News & Analysis

15 NFL players entering prove-it years in 2020

In many ways, every NFL season is a “prove-it” year for players. Rare is the reality of job security in this league, but even so, some players are under more pressure entering 2020 than others.

Whether it’s young underachievers who need to show they belong in the league or more established veterans justifying a contract, trade or even a roster spot, there are plenty of players with points to prove this upcoming season.

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QB Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns

There may be no player under more intense focus than Baker Mayfield heading into Year 3. After finishing his rookie season with an 83.2 overall PFF grade (11th), he sank to just 73.5 (19th) as a sophomore as everything in Cleveland unraveled. This offseason for the Browns has been about fixing the pieces around Mayfield, but now he needs to prove he’s the player we saw in Year 1, rather than part of the problem. The talent is clearly there with Mayfield, but a once-deadly-accurate college passer slipped to 27th in adjusted completion percentage last season, and the flaws in his game were concerningly magnified, leaving him with a lot of work to do to reverse course.

WR Odell Beckham Jr., Cleveland Browns

Though the Browns have resolved many issues this offseason, allowing the focus to rest on Mayfield, one of the few caveats to that is retaining trust in Odell Beckham Jr. to become the devastating receiver he was earlier in his career. Year 1 of the Mayfield-to-Beckham connection was little short of disastrous, but Beckham was playing through a sports hernia and wasn’t healthy all season. Throwing in Beckham’s direction in 2019 yielded a passer rating of just 70.5, but at his best, he has shown he is capable of breaking the elite 90.0 barrier in PFF grading (twice in his career), breaking tackles for fun (88 since he came into the league) and making circus catches look routine. Beckham needs to show that Cleveland’s faith has not been misplaced.

Sep 16, 2019; East Rutherford, NJ, USA; Cleveland Browns wide receiver Odell Beckham (13) celebrates after scoring a touchdown during the third quarter against the New York Jets at MetLife Stadium. Credit: Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

EDGE Jadeveon Clowney, Free Agent

At the time of writing, the jewel of the 2020 free agency class remains unsigned. Jadeveon Clowney began free agency looking for a market-resetting contract, which has still yet to materialize, but now looks likely to have to accept something far more modest — perhaps even short-term — and prove he is worth the future investment. Clowney has had the best two seasons of his career by PFF grade (87.6 and then 80.8) over the past two seasons but has never ranked higher than eighth among edge rushers. As such, he has done little to suggest he is worth being among the highest-paid edge defenders in the league. Clowney’s market has been justifiably soft, so he'll need to step up his game in 2020 to justify the money he wants.

QB Josh Allen, Buffalo Bills

Josh Allen isn’t under the same degree of pressure as some of the other players on this list — his team is firmly in his corner and the franchise is heading in the right direction, but even his most ardent supporters acknowledge he still has a ways to go in his development. Allen’s box score numbers looked dramatically better in Year 2, but his PFF passing grade showed only a marginal improvement (58.0 to 61.4). Allen ranked 31st in the league in adjusted completion rate and was arguably the worst deep passer in football. Yet, his baseline of perception skews positive because the team has improved around him and he ranked top-five in terms of perfect ball-location throws up to 20 yards downfield. Allen needs to show a much more significant improvement in 2020 if he is to match the optimism that last year created.

QB Cam Newton, New England Patriots

Cast aside by the Panthers, Cam Newton kept his starting chances alive by agreeing to a one-year, incentive-laden contract with the Patriots. Newton’s health has become a significant question mark, as has his overall level of play, with the MVP season of 2015 looking more and more like an outlier than a realistic goal to target. Newton is still one of the most talented quarterbacks in the league and should have an opportunity on a contending roster to show he is worth significantly more than the deal he just signed. No passer has broken more tackles than Newton since he came into the league, and as long as he makes use of that threat, his size and speed will scare NFL defenses.

EDGE Marcus Davenport, New Orleans Saints

The manner in which New Orleans drafted Marcus Davenport inevitably put more pressure on his success than your typical draft selection. He was taken 14th overall in 2018, but the Saints traded their 2019 first-round selection to make it happen. Davenport has developed well so far — improving in overall PFF grade, pass-rushing grade and total pressures in his second season — but needs to take another step forward to justify the trade to acquire him. Last season, Davenport ranked just 29th in pass-rushing grade among edge defenders, 25th in terms of total pressures and 18th in overall grade. But to live up to the potential the Saints saw when they drafted him, he needs to emerge as a top-10 player in Year 3.

WR JuJu Smith-Schuster, Pittsburgh Steelers

The 2018 season saw JuJu Smith-Schuster rack up 111 receptions, 1,426 yards (both more than Antonio Brown) and seven scores. When Brown’s time in Pittsburgh came to an end, Smith-Schuster was supposed to step up as the team’s top receiver, but 2019 was a disaster. He missed time injured, and with no Ben Roethlisberger throwing the football, he ended the season with barely over 500 receiving yards and an overall PFF grade almost 20 points lower than his 2018 grade. The question marks all remain of whether Smith-Schuster can thrive on the outside as the No. 1 target without Brown taking the focus away from him, and now he has to fight off competition from Diontae Johnson, who impressed despite the awful quarterback situation last season.

