season, and that's with one of the NFL's best receivers in Antonio Brown playing on the same offense.
Now Bryant is going to miss the entire 2016 season after once again violating the league's substance abuse policy, a bad turn of events for the Steelers. It'll be up to Bryant to keep himself ready for a 2017 return with an entire season to wait, although his consistently irresponsible behavior makes it difficult to believe he is mature enough to stay in top form.
10 Antonio Gates, TE, San Diego Chargers
Gates has always been an elite tight end during the course of his career as one of Philip Rivers' favorite targets. After drafting fellow tight end Hunter Henry in the second round in 2016, the Chargers may be on the verge of moving on from Gates.
That's not entirely surprising, of course. Gates is 36 years old and in the twilight years of his career, but 2016 will be the year he becomes completely irrelevant. That's quite a drop from 2015, when Gates still played like an elite tight end when he was healthy for 11 games.
Henry will no doubt have a chance to cut into Gates' production alone with the Chargers having a lot invested in the young tight end. Add that to the fact that Gates has already been dealing with an injury this season and it's clear to see that the writing is on the wall that Gates' days as a great tight end are over.
9. T.J. Yeldon, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jags drafted Yeldon in the second round of the 2015 NFL Draft to be their featured back to go along with a raw but talented passing attack.
Yeldon had a solid rookie season for the Jags with over 1,000 total yards and three touchdowns in 12 games, but that wasn't enough to stop the Jaguars from signing another running back in Chris Ivory. It kind of made you wonder what concerns the Jags had with Yeldon.
While Ivory was sidelined to start the 2016 season, Yeldon failed miserably at establishing himself as a lead back and it became clear why Jacksonville signed Ivory: Yeldon isn't very good and the team didn't trust him to handle any kind of workhorse role.
Ivory, the more experienced back, is a proven starter in this league and will undoubtedly take touches from Yeldon as long as he's healthy. At best, Yeldon will be part of a timeshare with Ivory around in 2016 and if his lackluster play continues, Yeldon will be relegated to backup duties and passing downs.
9 Ameer Abdullah, RB, Detroit Lions
Abdullah's first season in the NFL wasn't particularly impressive as the team's early-down back. The Lions' 2015 second-round pick averaged 4.2 yards per carry and had 780 yards of total offense with three touchdowns. After having a strong outing in Week 1 of the 2016 season, Abdullah suffered a foot injury that required surgery and could land on the shelf for the rest of this season.
In order to mend the fence, the Lions will deploy their normal pass-catching back Theo Riddick—who recently signed a new three-year deal in September—and rookie running back Dwayne Washington, who will handle the majority of the early-down work. These are two backs who aren't going anywhere anytime soon.
Washington has shown some promise and even head coach Jim Caldwell has heaped praise on the young running back because of his stature as a physical back with great athleticism. Washington can live up to that billing with the help of a surprisingly decent offensive line. Once that happens Abdullah will find himself in a committee and out of a starting job by the time he returns, whether this season or next. The Lions certainly could have done better with a second-round selection.
8 Alshon Jeffery, WR, Chicago Bears
Jeffery is as good as they come at the receiver position, but his supporting cast leaves a ton to be desired on a Bears team going nowhere. The Bears have been ravaged by injuries on the defensive side of the ball in 2016 and have the most inconsistent quarterback in the NFL at the helm of their offense in Jay Cutler.
Granted, Jeffery has had success with Cutler before; however the Bears have an awful offensive line, no Matt Forte and no Martellus Bennett. Sophomore receiver Kevin White has failed to establish himself in 2016 after missing all of 2015 due to injury, thus leaving Jeffery as the one target opposing defenses focus in on.
With decreased weapons comes increased attention on Jeffery, it'll be harder for him to find space to make plays and any injury to Cutler, who has already missed time this season with a thumb injury, would be Jeffery's death knell with backup quarterback and the face of mediocre Brian Hoyer waiting in the wings.
7 Todd Gurley, RB, Los Angeles Rams
Gurley burst onto the NFL scene in 2015 after missing the first three games of the season due to injury. Gurley quickly made up for lost time by rushing for 128 yards or more in four of his first five games, with three touchdowns.
Despite Gurley finishing with nearly 1,300 total yards and 10 touchdowns in what was an eye-popping rookie season, his production fell off a cliff the rest of the way. Gurley would only break the 100-yard mark once more as teams continually stacked the box against him.
