Earlier in the off-season, I focused on 10 quarterbacks who would have a point to prove in 2012. Of course, that kind of list should not just be limited to the game’s most vital position.
There are plenty of other players who are going to be under pressure to perform during the upcoming campaign and for a variety of reasons. Some star names are coming back from major injuries, some will be looking to re-discover lost form and there are some who will be keen to show they still have enough juice left in the tank for one last hurrah.
I’ll focus on defenders with a point to prove in a future article, but here are 10 offensive players who will be keen to show their worth when the 2012 campaign kicks off in September.
Adrian Peterson – Running Back, Minnesota Vikings
I don’t proclaim to know huge amounts about sports science but I know that when a running back tears his ACL, MCL and meniscus, that’s a lot of tears! Adrian Peterson has long been the gold standard for NFL running backs but now he will encounter doubters for the first time in his career. AP suffered his devastating knee injury on Christmas Eve yet he insists he will be ready for Week 1 of the 2012 season. It’s hard to imagine a running back who needs to make a lot of cuts and take a lot of hits being ready to play at such a high level just nine months after such a serious injury. If Peterson does make it back, will he return to his All-Pro level immediately? Probably not. But the Vikings would need him to be a key contributor given the fact that second-year quarterback Christian Ponder is still working through some growing pains and his wide receiver cup does not exactly runneth over! Stubbornness and sheer determination may see Peterson will himself back into action by Week 1 and he has been working hard alongside Percy Harvin this off-season, but the questions about just how dominant he could possibly be will remain.
Darren McFadden – Running Back, Oakland Raiders
When healthy, Darren McFadden can rightly consider himself to be one of the elite running backs of the National Football League. His mix of size, speed and power can be breathtaking. He can run over defenders or move around them before going up a gear and leaving them trailing in his wake. But the staying healthy part has been the problem during his time with the Silver and Black. Over the past four seasons, McFadden has played in just 19 games and has rightly been labelled as injury-prone. The Raiders are definitely going to want McFadden to stay healthy in 2012. They allowed Michael Bush to join the Chicago Bears in the off-season, meaning the reserves are the fumble-prone Mike Goodson and exciting but worryingly undersized sophomore Taiwan Jones. McFadden has to be the main man this season – and for the entire season – if the Raiders are to mount a playoff challenge. Up to this point of his career, durability has been McFadden’s definite weakness and his body simply doesn’t appear up to the rigours of being a number one back in the NFL. Raiders fans will hope he proves me wrong on that front in 2012.
Pierre Garcon – Wide Receiver, Washington Redskins
There’s no doubt that Pierre Garcon has intriguing skills at the receiver position, but he will have to prove his worth after signing a free agent deal with the Washington Redskins this spring. Garcon signed on the dotted line for a contract worth $42.5 million ($20.5 million guaranteed) over the next five years. That is big money for a guy who is not even among the top 20 wide receivers in the game, in my opinion. Garcon caught 70 passes for 947 yards and 6 touchdowns in 2011 but was probably held back by Indy’s struggles at quarterback. He will be called upon to become a lot more reliable in 2012 as the Redskins break in a rookie passer in Robert Griffin III. If he plays up to his potential, Garcon has the size and speed to become a very good receiver – but he’s not there yet and still puts too many balls on the ground due to an occasional lack of focus. And that’s why some will continue to question the amount Washington spent on him. The only way Garcon can silence those critics is to have a very strong season with the Redskins. Until then, we’re in wait and see mode.
Sydney Rice – Wide Receiver, Seattle Seahawks
When Brett Favre was throwing bombs for the Minnesota Vikings in 2009, Sydney Rice looked like he was going to emerge as the NFL’s new Randy Moss! Rice caught 83 passes for 1,312 yards (15.8 average) and 8 touchdowns in a memorable campaign that ended with an NFC Championship Game loss to New Orleans. Since then, Rice has missed more games (17) than he has played (15) and remains a massive injury concern for the Seattle Seahawks ahead of the 2012 season. Rice has spent this off-season recovering from pretty major operations on both shoulders and while he insists he can be fit for Week 1, some feel that may be a step too far for the fragile 25-year-old. The 6-foot-4, 202-pound Rice has all the physical tools to be an NFL star. But can his body handle life in the NFL? Rice’s 2011 season was prematurely ended by a third concussion in 12 months and he has it all to prove when the new season begins.
