Which players on each team have the most to prove in 2017?

Polian says 'no hope' if Hackenberg can't run the system (1:36)

Bill Polian believes it's time to allow Christian Hackenberg to be the Jets quarterback because he should know the playbook by now. (1:36)

Richard Sherman faces an uncertain future in Seattle. Cam Newton is coming off the worst season of his Carolina career. It could be a make-or-break season for Blake Bortles in Jacksonville.

NFL Nation picks out the players from each team who have crucial 2017 seasons ahead:

AFC East | AFC North| AFC South | AFC West
NFC East | NFC North | NFC South | NFC West


Buffalo Bills

QB Tyrod Taylor and WR Sammy Watkins

It is difficult to separate these two because their futures could depend on each other's success in 2017. Taylor can be released next offseason before a $6 million roster bonus is due, and Watkins is scheduled for unrestricted free agency after the Bills declined his fifth-year option for 2018. Taylor's problem has been inconsistency as a passer, while Watkins' issue has been staying healthy. -- Mike Rodak

Miami Dolphins

DT Jordan Phillips

The Dolphins invested a second-round pick in Phillips in 2015 with the expectation that he would develop into a consistent force next to Pro Bowler Ndamukong Suh. That hasn't happened in Phillips' first two seasons. Now, the young defensive tackle enters a pivotal Year 3 needing to prove that he can handle more snaps and be more consistent against the run. Miami was 30th against the run last season. -- James Walker

New England Patriots

CB Cyrus Jones

The team's top draft choice in 2016 (second round, No. 60 overall) had a rocky rookie season that led to his being inactive for the Super Bowl, and he later said that he didn't feel like he was part of the team. The 2017 campaign offers him a fresh start and an opportunity to become the club's top slot corner after Logan Ryan signed with Tennessee as a free agent. -- Mike Reiss

New York Jets

QB Christian Hackenberg

After sitting out his rookie season -- "a redshirt year," the Jets called it -- the former second-round pick is getting a chance to compete for the starting job. He has the size and arm strength to be an effective quarterback, but he has miles to go in every area -- namely accuracy, footwork, pocket awareness and command of the huddle. The Jets are still hopeful that he can develop, but this is a critical year for Hackenberg. If they aren't satisfied with his progress, they will draft a quarterback next spring. -- Rich Cimini


Baltimore Ravens

WR Breshad Perriman

The pressure is on for the 2015 first-round pick to perform like one after Steve Smith Sr. retired and Kamar Aiken signed with the Colts in free agency. Perriman missed all of his rookie season with a right knee injury and sat out most of last year's training camp with a left knee injury. The Ravens believe that a healthy Perriman is ready to take a leading role. "I sure hope that Breshad Perriman becomes a true No. 1," coach John Harbaugh said at the end of the season. "To me, there are signs that is possible." How Perriman performs this season will determine whether Baltimore will give him a fifth-year option. -- Jamison Hensley

Cincinnati Bengals

TE Tyler Eifert

Eifert is entering the final season of his rookie contract while recovering from offseason back surgery. He had a brilliant 2015 season with 13 touchdown catches, but injuries have cut short three straight seasons. Eifert has to prove his durability -- and show that he isn't a one-year wonder -- in order to maximize the kind of long-term contract he will likely be seeking from the Bengals. -- Katherine Terrell

Cleveland Browns

CB Joe Haden

Injuries have cost Haden 14 starts the past two seasons. That isn't his fault, and he did play though groin issues in 2016 that forced offseason surgery. He believes he still is one of the league's best, but he's due to earn $11.1 million, $11.1 million and $10.4 million over the next three seasons. Any player at that salary level simply has to produce. -- Pat McManamon

Pittsburgh Steelers

WR Martavis Bryant

The 2017 season will either catapult Bryant into the upper tier of wide receivers or blow up his career entirely. There seems to be no middle ground here. Talent has never been a question with Bryant, who has 15 touchdowns in 21 NFL games. But a third drug-related suspension would put him in Josh Gordon purgatory. He knows this is his last chance. Bryant has to prove that he can be reliable to his team and play a full season for the first time in three years. -- Jeremy Fowler


