A year ago, nobody figured Russell Wilson would be facing a crossroads in his career this season.
The NFL moves fast. Careers don’t last long, so every season seems like a referendum of sorts for most players. Wilson’s awful 2022 season shows that someone can fall from superstar status in a hurry.
Here are 10 players, each at different points in their careers, who face make-or-break seasons. Any of the 10 players listed below could emerge out of this season as superstars, or face serious questions about their futures next offseason:
Denver Broncos QB Russell Wilson
Here’s the obvious entry on the list. Wilson looked like a good bet to make the Hall of Fame after nine Pro Bowls in 10 seasons with the Seattle Seahawks. His first Broncos season was so awful, it had to hurt his HOF chances. Sean Payton comes in hoping to turn Wilson back around, but what if he doesn’t? Payton doesn’t seem like the type who will waste another season with Wilson just because of his cap hit. There was also a reason the Broncos gave backup Jarrett Stidham a healthy two-year, $10 million deal in free agency. If Wilson fails spectacularly with a second coach in two seasons, his future will be in doubt. As will his legacy.
Williams had a mostly wasted rookie season, but that was to be expected. The 12th overall pick in the 2022 draft was coming off a knee injury suffered in his final college game. He did score a touchdown on his only catch as a rookie, at least. A six-game suspension for violating the NFL’s gambling policy brings a lot more scrutiny on Williams. If he comes back and struggles, it starts to add up: the wasted rookie season, the bad decision-making that led to the suspension, and a second lost season. Let’s just say it would be a good idea for Williams to play well upon his return.
Washington Commanders DE Chase Young
If Young is going to reclaim the form that made him the No. 2 pick of the 2020 draft and the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year, it needs to happen soon. Young has played 12 games the last two seasons with just 1.5 sacks. Washington declined his fifth-year option. Injuries have set him way back. He says he feels good going into the season and if he plays like he did as a rookie, he could have a huge free-agent payday waiting.
Buffalo Bills RB James Cook
Cook has a tremendous opportunity. He could be the featured back on an offense that might be the best in the NFL. He could put up a monster season. It seems like the Bills would love if he took the No. 1 running back job and never looked back. But Cook still hasn’t proven himself yet as a high-volume NFL back, and maybe he can’t do it. If he can’t, he’ll probably be typecast as a change-of-pace back. We’ll know more about Cook’s NFL trajectory after this season.
Many seem convinced Purdy is the next Tony Romo/Kurt Warner/Tom Brady late-round draft success story after his five starts last season. And maybe he is. It’s also possible that defensive coordinators have more success against him after an offseason watching film. We’ve seen players burn bright for a few games and then fade. The 49ers could win a Super Bowl with Purdy. That’s certainly within the realm of possibility this season. Or Purdy could look like Mr. Irrelevant and San Francisco has to revisit their future at QB. It’s a big year in determining what Purdy will be in the NFL.
We’ll have both former top-10 picks share this spot because they’re on similar paths. Both were drafted ahead of immediate superstars at cornerback: Horn went one pick before Patrick Surtain II and Stingley was picked right before Sauce Gardner. Horn had a good season last year but has played just 16 games in two seasons due to injuries and has a big step to go before he’s considered elite. Stingley had his moments as a rookie last season but played in just nine games due to injury. Both still could be Pro Bowl cornerbacks. Their teams might not regret passing on Surtain and Gardner quite as much if that happens.
In 2019, Thomas had one of the greatest seasons in NFL history. He set a single-season record for receptions with 149, led the NFL in receiving yards with 1,725 and was named first-team All-Pro a second straight season. He was just 26 years old. In the three seasons since, he has played 10 games due to injuries, with more drama than production. Thomas is reportedly healthy, but he’s also 30 years old and pretty far removed from his prime. Is Thomas ever going to recapture that level? We’ll find out this season.
Maybe a team change will help Simmons. In Arizona, Simmons was a former first-round pick who didn’t have his fifth-year option picked up and was moved to safety. He had mostly played linebacker for Arizona, with mixed results. Then Arizona practically gave him away for a seventh-round pick. The Giants seem like they want to use Simmons as a pass rusher, and that can be a lucrative role. If Simmons turns his career around in New York, he’ll cash in next offseason.
Becton needs to stay on the field, to start with. He has played one game the last two seasons combined. He missed all last season with a fractured kneecap. He was a first-round pick, taken ahead of All-Pro tackle Tristan Wirfs, and that’s looking like a mistake. Becton can change the narrative this season, however. He had to win the right tackle spot in preseason, and he did at the end. The Jets are thin at tackle and need Becton to come through.
In about four months, Love will probably either be the Packers’ long-term answer at quarterback, or a totally wasted first-round pick who couldn’t live up to replacing Aaron Rodgers. There’s a huge range of outcomes for Love, who is finally getting his chance to start. He has just one NFL start to date, but the Packers traded Rodgers in part to get a look at Love, a controversial 2020 first-round pick. They’ve gotten nothing out of him for three seasons after passing on players who could have helped the team make a Super Bowl. But if Love plays up to that draft pedigree this season, it will be worth the pick.