Only a lucky few NFL players enjoy smooth career paths. The players below are proof of that.
The ten names on this list are all at a career crossroads. They are big names that have shown big potential, in most cases. But they face a make or break 2015 season. This is their chance to straighten out recent troubles in time to get back their playing time, money, and even roster spots for the future.
1. Jordan Cameron, Miami Dolphins tight end
Cameron should feel fortunate financially. Coming off concussion issues in 2014, there was doubt entering free agency that any team would pay him like a star. The Dolphins did so, but with a catch. Cameron is essentially on a two-year "prove it" deal that will turn to a one-year contract if he doesn't perform. (If Cameron does play well, the Dolphins will have a relative bargain next season.)
It was only one season ago that Cameron was dominating offseason practices coming off a breakout season. He seemed destined for a top-five tight end contract with more than $20 million guaranteed. There is little doubt about his skill set, and Ryan Tannehill is excellent at passing between the numbers, which suits Cameron's strength. This was a boom or bust signing for the Dolphins, and a chance well worth taking for an entire team that feels "make or break."
2. Eric Fisher, Kansas City Chiefs tackle
The soft bigotry of low expectations is in place here. The No. 1 overall draft pick in 2013 has largely been forgotten because he plays on the offensive line for a team that only Andy Reid's family finds compelling. No one thought Fisher was Orlando Pace coming out of Central Michigan, but he hasn't even been able to be an average starter. Entering season three, Fisher must prove that he's still ascending. Otherwise he'll make Tyson Jackson, the No. 3 pick of the 2009 draft, look like a relative bargain.
3. Brian Cushing, Houston Texans linebacker
Before J.J. Watt ravaged the NFL, Cushing was expected to be the longtime leader of the Texans' defense. The 2009 Defensive Rookie of the Year was second-team All-Pro as recently as 2011. A suspension for performance enhancing drugs and a nonstop string of serious injuries have sapped his potential. The $55 million contract the Texans gave him in 2013, including $21 million guaranteed, looks wildly optimistic with the benefit of hindsight.
This figures to be Cushing's final season in Houston if he doesn't turn things around. Cushing didn't look remotely healthy last season and hurt his team while he was on the field. While the coaching staff has talked up his movement this offseason, Cushing is coming off three surgeries. A healthy Cushing would provide a big boost for the Texans' defense, but it's too much to expect a return to his pre-injury form.
4. Justin Hunter, Tennessee Titans wide receiver
Save the emails: We know that "DGB" is a more physical player than Hunter. In a perfect world, both players could be valuable weapons for Marcus Mariota. But Green-Beckham, like Hunter, is a riddle of potential that has the skill set to be a true No. 1. Just like Britt. Hunter's talent on the outside is obvious. He's great at going after the ball. But coach Ken Whisenhunt publicly questioned Hunter's ability to adapt to the pro game recently. It's moving time.
"At some point, you either get it or you won't be in this league anymore. That's the natural order of the NFL," Whisenhunt said.
5-7. Michael Crabtree, D.J. Hayden, and Trent Richardson, Oakland Raiders
These three Raiders are at various stages of career crisis. Crabtree has shown that he can be a difference-making talent; his 2012 postseason run nearly won the 49ers a Super Bowl. Never a burner to begin with, Crabtree appeared to have lost a step last season because of injuries. But he's the type of player that is worth gambling on, even if he's not the most popular player with ex-teammates. He's only 27 years old and has shown he can play. Still: Oakland is where receiver careers often go to die. If Crabtree can't turn things around on his one-year, $3 million contract, he's probably headed for a Santonio Holmes-like career arc.
Perhaps it's early to say this is a make-or-break season for Hayden, the No. 12 pick of the 2013 draft. He was workmanlike in 600+ snaps last season after a lost rookie campaign. This is a team that desperately needs a cornerback to step up, and Hayden is their best chance.
Richardson, on the other hand, is clearly at a career crossroads. It was a surprise that Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie handed Richardson $600,000 guaranteed to compete for the starting job in Oakland. The immortal Colleen Wolfe gave Richardson our "biggest dreamer" award on a recent podcast, but it could also go to McKenzie for believing Richardson could save his career. Roy Helu and Latavius Murray are superior talents; don't be shocked if Richardson doesn't make the team.
8. Geno Smith, New York Jets
We've written plenty about Geno this summer, so won't repeat ourselves here. It's safe to say that Smith is never going to get a better chance to salvage a shaky start to his career. He's the heavy favorite to start over Ryan Fitzpatrick. He has plenty of weapons around him with Brandon Marshall, Eric Decker, Jace Amaro, Jeremy Kerley, and Devin Smith. Offensive coordinator Chan Gailey favors a quick passing system that suits Smith's skills. If Geno doesn't make this work, we doubt another organization gives him the same kind of chance.
9. Percy Harvin, Buffalo Bills wide receiver
Harvin put up 100 yards from scrimmage in the season opener last season as a member of the Seahawks, and then ran for a 51-yard touchdown in Week 2. That feels like an awfully long time ago. Now on his fourth team in as many seasons, Harvin is playing on a one-year contract for roughly the same money Brian Hartline was making last year in Miami. This is not what anyone expected from Harvin entering his age-27 season. But it's not a good sign when multiple teams can't figure out what to do with him, and don't believe he's worth the trouble.
10. Jarvis Jones, Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker
The Steelers need their young players to step up. This is an organization that used to develop young players slowly, and often watch them ripen in their third or fourth season. Cameron Heyward and Jason Worilds are two recent examples of this working out for the team, but Worilds' surprise retirement leaves the Steelers thin at outside linebacker. Drafted as a pure pass rusher, Jones has barely been visible the last two seasons. The Steelers also drafted Bud Dupree and have James Harrison still hanging around, but they could desperately use Jones improving.