The NFL stands for National Football League. Everybody knows that. For others who have a more in-depth knowledge of the workings of the league, NFL unofficially stands for “Not For Long.” With the level of competition that’s expected from every player, having an off-season is not something anybody can afford.
It doesn’t matter what position you play, be it as a starter or a second-team player, the pressure to always perform at the highest level is constant. For all 32 NFL teams, what matters most is who is best fit to suit up each game day once the season gets going.
With the 2023 season coming, the pressure to not only perform but prove their true worth has become much more apparent for some players. From young QBs, defenders, and an offensive lineman needs to have a breakout year in 2023, here are my picks for the top six players with the most to prove this coming season.
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1. Justin Fields, QB, Chicago Bears
The Chicago Bears had everybody talking this offseason with their moves to improve their roster for 2023. By far, sending this year’s No.1 pick in the draft to the Carolina Panthers for star WR D.J. Moore and a slew of draft picks, both for 2023 and 2024 caused the biggest commotion across the top NFL news outlets. There were other trades, free-agency signings, and players drafted, but let’s stick with Moore for now.
Why? Because this move goes to show that the Bears are ready to once again put it all on the line to give their QB Justin Fields the chance to cement his status as the team’s passer for the future.
Chicago has already shown an immense amount of faith in Fields. First trading up in 2021 to snag him with the 11th pick of that year’s NFL draft, and then once again last year giving up the top pick, thus passing on taking a QB, the Bears believe in Fields, and now it’s up to the passer to put up.
While his running game is one of the best among quarterbacks, Fields needs to become more accurate with his passing. With improved decision-making skills, tempo, and coverage from his line, Fields could be looking at a breakout year. If not, well, I wouldn’t want to be the Bears.
2. Chase Young, Edge, Washington Commanders
The year was 2020, and the now Washington Commanders used the second pick in that year’s NFL draft to select Ohio State star edge rusher Chase Young. It took the former Buckeye one season to break through and establish himself as a defensive force to be reckoned with, winning that season’s NFL DROY award.
Afterward though, in 2021 and 2022, his production numbers took a massive decrease mostly in part to a lingering torn ACL injury that sidelined him for most of both seasons. Now, with the Commanders passing on Young’s fifth-year option, making this the final season in his rookie deal, it will be up to him to come back to the playing level he displayed when he first joined the league.
Washington made it a point to swat trade rumors regarding Young, meaning the team is willing to give their former star defender one more shot before making a big decision. Now it will be on Young to perform at his best level and earn himself a new contract.
3. Trey Lance, QB, San Francisco 49ers
Man, being Trey Lance must not be easy. It’s hard to pinpoint whether the man is a bust or if he hasn’t had any luck trying to get his career going. After waiting for a chance behind Jimmy Garoppolo in 2021, the following year looked to be it for Lance. Then a season-ending fractured ankle injury in Week 2, followed by the appearance of Brock Purdy almost derailed Lance’s plans at being San Francisco’s passer for the future.
But not all hope is lost when it comes to Lance. With Purdy nurturing an elbow injury that could see him not make it to the beginning of the season in full form, Lance could have one last shot to prove his worth and take SF’s starting gig for good.
Spending part of his offseason working out with Chief’s megastar Patrick Mahomes and private QB coach Jeff Christensen will hopefully pay off strong dividends. Considering how much the Niners invested initially to land Lance in the 2021 NFL draft, 2023 definitely needs to be the season for him to make it, or pack his bags and look for a new team.
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4. Calvin Ridley, WR, Jacksonville Jaguars
If I were Trevor Lawrence, QB for the Jacksonville Jaguars, I would be beyond excited to have Calvin Ridley as my No.1 WR in a season where a trip to the playoffs is a must. After being suspended all of last season because of gambling on NFL games, Ridley is back and is looking to show the world he can be the man Jacksonville’s offense needs.
If you look back at Ridley’s last full season back in 2020, the man was a stud. Catching 90 passes for 1,374 yards and nine TDs with the Atlanta Falcons, it’s heartbreaking that 2021 saw him step away for mental health motives followed by the 2022 suspension. But if Ridley comes back as close to that 2020 version of himself, he could end up forming a WR duo with Christian Kirk that will light up the AFC.
Jameson Williams trained with Calvin Ridley, who is regarded as one of the best route runners in the league.
— LionsFanReport (@lionsfanreport) May 25, 2023
5. Mekhi Becton, OT, New York Jets
Playing the “what if?” game in the NFL can be as fun as it can be upsetting. For the New York Jets, a team that has gone from being a below-average squad in the league to a potential Super Bowl contender after the arrival of QB Aaron Rodgers, that “what if?” game with OT Mekhi Becton has officially run its course.
Brought in back in 2020 as one of the best positional prospects for an ailing offensive line, Becton has had one strong season, his first. After that, Becton played in one game, being sidelined for the vast majority of the ’21 season and all of ’22.
When healthy, Becton plays like a human bulldozer. His size and strength automatically give him an edge against any opposing defense, and that’s exactly what Rodgers and the Jets need. Considering Becton’s significant weight loss this offseason, dropping over 50 pounds, his athleticism and skillset could become even sharper. After New York didn’t pick up Becton’s fifth-year option, the time for the player to step up and prove he can be a massive asset for NY’s offense has come.
6. J.C. Jackson, CB, Los Angeles Chargers
When CB J.C. Jackson left the New England Patriots to join the LA Chargers on a five-year, $82,5 million deal, it was expected for the star corner to blow up on the West Coast. Fast forward to a year after and it’s easy to say that Jackson can easily be considered one of the worst – if not worst — signings in last season’s free-agency market.
That’s why 2023 needs to be the year in which Jackson bounces back from his horrendous, injury-riddled 2022 season and becomes the lockdown defender LA needs. For Jackson, having a strong 2023 season is not only a desire but an absolute need. For the player, this season can either mean going back into the conversation of top corners in the league or having to find a new team for next year.