Every offseason, NFL players we know well simply fade away.
The NFL is a short-term career, and teams don't have patience. Highly touted players coming out of college have a few bad seasons and the NFL moves on from them. Or established stars show signs of slipping and they find themselves out of the league faster than anyone could have predicted.
Here are 10 players, at various stages of their careers, who have make-or-break seasons ahead of them:
Dallas Cowboys RB Ezekiel Elliott
Jerry Jones still has Elliott's back. Many others aren't so sure Elliott will ever rebound to the level he was at early in his career. Elliott had a good reason for his drop in efficiency last season, as he played through a partially torn PCL in his right knee. The rest of Elliott's career can go one of two ways. Either he rebounds and reestablishes himself as one of the league's better backs, or he is in a clear decline and the Cowboys start looking into getting out of his bloated contract.
Pittsburgh Steelers LB Devin Bush
Bush was a top-10 draft pick and off to a fine start in his career before a torn ACL in 2020. Now he's facing questions about his future after he has struggled and the Steelers declined his fifth-year option. He was asked if it's a make-or-break season for him and his answer got some attention.
"It's a business," Bush said. "I'll still be in the NFL, so we'll see."
The Steelers want to see Bush rebound this season. Then he and the team can figure out his future.
Carolina Panthers QB Baker Mayfield
This offseason, one team paid Mayfield $10.5 million to go away and another team sent just a conditional 2024 fifth-round draft pick in a trade to get him. It's more complicated than that, but let's be clear: Mayfield's star has dimmed a lot. Perhaps he can resurrect his career in Carolina. If not, he'll enter free agency next offseason when there is a deep 2023 quarterback draft class about to enter the league. This is a pivotal season for him.
New York Giants RB Saquon Barkley
Last season, Barkley didn't look anything like the player we saw at Penn State or in his rookie NFL season. He lacked explosion. The Giants say he has been looking good in training camp, and optimists say he is another year removed from a 2019 ACL tear. But if Barkley doesn't rebound this season, it probably will indicate that the dynamic back that was once the No. 2 overall pick of the draft isn't going to return.
Denver Broncos WR Jerry Jeudy
Last season Jeudy suffered a high ankle sprain in the season opener and never rebounded. He had 467 yards and no touchdowns in 10 games. Fair or not, the 2020 first-round draft pick comes into this season with major questions over whether he can ever live up to his draft status. Having Russell Wilson at quarterback helps Jeudy, but it also adds pressure. If Jeudy doesn't break out in his third season with Wilson throwing him the ball, maybe it will never happen.
Philadelphia Eagles CB James Bradberry
Bradberry was great with the New York Giants in 2020. Last season he wasn't as good, then was cut in a salary-cap move. The Eagles came in and signed him to a one-year deal. Bradberry will get a lot of attention opposite Darius Slay. If he plays at a Pro Bowl level again, it can help the Eagles go to a new level. Then Bradberry can perhaps get one more big contract again at age 29.
Carolina Panthers RB Christian McCaffrey
Fantasy football players have given McCaffrey a pass for two injury-filled seasons, pushing him up to the first few picks of the first round. The talent is obvious. But nagging injuries have limited him to 10 of a possible 33 games over the past two seasons. A third season with more injuries and it will seem like a huge workload early in his career, when he practically never came off the field, took too much out of him.
Philadelphia Eagles QB Jalen Hurts
The table is set for Hurts. He has a good offensive line blocking for him. The Eagles added A.J. Brown to go with DeVonta Smith and Dallas Goedert in the passing game. The running game was effective last season. The defense is good. If the Eagles fail, it's probably because Hurts didn't take a step forward. If that happens, it's not out of the question Gardner Minshew II finishes the season as the team's starter. This could be the season we find out if Hurts can be the Eagles' long-term quarterback or if he's even their starter come 2023.
Denver Broncos OLB Bradley Chubb
Chubb was great as a rookie, with 12 sacks. In three seasons since, he has 8.5 total. Chubb tore his ACL in 2019. Last season he had an ankle injury that limited him to seven games, and he had no sacks. The Broncos need a difference maker in the front seven. If Chubb doesn't have a big rebound this season, that rookie year will seem like a lifetime ago.
Miami Dolphins QB Tua Tagovailoa
Tagovailoa was once seen as a sure No. 1 overall pick. Then a hip injury happened, and his stock hasn't fully rebounded. He was the fifth overall pick but hasn't been as good as draft classmates Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert. Still, he has just 21 career starts and has mostly been with a bad offensive line and subpar supporting cast. That changes this season. The Dolphins added elite receiver Tyreek Hill and top left tackle Terron Armstead. There won't be many excuses for Tagovailoa after Year 3. Either he improves and the Dolphins feel good about the future, or Miami has to figure out what to do at quarterback.