5 NFL players entering a make-it or break-it 2023 season

Inglewood, California, USA; Los Angeles Rams quarterback Baker Mayfield (17) throws the ball in the first half against the Los Angeles Chargers at SoFi Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

• Is this Baker Mayfield's last chance? On his fourth team after being selected No. 1 overall in 2018, Mayfield needs to show he is still capable of high-end quarterback play in Tampa Bay.

• Patrick Queen's future with the Ravens hinges on 2023: Baltimore declined the linebacker's fifth-year option, so Queen has a chance to either make a ton of money on the open market with a big year or re-sign.

• JC Jackson is in need of a big bounce-back year: After signing a mega deal in 2022 free agency, Jackson floundered before suffering a season-ending injury.

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QB Baker Mayfield, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

After a brilliant run at Oklahoma that ended with him winning a Heisman Trophy in 2017, Mayfield was widely regarded as the top prospect in the 2018 NFL Draft and was ultimately selected first overall by the Cleveland Browns.

He proceeded to finish his rookie season ranked 10th among quarterbacks with a 79.9 passing grade, and his 7.7% big-time throw rate placed him second in the league. His solid play didn’t stop there. Among 42 signal-callers who attempted at least 500 passes from 2018-2020, Mayfield ranked 10th with an 84.9 passing grade and fourth with a 6.1% big-time throw rate.

The 2021 season was a different story. Mayfield's passing grade dropped to 62.4, which ranked 23rd, and his 4.5% big-time throw rate placed him 13th. He also put up a career-worst 3.9% turnover-worthy play rate.

Ultimately, the Browns decided to move on and Mayfield ended up in Carolina, where he eventually lost the starting job before the Panthers traded him midseason to the Los Angeles Rams. There, he had a decent Week 16 game against the Denver Broncos mixed in with a string of more poor performances.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers signed Mayfield to a one-year deal this offseason, and he enters the 2023 season as their presumptive starter. If he can, still at just 28 years old, get back to the level of play we saw during his first three seasons in Cleveland, it wouldn’t be surprising if Tampa Bay turned around and offered him a second deal. But if his 2023 goes similarly to these past two years, the future could look bleak.

WR Gabe Davis, Buffalo Bills

Davis was one of 57 receivers in 2021 to be targeted at least 75 times, and among that group he ranked 14th with an 80.0 receiving grade. He placed 15th with an average of 1.93 yards per route run, ranked first by catching 76.9% of his contested targets and generated a second-ranked 130.3 passer rating when targeted.

In 2022, Davis' 66.3 receiving grade ranked 45th out of 60 receivers who saw at least 75 targets. His average of 1.41 yards per route run dropped him to 37th among receivers, his 27.6% catch rate on contested targets plummeted him down to 56th and his 81.9 passer rating when targeted ranked 44th.

Davis is entering the final year of his contract with the Buffalo Bills, and whether he gets another offer from the team could largely depend on which version of Gabe Davis shows up in 2023.

WR DeAndre Hopkins, Arizona Cardinals

The following receivers all played at least 11 seasons in the NFL and earned an 85.0-plus career receiving grade:

Just one of those players — Anquan Boldin back in 2013 — surpassed a 90.0 receiving grade in his 11th season. Three posted a receiving grade in the 80s (none over 85.0), five finished with a grade in the 70s, four landed in the 60s and one ended in the 50s.

The Year 11 drop-off is real, and given all the drama that has surrounded Hopkins in Arizona this offseason, how he performs in 2023 — his 11th season — could really set the tone for how the future Hall of Famer’s career wanes.

Hopkins finished his rookie season in 2013 with a 69.0 receiving grade and then went on an eight-year run during which earned a receiving grade north of 80.0 in all but one season. While 2022 wasn’t a bad campaign for him, Hopkins posted just a 73.5 receiving grade — low by his standards.

Will he bounce back to near-elite levels in 2023, or will he, too, succumb to a drop-off in Year 11?

LB Patrick Queen, Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens drafted Queen in the first round back in 2020, and over the course of his first 2,278 defensive snaps in the NFL — that is, until Week 9 of the 2022 season when the Ravens traded for and inserted Roquan Smith into their linebacker corps — he posted an abysmal 35.2 overall grade, which included both a 34.3 run-defense grade and a 29.5 coverage grade.

From Week 9 through the end of last season, though, with Smith in the lineup, Queen compiled a 75.5 overall grade to go with a 74.6 run-defense grade and a 70.7 coverage grade.

Over the same span, Queen posted the highest positive run-defense grade rate of his career (15.8%) along with his lowest negative grade rate at (11.7%). In coverage, his prior career average of 1.13 yards allowed per coverage snap dropped to 0.92.

The Ravens declined to pick up Queen’s fifth-year option but could retain him beyond 2023 if he’s able to maintain the production he showed following the acquisition of Smith.

CB JC Jackson, Los Angeles Chargers

Among 131 cornerbacks who logged at least 150 snaps in coverage in 2021, Jackson ranked fifth with an 80.3 coverage grade. The 51.5 passer rating he surrendered to opposing quarterbacks ranked fourth lowest in that same group, and his 25.3% rate of allowing either a first down or a touchdown in coverage ranked ninth.

In the offseason leading up to 2022, the Chargers signed him to an $82.5 million dollar contract with $40 million guaranteed.

Things took a turn for the worse. Jackson's 28.1 coverage grade in 2022 ranked 137th among 137 cornerbacks who logged at least 150 snaps in coverage. His 147.2 passer rating allowed ranked worst among the group, he allowed a first down or touchdown 48.4% of the time he was targeted in primary coverage and he didn’t record a single interception. In fact, his production when it came to playing the ball at the catch point fell off a cliff, with his 14.0% forced incompletion rate from 2021 plummeting to just 3.2% in 2022 before a ruptured patellar tendon ended his year after seven weeks.

Whether Jackson can bounce back from his injury and play more like the player we saw in 2021 will greatly dictate how his signing is remembered in the years to come.


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