The Schein Nine

Cam Newton headlines NFL players under the most pressure in 2020

In the NFL, pressure comes in many forms ...

Can the first-round bust turn his career around? Will the former Pro Bowler recapture the magic? Can the young up-and-comer cash in on a contract year? Will the aging veteran capitalize on that last chance to shine? And who delivers the goods on a team with the simple "Super Bowl or bust" mantra?

With all of that in mind, here's my Schein Nine list of the players facing the most pressure in the 2020 campaign:

1
Cam Newton
Cam Newton
Carolina Panthers · QB

If Cam cannot beat out Jarrett Stidham for the starting job and/or Brian Hoyer for a roster spot, it's over. And taking into account how injury-riddled Newton's last two seasons have been -- as well as the report from ESPN's Adam Schefter that the Browns were the only other team to show even mild interest in the 2015 NFL MVP -- it's reasonable to surmise the SuperCam days are indeed over.

Cam turned 31 in May. Shoulder and foot injuries have taken a significant toll on his dynamism. In his past eight starts, going back to early November of 2018, Newton is 0-8 with more interceptions (10) than touchdown passes (9). In that span, he averaged a measly 18 ground yards per game without a single rushing touchdown. Once a dual-threat monster with jaw-dropping physical traits, Newton's been a shell of his former self. This is why new Panthers coach Matt Rhule rightly upgraded to Teddy Bridgewater. This is why Chargers coach Anthony Lynn ignored the cries for Cam, sticking with the athletic veteran he knows (Tyrod Taylor) and drafting a quarterback for the future (Justin Herbert). This is why Cam's former coach, Ron Rivera, traded a fifth-rounder for Kyle Allen instead of just signing Cam to join him on the Redskins.

As is typically the case when Bill Belichick's Patriots bring in a big-name player, though, the hype around Newton's New England relocation has been out of control over the past 48 hours ...

With Belichick and Josh McDaniels at the controls, Cam's back! The Pats are once again the team to beat in the AFC East! See you in the Super Bowl, Tom Brady!!!

I'm just not there. Like at all. I don't think this changes the outlook on the 2020 Patriots' win-loss record one bit. As I said on my CBS Sports Network show, Time to Schein, this is not a savior situation -- this is a flyer. A flyer that, yes, makes sense, considering the current state of New England's QB room, but a flyer nonetheless. And I have a hard time imagining it bearing much fruit.

That said, it seems like I'm in the minority here. Many suddenly anticipate big things from Cam and the Pats in 2020. These outsized expectations take the pressure through the roof. Oh, and did I mention that Cam is replacing the greatest quarterback of all time?

2
Khalil Mack
Khalil Mack
Chicago Bears · OLB

When Chicago traded for Mack just before the start of the 2018 season, I thought it was one of the biggest steals in memory. And Mack burst on the scene in his Bears debut, with a strip-sack and pick-six in his first half of play. Although he would miss two games that season due to an ankle injury, Mack still finished with 12.5 sacks, 18 quarterback hits and six forced fumbles, earning his third first-team All-Pro designation.

But at the risk of sounding hyperbolic, did Mack make an impactful play last year? OK, five forced fumbles is a nice figure, but 8.5 sacks just doesn't cut it. Honestly, I'm not really sure how he made a fifth consecutive Pro Bowl.

Two seasons into Mack's Chicago tenure, the Bears have yet to win a playoff game. Obviously, this franchise's most glaring issue is the quarterback position. But Mack is supposed to be a top-five defensive player. That's why the Bears traded away a pair of first-rounders -- and consequently handed out a record-setting extension -- for his services. Last year, he was most definitely not elite.

This offseason, Chicago GM Ryan Pace signed Robert Quinn to hunt quarterbacks opposite Mack. Quinn's the kind of proven running mate who should allow the 2016 Defensive Player of the Year to eat. Now the pressure's on Mack to deliver sacks, wins and live up to the trade.

3
Patrick Peterson
Patrick Peterson
Arizona Cardinals · CB

Whenever I ask cornerbacks or receivers to name the truly elite cover men in the game, Peterson's name routinely comes up. A Pro Bowler in each of his first eight NFL seasons, Pat Pete's built up an immense level of respect among his peers. But last year was an absolute mess.

After serving a six-game suspension for violating the league's performance-enhancing drug policy, Peterson just wasn't himself upon return. While his play picked up in the final month of the season, the 29-year-old looked like a player in decline for much of his ninth NFL campaign.

Now, I have Arizona as my Cinderella team in 2020. Part of my premise is that the Cardinals have three special talents on defense in Peterson, Chandler Jones and rookie Isaiah Simmons. Peterson needs to be special again -- which means playing at his Hall of Fame level -- for the Cardinals to live up to my billing.

4
JuJu Smith-Schuster
JuJu Smith-Schuster
Pittsburgh Steelers · WR

Antonio Brown became a world-class headache in Pittsburgh, but he produced at a transcendent rate. Over his final six seasons with the Steelers, AB averaged 114 catches for 1,524 yards and 11 touchdowns per year. Smith-Schuster logged some impressive numbers of his own in 2018 -- 111 catches for 1,426 yards and seven touchdowns -- giving Steelers fans hope that he could truly assume WR1 status following Brown's trade in the 2019 offseason.

