With the 2012 NFL season less than three months away, there are numerous players facing plenty of pressure to perform at a higher level than they did in 2011. Here’s a look at 10 players facing the most pressure to perform at a higher level in 2012.
10. Alex Smith–San Francisco 49ers
Alex Smith knew 2011 would make or break his career as a starting quarterback not just with the San Francisco 49ers, but the NFL as well as the former No. 1 pick was anything but impressive over his first six years in the league. Even though the 49ers fell just short of the Super Bowl after falling to the New York Giants last January, Smith’s performance during the regular season and playoffs was good enough to reward him with a new three-year deal this offseason from the organization–which puts even more pressure on him heading into 2012.
There’s absolutely no reason why Smith shouldn’t put up productive numbers this season considering San Francisco has added Randy Moss and Mario Manningham to a passing unit that already consisted of Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree. As sad as it sounds, it was quite the accomplishment for Smith to break the 3,000-yard passing mark last season–so let’s see if he can finally break the 20-touchdown mark in 2012.
9. Devin McCourty–New England Patriots
The New England Patriots selected the former Rutgers star in the first round of the 2010 draft and after a superb rookie season that consisted of seven interceptions–Devin McCourty appeared to be on his way to becoming one of the league’s top cornerbacks.
So how did McCourty follow up to his phenomenal rookie year in 2011? Unfortunately, the interceptions were down (only two) and the Patriots finished 31st in the NFL when it comes to passing defense.
The potential is certainly there, but McCourty has a lot to prove if he’s ever going to return to the elite level New England thought he was on back in 2010.
8. Blaine Gabbert–Jacksonville Jaguars
For the sake of the Jacksonville Jaguars as an organization that needs all of the help in the world to get back to an elite level, they better hope Blaine Gabbert performs at a higher level than he did during his rookie year after the former Missouri star threw for just 2,214 yards with 12 touchdowns and 11 interceptions in 15 games.
Sure, the argument can be made that it’s unfair to blame Gabbert for his struggles considering the lack of weapons Jacksonville provided him in the passing game, but that doesn’t mean expectations shouldn’t be higher heading into 2012. This team moved up in the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft to select Justin Blackmon for a reason and if the rookie can live up to his high expectations–there’s no reason why Gabbert shouldn’t be able to bounce back during his sophomore season.
Plus, it helps to have Maurice Jones-Drew in the backfield to make things easier on offense.
7. Miles Austin–Dallas Cowboys
Despite appearing in 10 games, 2011 was a year to forget for Miles Austin as the Dallas Cowboys wideout was bothered by a nagging hamstring injury for most of the season. For a player in his situation, 43 catches for 579 yards and seven touchdowns is decent Miles, but the Cowboys need more production out of him if they have any shot at returning to the playoffs in 2012.
When healthy, Austin’s blazing speed makes him one of the most difficult wideouts to contain in the NFL as he proved from 2009-10 when he caught 150 passes for 2,361 yards and 18 touchdowns. There were plenty of questions surrounding whether or not Dallas jumped the gun by rewarding Austin with a hefty six-year, $54 million extension after just one breakout season in 2009 and the last thing Jerry Jones needs is to be overpaying a wide receiver that ended up being a two-year wonder.
6. Derrick Morgan–Tennessee Titans
There were high expectations for Derrick Morgan when the Tennessee Titans selected him with the 16th overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft, but the former Georgia Tech star has unfortunately struggled to adjust to the NFL level in each of his first two seasons.
In three seasons at Georgia Tech, Morgan recorded 18 sacks to go along with 112 tackles and was even considered one of the top defensive ends in college football at one point. During his short time with the Titans, Morgan has recorded just 25 total tackles and four sacks in 19 games.
If he continues to struggle once again in 2012, there’s a good chance Tennessee will strongly consider whether or not it’s time to part ways with the former first-round pick who is on the verge of receiving the “bust” label.
5. Carson Palmer–Oakland Raiders
There was one main reason why the Oakland Raiders were willing to give up a first and second round pick to the Cincinnati Bengals to acquire Carson Palmer last year–they believed the former No. 1 pick was the answer for their “win now” mentality.
Obviously, that backfired for the Raiders as they missed out on the AFC West to the Denver Broncos and finished with an 8-8 record–which had to hurt considering they started out the year at 7-4. It was Palmer’s choice to “retire” for the first part of the season after refusing to play for the Bengals and he has nobody but himself to blame for the poor shape he was in when acquired by the Raiders.
For a quarterback that threw for just 2,753 yards to go along with 13 touchdowns and 16 interceptions in the 10 games he played in–Oakland has to regret their decision to give so many high draft picks to Cincinnati in exchange for a quarterback like Palmer.
4. DeSean Jackson–Philadelphia Eagles
After playing most of the 2011 season unhappy, the Philadelphia Eagles finally rewarded DeSean Jackson with a hefty raise of a five-year deal worth $48.5 million–with $18 million guaranteed. Jackson has been pushing for a new contract since the end of his sophomore NFL season, but the organization was hesitant towards giving him a new deal before the end of his rookie deal and all signs originally pointed to the wideout being slapped with the franchise tag for the upcoming season.
Instead, the Eagles were willing to lock up the young wideout early instead of risking him playing another season unhappy about his contract considering 2011 was the most disappointing year of Jackson’s career (only two games with 100+ receiving yards). For a player that was already criticized for being effective on a consistent basis due to his small size, Jackson now has to face the pressure of showing the rest of the NFL world that he’s worth the type of money Philadelphia’s paying him.
3. Chris Johnson–Tennessee Titans
It took Chris Johnson until the first day of September last year to finally receive the type of hefty contract he fought so hard for after the Tennessee Titans rewarded him to a $53.5 million extension–which included $30 million in guaranteed money.
In Johnson’s defense, he deserved a new contract from the Titans considering he was arguably the most underpaid running back in the NFL and rushed for 4,417 yards and 29 touchdowns over his first three years in the league. Unfortunately, the combination of the lockout and holding out during training camp and preseason prevented Johnson from being in the type of tip-top shape he should have been in.
Normally, a running back can get away with the label of having a “decent” season for posting 1,047 rushing yards and four touchdowns, but for a player like Johnson–this was nothing short of embarrassing in 2011.
2. Kevin Kolb–Arizona Cardinals
When fans of the team you play for show up to “Fan Fest 2012″ and praise you with nothing but boos–there’s a ton of pressure to perform well in 2012. For Kevin Kolb, that’s exactly what the case happens to be.
Expectations were high for Kolb in 2012 after the Arizona Cardinals acquired him from the Philadelphia Eagles and signed him to a new deal that guaranteed the quarterback $21 million, but injuries forced him to appear in just nine games all season. In those nine games, Kolb won just twice and threw for only nine touchdowns–which is horrendous for a quarterback that has Larry Fitzgerald as their top wide receiver.
If Kolb is as good as the Cardinals hope, he better figure out a way to perform at a higher level this season–or John Skelton will be taking over in no time.
1. Mark Sanchez–New York Jets
No quarterback or player will be scrutinized more for his every move during the 2012 season than Mark Sanchez–mainly because Tim Tebow will be anxiously waiting on the sidelines for a chance to fill in if necessary.
Sanchez may be coming off his best season in 2011 from a statistics standpoint, but the former first-round pick has received plenty of criticism over the first three years of his career for failing to play at a higher level. The fact that he threw for 300+ yards only three times all of last season there were seven times in which he threw for less than 200 yards says a lot about the type of quarterback Sanchez is.
If he fails to produce big numbers in 2012 and the Jets get off to a rocky start–don’t be surprised if Sanchez sees his job on the line early on.