Houston Texans

QB Tom Savage

The fourth-year quarterback entered the Texans' offseason program as the starter, but he will have to compete with first-round pick Deshaun Watson for that job to begin the season. Savage is in the final year of his rookie contract, and while drafting Watson might signify that his future in Houston likely doesn't extend past this season, he could earn himself a big contract elsewhere in 2018. -- Sarah Barshop

Indianapolis Colts

WR Donte Moncrief

The fourth-year receiver has all the tools to be the Colts' best all-around receiver. Moncrief's issue is his health. A shoulder injury caused him to miss seven games over two different stretches last season. Moncrief still led the Colts with seven touchdown receptions, despite his playing only nine games. The former third-round pick is entering the final year of his contract. -- Mike Wells

Jacksonville Jaguars

QB Blake Bortles

The Jaguars picked up Bortles' fifth-year option, but there is still a load of doubt about whether he is the long-term answer at quarterback. Bortles had a breakout season in 2015 (35 touchdown passes and 4,428 yards, both franchise records), but he regressed significantly last season. He has to prove that he can cut down on turnovers -- he has an NFL-high 63 since 2014 -- and be a more accurate passer. If he isn't significantly better in 2017, the Jaguars will dump him in the offseason and start over. Bortles' option is guaranteed for injury only until the first day of the 2018 league year. -- Mike DiRocco

Tennessee Titans

OLB Kevin Dodd

It's only Dodd's second season, but he didn't show much as a rookie before heading to injured reserve with lingering issues from summer foot surgery on a stress fracture. He has been dealing with issues connected to the foot in the offseason. The Titans need a reliable third edge guy after starters Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan. Dodd needs to show he's that guy, or they might need to put it atop their list of needs in a year. -- Paul Kuharsky


Denver Broncos

OLB Shane Ray

Ray has flashed his enormous potential -- a three-sack game in 2016 to go with eight sacks for the season in limited duty -- but now he's being asked to sit at the grown-ups table. John Elway and Vance Joseph's plan for the Broncos to remain great on defense as the team retools its offense yet again hinges on Ray's ability to replace DeMarcus Ware and be the "other" player opposing offenses have to worry about. If Ray performs as the Broncos hope, he should make impact plays and give Von Miller the pass-rushing sidekick the defense needs. -- Jeff Legwold

Kansas City Chiefs

QB Alex Smith

The drafting of Patrick Mahomes II in the first round is a sign that the Chiefs are preparing for life after Smith's departure. The Chiefs are committed to Smith as their starting quarterback to begin the 2017 season, but he'll have to earn every snap he gets after that. Smith can put off the inevitable by playing well. But if things aren't going smoothly for the Chiefs and/or Smith -- and if Mahomes develops rapidly -- Kansas City won't hesitate to move Mahomes into the starting lineup. -- Adam Teicher

Los Angeles Chargers

DT Corey Liuget

After totaling 18 sacks in his first four seasons in the league, Liuget finished with three in 2015 and none last year, marking his first season without one. The Illinois product is the third-highest-paid player on the Chargers, scheduled to make $8 million in base salary in 2017. With the Chargers in need of an interior pass rush, Liuget has to play to his contract. -- Eric D. Williams

Oakland Raiders

QB Derek Carr

Wait, what? Didn't Carr ascend to the upper echelon of NFL quarterbacks last season? Wasn't he the guy who finished tied for third in MVP voting? Indeed. The thing is, Carr's rise has only elevated expectations, both externally and internally. Yes, even with Carr returning from a broken right fibula suffered in Week 16 that short-circuited the Raiders' playoff run. Carr, who passed for 3,937 yards with 28 touchdowns and six interceptions while completing 63.8 percent of his passes for a 96.7 passer rating last season, is by no means on a hot seat. But he is expected to take that all-important next step in Year 4 of his pro career ... especially if and when he gets a contract extension expected to approach Andrew Luck territory, as in $140 million over six years. -- Paul Gutierrez


