Blaine Gabbert, Ryan Mathews among 10 guys who must step up


"It's now or never!"

That's the common refrain uttered in meeting rooms across the NFL when general managers, coaches and scouts convene to discuss the fates of former top picks who are underperforming.

As a rule, teams will give first-round picks at least three seasons to fulfill their potential on the field. While other draft picks aren't afforded this luxury, the combination of draft status and financial commitment leads to a more patient approach from decision makers when evaluating Round 1 selections.

Of course, these players must eventually perform up to expectations and make significant contributions or evaluators will chalk them up as busts and look for other solutions at their respective positions. With organized team activities and minicamps underway, it's a perfect time to examine 10 players who must step up or step off in 2013 (listed in alphabetical order):

Prince Amukamara, CB, New York Giants: The Giants' secondary situation has been a question mark for years, but Amukamara was expected to be a part of the solution. However, the former first-round pick hasn't been available or consistent enough to make a significant contribution to the defense. Amukamara has only suited up for 20 games in two seasons, with just 11 starts. In those appearances, he hasn't displayed the sticky cover skills or awareness to match elite receivers in isolated coverage. Additionally, Amukamara hasn't showcased the ball skills to consistently produce takeaways at the position. The G-Men are desperately seeking a No. 1 corner. It's time for Amukamara to validate his status as a top pick with his performance on the field.

Gabe Carimi, OL, Chicago Bears: The Bears tried to address a myriad of offensive line woes by selecting Carimi with the 29th overall pick of the 2011 NFL Draft. He was expected to vie for the starting job at left tackle, but wound up starting his first couple games on the right side before a knee injury prematurely ended his rookie season. Although he returned to the starting lineup in 2012 at right tackle, he struggled mightily against speed rushers before being benched following a dismal performance against the San Francisco 49ers in Week 11. He eventually regained playing time by filling in at guard, but the team is still uncertain about his ability to succeed at guard or tackle against NFL competition. Given another chance to compete for a starting spot under new coach Marc Trestman, Carimi must bring his "A" game in training camp to secure a role on the offensive line.

Top 10 quarterbacks 25 or under

Blaine Gabbert, QB, Jacksonville Jaguars: Excuse me for stating the obvious with my inclusion of Gabbert on this list. Factoring in pre-draft hype, he has been the most disappointing player in the 2011 class. Observers raved about his arm talent and potential as a franchise quarterback, but he has yet to display the confidence, poise and promise of an emerging star at the position. Additionally, he looks timid and distracted in the pocket when rushers penetrate seams. Now, I'll be the first to admit the supporting cast around Gabbert is subpar, but his individual performance has been abysmal. He must improve to maintain a role in the franchise's future. Based on previous performance, it seems unlikely, but a new offensive coordinator (Jedd Fisch) and fresh system could finally tap into the talent and potential that captivated several scouts prior to the 2011 draft.

Brandon Graham, DE/OLB, Philadelphia Eagles: Chip Kelly should be encouraged by the splash plays produced by Graham a season ago, but it is time for the fourth-year player to earn a full-time role in the starting lineup. Although Graham's contributions as a situational player certainly improved the Eagles' pass rush in 2012, the team drafted him 13th overall to become a down-by-down difference maker on the perimeter. With the Eagles moving to a 3-4, Graham must also display some cover skills to complement his pass-rush ability off the edge. If he can put it all together and develop into the disruptive playmaker most expected him to be coming out of Michigan, the Eagles could rejoin the ranks of the elite on defense.

Mark Ingram, RB, New Orleans Saints: The devaluation of running backs has prompted teams to pause before investing a first-round pick in the position. Ingram's modest contributions to the Saints' offense further cement this line of thinking. The third-year pro has totaled just 1,076 rushing yards over two seasons, failing to crack the lineup as a full-time starter. Most importantly, Ingram hasn't wowed observers when he has been on the field. The Alabama product is a hammerhead runner with strength and power, but he lacks the burst and speed to run away from defenders. As a result, he fails to break off big runs, amassing just six runs of 20-plus yards in 278 rushing attempts.

