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-field issues.
Ten players to keep an eye on during the 2020 season who fit into one of those categories are below. Quarterback Cam Newton, who the Panthers released in late March, was omitted since he remains unsigned, although he has plenty to prove after missing most of the last season and a half with shoulder and foot injuries.
Texans DE J.J. Watt
Watt was considered the closest thing to a modern day Reggie White, who is arguably the greatest defensive football player of all-time, before being bitten by the injury bug. The three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year has missed 32 of the last 64 regular season games because of a variety of injuries.
Watt, who has two years remaining on his contract for $33 million, recognizes he isn't in a position to ask for a new deal. He was still an impact player the last time he was healthy in 2018; Watt led the AFC with 16 sacks while being named first-team All-Pro for the first time since 2015.
The Bears acquired Nick Foles from the Jaguars in a trade because the team hasn't been satisfied with Trubisky, 2017's second overall pick. It will be an open competition between Foles and Trubisky for Chicago's starting quarterback job.
The Bears declined to pick up their fifth-year option with Trubisky for $24.837 million in 2021. If Trubisky beats out Foles, he'll have a much shorter lease than in his previous three seasons. As 2015's top two picks, Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota discovered, it will be difficult for Trubisky to find a job as a starter in 2021 free agency if he doesn't perform well this season or if he loses the quarterback competition.
Gurley was arguably the NFL's best running back before being slowed by left knee problems late in the 2018 season. The Rams released Gurley in March following a lackluster 2019 campaign in which he rushed for a career low 857 yards despite the Rams signing him to a four-year, $57.5 million contract extension in 2018 with two years remaining on his rookie contract.
Gurley didn't play any of his new contract years, since his four-year extension ran from 2020 through 2023. He made out like a bandit from the deal. Gurley is $20 million better off from the extension than playing out his rookie contract.
He quickly signed a one-year deal for $5.5 million with the Falcons. Gurley will be a steal if he can regain the form that made him 2017's NFL Offensive Player of the Year when he led the league with 2,093 yards from scrimmage (combined rushing and receiving yards) and 19 touchdowns, Doing so could led to another big payday for the 25-year-old.
Texans RB David Johnson
Johnson is getting a new lease on his NFL life because of his trade to the Texans. He fell out of favor with the Cardinals last season after Kenyan Drake was acquired before the late October trading deadline.
Johnson is expected to be a focal point of the Texans' offense. His last highly productive season was in 2016 when he led the NFL with 2,118 yards from scrimmage and 20 touchdowns. An inability to capitalize on the opportunity could lead to a short stint in Houston. $9 million of salary cap space would be gained should the Texans part ways with Johnson in 2021.
Jeffery's bet on himself by signing a one-year, $9.5 million deal (worth up to $14 million through incentives) in 2017 paid off when the Eagles signed him to a four-year, $52 million extension later that season. Not a lot has gone right for Jeffery in Philadelphia recently.
There have been numerous reports of a strained relationship with quarterback Carson Wentz. Jeffery's contract and his December surgery for a Lisfranc foot injury may be the only things keeping on the Eagles' roster. The injury kills his trade value, and cutting him is cost prohibitive because a 2019 contract restructure fully guaranteed his $9.91 million 2020 base salary.
Although the Eagles would have $15,396,500 and 10,609,500 salary cap charges in 2020 and 2021 by releasing Jeffery, skepticism about him being in Philadelphia this season exists. Assuming Jeffery can put the foot injury behind him and is still with the team, it remains to be seen what type of opportunity he'll get with a healthy DeSean Jackson, Jalen Reagor being selected in the first round and Marquise Goodwin's acquisition via trade.
Rhodes' regression last season was startling considering he earned first-team All-Pro honors in 2017. The Vikings dumped Rhodes to pick up $8.1 million of much needed cap room. He called getting released a reality check.
Rhodes signed a one-year, $3 million deal (worth up to $4.25 million with incentives) with the Colts. A bounce-back season could put Rhodes in line for a contract averaging more than his $14.02 million per year deal with the Vikings since cornerbacks who excel in coverage are valuable commodities.
Smith-Schuster was named Steelers MVP in 2018 for a breakout season in which he had 111 catches for 1,426 yards with seven touchdowns. He was expected to become Pittsburgh's primary receiving threat in 2019 with Antonio Brown's departure.
It didn't work out that way for Smith-Schuster, as he caught 42 passes for 552 yards in 12 games last season. Smith-Schuster will be getting a huge upgrade at quarterback in 2020 with Ben Roethlisberger returning after missing the final 14 games last season due to an elbow injury that required surgery. 2020 could go a long way in determining whether Smith-Schuster is a No. 1 wide receiver or a No. 2 who needs another wideout drawing coverage away from him to be highly effective.
Titans OLB Vic Beasley
Beasley was largely a disappointment for the Falcons after leading the NFL with 15.5 sacks in 2016. He had 14 sacks in the next 42 games he played following what was considered his breakout performance. Beasley finished the 2019 season strong with four sacks in the last four games, but it wasn't enough for the Falcons to make an attempt to re-sign him.
The Falcons opted to give Dante Fowler, Jr. a three-year, $45 million contract (worth a maximum of $48 million through salary escalators) containing $29 million in guarantees while Beasley took a one-year, $9.5 million deal with another $2.5 million in incentives from the Titans. Living up to the potential that made Beasley 2015's eighth overall pick will put him in a position to sign a lucrative contract in 2021 because players who can consistently pressure opposing quarterbacks are paid a premium.
Falcons TE Hayden Hurst
The Falcons sent second- and fifth-round picks to the Ravens for Hurst and a fourth-round pick in order to replace Austin Hooper, who became the NFL's highest-paid tight end with the four-year, $42 million deal he received from the Browns in free agency. Hurst was expendable in Baltimore because Nick Boyle is one of the NFL's best blocking tight ends and Mark Andrews earned Pro Bowl honors last season as a second-year player.
Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan is impressed with Hurst's speed and athleticism. If Hurst is the mismatch problem Ryan thinks he can be, the Falcons won't hesitate to pick up the 2018 first-round pick's fifth-year option next offseason.
The Broncos didn't pick up Bolles' fifth-year option in 2021 for $11.064 million. Bolles has led the NFL in holding penalties in each of his three seasons in the league.
There's no guarantee Bolles will remain at left tackle this season. Broncos president of football operations and general manager John Elway has indicated that Elijah Wilkerson will be competing with Bolles to protect quarterback Drew Lock's blindside.