Many players don't make it past their first couple years in the National Football League, but the ones that do, aren't guaranteed to stay in the league past their rookie contracts. If players don't explode in their first two seasons, like Patrick Mahomes or Deshaun Watson, they enter "prove it" seasons. If a player in a "prove it" season doesn't have a great year, they could be off their team or even out of the league very soon after. These are some of the players entering very important seasons in their young careers.
1. Baker Mayfield
The Browns have been a horrible franchise since they came back in 1999, starting 30 different quarterbacks between then and the 2020 season. They appear to have found some level of stability with quarterback Baker Mayfield. In his 30 career starts, Mayfield has thrown for over 7500 yards, 49 touchdowns, and 35 interceptions on a 61.5% completion percentage. Baker showed out in his rookie season in 2018 breaking the rookie quarterback passing touchdown record in only 14 starts. In the 2019 offseason, the Browns traded for superstar receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and the hype in Cleveland grew loud and large. Baker couldn't carry over the success from his rookie season and struggled in year two. The Browns only won six games, but it wasn't all on Mayfield. Freddie Kitchens was a horrible coach, the offensive line struggled to protect Baker, and defense was average at best.
In this past offseason, the Browns added tackles Jack Conklin and Jedrick Wills which should improve the pass protection significantly. They also added breakout tight end Austin Hooper from Atlanta. Arguably the best move they made was firing Kitchens and signing new head coach Kevin Stefanski from Minnesota. Now in a loaded offense consisting of Jarvis Landry, Odell Beckham, Austin Hooper, Kareem Hunt, and Nick Chubb, on top of an improved offensive line, the pressure falls on Baker Mayfield. He has arguably the best surrounding cast in the league and a better head coach than he did in his first two seasons. If Mayfield can't show out in year three, the quarterback carousel in Cleveland may continue in 2021.
2. Juju Smith-Schuster
The Steelers offense struggled mightily in 2019 after losing their long time starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Pittsburg used a mix of Mason Rudolph and Devlin "Duck" Hodges, neither of which proved to be anything special. This really impacted Smith-Schuster's season. Although he only played 12 games in 2019, he only had 552 yards and three touchdowns. Both of these are significantly lower numbers than his past two seasons. Juju was beginning to look like a star receiver in his second season, playing the number two behind Antonio Brown. In 2018, he put up an insane 1426 yards to go along with seven touchdowns. Even in his rookie season, where he only started seven games (played in 14), he put up over 900 yards and seven touchdowns.
Juju Smith Schuster has yet to prove he can be a true number one, but 2019 was a rough season for the entire offense. With Ben Roethlisberger coming back, Juju has his first real chance at being the wide receiver one in this offense. The Steelers excel at drafting wide receivers with some major names like Antonio Brown, Santonio Holmes, Emmanuel Sanders, Plaxico Burress, and Mike Wallace. They also have Diontae Johnson, James Washington, and rookie receiver Chase Claypool. If Juju can't put up wide receiver one numbers, it may be time to move on from him. If Pittsburg decides to resign Smith-Schuster, it could be as a second option in that offense if any other receiver breaks out. Juju Smith Schuster's rookie contract is up after the 2020 season, so this is a very important year for his career.
3. John Ross
The Bengals have a very underrated receiving group in the NFL consisting of AJ Green, Tyler Boyd, John Ross, Tee Higgins, Alex Erickson, and Auden Tate. With such a crowded room, the weakest links may be let go or not resigned when their contract expires. Ross was drafted with the ninth pick in the 2017 draft and has been pretty close to a bust in his young career. So far, he's only played 24 of 48 possible games since being drafted due to injuries. When he has played, his numbers are disappointing for a top ten pick. Ross has 716 yards over three seasons to go along with ten touchdowns. Outside of his speed, John Ross hasn't shown much more on the field and could very easily get lost in this crowded receiving room.
The quarterback play hasn't been the best in his career, but Andy Dalton isn't the worst quarterback a receiver a could ask for. Ross hasn't been able to stay on the field in his career and with the NFL quickly becoming a game built on speed, the Bengals may look for a new speedster soon.
4. Mike Hughes
The Minnesota Vikings lost a lot of talent in the secondary in the 2020 offseason including their top three corners: Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes, and Mackensie Alexander. This leaves Mike Hughs and rookie Jeff Gladney as the starting cornerbacks. Mike Hughes hasn't seen a ton of playing time, he hasn't been starting quality yet. In 2019, he played in thirteen games and was targeted 67 times. Of those 67 targets, he allowed 39 receptions, 451 yards, and three touchdowns. Hughes has big shoes to fill after the loss of those three corners, especially former all pro Xavier Rhodes. Mike Hughes needs to stick to receivers better as he allowed an average of 1.55 yards of separation. If he can do that, his play should take a big step forward. If he doesn't improve, the Vikings may be looking for a new starting corner that they may already have in Jeff Gladney. Luckily for the Hughes, Minnesota has arguably the best safety duo in the NFL to help cover up any mistakes he may make.
