Analysis

Top Make or Break Candidates for the 2022 NFL Season

make or break season

Professional football players enter each new league year with a great deal at stake. Every season, every week, every rep is “make or break” for athletes in the NFL. Potential opportunity, earnings, and experience are there for the taking in a league constantly searching for difference-making talent and reliable depth. 

Any player entering a new season—whether they’re on a rookie deal, entering a contract year, or fighting for a roster spot—does so knowing their fortunes can rise or fall based on how they perform in the coming weeks. 

Daniel Jones

Over the first three years of Jones’ career, the sixth overall pick in the 2019 NFL draft has started 37 games at quarterback for the New York Giants. 

During that time, Jones has garnered consistent praise from those in and around the organization for his intelligence, toughness, commitment, and athleticism. At the end of last season Giants’ running back Saquon Barkley told reporters, “I love the way [Daniel] works. I think I’ve said it multiple times, how I feel about that guy and his attitude and the way he works. And I know how special he is, and how special he’s going to be.” 

Yet, with an overall record of 12-27, it’s hard to say Jones has truly solidified himself as the team’s unquestioned franchise quarterback. There is no doubt he has flashed real talent and moxie at times during his short tenure as the Giants signal-caller, yet the organization declined to pick up his fifth-year option this summer. 

As a result of this decision, this season could be Jones’ last opportunity to ingratiate himself with the Giants’ decision-makers and prove he has what it takes to lead the offense to more wins. 

With unrestricted free agency looming at the season’s end, Jones has the opportunity to write his own ticket. With additions like the seventh overall pick, offensive tackle Evan Neal, veteran guard Mark Glowinski, and dynamic second-round receiver Wan’Dale Robinson, the Giants have worked hard to give Jones the foundation he needs to succeed.

Bradley Chubb

Chubb enters his contract year poised for a potential breakout after an injury-plagued 2021 campaign, in which he only made seven starts. Given the recent contracts handed out to elite pass-rushing talents in free agency —  like former teammate Von Miller’s six-year, 120 million dollar deal or new Raiders edge rusher Chandler Jones’ three-year, 52 million dollar contract — Chubb could be in line for a huge pay-day. 

Broncos first-year defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero certainly seems to think Chubb has what it takes to turn this make-or-break year into a success. 

Evero was asked about Chubb and told reporters, “[Bradley] looks good. He’s feeling good, he’s looking good. He’s expecting to have a big year, and we’re expecting the same thing from him.” 

If Chubb can produce as he has in the past — when he has been healthy — there is little doubt he’ll be in line for a big payday this offseason.

Clelin Ferrell 

With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to look back at the 2019 NFL Draft and observe all the Pro-Bowl talent at the top of the first round. But unfortunately for the Raiders, Clelin Ferrell—the fourth-overall pick in that class—has yet to make the kind of impact on the league and the organization he and his team had hoped for. 

A First-team All-American defensive end at Clemson University, Ferell recorded 11.5 sacks and 20 tackles for loss in his junior season, earning him ACC Defensive Player of the Year honors. 

Despite his collegiate success, Ferrell has yet to find a consistent role on a Raiders defense that finished the 2021 season with 35 sacks—good for a middle of the pack finish. 

The Raiders decided not to pick up Ferrell’s fifth-year option. This would potentially make the pass-rusher an unrestricted free agent next off-season, should Ferrell and Las Vegas fail to come to an agreement on an extension. 

Ferrell will have to compete for pass-rushing opportunities with fellow 2019 draftee Maxx Crosby, as well as newcomer and former All-Pro Chandler Jones. But, if he breaks through and finally produces the kind of numbers expected from a top-five pick, Ferrell could change the negative narrative around his young career. 

Derwin James

Derwin James enters the 2022 NFL season with as much on the line as any player on the Chargers roster, set to hit free agency next off-season,  A two-time All-Pro, James is likely to command a huge salary figure going forward, especially if he reproduces the success he has had in his brief time in the league. 

In his rookie season, James started all 16 games for the Chargers and excelled immediately. He finished second in Defensive Rookie of the Year voting. James replicated his success this past season being named a first-team All-Pro despite missing almost the entirety of the previous two seasons. 

