Every season, a different set of players face a crossroad or have something to prove for a variety of reasons. The most common are related to age, contract or salary cap concerns, injury, poor performance or off-the-field issues.
Here are 10 offensive players -- who aren't quarterbacks -- to keep an eye on during the 2021 season who fit into one of those categories.
Odell Beckham Jr. (Browns)
Beckham was in the NFL's best wide receiver discussions when he was traded from the Giants to the Browns for 2019 first- and third-round picks and safety Jabrill Peppers. He had career lows (when healthy) of 74 receptions, 1,035 receiving yards and three touchdown catches in 2019, his first season with Cleveland. Beckham tore the ACL in his left knee seven games into the 2020 season. He had 23 catches for 319 yards with three touchdowns prior to his knee injury. Beckham must develop better chemistry with quarterback Baker Mayfield to have a shot of regaining his status as an elite wide receiver this season. Otherwise, 2021 will likely be his last season in Cleveland.
Elliott has been trending in the wrong direction statistically since becoming the first running back in league history to sign a $100 million contract. The two-time rushing champion signed a six-year, $90 million contract extension, which made him the NFL's highest-paid running back, shortly before the start of the 2019 regular season to end a lengthy preseason holdout. Elliott, who had two years remaining on his rookie contract, established new standards for running backs with $50,052,137 in overall guarantees and $28,052,137 fully guaranteed at signing of deal.
Elliott averaged a career-low 65.3 rushing yards per game in 2020 behind an offensive line depleted by injury. Prior to that, Elliott had averaged 96.5 rushing yards per game for his career. Dallas just made it harder to release Elliott in 2022 if the downward trend continues with a contract restructure lowering his 2021 salary cap number to $6.82 million from $13.7 million. Elliott's new 2022 cap number is $18.22 million. There would be $17.68 million of dead money in 2022 for a trade or release occurring before June 2. Dead money is a cap charge for a player no longer on a team's roster. There would be $5.82 million of dead money in 2022 and $11.86 million in 2023 for a release next year if a post-June 1 designation is used.
Last season was a forgettable one for Thomas. He was the subject of trade rumors after a one-game suspension because of a practice altercation with a teammate and an ankle injury limited him to seven regular-season games. The Saints were frustrated with Thomas waiting until June to have surgery on his ankle. Thomas using social media posts to accuse the Saints of character assassination because of his treatment choices with the injury renewed the trade speculation.
Saints head coach Sean Payton and Thomas have since cleared the air. Thomas is out at least the first six weeks of the season after being placed on the physically unable to perform list at the final roster cutdown. The two-time All-Pro has the most receptions in the first five seasons of an NFL career. The Saints will need Thomas to be that player upon return -- especially with longtime quarterback Drew Brees retiring -- for the Saints to earn a fifth consecutive playoff berth
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Saquon Barkley (Giants)
Barkley has been derailed by injury since a stellar debut season in which he led the NFL with 2,028 yards from scrimmage (combined rushing and receiving yards) and earned 2018 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors in the process. The 2018 second overall pick was limited to two games last season because of a torn right ACL. Barkley had his second consecutive 1,000-yard rushing season in 2019 despite missing three games with an ankle injury. The Giants aren't in a rush to sign Barkley to a new deal because of durability concerns. Interestingly, Barkley's $7.217 million option year salary in 2022 is lower than his 2021 salary cap number, which is $10,033,577.
An extremely tight salary cap situation made it easier for the Falcons to accommodate the trade request from the disgruntled seven-time Pro Bowl receiver. The 32-year-old is coming off one of his worst statistical seasons. Limited to nine games in 2020, primarily because of lingering hamstring problems, Jones had 51 catches for 771 yards and three touchdowns. His six-year streak of 1,000-yard receiving seasons was snapped.
Nonetheless, Jones still ranked seventh in the NFL with 85.7 receiving yards per game, which was his worst mark since 2012. He is motivated to show that there's plenty of gas left in the tank. Jones is extremely unlikely to have similar production as in his last three healthy seasons in Atlanta (2017-19) because of Tennessee's run-oriented offense featuring Derrick Henry and wide receiver A.J. Brown's presence. He averaged 100 receptions and 1,505 receiving yards per season during this span. Jones will have to make the most of his reduced targets.
