Top Ten with a Twist: Players facing career decisions

At some point, will the Lions want Matthew Stafford to disappear into the fog? (US Presswire)

With only two Sundays left in the regular season, teams that have been eliminated from postseason contention likely are looking at the future and trying to decide with which players they’ll want to move forward (the Redskins have been doing this for many weeks, apparently -- much to the concern of Mike Shanahan’s team). Questions need to be asked, and though there likely won’t be many obvious answers, decisions will have to be made.

There are a host of players we’re looking at in this week’s Top Ten with a Twist list who are in a kind of limbo: a couple of former No. 1 picks who haven’t dominated the game like some thought they would; a few older players who must decide if retirement is the right option, and some high-priced players who might become salary-cap casualties.

Some of these decisions will have to be made by their respective teams, and some players will have tough decisions to make for themselves. None of it will be easy.

10. Wes Welker, Patriots WR: You probably remember the offseason wrangling between New England and Welker over a long-term extension. Despite signing his franchise tag quickly, the two sides couldn’t come to an agreement, leading to early season speculation that the Patriots were phasing out Welker from the offensive game plan. Yet Welker has 100 catches this season through Week 15, meaning he’ll finish his fifth year out of the last six with at least that many receptions. Welker has been adamant that he wants to stay in New England, but the Patriots rarely, if ever, allow one of their players to outlive his usefulness. Since Welker is 31, he’s approaching that time in his career where he might have to find work outside New England.

9. Tim Tebow, Jets QB/punt protector: OF COURSE, we had to include everybody’s favorite storyline/punching bag of the last two years. Clearly, Tebow isn’t happy in New York, and it’s hard to blame him if he feels he was misled by the Jets' management. I don’t see why the Jets would want to keep him, and really, there’s not much question about whether Tebow will be in New York after this year (he won’t). This decision will come down to whether another general manager sees something in Tebow that would compel him to give Tebow another chance to perform. Surely, somebody will.

8. Larry Fitzgerald, Cardinals WR: The big decision here is whether Arizona will provide him with a quarterback that can throw him the ball consistently; since Kurt Warner left after the 2009 season, Fitzgerald has fielded passes from Derek Anderson, Kevin KolbJohn Skelton, Ryan Lindley, Richard Bartel and Max Hall. Fitzgerald is locked into the Cardinals through 2018 on a $128.5-million contract, so it’s a little hard to feel sorry for him, but at the same time, he’s being wasted in Arizona. There’s little doubt that Fitzgerald is a top-three receiver in this league, but this season, he is tied for 31st in receptions. That’s unacceptable, and it falls on Arizona’s front office to figure out how to make him as relevant as he should be.

7. Michael Oher, Ravens T: In years' past, Oher has been shuffled from left tackle to right tackle and back again, and that’s probably one reason the 2009 first-round pick hasn’t been as good as some projected (or as good as the hype caused by a best-selling book might have foretold). Now that he’s spent most of the season on Baltimore’s left side, it’s fair to see how he’s performed. Basically, he’s been underwhelming (according to Pro Football Focus, he ranks 55th out of 75 NFL offensive tackles). Oher’s base salary rises to about $1.7 million next season to go with a $1.17-million bonus in the last year of his rookie contract, but Baltimore needs to decide if it’s gotten all it can from Oher’s talent reserve. If so, it might make sense to move him back to right tackle or let him go somewhere else after 2013.

6. Nnamdi Asomugha, Eagles CB: The fall from being one of the top-two cornerbacks in the league to becoming a mediocre defensive back whom opponents are no longer afraid to target has been stunning for Asomugha since arriving in Philadelphia from Oakland. He’s scheduled to make $15 million next season, and there’s almost no chance the Eagles will pay him that much, particularly since it’s likely a new coaching regime will be arriving. Asomugha has said he wants to stay in Philadelphia, and he’s indicated he might be open to restructuring his deal. But the Eagles will have to decide whether Asomugha is worth keeping around at all. That’s how far he’s fallen.

5. Sam Bradford, Rams QB: Like Matthew Stafford (see below), Bradford’s team could be forgiven if it’s slightly disappointed with what it’s received for making him the No. 1 draft pick in 2010 and paying him $50 million guaranteed. Though he hasn’t had much talent around him, all that money has bought St. Louis a 15-30 record and a quarterback who’s no better than average at this point in his career. By the time this season is over, Bradford likely will have recorded the best stat line of his career. But the Rams are still far from contending for the playoffs, and when you compare him to rookies like Robert Griffin III, Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson, you have to wonder how much longer it could take Bradford to get to that level of production.

4. Tony Gonzalez, Falcons TE: He’s said all season that he’s 95 percent sure he’s going to retire when 2012 is finished, but if Atlanta doesn’t win a Super Bowl, Gonzalez could (and probably should) return for a 17th season. He’s no longer the top tight end in the league, but he’s still a top-five guy. And he still produces to a ridiculous degree. Through Week 15, he ranks seventh in the league with 87 catches to go with 880 yards and eight touchdowns. “There is no doubt I could keep playing for a couple more years at a pretty high level, but it's just almost that time for me,” he said earlier this season. “I see the window closing and hopefully it makes the choice easy if we go out and win a Super Bowl this year and I can ride off into the sunset." And if not?

3. Ryan Mathews, Chargers RB: He’s been in the league for only three seasons, but it seems Mathews has spent most of his time disappointing San Diego fans with his inability to avoid injuries and break out as a superstar running back. He topped 1,000 yards with a 4.9-yards-per-carry average in 2011 (to be honest, I completely forgot about that), but he’s fallen back into his old ways this season. He didn’t top 100 yards in a game this season. How much longer will the Chargers attempt to make him their No. 1 back? Well, he’s relatively inexpensive for the final two years of his rookie contract, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see San Diego try somebody else in the offseason.

2. Troy Polamalu, Steelers S: After missing nine games this season because of injury, Polamalu returned to Pittsburgh’s lineup and looked, well, almost irrelevant. The 31-year-old had a wonderful career, but he looks old. He’s signed for two more seasons, and he’ll cost at least $10 million against the salary cap for both of those years. I don’t see the Steelers giving up on Polamalu quite yet (perhaps his calf issue is affecting his play more than his age), but as the defense continues to get older and older, you have to wonder when Pittsburgh will turn to younger players.

1. Matthew Stafford, Lions QB: Actually, Stafford was my inspiration for this list in the first place, because I just don’t know if, after four years in the league, he can get Detroit past the first round of the postseason. We saw his potential last year when he threw for 5,038 yards and 41 touchdowns (against 17 interceptions), and though he’s stayed healthy this season, there are times when he looks absolutely terrible under center. Look, there’s no question that Stafford isn’t leaving Detroit any time soon. He’s still young, and there’s still room for improvement. But if you’re the Lions' front office, aren’t you beginning to question Stafford and how many more seasons you can afford to give him?

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