Not so much.

Last year was a hot mess for JuJu, who posted career lows in catches (42), yards (552) and touchdowns (3). Granted, Smith-Schuster dealt with injuries and lackluster quarterback play after Ben Roethlisberger's season-ending elbow injury in September, but he was less productive than James Washington and rookie Diontae Johnson.

The Steelers need JuJu to get his mojo back in 2020. While Pittsburgh's defense is ready for prime time, the offense has a number of questions, starting with Big Ben's health. And given the underwhelming options in the backfield, the 38-year-old quarterback is going to have to air it out. Thus, he needs a legit go-to receiver. Still just 23 years old, Smith-Schuster has to be that guy -- not just for the Steelers to be successful in 2020, but for JuJu to get paid in 2021. Yes, this is a contract year for the former second-round pick. If he flounders in consecutive seasons, he's a goner in Pittsburgh and he'll face a chilly reception on the open market.

5
Jimmy Garoppolo
Jimmy Garoppolo
San Francisco 49ers · QB

You can make the case that the 49ers have the single best roster, 1 through 53, in the NFL. You can make the case that if Garoppolo connected on that deep ball to Emmanuel Sanders in the final minutes of Super Bowl LIV, the Niners would have a sixth Lombardi Trophy. You can make the case that San Francisco should've signed Tom Brady this offseason.

In fact, I've made all of those cases.

Don't get it twisted: I'm not a Jimmy G hater. He played quite well in the 2019 regular season. But he came up short in the postseason, particularly on that infamous overthrow. These Niners are built to make another playoff run, with the talent and coaching to take home the ultimate prize. But at some point, in a huge spot, they'll need the quarterback to make a play. Will he?

6
Von Miller
Von Miller
Denver Broncos · OLB

Miller, like Mack, slumped big time last season. Eight sacks? That's the second-lowest total of his career, only more than the five he logged in 2013, when he missed seven games due to suspension and injury. Miller would be the first to tell you that last year wasn't up to his standard. And the number crunchers over at Pro Football Focus would agree. Over his first eight years in the league, Miller never posted a PFF season grade below 90. But last year, he ended up below 80 -- at 79.3, to be exact.

While the hype is understandably building around Drew Lock and the Broncos' offense -- after Lock's inspired play last December and an offseason full of weapons upgrades -- the calling card for Vic Fangio's team still needs to be the defense. And that means Miller must get back to his elite level. It's also worth mentioning that Miller holds a $22.2 million cap hit in 2021. Another eight-sack season, and the $4.2 million dead-cap hit could be a pretty enticing alternative.

7
T.Y. Hilton
T.Y. Hilton
Indianapolis Colts · WR

Is Hilton a legit No. 1? Can the 5-foot-10, 183-pounder stay healthy? Is T.Y getting long in the tooth at age 30? Those are all valid questions, especially with the Colts in win-now mode, with a new quarterback at the helm in Philip Rivers. Indy needs the veteran to lead the receiving corps, with a pair of unproven youngsters (second-year man Parris Campbell and rookie Michael Pittman Jr.) likely to flank him in the starting lineup.

I've always been a T.Y. fan, and I love the Colts to bounce back and make the playoffs in 2020, but the pressure weighs heavy on No. 13, who just so happens to be in the final year of his contract. Will Chris Ballard let him hit the open market in 2021? Time to rejoin the 1,000-yard club, T.Y.

8
Aaron Jones
Aaron Jones
Green Bay Packers · RB

Lost in the shuffle of Green Bay foolishly spending a first-round pick on a quarterback to eventually replace Aaron Rodgers, the Packers inexplicably spent their second-rounder on an old-school bruiser back to potentially replace Jones. While the AJ Dillon pick didn't get the same attention as the Jordan Love selection, it was similarly confounding.

Jones is fresh off a breakout season in which he led the NFL in rushing touchdowns (16) and total touchdowns (19). As a multifaceted weapon, Jones eclipsed 1,000 yards rushing and also caught 49 passes. But now he's in the final year of his rookie contract. Could this be his final year in Green Bay? And if so, what kind of money will await a 26-year-old running back on the open market? Jones has to build off last year while holding off the rookie.

9
Leonard Fournette
Leonard Fournette
Jacksonville Jaguars · RB

Time and patience are running out when it comes to the fourth overall pick of the 2017 NFL Draft. And remember: The Jaguars drafted the running back over Christian McCaffrey -- as well as Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson. Whoops.

I still think Fournette is talented, having shown enticing flashes over his first three NFL seasons. He did just finish seventh in the league in rushing, after all, with 1,152 yards. But does he really get it? Is he ready to lock in as a mature professional? Can he help the Jaguars win in 2020? What's the future hold after this season?

Jacksonville declined his fifth-year option. The Jaguars have been dangling him on the trade block this offseason, but no one's biting. It's high time for Fournette to change the narrative.

Follow Adam Schein on Twitter at @AdamSchein.

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