Tyron Smith (Cowboys)
Smith was arguably the NFL's best left tackle before being bitten by the injury bug. He missed 14 games last season with a neck injury requiring surgery. The last time Smith played every game in a season was 2015.
A healthy Smith is a tremendous bargain. In the seven years since became the NFL's highest-paid offensive lineman on an eight-year, $97.6 million extension running through the 2023 season, the top of the tackle market has growth nearly 90%.
Ertz and the Eagles weren't close in negotiations for a new contract during last preseason and 2020 was a lost season for the veteran tight end because of quarterback Carson Wentz's startling regression and an ankle injury that sidelined him for five games. The expectation was Ertz, who is in a contract year, would be traded this offseason because of the inability to reach a new deal and the Eagles having a younger replacement, Dallas Goedert, on the roster. Goedert is also in his contract year.
Ertz has been a true professional in training camp after spending most of the offseason rehabbing from ankle surgery. He has seemingly returned to his old form, which is requiring new head coach Nick Sirianni to utilize more two-tight end sets than anticipated. The 30-year-old now says he wants to remain in Philadelphia but he may be giving a league-wide audition this season for his next destination. It's hard to imagine the Eagles retaining both Ertz and Goedert in 2022.
McGlinchey has been a fixture at right tackle for the 49ers ever since he was drafted in 2018 with the ninth overall pick. The 49ers gave McGlinchey a vote of confidence in April by picking up his fully guaranteed $10.88 million fifth-year option for 2022. His pass protection wasn't close to being on par with his run blocking in 2020, which was stellar. McGlinchey added 25 pounds during the offseason, which put him in the 315-320 range, in an effort to get stronger.
The right tackle market has taken off in 2021. The Saints signed Ryan Ramczyk to a five-year, $96 million extension averaging $19.2 million per year with $60,214,824 of guarantees where $43,014,824 was fully guaranteed at the end of June. The deal is worth as much as $102 million through salary escalators and incentives. The Panthers gave Taylor Moton a five-year, $85 million contract worth up to $90 million through salary escalators and incentives as the July 15 deadline for franchise players to sign long-term deals was approaching. Braden Smith received a four-year, $70 million extension from the Colts at the beginning of training camp. McGlinchey could get in this salary stratosphere with more pass-blocking consistency.
Tepid interest in free agency led Smith-Schuster to return to Pittsburgh on a one-year "prove it" deal worth $8 million. He was reportedly looking for more than $15 million per year on the open market. Smith-Schuster had 97 receptions in 2020 for a rather pedestrian 8.6 yards per catch. He did have a career-high nine touchdown catches last season.
Smith-Schuster has yet to demonstrate he can be a primary receiving threat. Coming close to duplicating his 2018 breakout season of 111 catches for 1,426 yards with seven touchdowns when Antonio Brown was the focal point of opposing defenses would go a long way in this department.
Orlando Brown Jr. (Chiefs)
Brown forced a trade from the Ravens because he wants to be a left tackle, which wasn't possible in Baltimore because of All-Pro Ronnie Stanley. He excelled at the position during the second half of 2020 in the NFL's most run-oriented offense after Stanley was sidelined with a season-ending ankle injury. Brown didn't allow a sack or quarterback hit in his 389 pass-blocking snaps at left tackle, according to Pro Football Focus. He earned Pro Bowl honors in 2020.
The Chiefs traded their 2021 first-round pick (31st overall), a 2021 third-round pick (94th overall), a 2021 fourth pick (136th overall) and a 2022 fifth-round selection to the Ravens for Brown, a 2021 second-round pick (58th overall) and a 2022 sixth-round pick. The plan is to allow Brown to play out his rookie contract rather than sign him to a contract extension.
Brown showing he can be an upgrade over two-time Pro Bowl left tackle Eric Fisher in Kansas City's pass-happy offense could make the Chiefs regret letting him continue to play under his rookie contract. Typically, the acquiring team pays a premium financially when a long-term deal for a player who has remaining time on his contract isn't done in connection with a trade involving significant draft capital.
It's conceivable that Brown could reset the pay scale for offensive linemen with a successful transition to his new surroundings. 49ers and Packers left tackles Trent Williams and David Bakhtiari lead the way at $23.01 million and $23 million per year, respectively. Brown's consolation would be he's already a known commodity at right tackle, which has seen a market shift this offseason.