With the opening game of the 2014 NFL regular season just around the corner, buzz is heating up about which players may draw the most attention. Here are 10 players with the most to prove this year.
1) Troy Polamalu, Pittsburgh Steelers (safety)
One of the most likeable players in the NFL, his impact seems to have dropped, along with the Steelers’ defensive rankings and place among the NFL elite. The Steelers have had only one losing season this century, but where are the impact players on defense now?
What he must do: Create impact plays and make his presence felt when on the field.
Polamalu was criticized in Super Bowl XLV for not doing much of anything, and he allowed Larry Fitzgerald to beat him with a long fourth quarter touchdown reception that nearly allowed the Cardinals to defeat the Steelers in Super Bowl XLIII.
On the other hand, every Steelers’ fan remembers his game clinching interception in the 2008-09 AFC Championship Game. But that’s beginning to seem like a long time ago.
A calf injury has limited his production in past seasons. In 2013 he had just two interceptions and two sacks. And in 2012 he played in only seven games. Despite lining up with the linebackers more he was limited to 69 tackles last season—the lowest total for a full season in his career since his rookie season of 2003 when he wasn’t even a starter.
The Steelers have been 8-8 the last two seasons. Last season, their defense—previously ranked No. 1 in total yards allowed in 2011 and 2012—fell to 13th. Polamalu signed a three-year contract extension that will keep him in Black and Gold through 2016. He is the Steelers’ defensive leader and must play like it for Pittsburgh to be a contender once again
2) Eli Manning, New York Giants (quarterback)
Just two seasons ago, Eli Manning was a two-time Super Bowl champion and the top two-minute drill quarterback in the game. After throwing for nearly 5,000 yards in 2012, his numbers have been dropping since. Now he comes off a season in which he led the NFL in interceptions and dug the Giants into an 0-6 hole.
What he must do: Continue where he left off last year.
The Giants finished 7-3 and have given their veteran quarterback a younger supporting cast. This role must continue for Manning to continue to be ranked among elite NFL quarterbacks.
3) Tony Romo, Dallas Cowboys (quarterback)
Tony Romo may actually be the epitome of the Dallas Cowboys franchise. Not Landry, Meredith, Smith, Staubach or Aikman.
Why? Because while he’s been great on your fantasy football team through the years, he epitomizes celebrity ahead of substance, which has been the knock against the Cowboys seemingly since Don Meredith was picked off in the end zone in the 1966 NFL Championship Game.
What he must do: Carry his team to the postseason on his back.
The Cowboys defense is weak but their offensive line is solid. If they are going to win, it will be by winning 31-28 games. The time is now for Romo. If he can lead the Cowboys back to prominence when everyone is picking them for last in their division, it will finally take the heat off him. If he can’t, the fans of “America’s Team” will say they have been led for the past decade by a small college fraud.
4) Roddy White, Atlanta Falcons (wide receiver)
Following an ankle injury, White’s yardage total was halved in 2013 and his touchdown reception dropped to a paltry three. Still, he recently signed a four-year, $30 million contract.
The 2013 season has to go down as one of the most disappointing in Atlanta history. And the Falcons have had their share of disappointing seasons following years in which they seemed to be up and comers. Four victories in Tony Gonzalez’s final year, let alone after reaching the NFC Title Game in 2012, was tough to take.
What he must do: The challenge for White is not just for him to put up good statistics. It’s that he must put up big numbers as other receivers also get their days in the sun in the Falcons offense as Harry Douglas became a 1,000-yard receiver in 2013.
A potential Falcons revival lies on White. Matt Ryan’s statistics didn’t falter much with White’s demise. He still had his third straight 4,000 passing yard season, but he isn’t a lock for anyone’s top 10 NFL quarterbacks list. The production of Gonzalez must be made up for somewhere. Running back Stephen Jackson can still be productive but he isn’t in his prime and can’t carry the load all by himself, so he’ll need some help from rookie Devonta Freeman.
On a sad note, White’s half brother was murdered in the offseason. Could this have an impact, and if so, will it be one of motivation or devastation?
5) Darius Slay, Detroit Lions (cornerback)
The Detroit Lions are always next year’s team. Loaded with offensive talent, a defensive line playing for contracts and playing in a division that was won with eight victories last season, this is next year.
It depends on their shaky cornerback situation, led by second-year pro Slay.
What he must do: Emerge and be consistent week in, week out.
He lost his job as a starter two games into the season but the Lions released Chris Houston to give the second-year pro from Mississippi State the job. He worked with Rod Woodson in the off season. He’s flanked by veteran Rashean Mathis.
While the Lions’ offense came up short during their four-game losing streak at the end of 2013, which cost them not only a division championship but a winning record, it isn’t a long term concern. Detroit’s defensive secondary is, and it starts with Slay.