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The Five NFL Players Who Really Need a Bounce-Back Year

Young guys reign supreme in football, so a handful of veterans who have underperformed in recent years need a renaissance in the biggest way

The Five NFL Players Who Really Need a Bounce-Back Year Getty Images/Associated Press/Ringer illustration

It’s an old cliché that “NFL stands for not for long.” The expression was coined by former Houston Oilers head coach Jerry Glanville, who in 1988 rebuked an official for making the types of “fuckin’ calls” that he said could cost that referee (or Glanville himself) his job. It’s an acronym that applies to the league’s players, too: Football’s a young man’s game, careers are short, competition is fierce, and, because of the current CBA’s rookie wage scale, experienced veterans are increasingly replaced on team rosters by cheaper, first-contract players.

That makes it harder than ever for even well-established, big-name vets to rest on their laurels; A season or two of subpar play is often reason enough for the league to move on (just ask Dez Bryant, who remains unsigned). But, for these five veterans, the 2018 season provides the opportunity to revive or extend their respective stalled, derailed, or on-life-support careers. Here are this year’s biggest bounce-back candidates.

WR Brandon Marshall, Seahawks

Before signing with the Seahawks this week, it seemed likely that Marshall, who’d drawn little interest in free agency, would have to make a full-time move to media (he’d previously starred on Showtime’s Inside the NFL). The 6-foot-5, 232-pound pass catcher even said it himself after his first OTA practice in Seattle: “I think the sentiment around the league is that I’m done, and I get it,” he told reporters. “Rightfully so. When you get on the other side of 30, and your production slips, and you have a big injury, people just count you out.”

Pete Carroll and Co. have given Marshall a chance to extend an illustrious career in which he’s accumulated eight 1,000-yard seasons and caught 82 touchdowns. His path to the roster isn’t set in stone—with just $90,000 in guaranteed money on his one-year deal (worth up to $2 million with incentives), he’ll have to earn his spot on the team, and over the next few months, he’s going to have to prove that the ankle and toe injuries that sidelined him last year are behind him. The best and most obvious way Marshall could earn a spot is to return to form as one of the league’s most dangerous red zone threats: From 2012 through 2015, Marshall reeled in 18 touchdowns from inside the 10-yard line—tied for fourth in the NFL in that span—but over the past two seasons, has come down with just three scores in that area.

Both injury and age likely contributed to Marshall’s sudden decline, but we should get a chance to see whether taking one of those variables out of the equation—assuming he’s now healthy—gives the 34-year-old a chance at a career revival. It doesn’t hurt that Seattle is in need of a big-bodied threat near the goal line after letting Jimmy Graham and his 10 touchdowns from last year walk in free agency.

RB Doug Martin, Raiders

After rushing for 1,402 yards at 4.9 yards per tote and six touchdowns in his 2015 All-Pro year, Martin failed to break 450 yards or 3.0 yards per carry in either season since. Slowed by nagging hamstring injuries, Martin no longer displayed much explosive speed or tackle-breaking elusiveness, and the Bucs cut him in February. The Raiders picked him up in March with a one-year, $1.5 million deal, and at the time, it looked like nothing more than an afterthought depth signing for Jon Gruden’s new-look offense. After all, the 29-year-old back had just joined a deep backfield that already included Marshawn Lynch, Jalen Richard, and DeAndre Washington.

A couple of weeks into OTAs, though, the Martin hype is starting to build. He caught the eye of new offensive coordinator Greg Olson, who noted that Martin “jumped out in this camp with his quickness” and had what appears to be “a fresh set of legs.” It wasn’t just coach speak, either—because the team’s beat writers picked up on it, too.

There’s a long way to go before the season starts, and, crucially, Martin needs to stay healthy. But if Martin really has recaptured the trademark change-of-direction burst and short-area explosiveness he showed earlier on in his career, he could be due for a bounce-back year—and might be a bigger-than-expected factor for the Raiders in 2018.

CB Vontae Davis, Bills

Davis has already undergone one career makeover. The former first-rounder washed out of Miami three years after the Dolphins picked him 25th overall and was traded to the Colts just prior to the 2012 season. He made Miami regret that trade: By 2013, Davis emerged as one of the top cornerbacks in the league—he didn’t give up a single touchdown in 2014, picking off four passes while surrendering a 38.8 passer rating in coverage, per Pro Football Focus, and in 2015, he intercepted four passes and knocked down another 16.

Over the next two seasons, though, Davis’s performance declined as he fought through various injuries. Indianapolis benched and subsequently released Davis this past November. Now 30 and on a one-year deal with the Bills, Davis looks poised to get his shot at a second renaissance playing opposite the team’s budding star, Tre’Davious White.

DL Chris Baker, Bengals

After spending his first few seasons in the league working his way up from a rotation of practice squads to the Redskins’ starting lineup, Baker broke out in 2015, racking up 26 tackles, six sacks, and three forced fumbles. He put together another solid campaign in 2016, posting 3.5 sacks and two forced fumbles, and he parlayed that performance into a three-year, $15.75 million deal with the Buccaneers last spring. He flopped in his first year in Tampa Bay.

Amid questions about his effort and demeanor, his new team cut him after just one season, and the 30-year-old quietly landed in Cincinnati on a one-year, $3 million deal. The new digs give him a great chance to get his career back on track. There’s a familiarity there, for starters—Bengals defensive line coach Jacob Burney and linebackers coach Jim Haslett were both with Baker in Washington from 2012 to 2014. Plus, he’ll be dropped into a line that already includes one of the league’s most underrated duos in Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap. If Baker can turn back into something close to what he was in 2016, when PFF ranked him sixth among 3-4 ends in the NFL, Cincinnati may have the chance to field a dominant front.

QB Joe Flacco, Ravens

Flacco remains the Ravens’ starter for one reason, and one reason only: his contract. In each of the last three seasons, Flacco (whose deal was restructured and extended in 2016 in order to lighten the salary cap load for the team) has accounted for $14.6 million (12th among QBs), $22.6 million (fourth), and $24.5 million (first) in cap dollars, respectively. And in that time, he has been one of the worst starting quarterbacks in the league. Among the 39 quarterbacks with at least 400 attempts since 2015, Flacco ranks a somewhat respectable 17th in passing yards (10,249) and 19th in touchdowns (52), but the rest of his stats paint a grim picture: He’s 33rd in interceptions (40); 32nd in passer rating (just behind Blake Bortles); and 37th in yards per attempt (just behind Brock Osweiler at 6.27).

It was no surprise then when the Ravens traded back up into the first round of this year’s draft to select Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson with the 32nd pick—a move that officially signaled the beginning of the end of the Flacco era in Baltimore. The only questions that remain now are: (1) How long does Flacco have left at the helm? And (2) can he play well enough in that time to convince some other team that he’s still a starting-caliber quarterback?

The fact that Flacco carries a $24.75 million cap hit into 2018 should help buy him some time, and he may get the entire year to right the ship. It doesn’t hurt either that Baltimore added potential passing game upgrades in Michael Crabtree, John Brown, Willie Snead, and a pair of rookie tight ends. But Flacco’s numbers over the past three seasons speak for themselves; it’s now or never for the 33-year-old Super Bowl champ.