That’s due in large part to an often stagnant Rams offense that has a mediocre offensive line and hasn’t had a solution at quarterback in years. The 2016 opening week starter, Case Keenum, is no better than a low-end backup quarterback, and 2016 no. 1 overall pick Jared Goff couldn't beat Keenum out for the starting job. Until the Rams can move the ball through the air via a quarterback with talent, Gurley won't have much room to run.
If that wasn't enough, there's more bad news. A change in leadership for the franchise isn't coming with head coach Jeff Fisher reportedly set to sign a contract extension. Hard to figure considering Fisher has a losing record with the Rams, without a single playoff appearance.
5 Blake Bortles, QB, Jacksonville Jaguars
Bortles' sophomore campaign led many to believe he was on the cusp of being a top quarterback in the NFL for years to come. The former no. 3 overall pick threw for 4,428 yards and 35 touchdowns as the head of a dynamic passing attack on the verge of being elite.
Fast forward to 2016 and Bortles looks like a different player despite having a very talented receiving corps made up of receivers Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns, as well as tight end Julius Thomas. The Jags, a team pegged to be a playoff squad in the AFC by some this season, have come out of the gates incredibly sluggish and Bortles has been a turnover machine.
Thanks to Bortles, the Jags are looking like the same old Jags and the only thing the 24-year-old signal-caller is on the cusp of is being a major disappointment.
4 Adrian Peterson, RB, Minnesota Vikings
Peterson is a first-ballot Hall of Fame player and one of the best running backs to ever play in the NFL; however his time as an elite player is quickly coming to an end.
Peterson has now suffered multiple major knee injuries during his career, with his latest coming in Week 2 of the 2016 season that will sideline him for a minimum of eight weeks and likely longer than that. Now that Peterson is no longer a spring chicken at the age of 31, it’s very likely this will be his most difficult rehab yet and very difficult to come back from.
Peterson will undoubtedly lose a step at his age, making him just another running back in the league. The Vikings are on the rise and have a bright future ahead of them, so an aging, expensive running back like Peterson may not be in their plans for much longer if he refuses to restructure his contract after this season.
3 Tony Romo, QB, Dallas Cowboys
Romo’s brittle frame is enough to put him on this list, but that isn’t his only problem at this late stage in his career. For once, Romo actually has some competition to worry about.
The 36-year-old signal-caller suffered another serious back injury during the 2016 preseason, leaving him on the shelf for at least the first six weeks. This comes one season after Romo played in just four games in 2015, also because of a back injury.
Add in the fact that the Cowboys are seeing rookie QB Dak Prescott emerge and it looks as though the Cowboys are close to moving on from the Tony Romo era. Even if he returns, there’s no guarantee Romo will stay healthy and the continued impressive play of Prescott might force the Cowboys to bench Romo anyway.
2 Carlos Hyde, RB, San Francisco 49ers
Head coach Chip Kelly’s offense wasn’t very friendly to running back DeMarco Murray during his time in Philadelphia. Murray went from a guy who led the league in rushing for the Cowboys in 2014 to an afterthought in Philly in 2015, even though the Eagles paid him good money to be a starting back.
Hyde may be on the same path as Murray. Both backs have a similar style in running downhill, which is a less ideal style in Kelly’s offense than a back who is more agile and can make people miss.
Unless the former second-round pick changes the way he runs—which isn’t likely—he will not fit well and produce in Kelly’s offensive scheme, leading to a trip to the doghouse and fewer touches. As long as Kelly is in San Fran, Hyde’s production will fall and it's only a matter of time before tensions rise.
1 Jeremy Langford, RB, Chicago Bears
In the wake of an injury to former starting running back Matt Forte last year, the Bears promoted Langford to starter and he proved to be a fairly productive player. Langford compiled 816 total yards and seven touchdowns as both a backup and starter on a lackluster Bears team that finished 6-10.
It looked like Langford was the running back of the future with Forte departing in free agency and he was named the starter for the 2016 season. It quickly became evident that Langford wasn’t the man for the job.
His inability to make people miss is a huge problem, and that’s especially true considering Chicago’s horrid offensive line. Langford has been an ineffective runner to start the season, making him a question mark moving forward.
Now that Langford will miss a large chunk of the season due to an ankle injury, rookie running back Jordan Howard has a golden opportunity to snag Langford’s job from him. Howard looks like the more talented back already in every facet, making Langford’s days as the Bears’ starter numbered.
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