10 NFL players entering make-or-break years: How each could leave in 2020
Dan Graziano
Posted: 2019-07-09

There are expressions we use too much, in sports and in life, and today's is "make-or-break."

As in, "Is 2019 a 'make-or-break' year for Kirk Cousins in Minnesota?" Of course it's not. Obviously, Cousins could do himself harm in the minds of Vikings fans if he doesn't have a good year. But a bad year cannot "break" Cousins or his Vikings career, because no matter what happens the team will owe him $29.5 million in guaranteed salary in 2020. Try moving that deal to another team, especially after a bad year!

That said, there are some NFL players for whom this coming season really is a make-or-break one -- players whose time has come to cash in on their talent and opportunity or look for work elsewhere in the 2020 offseason.

This is the list for those players. Not for Carson Wentz, who's going to be an Eagle for a very long time whether he gets through 16 games or not. Not for Josh Rosen, who's still going to be 23, cheap and loaded with talent next spring no matter what happens in Miami. Not even for Eli Manning, who could throw for 5,000 yards and 50 touchdowns and still not be the Giants' quarterback in 2020.

This list is for the guys whose jobs are literally on the line -- whose 2019 performance is critical to their futures with their current teams. Make or break -- for real.

Marcus Mariota, QB, Tennessee Titans

Signed through: 2019

Why it's a make-or-break year: Former Dolphins executive and current ESPN analyst Mike Tannenbaum has gone on the record saying that Ryan Tannehill will beat out Mariota for the starting job this year. Whether that happens or not, the facts are that Mariota has never played a full 16-game season (Tannehill has played four of them, although none since 2015), never thrown for 3,500 yards in a season, and that the Titans are only committed to him through this season.

How the Titans could move on: They wouldn't have to do anything. They picked up Mariota's fifth-year rookie contract option, which will pay him a fully guaranteed $20.922 million this year, but he's eligible for unrestricted free agency when the year ends. The current Titans coaching staff and front office, which did not draft Mariota, could simply opt to let him walk and draft or sign his replacement.

Jameis Winston, QB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Signed through: 2019

Why it's a make-or-break year: Drafted one pick ahead of Mariota in 2015, Winston is in a nearly identical situation, although he hasn't had Mariota's injury issues and Blaine Gabbert feels like a slightly less imposing backup than Tannehill. Winston, who opened last season on a three-game personal conduct policy suspension and had to wrest the starting job away from Ryan Fitzpatrick upon his return, has a great chance to thrive under new coach Bruce Arians. But if he doesn't, the team has to think about other options.

How the Bucs could move on: Same as with Mariota and the Titans. Winston is making $20.922 million no matter what but has no deal beyond 2019. The Bucs could franchise Winston (as the Titans could Mariota), but nothing requires them to do that.


Leonard Fournette, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars

Signed through: 2020

Why it's a make-or-break year: After a 1,040-yard rookie season that helped the Jaguars to the AFC Championship Game, Fournette delivered a clunker of a 2018. He missed eight games (one due to suspension for throwing a punch in a game from which he was ejected), rushed for 439 yards and irritated Jaguars management to the point that they told him they were voiding the remaining guarantees on his contract. Next spring, the Jaguars will have to decide whether they're picking up his 2021 option. A repeat of 2018 could make that a non-issue.

How the Jaguars could move on: As the No. 4 overall pick in 2017, Fournette's contract was fully guaranteed at the time of signing, so he's owed $2.933 million this year and $4.167 million in 2020. If the Jaguars did try to get out of paying him his 2020 salary, that surely would be a matter for an arbitrator and an NFLPA grievance. But even if they ended up having to pay it, $4.167 million wouldn't necessarily deter Jacksonville from releasing Fournette if he ends up 2019 the way he did 2018.


Andy Dalton, QB, Cincinnati Bengals

Signed through: 2020

Why it's a make-or-break year: Dalton turns 32 in October. He has completed 60.7 percent of his passes over the past two years. The Bengals look like a rebuilding team with a new and inexperienced coach who could very well want his own young quarterback to groom at some point. Zac Taylor likes Dalton, but another 3,300-yard, 20-touchdown season might not be enough to convince the organization to ignore fourth-round rookie Ryan Finley or, more likely, the QB crop in the 2020 draft.

