Every season, a different set of players face a crossroads or have something to prove for a variety of reasons. The most common reasons 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, who fit into one of those categories to keep an eye on in 2022.
Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Cowboys
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 in the deal.
Elliott averaged a career-low 58.9 rushing yards per game last season. Prior to Elliott getting his contract extension, he averaged 101.2 rushing yards per game. Elliott wasn't Dallas' most efficient running back last season. It was Tony Pollard, who some believe is the best running back on the Cowboys' roster.
If that proves to be the case this season, it's hard to imagine Elliott back with the Cowboys in 2023. It would probably be a necessity to part ways with Elliott to retain Pollard, who is in a contract year. There is already speculation that Elliott will be released next offseason regardless of what happens with Pollard.
Elliott is scheduled to make $10.9 million on a $16.72 million salary cap number in 2023. The Cowboys would have $11.86 million of dead money, a cap charge for a player no longer on a team's roster, by letting Elliott go without using a post-June 1 designation.
Michael Thomas, WR, Saints
Thomas missed the 2021 season after suffering a setback in rehabbing from the ankle surgery he had that June. The Saints were already frustrated with Thomas for waiting until several weeks before training camp to have surgery on the left ankle injured during the 2020 season.
The 2020 season was also challenging for Thomas. He was the subject of trade rumors after a one-game suspension because of a practice altercation with a teammate and limited to seven regular-season games because of the ankle.
Thomas has been an afterthought in the best wide receiver discussions with the emergence of several younger players at the positions over the last two seasons. In 2019, Thomas' last healthy season, he set the single record for receptions with 149 and was named NFL Offensive Player of the Year.
Saquon Barkley, RB, Giants
Barkley's 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, seems like a distant memory. He had a lackluster 2021 in his return from a 2020 season where he was limited to two games because of a torn right ACL. Barkley had 593 rushing yards with 3.7 yards per carry in 13 games last season. The second overall pick in the 2018 draft is in danger of his five-year rookie contract, averaging $7,682,350 per year, which includes his current $7.217 million option year salary, being the biggest deal of his NFL career.
Allen Robinson, WR, Rams
Robinson's contract year when he was playing under a $17.88 million franchise tag left a lot to be desired. The 2021 season was Robinson's worst NFL campaign (other than 2017 when he tore his left ACL in the Jaguars' season opener). Robinson had 36 catches for 410 yards with one touchdown in 12 games, which can partially be attributed to an injury-plagued season where he never established chemistry with rookie quarterback Justin Fields.
Nonetheless, the Rams signed Robinson to a three-year, $46.5 million contract (worth up to $48 million through incentives) with $30.75 million fully guaranteed. Robinson can void out of the third year in 2024 by reaching 2,201 combined receiving yards in 2022 and 2023. The Rams are counting on 2021 to be an anomaly since Robert Woods, who tore the ACL in his left knee during a practice last November, was traded to the Titans in a salary dump move to accommodate Robinson's signing.
Ronnie Stanley, OT, Ravens
Stanley parlayed a 2019 All-Pro campaign into a five-year, $98.75 million extension worth up to $100 million through incentives with record-setting guarantees for an offensive lineman contract during the middle of the 2020 season. There are a little more than $65.5 million in overall guarantees where slightly more than $58.8 million was fully guaranteed at signing.
Stanley has only played in two games since then. He suffered a season-ending left ankle injury that required surgery a couple of days after signing his contract. Stanley started the first game in 2021 before eventually undergoing additional surgery on the ankle during the season. Stanley was just activated off the physically unable to perform list. A return to anything close to his previous level of play would be a big boost to the Ravens.
Kenny Golladay, WR, Giants
Golladay was the recipient of 2021's biggest deal for a pass catcher after the Lions declined to designate him as a franchise player. He signed a four-year, $72 million contract (worth a maximum of $76 million through incentives) with $40 million of guarantees after assorted injuries limited him to five games in 2020. The 2019 Pro Bowl participant had 37 catches for 521 yards and zero touchdowns in 14 games last season. Golladay probably needs to flourish this season in new head coach Brian Daboll's offensive system or there won't be a third year in New York, although his $4.5 million third day of the 2023 league year roster bonus (next March 17) became fully guaranteed this part March.
Jonnu Smith, TE, Patriots
Smith exceeded most reasonable contract projections when the Patriots signed him to a three-year deal averaging $12.5 million per year in 2021 free agency. He set a record for the most money fully guaranteed in a tight end contract with $31.25 million.
Smith didn't come close to living up to the old saying of "to whom much is given, much is expected." He only had 28 catches for 294 yards and one touchdown in 16 games last season while taking 47.64% of New England's offensive snaps (525 of 1,102 plays). Among tight ends, Smith was 34th in the NFL in receptions and 31st in receiving yards. With another season like in 2021, Smith won't be in around in 2023 to collect his $12 million salary.
Jack Conklin, OT, Browns
The Browns signing Conklin to a three-year, $42 million contract paid big dividends in 2020 as he earned All-Pro honors. A dislocated left elbow and a torn right patellar tendon limited Conklin to a career-low seven games last season. Conklin took a $4 million pay cut from $12 million to a fully guaranteed $8 million in which he can earn the money back through playtime incentives during the offseason. He recently indicated that he would like to remain in Cleveland beyond this season. Conklin could reap the benefit of a right tackle market that took off dramatically in 2021 with a return to his 2020 form this season. Four right tackles signed deals averaging $17 million or more last year.
Tepid interest in free agency led Smith-Schuster to return to Pittsburgh on a one-year "prove-it" deal worth $8 million last season. He was reportedly looking for more than $15 million per year on the open market.
Smith-Schuster wasn't proving very much when a left shoulder injury sidelined him for the regular season after five games. He had 15 receptions for 129 yards without any touchdowns in those games. Smith-Schuster returned for a wild card playoff game against the Chiefs in which he had five catches for 26 yards.
There was less interest in Smith-Schuster during free agency this year than in 2021. He signed a one-year, $3.25 million contract with the Chiefs worth up to $10.75 million through incentives. The Chiefs recently modified his contract so he can earn an additional $510,000 because his $510,000 of per-game roster bonuses ($30,000 for each game active) were increased to $1.02 million ($60,000 for each game active).
Smith-Schuster has a tremendous opportunity in Kansas City since there isn't an established No. 1 wide receiver with Tyreek Hill's trade to the Dolphins. He could be positioned for the big payday that's eluded him in free agency next March with a highly productive 2022 season.
Evan Engram, TE, Jaguars
Engram's disappointing 2021 campaign with the Giants, where he caught 46 passes for 408 yards and three touchdowns, didn't prevent him from getting a one-year, $9 million deal from the Jaguars, which includes $8.25 million fully guaranteed. He can make as much as $10 million through incentives. The base value of the deal isn't much less than the $9.293 million it would have cost the Giants to designate Engram as a transition player.
Engram could be in the right place to showcase himself for 2023 free agency. New Jaguars head coach Doug Pederson's offense with the Eagles was tight end friendly. During his five seasons as head coach in Philadelphia, Zach Ertz averaged close to 80 catches per year, including setting the NFL single-season receptions record for a tight end with 116 in 2018.