5. Jadeveon Clowney
As of July 15th, 2020, Clowney is still a free agent. He has a very high asking price of around $20 million, but doesn't have the sack production that teams are looking for. That's not to say he doesn't deserve that money as he can take double teams and allow his teammates to get sacks instead. Clowney will be a force on any defensive line and will immediately make that team better. When Clowny signs, he has a lot to prove though. He has never been a sack machine, but he needs to produce a little more than he did last season, only getting three sacks. Clowney has also never had a ten sack season. If Clowney signs a one year deal, this season will make or break his next contract. He's proven to be an effective pass rusher with hurries and pressures, even taking double teams regularly, but teams look for sack production. Clowney needs to have his best season yet in 2020 or he may not get the contract he wants for 2021.
6. Todd Gurley
The Rams decided to move on from Todd Gurley following the 2019 season. He rushed for a disappointing 857 yards on 3.8 yards per carry, but still managed to get 13 touchdowns. The decline in play from 2017 and 2018 is in part due to the arthritis in his knee, but also due to he atrocious offensive line the Rams had in 2019. Gurley signed with the Atlanta Falcons in the offseason in hopes to revive his career there.
Atlanta's offensive line also struggled in the 2019, but wasn't as bad as it was in Los Angeles. The Falcons also have some young pieces who should continue to improve into the 2020 season. Gurley has shown he can be a great running back and an excellent receiver when need be. Matt Ryan and Dan Quinn have also utilized Devonta Freeman as a three down back, giving him the volume needed to succeed in the past. Gurley's signed a year deal with hope to prove himself and earn a large contract in the future. If his arthritis continues to get worse, Todd Gurley could be out of the NFL by 2021.
7. Cam Newton
This is a pretty obvious player. Cam Newton hasn't been healthy in a few years, but has had a significant amount of time off to get back to full health. He recently signed with the New England Patriots after Tom Brady left for Tampa Bay. The last time Newton was fully healthy, he was the NFL MVP and was playing in the Super Bowl. If Cam Newton is as healthy as he and his team say, he could take this lack luster Patriots offense to the next level and potentially win the AFC East. Cam is currently guaranteed $550,000 for the 2020 season, less than most kickers. He is also only 31 years old, so if he shows out in New England, he could very easily earn an extension or a multi-year contract with another team. This move either completely revived or ended his career.
8. Sam Darnold
The Adam Gase led Jets have been a massive disappointment, not that there were high expectations for them to begin with. The defense looks alright, but the offense is well below average. The biggest contributor to that is once again the offensive line. Darnold has not been a perfect quarterback either, but no one would be with a bottom ten offensive line unless their name is Russell Wilson. Darnold has not performed as well as a first round pick should, but he hasn't gotten much help from the coaching staff or even the front office.
So far in this offseason, New York has added multiple offensive linemen including George Fant and rookie Mekhi Becton. They also added two new weapons for Darnold in Breshad Perrimen and and rookie receiver Denzel Mims. Not to mention tight end Chris Herndon IV should be healthy after missing most of the 2019 season. These are not top tier moves, but the Jets had limited options at the positions they needed. If Darnold doesn't show any improvement with this slightly better team, New York may be looking to move on. This doesn't mean his career is over though. Darnold is actually younger than rookie quarterback Joe Burrow and could very easily succeed in a new system as he has time to learn and sit behind a veteran if need be.
9. Corey Davis
The Titans spent the fifth overall pick in the 2017 NFL draft on wide receiver Corey Davis. In 2019, he was very easily outplayed and outshined by rookie wide receiver AJ Brown. Davis hasn't been horrible, but he has not lived up to what a fifth overall pick should be. In three seasons, he's put up over 1800 yards and just six touchdowns. These numbers would be solid if he was the third or fourth option on a team, but as a starter it's very disheartening.
Davis would be worth keeping around as he's a solid run blocker in a run heavy offense, but he would need to sign a very cheap extension. AJ Brown is the clear number one receiver and tight end Jonnu Smith is slowly beginning to look like the number two option. Corey Davis has not lived up to expectations and may find himself in free agency following the 2020 season. Much like Darnold, his career may not be over if he's resigned. Davis could be a great number three in another run heavy offense.
10. Justin Simmons
The Broncos safety had a breakout season in 2019 with four interceptions and 15 passes defended. Simmons has always been a solid safety, but he really took a step forward this season in coverage and had his second consecutive season with at least 90 tackles. The talent is definitely there, but this is a make or break season as he is playing on the franchise tag in 2020. If Simmons can't continue to improve like he has in his last two seasons, Denver may not resign him.
Justin Simmons is only 26 years old so his career may not be over if he is not resigned. Even if he doesn't progress in 2020, he has shown the talent is there and most teams would be willing to take a shot on him. The only thing this season would hurt for Simmons is how much money his next contract will be. It's hard to believe that Justin Simmons wouldn't be extended or at least signed by another team.
Josh Allen (Buffalo Bills)
Marcus Davenport (New Orleans Saints)
Breshad Perriman (New York Jets)
Jarrad Davis (Detroit Lions)
Lamarcus Joyner (Las Vegas Raiders)