Hoping to compete in a crowded division and eager to match the success of the Super Bowl Champion Rams—their new LA counterpart—the Chargers will need their best talent to step up and play their part. 

With a talented offense that’s sure to put points on the board, the Chargers’ defense will have plenty of opportunities to help prove their team is a legitimate and dangerous contender. 

With the possibility of meaningful playoff football in his future, James’ legacy and career could change dramatically based on his performance this make or break season.

Orlando Brown Jr. 

The Kansas City Chiefs set about rebuilding their aging offensive line following a disheartening end to the 2020 NFL season.

An important piece of that rebuild was offensive tackle Orlando Brown Jr, who the team traded for in April of 2021 from the Baltimore Ravens. It’s worth highlighting if Brown maintains his high level of play, the Oklahoma product could secure a lucrative future in the league despite playing on the franchise tag this season. 

Brown Jr. stepped into the left tackle role for the Baltimore Ravens with great success in 2020, starting all 16 regular season games and earning Pro-Bowl honors. He was an enormous boon to a John Harbaugh squad looking to find answers to a number of injury questions. 

Harbaugh spoke with reporters in December of 2020 and said Brown Jr. was, “a great guy, he works really hard, he wants to be good and he’s playing at a high level.”

Clearly, the Chiefs were paying attention. They brought Brown Jr. in, hoping he could serve as an elite blind-side protector for superstar quarterback Patrick Mahomes. Brown did not disappoint, earning Pro-Bowl honors in 2021, and he helped the Chiefs to their third straight AFC Championship Game appearance. 

He anchored a unit that surrendered only 28 sacks, tied with the New England Patriots for the third-fewest in the NFL last season. Brown started 100% of the Chiefs’ offensive snaps, registering just one holding penalty.

Despite this success, and the value placed on elite tackles, the Chiefs have yet to iron out a long-term deal with Brown. This does not preclude them from using the tag again next year, should Brown continue to have success this season, the Chiefs are likely to try and lock in their star tackle in an effort to avoid the penalty for consecutive tags or worse: risk losing him in free agency.

Jeff Okudah

Detroit Lions’ cornerback Jeffrey Okudah gets a spot on this list because he may not be the right fit at cornerback for second-year head coach Dan Campbell’s defense, not because of his contract status for next season. 

Following a devastating Achilles injury at the start of last season, Okudah found himself on a long road to recovery and without any direct means of showing his new coach how he fit into the new culture and scheme they adopted on the field. 

To be clear, this is not in any way meant as a comment on Okudah’s talent. The former unanimous All-American certainly has all the necessary tools to be a successful cornerback in the NFL. It’s unlikely the Lions would have drafted him number three overall in 2020 if that wasn’t the case. 

Instead, Okudah finds himself in a make-or-break season based almost entirely on the context of his situation. That means this year could serve as a final test of the relationship between Okudah and Detroit. 

Baker Mayfield 

Baker Mayfield will enter the new league season with, perhaps, more to prove than any other quarterback in the league. Mayfield has shown he can lead a team to the playoffs, despite inconsistent success at the NFL level. 

Yet, some shortcomings have led the former Heisman Trophy winner to become one of the league’s most polarizing talents (and personalities). 

After leading the Browns to an 11-5 record in 2020, Mayfield entered last season poised to take another leap towards super-stardom. While battling injury, Baker led the Browns to just six wins in fourteen starts. Though certainly not a disaster — for a team with Super Bowl aspirations — the finish was somewhat disappointing. 

Now entering 2022, Mayfield has a fresh start in Carolina with Matt Rhule’s Panthers. Boasting playmakers like former All-Pro running back Christian McCaffrey and wideout DJ Moore, the Panthers have a lot of explosive options. The team also reinforced its protection using the sixth overall pick to select North Carolina State lineman Ikem Ekwonu. 

If Mayfield puts a winning product on the field, it’s unlikely the Panthers will risk losing a franchise quarterback to free agency. 

This could put Mayfield in line to earn an incredibly lucrative extension. A successful season in 2022 could put Baker Mayfield in an extremely advantageous negotiating position, given the 230 million the Cardinals recently gave Kyler Murray

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