Now that the first wave of NFL free agency has subsided and there will be a lot of new faces in new places, there are players across the league that will have to step up after some subtractions and unexpected departures of key pieces to their teams.
There will also be players who are expected to deliver huge dividends now that they find themselves on new teams or their team has surrounded them with commentary pieces. Here is a list of players that have the most to prove come fall that include a handful of franchise quarterbacks and some ascending players on both side of the ball:
• QB Nick Foles: He is finally out of Philadelphia and out from behind the shadow of Carson Wentz who is the face and future of the franchise, despite Foles being the one who led the Eagles to their first Superbowl championship in franchise history.
The Jacksonville Jaguars are just a season removed from an AFC Championship appearance and are believed to be a competent quarterback away from being a legit contender to win it all. Enter in Foles who inked a four-year deal with the team last week worth $88 million and now all eyes and expectations are on the former Superbowl MVP to deliver to Duval county what he brought home to Philly sooner rather than later.
• WR Juju Smith-Schuster: The blossoming star receiver has flourished in his first two seasons in the league and now that Antonio Brown is residing in the Bay Area, he is expected to be the man in the Steel City.
He has benefited from favorable matchups and single coverage more often than not since he came into the league in 2017 because Brown drew multiple defenders and bracketed coverage play in and play out. Now he will be tasked with assuming the mantle of Batman after shining brightly as Robin.
• QB Jameis Winston: Expectations have been high for Winston and the Tampa Buccaneers ever since the team selected the former Heisman winner and college football national champion with the No.1 overall pick at the top of the 2015 class.
After having just one winning but still non-playoff qualifying season in 2016, he is on his third Head Coach in his four-year career. Bruce Arians is tasked with salvaging the former first overall pick’s career and Winston himself is expected to flourish under the tutelage of the renown quarterback whisperer.
• QB Lamar Jackson: Despite having the second highest completion percentage among last year’s rookie quarterbacks at 58.2, only behind Cleveland Browns’ Baker Mayfield’s 63.8, people around the league and in the media, are still questioning his ability to throw the football heading into his sophomore season.
Jackson took over for the Baltimore Ravens at the midway point of the season when the team was below .500 at 4-5 and led them to their first division title since 2012 and ended their three-year playoff drought.
There are doubts that he will make enough progress as a passer to keep the team in contention after losing more players and leaders than they added in free agency. However, with a full offseason of work as the starter he and the team’s staff expect him to continue to build upon the progress, he made on the fly last season and continue to lead the team to future prosperity.
After not adding any notable receivers in free agency so far, the Ravens are expected to address the position in next month’s draft now that their two leading receivers from last season are no longer on the team.
• S Tyrann Mathieu: Now that the “do it all” defensive back with safety and nickel corner versatility is among the highest paid at his position after inking a three-year deal worth $42 million, he is expected to be the go-to playmaker on a Kansas City Chiefs defense that finished amongst the league’s worst last season. They will be without a proven pass rush after trading last year’s sack leader Dee Ford to the 49ers and released their second leader in Justin Huston prior to free agency.
• QB Baker Mayfield: General manager John Dorsey has surrounded his young and rambunctious franchise quarterback with an armada of Pro Bowl playmakers in Jarvis Landry, Kareem Hunt and after trading for Odell Beckham Jr. last week, the expectations for the 2019 Cleveland Browns are sky-high.
Baker breathed new life into the organization and fan base with his outstanding play as well as his contagious swagger on and off the field. He’s no stranger to the pressure to perform under pressure and is believed to be the right person to lead the team into a new era of relevancy after years of laughable ineptitude.
• WR Antonio Brown: He’s the only receiver in NFL history to record 100 or more catches in six straight seasons and now after an ugly end to his tenure in Pittsburgh, he is now the highest paid receiver in the league after he inked a new deal with the Oakland Raiders upon the finalization of his trade last week.
There are no doubts that Brown will put up huge numbers after trading in his black and yellow for the silver and black, but it’s worth noting that he has never caught a touchdown from a quarterback NOT named Be Roethlisberger as all 78 of his career receiving scores have come off the arm of his former quarterback.
• QB Derek Carr: Brown’s new quarterback in Oakland will have a revamped receiving core after the organization traded for and signed Brown as well as former Chargers standout No.2 receiver in Tyrell Williams in free agency.
They also signed the massive left tackle Trent Brown to the largest contract for an offensive lineman in NFL history to protect Carr’s blind side. While they lost their top tight end in Jared Cook to the New Orleans Saints in free agency, this year’s draft features three dynamic prospects at that position that are expected to go in the first round where they hold a league-high three picks.
• OLB Matthew Judon: The Baltimore Ravens finished the last year with the top-ranked defense in the NFL, but that didn’t stop the organization from saying goodbye to four starters that were key members at each level of their No.1 unit.
Heading into the final season of his rookie contract, the fourth-year outside linebacker has established himself as one of the young ascending pass rushers in the league. With two of the team’s sack leaders now elsewhere, Judon will have to lead what will be a very young Ravens pass rush and will be the early favorite to claim the team’s sack title in 2019.
• RB James Connor: Despite not playing a full 16 game slate and coming up just short of his first 1,000-yard season on the ground, Conner was able to make almost everyone forget about the absence of All-Pro running back LeVeon Bell more most of the season.
While he didn’t surpass 1,000 yards in the running game alone, his 497 yards receiving on 55 catches and a score showed that he can be the same multidimensional back that Bell was for the Steelers. He did do enough to earn his first Pro Bowl bid in just his second season, but he will have to prove he can be the “Bell Cow” (no pun intended) over the course of a full season to silence the critics and doubters for good.
• MLB CJ Mosely: After making four Pro Bowls in his first five years in the league, he set a whole new market for middle linebackers in the NFL after signing a record-breaking five-year deal worth $85 million with the New York Jets last week.
He was the field general for the No.1 ranked defense in the league last season as a member of the Baltimore Ravens and will now be tasked with doing the same for the Jets in new defensive coordinator Greg Williams’ creative scheme that will now be loaded with former first-round picks at each level of the defense.