Jake Locker, QB, Tennessee Titans: The Titans surprisingly selected Locker with a top-10 pick, pegging the Washington alum as the franchise quarterback of the future after moving on from the Vince Young debacle. On paper, Locker looked like an ideal replacement, with an ultra-athletic game and impeccable intangibles. However, those traits haven't translated into winning quarterback play on Sunday. Locker has only eclipsed 300 passing yards twice in his career. Also, he's logged multiple TD passes just twice over 11 starts. Additionally, Locker has struggled with his accuracy and ball placement on intermediate and deep throws. As a result, he has only completed 56.4 percent of his passes as a starter, which falls well short of the 60 percent standard favored by most offensive coordinators. With Mike Munchak under the gun to deliver a winner in Tennessee, Locker must step up his game or watch Ryan Fitzpatrick take over an offense that has the pieces to compete for an AFC South title.

Ryan Mathews, RB, San Diego Chargers: Former Chargers GM A.J. Smith made the bold move to draft Mathews as the replacement for perennial All-Pro running back LaDainian Tomlinson. However, Mathews has failed to live up to expectations, with only one 1,000-yard season in his three-year career. While injuries and a leaky offensive line have contributed to Mathews' struggles, the fact that he hasn't shown the consistency or durability to handle the workload as a feature back has placed an enormous burden on Philip Rivers to carry the offense on the strength of his right arm. Without even the semblance of a balanced approach, the Chargers' offense hasn't been as productive or explosive in recent years. With Mike McCoy and Ken Whisenhunt hoping to feature a more efficient offensive attack, Mathews must become the player the Chargers envisioned when they selected him with the No. 12 pick of the 2010 NFL Draft.

Dexter McCluster, RB/WR, Kansas City Chiefs: McCluster is the only player on this list who wasn't selected in the first round -- just barely, as Kansas City scooped him up with the fourth pick of Round 2 back in 2010. McCluster was supposed to add juice to the Chiefs' offense, but he has yet to make a significant impact as a running back/receiver. Now, the departure of Todd Haley and the inept game-planning of former offensive coordinator Brian Daboll certainly hindered McCluster's ability to provide a spark, but a closer look at the film reveals an undersized playmaker without an explosive burst. Moreover, McCluster is an unpolished receiver lacking the route-running skills or craftiness to win consistently from the slot. New K.C. boss Andy Reid has suggested that he has big plans for the diminutive pass catcher. We will soon find out if McCluster has the game to match those lofty expectations.

Danny Watkins, OG, Philadelphia Eagles: Watkins' disappointing play has been one of the big reasons for the Eagles' O-line woes over the past few seasons. The former first-round pick has struggled in transitioning to the pro game after shining at Baylor as an offensive tackle. While Kelly has promised a clean slate for all players, Watkins' previous struggles could make it hard for the new head coach to throw him into the starting lineup without a standout performance in training camp. He must make major strides as a blocker to be a viable option for the team heading into the regular season.

Kyle Wilson, CB, New York Jets: The Jets drafted Wilson with the hope that he would immediately play a critical role as a nickel defender before ascending to a starting role down the line. Although he has performed well in spots, Wilson hasn't shown the consistent cover skills to become a front-line player in the NFL. This was evident when he struggled mightily as a rookie in the slot, and he continued to display inconsistencies as a fill-in for Darrelle Revis a season ago. Sure, he made significant strides from his rookie season, but he certainly is not a lock to hold onto his starting spot opposite Antonio Cromartie, with the arrival of No. 9 overall pick Dee Milliner. Regardless, the Jets will spend nearly 70 percent of their defensive snaps in some form of nickel defense; Wilson must be an effective player as a slot defender or outside corner for the scheme to work. How well he performs in his assigned role could determine Rex Ryan's fate as the leader of Gang Green.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.



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