How the Bengals could move on: Dalton is a nice bargain at $16 million in 2019 and $17.5 million next year, but none of that money is guaranteed. Cincinnati could cut him at any time.


Derek Carr, QB, Oakland Raiders

Signed through: 2022

Why it's a make-or-break year: Outside of the fourth-quarter magic of his 2016 season, Carr's career has been sort of just fine so far. A lot of that might have to do with all the changes the Raiders have made since he has been there, but more change awaits in the coming year, as the franchise plans its move to Las Vegas. Jon Gruden enters his second year as coach hoping to help Carr take the next step into NFL quarterback stardom. If Carr doesn't, the Raiders could absolutely be looking at quarterbacks in next year's draft.

How the Raiders could move on: Yes, technically, Carr is signed through 2022. But in reality, there is no more guaranteed money remaining on Carr's deal beyond 2019. If he's on the roster the week after Super Bowl LIV, $2.9 million of his $18.9 million salary would become fully guaranteed, but they'd owe him nothing if they were to release him before then.

Solomon Thomas, DE, San Francisco 49ers

Signed through: 2020

Why it's a make-or-break year: Drafted one pick ahead of Fournette in the 2017 draft, Thomas has produced just four sacks in his first two seasons. A lot of that is of course understandable, especially due to the personal tragedy that befell Thomas and his family in 2018. But the NFL is a cold, results-based business, and the additions this offseason of Nick Bosa and Dee Ford to a defensive front that already included former first-rounders DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead will put pressure on Thomas to make himself a part of the 49ers' long-term plans.

How the 49ers could move on: Thomas is owed a guaranteed $4.3 million in 2020, so cutting him would cost a little bit. But at that price and at age 24, he could theoretically have some trade value next offseason if he's squeezed out by all that front-seven talent the Niners have been amassing. They have until May to decide on his 2021 option.


D.J. Humphries, OT, Arizona Cardinals

Signed through: 2019

Why it's a make-or-break year: Injuries have kept the 2015 first-round pick from attaining the potential the Cardinals saw in him, and he's playing this season on a $9.625 million fifth-year rookie contract option. All eyes are on the ability of the Cardinals' offensive line to protect top overall pick Kyler Murray, and a healthy and productive Humphries would go a long way toward helping with that.

How the Cardinals could move on: Humphries' contract expires at the end of this season. They could just let him walk out the door.


Artie Burns, CB, Pittsburgh Steelers

Signed through: 2019

Why it's a make-or-break year: A first-round pick in 2016, Burns hasn't intercepted a pass since Christmas Day 2017, and the team did not pick up his 2020 contract option. Burns wasn't even a full-time starter for all of 2018, and the Steelers drafted the promising Justin Layne in the third round this year. Burns has to take a leap forward or the Steelers could move on.

How the Steelers could move on: They don't have to do anything. The Steelers owe Burns nothing after 2019 and could just let him walk away if they wanted to.

DeVante Parker, WR, Miami Dolphins

Signed through: 2020

Why it's a make-or-break year: Last spring, the Dolphins picked up the 2019 option on their 2015 first-round pick. But since those aren't guaranteed until the new league year starts, Miami was able to get Parker to agree to a restructured deal that guarantees him $4.5 million this year and schedules him to earn a non-guaranteed $5 million in 2020. Parker has never had 60 catches or 750 yards in a season, and he has a total of nine touchdowns in four seasons. Renegotiating him out of his fifth-year option shows the Dolphins need to see more before they commit.

How the Dolphins could move on: Miami has until March to pick up the 2020 option on Parker for $5 million in salary and bonuses. If the Dolphins decide to cut him after the 2019 season but before March 2020, they'd owe him nothing.


Josh Doctson, WR, Washington

Signed through: 2019

Why it's a make-or-break year: Same as with Burns in Pittsburgh, Docston is a 2016 first-round pick whose 2020 option was not picked up by his team. So he's in a contract year, earning $1.82 million (only $1.2 million of which is guaranteed). The good news is that someone has to catch the ball in Washington, and Doctson is as good a candidate as any to do it. The bad news is that his 44 catches and 532 yards in 2018 were both career highs, and he has played in just 33 games in three years.

How Washington could move on: Same as with Burns in Pittsburgh -- Washington owes Doctson nothing beyond 2019 and could simply walk away.



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