Shonn Greene – Running Back, New York Jets
Shonn Greene did not have a bad 2011 for the New York Jets. In fact, the runner who will turn 27 ahead of the 2012 season rushed for 1,054 yards and 6 touchdowns on a career-high 253 carries. But he rarely took over games in the way you would think he might be able to do given New York’s commitment to the ground and pound attack. Things may change in 2012 with the no-nonsense Tony Sparano calling the plays and the added confusion that opposing defenses will feel when Tim Tebow enters the fray in the backfield. Greene needs to improve and up his game if he is to become a premier running back in the NFL. He averaged just 65.8 rushing yards per game and was the focal point of a rushing attack that ranked just 22nd in the league. Those are not the kind of figures you would associate with a Rex Ryan-coached team and Greene is in danger of becoming more of a plodder than a back with whom you would associate nice moves and breakaway speed. Ryan won’t mind having a plodder in the backfield, but he would want that guy to lead an attack that was ranked much higher than 22nd in the NFL.
Steve Hutchinson – Guard, Tennessee Titans
During his prime with the Seattle Seahawks, Steve Hutchinson was an All-Pro guard five times and was long considered the best interior offensive lineman in the business. His skills have been declining in recent years with the Minnesota Vikings and now he has to prove his worth to the Tennessee Titans after signing a three-year deal worth a more modest $16 million. The 35-year-old may be a shadow of his former self but the Titans desperately need him to succeed in 2012 if they are to get Chris Johnson back on track. The star running back was poor in 2011 and some of that was of his own making - but he was certainly not helped by his interior blockers up front. Hutchinson is a bit long in the tooth and on the slide, but he should upgrade the Titans with his toughness and veteran leadership. If he doesn’t, it could spell the end of his illustrious NFL career and would likely also mean another year out of the playoffs for the Titans.
Levi Brown – Tackle, Arizona Cardinals
Having resembled a turnstile more than an NFL offensive tackle in recent seasons, the pressure is on Levi Brown to succeed in 2012. The Cardinals allowed 54 sacks in 2011 and quarterbacks Kevin Kolb and John Skelton found themselves under constant pressure. Brown has to take some responsibility for that while playing at the all-important left tackle position. The Cardinals are not completely sold on Brown, even though they brought him back during the off-season. The five-year, $30 million contract he signed in March has clauses in it that are favourable to the Cardinals and effectively make it a one-year deal worth $8 million. Even so, that is quite a hefty price and Brown will be expected to perform much better this season. Throughout his five years in the NFL, Brown has been consistently inconsistent. If things don’t change in 2012, don’t expect him to be offered the rest of his contract from 2013 onwards.
Jahvid Best – Running Back, Detroit Lions
Jahvid Best insists he is “symptom free” as he enters his third season in the NFL but concussions are the biggest worry with this talented and exciting young back. Best saw his final year at Cal end early with a second concussion in 2009 and he suffered two more concussions during the 2011 NFL campaign. His first concussion in 2011 came during the preseason and the second occurred in October, ending his campaign after just six games. He has not been exposed to full football contact since then but insists he will be fine come opening day. And Lions general manager Martin Mayhew is confident Best will enjoy a breakout season. The Lions hope that is the case because they are currently one of the most one-dimensional teams in the league. But the head injuries remain a massive concern, particularly in today’s NFL climate. In brief spells, Best has shown the speed and quickness to be a multi-dimensional threat out of the backfield. But those moments have been all too fleeting. If he cannot get it done consistently in 2012, Best may be forced to watch the Lions move on without him.
J’Marcus Webb – Tackle, Chicago Bears
If you listen to Chicago Bears head coach Lovie Smith he will tell you he is perfectly comfortable moving forward with J’Marcus Webb at left tackle. But the reality is that, on recent form, this guy is one of the worst tackles in the league and leaves Jay Cutler exposed all too often. While Webb can go through periods of something almost approaching consistency, he lets himself down all too often with high-profile, critical errors such as sacks allowed and penalties. Bears quarterbacks were sacked 49 times in 2011 and Webb needs to improve drastically if he is to eventually lock down the left side that has been a perennial problem. The Bears are building for a playoff run in 2012 and have added some weapons on the offensive side of the ball, but protection up front remains an issue. Cutler has failed to finish either of the previous two seasons and Webb and his buddies on the offensive line need to tighten things up for the upcoming campaign.
Laurent Robinson – Wide Receiver, Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jacksonville Jaguars had one of the worst receiving corps in the NFL last season and that explains why they may have over-paid for Laurent Robinson this year. During his 2011 campaign with the Dallas Cowboys, Robinson enjoyed a breakout year, catching 54 passes for 858 yards and 11 touchdowns. That’s good, but it’s not that spectacular and that also happens to be the best year of his career – by far. This may sound harsh but Robinson was nothing more than an injury-prone journeyman for four years before emerging with the Cowboys. Yet the Jaguars were happy to pay him $32.5 million over the next five years, with more than $14 million of that money guaranteed. Robinson can stretch the field and be a factor down near the goal-line, but can he really be the difference-maker for a stagnant Jaguars’ passing attack that did nothing to help young quarterback Blaine Gabbert? If he is to succeed, Robinson will have to put together solid back-to-back performances for the first time in his career.