LB Roquan Smith, Chicago Bears

When he came into the league, Roquan Smith looked tailor-made for the modern NFL — a linebacker who excelled in coverage in college with the athleticism, instincts and feel for the game to be a difference-maker at the next level. Yet, the player we saw at Georgia has yet to really show up in the NFL with any degree of regularity. Smith has made a lot of tackles and missed relatively few (17 in 234 attempts), but his PFF grades reflect a player still trying to find consistency, particularly in coverage where he was so special in college. A top-10 draft pick in 2018, Smith enters Year 3 needing to show the Bears he can be a difference-maker on defense — not just another body who is a relatively solid tackler.

CB Jaire Alexander, Green Bay Packers

Early in the 2019 season, it looked like Jaire Alexander might be the league’s next great shutdown cornerback, but he wasn’t able to sustain that level over the season and surrendered five touchdowns in coverage after that article came out. Everything written in that piece remains true — he still has all of the tools required to be the best corner in the league — but he needs to show in 2020 that he can be that player consistently, not just tease it from time to time. Alexander has a chance to earn himself a monster contract in the future as the game’s next great young corner, and that will take a run of consistency he hasn’t yet been able to put together.

Oct 6, 2019; Arlington, TX, USA; Green Bay Packers cornerback Jaire Alexander (23) and strong safety Adrian Amos (31) react to a play in the third quarter against the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium. Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

CB Mike Hughes, Minnesota Vikings

Mike Hughes is another first-round cornerback from the 2018 draft heading into the 2020 season with something to prove. Staying healthy has been the biggest issue for Hughes so far in the NFL, as he has played just 744 total snaps across two seasons including the playoffs. The Vikings saw their top three corners from 2018 all depart this offseason, so they will now rely on Hughes to not just be a full-time starter in 2020, but to also play well and keep that unit's head above water. Over his NFL career, he has allowed a passer rating of 99.0 when targeted and given up a catch on 66.7% of the passes thrown his way, surrendering five touchdowns on 93 targets. Those numbers need to improve.

WR Breshad Perriman, New York Jets

A former first-round draft pick, Breshad Perriman had already attained bust status by the time he finally flashed the talent that made him such an intriguing prospect. Last season, already on his third team in four years, Perriman was catapulted up the depth chart late in the year due to injuries and responded with three straight 100-yard games to end the campaign, scoring four touchdowns on 26 targets in that time span. It wasn’t enough to earn him a long-term contract, and he signed with the Jets on a one-year, $6.5 million deal with the opportunity to show he's worth more. Perriman will replace the deep threat of Robby Anderson, who had 92 targets in 2019, and have the chance to show his talent was always there — it just took a while to rediscover.

CB Desmond Trufant, Detroit Lions

At the start of his career, Desmond Trufant looked like the next great cornerback in the NFL, but injuries and decline in play have ended that talk. The former 2013 first-round pick now heads to Detroit hoping to prove he can step into the role vacated by Darius Slay and at least not be a downgrade for the Lions. Over the first two seasons of his career, Trufant earned a PFF grade over 80.0 both years but hasn’t surpassed that mark since. Over his past two healthy seasons, Trufant notched 24 pass breakups but was also beaten for a passer rating of over 100.0 and saw more than 60% of the passes thrown his way go for completions. Trufant still has the ability to be a No. 1 corner, but he now finds himself under pressure to prove it.

OT Isaiah Wynn, New England Patriots

Isaiah Wynn now enters Year 3 as a required starter along the offensive line in New England, but with barely 500 snaps of playing time under his belt. Wynn was a player we liked a lot at PFF as a prospect — he was 16th on our final big board that year. However, injuries limited his chance to make an impact early on. Now, the Patriots need Wynn to be their starting left tackle with only seven games of starting experience. Those seven starts produced an overall PFF grade of 70.7, and he surrendered just two sacks across in that playing time, but the pressure is on for him to step in and be a quality performer.

OG Austin Corbett, Los Angeles Rams

Another offensive lineman with a lot to prove, Austin Corbett was an intriguing prospect who was potentially overdrafted by the Browns in the second round. His NFL position was always up for debate, having played tackle in college, but he was always viewed as an interior lineman at the next level. He has been playing almost exclusively at left guard in the NFL, having impressed the most at the Senior Bowl at center, but that playing time has been almost universally poor thus far. What’s impressive is how consistently below-average Corbett has been so far, with every start he had for the Rams last season earning an overall PFF grade in the 50.0s. Corbett enters 2020 needing to show improvement to save his future at the NFL level.

TE Hayden Hurst, Atlanta Falcons

Hayden Hurst was under pressure in the NFL from day one. Not just because many believed he was a reach in the first round, but because he was immediately being outperformed by Mark Andrews — a third-round pick from the same draft who many believed was a superior prospect all along. Andrews out-graded Hurst from the beginning, which led to the Ravens cutting their losses and flipping their former first-rounder to the Falcons. A healthy Hurst has shown flashes of big-play potential, and throwing the ball his way in the NFL has produced a passer rating of 117.3. But now on to his second stop, he enters the 2020 season under pressure to show he can be that player full-time and that he was just unfortunate that Andrews got the opportunity to make him expendable in Baltimore.

Nov 3, 2019; Baltimore, MD, USA; Baltimore Ravens tight end Hayden Hurst (81) runs a route during the second quarter against the New England Patriots at M&T Bank Stadium. Credit: Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

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