The Schein Nine  

 

Jay Cutler, Geno Smith among players with something to prove

With four weeks left in the regular season, there's more to fight for than just playoff spots. Jobs and roster positions are at stake.

Here's a look at nine players with everything on the line in the season's final quarter.

1) Jay Cutler, QB, Chicago Bears

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Bears general manager Phil Emery said this week during an online chat that he isn't inclined to use the franchise tag on Cutler, because it takes up a big portion of the salary cap.

Cutler's future is fascinating. In a league where quarterbacks don't grow on trees, Cutler oozes talent. But he has trouble staying healthy and has faced questions in prior years about his leadership skills. The plot thickens with veteran reserve Josh McCown throwing nine touchdown passes against one pick in Cutler's absence. I talked to McCown on my SiriusXM Radio show, "Schein on Sports," and he's very comfortable in Bears coach Marc Trestman's system. But Trestman rightly got the job in Chicago because he was a quarterback guru with the potential to maximize Cutler. And before he got hurt, Cutler looked the part.

McCown has been solid, but Cutler is the superior player. Chances are there will be a gap in what he wants to be paid and what Chicago is willing to give him. Cutler's health status remains uncertain, but one thing is for sure: The final four games of the season loom large in deciding the Bears' direction at quarterback.

2) Darren McFadden, RB, Oakland Raiders

To steal a phrase from "First Blood," "It's over, Johnny."

I don't see how Oakland can bring McFadden back. Frankly, I think his fate has been sealed for some time. Back in March, I wrote that the Raiders needed to jettison both Carson Palmer and McFadden. They got it right with Palmer. They held on to McFadden with one year left on his contract. And this season has been the norm for McFadden, which is to say, he can't stay on the field.

Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie can't -- and won't -- get duped. McFadden can tease with his incredible talent, but he can't stay healthy; he's battling a hamstring injury heading into this week's game against the Jets. Sadly, this is a player who has started 10 or more games just twice in his six-year career due to nagging injuries.

Oakland needs to cut the cord. There's always a chance McFadden could go elsewhere and shine, but with his injury history, it's doubtful. The Raiders can't keep wishing and hoping, especially considering how well Rashad Jennings has played in McFadden's absence.

3) Justin Tuck, DE, New York Giants

Tuck sacked Robert Griffin III four times this past Sunday night. To quote the great Derrick Coleman, "Whoop-de-damn-do."

Tuck hasn't looked the same over the past three seasons, accumulating a grand total of 15.5 sacks over 39 games -- just four more than his 2010 tally. Clearly, injuries have taken a serious toll on the 30-year-old.

Even if Tuck plays well in the final quarter, it would make sense for the Giants to thank him for his previous great play and leadership and move on. It's time for a change.

4) Hakeem Nicks, WR, New York Giants

What a bizarre season for the Giants receiver. He's slumped badly and has been unable to catch the ball with any consistency in a contract year, totaling 44 catches for 654 yards and zero touchdowns. Nicks needs to show GM Jerry Reese and coach Tom Coughlin that he is healthy and effective in the Giants' final four games.

Coming into this season, it was easy to argue that Nicks, as a beast on the outside, was worth more than Victor Cruz. This year, he's been an enigma and regressed. It doesn't seem like Nicks and Coughlin have been on the same page with his injuries, either. The Giants can't pay him off of this year. But if he leaves, you have to replace him.

Former Giants executive Dave Gettleman now runs the Carolina Panthers, and Nicks played his college ball at North Carolina. I wonder if that's the team that pays him based upon his immense natural ability.

5) Carson Palmer, QB, Arizona Cardinals

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Last season with the Raiders, Palmer looked shot. The 33-year-old looked done at the beginning of this season, too, but then he got hot. Unfortunately for the Cardinals, Palmer crashed back to Earth in a big spot last Sunday in Philly.

At present, with a stifling defense and a host of weapons on offense, the Cardinals are a young and/or consistent quarterback away from doing special things. Palmer must be extraordinary over the remainder of this season to leave a good taste in management's mouth heading into the offseason.

6) Brandon Weeden, QB, Cleveland Browns

I can give you stats or I can just give you the eyeball test. One thing is clear: Weeden has been the worst quarterback in the NFL this year.

He's done in Cleveland. That's beyond repair. But riddle me this: If you're an NFL general manager, do you sign Weeden to be a backup? Just two Aprils ago, Weeden was selected in the first round. On the flip side, he's 30 years old and hasn't remotely proven he belongs. Would you want him an injury away from being your starting quarterback? I wouldn't.

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7) Geno Smith, QB, New York Jets

Do the Jets need to select a quarterback in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft? Do they need to sign a big-time veteran at the position? Will they continue to develop Geno? Must they sign a qualified backup to supplement him?

Geno gets the start against the Raiders on Sunday because there are no other options. There's a reason the Jets drafted Smith in the second round, and he did play well earlier in the season. But Geno needs to play better to keep the gig, despite a lack of talent around him on offense. Leading the league in turnovers (23) just isn't going to cut it.

8) Rashard Mendenhall, RB, Arizona Cardinals

Despite missing last week's game with a knee injury, rookie Andre Ellington has been coming on as the Cardinals' main running back. Mendenhall, who was a first-round pick by the Steelers in 2008, hasn't kept up with many of the other running backs in his draft class, like Jamaal Charles, Matt Forte and Ray Rice, landing with the Cardinals on a one-year contract in the offseason. His average of 3.2 yards per carry this season isn't helping matters, though the 26-year-old has performed better in the past two weeks, with 130 yards on 31 carries.

9) Brent Celek, TE, Philadelphia Eagles

Rookie tight end Zach Ertz, who scored a pair of touchdowns in last week's big win over Arizona, is a rising stud in Chip Kelly's offense. But Celek remains reliable, notching a TD of his own against the Cards. It will be interesting to see if there's room for both in 2014.

Follow Adam Schein on Twitter @AdamSchein.

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