When it comes to arriving as an NFL player, "better late than never" is a cliche that would seem to hold true.
Consider Mark Ingram. After three years of underwhelming play with the New Orleans Saints, the former first-round pick provided a glimpse that he can still become something as a pro in Week 1 of the preseason, rumbling for 83 yards on eight carries and posting a 22-yard scoring run. And if there's ever a time for him to show he's a legitimate NFL talent, it's now, in the last year of his rookie contract.
Ingram isn't the only youngster who remains something of a question mark as he nears the end of his first and only NFL deal. Several others are facing what is, in some ways, their final chance to show the team that shepherded them into the league that they're worth another big investment.
Here are six players entering the last season of a rookie contract who are poised to prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that they belong. Some are more accomplished than others, and some are closer to becoming established stars than others, but all stand to benefit significantly from putting together a big campaign in 2014.
Smith topped 1,000 yards for the first time in his three-year career last season, but he posted just four touchdowns, and the Ravens failed to make the playoffs for the first time since he joined the team. Still, I think this speedster has the makings of a true No. 1 receiver. He's a proven playmaker -- averaging 17.2 yards per catch over his career -- and his best football is surely ahead of him.
Consider that Smith managed to rack up 1,128 yards last season despite playing without much of a supporting cast in the receiving corps -- veteran Anquan Boldin was traded away, and tight end Dennis Pitta missed much of the year with injury -- and with a quarterback in Joe Flacco who was going through a subpar campaign. This year, a healthy Pitta and new additions Steve Smith and Owen Daniels will help out in the passing attack, and I think Torrey Smith should surpass his numbers from 2013 and prove himself worthy of a big contract.
Casey, of course, essentially broke out already last season, racking up 10.5 sacks in 15 games. But while hardcore NFL fans know who he is (and how good he is), I'd guess he remains off the radar of many casual observers. And before he becomes a true, established household name, he'll have to answer a few questions. Is he a one-year wonder? How will he handle the Titans' switch from a 4-3 to a hybrid 3-4 defense?
Ultimately, I see the tremendously explosive Casey -- who has been discussing a new contract with Tennessee -- flourishing in 2014 and helping new coach Ken Whisenhunt make the Titans into playoff contenders.
I expect the fourth-year pro -- who turned heads with 69 catches for 759 yards and six scores last season -- to cement his place among the upper tier of tight ends in the league with a dynamic performance in 2014. Clay has the ability and skills to top 2013's production, especially with new coordinator Bill Lazor coming aboard. Lazor will get a pretty nice offense going in Miami, and I think he'll do a lot of innovative and creative things with Clay.
I also expect quarterback Ryan Tannehill to improve in his third year in the NFL, further benefiting Clay. I can see the tight end snagging something like 80 passes and surpassing last year's touchdown total.
As one of the more notable first-round draft picks from 2011 not to have his fifth-year option picked up, Locker might seem to spark more questions than answers. But I've always liked him, stretching back to his days in Washington in both high school and college, and I think we'll see him make strides this season. I know he missed much of 2013 with injury, but I think he still took an important step forward. In particular, I was impressed with his 60.7 percent completion rate, which was the best of his career.
I have a great deal of faith in Whisenhunt, who has done good things at nearly every stop he's made in his career, including in Arizona (where he got Kurt Warner to take the Cardinals to the Super Bowl) and San Diego (where, as offensive coordinator last season, he helped quarterback Philip Rivers revive his career and make the playoffs). If Locker stays healthy, I think he has a chance to be a top-16 quarterback, and at this time next year, we'll be talking about him as a sure thing.
It's tough to really separate yourself from the pack as a running back for the Saints, who like to rely on a committee approach and throw the ball a lot, so we shouldn't necessarily expect Ingram to record monstrous totals. But I do think he has a good shot to make some noise in 2014. He's really improved his body strength since he entered the league and, as I mentioned above, he ran the ball well in the Saints' preseason opener. Ingram also seemed to set up blockers better than he had previously in his career.
It's safe to say that Ingram, who was drafted 28th overall by the Saints in 2011, has been a disappointment; 1,462 yards and 11 touchdowns over three seasons is not going to cut it. And I'm not sure he'll ever be able to live up to the expectations commensurate with being a first-round pick and a Heisman Trophy winner in 2009. Still, if he gets enough of an opportunity this season, Ingram could go a long way toward repairing his reputation.
If Ridley can eliminate his fumbling problems -- which is definitely possible -- then I think he's in line to really break out this season and separate himself from Shane Vereen, buzzed-about rookie James White and the rest of the Patriots' running back corps. Ridley is a big, strong guy who can run fast and also block. Even while splitting time with LeGarrette Blount (who left via free agency this offseason), Vereen and Brandon Bolden last year, Ridley managed to post 835 total yards from scrimmage.
Of course, major turnovers contributed to his being banished to the bench at times last season. While Vereen -- who offers fine receiving ability and athleticism -- has fewer issues hanging on to the football, I like the bigger Ridley a bit more because of his size.
Follow Gil Brandt on Twitter @Gil_Brandt.