4 players facing make or break seasons

The NFL season is just a couple of weeks away, and as always fans are focused on a few key factors: which teams look like playoff contenders, which rookies and newly transported players will be fun to watch, and of course, who will generate the most fantasy production. These are the talking points at the outset of each season. But in this post, we’ll look at something slightly different: four established talents who seem to be facing potentially career-defining seasons.

To be clear, the suggestion here is not that a bad season will relegate any of these players to obscurity, or determine that they’re “bad” players. These are skilled football players. But every major professional athlete faces a point at which he either moves up a tier to become a genuine star or he simply remains a noteworthy professional. These four seem to fit that description heading into the 2016 season.

Eddie Lacy

It may seem a little bit harsh to include the Green Bay running back on this list given that he’s just now entering his fourth season. But Lacy’s drop-off a season ago was the stuff of legend—and not the good kind. As a rookie in 2013, Lacy ran for over 1,100 yards and scored 11 touchdowns, all on the ground. The following year, he topped 1,100 yards again and managed 13 touchdowns (nine on the ground). Then last year, despite playing the full season, he managed only 758 yards with 3 rushing and 2 receiving touchdowns.

Any observer could tell in 2015 that Lacy had gained a lot of weight, and the prevailing theory for his sudden ineffectiveness was that he’d been slowed down by it. Well, back in the spring, reports surfaced that Lacy was almost unrecognisable after losing a lot of the bad weight, and now expectations are high for the 26-year-old to also recapture his form. He’s got years to turn into a more consistent player, but given the dramatic change between years two and three, year four feels like a make-or-break situation for him.

Travis Kelce

Kelce is actually the same age as Lacy, and also has some time to become the player he’ll ultimately be remembered as. But since he was drafted in 2013, he’s been hailed as the next big thing at the tight-end position. Some believe he’s the fastest tight end in the league, and it’s been suggested (and backed up with statistics) that only Rob Gronkowski is better after the catch. Heading into 2015, the biggest question at the position was whether Kelce would take his place as an elite option.

But he ended up being almost exactly the same player he was in 2014. He saw 13 more targets last season but managed slightly fewer yards than in 2013, with the same 5 touchdowns. Kelce is a very solid player at his position, but if he’s going to make a leap to join the ranks of Gronkowski and Greg Olsen, it has to happen soon.

Andrew Luck

Andrew Luck (another 26-year-old QB) is sensationally talented, and the hype about him was justified the moment he entered the NFL. But that troublesome word too often applied to QBs—”elite”—was probably attached to him a little bit too early. At the outset of the 2015 season, which was just his fourth, the oddsmakers tabbed Luck as the favourite for most passing yards, and a lot of analysts had the Colts ranked as a likely Super Bowl winner. Now, Luck dealt with injuries all season, but the Colts were a bit of a debacle compared to expectations, and suddenly it seems like they’re at risk of being mired in mediocrity.

Luck faces a lot of pressure to turn this into a definite playoff team and a threatening contender if he wants to continue to be compared to his predecessor, Peyton Manning. If things keep up the way they are, however, he may end up being more Philip Rivers than Manning or Brady—talented and capable of monstrous statistics, but without a winning résumé.

Golden Tate

Golden Tate is a few years older than the previous players on this list, and thus has less time remaining to define his career. Up to this point, that career consists of several years in Seattle and Detroit as a very strong number-two wide receiver. But as we approach the 2016 season, the same sentiment is everywhere, among writers, TV analysts, and even fantasy owners: Golden Tate is ready to be a number one.

The stats seem to back up the idea. As Calvin Johnson struggled to stay healthy (ultimately retiring this past offseason) the past two seasons, Tate emerged as perhaps a more dynamic threat than anyone realised. He’s averaged a little over 1,000 yards and about 5 touchdowns in the last two years, and some of that was with Johnson on the field. This year is his chance to break out, and if he does he’ll still have a chance to be remembered as a number-one wideout. However, the Lions paid a hefty sum to obtain the services of Marvin Jones Jr. during the offseason. While Tate is clearly the superior talent, he doesn’t quite have a vice grip on targets.

These four will be fascinating to watch as the season unfolds. And the bet here is that they all make the most of their opportunities. Of the bunch, Kelce seems perhaps the likeliest to stay about where he is.