Dallas Cowboys

OLB Jaylon Smith

The Cowboys took Smith in the second round last year, knowing that he would need a redshirt season because of a major knee injury that included nerve damage in his final game at Notre Dame. He is healthier now, and Smith and the Cowboys say the nerve is regenerating. He has done everything so far with the team in the offseason program and will be worked back cautiously during the organized team activities and minicamp after being away from the game for 18 months. Smith needs a brace on his foot to help with a case of drop foot, but there is hope that he will not need it when the season begins. There is no way of knowing right now how effective Smith will be, but all eyes will be on him when camp starts in July. -- Todd Archer

New York Giants

LT Ereck Flowers

It's a make-or-break season for the 2015 first-round pick. The Giants showed confidence in Flowers by sticking with him as their left tackle this offseason, despite his struggles last season, when he allowed the second-most pressures of any tackle. They're hoping that he shows significant improvement in his third season. The Giants essentially put the success of their offense in the hands of the 23-year-old, who, according to offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan, looks slimmer this year. -- Jordan Raanan

Philadelphia Eagles

WR Nelson Agholor

Selected with the 20th overall pick in 2015, Agholor was considered one of the most pro-ready prospects in the draft, and few expected him to struggle the way he has. Agholor has compiled just 59 catches for 648 yards and three touchdowns over two seasons. Lacking production at the wide receiver spot, the Eagles signed Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith in free agency and spent a pair of picks on wideouts in the 2017 draft. Time is running out on the USC product. He needs to start producing. -- Tim McManus

Washington Redskins

QB Kirk Cousins

Cousins has thrown for 9,083 yards, 54 touchdowns and 23 interceptions the past two seasons, but he still isn't signed to a long-term contract, and questions remain about where he ranks among quarterbacks. The Redskins have not yet offered him a contract commensurate with his leverage, though they keep telling him they want him. -- John Keim


Chicago Bears

WR Kevin White

White, the seventh overall pick of the 2015 draft, has appeared in only four regular-season games because of leg injuries. He caught 109 passes for 1,447 yards and 10 touchdowns for West Virginia in 2014, but he has just 19 career receptions in the NFL. The Bears need White to step up more than ever, especially after the club's former No. 1 wide receiver, Alshon Jeffery, signed with Philadelphia in free agency. -- Jeff Dickerson

Detroit Lions

CB Nevin Lawson

Lawson became a starter for the Lions last season and often received the bulk of attention from opposing offenses because Darius Slay played on the other side. Lawson handled himself better than his statistics would indicate, but the Lions needed to bring in some new players, too. They focused on secondary in the draft, including an investment in Teez Tabor as a second-round pick. That would mean Lawson, who is in a contract year, is going to have a lot of pressure to perform or potentially be replaced in 2018 -- or sooner. -- Michael Rothstein

Green Bay Packers

WR Randall Cobb

In the two seasons since he signed a four-year, $40 million contract, Cobb hasn't come close to his 2014 numbers: 91 catches, 1,287 yards and 12 touchdowns. A shoulder injury slowed him in 2015, while hamstring and ankle injuries hampered him last season, when he caught just 60 passes for 610 yards and four touchdowns. He showed something of a resurgence with a three-touchdown game in the Packers' playoff win over the Giants, however. With a $9.5 million salary and bonus structure in each of the next two seasons, that's the kind of production the Packers will need from Cobb. -- Rob Demovsky

Minnesota Vikings

CB Trae Waynes

The 11th overall pick in the 2015 draft showed flashes of being a more reliable cover corner in his second season, when he was given a rotational role in the Vikings' defense after sitting for most of his rookie year. But Terence Newman is back at age 39, and the Vikings still trust Newman enough in their defense that Waynes won't be handed a starting role this season. If he isn't, that could make his future complicated in Minnesota; the Vikings will have to make a decision on his fifth-year option next spring. -- Ben Goessling


