|Robert Ayers, Andre Smith, Larry English and Aaron Maybin were top-20 picks who have failed to produce.|
It's now or never.
That's what scouts across the league are saying about several members of the 2009 draft class.
As a general rule, evaluators give top draft picks three years to prove their worth in the league before casting them aside as a bust or disappointment. Although the pressure to perform in the pivotal third year causes some to crack, others respond with stellar performances to build momentum.
Darren McFadden spent his first two seasons in the league failing to live up to the lofty expectations many set for him when the Raiders nabbed him the fourth overall pick. He topped the 100-yard mark only once during his first 25 games and showed scant glimpses of the explosive ability that made him the first running back chosen in the 2008 draft.
McFadden found his stride during his third season. He finished with 1,157 yards rushing on the strength of six 100-yard games, caught 47 passes for 507 yards and scored 10 touchdowns.
Scouts are hoping some of their own third-year pros can find their games this season the way McFadden did during his make-or-break season. Let's take a look a few third-year guys who need to step up their play in 2011:
Andre Smith, OT, Bengals: The Bengals thought they were picking the franchise tackle of the future when they selected Smith No. 6 overall, but he has failed to crack the starting lineup on a full-time basis during two injury-plagued seasons. Smith also has struggled to control his weight and maintain adequate physical conditioning. The lockout has prevented Smith from working under the guidance of the Bengals' staff, and the jury is out whether he will ever reach his potential.
Aaron Maybin, OLB, Bills: Maybin was expected to provide the Bills with a presence off the edge, but he has been a non-factor through two seasons. He has failed to record a sack and has only 24 tackles while suiting up in 25 games. He has bounced from defensive end to outside linebacker without finding a home, and time is running out on his opportunity to make a difference. Maybin might rank as one of the league's biggest disappointments in recent history if he doesn't step up this season.
Larry English, OLB, Chargers: English was billed as Shawne Merriman's successor but has failed to develop into an effective complementary rusher opposite Shaun Phillips. Although the Chargers' defense finished near the top of the league, his emergence is critical for the defense to carry the team on an extended postseason run.
Robert Ayers, DE/OLB, Broncos: John Fox is intent on reversing the Broncos' fortunes by rebuilding a defense that has underachieved in recent years. Part of their failures can be attributed to Ayers' inability to provide consistent production as a rusher off the edge. Although the addition of Von Miller and the return of a healthy Elvis Dumervil will certainly bolster the rush, a breakout season by Ayers would play a pivotal role in a quick turnaround.
Peria Jerry, DT, Falcons: The Falcons have spent two seasons waiting for Jerry to make his presence felt on a defensive line that desperately needs an interior pass rusher. Unfortunately, injuries have limited his availability, and when he has been in the lineup, he hasn't produced disruptive plays. The team bypassed the opportunity to upgrade the defensive interior in the draft, putting the pressure squarely on Jerry's shoulders to become wrecking ball they envisioned when he entered the league.
Donald Brown, RB, Colts: Bill Polian always has been a step ahead of the game when it comes to plugging holes on the Colts' roster, but Brown is on the verge of becoming one of his few draft mishaps after two underwhelming seasons. He failed to supplant Joseph Addai as the full-time featured runner and has averaged only 3.8 yards per carry. Given the struggles of the Colts' running game, the onus is on Brown to spark a turnaround or the team will be forced to explore options.
Everette Brown, DE, Panthers: GM Marty Hurney traded away a future first-round pick to add Brown as the eventual replacement for Julius Peppers. Brown has failed to deliver, as his 6.5 sacks are a far cry from the double-digit totals Peppers consistently produced. New coach Ron Rivera is intent on utilizing an aggressive approach, but he needs Brown to emerge as a force off the edge for the tactics to reap big dividends.
Connor Barwin, OLB, Texans: Much of the offseason focus has been on Mario Williams' move to outside linebacker, but it's the pass rusher on the opposite side who might be the Texans' biggest question mark. Barwin showed flashes of being an effective rusher with 4.5 sacks as a rookie before he missed most of 2010 with a dislocated ankle. Wade Phillips is counting on Barwin to become a difference-maker along the front seven.
Sen'Derrick Marks, DT, Titans: The Titans' defense hasn't been the same since Albert Haynesworth departed, but part of that can be attributed to the lack of production from Marks. He hasn't provided much against the run or pass, a big reason he has only three starts in 21 career games. New defensive coordinator Jerry Gray is intent on dialing up the pressure and needs Marks to step forward and emerge as a productive starter.
Paul Kruger, OLB, Ravens: Few teams cultivate their own talent as well as the Ravens, but Kruger hasn't developed into a consistent contributor. He has floated in and out of the rotation and looks nothing like the pass-rusher who dominated the Mountain West Conference as a collegian. In what could be his final opportunity to crack the lineup, Kruger needs to show he is ready to make an impact of the edge.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks