For many NFL players, 2015 represents go time. It's time to put up or shut up.
Here's a mix of nine players and coaches who need to produce a banner year -- or else ...
1) Darren McFadden, running back, Dallas Cowboys
There's a thought process that any runner can excel behind the Cowboys' excellent offensive line. While I do think Dallas' group up front is the best in football -- I had three of the Cowboys' starting five on my first-team All-Pro ballot for The Associated Press last season -- I don't think it was the only reason DeMarco Murrayled the NFL in rushing by nearly 500 yards. Murray is a true difference-maker when he can stay healthy, which he did in 2014. I think Dallas is going to miss him this year.
Jerry Jones let Murray walk and inked one of his beloved Arkansas Razorbacks (McFadden) at a discount rate. The former No. 4 overall pick has always had potential, but his career has been a bust. In seven seasons with the Oakland Raiders, he eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark just once. In fact, he didn't even total that sum in the last two seasons combined.
Now, when it comes to offensive lines, he did just go from the outhouse to the penthouse. But here's another concern: Run DMC has trouble staying healthy. With his upright running style, he takes a lot of square shots -- and he's logged 16 games just once in his NFL career (last season, when he averaged 3.4 yards per carry).
If McFadden can't shake the injury-prone-and-ineffective label, his next step is out of the league.
2) Jay Cutler, quarterback, Chicago Bears
The quarterback is playing for his Bears career. That is for certain. But there's even more at stake in 2015: Cutler's career as an NFL starter.
Back in March, new general manager Ryan Pace announced that Cutler would continue to be the guy under center in this manner: "We went through the process of thoroughly evaluating the roster and we're moving forward with Jay as our starting quarterback." I swear I saw a thought bubble appear above his head that put things a bit more bluntly: "He is making gobs of money. We can't trade him. What do you want me to say or do?"
Through the years, Cutler has earned a reputation as a coach killer, with Marc Trestman being the latest victim. Cutler has the rare arm talent -- and the fractious personality -- of Jeff George. How will this jibe with new boss John Fox, who has built his coaching career around positive energy? With Cutler's knack for sucking the life out of the building, is this arranged marriage destined for a quick divorce?
If Cutler can't thrive under Adam Gase as his coordinator and Fox as his coach, his career as a starter could well be over.
3) Joe Philbin, head coach, Miami Dolphins
As I've written many times over the past few months, I really like what the Dolphins have done this offseason. Miami is a much better team moving in the right direction. The 'Fins got the No. 1 player in free agency (Ndamukong Suh) and then crushed their No. 1 pick in the draft (DeVante Parker). Oh, and through a couple trades, they swapped out a disgruntled field stretcher (Mike Wallace) for a younger, cheaper replacement (Kenny Stills).
The goal in 2015 has to be making the playoffs -- and possibly winning a game in the tournament.
If the Dolphins don't make it beyond Week 17, Philbin had better have his résumé ready. Three non-winning seasons has the natives restless in South Beach -- Philbin can't survive a fourth.
4) Cordarrelle Patterson, wide receiver, Minnesota Vikings
One year ago, Patterson's name dotted numerous lists of "Breakout Candidates." He was a scorching-hot commodity, in fantasy (football) and reality. The Vikings were banking on the second-year pro to deliver home runs. Then he caught a grand total of 33 passes for a meager 384 yards and one touchdown.
Because of Patterson's disappointing sophomore season, Minnesota traded for Mike Wallace, who was far from reliable -- as a pass catcher and a teammate -- in Miami. Ideally, though, the Vikes would get far better returns from the playmaker drafted in the first round just two years ago.
5) Matt Elam, strong safety, Baltimore Ravens
When Ozzie Newsome speaks, you listen. And in February, the celebrated Ravens GM delivered a simple message to his 23-year-old safety: "Matt Elam has to be a better football player for us next year.
"He has to be."
Yup, the writing's on the wall for the former first-rounder. Elam came to Baltimore with high expectations for an instant impact. And he fizzled. It's high time for him to turn his career around.
6) Rob Ryan, defensive coordinator, New Orleans Saints
It's rather amazing that the Saints' defensive coordinator still has a job. New Orleans finished 28th in scoring defense, 29th in rushing defense and 31st in total defense. After the season, coach Sean Payton promised change; he wouldn't immediately speculate on Ryan's future with the team. Welp, Ryan survived. Will he reward Payton's patience in 2015?
In the weak NFC South, the division title is there for the taking. New Orleans should be in the mix -- if an identity change proves successful. Payton seems to be morphing the offense into more of a ground-centric, ball-control unit. And with that approach, he'll need a reliable defense. Ryan has always talked the talk, but walking the walk's a different story. He's on his last legs in New Orleans -- and if he presides over another failed defense, his days as a coordinator anywhere could be cooked.
7) Michael Oher, offensive tackle, Carolina Panthers
Oher's life story will always be an amazing, inspirational, Horatio Alger-type tale, chronicled brilliantly in Michael Lewis' book "The Blind Side" (and the ensuing movie of the same title). But viewed through the cold, hard prism of straight on-field analysis, he's an NFL journeyman on his third team, having been a big disappointment at the end of his Ravens tenure and last year with the Titans.
He was solid early on in Baltimore, after being drafted in the first round. He won a ring, in fact ... but then things went south and the Ravens didn't try to bring him back. Oher signed a four-year, $20 million deal with Tennessee ... only to be released after Year 1. Now, he's a Panther -- and Carolina is in desperate need of help on the offensive line. Consequently, Oher's getting an opportunity to start at left tackle. If he can't capitalize in 2015, it might be the end of the road. And based upon the last few years, color me skeptical. Honestly, I'm surprised the Panthers think he can still hold down the blind side.
8) Melvin Ingram, outside linebacker, San Diego Chargers
One year ago, I thought Ingram's return to health would provide a major boost to the Chargers' long-suffering pass rush. Instead, 2014 represented another disappointing season, filled with injuries and underwhelming production.
In three NFL seasons, Ingram has sacked the quarterback six times. When he was drafted with the 18th overall pick in 2012, the Chargers had to hope he'd provide that kind of production -- in the first half of the season.
Ingram says he's lost 20 pounds this offseason, hoping to improve his health over the course of the year.
"I felt like playing lighter would be a better thing for me," Ingram told U-T San Diego. "The lighter you are, the less stress it is on your body, the less stress it is on your knees, your hips, your joints or your ankles, your toes -- everything."
Will a change in his physique spawn a change in his performance?
9) Robert Griffin III, quarterback, Washington Redskins
It seems like RGIII's majestic rookie year took place a lifetime ago. And the strong words and actions (see: benching) from Jay Gruden tell us the head coach doesn't have a lot of patience for the quarterback's act.
It's going down for real in D.C. in 2015, and I don't think it's going to end well. Think about it: Would you bank on Griffin to be your leader, to stay healthy and consistently execute?
Two awful campaigns -- filled with drama, injuries and ineffective play -- have put Griffin's NFL future in jeopardy.