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Can players standing at crossroads avoid sinking out of limelight?

  • By Pat Kirwan NFL.com
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The NFL can be an unforgiving place. The motto "What have you done for me lately?" is a way of life for most players throughout their careers.

Every season, a number of marquee veterans find themselves at the crossroads of their careers. This year is no exception, as 2009 will be crucial for a number of players hoping to rekindle a career or keep their stars shining. Of course, big money and prestige also are on the line.

Guys such as Arizona Cardinals quarterback Matt Leinart and Tennessee Titans quarterback Vince Young can't do anything about their situations except be prepared to deliver if the opportunity arises. They'll have a chance somewhere else before their NFL journeys are over, but it will not be with the same fanfare with which they entered the league. In a way, I feel bad for both men because they have to sit on the sideline and watch. Many others, though, will receive a chance to play and make the most of the situations they are facing.

Quarterbacks

Kirwan explains why Romo isn't on this list
Jim McIsaac / Getty Images
There's no question that Tony Romo is being portrayed as a player in a do-or-die situation this year, but it's my opinion that he isn't at a crossroads in his career. Sure, the Cowboys are starving for a playoff win -- something they haven't had in Romo's first three seasons as the starter. But to think that Romo faces a career-changing season is a bit premature. Romo's first three seasons as a starter compare favorably to Hall of Famer Troy Aikman's third through fifth seasons as a starter (the Cowboys were rebuilding in his first two seasons). Take a look:
Player
Yards
TDs
INTs
Yds/Att
10,562
81
46
8.1
Troy Aikman
9,299
49
30
7.6

Daunte Culpepper, Detroit Lions: The former Pro Bowler faces one of his last chances to re-establish himself as a legitimate starter in the NFL. He knows the top draft pick in the 2009 class, Matthew Stafford, is waiting on the sideline for the green light. Culpepper has bounced around with four different teams in the last four years and has been active for just 23 games -- but he started 22 of those. At 32 years of age, Culpepper still could go out and have a solid four years. Is he the next Kerry Collins or Kurt Warner -- ready to hold off a first-round draft pick? Culpepper has thrown 146 touchdown passes compared to just 100 interceptions in his 10-year career.

Byron Leftwich, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Leftwich has a much tougher road than Culpepper because, quite frankly, he doesn't have the same credentials. Leftwich has never completed a 16-game season, and he has played in just eight games over the last two seasons. In his favor, though, is that from 2003 to 2005, he did throw 44 touchdown passes compared to just 31 interceptions. If he can't beat out Luke McCown, which will not be easy, or hold off first-round pick Josh Freeman, Leftwich's career probably ends in 2009 at a crossroads.

Running backs

Laurence Maroney, New England Patriots: Back in 2006, Maroney was one of the most impressive rookies I watched during my training-camp tour. He looked like a sure-fire superstar who could run with power and catch the ball. With Tom Brady under center, the sky was the limit for Maroney. Since that camp stop three years ago, Maroney has started nine games and played in just 30 of a possible 48 games. The Patriots signed Fred Taylor in the offseason, and one more health-related setback could change Maroney's career fortunes.

Joseph Addai, Indianapolis Colts: Addai is a fine back, but he came into the NFL as a 23-year-old rookie and now is 26. He has yet to start 16 games in any of his three NFL seasons, and he managed just 12 starts last season. In the last two years, Addai has 416 carries, and his longest run is 23 yards. The first-round pick of Donald Brown by the Colts isn't a good sign that all is well for Addai. Even though we all hear that every team needs two running backs, no one says every team needs two high-priced running backs. Addai needs a big season or he might find himself in the same place Marshall Faulk and Edgerrin James did when they played for Colts general manager Bill Polian -- on the way out of Indianapolis.

Jamal Lewis, Cleveland Browns: Lewis hits his 30th birthday this summer, and that's a tough spot for any running back in the NFL. He had his standard 1,000-yard season in 2008, and his career 4.2 yards-per-carry average speaks volumes about his talent. But he only got in the end zone four times in 2008 after scoring nine times in 2007. A new coach in Eric Mangini means Lewis must deliver in 2009.

Wide receivers

Javon Walker, Oakland Raiders: Walker isn't exactly at the crossroads -- he's out in the middle of the intersection and letting his professional football career slip away once and for all. Walker has only one touchdown catch in the last two seasons, and he played in just eight games in his first year with the Raiders because of injury.

Nick Laham / Getty Images
Giants WR Sinorice Moss will have to fight to keep his roster spot.

Sinorice Moss, New York Giants: Moss has a role to play in the Giants' offense, but the team's two draft picks at wide receiver (Hakeem Nicks, Ramses Barden), the return of David Tyree and the reported improvement of 2008 draft pick Mario Manningham could make it tough for him to make the team.

Reggie Brown, Philadelphia Eagles: Brown was a rising star who never quite made it over the top. He should be in the NFL for years to come, but it might be as a solid receiver in a group of receivers. Can he do what Antonio Bryant did down in Tampa? Brown needs a big season in 2009 or the Eagles' offense will become the DeSean Jackson/Jeremy Maclin show.

Chad Ochocinco, Cincinnati Bengals: Last but certainly not least. He might want to change his name back to Chad Johnson -- things were a lot better in his football life when he went by that name. At 31, Ochocinco might have already hit the crossroads of his career and just doesn't know it yet. It is clear the Bengals are emotionally moving on without him at this point as they look to the receivers who actually show up for offseason workouts.

More and more, this looks like the last season in Cincinnati for Ochocinco. And when you consider it has been a fairly long time since he has entertained people with his end-zone antics, Ochocinco has a lot of work to do to regain his old form. He should take a lesson from Keyshawn Johnson, who had three solid seasons (two in Dallas, one in Carolina) after turning 31, averaging 71 receptions and five touchdowns. I have a feeling Ochocinco isn't learning much from anyone these days, and it's a shame because he still has the talent to play this game at a high level.

Defensive players

Travis Johnson, DT, Houston Texans: A former first-round pick, the four-year veteran now has the pressure of Shaun Cody looking over his shoulder.

Tamba Hali, DE, Kansas City Chiefs: Hali must learn to play outside linebacker in the team's new 3-4 defense, and he has to regain his pass-rush skills.

Michael Huff, S, Raiders: Huff was a tremendous talent coming out of Texas in 2006, but he hasn't played up to his status as a first-round selection.

Charles Grant and Will Smith, DEs, New Orleans Saints: The Saints' bookends are two of the highest-paid defensive ends in the NFL, and they must produce in Gregg Williams' defense or things will change.

Competition is a driving force in professional sports, and all of these players should understand that they need to stand up and deliver. How hungry are they? We'll find out next season.

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