In the NFL, not much is guaranteed. Contracts don’t work like they do in MLB and the NBA, and players are made expendable on a regular basis. It forces even the biggest stars to play at a high level each week, otherwise they’ll be looking for a job with another team. These nine players have all been either highly touted draft prospects or stars, but they’re facing difficult situations with their current teams. At this point, it’s a matter of performing well or getting cut (or traded). They’re undoubtedly facing make-or-break seasons.
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LT Luke Joeckel, Jacksonville Jaguars
It’s hard to believe Joeckel was the second overall pick in the 2013 draft, but after looking at those taken around him, it’s a bit easier to see why. Joeckel had his fifth-year option declined this offseason, which is a sign that the team doesn’t see much a future in a player. That means there’s a good chance this will be Joeckel’s last season in Jacksonville, unless he turns in a career year. Having started 30 games in the past two seasons, he’s at least showing he can be a decent player on the offensive line. By no means has he been a player worthy of the No. 2 pick, though.
Remember Smith? He was the Eagles’ first-round pick in 2014. If you don’t recognize the name, you’re not alone. He’s had very little impact thus far and has yet to start a single NFL game. He has a mere seven tackles in his career, with 1 1/2 sacks, despite having solid measurables. Smith will most likely make the team this season because it’s too soon to give up on a first-round pick from two years ago, but his future beyond 2016 is murky. He needs to show a glimmer of hope that he can be the player the Eagles thought they were getting and record a handful of sacks and crack the starting lineup. If not, he’ll be playing elsewhere, given that he has one foot out the door already.
Getty ImagesJonathan Daniel
RB Carlos Hyde, San Francisco 49ers
Hyde has a good amount of potential and the skill set to be a three-down back in the NFL. He just hasn’t showed it yet. In two seasons, Hyde has played just 21 games. In that span, he’s rushed for 803 yards behind San Francisco’s not-so-great offensive line. Hyde enters this season as the undisputed starting running back for the Niners, so long as he can stay healthy. If not, his tenure in San Francisco could end after just three years. Even he admitted it, saying he’s “approaching this year as a make-or-break year.” Hyde has been plagued by injuries throughout his career, and even when not bitten by the injury bug he’s struggled. Hopefully for his sake, Chip Kelly’s up-tempo offense can help him elevate his game.
Getty ImagesThearon W. Henderson
RB Eddie Lacy, Green Bay Packers
If not for a terrible 2015 season in which he played overweight, Lacy would be miles away from a make-or-break year. He has showed in the past that he’s a very capable three-down running back … if he can stay in shape. Lacy lost weight this offseason and seems to have slimmed down a bit, which should help his agility and effectiveness outside the tackles. If he can return to his previous form of back-to-back 1,100-yard seasons, Lacy has nothing to worry about. He’ll be a Packer for the distant future. If not, he may have to relocate in the offseason. The talent is there – he just needs to add a dash of focus and work ethic.
Getty ImagesDylan Buell
OLB Jadeveon Clowney, Houston Texans
The 2014 No. 1 overall pick has missed a great deal of time in his career. In two seasons, Clowney has played just 17 games and recorded 4 1/2 sacks, all of which came in 2015. He’s a freak of an athlete, but due to injuries, he hasn’t been able to harness that ability. This season, though, could be his biggest yet – and it needs to be. The situation is perfect for him -- with Whitney Mercilus and J.J. Watt drawing attention and giving Clowney one-on-one matchups consistently. He just needs to win those battles, which he has reportedly done this preseason and training camp. In his preseason debut last week, he had two tackles and one sack, which is a good start. It’s too early to call him a bust, but he’s running out of time to avoid that label.
Getty ImagesTom Szczerbowski
CB Dee Milliner, New York Jets
The 2013 first-round pick has been nothing but a disaster for the New York Jets since he was taken ninth overall. The former Alabama product has missed far more games (27) than he’s started (14) and hasn’t recorded a single interception since picking off three his rookie year. He’s currently listed as a second-team cornerback on the depth chart, but he has a long way to go before he’ll play regularly come Week 1. Even this preseason, he’s struggled mightily. Against the Jaguars, he was burned by Allen Robinson on several occasions and didn’t appear to be at all improved from past years. With the Jets having declined his fifth-year option, Milliner will need to prove he’s worth keeping around next season.
Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY SporDennis Wierzbicki
QB Colin Kaepernick, San Francisco 49ers
Kaepernick is in a heated battle with Blaine Gabbert for the 49ers’ starting quarterback job, which he appears to be losing. Once viewed as a dynamic dual-threat star quarterback, Kaepernick hasn’t been the same since leading the 49ers to the Super Bowl three seasons ago. He’s taken a step back as a passer, and the fact that he can’t beat out Gabbert, who failed with the Jaguars, is alarming. He’s still under contract through 2020 after signing a six-year, $114 million deal a few years ago, but the 49ers could end his tenure in San Francisco without much penalty after this season ($4.9 million dead cap in 2017). He could also be a trade candidate if he plays poorly (or not at all) this year. He’d be a hard player to trade with his contract, but he’ll be a huge hit to the cap if he’s not playing. He needs a strong season to revive his career.
Getty ImagesEzra Shaw
CB Justin Gilbert, Cleveland Browns
Gilbert was drafted one year after Milliner and one spot earlier than him (eighth overall in 2014), but the results have been largely the same. Gilbert has started just three games in two seasons and has only one career interception to his name. Gilbert has been a complete bust both on the field and off it – he hasn’t been fully committed to the team – and his only hope of remaining in Cleveland rests in the hands of new coach Hue Jackson. Perhaps Gilbert can turn his career around in a new scheme with a new coach, but history would suggest otherwise. He’ll need a breakout year in order for the Browns to pick up his fifth-year option after this season, and anything less would likely bring his tenure in Cleveland to an abrupt end.
Getty ImagesJason Miller
QB Sam Bradford, Philadelphia Eagles
Bradford signed a contract extension this offseason, which might make it seem ludicrous to say he’s in a make-or-break year. But he is, and he knows it. Bradford has been named the Eagles’ starting quarterback, though that’s not exactly reassuring with the No. 2 overall pick and newly signed $21 million backup Chase Daniel behind him. While there’s a chance Carson Wentz may not see the field this season, there’s no chance the Eagles sit him in favor of Bradford next year. That makes Bradford expendable, unless he goes out and has an MVP-like season. The Eagles could very well explore trade options for Bradford after this season, and it may not be a bad thing for either side.