The Schein Nine  

 

Bounce-back potential? Josh Gordon, Andrew Luck top wish list

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Say what you will about Tigers Woods' behavior off the links, but on the golf course -- when he's rolling -- the man just makes his sport a lot more captivating. Golf is better with Tiger Woods in contention.

Tiger's one of the most iconic athletes of my lifetime. Consequently, his presence on the leaderboard provides unparalleled juice for a golf tournament. And that's why there's so much buzz heading into this week's annual event at Augusta National Golf Club. Tiger just might be back -- and what better stage for him to showcase his reinvigorated game than The Masters? This is must-see TV. And that's the power of Tiger. That's why sports fans want to see him reassume the throne. Quite simply, golf is more fun when Tiger's lurking among the leaders in his Sunday red.

Compelling athletes create compelling competition. And that certainly applies to the NFL.

So, in the spirit of Tiger's potential renaissance, I'm putting the spotlight on nine NFL players who've suffered through down times in recent years. All of these guys showed great promise earlier in their respective careers, and I want to see them bounce back in 2018 -- for the good of the game and for the good of themselves.

1) Josh Gordon, WR, Cleveland Browns

He's battled well-documented addiction issues. And he's shown striking immaturity and poor decision-making. But there's no denying Josh Gordon's rare talent on the football field.

This guy led the NFL with 1,646 receiving yards in 2013 -- and that was despite the fact that he was suspended for the first two games of the season after violating the league's substance-abuse policy. Gordon posted back-to-back games of 200-plus receiving yards that season, earning first-team All-Pro honors. But the next three years were essentially buried by suspensions and substance-abuse issues. Reinstated for the last five games of this past season, Gordon immediately flashed his tantalizing ability once again, posting 85 yards receiving in his first game back and finishing the year with a 115-yard outing.

Gordon's just about to turn 27. The opportunity is there for him to re-establish himself as one of the game's premier playmakers -- IF he can stay out of trouble and focus on football. Gordon's upside is returning to All-Pro status as the headliner of a suddenly-intriguing Browns offense (with Tyrod Taylor, Jarvis Landry and Carlos Hyde joining the fray). His downside is getting booted from the league. Who doesn't want to see Gordon and the hard-luck Browns succeed in 2018?

2) Andrew Luck, QB, Indianapolis Colts

If you went to a quarterback factory and drew up the positional prototype, it would be Andrew Luck. He's the total package: brains, brawn, athleticism, leadership capability and just about every other item on the QB checklist. We've expected greatness since he guided Stanford to back-to-back BCS bowls. The No. 1 overall pick in 2012, Luck led the Colts to three straight 11-5 seasons, advancing further in the playoffs with each passing year. But injuries have leveled two of his past three seasons, causing Indianapolis to backslide to also-ran status.

You know Luck, the ultimate competitor, was miserable missing the entire 2017 campaign due to a nagging shoulder issue. But we, the fans, felt cheated, too. I love watching greatness, especially at the quarterback position. Andrew Luck is one of the five most talented signal-callers in the NFL today. The old regime in Indy neglected him and failed to protect the prized possession with a viable offensive line. Sinful shortcomings in team management. Here's hoping Chris Ballard, Frank Reich and Co. can get No. 12 back on the field -- and keep him there.

3) Clay Matthews, OLB, Green Bay Packers

Did you realize Matthews hasn't posted double-digit sacks in a season since 2014? Me neither. For all of the rightful chatter about Green Bay needing to improve its defensive personnel, getting Matthews back to full health and full production would be quite the boon in itself. When No. 52 is flying around the edge with his majestic hair on fire, it's a sight to behold. And a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks.

Heading toward a contract season and about to turn 32, the six-time Pro Bowler should be quite motivated to produce. Here's hoping new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine -- who replaced the much-maligned Dom Capers -- can reconstitute the game-wrecking piece on Green Bay's defense.

