The Schein Nine  

 

NFL's make-or-break candidates: Guys at a crossroads in 2018

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With temperatures rising outside, it feels like the right time to assess who's facing serious heat in the NFL world.

In the ultimate "What have you done for me lately?" league, certain players and coaches inevitably fall under a searing spotlight. Every year, particular individuals find themselves at a career crossroads where the coming campaign isn't just another season -- it's a turning point, for better or for worse.

As we head into the summer, it's time to roll out our annual "make or break" list for next fall, Schein Nine style.

1) Jameis Winston/Dirk Koetter, quarterback/head coach, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

UPDATE: Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston has been suspended for the first three games of the regular season for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy, the league reported Thursday. NFL Network's Tom Pelissero later reported that Winston will not appeal the ban.

Winston is suspended for three games for violating the league's personal conduct policy. This stems from an incident in 2016 where the quarterback allegedly groped a female Uber driver. Of course, this isn't the first disconcerting off-field episode for the former No. 1 overall pick.

A few months before the 2015 NFL Draft, I wrote a column on NFL.com that urged the Bucs to pass on Winston. Given the QB's pattern of behavior at Florida State -- which ranged from sophomoric mischief to shoplifting to serious allegations of sexual assault -- I just didn't trust Winston as a potential face of the franchise. A franchise-quarterback talent? Sure. But the antics outside the lines were alarming. And now we have another incident that raises serious concerns. Sadly and regrettably, this development didn't really catch anyone by surprise. Not with everything we already knew. And that's the problem.

This isn't just a blot on the Buccaneers' off-field record, either -- it could seriously hinder Tampa's record on it. The Bucs open the season with a three-game nightmare: at New Orleans, vs. Philadelphia, vs. Pittsburgh. Those three clubs combined to go 37-11 last season. That combined mark officially makes this the toughest opening stretch in the Super Bowl era. If Winston is indeed a no-go for all three of those games ... Do you believe in Fitzmagic?? I didn't think so.

Tampa had a chance to be a surprise contender in 2018, with general manager Jason Licht adding a whole bunch of talent on the defensive front and snagging a talented running back in the draft. But Winston's looming suspension throws everything into question. It appears the face of the franchise can't be trusted. Can Winston -- and the Bucs -- still salvage something in 2018 and beyond?

One man is sure to pay the price if the Buccaneers miss the playoffs for an 11th consecutive season: Dirk Koetter. The head coach needs a breakthrough campaign to keep his job. Meanwhile, Winston is in the final year of his rookie contract, and while Tampa Bay exercised the fifth-year option that would keep him with the team through 2019, that $21 million pact is guaranteed only against injury. Could the Bucs cut ties with the QB after this season? Well, if he keeps going down this path, at some point, Tampa needs to ask when enough is enough.

2) Ryan Tannehill, quarterback, Miami Dolphins

I thought Miami should've been in the quarterback business this offseason. Tannehill is a career 62.7 percent passer. In 2016, his touchdown-to-interception ratio slumped to 19:12. Then Tannehill tore his ACL the following August, and Jay Cutler had to be lured out of retirement for one more pointless season.

Let's be honest: At this point, Tannehill is just a guy. Ask Jarvis Landry. And when you're talking about the most important position in team sports, just a guy ain't good enough.

It's go time, for both Tannehill and the Dolphins. Color me skeptical on Tannehill ever taking that major step forward. History and precedent tell you that's a long shot. But if it's going to happen, it has to happen NOW. Beyond the Patriots, the AFC East remains highly underwhelming. It's time for Tannehill, Adam Gase and the Fins to make a move.

3) Hue Jackson, head coach, Cleveland Browns

I could sit here and give you many colorful words. Or I could simply tell you that Hue Jackson is 1-31 as the Browns' head coach.

New general manager John Dorsey isn't going to be patient. Cleveland has enough talent to win eight games this year and finish in second in the AFC North. So do it, Hue.

4) Ereck Flowers, offensive tackle, New York Giants

Truth be told, in the world of make or break, I firmly believe Flowers is broken. Sure, he is a former top-10 pick, but that's from the prior regime. I can't imagine a new coach and general manager allowing Flowers to continually wilt on the field of play.

Yet, despite resembling a turnstile on the offensive line, Flowers remains on the Giants' roster and in line to play. And hey, he's still just 24 years old. With marquee free-agent addition Nate Solder manning left tackle, can Flowers protect Eli Manning's front side?

5) Ndamukong Suh, defensive tackle, Los Angeles Rams

Now, I loved this move by the Rams. A lot. Especially considering it puts Suh alongside Aaron Donald and under the tutelage of Wade Phillips. That's a recipe for large-scale game-wreckage. But this is Suh's last chance to show he's still a bona fide star, the kind of centerpiece teams fight over in free agency.

Suh became the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history three offseasons ago, signing a six-year, $114 million contract with the Dolphins, but Miami cut bait halfway through the megadeal. The DT signed a one-year, $14 million deal with the Rams in March. Will he still be able to command big bucks next offseason at age 32? Well, this spot in L.A. is dreamy. But if it doesn't work ...

6) Blake Bortles, quarterback, Jacksonville Jaguars

It's borderline amazing that one of the most talented teams in the NFL is quarterbacked by Blake Bortles. In 2016, Bortles' biggest problem was the forward pass -- as in, he was terrible at it. Kind of tough when that's your quarterback. Sure, he showed improvement last season, and played quite well at Pittsburgh in the Divisional Round. But when it mattered on Championship Sunday, the Jaguars staff didn't trust him. Understandably. Do you trust Blake Bortles?

This should be a Super Bowl season for the Jags. Will Bortles allow Jacksonville to maximize the immense talent up and down the roster?

7) Richard Sherman, cornerback, San Francisco 49ers

I love John Lynch bringing this Stanford product back to the Bay. I still think Sherman can play and lead. I think he can show the young Niners the ropes and how to establish a winning culture.

But what if I'm wrong? What if Sherman is a shell of his former self? What if the Achilles isn't the same? What if he lost many steps? The downside -- and Sherman's age (30) -- puts this situation squarely in make-or-break territory.

8) Robert Quinn, defensive end, Miami Dolphins

The long-tenured Ram was dealt to Miami in March. And considering the Rams rightly think they ooze talent and are ready for the Super Bowl, this was an eye-opener.

Quinn was first-team All-Pro in his third NFL season, but hasn't reached double-digit sacks since 2014. The Miami staff seems energized about Quinn's addition. But why? Can Quinn still take over games? This is a huge season for the 28-year-old.

9) Mark Ingram, running back, New Orleans Saints

He's been suspended for the first four games of the season for violating the NFL policy on performance-enhancing substances. Not ideal for a 28-year-old running back who's in a contract year.

Ingram and Alvin Kamara formed a remarkable 1-2 punch in 2017. But could Kamara take the reins in the season's opening month and run away with them? Not hard to imagine. So Ingram could be auditioning for his next team. And given that he'll turn 29 in December -- one year closer to the dreaded age 30 for running backs -- he better put some great film on tape upon return.

Follow Adam Schein on Twitter @AdamSchein.

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