Atlanta Falcons

S Ricardo Allen

Allen is a true leader on the defense and played his role much better than folks gave him credit for last season. At the same time, the Falcons are adding competition to the mix with nickelback Brian Poole also getting a look at free safety and ballhawking rookie Damontae Kazee considered a steal as a fifth-round draft pick. Allen knows that he needs to be more of a playmaker, but his knowledge of the defense shouldn't be discounted. He will be a free agent in 2018. -- Vaughn McClure

Carolina Panthers

QB Cam Newton

It might sound strange to suggest that the 2015 NFL MVP has something to prove, but he really does. Newton is coming off statistically the worst season of his career, as well as surgery to repair a partially torn rotator cuff, and the Panthers' offense is evolving to depend less on him as a runner. How Newton adjusts and handles the evolution will go a long way in determining whether the MVP season can be the norm or is the exception. -- David Newton

New Orleans Saints

RB Adrian Peterson

I could make a case for a lot of Saints, including Coby Fleener, Stephone Anthony and Manti Te'o. But c'mon, Peterson might be the easiest choice on this list. The former NFL MVP is coming back from a knee injury. He's a 32-year-old running back, which is typically considered a dinosaur in the NFL. He was released by the Vikings before he settled for an incentive-laden two-year deal with the Saints. Motivated? You bet. For his part, though, Peterson said he doesn't understand why people would doubt him. "It's kind of crazy to hear people even comment on how many years I have left and compare me to other running backs, when I'm just my own individual," Peterson said. "This is one thing that I really dislike about the NFL is how people kind of put guys in a box, especially running backs after that 30 mark. You want to make it seem like guys are going downhill when that's not necessarily the case. So in my mind, I feel like I have a lot of years left." -- Mike Triplett

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

QB Jameis Winston

Year 3 is critical for developing quarterbacks, and the Bucs have given Winston all the tools necessary for him to succeed, with the one real question being how the offensive line will hold up after a lackluster 2016 season. The offense has averaged 20 points per game the past two seasons. Even with the way the defense performed in the latter part of the 2016 season, that isn't good enough, especially not with the Green Bay Packers and New England Patriots on the schedule this year. If the Bucs want to take things to the next level and be true playoff contenders, they need Winston to take them there. -- Jenna Laine


Arizona Cardinals

S Tyrann Mathieu

There's no questioning Mathieu's ability; it's his health that's a concern. If Mathieu stays healthy, he's one of the top defenders in the NFL. But lately that has been a big if. He has finished three of his four seasons on injured reserve, including twice because of major knee injuries. He needs to stay healthy in 2017 to prove that he isn't injury-prone -- and to reward the Cardinals for investing big dollars in his extension. -- Josh Weinfuss

Los Angeles Rams

RB Todd Gurley

There are so many players to choose from on the Rams, specifically on offense. But I'm going with Gurley -- over Jared Goff, Tavon Austin and Greg Robinson -- because his drop-off was so striking. Gurley went from being the Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2015 to one of the least productive rushers in 2016, when many expected him to ascend to stardom. He had 278 carries and started all 16 games, but he finished with only 885 rushing yards and six touchdowns. The Rams' offensive line was a disaster, but Gurley didn't do a good job finding holes. It ruined a lot of fantasy football seasons -- not to mention the Rams' entire offense. -- Alden Gonzalez

San Francisco 49ers

RB Carlos Hyde

Hyde, who is slated to become a free agent after the season, has never been able to stay healthy for a full season, though he has flashed potential to be a true No. 1 back. The Niners have already discussed the need to see more from Hyde, and they drafted Joe Williams in the fourth round with coach Kyle Shanahan making it clear how much he coveted Williams. If Hyde is to stay a Niner for the long term or land a big free-agent deal elsewhere, he needs to have a healthy and productive 2017. -- Nick Wagoner

Seattle Seahawks

CB Richard Sherman

It isn't so much Sherman's performance on the field as his relationship with the team. Sherman had multiple sideline blow-ups directed at coaches last season, and the Seahawks openly put him on the trade block during the offseason. Sherman turns 30 next offseason and is under contract through 2018. Will he and the team be able to mend their relationship? Or will this be Sherman's last season in a Seattle uniform? -- Sheil Kapadia