4) Joe Flacco, QB, Baltimore Ravens

Is Joe Flacco elite? I don't care. But last year, Joe Flacco wasn't healthy. Yes, he started all 16 games -- that's a testament to his mettle. A summer back injury, which forced Flacco to miss training camp and the entire preseason, seemed to linger into the regular season. He was also knocked out of an October game with a concussion. All of this helps to explain his poor statistical marks: 80.4 quarterback rating, 3,141 yards passing and a career-low average of 5.7 yards per attempt.

With a clean bill of health and some new toys at his disposal (free-agent additions Michael Crabtree and John Brown), Flacco could be poised for a bounce-back campaign. At least that's what John Harbaugh's expecting. When asked at the Annual League Meeting about the level of improvement Baltimore's passing game could see in 2018, Harbaugh mused, "A healthy Joe Flacco plus the weapons is ... I'm sure there's a math term for that ... exponential. It's exponential. How about that? That's what I'm counting on."

Cheers to that! There's something special about Flacco airing it out in clutch fashion in a division game, leading the Ravens to a hard-earned win. The NFL is always better when the Ravens and Flacco are the epitome of toughness.

5) Malcolm Butler, CB, Tennessee Titans

A Super Bowl hero in 2014 and a Pro Bowler in 2015, Butler's falling out with the Patriots was one of the oddest developments in the NFL. I still can't get over -- still don't understand -- the cornerback's Super Bowl benching. In a crazy shootout that featured the most yards ever in an NFL game, you have to believe Butler could have made a play or two to alter the outcome. Butler himself thinks so.

That was a rough -- and quite public -- fall from grace for a guy who went from undrafted free-agent signee to Boston darling seemingly overnight. Yes, his play dropped off in 2017, but that's a confounding final chapter of his Patriots tenure. After signing with the Titans last month, Butler said he "never got a reason" for the surprise benching. Here's hoping the 28-year-old gets his name -- and his game -- back in Tennessee.

6) Dez Bryant, WR, Dallas Cowboys

I'm skeptical that Dez will ever get back to being a legit No. 1 receiver. But then again, I was skeptical Tiger would ever get back to being a Masters favorite. And here we are.

Dez Bryant is the most polarizing player on the most polarizing team in the NFL. People love/hate Dez, just like people love/hate the Cowboys. That's great for league intrigue. But part of the deal is Bryant has to be great -- and winning games -- to be both lovable and loathsome. He hasn't had a 1,000-yard campaign since 2014. The NFL fan needs him to get that chemistry clicking with Dak Prescott. Although it seems like we've had Dez in our lives for quite some time now, he still hasn't turned 30. Shouldn't he have something left in the tank?

7) Teddy Bridgewater, QB, New York Jets

Mike Zimmer has openly talked about how gruesome and devastating Bridgewater's career-altering injury was. And with that setback essentially costing the former first-round pick the past two seasons, we still haven't seen Bridgewater reach his potential. It's sad, but there's time for a happy second act here.

Still just 25, Bridgewater finds himself on a new team, poised to compete for playing time with Josh McCown and whichever quarterback the Jets draft at No. 3. Former teammates in Minnesota swear by Bridgewater's leadership and infectious personality. The NFL is better when Teddy is smiling, oozing positivity and -- most importantly -- on the field of play.

8) Ndamukong Suh, DT, Los Angeles Rams

Suh's productivity in Miami never came close to matching the paycheck, and the Dolphins had had enough. But Miami's decision to cut bait allowed the Rams to swoop in and set the stage for mind-blowing game-wreckage.

Alongside Aaron Donald, Suh can get back to the All-Pro, can't-miss-a-snap form we saw in Detroit. And signing him on a one-year deal will keep motivation high. These two should terrorize opposing offenses, providing NFL fans with some awesome displays of dominance along the way.

9) Sammy Watkins, WR, Kansas City Chiefs

We saw flashes during Watkins' year in L.A. After all, eight of his 39 catches went for touchdowns. But I want more. I need more. And now, so does Andy Reid, after signing the former top-five pick to a rich contract.

Watkins can be an unstoppable freak. But he needs to stay healthy. And consistent. This is easier said than done. (Ask Bills fans.) But I loved Watkins coming out of Clemson. I haven't given up hope on his rare talent. And clearly, neither has Kansas City.

Follow Adam Schein on Twitter @AdamSchein.

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